Following straight on from my Roald Dahl piece, where I said I didn’t see what the problem was with the text that had been changed, and earlier pieces such as my reaction to Puppetgate, where I wasn’t offended, you might be asking: “Okay, is there anything you have a problem with?” The main reason I stay out of the usual cycles of outrage is that I have better things to do. I treat material I might object to the same as material that’s not to my tastes in general – I don’t have to watch it, and nine times out of ten it’s obvious it’s going to be like that from the publicity. You have a much stronger case standing up to censorship of things you do like if you respect other people’s rights to watch things you don’t.
But there are nevertheless things I think overstep the line. For example, I wrote at length about Music (or, as I like to describe it, the shit version of Rain Man), and I could go on forever joining in dogpiles. But I’d rather challenge things that aren’t getting attention. With some of society obsessed with the pettiest micromanagement of some popular works, I can only look at other works and ask: why aren’t people up in arms about that? Some problems are things I wouldn’t expect most people to notice; other times, it’s issues commonly talked about – why does this one get a free pass? And top of the list is so blatant, there’s only one reason I can see to tolerate it, which is rank hypocrisy. But we’ll get to that alter.
So, the rules. Some of the things in this list I personally consider objectionable. Other things I think are unfair to other groups of people. In the latter case, I’ve done a bit of cursory research to see if the people concerned also have a problem – if not, I let it go. It pisses me of no-end when self-righteous arseholes decree what neurodivergent people are offended by without asking us, so I have no intention of getting offended on other people’s behalf. The other rule is it’s got to be something that isn’t facing widespread criticism. Otherwise, it’s joining in dogpiles.
And to be clear: I don’t want any of these cancelled. Offence alone is never a valid reason for censorship. The usual tactic used by Mary Whitehouse-wannabes is to conflate offensive with harmful, but nine times out of ten it’s nothing that can’t be solved with the “off” button. Some at the end start to overstep that line, but not enough to overcome my support for freedom of speech.
So here we go. Prepare to have your favourite films, movies and plays ruined.
16. I Dreamed a Dream
I have nothing against Susan Boyle or Elaine C. Smith – but there’s no escaping the awful hypocrisy surrounding of the people responsible for the sudden rise to fame. I’ve written about this before, but the fairy story constructing around Susan Boyle is a textbook example of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Why was the country so surprised that a woman who wasn’t conventionally attractive and behaved a bit odd turned out to be quite good at singing? Because for years Britian’s Got talent – with the full backing of ITV and the entire press – has been systemically pedalling the narrative that anyone looks a bit funny is talentless. All they did was express surprise that some defied the stereotype they created in the first place. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Cowell and Co had a change of heart after Susan Boyle’s performance. They did not – right afterwards it was back to business as usual. (A similar gesture with Lost Voice Guy many years later does not compensate for this either.)
I realise the stage musical was about Susan Boyle, rather than how brilliant and lengthened those nice people on telly are for giving her a break. But unless you directly stand up to their narrative, you are complicit. Whether you like it or not, the whole business around Susan Boyle is tokenisation. One person who didn’t fit in get the recognition she deserves – which makes it okay for you to spend the rest of the time laughing at the freaks and the geeks. And behave the same way yourself. And treat anybody whose face doesn’t fit as a waste of your time. Sorry, but this musical is part of the problem.
Disney is currently in a big contrition drive over its depiction of racial minorities in its early films. (I might discuss this subject another day, but with the early days of Disney coinciding with stupid levels cultural segregation across America, something like this was bound to happen.) One such thing was the “Indians” in Peter Pan. Now, I can’t speak for any Native Americans whom Disney is apologising to, but if it was me, this wouldn’t be high up my list. The Indians in Peter Pan weren’t supposed to be realistic – they did, after all, live in a place called Never-Never Land. I’d be far more concerned about the ham-fisted way they tried to depict real Native Americans in the 1990s.
There is a pattern I’ve seen over a lot of depictions of past injustices, mostly in American media: deflection. Yes, it was bad what happened, but it wasn’t our fault – instead, it was the fault of the bad people, over there. In the case of Pocohontas, they go as far as they can to pin the blame of the evil colonial ruler made to look very British. But almost all of the subsequent mistreatment of Native Americans happened after the United States declared itself independent.
