Porter pudens

I’ll take the risk of connecting to an earlier, apparently controversial post I made here about the discourse of modesty as it plays out in images of Mr. Armitage, because it connects to one of the scenes I’ve been watching obsessively in Strike Back 1: the one that takes place in the exam room between Porter and Danni, which begins with her asking him how he is and ends with them kissing (and the implication of more, as we learn in the next scene, when Leyla tells Porter in crushing tones that Danni was practically assigned to shag him). I think the pudens discourse is relevant here because a lot of how we read this scene is based on Armitage’s body language and potentially his micro-expressions. One assumes that the body language was not heavily scripted in advance and that of course Mr. Armitage’s microexpressions can’t have been. I developed my exposition of that discourse earlier as an outcome of modesty that is playfully manipulated to draw us in to see things that the image ultimately hides from us, i.e., as a flirtatious mode. Here I’d like to talk about that other — connected — meaning of pudendus: shame. If in the case of the flirtatious mode, we look with captivation and end up titillated and unsatisfied; in the shameful mode, we look because we can’t quite make ourselves look away, and the end result might be bifurcated as pity / sympathy. In the first case we end up not seeing something we want badly to see; in the second we end up seeing something we’d maybe rather not have: the viewer feels sympathy, the viewed becomes the object of (undesired) pity — hence the gesture to stave off the gaze of the viewer.

This is just a nice picture of Richard Armitage as John Porter in Strike Back, episode 1. It has nothing to do with the subsequent analysis. I just like the expression of alert, measured confidence as he begins his disastrous mission in Basra. Men who know what they are doing are HOT. All screencaps in this post, which are all from Strike Back, episode 1, are courtesy of the delightful people who curate the Richard Armitage Central Gallery.

If Porter’s shame is a corollary to his dishonor, the entire episode is heavily concerned with this theme, beginning at the very latest with his own statement at the discussion of his discharge, in response to the information that his comrades no longer wish to work with him, that he would not work with himself. If you have access to the episode, though, the specific stuff I am talking about drawing on the pudens discourse as it relates to physical shame begins at about 33:50, when the military psychiatrist begins to administer the inkblot test to Porter. This material connects Porter’s attempt to redress his dishonor to his feelings about his body in intriguing ways that are augmented by Armitage’s performance.

Porter is doing a training exercise involving taming his reflexes enough to discriminate between shooting opponents and bystanders. (Armitage has put on his luscious green eyes to match his camo for this scene. Yum, yum, yum, though brown are still my favorite.) The film intersperses these scenes of shooting with the interaction with the (female) psychiatrist. The attenuated feminist in me can’t help but point out the way that the film –apparently consciously– loads our perception of the psychiatrist by interspersing the shooting scenes with the scenes in the office; the actress playing the psychiatrist ramps this perception up by trumpeting her impatience with Porter’s answers to her questions. Implication: real men rehabilitate themselves by practicing their shooting and training their conscious impulses; meddling women stand in the way by asking about their feelings and prying into their unconscious impulses. Then we even have Leyla questioning his judgment by pooh-poohing his theory about the identity of Katie Dartmouth’s kidnappers. Women are interfering all over the place here with his attempts to restore his power. But let’s lay aside the valences this film assigns to women –again, the attenuated feminist in me can’t help but point out that although it’s men who dishonored Porter, it’s all women in these scenes who are being used to signal his disempowerment– to get back to Porter and his problems with shame.

Beginning in the exchanges with the psychiatrist, Porter exploits the pudens discourse aggressively by saying something he assumes will be offensive to keep her from learning anything about him: that all he sees in the inkblots are vaginas. (All I ever see in them is bats, so part of me has to laugh in recognition of the problem that some psychiatrists are inclined to make sweeping judgments based on questionable evidence.) Note the smirk here coming from the left side of Armitage’s face — Guy of Gisborne did this quite a bit, too, obviously, and John Standring does it, albeit sadly, in one key scene in Sparkhouse. It’s a way to offer a reaction without having to alter the expression in the eyes; here it says, “I am reacting to your question but not allowing you to know my feeling and indeed deflecting  your question.”

