Art, artists and not getting the joke

(Spoilers for Kickass littered throughout, for those who care. (you shouldn’t, the movie’s nothing great)

Ever since Roger Ebert returned to film criticism after an extended hiatus spent dealing with throat cancer he’s been noticeably softer on the subjects of his reviews. He doles out four star ratings like they’re going out of style and is far, far more likely these days to give an overall up thumb than a down one. A movie really, really has to piss the guy off these days for him to pan it.

Kickass really, really pissed Roger Ebert off. Choice quote:

Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? Will I seem hopelessly square if I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let’s say you’re a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in.

Ouch. Don’t hold back or anything, Rog – tell us what you really think.

Now, this is insulting (although not to me, since I’ve never read the comic and wasn’t a huge fan of the movie), but it’s nothing really new. I’ve seen critics question, to put it mildly, the type of audience that would appreciate a film that so offends their sensibilities. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mainstream critic all but accuse the creative team behind a film of being morally bankrupt, which is what he then indirectly but, I believe, unmistakably proceeds to do.

This movie regards human beings like video-game targets. Kill one, and you score. They’re dead, you win. When kids in the age range of this movie’s home video audience are shooting one another every day in America, that kind of stops being funny.

See what he did there, invoking the proverbial/supposed cultural desensitization to violence. In not so many words he pretty much accused movies like Kickass of, if not enabling school shootings, then certainly making light of them.

Ebert’s ethical outrage stems almost exclusively from a storyline involving Big Daddy, an ex-cop who’s trained his 11 year old daughter to be a superhero. And by superhero I mean a weapons-proficient, all but unstoppable assassin; Hit Girl will fuck your shit up. She also gets fucked up herself, by a mobster who administers a pretty brutal beating at one point.

Two things with this. One is that Ebert just plain missed the forest for the trees. Kickass is a satire of the preoccupation that people like Roger Ebert have with blaming the cultural landscape for violence in our society. It shows the absurdity of young, impressionable kids actually taking their cues in real life from superheros and becoming vigilantes themselves. The film is so cartoonishly over the top in its violence and tone that for anyone to seriously make the argument that it has any more influence on the “climate of violence” than slapstick stuff from the likes of Bugs Bunny and the Three Stooges is just asinine.

Secondly, artists aren’t their art and content isn’t theme, despite our friend Mr. Ebert just about saying as much with this:

A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.

Context. You can practically *feel* his disdain for the very idea that someone would depict such images if they didn’t on some level approve of them.

Throughout my own screenwriting I’ve written a character who wanted affirmative action programs stopped on constitutional grounds. I’ve written a gay makeout session. I’ve written a character who blithely committed fraud. Trust me – getting affirmative action programs overturned, hooking up with a dude, and massively defrauding the government are not on my to do list.

Maybe the last one.

But despite not personally sympathizing with those characters and situations I did empathize with them. I tried to write them with the same sincerity I call up for characters and situations that more closely align with my personal feelings and interests, because that’s the only way a character will ever feel genuine and real. Similarly, and I could be wrong here, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that neither of Kickass’ writers, Matthew Vaughn or Jane Goldman, have any interest in seeing any child raised to be the next Hit Girl. Nonetheless, they infused the Big Daddy character with precisely that interest in the service of verisimilitude, which is necessary even in an over-the-top satire.

Look, artists of course have to take responsibility for the message their work sends. But they should also be free to stretch their creativity without the likes of Roger Ebert twisting the content of that work into misrepresenting the theme. Yes, Kickass has an 11 year old girl who spills peoples’ blood by the bucketload. But that’s only content, not a message in and of itself. The movie’s theme is not “Hey kids, do this”, but rather, “Look at how ridiculous it is when you take the ‘media violence breeds real life violence’ canard to it’s ultimate conclusion.”

That’s the joke, Roger. Lighten up.

Apologies for the sloppiness of this post. I probably bit off more than I was prepared to chew with it right now, and it’s somewhat of a disservice to a subject very much worth discussing. But hey, it’s a jump-off point if nothing else.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled pompous snark.

(I should add that, while I was very tough on Ebert here and definitely believe he’s gone soft in his criticism, he remains a wonderful and worthwhile writer who runs a far better blog than this one could ever hope to be. His recent account of losing his ability to eat really is the stuff of legend.)

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