To be fair to 1990s Disney, my problem here isn’t so much them, but more the Thanksgiving holiday created in name of this event. I try my best to overlook the inconvenient historical entanglements of all these festivals around the world (and Christmas and Easter both have problems), but Thanksgiving in the US is the one I just cannot reconcile with my morals. All the piety about friendship between Pilgrims and Natives rings hollow when you consider what happened in the 250 years after the first Thanksgiving. I’m not saying a kids’ film about the first settlers couldn’t take on all the difficult nuanced discussions needed – but the twee format of Disney ain’t it. If I must watch a 1990s film about Thanksgiving, I’m going for this one.
14. Anything from Quentin Tarantino
There, I said it: Quentin Tarantino is massively overrated. I cannot understand where the fawning comes from. He’s been congratulated for the ingenuity of hardened killers talking about mundane stuff to each other between jobs, and skipping through things in non-chronological order. But neither thing is particularly original. Harold Pinter was doing the killers-talkin-bout-normal-stuff thing in the 1950s, and if for arts critics who’d never heard of time plays before Tarantino came along – where have you been? As I see it, all he did was engineer a controversy and milk it in his favour.
I have no idea whether his romanticised depictions of violence encourage the real thing; all I know is that there’s some bizarre double standards. Tarantino and Tarantino-like violence is shrugged off as right-wing hysteria, and yet matters as trivial as wigs in The Witches are decried as harmful to society. Depiction is not endorsement, I credit people with the intelligence to understand violence bad without it being spelled out, and even the most harrowing content has a place if there’s a point to it. But what is the point here? All I see is the audience being encouraged to root for one bunch of amoral psychopaths out to kill another bunch of amoral psychopaths – because the first bunch look cool and say cool things.
Yes, I know Hollywood always makes to leads in their movies look cool. Maybe they shouldn’t. Sorry if I’ve committed cultural heresy here, but if excommunication is the price of not joining in nauseating praise, I’ll take it.
Great songs, culturally iconic, very disappointing ending. I’m ignoring Sandy suddenly taking up smoking to look cool, because it was the 1970s and back then everybody did it (because nice Bernie Ecclestone spent a lot of money telling us this was okay). But what was the message of the feel-good ending? That Danny and Sandy are different, but both learn to accept themselves for what they are, whilst accepting each other for what they are? Nope. It’s Sandy’s fault for being herself and not fitting in with the cool kids. But don’t worry, she’s buckled to societal expectations and now dresses like everybody else. Go peer pressure! Take that, individuality! That’ll teach the uncool teens for thinking they have any value being themselves.*
*: Note: Acceptance advertised in films may differ from acceptance in real life. The cool kids reserve the right to continue beating you up after you try to be the same as everybody else.
Don’t have much more to say about this. I think the Daily Mash sums it up quite well when long-standing contributor Tom Logan points out Grease boils down to a heart-warming message: ladies, if you want to get the man of your dreams, all you have to do is abandon your principles and dress up like a tart.
12. Travels with my Aunt
Okay, that’s enough of your childhood and teenage nostalgia spoilt for now. Now let’s move on to some higher-brow art.
I haven’t read Travels with my Aunt so there may be some context or nuance missed from Graham Greene’s text, but this is a list of plays and films and I most definitely have issues with Giles Havergil’s stage version. Have to say, I don’t understand what the point of his adaptation was at all – his distinguishing touch, as far as I can tell, is for all four actors to play the part of Henry Pulling for no reason at all. I don’t know what’s the adaptation and what’s the original, but the thrust of the story appears to be a middle-ages man with a quiet life discovering that his hedonistic aunt is actually his mother. I suppose the 1960s book might have been fighting the corner for sexual liberation, but this one doesn’t appear to give a damn about all the people she’s hurt throughout her life. And yet we’re still supposed to be rooting her. (Also, plot twist: the random painting Aunt Augusta asks Henry to take to South America turned out to have something hidden in the frame all along. Oh puhlease.)
You might have your own interpretation, that’s fine. But the thing that really oversteps the line is the semi-criminal gang Augusta takes her son so betrothing fiftysomething Henry to 14-year-old Yolanda. Zero introspection or exploration of ethics – it’s just another part of Augusta’s plan to liberate her son. That would be okay if modern productions made an effort to either downplay it, or cut it, or contexual it, but I’ve read reviews of recent productions lauding the performance of “seductive Yolanda”. There again, I’ve seen arts bods make excuses for much worse in real life, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised.
There was a row a couple of years back over whether it’s right for reviewers to criticise the choice of racially diverse casting of the famous musical. But, quite frankly, if you have any concerns over racial sensitivity, I can only see one correct course of action, which is to not perform the musical at all.
