Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay may very well be the most revolutionary movie of the GW Bush Era. Yes indeed, the travels and travails of these stoner dudes are way more politically challenging than the never-ending barrage of documentaries that have been preaching to the choir for the past few years. Who needs to see real torture and real racism in the documentary format when we can experience it viscerally and be implicated in it via a lot of really funny body humor and pot jokes? Sure Harold and Kumar is ostensibly a comedy. I laughed uproariously during many scenes, but what makes this movie so utterly brilliant is how it uses its genre to make the audience incredibly uncomfortable and make us interrogate every phobia, ism and discriminatory practice that permeates every corner, every person, and every place in these here United States.
By using comedy to make us confront the universal hysteria and xenophobia that seems to be the spirit of America, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is one of the tensest movies I have ever seen. The movie opens with Kumar sitting on the toilet taking a dump while Harold takes a shower, and this scene immediately propels us into the Zone of Discomfort which is maintained throughout the movie. We are not comfortable in the bathroom with these two men. Shitting should be done in private, and men should not be commenting on each other’s pubic hair. But this movie is all about exposing the stink and shit of racial stereotyping, homophobia, and every single “ism” under the sun. What makes the movie so effective is that our understanding (and therefore implication) in these stereotypes and phobias drives the tension. For example in the one actual Guantanamo Bay scene when Harold and Kumar are going to be forced to have a “cockmeat sandwich” (a.k.a. suck Big Bob’s Giant Cock), we are horrified and mortified not only by the act of torture via cock sucking but that these two stoner dudes will be violated from their pussy-hunting heteronormativity by kneeling down and sucking cock. This makes us uncomfortable. While the concept of “Big Bob” is funny, the idea of Harold and Kumar sucking Big Bob’s cock horrifies us. We cringe with tension, and breathe an enormous sigh of relief when Harold and Kumar escape and we leave Big Bob and his Giant Cock far behind.
Harold and Kumar may leave Big Bob back at Guantanamo Bay, but the respite from tension doesn’t last long. The rest of the movie plays out with similarly tense scenes that ram prejudices down our throats while forcing us to laugh and squirm. And that uncomfortable feeling isn’t limited to cock. When Harold and Kumar end up at a friend’s house who is having a “bottomless party,” we are confronted with Vaginaphobia. The “bottomless party” is a party where everyone is naked from the waist down. Everyone in this case is women as we see an endless stream of naked vaginas and every possible pubic hair coiffure imaginable. We are simultaneously intrigued and appalled. Vaginas everywhere! It’s our ultimate dream and our worst nightmare come true. This tension between vagina dream and vagina nightmare makes us horribly uncomfortable. We want to see more vaginas, yet we know we should hide our eyes from the vaginas. To top it off, this parade of beautiful cunts inspires in us another “ism/ist” reaction – sexism. How could they show all these vaginas and no penises? This movie is SEXIST! But then we do see an actual penis and experience our horror at the penis. LIVE COCK! And not just any cock, but a cock sheathed in the most atrocious mass of black pubic hair you’ve ever seen. It’s Al Qaeda Cock (as is mentioned in the movie)! So now we have to confront our fear of cock in combination with our fear of terrorists and in fact acknowledge the fact that our fear of terrorists is probably really just an extension of our fear of cock which is inextricably linked to our fear of vaginas. How brilliant is that?
Cock- and/or Vagina-phobia is only the beginning. One by one, our prejudices, presuppositions and stereotypes are dissected and undone by Harold and Kumar, and it is our consciousness of the racial set-ups and how we so smoothly play into them that makes both the humor and the tension work in the movie. We experience our programmed prejudicial expectations, and it is those programmed expectations that allow us to laugh and make us feel uncomfortable. When Harold and Kumar run into a group of black men playing basketball in Alabama, all of our racial programming via the media leads us to believe that the men are threatening and that Harold and Kumar are in danger. The punch line is that the big black men with crowbars actually want to help Harold and Kumar, and we are laughing and embarrassed for playing along with the stereotyping. When Harold and Kumar stumble upon a KKK gathering, we fear for their lives but then are mortified and rendered uncomfortable at how quickly they are able to come up with racist slurs to make the Klan happy. One of the most hilarious scenes in the movie is when Harold and Kumar end up dining with White Trash. They expect to land in some filthy shack, but instead find themselves in the middle of a high tech flashy house straight out of Architectural Digest or something. The White Trash Wife is astoundingly frightening with her perfectly coiffed hair and massive mouthful of huge white teeth. This scene is brilliant because it sets us up to expect some kind of Deliverance narrative, but then undoes our expectations by delivering this kind of post-modern self-reflexive joke on White Trashism. But then, to complicate matters further, the movie undoes itself again when the couple outs themselves as siblings with an inbred abomination of a child living in the basement. At this point our tension is tangled in a web of confusion in regards to what is real and what is projected prejudice. This confusion and tension is propelled by the film’s ability to play upon racial stereotypes that have been propagated by the media and ingrained in how we experience film in particular.
The undoing of our prejudices happens again and again and always proves to be enormously funny and immensely tense and uncomfortable. One of the scenes in the movie involves Harold and Kumar landing in GW Bush’s Texas home and subsequently getting high with the president who also becomes the movie’s Deus Ex Machina. This content has left a lot of critics confused and dumbfounded. How can this stoner movie about racism portray GW Bush as a pothead savior? I thought about it, and my take is that it uses Bush in this manner to fuck with our GW Bushism and show it as yet another form of extreme prejudice and the divisions and factions that are inherent in the structure of America. I mean Bush has become this giant multi-headed bad guy, the ultimate in evil, yet here he is smoking joints and laughing with Harold and Kumar. James Admonian’s portrayal of Bush, however, is a monstrous and creepy thing. He looks like his skin is rotting off, and his eyes look like lizard eyes. So while he may seem funny smoking a joint and laughing with the boys, ultimately he is scary and somewhat demonic. The scene with Harold and Kumar and GW Bush proves to be as tense and uncomfortable as the scene with the black basketball players in Alabama or any of the other scenes in the movie where identities are being interrogated. Even Bush’s identity is being interrogated.
I can’t possibly write about every single scene in the movie, but I can tell you that every interaction that Harold and Kumar have in the movie is loaded. Perhaps the sum total of the movie doesn’t amount to what we expect. It doesn’t overtly hit us over the head with some kind of grand realization and philosophical point. Harold and Kumar end up getting high with their girlfriends in Amsterdam, but their journey getting there is worth the price of admission. I don’t think anyone who sees this movie will walk away without rethinking their relation to racism, stereotypes, and prejudices of all variety. It is a scathing cultural critique operating in the guise of stoner comedy, and I think ultimately Harold and Kumar will have more wide-scale political impact than all the Michael Moore movies combined. It is interesting to experience the movie in the movie theater because you can gauge the audience’s uncomfortable reaction to the different scenes, and those reactions themselves become another kind of cultural commentary. As far as the audience where I saw the movie, out of all the uncomfortable scenes in the movie, what were the ones that inspired audible gasps of horror and disgust? Men on men sex and kissing. So yeah, homophobia is alive and well at the El Con Mall in Tucson, Arizona. I wonder how Harold and Kumar would think.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.