Message Movies: Liking Films Despite Their Perspectives

Cross of IronYou’ve got to admit that CURNBLOG’s readers have a deep memory.

Witness a comment posted by “Carlos” in response to my recent article on the movie The Promise (2016) and a statement I made in it that said this:

I don’t usually urge cinephiles to run after movies with messages for altruistic purposes, as I, in general, like films for their artistic value, rather than the causes they advocate. In this case, however, I have to step off my well-beaten path.

Carlos called me on this. Referring to a piece I wrote some months ago for CURNBLOG that advocated the idea of relegating certain extremely offensive movies to museums and taking them off TV, he wrote:

 

I seem to recall that this writer in fact DOES recommend or reject films based on their accordance with his moralistic positions rather than arguments for aesthetic/artistic merit.

I believe he even listed films that he thought should be consigned to history (and no longer exhibited except in museums) because they offended him, even though all but one of these were made before the Second World War.

Having such opinions is fine, but I think it’s rich to assert that the nature of those opinions is so different from what it is.

I’m going to dispute this comment, because when it comes to art, I certainly don’t discount aesthetic or artistic merit in favor of ideologies or ethics I agree with in making my recommendations. Otherwise, I would have suggested Mel Brooks’ godawful Life Stinks (1991) as the movie to watch years ago. Still, my post on the offensive movies might not have made that clear. In light of such a miscommunication, I include here a list of films featuring points of view that don’t fit in with my code of behavior yet are on my must-watch list nonetheless. I love these pictures. I would recommend them in a heartbeat. And I wish I had made them.

Oh, there are spoilers ahead, BTW. Here we go:

If…. (1968)

Is violence the right way to counter tyranny? That’s what’s posited in Lindsay Anderson’s marvelous film If…, which ultimately pits schoolboys against the despotic leaders of their own institution—and arms the youth with guns, grenades and such. That’s not the way to go, methinks … despite the fact that the folks in charge are absolute idiots and even dangerous. My route would be a peaceful one; it might take longer, but it would ultimately be more satisfying. And no one would get hurt.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

One of the best James Bond films ever made also features two of its most homophobic characterizations: Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, a villainous pair who are revealed early on as partners. A whole book could be written on the implications of this disturbing perspective, as Bond—a complex character whose vehicles are, in general, all too sexist and misogynistic—is the antithesis of the villains depicted here. Bond is manly. One of the bad guys is a balding psychopath. The other smells of cheap aftershave. He dispatches that one with a particularly destructive wedgie, squelching his genitals. A truly anti-gay message is in place here (and is quite apparent, owing to the lack of contextual balance in the film), that homosexuals are evildoers, perverts and very, very disturbed. Masculinity in the Bond world, after all, is bedding hundreds of women and knowing what a claret is.

M (1931)

Peter Lorre’s masterful performance as a child murderer peaks in the final scenes of this seminal Fritz Lang film, and his outburst is a wonder to behold. Dare we feel for him? Lang is suggesting we do, and Lorre’s portrayal is so compelling that we have to see the proceedings from his twisted perspective. But no, I cannot agree with his handling by the self-appointed court of criminals that ultimately judge him. Are they worse than he is because they can control their actions while he cannot? No, I say. No. He is worse. He is, like Alex DeLarge, a clockwork orange. And because of that, he should not be near anyone anymore … ever.

Cross of Iron (1977)

Full of great lines—check out the scene where the bitter sergeant Steiner confronts the enemy officer who tried to have him killed with a statement indicating that he’ll show him “where the iron crosses grow”—this Sam Peckinpah flick shows the other side of World War II: the bad side. But it also humanizes many of the soldiers who fought for the Nazis, and that’s a disturbing outlook. Steiner in particular is a world-weary individual, a sympathetic character. Is it possible to feel that way about a person who fought for Hitler? This is a complex, sometimes arduous picture, and that point of view definitely doesn’t sit well with me. Yet I love the movie all the same.

Do the Right Thing (1989}

When Spike Lee’s Mookie throws a garbage can through the window of the local pizza joint owned by his employer, Sal, and staffed by his horribly bigoted crew, he’s making, as the director, a big statement—one akin to that raised in If…. and almost as inflammatory. Is Lee advocating a riot in the face of blatant racism and villainy? It’s a troublesome idea, one that some, including me, would eschew. Contesting hate requires more than violence; it requires words. Do the Right Thing has a lot of those as well, though these moments toward the end say a lot about the limitations of language. Still, it’s an incredibly powerful scene, and it can’t be forgotten.

Walk on Water (2004)

Eytan Fox’s terrific thriller has a lot of interesting things to say—including on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict—but its takeaway is almost cruel: that an Israeli assassin can’t murder a frail, aged Nazi war criminal because he feels pity for him … and remorse at his profession. That the villain’s grandson does the deed himself is even more extraordinary, as well as bizarre. We’re supposed to understand the agent’s compassion, yet I cannot. As one who has interviewed Holocaust survivors and heard about many of the atrocities the Third Reich committed firsthand, I have no sympathy. Still don’t agree with this ending.

Viridiana (1961)

A man buys a dog that’s being forced to walk under a cart—and saves him. As he’s walking away, another cart comes by … and it’s forcing a different dog to walk under it. Luis Buñuel’s pictures are often extremely anticlerical, and the great film Viridiana is no different; I may not agree with all of the master director’s ideas, as I believe in God myself, but this incredible scene and the notion behind it is especially tricky. It’s suggesting that doing good deeds is pointless because someone else will always do something bad to counter your benevolent actions. That’s a brilliant concept, yet it’s specious as well. One must live in the moment when it comes to charity and not be concerned with the surplus of evil surrounding it. We break up that evil little by little when helping out. Luis, I love you, and I love how wrong you are, too.