[[Detour: Armitage gets a surprising amount of mileage out of that smirk — when he does it, his facial features move just slightly, but noticeably before his eyes do — and I wonder if it isn’t the source of the occasional perception I read in review and comments that “Armitage is wooden.” While watching his eyes I often expect to find a particular sentiment in his eyes and am confronted with something different. I read this as subtle and intriguing, but I wonder if the standards for actors have become so low that we actually expect something more like pantomime from them.]]

But the pudens discourse suggests that such an aggressive statement of “don’t look at me” is almost a call to look. And of course, any psychiatrist worth her salt is going to read the aggressive repetition of the word “vagina” along with that challenging facial expression as a strong exercise of a defense mechanism that’s hiding something, so that –following the sort of vulgar Freudianism we are exposed to in television– the form of the defense mechanism gives clues to the content of the problem at stake. (As we find out later from Leyla, low self-esteem focused on fears about physical and sexual inadequacy.) The hierarchy of the military here means that Porter’s wish to say “don’t look too closely at me, I don’t want your pity” is automatically going to be circumvented. Porter’s strategies for dealing with things that bother him on an intuitive level are equally on display in his ensuing interactions with Leyla, in which he often buries his assertions by looking down and away from her while he’s expressing them. Indeed, it’s striking how often his head is down and his eyes are hidden during that exchange. At the longest stretch where he holds eye contact with her, he has his arms crossed, as if the only way he can express his opinion about the identity of the terrorist is with a physical barrier between himself and her. Her pity for him is evident in her sarcasm.

In the scenes with the psychiatrist, we see Danni smirking at Porter’s responses; thus the script signals to us that this information is going to be reprocessed in subsequent scenes. We can’t tell from that encounter whether Porter sees her reactions to his answers, but I conclude he does, since his interaction with her at the beginning of the exam room scene is more relaxed than with either Leyla or the psychiatrist, and given the jerky quality of his flirting in the scene, one would imagine that if he didn’t have at least some information to suggest she’d be receptive, he wouldn’t even have tried. As viewers we now expect the resolution of the question of Porter’s relationship to the vagina, which the scene signals by putting him in the room topless. This is really interesting because we get the sense from the arc of the performance till now that Porter moves much more confidently in uniform than he has in his civvies. So here, he is clothed half in uniform, but also half naked. A really vulnerable moment with lots of possibilities.

(As a side question: do the armed forces in Britain really pursue this kind of approach to addressing the psychological insecurities of their soldiers? It would seem rather risky, designed to cause as many problems as it could potentially solve. But ok, for the sake of the script and the fact that we get to see Porter kissing Danni, I will accept it!)

I love this scene. It’s so economical and in its transparency says so much about Porter, who’s so self-restrained that he’s not the easiest character to read. And Armitage’s body language is just perfectly timed here at every turn.

We’re now at about 35:08. Danni walks into the room, asks how Porter is feeling; he answers “absolutely bloody knackered, Sergeant” and puts down the file he is reading. Interesting that two of the posters on the wall behind him instruct about depression and drug dependence. She opens her file, and says, “yeah, well, getting a body into shape in a matter of days, haha, is gonna hurt.” Just as she says “body,” he turns aside to cover himself up, so he doesn’t really see her appreciative look at his physique, which is timed with her brief laughter. Porter replies, “are you saying that I’m not in shape?” which is flirtatious text, but spoken in a defensive town, and he makes the flirt with his head tilted, his eyes looking out obliquely from under his brow. His features loosen and become a bit friendlier as he sits back down on the exam table, perhaps signaling greater comfort with her now that he’s covered on top; as she says, “no, no,” it seems that he may have realized she was looking. Again, though, he pulls back into pudens, lowering his head and concentrating on fastening his watch, which we only see from his perspective. She resumes the conversation with “How’s your tooth?” and he says “sore,” as the camera moves to look back at him from the front. “I know,” she says, “the tracker’s like having a very uncomfortable filling” (expression of sympathy from her) “but we need to know where you are at all times.” Then a few different facial expressions from him, none of which can be interpreted as smiles, and several of which look a bit sad, before Porter says, “well, you could have just asked for my mobile number.” Textually we have Porter making a fairly strong come-on, then. The cappers at Richard Armitage Central Gallery did a good job of picking up some microexpressions in this couple of seconds, though, and this cap is pretty standard:

