Before I start this article, I’d like to forewarn you that I discuss some sensitive and controversial issues, upon which debate still rages.
I have no intention to offend people or inflame discussions of these topics, and I’m simply observing the current trends of criticism in as much of an objective manner as possible.
In my previous article, I discussed the benefits that the internet has brought to cinema-goers, through Hollywood’s growing communication with, and recognition of the more vocal and organised fan groups; but now I’m looking not at the wish-fulfillment of adaptations and franchises but something else that I touched on in that piece.
As previously stated, the internet has allowed for amicable groups to form. Film criticism in particular has developed; people share their opinions on the latest releases on Twitter, check into the cinema on Facebook, and there are thousands upon thousands of movie blogs and reviewing sites.
Chances are that you’re reading this on Moviepilot.com which only proves my point.
If not, then I’ve got to start thinking about copywriting...but I digress.
My accompanying article started a train of thought in my mind about opinions in film criticism. We all know that each of us is entitled to our own, but what if something outright offends us in a movie?
Are the film and the filmmakers intentionally supporting that remark and insinuation? And who holds the “correct” viewpoint in these cases, the adoring and oblivious masses or the offended minority?
Yes, I do have in mind a particular part of a film that I am thinking of, though I was personally not offended by it.
I am one of many millions who loved Marvel's The Avengers (2012); funny, action packed and with heart and a clear love for its source material, it ticked many boxes for me, yet for others it did not. A while ago I remember reading that a particular line in Avengers had ruffled a great many feathers, which features in the scene below.
The quip made by Thor at the end was seen by many people to be reaffirming harmful stereotypes about adopted children, by distancing them from traditionally raised children.
Initially I gave no credence to it. I assumed that the outraged parties had simply misinterpreted the situation, and disregarded several factors; mainly the fact that the humour derives from Thor’s backpedalling rather than the fact that Loki’s an adopted child.
Many were quick to deride these claims of discrimination, pointing out that Thor, proud and somewhat vain is repulsed by the darker crimes that Loki has committed and how they might reflect on him and Asgard rather than creating humour at Loki’s expense. Indeed it was dismissed with comments which were variations on a popular quote by Stephen Fry:
“It’s now very common to hear people say “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more than a whine. “I find that offensive”. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that”, well so f*cking what.”
I reread many of these comments as I indulged this train of thought, and I started to wonder what would happen if these sorts of online criticisms of offensiveness in movies could censor or influence film making in a way that fan bases have been rewarded in recent years.
Certainly, the power of the online voice is formidable, and can be used to spread ideas pertaining to certain issues. Recently awareness was raised by high profile celebrities and a great deal of viral support for the OscarsSoWhite movement, which criticised the lack of diversity in the 2016 Academy Awards, prompting the governing body “to commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.”
But more often than not, the internet is apparently becoming a place where vitriol can be expelled. We see this in the rise of troll-culture, but in terms of movies we only have to again look to Stephen Fry to illuminate this.
As he awarded the Best Costume Designer to Jenny Beavan at the 2016 BAFTA’s, he jokingly labelled her as a “bag lady,” leading to a well publicised backlash on Twitter, after which he quit the site.
Other actors have also enraged their online fans. Back in 2013, in a press junket for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Stephen Fry's co-star Martin Freeman made several comments about date raping an elf which provoked a very vocal reaction. Below are his remarks and the interview in question:
"I’ve got a ladder. It’s fine. And I’ve got drugs. I could just make them [mimes pushing an elf over] —y’know. Slip them something in their goblet. Some will get offended by that now. Cause they’ll call it *air quotes, eye roll* ‘"rape" or whatever. But, um, you know...for me, it’s a helping hand. Maybe I should stop talking."
Martin Freeman is an intriguing example to use because of his past controversial opinions. His defenders state that, whilst not appropriate, these are examples of his black humour and should be taken as such. His haters say that they are not acceptable in any way.
Again, the purpose of this article isn't to determine whether he is bigoted or not; I'm merely using Freeman to explore the issues that arise from his comments.
Shouldn't Martin Freeman be entitled to make a risky joke? Is there, or should there be a point or barrier beyond which humour cannot go?
This isn’t limited to just discussing movies. There have been many cases in recent times where a controversial statement is published online. Made by a high-profile someone, occasionally though mistake or misquotation, they are subsequently met with a furious flurry of retweets and comments, regardless of the facts.
The currents of anger on social media are palpable. Indeed, it has been getting so severe and inflammatory that actor Chris Pratt tweeted the following statement before his press tour for Jurassic World (2015).
Perhaps Pratt had realised that a preemptive apology was going to be accepted more readily, before the hypothetical event rather than afterwards.
Then question then remains: at what point do we stop the hatred towards these people. Do, or can we accept that people can make mistakes and that views and attitudes can change and evolve?
Apologies after the event are often greeted with a lukewarm pardon, a sceptical recoiling or an outcry from the right wing again that the whole debacle is evidence of “political correctness gone mad.”
For those who aren’t aware, political correctness is avoiding an expression or action which through interpretation can exclude or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.
As we know, art is indeed a form of expression, and in a western society where this is free, what are its limits, and if they exist, should they exist?
Moreover, the internet now features groups of people known commonly as “Keyboard Warriors” or “Social Justice Warriors” who vehemently attack and chastise content or media that does not conform to their progressive ideas concerning racism, classism, sexism and ablism.
