There were two big stories that emerged from Hollywood this week. The first was the release of the first trailer for Bruno
, Sacha Baron Cohen's newest movie creation, a highly offensive faux documentary about a gay Austrian fashion critic
The second was the release of Keira Knightley's new ad about domestic violence.
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Now these two videos have very little in common. Cohen's trailer is an outrageous piece of shock theater. Knightley's ad is a public service message designed to raise awareness of domestic abuse.
But what both have in common is a willingness to cross all lines of good taste and judgment.
It's unfashionable these days to question artists' taste. The phrases "good taste" and "bad taste" seem to be out of style - we're no longer allowed to ask whether pushing the envelope is morally questionable, or whether art can better flourish within particular limits. We're all supposed to buy into the idea that there's a constitutional right to broadcast shows like Real Sex
on HBO (there isn't - the founders would have thrown the creators and purveyors in prison), and that censorship of such material is far worse than public airing of such material (it isn't - did the country really suffer when hard core pornography had to be bought on the black market?). We're never supposed to question whether limits - even voluntary limits -- ought to be placed on raunchy or sadistic material, particularly when such material is the subject of comedy or announcements of societal import.
Watch the two videos. Then tell me whether the public wouldn't better be served by artists using some discretion.
Let's start with the Cohen video. There's no question this is incredibly disgusting material. Some of it is hilarious, no question. But it's not exactly good taste to show a naked busty dominatrix whipping a faux gay fashion designer.
Now there are those in the comic community who think that shock value is a good substitute for actual humor. In fact, there are those who think that all of the best humor has to be shocking by definition. Perhaps I'm more old-fashioned in my definition of comedy, but I believe that some of the best comedy doesn't break boundaries - wittiness can be as funny as a fat hairy naked guy running around a hotel. And not only that -- comedy can question beliefs and parody points of view without forcing the viewer to retch. Classic screwball comedies are still funny today. And Lenny Bruce and George Carlin aren't the beginning and end of all comedy.
Then there are the "public service announcements." Try these on for size:
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If these don't gross you out, you've been watching far too much Dexter
. Businesses focus on workplace safety because they're afraid of being sued, not because they watch ads that feature dudes with poles sticking out of their chests. Men who beat women aren't going to stop beating women because they see Keira Knightley getting kicked in the stomach - in all likelihood, they'll beat women more
, fantasizing about Keira Knightley. Pushing positive messages isn't any more of a justification for showing unbelievably graphic material than doing comedy.
If this makes me too Puritan, then I guess I'm too Puritan. I'm not saying that Sacha Baron Cohen isn't funny. He's hilarious. Borat
was hysterical when it wasn't grotesque. But I don't think the question "is this good for our society?" ought to be completely ignored just because someone utters the word "art." I don't think shock value is the only value. Sometimes shock value is worthwhile (The Last King of Scotland
) and/or funny (Tootsie
). But not all the time. And I fear that when we lose sight of the fact that there are values other
than shock value to be considered, we surrender to the basest instincts in both art and politics.