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.

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.

Skip’s Quips: Cinema and OCD

Blog Sketch 082813Sometimes it seems there isn’t a disease, illness or affliction Hollywood doesn’t like—except for OCD.

It’s a checkered history. Obsessive-compulsive traits have often been played for laughs (see the twitching doctor in Bringing Up Baby or hysterical accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers), mined as a source of mild amusement (as in the introduction of Jimmy Two Times, who says everything twice, in Goodfellas), or regarded as aberrant and obnoxious (e.g., the insurance executive who neatly arranges his desk in The Incredibles). The reason: repeated action–the basis of comedy. Being obsessive is, well, ridiculous.

In reality, however, OCD is a serious disorder that can pervade a person’s life and daily activities. Television, to a certain extent, has lifted some of the stigmas attached to the condition, with shows such as Monk going far to address the frequently trauma-oriented roots of it, but even that series pointed to the supposed humor in obsessive-compulsive behaviors. (And don’t get me started on The Odd Couple.) The fact is, we’re used to seeing caricatures of people with mental illness onscreen, and it’s hard to accept a truly serious, credible portrayal of someone combating the psychological barriers of OCD without a guffaw or two.

Humanity’s come a long way since the days of visiting asylums to chortle at the inmates. Movies such as David and Lisa and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden have helped change perceptions of mental illness, but they’re countered by flicks such as 50 First Dates or Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, in which issues such as short-term memory loss and Tourette syndrome are used as funny plot devices. Repeated, involuntary motion provides more laughs than compassion … until you experience it first-hand.

I know that experience intimately—as I have OCD. So does Setter. Because the author of this blog has it, too, and struggles every day to engage in normal, everyday activities that most people take for granted.

So in light of that, I’d like to ask Hollywood for understanding. Films can still be hilarious without making fun of OCD. Let’s find another movie mine for source material … unless it can be treated with the same empathy and respect informing the best aspects of our society.

That’s no tall order. It’s just the best one.

Skip’s Quips: Paris, Je T’Aime … Uh, Most of the Time

Blog Sketch 082813One of my fondest cinematic memories is seeing a line outside a Paris movie theater for a Marx Brothers flick.

The Marx Brothers. A line. For a film that was, at the time, at least 60 years old.

See why I love France so much?

OK, perhaps the infatuation with Jerry Lewis–one of the silver screen’s least funny performers–doesn’t make sense, though I have to admit liking his Gallic equivalent, Louis de Funès, quite a bit. (Watch The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob and see if you agree.) Yet the truth is, there’s a film culture there that pervades the national fabric. Why? More than a century of cinematic prowess is one reason, but I think another is the notion that people just like movies there. Good movies. Old movies. And often new movies.

Many years ago, as I attempted to coordinate a showing of the original 1968 version of The Producers in my college dorm, a friend of mine pooh-poohed the idea, decrying the film’s “old humor.” True, not everyone shares those sentiments, but I wondered then–as I do now–why some feel nothing that’s been around more than 10 minutes has any value cinematically. Doesn’t quality last longer than novelty … at least, in most cases?

I’m not deluding myself: There’s no way every person in France likes the Marx Brothers or, for that matter, any old movie because of its age. Bad taste is everywhere–the admiration of les films de M. Lewis offers evidence of that–yet I think there’s a sensibility in France that suggests its inhabitants often understand what it takes to make a good movie … and why it should be valued regardless of the years behind it. Again, I’m not sure why this is, and I’m not saying one country’s better than another.

But when I summon up remembrance of movies past, I think of the line outside that French theater to see a Marx Brothers comedy. And I can’t help but find a love in my heart for Paree.

 

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Let’s Put On a Movie-Inspired Show!

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Do you remember the (sometimes) good old days when Hollywood turned Broadway musicals into motion pictures?

Yes, we still get that to some extent with Chicago, Phantom and others of their ilk. But, uh …

Well, but. It’s not the same, is it?

Definitely not the same is the trend to turn motion pictures into Broadway musicals. The Lion King is one example. Another’s Newsies. Even My Favorite Year got into the stagebound act (terribly, I might add).

What are we going to say about the cinema 20 years from now? “Hey, where were you when the film of the musical based on the movie The Producers came out?”

I know how I’d respond: “Me? I was watching the film of the opera based on the Beaumarchais play The Marriage of Figaro at the Met. After that, we ate at the restaurant spun off the novel based on the  video game inspired by … ”

Blah, blah, blah.

There’s something truly uninspired about creating a play or musical based on a movie–especially if the original’s a good one. Film’s not like theater; it’s permanent, constant. Actors don’t flub lines one night and get them perfectly the next. You’ve got a completed work.

So if the source movie’s good–as is the case with My Favorite Year and The Producers–why bother translating it for the stage? Shouldn’t we consider ourselves lucky that we have a film we can always return to, laugh at, quote the lines from? And isn’t that one of the main reasons why we can watch great movies over and over again … because we know them like we know our significant others, our families, our friends?

Because they never change?

That’s why I’m not interested in seeing any more Broadway shows based on films. The theater begs for interpretation, transformation; movies don’t. I’ll watch the motion picture version of Sunset Boulevard, not the musical, thank you very much. Because the latter, like so many of its kind, just isn’t ready for its close-up.