Perhaps a cliché now, but at some point in your life you will have been told or heard a phrase like ‘This isn’t the movies’. It, of course, eludes to the difference between what’s shown on the big (or small) screen and reality. Generally it’s used because events that transpire in films would, 9 times out of 10, play out very differently in reality. However, there is another angle to consider: maybe a difference exists because there are some things that don’t belong on the screen or in fiction. This October, controversial film writer and director Todd Solondz introduced the world to his debut play: Emma and Max. The director tackles issues of racism in his newest venture and has often depicted dark topics such as paedophilia in his films. He is not the only filmmaker to attract controversy, which presents the question of whether there is certain content that simply does not belong on screen.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Solondz addressed his approach to these dark topics, saying that he “want(s) to play with things that are charged. You have to take those leaps otherwise you get work that isn’t interesting”. His play Emma and Max, put as bluntly as possible, addresses a white couple who want to fire their ‘taciturn Barbadian’ nanny despite their guilt. However, this is barely shocking compared to Solondz’s other work, such as his 1998 film Happiness which focuses on various oddball characters with disturbing traits. One character is particularly dark; a paedophilic father who has an obsession with his son’s pre-pubescent friend. The film features an uncomfortable exchange when the boy confronts his father, in an incredibly disturbing attempt at humour. While some might argue that people now are just too ‘politically correct’, I stand by my view that this is the kind of thing that is just too offensive. Despite receiving critical acclaim at the Cannes film festival, Universal Studios dropped the film because of the content. Whilst there are critics who have praised the film, claiming that it is a challenging and thought provoking black comedy, Happiness seems more dark than funny. The comedic attitude with which topics like these are addressed is what pushes Solondz’s films too far beyond the line.
As previously mentioned, Solondz is not the only contentious filmmaker. Academy award winning screenwriter and director Quentin Tarantino, whose work consists of the iconic Pulp Fiction (1994) and Reservoir Dogs (1992), is no stranger to such attention. One of the criticisms is his use of the ‘n-word’, with his 2012 multi-Oscar winning western Django: Unchained holding the record for the most uses of the n-word, totalling at 116 times. Leonardo DiCaprio was reportedly uncomfortable with the harshness of his character, slave owner Calvin Candie, however co-stars Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson convinced him to continue. This particularly heavy use of offensive racial slurs is partially understandable because of the setting of Django: Unchained in the pre-civil war climate, where racists like Candie were all too common. The film still received criticism; a notable example was director Spike Lee who reportedly labelled the film “disrespectful to my ancestors” and also tweeted: “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them”. Without a doubt, Tarantino’s use of the n-word is a controversial topic. His later western The Hateful Eight (2015) used the word over 60 times and it also features in his most popular film Pulp Fiction where his own character, Jimmie, uses it repeatedly. When he defended his use of it, he reportedly explained that: “No word deserves that much power. I’m not afraid of it. That’s the only way I know how to explain it”.
The scrutiny of Tarantino’s work is of course different from that of Todd Solondz’s, however, the moral debates they trigger have similar roots. Is it acceptable to put these controversial topics on screen? Is it raising awareness or insensitively trivialising? These two are of course not the only ones who attract attention. The very public firing of James Gunn from Disney and Marvel for his controversial tweets grabbed headlines while Jared Leto’s antics in-character as the Joker on the set of 2016’s Suicide Squad raised questions regarding method actors. Some things simply don’t belong on screen; Solondz’s Happiness is one of them. However, filmmakers like Tarantino are more difficult to completely condemn. There is clearly a problem with where the metaphorical line in the sand is, and with that comes another question, who decides where that line is?
Image Courtesy of Stumped Magazine