Eons ago, when VCRs ruled the world, my parents were showing my cousin and his wife the original 1968 film of The Producers. When the movie came to the sequence where Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock gets a “toy” for a present to himself – basically a beautiful woman for him to ogle – my cousin’s wife spoke up with indignation.
“That’s so sexist,” she said.
Well, yeah. Yes, it is.
Of course it’s sexist. It’s horribly, absurdly sexist. And that’s the point. Bialystock is something of a disgusting person. I mean, he’s trying to scam people with a show glorifying Hitler. If that’s not reprehensible, I don’t know what is.
There’s an issue here, though: What makes a movie offensive? Obviously, my cousin’s wife was offended by the inherent sexism of the character and the scene. But I feel it’s within the context of the film, which is no-holds-barred offensive, anyway. This is a flick that makes fun of (sometimes unfairly) Jews, homosexuals, seniors, hippies and other groups. There are few left out. And the whole point of the movie is to make fun of bad taste. Even Brooks reportedly said of his pictures that they “rise below vulgarity.”
Is my cousin’s wife right to be indignant, though? Is it all a matter of taste? Can offensiveness be subjective, all in the eye of the beholder? Or is there an objective quality to it that legitimizes the act of taking umbrage even to what many people regard as a classic: The Producers?
It’s hard to answer this question. If someone feels strongly that something is offensive, how could we mark that person as wrong? On the other hand, can someone miss the point or context of something altogether? That’s totally possible. Maybe both are totally possible. I’m not sure.
I broached the subject of racism and films that I feel should be taught in schools or museums at CURNBLOG recently here. My point suggests that there is an objectivity to offensiveness, that some films are inherently, unequivocally racist. But the comments to this post indicate that people have differing views on the subject. Perhaps there’s something to that.
We should continue to explore it. It’s the only way to address the issue.