Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hard-Hitting Movie Commentary, tonight at 9!

An up-and-coming movie has stirred up a lot of controversy over its content. In case you've been keeping clear of all news entertainment-related (which is certainly understandable), I'm talking about Tropic Thunder.

Why has this engendered so much controversy? Well, the majority of it stems from the fact that some people or groups feel that the moving is making fun of minority groups, people with disabilities, obese people, etc. There's a wide range of offended people, apparently, who all feel that this movie is portraying negative stereotypes of those they identify with.

For a rather typical example of such protests, check here, a commentary by Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics. Go and read it, and I'll offer my commentary below the fold.

Well, let's think about this. His point is that Tropic Thunder portrays people with cognitive disabilities in a humiliating manner. I think the problem here (and the problem with every other similar response to the movie that I've heard) is that people refuse to see beyond the surface portrayal, i.e., they see a white man in blackface in the film and say "Ohmigoodness! Blackface is totally disrespectful!"

Well...yes...Blackface does have a rather bad history, to put it lightly. So did English landowners in Ireland. We'll get back to that point in a moment. Right now, I want to make a rather strong statement. These filmmakers are free to use whatever prop, makeup, plot point, etc in their film, so long as it is not specifically targeted to incite some sort of mob violence against a specific group or person. This is a basic issue of freedom of speech. Even if the entire message of the film was simply an attempt to mock minority groups, they would and should still be able to make the film. A simple example on this would be to say that if the whole matter was that we should not be allowed to mock groups, a heckuva lot of documentaries (say, Michael Moore) would never be allowed. This is the "danger" of living in a free society - you butt up against some quite offensive and inflammatory ideas (or just plain controversial).

Note, however, that no one demands that you have to see these films, read these books, be tolerant of these ideas, or agree with them. That is, in fact, an incredibly important point. You have every right to be offended. Be offended! Please! It keeps things interested. What you don't have the right for is to NOT be offended. By that, I mean that you have no right to demand to never be offended by anything. Free societies, democracies, do not work that way.

In fact, this is the entire underpinning of democratic societies (and republics), and science as well - the necessity of coming up against controversial arguments, of meeting people who don't agree with you whatsoever, and debating the issue. This doesn't mean that it can't get heated (go to any scientific conference) or that issues can't be contentious (torture, imprisonment, death penalty, abortion, all come to mind) - if things are working right, those are exactly the kinds of things that should happen. If everyone just said "oh, this is too controversial," or "this has a negative history," democracy and science would fail. Which is exactly part of the creationist tactics - try to claim that evolution is too controversial, or leads to negative outcomes, just plain too dangerous for our fragile youngsters' minds. (Of course, they then try to subvert democratic principles with the whole "Let the kids decide" line. Well, I'm sorry. Science, as much as it shares with democracy, is not a simple majority rule (in fact, I don't think democracy is so simplistic either). It must be backed up by evidence. "Let the kids decide" is an idiotic line. Do we "let the kids decide" about mathematical laws? Laws of physics? How we should treat mental patients? No, because they don't have enough experience. If they want to conduct the experiments, and get involved in the process - more power to them, but most of them are not involved in the scientific process and do not have the background, experience, or evidence to back up what they may "decide".)

Anyway, my first main point on this is that you have the right to be offended about whatever you choose. You have the right to argue about how offended you are. You have the right to talk to other people and try to get them to agree with you and be offended as well. You don't have the right to demand that whatever it is that offends you doesn't exist, or must be changed to fit your sensibilities. This reminds me of recent cracker controversy over at PZ's blog. I also agree with Sastra's commentary on the whole matter. PZ should not have to receive death threats for what he did. He was within the realm of free speech, and if you really want to show how offended you are by it, then you should do it in debate. Likewise, if a Christian were so upset by homosexuals in his community, it would be within the realm of free speech for him to make a video of himself ripping up homosexual symbols while reading from the Bible. Obviously, I find one of these more offensive than the other, but it's within the realm of free speech, and the proper response is a better argument.

In fact, that's always the point - in a free society, the way to beat a bad argument is not to ban the offensive argument; it's a better argument. A better argument, better evidence, better science, is always the answer in these situations. Like when Watson came out with his inflammatory statements about race - the best response is neither "That's offensive, he shouldn't be allowed to say such things," or "He's an idiot." The best response is "Here's the evidence why he's wrong, and why that statement was idiotic." Just like in arguing politics, "I don't like it" is a horribly weak argument - you have to have some sort of evidence if you want to bring legal action.

Now, on the other hand...every review of Tropic Thunder that I've read has talked about all these horribly "offensive" portrayals are actually satire of Hollywood types - those who would go to any length to garner a little Oscar attention, method actors, etc. On that case, the people who are being mocked are actually actors and producers...not the minority groups. That's because it's satire. And from what I've heard, anyone with a brain recognizes it as satire.

Ah yes...satire. Note, "ridicule" and "derision" are both in that description.

Now, here's the point. I imagine if you take things only at their surface meaning, a film like Tropic Thunder seems incredibly offensive. Likewise, A Modest Proposal and Huckleberry Finn are horribly offensive if taken only at a surface level. It's only when you realize that it is satire that it begins to turn around, and you realize that those who are held up as worthy of respect or stereotypes are those who are actually being mocked and held up to the light, to show just how ridiculous they actually are. It's the same with Tropic Thunder, from what I've heard.

So, I have to ask - do these people who protest this movie feel that there is no responsible way to deal with these controversial issues? That they should never be put in the public spotlight unless they are simplistically and positively portrayed? To that, I would say, I am sorry, but that's not how freedom of speech works. If you disagree - argue it. Don't ban it.

