Earlier this week I was talking to an old friend about movie ratings. He mentioned that on military bases movies were rated in pre-MPAA rating days—something with which I was unfamiliar. I don’t recall the rating system (though he detailed it for me and since he did spend some time growing up on such bases, I figure he knows this stuff first-hand), but I was interested to note that one of the “forbidden” movies was David Swift’s Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963). What slightly surprised me was my immediate response, “And so it ought to have been,” and the realization that I find this movie offensive.
Oh, sure this film version of a pretty popular Broadway play raised some eyebrows 46 years ago when it came out—mostly on the grounds that it depicted an unmarried couple (Carol Lynley and Dean Jones) living together before marriage. That’s old hat now and it certainly has no bearing on what offends me about the film with its story of a womanizing lanlord (Jack Lemmon) attempting to satisfy his libido by renting to hot girls. Even that doesn’t enter into my distaste for the movie. No, it’s mostly a question of tone.
I say “mostly” because a different part of my brain is offended in quite another way by the ghastly early 1960s production design and I don’t think I’ve ever sat through anything with a Frank DeVol musical score where I wasn’t cringing with almost every note—at least those scores that are meant to be comic. This, however, is an equine of a different hue. What offends me far more is the leering, smarmy, smutty tone of the whole thing. There’s something distasteful about the way it reduces sex and sexuality to 110 minutes of blue joke that hasn’t the courage of its convictions to be openly vulgar.
See, I have no problem with the openly vulgar or the overtly sexual—hey, I gave five stars to John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006), a film that includes hardcore pornography. And let us not forget I was upbraided for recommending (also with five stars) Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education (2006) and thereby trying to corrupt innocent Hendersonvillians by promoting a movie that was “non-stop sex between two men.” (I would be interested to see the film the reader saw, because it sounds a lot more rooty tooty than the one I saw.) This in fact gave rise to that fine phrase “We are not all Cranky Hankes”—something for which we should all be grateful.
The difference with a movie like Under the Yum Yum Tree—and, for another random example, the Bob Hope picture I’ll Take Sweden (1965)—is a sense of adolescent sneaky-mindedness of the hubba-hubba school that makes sex and sexuality feel “dirty.” It’s like Beavis and Butthead laughing and saying, “He said ‘penis.’” In another sense, it reminds me of Helen Broderick in 50 Million Frenchmen (1931) commenting that she’s already seen some supposedly risque Parisian nightspot by saying, “That wasn’t shocking, merely biological.”
I realize that this is an unusual kind of being offended. Most people bump into these movies on TV and think nothing of them, but they genuinely offend me. Knowing this, I passed the question over to Justin Souther and asked what offended him. His response? “Will Ferrell movies.” OK, I can see that, though I’ll exempt Melinda and Melinda (2004), Stranger Than Fiction (2006) and, to some degree, The Producers (2005), but I think a distinction needs be made between “Will Ferrell movie” and “a movie Will Ferrell is in.” Regardless, it wasn’t the answer—or the type of answer—I was looking for.
I’ve watched various levels of offense over the years where movies are concerned. I remember the 1967 reviews for Casino Royale were liberally peppered with charges of vulgarity and tastelessness. I saw a woman who was offended to her very soul by the sight of Julie Andrews and Paul Newman in bed in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966). Why? She found it indecent that the woman who played Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965) should be depicted in this manner. (And people wonder why the tough-talking, drinking diva Andrews of Star! in 1968 was a box office disaster?)
I once saw four people get to their feet (one gasping, “My God!”) and storm out in a body the minute the 10-foot-penis showed up in Ken Russell’s Lisztomania back in 1975. (A movie that Rex Reed assessed on a talk show with, “It’s got full-frontal nudity and everything. It is filthy.”) Me, I was astonished that anyone dared to do this—and a lot of other things—in a movie that was playing in multiplexes. I was also delighted by its daring and creativity. And I was not in the least offended. While I admit that I didn’t actually ask the folks who stalked from the theater—perhaps they’d just remembered a mah-jong tournament they were missing—I feel moderately safe in assuming that they were not pleased.
More recently, there were massive (and to my mind wholly deserved) walkouts by offended patrons during the Tom Green atrocity Freddy Got Fingered (2001). (In fact, its tag line, “This time you can’t change the channel,” overlooked the rejoinder, “No, but I can walk out of the theater.”) And even more recently, I saw numerous people bail on the Coen Brothers’ remake of The Ladykillers (2004)—and not because they were offended by any transgressions it made on Alexander Mackendrick’s original 1955 film. No, they were horrified by the language—which mostly means they were horrified by Marlon Wayans (which might be understandable in a different way).
Yesterday I saw four people—two groups of two—depart District 9 because they found the movie “disgusting.” That’s an assertion that leaves me scratching my head, but in both instances that was the reason.
I was once castigated for giving Kung Fu Hustle (2004) a recommendation. Why? Well, because it was “disgustingly violent.” I was then assured that others had felt the same and had walked out. This doesn’t jive with any experience I had observing audience response, but he was offended enough for everybody, I guess. The fact that all the violence in the film was deliberately cartoonish and modeled after the sort of thing you see in an old Warner Bros. cartoon either escaped his notice, or it cut no ice with him.
On the other side of the coin was one of my favorite encounters with a reader—probably because it didn’t play out at all the way I was expecting. A very well-dressed woman—business suit, stylish coiffure—came up to me and wanted to ask me something about my review of Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). Judging by the way she was dressed and everything, I figured I was in for it over my five star review, but what could I do. Then she asked me, “Why do you think the two main characters couldn’t stand to be around each other after they wound up in bed with the same woman?” I was almost too stunned to answer, but replied that I thought it was because they’d crossed a line with each other that they were uncomfortable with, and that seeing each other reminded them of this. She thought about it for a minute and said, “Must be a guy thing. When I was in college that sort of thing would happen with women and no one thought anything of it.” This lady immediately became a friend.
Clearly what appalls one person is no big deal to someone else. The thing that most baffles me are parents who want to know if a movie is OK for their offspring. On more than one occcasion—after trying to dodge this question, since I don’t know their offspring—I’ve explained that a movie is very violent, that there is a lot of gore and gruesomeness, etc., only to be asked, “But is there any sex or nudity in it?” When apprised that, no, there isn’t, they’re completely satisfied that its alright for their kids to watch it. This seems a bit twisted to me, but there you are.
So I throw the question out for general discussion—what offends you in movies?