Oklamoma: Great songs, adequate storyline, and an undisputed place in history on the reinvention of musical theatre – but none of this gets rid of the elephant in the room. Some 200 years after the time of Pocahontas, the United States has taken most of the land from the Native Americans, with the populations sent to the bits they don’t want, such as “Indian territory”. Then the whities decided they wanted that bit as well. Whilst celebrating the help given to the first pilgrims every Thanksgiving. I believe the proper academic term used for this but historian worldwide is “ungrateful tossers”.
Of course, nothing that happened in the 19th century is the fault of Rogers and Hammerstein. The stage play upon which the musical was based tried to address the issue tactfully: Green Grow the Lilacs was written by a half-Cherokee Man, and it’s observed early on the “prairie folks” aren’t too happy with the new state. I’m open to suggestions for how to handle this in a musical, but a feel-good musical finale that goes “And when we say, yeeow-a-yip-i-o-ee ay! We’re only sayin’ You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, okay” ain’t it.
This is a pity, because I thought that, by the standards of their day, Rogers and Hammerstein were usually pretty clued up. South Pacific I think is really on the ball for a 1949 musical, with the lyrics “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, / You’ve got to be taught from year to year,” really on the nose. If only they’d done this three years earlier. Ah well, too late now.
I’m not knocking racially diverse casting of Oklahoma, by the way. If your priority is making sure that actors who aren’t white get a fair chance on stage against actors who are, fair enough. But if it’s a tool for a more culturally sensitive production, there’s really only one option open to you: pick another musical. Sorry.
Special mention: Song of the South
In fairness to Rogers and Hammerstein, it could have been worse. At least they didn’t write Song of the South, released in the same year.
Disney’s notorious 1946 film is not eligible on this list because it is dunked on by, well, basically everybody. But it’s still worthy of a mention. Now, I am going to be very kind to Walt Dinsey here and assuming he did this film out of naivety rather than racism. But even so, Christ, what was he thinking? This film came out at the height of revisionist movies, trying to portray the 19th-century south as an idyllic place with happy slaves tending to the families of their white owners. Disney responded to complaints by saying that the story takes place after the civil war when slavery isn’t around any more. But that kind of misses an obvious point Walt.
The thing is, I think it would have been possible at the time to have made something quite powerful. What if the idyllic setting was just an illusion? What if between the Brer Rabbit stories, instead of twee soundbites, Uncle Remus told those two wide-eyed children that thing weren’t always good for him. Suppose we discover that Johnny and Ginny have racist parents who don’t like their kids hanging around with “one of those”? Perhaps Uncle Remus responds to the naive idea that things are okay now, by explaining there’s still a long way to go.
This is, of course, completely hypothetical. I don’t believe for a moment 1940s Disney could have pulled this off. I’m not even convinced 2020s Disney could do this – just don’t know how to mix twee with serious. But 1940s MGM did, if Peace on Earth is anything to go by. What is most frustrating is that, even without the commentary I envisaged, a beloved folk tale of black origin would have been a great opportunity for Disney to diversify its viewership if they hadn’t done it in such a cack-handed manner. Ah well, too late now.
Moral: always listen, when the people you’re trying to cater for are telling you it’s a bad idea.
10. One Man, Two Guvnors
Right, now it’s back to ruining your favourite films and plays for you. One Man, Two Guvnors is, in fact, something I once gave a good review to. But that’s when I was more easily influenced by other people’s views and less confident my own hunches. I more I think about this now, the less enthused I am.
Comedy is subjective, and I’m not going to berate anyone for having a differing sense of humour to me, but what really unimpressed me was the 100% fabricated audience interactions. James Corden or Rufus Hound spontaneously laughing and reacting to someone holding up an hummus sandwich would have been a great moment of comedy for those who were there. But scripting it and putting plants in the audience just cheapen what plenty of great comedians do naturally all the time. I’ve seen the same semi-improvised show twice and been amazed how well the comedian adapts – compared to this, what was the point? Heck, it even devalues the performers who played to rowdy audiences in Carlo Goldini’s day.
However, the thing I was really put out by was the plant during the kitchen scene. I don’t understand what this was supposed to achieve. We were supposed to know she was a plant and all of this spontaneous reaction was in fact staged? If so, that again undervalues the countless comedians who do the real thing? But if we were supposed to believe that’s a real random woman from the audience? Most comedians know when to stop when someone from the audience is getting distressed, and spraying a fire extinguisher in front of a guffawing crowd is just nasty. Sure, it wasn’t a real audience member – but we were encouraged to laugh as though it was.
