Thursday, 17 July 2014

When is a Film a Product of its Time?

I still stand by my claim that this is a better boxing film than Raging Bull

When you run a blog like mine, you sometimes have to deal with angry comments. There are definitely a few areas where I've made some controversial remarks, and it's not surprising that I may have struck a few nerves along the way.

I have yet to hear any angry comments from fans of Tarkovsky's Solaris criticizing me for saying that the remake with George Clooney was better, or even any of Godard's fans accusing me of being an idiot for saying that Alphaville had the most pathetic vision of the future ever put on film and that he is a horrible director.

Where I have gotten lots of feedback, however, is with regards to my comments on James Bond. The article Why do People Like James Bond? was only my fourth published article on this blog and yet it still remains the most popular. Apparently controversy sells, and I've certainly gotten plenty of that.

I've found a handful of people who agree with my stance that the James Bond franchise is sexist, others who see where I'm coming from but who try to enjoy the films anyway, and the die hard fans who stubbornly try to defend it. Believe me in this business there is nothing more frustrating than trying to explain to a die hard fan why the Bond franchise is sexist, because no matter what points you make they will just repeat the same arguments, fling insults at you, and at best completely miss the point of what you're trying to say.

I've already had one person try to defend the rape scene in Goldfinger by saying that it wasn't presented as a rape scene as if that somehow made it okay (that's exactly the point, they were trying to make a horrible act look charming). I've also had someone try to break it down and argue it wasn't a rape scene, and then demand that I explain how it was (Bond forces a woman to have sex with him, I'm pretty sure that's the basic definition of rape). I've also had idiots who have stubbornly tried to deny the allegations I have made, instead opting to fling insults at me and claim that my statements about the Bond franchise have no basis and that I'm the idiot.

This is the hero, everybody, and people still try to defend him.

Now, for the more civilized fans I have argued with, there are two big rebuttals I've heard against my comments. The first is "Bond is supposed to be the ideal male fantasy", and the second is that "it's a product of its time." There is a slight problem here, and I'd say that these arguments actually conflict with one another, but we'll get to the specifics of why later on.

Just what does it mean for something to be "a product or its time"? Well, in my experience, that usually means quite simply that the work in question was made at a time when people saw the world much differently from today. In particular it usually implies that people had different ethical standards at that particular point in time: something considered acceptable back then is repulsive by modern standards and vice versa.

So to provide a straight forward example, blackface (a white actor donning obviously fake makeup to play a black character) was considered perfectly acceptable in early 20th century filmmaking, but try doing it today and you'll get into a lot of trouble. The only occasions you might be able to get away with it is either in parody or in a period piece set at the point in time, and even then it might be difficult.

By contrast, as I have discussed previously, there was a time when movies were not allowed to so much as acknowledge the existence of homosexuality. While it's still a controversial subject, the regulations aren't as strictly enforced and movies are no longer bound by a strict code, which has allowed some filmmakers to depict it. If you tried to make a movie like Brokeback Mountain, Blue is the Warmest Colour, or Mulholland Drive during the Studio Era, you'd be shot down within seconds of pitching the script.

Even if you did somehow manage to convince the studio, you'd have to change the ending. Imagine a version of Brokeback Mountain which ends with Ennis "learning his lesson" and being "cured" of being gay. It certainly wouldn't be the same movie. In fact the obviously homophobic tone would be incredibly offensive nowadays. At the same time, the ending actually used in the film would have outraged audiences during the studio era.

Now, considering we are slowly evolving from a centuries-old society that until fairly recently was rooted in misogyny, racism, slavery, homophobia, and lots of other horrible things, it's not surprising you sometimes have to understand that when looking at material from certain points in time. That's not to mean you should outright ignore anything that seems offensive, just understand that's it's only that way nowadays. 

In some cases you can take on the slightly more optimistic approach, understanding the negative stuff but finding one little positive aspect to consider. H.P. Lovecraft is a great example: on the one hand he was an extreme racist, on the other he supported woman's rights. His opinions could be seen as extremely progressive or horrendously dated depending on which side you look from.

Looking at this angle in a cinematic sense, you can find plenty of examples. Conquest of Space seems to imply that female astronauts don't exist. That's not a very pleasant image nowadays, but on the other the one Japanese astronaut is depicted as a competent professional and more or less equal to the otherwise all-white cast, not bad for a film released in 1955.

The key word here is understanding how people saw things back then. It's likely that they couldn't have seen where their society would go. After all if they had there wouldn't be so many science fiction movies that imagine the perspective of the 1950's still holding up in the distant future. To them, that's just the way things were. There was never any intent to offend. Conquest of Space wasn't trying to be sexist in its vision of the future, it's just that in the male-dominated society of the time, the thought of women being astronauts probably just never crossed the minds of the filmmakers.

That's the thing with a lot of works that are "products of their time". Shakespeare probably didn't write The Taming of the Shrew with the intent of creating something extremely sexist. He was writing at a time when it was literally illegal for women to even perform in the theater, after all, and stories like that were quite popular, so he probably just never considered the implications of his narrative. 

Same deal goes for Birth of a Nation, which D.W. Griffith never consciously intended to be racist. He even tried to redeem himself when he found out precisely the implications of his movie. This would be a film where you'd have to take into account the circumstances surrounding its production, but what if we came back to James Bond? Is Bond a product of its time?

Well, according to a lot of the die hard fans, yes. They insist you have to put yourself in the shoes of the time period to appreciate the films (at least, assuming these aren't the kind of fans who will try to outright deny the existence of any offensive content in the franchise). However, as I said before, there is the argument that Bond is supposed to be the "male fantasy". 

