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] The 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. 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."Well, 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?
Posted by ahillis at April 13, 2009 2:27 PM