To be honest, I didn’t think it was that good a retelling anyway. The overall concept of One Man Two Guvnors was good: transplanting the setting of The Servant of Two Masters to the criminal underworld of 1960s Brighton. But for an update that keeps the characterisation of the original and doesn’t reduce them to one-dimensional caricatures: the Lee Hall version is vastly superior. Richard Bean’s version was more like a pantomime. And if you like pantomime-level humour, go to a pantomime.
9. The Imitation Game
Now, if you’re new to my rants, you might be assuming that as I’ve mentioned I’m neurodivergent, I must have a problem with Rain Man. I’m actually completely fine with it.* The question over whether autistic actors should play autistic characters is a red herring; the big choices of how a character is portrayed are made by the writer and director. James Baskett didn’t stop the tactless portrayal of black people in Song of the South; why would you expect any better here? By the still-not-that-enlightened standards of the 1980s, Rain Man was ground-breaking: it portrayed somebody autistic as a human being to be understood with his own wants and needs; and it recognised that neurodivergent people can have phenomenal talents. In my opinion, the problem came with the success of lazy copycat films that followed.
* Note: I don’t have a problem with Rain Man but I understand why a lot of other people do. If you cherry-pick my opinion to imply that all dissenting opinions are invalid, that’s tokenisation. And you can fuck right off.
The Imitation Game, I believe, is one of the worst offenders for lazy copycat behaviour. Not a direct copycat of Rain Man as such, but still a copycat of uninspired tropes that shouted HEY EVERYBODY THIS CHARACTER IS AUTISTIC, NEVER MIND ANYTHING ELSE, THIS IS THE DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC. The real Alan Turing probably was autistic, but the vastly superior Breaking the Code didn’t resort to stock traits: he was writing as a human with his own a set of strengths and weaknesses first, and a neurodivergent person a long way second. The most jarring bit isn’t stock autistic traits, but his naivety the the face of officialdom and believing that wouldn’t see his sexuality as a big deal. All of this is erased in The Imitation Game, and instead comes a checklist: Turing was bullied at school; he doesn’t notice someone flirting with him; he was an asshole until he learned to work with his colleagues.
All of which would have been fine if this was accurate to Alan Turning. But there have been numerous complaints of this film playing fast and loose with history. (I’m not a historian so I can’t verify what’s correct, but even I could details in the film that didn’t make any sense.) And if we’re calling bullshit on their version of historial events, I’m calling bullshit on their depiction of Alan Turing.
Unfortunately, the normies fell for it. Because they assume was have tears of gratitude for seeing people like us on screen, the film was praised to the rafters. Sadly, I don’t see any sign of this “we know what’s best for you” culture changing in the arts. In the meantime, my advice to anyone writing neurodivergent characters is to write them like any other characters, with their own hopes and fear and quirks and strength and weaknesses. For all the criticisms of the film, Rain Man got it. The Imitation Game didn’t.
Possibly my most heretical entry yet, but I think John Orton’s seminal work is massively over-rated. It was lauded as ground-breaking and boundary-pushing in the days of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, and it probably was. However, what was innovative and edgy back then now just comes across as tasteless for the sake of tasteless. Jokes about Police corruption and the Catholic Church might have been taboo-smashing once; nowadays these jokes have been done to death. Taking a corpse out of a coffin now rates alongside the humour of bog-standard gross-out movies.
Dated humour doesn’t get my ire though – it’s the trivialising of child-rape I have issues with. Apparently, Hal’s frequent visits to brothels is a yet another of brave ground-breaking boundary-pushing taboo-breaking hilarity, but this builds up to a hilarious punchline that goes to, I quote, “a most remarkable brothel, with Pakistani girls between the age of ten and fifteen. They do it for sweets.” To be clear, there is no nuance or hidden here; the line is 100% played for laughs. Apparently, child rape is funny provided its was penned by someone deemed sufficiently worthy of literary acclaim.
In Joe Orton’s defence, at the time he wrote the play we hadn’t really established where the line was. We’ve had decades of trial and error to draw up consensus on what’s acceptable and what isn’t – something that simply didn’t exist in the early 1960s other than the absurd moralising of government censors. We, on the other hand, don’t have that excuse, and yet I still see high-brow reviewers praise theatre companies for the courage to leave the line in and make the audience gasp. I am anti-censorship and pro-free speech, so you have a right to do this, but I shall use my own free speech in return to say: what the fuck is wrong with you?
