It’s Sunday, September 13, and here’s where we are…
I was 18 years old in the spring of 1988. I was just about to graduate and I was working at a movie theater and a video store, making sure I had all of my movie needs satisfied. I already knew that I’d be attending Florida State University in the fall, and as part of my preparation, there was a weekend visit to the school arranged for a number of us from my high school.
During the visit, we were walking through the student union, and I was excited by the atmosphere in general. There was so much going on, and I wanted to jump in and be part of all of it right away. As we walked by the auditorium, a guy approached our group and asked us if we had a moment.
“Have you heard of a film called The Last Temptation of Christ?” he asked.
My buddy who was with me for the tour grabbed my arm because he had a pretty good idea of what was about to happen. By that point, I was already rubbed raw from conversations about that film, and it wasn’t even set for release in the US until August. As soon as the film began production in late 1987, though, the controversy began to percolate, and it was a concentrated, orchestrated effort to derail this film as it was being made. I would love to know at this point who it was who first started to organize those efforts because it was an incredibly effective and damaging campaign they ran.
We started getting phone calls and letters as early as the end of 1987 from people who told us that they would never come to our theater again if we booked the movie, and at first, my manager dealt with every one of the phone calls personally, rationally, doing his best to explain who Martin Scorsese was and how the novel was well-respected and how we would treat this like any other film and absolutely none of it mattered. People lost their fucking minds at him. They ranted and raved and told him detailed lists of all the sins the filmmakers were committing. Keep in mind, this was for a film that was still being shot. Somehow, fundamentalists all over America were suddenly twigged into every detail of the production of a Martin Scorsese film shooting in Morocco, and they knew exactly what we were going to be showing and they weren’t having it.
Keep in mind, this was after an earlier version of the film had been boycotted out of existence before it even started shooting at Paramount. Scorsese had to cut his budget in half to make the film for Universal, and even then, every step of the way, there were people trying to prevent the film from being finished. My manager got tired of dealing with the complaints, and he made the decision that I could handle them, and I could handle them any way I wanted. I was bulletproof, and I got lots of practice explaining to these people exactly why they were wrong and why we would not only gladly play the film but that we didn’t want anyone who would support the censorship of the film to attend our theater. They were welcome to fuck off across time and space, and I couldn’t have been happier about telling them exactly that.
So when that guy stopped me on the FSU campus, he thought he was going to get us worked up by telling us about this awful movie that was trying to “kill Christ again,” and instead, I basically stood there tearing him a new asshole in the middle of his face until he decided to leave the campus for the night. I wasn’t going to let him misrepresent something he hadn’t seen to advance a false agenda, and I thought it was particularly offensive that someone would show up on a college campus, a place people go to better their minds and expand their knowledge, just to peddle censorship based on fear.
There are issues facing us right now, as a global community, that are urgent and genuinely worth focusing our time and attention on as much as possible. There are also larger issues that are difficult to discuss because of how nuanced they are. There are children around the world who are in urgent danger because of government policies and also because of human cruelty, no question about it. And our culture absolutely soaks our children in inappropriate sexual imagery and expectations in ways that should disturb any parent trying to raise someone. It is genuinely problematic. I say all of this as preamble to saying that I am not surprised by the phony controversy that has embroiled the film Cuties, but that I see it as part of a cycle that plays out over and over.
As with The Last Temptation of Christ controversy, much of the conversation that you’ll find on social media right now is from people who haven’t seen the film and who are discussing individual scenes or ideas that either don’t exist or that have been described in a way that removes context and that exaggerates for outrageous effect. There’s a significant difference here, though, and it’s the reason the conversation gets so heated so quickly right now. It’s one thing to rile people up using their religious beliefs as a weapon, but it is particularly loathsome to see a fake controversy that pivots on people’s natural fury about pedophilia. No one in the Cuties debate is pro-pedophilia, just as no one in the conversation about James Gunn’s firing from Disney was pro-pedophilia, and merely having to clarify that shows you what a dishonest moral argument they’re using here.
Cuties, or Mignonnes as it was released in France, is a beautifully directed film that is smart and human and deeply moral. It is a film that tells a story from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl who is torn between cultures and between what is considered acceptable in the secular world and what are considered the values of her community. It is no more pornography than the books of Judy Blume were, and framing any conversation about the film as a conversation about pornography is pathetic and dishonest. You are welcome to any reaction you want to have about the content of the film, but I would wager that any parent who watches the film who is raising a child of any faith in America will recognize immediately how honest and real this movie is.
Did Netflix fuck up with their marketing materials for the film? Absolutely. I think there were horrible decisions made and I do think they did the filmmaker a huge disservice in the process. Their poster for the film was a tone-deaf example of the exact thing the film is pushing back against, and if your only problems are with the way the film was sold, have at it. But marketing is not the movie, something we seem to have an increasing problem with understanding, and in this case, it’s important to draw that distinction.
