Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Time for some controversy

My roommate showed me an article on FoxNews.com today entitled, “Kiddie Porn Movie Rocks Toronto as 'Feel-Awful' Film of the Year.” The article is about Alan Ball’s (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) new film Nothing Is Private based on Alicia Erian’s novel Towelhead about “a young Arab-American girl struggling with sexual obsession, a bigoted Army reservist and her strict father during the Gulf War.” Roger Friedman tells us that:
The movie — so odious that many people have simply walked out during the screenings — shows actor Aaron Eckhart having sex with a 13-year-old girl played by a now 19-year-old actress, Summer Bishil. The actress only turned 19 recently, however, which means that she was just on the cusp of 18 when she made the movie last year.
I was wary of this article from first glance, so I went to the bastion of fair and just opinion (ha!): the IMDb forum. I found some unique views here as well:

It was wonderful, and Alan Ball handled the material honestly, and graphically without being exploitive
Still not convinced, I scrolled down to find this opinion:
I've got to say you guys all strike me as being sick. There's nothing artful, cool, or "must see" about depicting child pornography and child rape. This is a real issue that ruins the lives of women, leaving them emotionally scarred for life. I rue our society if we have come to the place where we can watch the depiction of child rape and call it entertainment.

Why don't all of you (especially those women who have been commenting) take a look in the mirror and try to imagine if such a thing happened to you or to your 13-year-old daughter. These things are horrific. Our culture danced on the edge with "American Beauty" and "Thirteen". This movie, by all accounts, plunged us over that edge to a place of darkness. If this goes unchallenged, what's next for us? How long until we allow Dakota Fanning get naked to increase the realism of a 12-year-old being raped? I, for one, think this is disgusting and hope the MPAA slaps this with at least an NC-17. Shame on the Toronto Film Festival and shame on Alan Ball.
Ok. I can agree with some of that. I don’t think that having a 12-year-old actress simulate a rape scene is morally right. BUT, if one could creatively film the scene without the actress participating in rape simulation, I might not have a problem with it. If the plot point is necessary to the story, by all means … it should be included. If it’s not, then the artist is guilty of exploitation.

But even the Fox News article makes it clear (albeit unintentionally) that there is more to this story than the pedophilia in question.
The father regularly hits Jazeera and threatens to beat her to death.

Her mother is a self-absorbed American (Maria Bello) who cares nothing for her child and loads her with more baggage than a porter at JFK.

And that’s not all. Jazeera, abandoned and then seduced by next-door neighbor Eckhart, has already been abused by Bello’s second husband.

She also falls into a kinky sexual relationship with a boy from school.
Quite obviously, there is more to this story than pedophilia and “kiddie porn.” Here's what a reviewer at Ain't It Cool News said after a preview screening:
...to simply call [the men in the film] "abusive" "lecherous" and "horny" is to do disservice to them all: these are extraordinarily complex characters. As bad as they are, all have redeeming qualities. And in their own ways, all of them care very deeply for Jasira. Where one is a failure, another picks up the slack. She's caught in a devil's bargain, in a sense, bouncing between three men - each of whom give her something she needs, emotionally, but each with a heaping helping of a lot she could do without.
Back to another IMDb poster:

If you see the film, you will realize that Alan Ball is not trying to make the rape of a child "artful" or "cool" as the last person said. When people with the same opinion as [the poster above] see this movie, they will realize that the film isn't about making the rape entertaining, but far from it. During the Eckart/Bishil rape scenes, you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre. Very awkward to watch, but it wasn't bad enough for anyone to walk out.

Very little of the story is actually about Jasira being raped. It's more about just what the plotline says. Completely ignore comments made by people like [the poster above]. Fantastic cinematography, great music, and an incredible screenplay.

And one more that should pretty much make clinch the whole issue:
I've read the screenplay, Alan Ball stressed that it's imperative that there's no explicit nudity and that the actress playing Jasira is not compromised in any way...it will be "appropriate" in the sense that neither the actress nor the subject matter will be exploited.
All the controversy around this brings me back to my favorite film: American Beauty. I remember all the controversy when it came out. I remember reading conservative reviews saying things like Steven Isaac at Focus On The Family:
It's bad enough when films trade in sexual fantasy for box office dollars. It's worse when that eroticism is directed at a high school cheerleader by a
middle-aged man.
In 1999, I was 12 years old. I remember reading these kinds of things about American Beauty and being sickened by it. I stayed away from the film like the plague because, from what I was reading, it was just a sinful, sick, perverted defense of pedophilia. I remember saying a prayer for Alan Ball and everyone behind American Beauty … a prayer that they would realize the error of their ways and start walking down the path of righteousness. In my eyes, they were nothing but hideous pornographers.

As I grew in my understanding of the purpose of art, I began to take my thoughts captive more and more. I started seeing film as art and not just entertainment. I found other Christian reviews of American Beauty that actually saw the ideas of the artists as something to be engaged and thought about. I even found a book by Robert K. Johnston called Useless Beauty that built a bridge between the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes and a few modern films, one being American Beauty.

Near the end of my junior year in high school I rented American Beauty and watched it three times in one weekend. I was totally enraptured by it. I thought about it. I engaged it. I began to see that this was not the work of pornographers trading “sexual fantasy for box-office dollars” but the work of extremely talented artists, putting their worldview in front of me and asking me to think long and hard about the concept of beauty.

People fear and even hate what they don’t understand. Sadly, this means that most conservative Christians hate a film that shows them something that offends them, which American Beauty most certainly does. Roger Ebert said that American Beauty is not about a twisted sexual relationship, but “about yearning after youth, respect, power and, of course, beauty.” Look closer. It’s not so much about the actions of these characters but what these actions represent.

In then end, I do not wholly agree with the ideas of American Beauty and recognize some of them as completely unbiblical. This doesn’t change the fact that I greatly value the film. I value it because it is a perfectly crafted piece of contemporary art that has made me think and evaluate my perception of beauty. Aesthetically, it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It packs an extremely important piece of advice as well: look closer.

When Nothing Is Private presents itself to cinemas across the country, this is exactly what audiences will have to do.


Anonymous said...

"It’s not so much about the actions of these characters but what these actions represent."

Interesting, I've been preaching this up a storm, yet never really applied it to American Beauty. It makes the film more palpable now, I guess. It was one of the first movies I watched after going to college, so the whole nudity thing was a bit surprising, but I just remember ultimately being confused and wondering why. It was a well made film, for sure, it was just so ambiguous. I'll revisit it someday, though.

I'm not sure what to think of Nothing Is Private yet. It could go either way with me, so I'll just have to wait and see it (or not see it, who knows).

Have you seen Mysterious Skin? That's another film about this subject matter and I "enjoyed" it. Though I don't remember it being quite as explicit as Nothing Is Private seems to be.

Phillip said...

I'm not even sure what to think of Nothing Is Private yet, but I'm trusting that Alan Ball won't overstep his bounds. If he does, I'll be very disappointed.

The nudity in American Beauty is never without purpose. One of the best scenes in the film is when Jane comes to the window after the fight with her mother. She knows Ricky is standing in the window across the street. She takes off her shirt not as an action of forward sexuality, but to represent her vulnerability.

The most beautiful thing is, though, that Ricky doesn't choose to videotape her breasts. They're in the frame for 2 or 3 seconds, but the first thing Ricky does is zoom in on our face ... the part of her he finds most beautiful.

Haven't seen Mysterious Skin, but it's been on my list to watch for a long time. All I remember hearing about it is an ABHORRENT from Ted Baehr and that Chloe from 24 was in it. :-)

Phillip said...

* zoom in on her face.

Darn my careless errors.