Up to now, I have been net-picking. Now I start to move on to things I really have a problem with. This one encompasses two things I hate about the arts: elitism and double standards.
For all the piety over making the arts kind and inclusive to each and every minority, too many times this is principle quietly forgotten when it’s not convenient. Theatre has a horrible horrible horrible snobbery problem; nothing else, surely, can explain the reverence of Stephen Berkoff’s East. It is lauded as an exploration of the working classes, but it’s relentlessly negative: back-to-back portrayal of the characters as thugs, sluts, and racists. (Also, the record most appearance of “cunt” in a single monologue – because that’s of course how poor people talk.) Can you imagine the fury there would be if a white middle-class audience applauded to a similar depiction of black people or Muslims or Jews?
There is one important point in Stephen Berkoff’s defence: he was born in the East End of London at the height of the blackshirts’ reign of terror, and his family were Jewish. As such, I don’t blame him for having a poor opinion of his fellow East End working class. Most people, however, don’t have that excuse. Yes, I know, there’s the importance of performing old plays as the author intended etc. etc. but I can’t help thinking the real reason some people are fine with this play and not others with equally disdainful attitudes of other minorities is that they’re perfectly fine with looking down on poor people.
Okay, maybe that was harsh – but I’ve seen plenty of artists casually clump all poor people in as disgusting racists in everything from scripted to off-the-cuff jokes; it’s by no means limited to one play from the 1970s. Meanwhile, half outreach activities to working-class areas smack of some middle-class person’s pet project. And cultural elites wonder why working-class people are staying away. You only have to look at what’s earnestly lauded as working-class representation and you think: no fucking wonder working-class people think they’re not welcome.
6. Self-indulgent shittiness
I’ve refrained from naming any particular play here, because all of the offenders are small-time artists. But one thing I’m seeing more and more of is “main character syndrome”. You’ve all heard of this by now, but in theatre it goes one step further and some artists are allowed to indulge in creating a play all about themselves – the literal main character. Some artists do have amazing to tell. Much of the time, however, it’s stories as mundane as social media spats and drama school relationships, which they over-analyse to make themselves sound deep and profound. Or it’s somebody else’s story and they try to make their own incidental interaction into the most important part. Or it’s a historical event – that they had nothing to do with – which they still try to make all about themselves. Out goes how Anne Frank felt hiding from the Nazis, and in comes how I felt thinking about how Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis.
But, hey, whatever. If you don’t like the theatre equivalent of the Youtube reaction videos, you don’t have to watch it. Where I draw the line, however, is people who openly talk about shitty things they’ve done for real – which have included things as bad as low-level coercive control and sexual assault. In fiction, the most appalling things can happens to build up some believable complex characters, but applying that to yourself is a different matter entirely. It might be fine if they were truly sorry for what they’d done, but they never are. It’s all part of the deep and profound analysis of what they are. Or the fault of society in general for making them so this. Or they’ve convinced themselves that everybody does this* (spoiler: no mate, it’s just you) and they’re doing us a favour by raising awareness of it. We are of course paying them for the trouble of opening up. Please clap.
* See also: Sexual harassers who, upon being outed, say all men are like this and it’s the fault of misogynistic society for making me this way.
In case you’re wondering if I’m talking about anything I’ve mentioned on this blog, the answer’s no. But you know who you are.
Special mention: Hell’s Kitchen
I’ve restricted my list to plays and films – if I was to go into the repugnant practices of reality TV, I would never finish. I’ve mentioned Britain’s Got Talent and as an aside to I Dreamed a Dream. But shitty though Simon Cowell’s empire is to peddle the idea that it’s fine to made stupid judgements of anyone who’s different, there’s nothing I hate more than the programmes that are basically glorified workplace bullying. Yes, I am unusually protective on this subject after what happened to me personally, so sue me.
For the benefit of anyone who’s still not worked this out, the one thing common to all forms of reality TV is that they’re not the slightest bit interested in reality. There was maybe one or two series at the start of Big Brother where they just threw some people together and see what happened; now, TV executives decide in advance what they want to happen, and pull everything trick in the book to get what they want. Dishonest editing, selecting the people to appear on TV, manipulating people who don’t know what you’re doing, or simply getting someone to do something and pretend is was spontaneous, no shabby tactic is beneath them. In the case of anything with Gordon Ramsey, you are doing whatever it takes to make it look like: yes, he bullies and belittle and patronising everybody, but he always turns out to be right and you’ll thank him in the end. So that makes what he did okay.
Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of this behaviour can tell you this is all bullshit. In real life, narcissistic sociopaths in positions of authority are usually incompetent, but still think they’re always right. They have no respect for anyone else’s expertise, get angry when challenged, get furious when proven wrong, and the reason few challenge their worldview or right about everything is the threat of reprisals to those who do. They may not have studios to to edit reality in their favour, but that’s okay, because they can can just edit reality in their heads. The last thing we need is shit like Hell’s Kitchen telling them the narcissistic sociopath is the good guy.
The thing is, reality TV has been exposed as fabricated time and time again but people keep watching it. And worse, they double-down on treating the shabby fiction as truth. Some people really do go to great lengths to believe what they want to hear. I’m quite happy for viewers to persist in their delusions that Daz and Shaz really broke up and got back together over a single episode of The Only Way is Made in Geordie Shore. But as soon as we’re telling petty little workplace tyrants that their behaviour is justified, we’ve got a problem. So consider this a massive fuck you to Gordon Ramsey and everybody involved in producing those little power-fantasies.
5. Looking for Paul
Now we get into the top third, and I’m going into Mark Kermode mode, for the perfect storm of plays and films that are of both devoid of artistic value and morally repugnant, whilst simultaneously being the darling of high culture.
I’m not sure what’s more vile: the artist Paul McCarthy, or this play in homage to him. I’m using the word “artist” rather loosely here, because Paul McCarthy’s idea of art is multicoloured diarrhoea, a giant model turd floating in a river, and a video of him sticking a Barbie doll up his arse. The latter one is apparently statement of consumerist culture (and if you think he’s just an attention-seeking piss-weasel, you clearly aren’t sufficiently cultured to the hard-hitting message, and besides, he’s doing you a favour by provoking a debate on what art is). This play was five actors reading emails they were sending each other other a play they were devising, until they ran out of time and did a sequence of the end involving sticking you dick in a mattress whilst grunting “room service”, and a whole load of other stuff being disgusting for the sake of it.
What pisses me off about this piece, though, is that it embodies everything I hate about modern art elitism. The story, as far as there is one, is based around a woman who objects to a statue of a gnome holding a butt-plug being erected outside your house (because for some people “If you don’t like it, don’t look at is” isn’t enough – they specifically want things they love and everybody else hates placed in public view of as many people as possible). There’s a really uncomfortable insinuation throughout the piece that she’s the one being unreasonable and uncultured, and – hah! What irony! She gets roped in to that disgusting routine at the end that she’s visibly uncomfortable with. That’ll teach her to want to look at nice things on her street!
I know I’m wasting my breath. These elitist types get their approval and validation from each other. Okay, perhaps I misunderstood what this was supposed to mean, but with the publicity surrounding the play treating Paul McCarthy with such reverence (“Ooh, isn’t he controversial, offending all the right people!”) it really does come across as looking down on everyone who doesn’t share their superior artistic tastes. I’ll concede I may have completely missed the point of there – but there’s no I’m not watching that again to check.
4. The Patriot
Given the obvious visceral hatred Mel Gibson has for the English, it would be rude for me not to include him in my list. The Patriol is basically the same format as Braveheart: Mel Gibson is the plucky heroic freedom-fighter surrounded by more plucky heroic freedom fighters and the British Redcoast are murderous psychopaths as bad as the Nazis, if not worse, and the entire cinema is supposed to cheer every time a redcoat dies. But, whatever, Britain’s big and ugly enough to tell Mel Gibson to fuck off. I’ve better things to do than argue over that.
But what I won’t let lie is the film’s horrible horrible horrible revisionism of the slave states. There are black people in the film, and yes, they’re slaves, but they don’t have it that bad. The nice heroic freedom fighters couldn’t possibly do anything rotten, could they? No, in this film, all the bad things done to black people are by the evil British soldiers. In fact, when the military forces is assembled, the black people are perfectly happy to fight alongside the white people. Sure, there might be difficulties down the line, but let’s not worry about that for now.
Okay, I’m not a historian; for all I know, maybe there were black people in the slave states who forgot their differences and united against the British forces. I’m all for history being shown in it’s messy complicated glory. But you can’t claim you’re being nuanced against the absurd depictions of pantomime villain Nazi Redcoats. Song of the South is nothing compared to the historical whitewashing on display here.