Though many such groups have raised awareness for these issues online, they themselves have been the subject of memes, and have been disparaged for what is perceived as an overzealous aggression and lack of rationality.
Comedy or comic remarks often receive the greatest critical reviews from them, not because they directly target this form of expression, but because they are immediately polarising; we either laugh at them or we don’t.
This is evident in the online comments for the newly released movie Deadpool (2016).
Many have praised the film for its anarchic humour, although some detractors have commented on the impropriety of the jokes made throughout the movie, particularly in a scene between Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) and his lover Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin) where they attempt to one-up each other by emphasising the depravity of their childhoods.
Indeed, Wade confides he had been molested by his uncle and Vanessa counters that she had been molested by multiple uncles, causing disapproving people, of whom some are reportedly real-life survivors of rape, to take to the comment sections to state that the jokes were inappropriate, belittling and trivialised the sufferings of people across the world from sexual violence.
Some of these posts were made merely as warnings to those who would be upset by the subject in the film; whether this is being hypersensitive or not, it is not up to me or this article to decide.
However, others were quick to defend the movie and pointed out several things that they believed absolved it.
Firstly that whilst rape jokes should not make fun of the victim, in Deadpool both characters only reference the act in relation to themselves, so it is at their own expense, and the horrors in the characters’ pasts were not trivialised. Ultimately, it is unknown if any rape actually occurred, (although it is worthy of note that in the comics Deadpool was sexually assaulted on several occasions).
Another facet of their defence was that, because of the rebellious and violent nature of the character and the movie itself, such jokes are expected, for they are apparent even in the trailers, and in many ways the implications of these jokes came secondary to the gratuitous violence that the movie depicts.
Some people did point out that these sorts of jokes make light of bad situations as a coping mechanism, by turning something which is troubling into a form that cause amusement; again, whether or not this is acceptable to the majority of rape victims, I cannot say.
It is doubtful that the writers of Deadpool are attempting to do this with rape survivors by directly targeting the joke at them. It probably never entered their thought process; as shockingly widespread as it is, rape survivors are still a minority compared to those who have consensual sex (though that does not diminish the appalling nature of this crime). Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick probably attempted a broad range of darker humour to fit the character and to appeal to as many cinema-goers as possible.
Should writers be educated, or expected, to be more sensitive to these issues? Or what if this sort of joking, or discussion about sensitive, sorrowful or shameful subjects was no longer allowed?
Would the BBC comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, starring Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry, which satirises the horrific trench warfare of the First World War, have been prevented from being made by such criticisms?
Indeed, it did feature some vocal opposition at the time of its production.
What would Hollywood cinema look like if it bowed to such protestations?
As we all know, it is not simply comedic elements which come under scrutiny, but all forms of cinematic entertainment; the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out (2015) was condemned by a select group for its apparent preference for certain body shapes, whilst it was praised elsewhere for the way that it could be applied to serve as analogies for depression and anxiety.
Another critically lauded film of the same year was Mad Max: Fury Road because of the variety of differing strong female role models. This is especially evidenced by Charlize Theron’s competent heroine Furiosa, in the typically aggressive male orientated action adventure genre.
Moreover some viewers even noted that the movie may have a distinct message which warns against extreme masculinity.
Yet there are some online who decry the adoration it has received.
On several blogs and articles, it was discounted as not being truly feminist because, amongst many reasons, Theron was not the main titular character, and that the film was directed by a man (George Miller) .
But then there are those who would indicate that the feminist movement can feature men who want to help change society for the better, but herein lies the main crux of this problem:
You simply can’t please everyone.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a perfect example of this, being both a critically and commercially successful film which still has its detractors. Not everyone in an audience is outright satisfied, and there are always those who like to go against the grain to be different for the sake of it.
Some people don’t like chick flick,s full stop, but they love the horror genre, and vice versa.
Because of the massive collaborative nature of Hollywood, films in general struggle to be a sterling piece of art alone; a soundly made movie with terrible messages will not please everyone, and neither would a terribly made film with progressive messages.
If I was to state that, as Salman Rushdie said:
“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist,”
then there would be those who would be able to criticise both Rushdie if they disagree with his views on gun control for example, and me for using his words.
Everything is problematic in some way.
How do I feel about the adoption joke in Avengers nowadays? I can honestly say that I don't have an opinion. Whilst I recognise the humour in it, I also see the potential for offence. I try to be as open minded when it comes to things like this as I can, but I can't say that I'm perfectly correct in these matters.
I would say that I'm not alone here. Humans are flawed. The world is imperfect. We all know this.
Culture is too. There are opinions, actions and ways of life which are outright abhorrent, but shouldn't they be addressed through art or speech?
If we sanitise the more sensitive or less palatable subject areas, would that not hinder our discussion of them? Is our outright damnation of someone with different expressions than ourselves really about correcting their attitudes, or making us feel more superior?
And if society begins to enforce upon itself which speech or jokes can, or cannot be said, is this not creating division and hatred of another kind?
Before you say anything, I don't know, and I'm not here to lay my opinion down- I'm just stirring the cauldron of debate as it were.
Whilst Hollywood lumbers slowly towards adopting more progressive attitudes (and rightly so), it is unlikely, as it is with its book adaptations, to pay close attention to the minutiae of wants and whims of increasingly vocal fan bases. There are so many voices, and if the executives listened and continually changed the movie to suit everyone, the chances are that it would remain unmade.
However, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be at least mindful of them, and doesn’t mean that at least some of them have something important to say.