If you move on from it in the gallery for the next couple of images, you don’t see anything that looks flirtatious or especially happy. The best you can see is restrained, and there are a number of caps that look either weary, sad, or defensive, including with lowered head. He doesn’t get the smile across his lips until he realizes that she is smiling in response to the remark, and even then, his eyes are not really or maybe only barely smiling:

It’s that smirk from the left side of his face again. Something that looks like an actual smile only reappears when she moves back into her role (I am not sure exactly what that is? Nurse?) by giving medicine. She catches the tail-end of his half-smile just as she allows him to be the drip-dry, confident, wash and wear soldier who takes his medicine as he’s told. (I reflected here for some time on the whole question of how bodies and minds are supposed to work in the military. The gesture of taking the proffered medicine somehow inserts him into that trope for me — but I am not sure quite how.) There’s a brief glance taken by the camera at the left side of his face as it moves to her, and he’s got that left eyebrow up in nonchalance or sarcasm. Next we see her saying, “there’s a good boy,” in response to his obedient swallowing of the pill, and what’s key here for me is that he doesn’t look back up at her — his attention turns back to the file, as if he’s gotten so close to flirting that he now has to pull back; or, alternatively, he’s been infantilized by her statement just a little. In either case, shame interferes every time he pulls out of it into self-confidence. But he manages to get his head up for only a second to say, “oh, I’m a very good boy,” before he lowers it again, to focus on the file, which he seems to be placing between himself and her as a shield. Camera back to her, and she says, “well, then, I think,” she takes away the file, thus removing one defensive barrier, and drawing his gaze up to hers, “you probably,” she pulls back the shirt’s shoulder and looks directly at his scar, the direct writing on his body of his perceived failure in Basra, “deserve a bit of a treat, don’t you?” His gaze follows her gaze and then her hand as she pulls the shoulder back. The delightful screencappers got one moment of this performance of shame:

But it is slightly more complex. His eyes follow her hand, alight on his scar as her hand goes there, then there’s an almost unnoticeable wince (not a pain wince, an uncomfortable wince), then he looks ashamed, then his head moves slightly to the right and he looks sad. We then see her face, his only in profile, and we really can’t say much except that from that perspective it looks his eyes are downcast. At “deserve a bit of a treat” she is pushing his shirt back off his soldiers and his face comes up to meet hers. We can’t see his expression, but his eyelids fall as she moves in to kiss him. We then get a really nice shot of her observing him, and we see his cheek muscles move up, perhaps finally a sign of real pleasure that is shielded from us?

That shot of her kissing him and then pausing to look at her face (she seems to be slightly crosseyed, a feature German men find alluring apparently) is really central to the scene, because it signals that she is giving what Porter really needed from this encounter: not the shag, but rather to have penetrated the barrier that his shame has put up all around him. What we learn by the time the script shifts plot lines to discuss what’s happening to the kidnapped Katie Dartmouth is that Danni appears to be the only person in the film so far who has the fortitude or perception to see beyond Porter’s shame. (And there’s an interesting contrast here to Porter’s wife, who seems to want to encourage Porter to be alone with his shame, although the timing of these reactions to the decisive events in Basra is so different as to make conclusions impossible.)

What’s great about Armitage’s performance in this scene are the understatement and control in evidence at every moment. If he were cringing, or overplaying the macho, we’d still get the idea that Porter was feeling insecure, but we wouldn’t buy that his interlocutors were willing to reactivate him, or that he believed in himself enough to undertake the task he’s proposed. Armitage’s effort to keep all of the evident insecurity and shame about the past bounded within the limits of Porter’s strong personal reserve means that we, too, as viewers, are drawn into the pudens discourse; by using his acting style to tell us not to look, he makes us emotional voyeurs. In that function we see pudens it in its shame version in all of these interactions with women whom the script wants us to see as there to shame him, with the pity outcome in the case of Leyla and the psychiatrist — leading to their scorn of him (“just needs a shag!”), and with the sympathy outcome in the case of Danni, who avoids pity precisely by looking directly at the thing that Porter does not want anyone to see — the scar that symbolizes his failure. Armitage thus makes us see both pity and sympathy for Porter. With a restrained performance throughout, he puts Porter’s shame out there on the table, and transforms it back to the sort of calm modesty that underlies the Porter character when he is at his best.

