Setter’s ‘Spectives: What Makes an Offensive Movie?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Eons 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.

Skip’s Quips: Give ‘To Be or Not to Be’ a Medal

Blog Sketch 082813I love Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.

Brilliant script. Terrific performances by Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Sig Ruman and the rest of the brilliant cast. And of course perfect, sly direction by the immortal Lubitsch.

Sure it’s in questionable taste – what with a story concerning a company of Polish actors and their wartime efforts to foil a Nazi plan – and even now some of the material seems iffy. But it remains razor-sharp, as well as still topical to this day. I watched this film again last night for what may have been the 45th time, and it’s still fresh. That’s the mark of a great movie. It just doesn’t get old.

I’ve seen the remake with Mel Brooks, too, and it’s just not the same. The Lubitsch version is tops; there’s no comparison. I’m giving the medal to that one for quality.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: To Like This Movie, You Must Be This Old

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Another college story.

The setting: a lively freshman dorm. At the end of the hall, in a small, loungey area, sits a TV with a VCR (remember those?). Enter me, with a videotape, accompanied by another resident.

“What movie are you gonna watch?” asks the resident.

The Producers,” I say. “Wanna join me?”

“Oh, no. That’s old humor.”

Exit resident, like tears … in the rain.

To this day, I repeat that phrase to myself: old humor. What does that mean? How old does humor have to be in order to be old? Does it get Social Security? And how do we know when new humor becomes old? It’s like that Groucho Marx routine in Duck Soup,  where the funnyman cancels out any discussion of “new business” seconds after it’s mentioned: “Too late, that’s old business already.”

Here’s my theory: There’s no such thing as old humor. Just good and bad. Many of the attitudes in The Producers are dated, but it’s still funny. And I’d rather see that any day over The Secret Life of Walter Mitty  (which, in its original short-story incarnation, ones-up The Producers in the age department, anyway).

Yes, of course, there’s taste, and it differs greatly when humor is involved. You may not like Mel Brooks’ comedies or Zero Mostel’s mugging. Yet to call something old humor seems to me just absurd. If something’s good, it stays that way. The years don’t make it worse.

For the record, I want to note that I’m not just about older comedies. One example: I liked Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Though, wait … is that old humor because it’s a sequel to an older film? Does it still count as new?

Ahhh … whatever.