July 16, 2015
On Regrettable Moments and Themes in Film
The film is hardly alone when it comes to having moments or themes that have the potential to create discomfort. Comedies have their fair share of them, for what strikes people as humorous or amusing in one generation may render a scene or entire film unwatchable in another. I experienced this first hand recently when I watched Eddie Murphy’s Delirious for the first time. During an early part of the show, Murphy imagines Ralph Kramden asking Ed Norton for gay sex. He gets the voices right and makes full use of his pelvis and face. Sensing that the joke is a hit with the live audience, Murphy milks it for as many laughs as he can. My guess is that few people who saw the film in 1983 felt even the slightest bit uneasy. More than twenty years later, however, the joke fell flat and elicited remarks of incredulity and disappointment. I realize not everyone will agree with that assessment, apparently not even Murphy himself, for in one of the DVD’s special features, he comments quite positively on the show and never gives any hint of there being anything he would do differently today. Unfortunately, Delirious is not the only film in which homosexuality is used for the sole purpose of creating gags.
Another potentially problematic theme in films has to do with “comic” violence toward women. Almost every fan of westerns can probably think of at least one film in which the male protagonist watches his wife become hysterical and calms her down by slapping her. The slap is usually followed by a heartfelt apology and explanation that can be summed up quite easily – I didn’t want to do it, but… These moments bother me, but much less than another unfortunate hallmark of far too many Hollywood westerns of the past. In films that have these moments, there is always the presence of a “fussy” or “wrong-headed” woman. This character is often described as being too high-minded or opinionated, and she has her heart set of having the wrong things. Education has spoiled her, and she often no longer talks like the naïve, traditional girl that she once was. Perhaps she doesn’t consider the hero of the film as manly enough for her. Not content with just a good man; she wants it all. How selfish of her, the protagonists of these films often seem to be thinking.
So just what is such a “wronged” man to do in a situation like this? Well, I’ll tell you. He gets that look in his eyes that says, “Look here, Miss. I’ve had about as much of your sass as I’m going to take” and then ever so slowly he begins to walk toward her. At first, she might not understand what he intends to do, so she only backs away slightly. Yet when he continues his pursuit, her head is suddenly filled with that most awful of notions: “He intends to spank the ___ out of me!” You can fill in the blank with any of the following words: spunk, sass, independence, opinions, high culture, preference for a non-cowboy, etc. Usually the scene – and sometimes the movie itself – ends with her over his knees, she pleading for him to stop, he grinning like the Cheshire Cat. In the more egregious of moments, this act of humiliation is witnessed by the entire town, and no one looks to have any sympathy for the woman. They just nod and laugh, as if she has had it coming all along. Films with such scenes include Donovan’s Reef, The Quiet Man, McLintock!, and Drums Along the Mohawk.
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since scenes like the one in Spider-Man were commonplace. I have no doubt that there would be quite a storm if they suddenly started appearing in modern films, especially after eight seasons of Will and Grace, the success of musicians such as Sam Smith and Adam Lambert, a seemingly endless parade of television shows and movies featuring openly gay characters, and the growing acceptance of gay marriage. If they are uttered at all, it is usually by characters who are openly homophobic. Also, if is doubtful that a screenwriter would even think of showing a man using physical violence to “teach a woman a lesson in being a lady.”
These are steps in the right direction, but it does make watching some older films problematic. Like blackface and yellowface, a “gay joke” or misogynistic remark said for no apparent reason other than to get a laugh can be jarring. It reminds me of the scene in The Savages in which Philip Seymour Hoffman’s father is given the choice of movies to watch, and he selects The Jazz Singer. When that infamous scene in which Al Jolson dons blackface comes on, members of the audience can be heard expressing shock and dismay at what they are seeing. Why, one asks, is the film even being shown anymore? Some have asked the same about Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
This, in my opinion, is the wrong question, for in even asking it, one is advocating the censoring of anything that might upset people’s apparently delicate sensibilities. We should have more faith in people’s mental and emotional toughness. Sometimes a film remains highly watchable in spite of some questionable scenes; other times, problematic moments can leave such a sour taste in your mouth that the film is utterly ruined. It is individual, not collective. Personally, I wouldn’t want to watch either Donovan’s Reef or McLintock! again, and at least part of the reason for this is that I do not see heroism or righteousness in the protagonists’ actions. To me, they seem like actions built on lies and misguided notions of masculinity and femininity, and such moments can poison the films that contain them - sometimes irreparably.