The good news is between Mel Gibson’s obvious hatred of the English, obvious whitewashing of slavery and obvious hatred of Jews, pretty much everybody today agrees he’s a complete arsewipe. But the sentiment The Patriot taps into has not gone away. There’s still a hell of a lot of people in America who brush off all their problems with race relations, past and present, as Somebody Else’s Fault. Britain’s track record isn’t exactly spotless, but I’m pretty sure that anyone in America whose excuse is “Don’t blame us, Britain made us do it” isn’t going to be part of the solution. And films like The Patriot feed into this abdication of responsibility.
3. Torture Porn
There was a time when films such as Halloween and Friday the 13th were ground-breaking. Nowadays, they’re so predictable it hurts. Sadly, they fell victim to the gazillions of bump-them-off-one-at-a-time copycats. Gone are the jump scares, and instead it’s a predictable list of who’s going to get hacked to bits when. I admit that Halloween and Friday the 13th didn’t help themselves by sequelling themselves to death with increasingly predictable installments, but the jump scares are gone. The sole selling point of slasher flicks today is a list of formulaic death scenes. Heck, there’s even a predictable set of signs used for when the next death scene is coming up.
There are exceptions, and there’s many ways of doing horror – even the bump-them-off-one-at-a-time brand – that is engaging, or at least not totally predictable. Most sadly don’t. That’s not a way of getting on this list – if I had a problem with everything that was formulaic and predictable, this list would never end. But the thing I’m not comfortable with is the rise of films such as Saw and Hostel, which are sticking with the bog-standard bump-them-off format, but adding in unnecessary graphic depictions of unnecessarily painful deaths.
I think my issue here is what the purpose of the grisly violence is. Most plays and films work by making you care about the outcome. A depiction of a sadistic murderer can make you want to hope the latest intended victim survives. Or make you hate him so much that you really really really want him to get his comeuppance in the most grisly end imaginable. The difference with torture porn – and there’s no doubt what the publicity is pushing here – is that this film make you really really want to get to the next grisly murder, just because. Sure, depiction is not endorsement, but when graphic depiction of painful death light entertainment, that excuse starts to wear thin.
Yeah, I know. We’ve had this debate over and over again, and so for the link between violence in films and violence is real life hasn’t been proven. Until then, I have no option to accept this has to be allowed in the interests of freedom of expression. However, I also have freedom of expression, and I am using it right now to ask: what the fuck is wrong with you?
2. Cruel Intentions
This one is a bit different. In all of the other play and films, my opinion ranges from indifferent to utter hatred. Well, I liked Cruel Intentions. But there’s one bit of the story that, the more I think about it, is morally indefensible.
The equivalent scene in Dangerous Liaisons is not comfortable viewing. In what version, Vicomte de Valmont is a sexual predator taking advantage of naive and sheltered Cécile. We can argue over the ethics of the 1782 novel, but that ultimately leads to his downfall. In the 1999 film however … it’s played for laughs. Sebastian make Cecile promise a kiss, but then says “But I didn’t want to kiss you there, I want to kiss you down there … a promise is a promise.” But Cecile turns out to be sexually repressed and likes this sort of thing. So that’s okay then, I guess.
So why have I put this one so high up on the list when there are a plays and films I hate a lot more, containing material I find more far more reprehensible? It comes down to the question I always ask about objectionable material: “What harm has it actually done?” Some of the things on this list are ill-advised, some are hypercritical, some are vile, but at the end of the day, most of them are pretty harmless. Maybe repeated exposure to multiple films saying the same thing might have an influence on attitudes, but nobody’s going to construct an elaborate torture/death machine because they watched Saw.
I’m not sure that excuse washes here. Intentionally or not, the message this bit of the film gives is 1) If you try some dick you might like it; and 2) you might be doing a prude a favour by introducing her to this. I’ve heard this and other material brushed of as the bad things only happening to people who had it coming, but how exactly does Cecile deserve this? Just because her mother’s a bit of an arse? More to the point, has it not occurred to anybody what the real-life effect of this might be? I’m the last person to conflate offensive with harmful, but I’m really not comfortable with the message that if you force someone into sexual activity under duress, she might thank you in the long run.
A pity, because had they stuck to the original story more closely, there would have been no need to frame the story that way. Sorry to ruin your favourite cult film, but I can’t see any way around it. If anything’s going to cause harm for real, it’s the message that it’s not rape if she discovers she likes it. I hope I am wrong, because I don’t like to think what’s happened if I am right.
Ken Loach. Ken. Fucking. Loach. Not sure what’s worse about Ken Loach: his flagrant bigotry, or the queues of artists clamouring to defend it.
