Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Guest Post: To Criticize or Not: BELLFLOWER and Misogyny in Art

2011’s BELLFLOWER is an interesting bird (…you know, one of those movie-birds). It’s an undoubtedly intriguing, stylish, and well-directed movie. The basic plot of the first half or so of it, quoted from the AV Club because I’m lazy and they did a good job, is as follows:[Writer/Director Evan] Glodell stars as [Woodrow], the sweeter half of a pair of Wisconsin natives who moved to California and settled into an uncomfortable rut. He and his puckish partner [Aiden] (Tyler Dawson) have shared an obsession with The Road Warrior since childhood—in particular, with the beefy, mask-wearing wasteland warrior Lord Humungus—so they spend their time assembling a homemade flamethrower and dreaming of the car that will make them kings of a post-apocalyptic future they profess to believe (and may actually believe) is on its way… They spend their days in filthy apartments and their nights at house parties or bars where grasshopper-eating contests count as entertainment… Much of the film’s first half concerns the romance between Glodell’s protagonist and the winner of one of those grasshopper-eating contests [Milly] (Jessie Wiseman), a sweet-seeming woman who warns him, during a spontaneous trip to Texas, that she’ll probably end up hurting him.”

The AV Club doesn’t go into the second half, but it goes something like this: Milly does hurt him, he devolves into something between extreme depression and violent madness, or something encompassing both, finds a box he has labeled “Milly’s Shit,” goes to her house, flame-throwers it in her yard, and catalyzes a series of violent events that include the tattooing of Woodrow’s face in retaliation while he lays unconscious, the seemingly random suicide of Milly’s friend, the brutal rape and mutilation of Milly, and her return to him. Only wait, it didn’t happen, Woodrow and Aiden are just sitting on the beach burning Milly’s shit sadly. Woodrow’s not the Lord Humungus he dreams of, the one Aiden rants somewhat provocatively about embracing.

It’s that encouragement of embracing one’s evil, cruel side in a movie that displays a considerable amount of overt violence against and sexual violation of women that has more than a few people decrying it for being misogynist. Keith Phipps of the AV Club wrote that “after a point,” the film becomes “a film about men who hate women, and it comes awfully close to endorsing that point of view.” In response to this, film critic Glenn Kenny wrote, that “it doesn't ‘come close’ to endorsing that point of view, it absolutely embodies that point of view, it can see no other possibility but that point of view, it IS that point of view.”

A pretty lengthy debate about the issue between Dan and myself made me really delve deeply into the issue of misogyny in movies and other art forms, and a few questions in particular: if a movie’s characters or even themes are misogynist, does that make the movie misogynist? How seriously are we supposed to take a movie’s message or themes as being faithful to the way the artist sees the world, or a statement they’re trying to make about it? Where is the line drawn between a moral issue and an issue of taste, and where does misogyny fall? Do movies (or does art in general) have any responsibility to not cross certain lines, moral or tasteful?

Before I start, I feel like I need to disclaim myself by saying that I’m not one of those people trying to jump on every slight against a woman in any story or piece of art and yell “MISOGYNY!”, as if ill-will toward or negative portrayal of a person should never be considered, even conceptually, if that person happens to be female. I’m also not trying to be one of those women who is purposefully callous about loaded subjects such as domestic violence and rape, and all but sanctions violence and rape in the name of coming across as contrarian, or not easily ruffled, or “one of the bros” (and in any case, hopefully the bros in my life aren’t the raping and pillaging type).

With that said, my initial reaction to criticisms of misogyny in BELLFLOWER was that the film definitely does depict violence perpetrated against women, and women being evil bitches, but I attributed that to the characters themselves more than to their genders. I mean, it's easy to point a finger and say "You made a character that was both male and violent, and that violence was directed towards a woman! You think women are inferior and deserve to be violated!" But if the traits can be attributed to their personality more than they seem tied to their gender, I say give it a rest. Sometimes men in some movies are going to perpetrate violence and domination over women. But even if the men themselves are misogynist, just because they happen to be, doesn't mean the film itself is pushing a misogynistic message. But that only answers my first question, if a movie’s characters or even themes are misogynist, does that make the movie misogynist? I say no.

