When do we have to stop enjoying a film?

Trigger warning: This article contains references to SA and violence through the scope of cinema.

The best films ride that line between exploitation and condemnation. This is something Wilfrid Laurier film professor Glen Norton told me during our discussion about controversy in film.

The film industry has a storied history of pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. Motion pictures were invented in the early 1890s and already by 1896, erotic films were being made like The Kiss. The Kiss was a thirty-second long short of …  a kiss — surprising indeed.

It’s the kind of thing you see in Disney channel shows today but at the time, the image was found to be too shocking for some audiences. Since then, the film has been full of controversial subjects and people. It’s a tricky task determining when we should begin to scorn or stop watching a particular film for these controversial reasons. Where is this line? Should there even be a line?

It’s simple to discuss the technical aspects of a film, anyone can discuss how well developed a character is, how beautiful the cinematography looks, and how believable the setting is among dozens of other areas of judgment.

There is one area that is difficult to say is up for critique and that is the message of the film. Whether intentional or not every film has messages it propagates.

Should the real-world implications of these messages be taken into account when one critiques a film? Professor Norton told me that in his opinion You can’t separate the medium from the message.

This is a hotly debated topic but in some films, it’s certainly difficult to ignore certain messaging. The Searchers (1956) may be the quintessential western film and expertly made, but it’s difficult not to hear the whispers of southern sympathy and the louder shouts of racism towards the villainously presented Native Americans. Even in making a film whose message is to discourage something, one may have to give that very menace exposure. Such was the case with the recent Netflix film Cuties (2020), in which children were over-sexualized to bring awareness to the over-sexualization of children in contemporary society.

Let our attention turn back to that aforementioned line and where it should lie. Is there anything that should not be shown in a film? Professor Norton who is strongly anti-censorship believes that the line lies in the same place as the law and that nothing illegal should be performed on-screen.

Reenactments and representations of illegal acts are permissible, but once the acts become real that’s where a line is drawn. This is a pretty universally accepted stance but many would rather push the line further. 

While actual human murder in feature films is to my knowledge non-existent, the murder of animals has been in several films from Apocalypse Now (1979) to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Facotry (1971).

Excessive violence has long been criticized for films like Kill Bill (2003), Natural Born Killers (1994), and notably upon its release Joker (2019) received similar criticism.

Professor Norton brought up a film called Irreversable (2002) which contains a particularly gruesome rape scene and while it was a staged scene, he admitted that he’d be uncomfortable watching it again. He also brought up the important point that these types of scenes mustn’t be taken out of context. A gruesome scene typically isn’t only there for the sake of being gruesome, it is there in service to a story or to share some larger idea. 

The history of film is riddled with controversial people. Norton articulated the question well, “Should we separate the art from the artist?”

On the one hand, it’s a terrible shame to dismiss a great piece of art due to its association with a problematic individual. On the other hand, should we praise a work connected to the legacy of a potentially vile person? There is no correct answer and both positions are understandable.

Norton in his personal opinion believes that the answer is yes. He cites the film theorist Roland Barthes’ notion of the death of the author to help explain that a piece of art should be viewed without considering those involved in its creation.

One can still look at the acting of a problematic person and say that the acting is well done, while still acknowledging the actor’s dubious off-screen behaviour. Norton expressed the importance of never glorifying artists in the first place as far too often this leads to disappointment.

While I have expressed the ideas of Norton and perhaps some hints of my own opinion, it’s important to remember that these are just opinions.

There’s no science for this kind of topic. Everyone has their own idea of acceptability and just because one’s own opinion differs from those expressed in this article, by no means should one think they are incorrect or that their opinion is unimportant.

In discussing such a volatile topic, the more perspectives we have, the more accurately we find an agreeable place to put that line.

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