Sanjuro (1962)

Once upon a time, Akira Kurosawa directed a film called Seven Samurai (1954) that advocated the idea of acting as one unit, together, to combat evil. Farmers hire seven swordsmen to defend their village from bandits, and these military specialists train and fight with the peasants to rid them of their albatross. Along the way, the most independent of the hires, Kikuchiyo, gets jealous of the accolades given to the most skilled warrior in the group, Kyuzo, who volunteers to steal a gun from the raiders. On his own, Kikuchiyo obtains a gun but in doing so, he leaves his post … and is scolded by the samurai leader, Kambei. In Sanjuro, we have the opposite point of view. The sullen “man with no name,” Sanjuro Tsubaki, chastises a team of youthful idiots in their quest to mete justice in their clan—all because they do everything together and don’t get anything good done in doing it. Here, independence is the way to go, and I’m not sure I agree with that. Things succeed when people join up and share their opinions, their expertise. This often is the right strategy in the workplace, though some might argue that going at it alone might work just as well. I don’t. Love Sanjuro, don’t love the idea.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Well, I always rooted for the witch, anyway.

 

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

5 thoughts on “Message Movies: Liking Films Despite Their Perspectives

  1. I think the writer has done himself a favour by writing this article. It at least displays a modicum of moral magnanimity. But I still think his film musings are narrow-minded, uptight and sanctimonious. They are superficially affable, yet I sense a deep need in them to control the thoughts of the reader. Mr Butler appears to me to be a proscriptive personality, which is his business, but given that he publishes writing that exhibits this, I feel it is not excessive for me to counter him on that front.

    I agree with James Curnow’s comments – but I would double down. “If” is an intentionally ridiculous satire. To make the point that one likes the film even though one doesn’t condone murder is itself ridiculous. The same in the case of Sanjuro. The writer: “Here, independence is the way to go, and I’m not sure I agree with that. Things succeed when people join up and share their opinions, their expertise.” Such a nebulous and simplistic response to the film – an entirely moot issue. I mean, to infer that the film is offering the dictum “be independent”, let alone “always be independent”, is to say the least….errrr.. unsophisticated. It’s like offering an opinion on the universal wisdom of whether to look right or left first when one crosses the road.

    I also am compelled to critique the writer’s critical style. Frequently in instances where a film or person is named, they are prefixed with an appraisive adjective. This apes the glib critical tone found in short-form news copy. These are the kinds of sentences a person will read in a Leonard Maltin movie guide – “the inestimable Charles Laughton”. This style was developed for word economy and it works against the discursive nature of critical thinking and interaction. I find it offensive and I expect Mr Butler to sympathise with the offended.

    While I feel my comments here are justified in content, they are plainly catty on an interpersonal level. I sense Mr Butler is a good and gracious man and I wish all the best for him, but his articles that appear on this page have often infuriated me along the lines I’ve described above. Given that I’ve never written anything in response until now, I have inevitably condensed the quantity of my accumulated sentiments so that they appear excessive. That’s unfortunate, but there it is.

  2. Very interesting article, Simon – and a subject that becomes quite pertinent in times like these. One distinction I make with some of these films is the difference between the perspective of individual characters and the text as a whole, which can sometimes become a blurry area (and a personal one). For example, I’ve never interpreted ‘If….’ as advocating violence – it always felt quite tongue in cheek to me. ‘Do the Right Thing’ may be a text that highlights social inequality but I never felt that I was being asked to endorse the conclusion, even if I was being asked to understand it and to contemplate the cultural minutia of racism. ‘Cross of Iron’ never felt problematic in its depictions of Nazis to me… I think that comes primarily from my own ideological belief that mythologising the past only obscures our ability to understand and foresee future atrocities. Peckinpah’s contempt for the Nazi regime was certainly on display, but he avoided being led by this into a reductive space for his characters.

    I’m interested in those three films in particular because they don’t feel polemical to me. For me, they don’t have a singular reductive message so much as open up a discourse (like this article), which is usually an early indicator of good art.

    Nice one, Simon!

  3. I have to disagree with your take on Mr.Wint and Mr. Kidd in “Diamonds Are Forever”. Yes, they are bad guys and yes, they do end up being defeated, but for me, that is less important than the fact that they are shown as competent and dangerous. As a sexually confused kid in the 1970s, I loved that the filmmakers had the chutzpah to break the stereotype of homosexuals as being effeminate and useless. Bond villains were always more cool than Bond himself–even though we always knew that Bond is going to win in the end. I wouldn’t say that I wanted to be Mr. Wint, but the pair of them was the first time I can remember being exposed to the idea that I could be both gay and a tough guy.

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  5. You mention a few of my favourite films here, Simon. ‘M’, ‘Sanjuro’, and the simply wonderful ‘Do The Right Thing’. I tend not to think of them in the terms you suggest, rightly or wrongly. I just enjoy them for what they are, excellent examples of compelling film-making.
    As for ‘Cross of Iron’, I think we can sympathise with a war-weary soldier who doesn’t want to fight any more. Whether he happens to be a German, a Japanese, or a Russian is neither here nor there to my way of thinking.
    And Brooks’ film ‘Life Stinks’? That’s just a bad film, I agree.
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

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