There’s plenty of documented incidents that smack of racism, but nothing is so blatant as the play Perdition he directed for the Royal Court in 1987. This claims that contrary to the official version of event, Jews in America secretly collaborated with the Nazis to get European Jews exterminated. So that the everybody would feel sorry of them, and created support for Israel. The play got cancelled (I’m anti-censorship but if anything’s going to change my mind it’s this one), but the fact this was ever considered suitable for mainstream theatre is absolutely shocking.
I shouldn’t need to spell out everything that’s wrong with this, but given the length people are going to evade this discussion, here’s what’s being excused:
- It’s HOLOCAUST REVISIONISM. Literal fucking HOLOCAUST REVISIONISM The same thing every anti-racist campaign rightly accuses the National Front and BNP of doing which puts them beyond the pale. You couldn’t have a more blatant case of “Okay when we do it.”
- The rhetoric in the play reads like a deranged far-right agitator spouting Jew-hatred. Or far-left. There’s not really any difference.
- There’s also references throughout the play to “words as hard as nails” and “you crucified him”. Anyone who’s been paying attention for more than eight nanoseconds knows that anti-Jewish fanatics are for some reason obsessed with insinuating Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.
- Ken Loach has since tried to downplay this as an impartial discussion of an undisputed historical facts of what happened in Hungary in 1944. That’s not true, it’s disputed heavily, plenty of people think the truth is twisted out of all proportion. But regardless, the writer Jim Allen was clearly not up for an impartial discussion – he considered the play, I quote “the most lethal attack on Zionism ever written, because it touches the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust.”
- Jim Allen’s source is regurgitation of Soviet anti-Jewish propaganda, which was all the rage for several decades after world war 2.
Now, I haven’t read this, and it is just about possible that this has all been taken out of context and misunderstood. There might somehow be an explanation for point 1-5. But you should, at the very least, realise that people are going take it face value, find it racist and take offence. This leads us to number 6:
- Ken Loach has repeatedly dismissed complaints against the play as politically motivated. Yet again – and I don’t know how many times I have to say this – you absolutely do not do that. Even if the people complaining hate you and have something to gain from calling you a racist, that does not mean their offence wasn’t genuine. If you think this is acceptable, fuck you – you’re no better than the cops who accuse black people of harbour grudges against the Police when they complain.
Ken Loach is beyond redemption – he’s always known exactly what he’s doing and he’s never going to change. What’s worse are the scores of high-profile fans. The difference between him and fans of other controversial authors is that whenever anyone says Roald Dahl or H P Lovecraft was a horrible racist, his fans say “Yes, we know.” But separating the art from the artists isn’t good enough for Ken Loach fans – the moral purity of his work must be defended at all costs. #IStandWithKenLoach they tweet every time this or one of his many other appalling acts of racism is brought up – but they never engage with the criticism, they either dismiss it out of hand or ignore it.
The only sort-of defence I have for the people defending Ken Loach is that I don’t believe they are racist – just spineless and hypocritical. The obvious pattern I’ve seen is these contemptible responses is that they blatantly didn’t even look at what the problem is – just praise Ken Loach’s noble work, as if this relegates all criticism to unimportant trivia. But people like that are the reason the Harvey Weinsteins of the world got away with it for so long: countless people had been alerted to what was going on, but they didn’t want to know and did everything to pretend it was all fine.
Alternatively, if you’re a Ken Loach fan who got angry with my suggestion you’re looking the other way, there’s not many other options. Either you’re perfectly fine with racism when the perpetrator is somebody you do like, or you’re perfectly fine with racism when the victims are people you don’t like. Both of those are beneath contempt. Alternatively, if you wish to argue it wasn’t racist – and in the process explain why anti-racist campaigns have been getting it wrong all the time and there’s nothing wrong with groups, far right and otherwise, peddling Holocaust denial – be my guest.
If there’s one thing putting this list together has shown me, it is arbitrary moral standards embedded in the arts. There is furore over some relatively minor incidents overstepping the line, with everything from boycotts to demands of cancellation thrown at it; but other incidents that are equally worse – or far far worse – are ignored, or tolerated, or even protected. Sure, everybody has different things offensive to them personally, but the trends seem to have little to do with what’s the important to take a stand again, and what’s fashionable to take a stand against. Nothing else can explain why something as appalling as Perdition is accepted by the mainstream.
If you have a problem with what I said in items 16 to 2, I’m happy to debate it. If you take exception to 1, fuck you.
And that’s it. I’m done.