April 13, 2009

Observing Rape

[Vadim Rizov, in what he originally pitched as "this week in faux-controversy," calmly opens the ol' worm can just as others approach it with hysteria. Not that it needed to be said, but he clearly does not endorse sexual abuse. - AH]

Observe and ReportThe internet, we know, does not encourage rational discourse, especially when everyone's generating content as fast as possible. Latest case-in-point: Observe and Report, which has quickly spiraled from Seth Rogen's Freddy Got Fingered for sheer alienation to a competitor for Irreversible's seemingly inviolable claim to Most Controversial Screen Rape of the Decade. I did not see this coming when I saw the film's world premiere at SXSW. There is certainly a "discussion" to be had here, but it's not occurring.

To recap: about two-thirds of the way through the film, mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) has coerced spiteful bitch Brandi (Anna Faris) into a date. She goes from pissed to pleased when Ronnie offers up his bipolar meds, washes down the ad hoc drug cocktail with a bunch of drinks, and vomits all over herself on the front lawn of her house. Cut to: Ronnie, mid-coitus, on top of Brandi. After a few seconds of thrusting, it dawns on him that Brandi is passed-out, and he stops, confused. "Why are you stopping, motherfucker?" comes Brandi's regal command—her head lolled to the side, all but insensate—and Rogen gets back to it. End of scene. When I saw this, the audience let out one of its loudest whoops; because I am an idiot, I'd forgotten about the concept of "informed consent." There are a few things here that seem fairly clear, though, and one is that Ronnie isn't, in his mind, a rapist. He's a self-proclaimed force for justice, and the cutting here is fairly unambiguous: when they started having sex, Ronnie was clear on the mutual consent, at some point Brandi passed out (or seemed to), and that's where we come in. That doesn't solve the problem of whether or not it's date rape, but it's worth noting, because some of the most hysterical commentary has leaped upon this gap in the footage as a key prosecuting point. Ronnie may be a rapist, but not intentionally.

Observe and Report: condones date rape?Now, why didn't it occur to me this would strike most people as date rape? Mainly because Brandi isn't a real person. Observe and Report is incoherent in a lot of ways—it's fatally unclear on what's funny and what's unsettling, to the point that I suspect not even writer/director Jody Hill knows most of the time—but Ronnie's characterization is clear and psychologically unified: he's violent and bipolar, but he thinks he's a good guy. No one else in the movie gets that kind of treatment: they're all caricatures to varying extremes, as is Brandi. Everyone in the film is more or less presented in the warped way Ronnie perceives them from his delusional P.O.V., and that goes double for this encounter. It's hard to take things seriously when Anna Faris slays with her finest bubblehead act.

But let's say we can all agree on what we're looking at is clear-cut, 100% date rape. The next question is: How is this worse than anything else that happens in the movie? Among other exploits, it's reasonably clear that Ronnie kills (or at least fatally injures) some drug dealers, beats the shit out of a bunch of teen skateboarders, shoots up heroin and point-blank shoots a dude at close range. Now, I do not want to create a hierarchical scale of moral outrages, which begs for trouble. It speaks volumes, however, that no one offended by the rape wants to argue about the rest, which is apparently unmitigatedly Evil and, hence, not likely to be taken as an argument for such behavior. The argument typically breaks down to the most emotive plea: rape victims will be traumatized by this movie. For the most strident attack, check in with Sady of Tiger Beatdown, who fulminates—in the classic rhetorical gesture of explaining at length what she won't do:

"I could talk about how I am a person who routinely makes jokes about her own experience of sexual assault, and has maybe the least mature or gentle sense of humor in the world [...] and yeah, maybe I could 'give it a chance,' maybe I could try to be 'fair' about this, but maybe I just have better things to do than watch a movie that might be about a woman who gets a deserved raping [...] a movie that may very well insult me and every woman who's ever had an unwanted dick shoved into her body."