The sad thing is, reading commentary about this movie, I can see some of these people also saying things like "You know, let's march into our high schools, into every English class in the nation, open up those reader books, and tear out everything by Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and Benjamin Franklin! No one should be allowed to read Aristophanes either! It's too dangerous for our children! They may get the wrong ideas!"

Well, this film is rated R. That should tell you something - it's meant for adults. We expect our kids in high schools to be mature enough to deal with satire, and I think we aren't often disappointed. Kids get it. They're smarter than most give them credit for. Most of the time. I think this movie is the same way - it's only dangerous if you don't recognize it for what it is, or if you choose to make it offensive to yourself.

So, the advice of someone who may or may not even see the movie (tickets are expensive downtown), is simply this: First off, lighten up. It's satire. Learn to appreciate a sometimes more subtle form of comedy. Secondly, if it's still offensive to you, then debate it and bring in some evidence. Don't just argue it's offensive and try to get it banned.

So, there you have it, my movie commentary.

Other blog-authors, what are your feelings? Also, you guys need to post more often!


DirtyGaijin said...

I agree completely with this post. I think you really bring up a huge issue that goes beyond a satirical film, though. The very idea of freedom of speech is something that has been under attack for years in this country, and is something that more people should really stand up for.

One of my favorite examples of freedom of speech is dealing with the American flag. What do you feel when somebody burns a flag? Anger? Well, that's perfectly fine, but you shouldn't try to make that person a criminal for burning the flag, or everything that piece of cloth symbolizes is destroyed. What's better...exercising your right to freedom of speech by burning the flag, or buying an ostentatiously large flag to fly over a used car lot to sell a few sedans?

And on a note about Tropic Thunder being offensive to mentally handicapped people...come on guys, the handicapped kids would probably find this film funny as hell, so chill out.

Ragoth said...

Thanks, Gaijin. I agree with the flag example, and also on the freedom of speech issue. I'm going to agree with Wendy Doniger on this one (you'll hear about here when you get to Chicago) - when you start off as a naive person, you offend others because you don't know any better, or because you're just meaning to be hurtful. And then you learn a little and you come out of total ignorance. Then you go into the PC state, and have to be politically correct and relativistic about everything - "Oh, we can't blame them! It's all their societal constructs, etc, etc..." grow up a little more, and you come to a third state, where you might still offend people, but you do it from a knowledgable position, and with intent.

I strive to be in that third category - someone who can look back at the politically correct and relativistic days, and realize what merit they have and where they go completely over the edge.

The Rooster said...

Yeah, you're not going to hear any argument from me. I would even push the point further and argue that EVEN IF the jokes were not satire, there is simply NOTHING that you cannot or shouldn't joke about -- if it's done in the right way. As Carlin said, "I can PROVE rape is funny. Imagine Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd." Joking about the darker elements of human existence is a way of exposing them to light; it puts us at a reflective distance from tragedy and enables us to see it in a more ironic way; it suspends its psychological force and permits us to move along with our lives.And besides, funny is funny.

A joke I heard last night:

The best part about adopting special needs children is you don't need to save for college tuition.

Ragoth said...

I just want some people to some of the constitution and bill of rights?

Jason said...

I'm going to come from the opposite direction here, but first an undercut. Before hairs start to bristle, I'm not challenging the 1st amendment but a confusion that I find in a lot of ethical/legal debates.

In a lot of conversations I get into about guns, hate speech, religious practices, and other such extent of our freedoms discussion is that people tend to confuse the ethical should/should not and legal should be able to and should not be able to.

Under the 1st in all it's democratic grandeur, Tropic Thunder should be able to made, distributed, and viewed by those who so wish (under the general limits of riots, threats, etc.). However, the question of whether it should be made, distributed, and view is a whole other matter.

I'm new to the TT debate here, so I'm going only on the comments linked in the original post. The meat of the Olympics Chair's commentary advocated protesting the movie - something I'm sure all of you would support their right in doing. He, like so many others, crosses the line at the end saying it should be banned.

Now, it is possible and legally viable for a theater to refuse to show a movie for whatever reason. There are few cases in which the law requires facilitating free speech. Again, should they do so and should they be able to do so are different questions.

There are alternative ways to censor a movie, especially through the realm of discourse; but I'm not a firm believer in speaking reason to power (or the desire to see boobs). Rhetoric and organization are indispensable to social change and especially debate (just watch any organized debate/model UN/mock trial tournament).

So, I can't say whether TT should or shouldn't be boycotted having not seen whether it is unnecessarily, particularly, or in any other way damaging (I'd have to watch the movie). What I can say is that falling back on first amendment rights might be a sign that the conversation has turned in the wrong direction. Further, while reason, evidence, and other science can have great cultural power intellectually; intellectual and especially ideological battles will never be fought solely on a scientific basis.

Ragoth said...

Hey Jason,

While I agree with what you say, especially about the ethical/legal divide, I feel that as the movie had not even premiered before the Chairman's commentary had come out, I think his reaction was wholly based on unfounded suppositions. Now, granted, he has every right to call people to protest the movie. I just think it's idiotic, as that no one had actually seen the film yet in its entirety, and his commentary is based on the trailer and a few promos, from what I understand. And yes, he does go too far at the end calling for it to be banned. Unfortunately, that happens all too often, especially recently - "I don't like this, even though I've never seen/read/heard it. Please ban it so that I will not be offended."

I guess my standpoint on this one is that the movie should be freely distributed (if a theater chooses not to carry it, then so be it), but let it rise or fall on its own merits. Protest if you want, but at least see the body of work you're complaining about. Otherwise you just look like all those parents who protest Harry Potter purely on religious grounds without actually reading the books - it's a knee-jerk reaction that, to me, is quite shallow.