But the case doesn’t close there, because I think it’s also important to consider the artist’s intent in communicating what and how he/she does. That’s the second question: how seriously are we supposed to take a movie’s message or themes as faithful to the way the artist sees the world, or a statement they’re trying to make about it? Are the filmmakers condoning the actions or thoughts of the main characters (Woodrow and Aiden, in this case), or presenting them honestly and/or neutrally, perhaps laying them out without judgment, if not outright condoning their actions? It’s always an ambiguous issue, since the artist’s intent isn’t always clear. And if they outright fail to communicate what they intended to communicate, the issue isn’t whether they made a misogynist movie because of wanting to communicate misogynist ideas, it’s whether a movie can be considered misogynist (or any other term that implies a moral or ideological stance or judgment, one that you’d think would require a movie to be making a statement in order to qualify) if it’s “misogynist by accident,” because of what it accidentally says or fails to say. For a movie to qualify as misogynist, does it have to be overtly taking a stance on its characters and ideas, and does that stance have to be intentional? I don’t have clear-cut answers, but my initial feeling is “probably yes.” For example, take what Keith Phipps, quoted previously, wrote: “…and while there’s something to the way the film presents its heroes’ descent into ultra-masculine hobbies and knee-jerk violence as gross overreactions to their troubles with the opposite sex, it doesn’t have a firm enough grasp on its characters, or strong enough actors, to carry those ideas across” (,59936). This description more implies a failure to get across their message so that it fell short, not a "wrong" moral stance that the filmmakers took or that the film itself advocates. It’s such a slippery slope to start slapping labels loaded with value judgments of virtue on art because of the themes it portrays, that I sort of feel that serious labels such as “misogynist” or “racist” or anything that carries the weight that those terms do should be reserved for pieces of art that make a clear, and clearly communicated, ideological or moral statement. Then it’s OK to judge that ideology or moral stance. But to judge a story, presented as nothing more than a story, an honest if somewhat brutal portrayal of something outside the realm of normal life or mentality? Less of a clear cut, even if the film is ambiguous, either purposefully or because of shoddy craftsmanship.

So let’s say that this is true, that the film does have to purposefully take a stance or endorse a message to be misogynist. Does BELLFLOWER? Kenny, the other film critic cited earlier, says yes; in his blog post about the movie (which can be found here:, he claims that the movie was made for “the ball-flappin' PBR-swillers who are this film's ideal audience and sort-of subject matter,” and goes on to describe the kind of fucked-up attitudes they embody. But in reading his take on it (I’m not going to copy-paste it all; you can go read it at the link above for reference), I did not see a logical argument, or really any argument at all, that would support his notion that the film embraced the kind of sick attitudes its characters displayed. He talks about how ridiculous and messed-up those attitudes are, then goes on to describe another, unrelated movie that he thinks is also misogynist. But by the end of the review, I still couldn’t figure out why he thought what he did except for that he was patently offended that those characters existed and that the filmmakers had the audacity to think that he might enjoy watching their film, because it would make him a “ball-flappin’ PBR-swiller.” So I’m going to now do what Glenn Kenny didn’t, and tell you why I think “misogyny” is a little too grave a label for this movie in this regard.

In BELLFLOWER, for instance, Woodrow viciously assaults Milly, narrated off-screen by Aiden describing how you need to dominate women for them to respect you, embrace and become your inner “Lord Humungus,” a scene that ends with with the woman he just raped and mutilated embracing him. It definitely plays like a misogynist fantasy. But it's kind of set up that Aiden is an asshole and Woodrow is mentally unstable (not only for the obvious reasons, but also seen in the way he gets so instantly attached to and in love with Milly), so I don't think you're supposed to take the "Lord Humungus" speech at the end, where he talks about domination, as a serious message the movie is trying to portray and push on its audience. Especially since in the end, that fantasy is implied to be nothing more than that—a fantasy—and not real; it’s just a vivid glimpse into the state of Woodrow’s mind. He’s an unreliable narrator, and even if we are supposed to empathize with him simply by virtue of the fact that he’s the main character, I don’t think we’re supposed to take his thoughts as healthy or morally right. This is further affirmed by the fact that Milly is portrayed in a rosy manner in the first half of the movie, but as a completely unsympathetic bitch in the second half. But again, this is all through Woodrow’s eyes; of course he remembers the beginnings of their relationship rosily, and the turbulent parts as completely the doing of evil, bitchy Milly. It’s not making a statement about women. It’s presenting a view of a woman, from the warped perspective of an incredibly unstable narrator.