Observe and ReportWell, little danger of that. It's been publicized far and wide that this movie will traumatize rape victims, so we're out of that particular quagmire. It is also fascinating (if typical) that the people most outraged by the movie are the ones who not only haven't seen it but refuse to see it; when Dan Kois got to this first on the Vulture blog, he concluded it was definitely rape but it was far from the worst thing in the film, and that conclusion has been basically carried down through most of the reviews. Because the thing is, if you watch the film, there is no way Ronnie can be interpreted as a good guy, and there is no way—whether or not you believe it's rape—that the act is depicted as endorsing date rape. Certainly, it couldn't be a "deserved raping" as Sady called it; that kind of Neanderthal mindset is obviously totally off the rails, and if Observe had gone there, it would deserve instant excoriation. (It's worth remembering the sickos who snipped Irreversible's rape scene out of context and circulated it on P2P networks as a porn video; that's heaps more troubling). This is a movie about a bipolar sociopath, that much is undeniable, and to that extent none of what he does in the film is supported. So what gets to be depicted, to what extent can it be used as a punchline, and who gets to say it? It's safe to say Rogen and Hill are catching a lot of flack as dudes, and Ms. Faris herself is being pummeled by bloggers for not speaking truth to power, or something.

What say you, commenters? From where I'm sitting, there's a massive misreading of the film going on, and all the wrong questions are being asked. The right ones are:

A.) In a society ever-sensitive (most of the time, thankfully) to women's rights, where do we draw the line in depicting rape? Are we setting a dangerous precedent the instant any kind of potentially non-consensual incident is depicted as anything less than a horrifying, traumatic event?

B.) Why is it that we can't get a consensus on what Ronnie does precisely (e.g., Manohla thinks it's not rape), and what does that say about the honesty of discussing potentially ambiguous sexual situations in public? Why is it that the discussion is all about the outrage, and not about why, exactly, this might have been filmed and passed as acceptable (or not)? Let's assume, please, that Seth Rogen and Jody Hill are not actually fans of rape; this seems like an eminently reasonable assumption, all things considered. (The converse is assuming that they endorse rape, which is just insanity.)

C.) Is it fair to say that given the amount of instant outrage this has sparked, the real discussion is about sexual mores and boundaries in America, not "whether or not the film endorses rape"?

D.) BONUS ROUND: Some particularly aggrieved Jezebel commenters think Superbad is about date rape because it involves Jonah Hill trying to get a girl drunk so she'll lose enough judgment to sleep with him. True, or not true?

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Posted by ahillis at April 13, 2009 2:27 PM


A. She should have told him what a lousy fuck he was the next day.

B. Confusing because the sympathy we feel for Ronnie's derived from him being a victim of "domestic abuse" that's rendered him unable to "read."

C. It's about being stupid enough to be your sexual psyche.

D. Jonah Hill doesn't stike me as a very nice guy, so probably true.

Posted by: T.Holly at April 13, 2009 7:10 PM

Is the moment when Brandi says "Why are you stopping, mo*er?" a delusion that Rogan's character experiences? (You mention he has a delusional P.O.V., so are we to assume that this was not in fact Brandi expressing her will?) If not a delusion, where is the controversy?

Posted by: Will at April 13, 2009 10:51 PM

Its ridiculous to even be having this discussion because by bringing it up you are creating the tension. Its harmless, its a scene which develops both the characters. From a guy's point of view, Ronnie was trying all night to be a gentleman, maybe not always succeeding, but Brandi provoked the drinking, and also inquired and then requested the klonopin, obviously already knowing what it was. It certaintly would have been rape had she not been coherent enough to know he stopped, thats just how one acts in bed after a handful of k-pins and shots of tequila, catching a little shut eye while enjoying the sex she probably encouraged. Its definitely out there but its awesome to see realistic, non predictable, thought provoking scenes. Great movie! As far as Jonah, he is a typical high school kid with no bad intentions, these movies actually depict reality, im sorry if its too real for some of you, and im not saying that cynically because i think its harmless.

Posted by: stikfigg at April 13, 2009 11:43 PM

The fact that this lousy cartoon of a comedy is engendering so much "discussion" is what is most lamentable. This movie isn't even as transgressive as Animal House, another high water mark in the history of American culture.

Posted by: Dennis K. at April 14, 2009 9:17 AM

I'd actually totally agree with that, Dennis. It's just that the cat's out of the bag and running all over the internet already, so might as well try to redirect it a bit.

Posted by: vadim at April 14, 2009 10:44 AM

It's frustrating to see people discussing this scene as if it had anything to say about what is or isn't date rape, because the scene, in context, is so completely about audience reaction that it has no real bearing on real people in the real world at all. When Hill cuts to Rogen on top of a seemingly unconscious Faris, the viewer doesn't know anything about what happened between the time the two of them were in front of her house and the moment they somehow got into bed together, and it's natural to assume the worst, creating a shock that's deliberate. The real point of the scene isn't to reveal anything about either of the two characters but instead to give the viewer the idea that Rogen's character, who we already know is a bullying racist meathead killer, is also a rapist, and to give any viewers who may still be trying to like him a chance to process and somehow rationalize this latest information. The moment when Faris reveals that she's actually just aware enough of what's going on to encourage him is the punchline. It's also the moment that lets the audience off the hook.