~ by Servetus on May 19, 2010.

11 Responses to “Porter pudens”

  1. Coincidentally, I rewatched episode 1 last night so the details that you refer to are quite fresh for me, but your analysis makes me want to go back and rewatch. I enjoy the significance you wring out of each scene.
    Re. honeytraps in the British Army directed at their own service personnel, when I read the book I took this to be Chris Ryan’s fantasy, and was slightly amused and exasperated by it, but if Lucas and co. can get up to all sorts on behalf of MI-5 in Spooks, why not MI-6 Section 20?


  2. Just jumped through your post, I will read it all after I receive my Strike Back DVD in June to heve my own experience of first time watching. I´ve read the book, though.
    Came to know that kissing scenes takes a lot of discussion before filming.


  3. I haven’t yet seen SB, and was wondering what there might be to see in it! Your analyses are intriguing. Probably it is premature to comment on a performance as yet unseen – may I comment solely on your points?

    The scene with Danni: “…taking the proferred medecine”; could this signify a conscious/unconscious reversion to the “good little soldier” role? A role in which hierarchy and chain of command are conditioned. While Danni is only a sergeant, she is, presumably of the medical profession, which carries with it a certain respect. I might be stretching here.

    Infantilization: perhaps shame that his flirting instinct has opened him to such statements as “there’s a good boy”. Ouch!

    Now I’ll go price multi-region DVD players. Doubt if I add to the discourse without having seen the performance!


  4. […] art, in a post I wrote about a year ago entitled Armitage pudens. Shortly thereafter I discussed how this trope applied in a particular case to John Porter. Of course, the photo above is definitely not an example of pudens photography. On the […]


  5. […] of his life” so far, in which gender is up for grabs: Thorin Oakenshield. I did a post on how aspects of this idea applied to John Porter in Strike Back 1.1 without, however, calling it “gender trouble.” I hope to write periodically about how I […]


  6. […] with John Porter, whose story has meant so much to me — as hero or heroic archetype, as shamed failure, as figure of the search for vindication, as worker-out of trauma, as cheerleader, as father, as […]


  7. […] Porter’s posture as against Layla’s. I’ve written before about how the script and Armitage’s posture and head and eye motions function to involve women as the tools of his hono…. At first, it looks like he’s standing in almost even status with her, but then, as our […]


  8. […] But tonight, in honor of Cinemax’s Friday broadcast of episode 2, I want to look at how the status games between Porter (Armitage) and Collinson (Andrew Lincoln) develop from the previous episode. In episode 1, Collinson, the militarily inexperienced “expert,” first gets Porter and his team into the safe house in Basra where Kenneth Bratton is being held. After accidentally killing and wounding Porter’s comrades with friendly fire, Collinson then gives an account of the situation that implicates Porter as responsible for those deaths. Guilty (or worried about what Porter might suspect?), Collinson finds the apparently decompensating Porter a job as a security guard. When the Katie Dartmouth incident begins, Porter finds Collinson and confronts him, hoping to be sent back in to Basra to the Sword of Islam safe house, a request that Collinson denies. Toward the end of episode 1, however, Collinson is contradicted by his superiors, and Porter must be “reactivated,” an order that puts him one down, even if he doesn’t see Porter for the remainder of that episode and the outcomes of Porter’s status negotiations are held in the hands of the three women he encou…. […]


  9. […] signs of desire and status (mixed with evidence of his shame) as a way of establishing masculinity here, and that this post partially underlines my point about the role of desire as opposed to […]


  10. […] wrote this long post about how Richard Armitage plays shame in Strike Back 1.1, but I admit that part of what I wanted to do was watch him put on his shirt and watch Shelley Conn […]


  11. […] Richard Armitage as Porter under Danni’s (Shelly Conn) scrutiny in Strike Back 1.1. I discussed this image extensively a long time ago. […]


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