First off, I don't know how many men in the 1960's actually fantasized about doing the kind of stuff Bond did, but when you get down to it, the argument is justifying the Connery films being sexist. To bring it into some simpler terms: the films were intended to be that way. The writers consciously wrote their scripts knowing full well that they were extremely misogynistic, but made no effort to do anything about it.

So which one is it? You can't have it both ways. These are the two biggest arguments I get and they essentially cancel each other out. To be a "product of its time", the work can't have been made with the intent of being offensive. The artist wasn't consciously trying to be sexist, racist, or homophobic, they just didn't know any better due to the standards of the world they lived in. 

However, according to this argument, Connery's Bond films were consciously intended to be sexist, so I'm sorry but that argument can't help you. Bond is not "a product of its time" but rather the product of misogynistic screenwriters who knew very well what they were doing and made no effort to fix it. To me, that's even more offensive.


  1. I'll start with the fact that I'm a Bond fan, but not a die-hard. I can freely admit that it is a sexist franchise. However, that's only one of the many flaws. To be honest, most of them are things I didn't realize until I got older. By that time, I had literally grown up Bond flicks. I hate to date myself, but my mom actually took me to see Moonraker on the big screen. Granted, I was a child so I may not have had privy to such discussions, but women didn't seem to have a problem with him so in my childish mind he was fine. The biggest complaint I ever heard about Bond was that it was too unrealistic. That was usually spoken with regards to the action and the gadgets, two things I couldn't get enough of back then.

    As I grew older, I started to notice more of those things. My outlook on life formed and reformed several times over. I watched tons more movies. Aside from that the Pierce Brosnan Bonds hit and the series went full on cartoon which irked me. Still, there was always that nostalgic aspect of it that kept me giving the franchise a pass. As illogical as it seems, "but it's a Bond flick" is the standard excuse in my mind. It's "supposed" to be like that. Sad, but true.

    As far as the filmmakers go, I think both being a product of their time and a male fantasy do apply. If you watch the old ones, there are lots of things that go on that just wouldn't fly if the movies were made today. It is also male fantasy because it's all about saving the day and getting the girl. True, some of the specifics have been unsavory, like the rape in question, but the overriding theme has remained the same. So I don't think lots of men (or boys) sat around fantasizing about raping women, but they did wish to be the hero with the hot babe. The rest is just details they can fixate on or ignore at their leisure.

    Should the powers that be have changed things sooner? Sure. Why didn't they? Some of that responsibility has to fall on us, the movie going public. Just as they are, we're talking some hugely successful movies as far as the box office goes. Right or wrong, people making money hand over fist have little incentive to change the product that's lining their pockets. Is that a poor excuse? Yup. It's still absolutely valid because that's the way business works. Come up with an idea and sell it until you can't make money from it.

    That brings me to the Daniel Craig Bond flicks. The three of them put together are really a deconstruction of the franchise. Casino Royale and Skyfall make particularly pointed commentary on the character and his place in the 21st century. This is why I like them far better than the older pictures in the series. Are they perfect with regards to sexism? No, but they're far more enlightened than anything else in the canon. Why have things suddenly moved in this direction? It's simple, the Bond franchise was falling out of favor at the box office. They still made money, but the tide was clearly turning away from them. Again, sad, but true.

    Sorry for my rambling comment, John, but you've got a really interesting article, here. By the way, there is a long, complicated history of black actors donning blackface also. Very interesting topic to read up on. Not long ago, I read a book on it myself, but the title escapes me at the moment. I'll post it when I find out what it was. For a movie modernizing this issue, see Spike Lee's Bamboozled.

    1. Really? I thought blackface was something that was purely done by white actors. I've seen one hilarious instance where in a parody of the whole thing a black actor donned whiteface but Bamboozled sounds like a strange take on it.

      With regards to your Bond comments, I guess I can see where you're coming from. One comment I have heard on why so many people still enjoy Connery's Bond is that they get distracted by the crazy gadgets and attractive women and don't think too much about the underlying implication. I could especially see that affecting children of the time period.

      It it is any consolation I have recently been considering giving the Craig films a chance. I managed to find a low-priced copy of Casino Royale, which I've been told gets better about the issues of sexism (and makes a heck of a lot more sense than the 1967 version). I know they were getting better about it during the Prosnan Era and if it is as good as people say I might write a follow-up discussing how I felt about it.

    2. The short version of black actors in blackface is that it was the only way black performance troupes of post-Civil War America would be accepted by white audiences which is where they made more money. The audiences enjoyed the performances that, like the white troupes, approached plantation life from a heavily stereotypical viewpoint. In blackface was an extremely viable way for black performers to achieve financial success throughout the Vaudeville era, only really falling out of favor during the Civil Rights Movement. The book I mentioned in my other comment is "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop" by Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen.

      Sidenote: the gentleman in blackface in the pic in your post is himself African-American. His name is Bert Williams.

      As for Daniel Craig's Bond films, I highly recommend them. They really are an examination of everything about the character and a humanization of him. Sure, there's outrageous action and even "Bond girls" (almost no gadgets, though), but it takes the franchise in a completely introspective direction. I thought Casino Royale was good, Quantum of Solace was 'meh', and Skyfall was downright brilliant.

    3. Really? With all the layers of makeup I never would have guessed that there was an African American under there.

      I'll probably take it in steps. I think my best bet is to just start with the first big Craig film (Casino Royale, plus it was a review of that which got me thinking about this in the first place) and see how I react to that. If it's as good as people say I'll try out the other two.