There are times I wrestle with what content to share with my sons who are now 15 and 12 years old, and often, when I think about what I might or might not show them, I have to remember who I was at that age. I think of 15 as incredibly young now when I look at my son, but when I was 15, I thought of myself as “basically an adult,” and I had a complex and real emotional life. I was 15 in 1985, and our culture was incredibly sexualized. There was pressure on me from my peers and from pop culture to be sexually active in my teens, and that’s not a healthy thing. The truth is though that our peers are as much a part of how we are raised as our parents are, and in some key ways, they’re more important. Our parents can only supervise us to a certain degree and at some point, we are independent people, something that is terrifying for every parent to accept. America invented the teenager, this extended adolescence, and part of the weird thing about teenagers is how they exist in this space in between children and adults and how poorly defined that space really is. It’s hard enough navigating the moral landscape of American culture without throwing in the difficulties of being part of a faith that is at odds with mainstream values. It’s one of the reasons Hulu’s Ramy is so compelling. It does a terrific job of expressing all of the tensions of being a Muslim in modern America.
Cuties is set in France and deals about the Sengalese community there, and that’s such a specific set of cultural signposts that any conversation you want to have about what the film’s saying has to start with acknowledging all of that. Maimouna Doucouré has a terrific eye for experiential detail, and that’s one of the keys to making a film like this work. I think directing a great movie about young people is difficult, because most young actors aren’t emotionally mature enough to give you what you ask for directly. Instead, directing young actors is almost akin to a game. You have to figure out how to get to the thing you’re looking for without the real experience, particularly when you’re shooting difficult or demanding material. Doucouré does great work here finding ways to convey dificult ideas, and she’s done so with a great deal of careful respect for her cast. This entire young cast gives honest, unaffected performances, and the film honestly paints the difficulties of dealing with all of these pressures and expectations at an age when, honestly, most of these children are still just children.
That’s the ultimate point of this film, and the closing images here make the entire film’s thesis beautifully clear. The final shots of this little girl’s face, lit from within by joy as she jumps higher and higher, free for this one moment from all the weight of adulthood, are absolutely wrenching. It is a film I would show to any young woman who is navigating this same landscape, and I think there is real beauty and power to the way Doucouré expresses these emotions. It’s also worth noting how much of this “discourse” is really just white Americans, manipulated by craven public figures, telling a Sengalese French woman that her experience, honestly expressed, is not only invalid but offensive. Shame on Tusli Gabbard. Shame on Ted Cruz. Shame on Tom Cotton. Shame on everyone who is piggybacking off this genuine work of art, using the very real spectre of child endangerment as a false front when all they’re really doing is distracting us from the things that actually matter. Honestly, the way conspiracy theorists are using this cause right now is doing far more harm than good.
You want to address these issues? Turn your attention to the pageant industry in this country and dismantle that. Those are real children who are actually being exploited. Look at the reality TV industry around the pageant world. Dismantle that. Go deal with the real problem and then I’ll believe it matters to you. But when all of your anger is reserved for something like this, and when most of the people who are angry refuse to even see the thing they claim is so dangerous and offensive, it’s clear that information is the real enemy in our culture right now.
I’m going to leave it there this week, and I’m making the Sunday Spotlight free this week as well. Normally this is for subscribers only, but I’m hoping people will share this as this ugly conversation plays out this week.
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Let’s wrap things up with my weekly round-up of all of the media I’ve seen ingested since last Sunday morning.
As always, any titles in bold were particularly enjoyed.
THIS WEEK’S BOOKS: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson; Tales From Development Hell by David Hughes; Bullet For A Star by Stuart M. Kaminsky; The Invention of Sound by Chuck Palahniuk; Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones
THIS WEEK’S COMICS: Batman: Three Jokers #1
THIS WEEK’S TV: The Umbrella Academy S2 E10; The Golden Girls S1 E8; Arrested Development S2 E2, E3; The Vow S1 E3; Love Fraud S1 E2; Schitt’s Creek S5 E2; The Venture Brothers S1 E1; The League S6 E3, E4; The Boys S1 E7, E8; Ramy S2 E1; Columbo S7 E1; Star Trek Lower Decks S1 E6; The Twilight Zone S3 E1; Ted Lasso S1 E1, E7; The Mary Tyler Moore Show S1 E19; The Jefferson S6 E18
THIS WEEK’S GAMING: The Avengers; Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1+2
THIS WEEK’S MOVIES: Tin Cup; Best In Show; Feels Good Man; Now You See Me; Marie Antoinette; Hail The Conquering Hero; Tougher Than Leather; Blue Velvet; 21 Up; Bill & Ted Face The Music; The Kids Are Alright (1979); Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole; U2: Rattle and Hum; Now You See Me 2; Rushmore; Destroy All Monsters; Air Force One; Paycheck; The Good The Bad & The Weird; Blow Out; The Creature Walks Among Us; Tricky Dicks; Good Morning Vietnam; Cuties
Image courtesy of Netflix