I don't insist on this distinction as a defense of the movie itself. Anyone who's read those interviews in which Jody Hill gives props to "Taxi Driver" knows that he thinks he was trying to challenge heroic-vigilante movie stereotypes, and anyone who's actually seen the thing knows that either Hill's execution wasn't up to his concept or that he chickened out in the key violent scenes, where the movie seems to be implicit in the celebration of Rogen's homicidal viciousness. Because Hill couldn't figure out a way to make something that looked any different from the average Adam Sandler movie, he would up making a movie whose point seems to be to raise the acceptable level of mayhem for Adam Sandler movies. He laid a trap that he may have caught himself in, but anybody using this movie as a reason to discuss such issues as how drunken a "yes" has to be before you wonder whether it's a "real" yes may be falling into it too.

Posted by: Phil Nugent at April 14, 2009 12:04 PM

The moment when Faris reveals that she's actually just aware enough of what's going on to encourage him is the punchline. It's also the moment that lets the audience off the hook.

And that's the problem. This "joke" continues the conventional wisdom about rape that she wanted it all along. It's a stupid movie. It's full of caricatures. And it reemphasizes a stupid notion about sexual relations between men and women. Unfortunately, this stupid notion isn't so stupid when you consider that a lot of people still believe it. That's why people are up in arms about it - because sexism of this sort is very much alive and well and the joke isn't funny to people who want this kind of behavior to stop.

Posted by: Marilyn at April 14, 2009 2:33 PM

It's not rape. Period. He's thrusting away, NOTICES SHE'S NOT APPARENTLY CONSCIOUS, and then stops. She then tells him to keep going.

That's not rape. It's (bad) sex, which is not even vaguely the same thing.

Anybody who is trying to make a controversy out of this scene either (a) has no clue what actually happens during it or (b) is lying about what happens during it to serve their own needs.

This is not difficult stuff to figure out folks, all you have to do is pay attention.

It's a mediocre movie, but it doesn't deserve to get labelled as pro-date rape.

Posted by: Bryant Burnette at April 14, 2009 4:21 PM

This scene absolutely, without a doubt, depicts rape. One cannot consent to sex when wasted.

But the definition seems to be the only thing that needs to be pointed out; rape fits with the scheme of the movie and the other actions of the character.

Posted by: Ashley at April 14, 2009 4:24 PM

If one can't consent to sex while being wasted, and thus it's rape, then probably 95% of all humans born are the result of rape.

Posted by: ! at April 14, 2009 6:17 PM

! - Cute. Thanks for trivializing rape. Much appreciated.

This gives me an opportunity to respond to something in the main article: "In a society ever-sensitive (most of the time, thankfully) to women's rights, where do we draw the line in depicting rape?"

I submit that only a man could have written that sentence. Sensitivity to women's issues is incredibly lacking. Just consider the hugely misogynistic campaign the media ran against Hillary Clinton and the hubba hubba press Sarah Palin got. We have NOT come a long way, baby.

As for depicting rape, when people stop raping, we'll be able to make light of it. Until then, it's not funny.

Posted by: Marilyn at April 15, 2009 7:37 AM


We're large-brained mammals living on a rock that spins around a burning ball of gas surrounded by nothing. We have no idea how we got here or why any of this exists. We're conscious that we're alive, we're conscious that we die. Then we die.

As far as I'm concerned, EVERYTHING is funny.

Posted by: ! at April 15, 2009 9:02 AM

You certainly are a great representative of a burning ball of gas, sir.

Posted by: Marilyn at April 15, 2009 9:49 AM

Marilyn: "I submit that only a man could have written that sentence."

I knew that was going to come up, and I have absolutely nothing to say to that. (Although, in the case of Ms. Wink-At-The-Camera Palin, I submit she definitely did it to herself quite a bit.) I am, as it happens, a man, and as such when certain issues come up, I'm recusing myself of the authority to comment.

Posted by: vadim at April 15, 2009 11:41 AM

If you knew it was going to come up, why didn't you have an explanation. Is no explanation necessary? Or possible? This is not a kneejerk response of a bitter woman. This is a column that speaks to something that is or should be close to the heart of every human being (not just women). You have to do better than that.

