Sex, consolation for misery: Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke comes to the big screen

By Hiram Lee
21 October 2008

Choke, written and directed by Clark Gregg, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk

ChokeWhen confronted with problems of personal relationships or sexual questions, one often sees today’s filmmakers respond in one of two ways. There is, on the one hand, the artist who finds the roots of sexual dysfunction and relationship problems in the family and various aspects of an unhappy childhood. This is, in fact, all too frequently the stock answer employed by artists to resolve a great many questions today, from those dealing with relationships to the most brutal anti-social behavior.

Others, when faced with human sexuality, simply show more of it and do so more explicitly (one thinks of Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs). Both approaches reveal an inability on the part of certain artists to deal with vital social questions that would render their characters and the circumstances of their lives more concrete and, therefore, meaningful. Additionally, the tendency of artists who deal with love and relationships to render their works “timeless” has only led to one forgettable work after another.

Choke, directed by Clark Gregg, about a man who has “constant meaningless sex with strangers all the time,” combines both approaches to sex and love, among other things. In its own way, though certainly not in the grand, sweeping style of a film like Atonement, it also lends itself to timelessness. What is lacking from this man’s life that leads him into such meaningless sexual encounters again and again? Unfortunately, the film’s answer is disastrously inadequate: a mother’s love.

Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is a med-school dropout and minimum wage worker at a colonial America theme park where he portrays an Irish indentured servant. He is also a sex addict who regularly attends support group meetings for his addiction, though it doesn’t seem to do much good; he frequently skips out to the nearest bathroom to have his way with another addict from the group.

In addition to this, Mancini is a con man. His favorite con is a peculiar and dangerous one and, one must add from an artistic standpoint, a very contrived one. Mancini regularly goes out to restaurants where, at the appropriate moment, he shoves food into the back of his throat, forcing himself to choke. He then leaps up from the table looking for help. A heroic diner inevitably performs the Heimlich maneuver, saving Mancini’s life. The con man then keeps in touch with the good Samaritan with whom he has now developed a unique bond.

Mancini corresponds with his rescuers detailing a series of medical and financial difficulties--always imaginary--and, because they are such good Samaritans, they send him money to help relieve his burden. The con is effective, Mancini says in one cynical moment, because “it renews their savior experience.”

The income Mancini receives from his victims he uses to keep his mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), suffering from dementia, in a nursing home. Because much of his childhood was spent in foster care, Mancini hopes his mother’s health will improve so that he may learn about his father. He will fall in love with a young doctor (Kelly Macdonald) who claims to have found an experimental new therapy that may restore his mother.

One is struck by a number of things while viewing the film. First, there is the entirely arbitrary character of Palahniuk’s creation. It is almost as if the author had spun a wheel on which were listed a number of possible occupations and bad habits with which to create (or burden) a character. This time it came up med-school dropout, colonial tour guide, sex addict and con man. The character might just as easily have been a pilot or a rodeo clown. It’s strange to note how many things the character is, how much he does and how very little the author or director has to say about any of it.

There is also the utter banality of the story. For all the self-conscious attempts at being subversive or controversial, Choke is, at bottom, a thoroughly conventional film (and novel) about the relationship problems of a young man who only wants his mother to recognize and love him. Were it not for the more graphic sexual elements, which are only placed there to provide the film with its “edgy” credentials, the story would be quite at home in the most mainstream of venues.

This is something which is evident in a number of other comedies made recently alleged to be--or marketed as--challenging works. Along with Choke, a sentimental film in a cynical shell, there was Juno, a film about teenage sex and pregnancy, which was more contrarian than genuinely oppositional in its attitude toward prevailing norms. Hamlet 2, which took aim at religion and a number of other targets, but was ultimately a toothless and often backward work. Several Judd Apatow comedies, including Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, like Choke, take aim at sex and relationships with a great deal of ribald humor, then become “wholesome” and responsible again. Indeed, all of these films make their tour through taboo or controversial territory before returning safely to convention and sentimentality.

Choke, like Hamlet 2, also has religion in its sights, with Mancini eventually led to believe--as incredible as it may seem--that he is a clone of Jesus. This leads to a few amusing moments in which other patients at the facility where his mother lives begin to worship him, but this is a brief detour in the film’s direction. On the whole, the writing, directing, and acting are not sufficiently inspired to maintain any truly funny scenario. This springs from weaknesses in the material itself.

Chuck Palahniuk, the author behind Choke and Fight Club, which has became a cult sensation in the wake of David Fincher’s 1999 film adaptation, does not have very much to offer. Beyond his self-conscious attempts to be shocking, usually with highly detailed sexual material, his writing often contains banal aphorisms which may pass for profundity in some circles but are ultimately meaningless.

In Fight Club he writes, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” In Invisible Monsters he informs us that, “When we don’t know who to hate, we hate ourselves.” And in Choke there is this: “Until you find something to fight for, you settle for something to fight against.” It’s hard to conceive of a less challenging or insightful approach.

The author has also shown himself to be fond of sensationalism and spectacles. He has written a gruesome short story entitled “Guts,” which he reads frequently during public appearances. He proudly informs each crowd of the number of listeners who have fainted during such readings. There is, frankly, something of an adolescent quality to his work.

Social questions, while not beyond his interests, appear to be beyond his abilities. There is in him the cynical and opportunist streak of a certain kind of liberal artist shaped during a period of Reaganite reaction for whom a truly thorough appraisal of social life is essentially a dead language. In its place are misanthropy, cynicism and finally a pessimistic acceptance of things as they are.

In this light, one may wish one had applied to the film adaptation of Choke the same advice Palahniuk gives readers in the opening sentences of his novel: “If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.”

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