But let’s say that even through all this, the overall attitude of the film is one that embraces, on some level, Woodrow’s bizarre, apocalyptic, macho-rape fantasies instead of condemning them or examining them without judging them (which I don’t think is the case, but just for the sake of argument). If it takes a little pleasure in them, even as it lets us know they are seriously warped and unhealthy. Is it misogynist then? Here’s where I might start to sound like I’m saying that all art is immune from being morally despicable, but hear me out. In the case of BELLFLOWER, at least, it's a piece of art and entertainment, not a piece of propaganda advocating you go do all this. It’s not TRIUMPH OF THE WILL or something with a clear political and moral agenda. In the same way fetish porn (and lots of non-fetish porn, actually) plays on secret desires people have, that often (like this movie) have to do with unequal power, as long as you don't act on it in real life in a way that's not consensual, I don't think judgment should be passed on maybe finding something evil a little alluring. The filmmakers are presenting someone whose dark impulses and desires we kind of relate to, even if we know, as moral beings, we'd never do what they did in a real-life context. It just doesn’t seem to me that they are presenting this as a take-home message that should influence your actions; the movie doesn’t seem to take it self seriously enough for that. But, as I referenced above, that’s not to say that no art has an agenda or a take-home message. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it’s “support the Nazi party,” and for all intents and purposes, that’s bad. But I don’t think that’s the case here.

Now of course, an argument can be made for a film encouraging certain attitudes among its audiences, particularly those susceptible to only reading things on a surface level, and that brings in a whole other debate of audience responsibility vs. artist responsibility for the indirect results of a piece of art. It’s one I’m not really sure where I stand on, or whether or not I have a clear answer to. I think I tend to err, as a default, on the side of free speech with a healthy dose of critical thinking on the part of any audience, and accepting that in the cases of extreme negative actions inspired of a piece of art or entertainment (violence or murder, say), the perpetrator was most likely unbalanced enough that if it wasn’t one thing, it would’ve been another. But of course, it’s still something an artist should probably be at least aware of in making their art. They should probably be asking themselves, how is this going to be interpreted? What thoughts, feelings, and actions might it spur? What am I putting into the world or catalyzing through this piece of art? Am I OK enough with what I’m saying and how I’m saying it to be reasonably OK with the spectrum of possible unexpected results? The last question, in particular, is one the artist should probably have an answer to.

Now, to examine this from a different angle, here I’ve been this whole time using terms like “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.” Does the “misogynistic” label necessarily have to carry with it the weight of being “good” or “bad” because it is misogynistic? When Dan and I were first discussing this, I think we were approaching it from two completely different viewpoints on this issue (which made the discussion unduly long, and probably further fueled whatever drinking was going on at the time, which probably further delayed getting to the bottom of why we were somehow simultaneously agreeing and yet disagreeing on every point. Welcome to our marriage!). I was approaching it from the view that misogyny is a moral area, and that to call something “misogynist” is to call it morally wrong or bad. Dan was approaching it more from the angle of taste, that something could be misogynist in that it approaches certain topics like violence or rape in a way that is, well, for lack of a better term, tasteless: in that it leaves a bad taste in your metaphorical mouth after viewing it, because of the way it handles those topics, and perhaps doesn’t give them the gravity or approach them with the sensitivity that they warrant. And there’s definitely a difference in those perspectives. For example, on a more extreme level, lots of folks aren’t into violent, graphic torture porn, the thought of it leaves them feeling slightly squicky, and they prefer not consuming it. But I’m of the opinion that that fact doesn't mean it's morally wrong (so long as no people/animals are actually being harmed non-consensually) or that it doesn't have its appeal or place.
(For example, filming this scene in ANACONDA was morally unambiguous ground, since Jon Voight actually signed and notarized a waver to give his life to the jaws of a giant serpent for the movie. He later found out that they were using an animatronic snake, but in case the thing broke down on set or something and it turned out to be more expensive to repair it than train a real anaconda, his consent was clear. These are the kinds of issues you learn to navigate in human subjects training in the research field) 
So where is the line between issues of morality and issues of taste, when and where can/do issues of taste cross the line into issues of morality, is either a legitimate judgment on the movie as a piece of art, and which is it with BELLFLOWER? My answers, in short: I’m not sure, because it’s a fuzzy line, and is probably different for every person; when someone or some creature is actually harmed in real life as a direct and intentional result of the piece of art or in the making of it (though, as I said, audience responsibility vs. artist responsibility over the indirect results of a piece of art is a tricky issue); issues of morality: yes, issues of taste: no; and with BELLFLOWER? Admittedly, I can see how some people may not like the experience of some of the scenes in this movie. But is the movie wrong for presenting them? I don’t think so.

All this being said, if your tastes are like mine, I highly recommend BELLFLOWER. I don’t know about you, but I kind of like the tingle in your spine you get from confronting something a little evil. I like the little thrill you get from daring to experience it, if for only a second and from a safe distance, finding something interesting and even poetic in something clearly dark and dangerous (especially if it’s presented well, or in a unique way), then clicking off the TV, putting the Netflix disc back in its sleeve, and walking away. Or figuring out you were just burning Milly’s shit on the beach instead of doing all the things you probably have, at some point, probably fantasized about doing to at least one particularly wicked ex, male or female.