I'm not a fan of Sarah Palin, but you fail to recognize that it is the cultural norm to "flaunt" what you've "got." There was a great deal made of how stupid she was, too, and that can be traced back to her looks every bit as much, or moreso, than her politics. See this hatchet job: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irklZ-iZjhI

Posted by: Marilyn at April 15, 2009 12:05 PM

Interesting piece that took some nerve to publish, not least because of your alleged and subsequently confessed male-ness. :D

I haven’t seen the movie so I am going by your description, and trusting that there isn’t a huge amount of subtext or nuance that I would get from watching moments such as Faris vomiting. What interests me is the cut, which deliberately eliminates the most crucial piece of information—how Rogen got to the, uh, position he is in when Faris wakes up and speaks to him. For a filmmaker of even moderate intelligence to throw something like this on screen without realizing it would cause a stir would be, as you say, insane. Of course, we all know that planning a scene to epater les feministes is a time-honored way of showing how terribly, terribly bold and iconoclastic you are. But ultimately Hill lacked—you should excuse the expression—the balls to give the audience the complete story. He gets his schoolboy joke and leaves a nice little cat-flap to squirm through when people get angry over one possible interpretation of the scene.

Maybe the rest of the film is brilliant, but what you’re describing is pretty feeble filmmaking.

Posted by: Campaspe at April 16, 2009 1:43 PM

Thanks Campaspe. No, this is not a movie you should make a special effort for. Stick with George Sanders IMO.

If anyone's still around, this has been generating linkage (still!), which surprises me. I do want to point to one link in particular, from the Guardian in the UK: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2009/apr/17/jody-hill-observe-and-report

Danny Leigh writes: "as with any discussion of rape, the people whose reaction really matters are women. [...]it's that gut-authentic response that I'm not sure any male commentator can compete with." I'm not sure if I agree or disagree, but it's a perspective that was bound to come up, and, at a certain level, it's kind of one of those things you just cannot argue about. Either you agree or you don't.

Posted by: vadim at April 17, 2009 10:59 AM

If it makes you feel better Marilyn, Vadim neglects to tell you that part of the funny stuff in the movie before the funny stuff that happens in the bed, happens at the dinner scene before it, when Ronnie displays mindbending blindness to Brandi's deteriorating condition/increasing toxicity. It's all tied to Ronnie's home condition where he lives in a deranged relationship with his funny alcoholic mom (it's complicated). Agreed the whole thing falls short of working, and you can wait for it to come out on DVD, where I'm hoping they do a funny post mortem, what went wrong, "making of" DVD extra, where Hill talks about, among other things, why it would have been so wrong to show Ronnie negotiating to have sex with Brandi and so out of context to show Brandi rallying to put the moves on Ronnie and why it had to be the way it was, which is hardly any different than the way it is in pornography, which is what I think Hill is trying to say: welcome to sex, porn and girls gone wild, everyone's numb and a machine. But the real deal on the politics is over here:


Posted by: T.Holly at April 17, 2009 10:58 PM

I'm very late to this party, and I'm not but a male and perhaps therefore unworthy to discuss this, but with all due respect to my very respected fellow film blogger Marilyn, isn't it true in real life that if a woman or man (men can be raped too you know) really does "want it", it might be two people enacting a rape fantasy, but it can't be rape? Isn't the title of Nirvana's "Rape Me" actually a contradiction. If I asked to be raped, I'm by definition not being raped, right?

Of course, the issue of being incredibly high comes in here as well and whether true consent is possible? Of course, in real life a decent person would, we hope, not have had sex with someone so stoned (though being equally stoned himself might cause other behavior, but also an inability to function) -- but everyone agrees our main character is not nice and, apparently, a murderer to boot. (Murder being an even worse crime than rape, right?)

Still, rapes are, by definition, unwanted, so it seems to film the film is joking about rape, without actually showing a rape. It sounds as if at first we think we're seeing one, but Ana Faris's angry question makes it clear that we're not seeing one. Maybe that really is offensive, as the owner of a penis, I'm not sure I'm qualified to judge and definitely as someone who hasn't seen the film, I'm not.

As for the comment about the Hillary Clinton campaign, all I can say is...no, let's not have a replay of the primary roles. I'm too jazzed about how absolutely great she's doing as Sec'y of State to replay any of that now. In fact, whatever animosity this former Obama volunteer had left was erased with her wonderful comment about Cheney yesterday. I haven't been a fan of her's since at least her Iraq vote, but she won me back yesterday.

Posted by: Bob at April 23, 2009 10:17 AM
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