Monday, 30 March 2015

GET HARD and Get Angry

“I think this would have been easier to watch in 2008.”
The moral flogging that’s greeted the release of Get Hard is less revealing of how movies have changed than of how we have. What was once accepted and ignored is now the target of op-eds like this one. What would have once been in questionable taste is now everything we are not, if we’re to be seen as good people.
You’ve probably heard at least one media outlet’s despairing summary of the Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart comedy by now. If not, I won’t sugarcoat it; there’s no way to make Get Hard sound innocent.
This is a movie about a racist white-collar millionaire (Ferrell) facing prison for tax evasion, who then, assuming that most black people in America have been incarcerated, hires his car wash’s manager (Hart) to show him preventative measures against getting raped by male inmates. In the social media/social justice age, this is what we term “problematic.”
            I can also point out that the release of every movie featuring gigantic A-list superstar Kevin Hart brings out a flurry of tweets from self-perceived enlightened white people asking, “Who the fuck is Kevin Hart?” But I won’t.
            Let’s get this out of the way: Get Hard is an ugly experience. As reasonably as one can argue that it’s actually confronting prejudices of class, race and sexuality (and again, this is only arguable), the grotesque heaviness of the subject of prison rape complicates both the audience’s will to take it all in stride as well as critics’ dismissal that it’s demanding to be taken that way.
            The truth is that Get Hard wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows ten years ago, but today, as much of the leftwing is veering uncomfortably close to the right in half-informed demonization of individuals and artworks, it’s unacceptable.
            Like many of The Nintendo Generation (born between 1977 and ’82), I’m offended by everything.
Growing up in Canada, most children’s programming taught the value of sharing through the trope of adults talking to puppets. We all assumed that when our parents went to “work,” they were meeting with their own puppet friends, the same friends who came out again when we were sent to bed.
Nineties political-correctness just seemed necessary. It never hurt the career of anyone who wasn’t Andrew Dice Clay or Rush Limbaugh, and those guys were destructive relics, so much so that if you’d been using the P.C. term over the past fifteen years, it was a pretty sure sign of a bigoted agenda. Considering peoples’ feelings is just the right thing to do. 
This is why mainstream culture in the aughts seems to me, even in retrospect, so completely beguiling. It was a notably lawless age for media entertainment, a decade so anti-human it allowed for Bumfights and the commercial success of torture porn. It was also a time when film comedy had a routinely privileged nastiness to it. Bookending the George W. Bush presidency with Freddy Got Fingered and Role Models (both interesting, superior examples of ‘00s shock value comedy), there was a furor in the air, an aura that shit wasn’t right and we were plunging further into doom.

The Obama era is more about how to rectify things, and while this is a definite improvement in terms of inclusivity and positivity, as well as in condemning prevalent hateful attitudes, and the bigotry of non-representation, we’ve covertly become hypercritical of transgression. Compassion and forgiveness, once defining components of leftist ideology, are buried by our need to react rather than heal. Feedback is instant, so comedy is fearful. Everyone wants to be “a good person,” and movies like Get Hard are important, only because we can define ourselves against them.    

This evolution of our attitudes is most apparent by how difficult it’s become to watch only slightly older movies through 2015 eyes. I screened Idiocracy (co-written by Get Hard director Etan Cohen) last week for several friends who had never seen it. One expressed discomfort with the 2006 Mike Judge comedy’s repeated use of the expletive “fag.” Context only mattered so much. The (white male) lead in Idiocracy is transported to a dumbed down future where the prevailing fratboy culture perceives his heightened intelligence as effeminate. Judge is making fun of the type of people who would denigrate others that way. My friend isn’t wrong. She’s been sensitized by internet culture, and there’s progress in recognizing when something hurts others, regardless of its initial intent.
History has made us aware that (contrary to any George Clooney Oscar speech about how Hollywood is on the leading edge) mass entertainment often lags behind cultural enlightenment. Shameful examples of blackface taint even the post-Civil Rights era, and it’s been mandatory to not take such offenses in silence. The struggle now, as it faces comedies like Get Hard, is different. The conversations on what’s potentially harmful or healing have ceased. Get Hard is vile. The internet said so.
Dismissal can be a survival mechanism. Last summer, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For was met by box office failure and reviews mentioning that its attitudes were misogynistic. The original Sin City from 2005 is every bit as retrograde. It was never any fun for me, but many of these same critics now espousing their sensitivity liked it at the time. The same brand of misogynistic dialogue and amoral graphic mutilation was recently ok with them. We don’t talk about it often, but it’s incredible how prevailing cultural attitudes have changed so much in only a handful of years. If you ever enjoyed the first Sin City, try watching it today. It’s difficult to make it beyond the 45-minute mark.
            Literary legend, and occasional social media pariah, Joyce Carol Oates recently tweeted that the scene of Jack Nicholson slapping Faye Dunaway completely soured her most recent viewing of Chinatown. The Twitter crowd that previously scolded Oates upon misunderstanding a point she was making about patriarchal world religions mistreating women quickly put Chinatown in their crosshairs.  
Sometimes we look away if it’s an artist whose work we still consume and enjoy. Collectively, we have an unspoken agreement to never acknowledge that there’s a 2008 Katy Perry song called “Ur So Gay.”

            What brought on this cultural shift? How many of us really care about these issues, and how many of us just say we do for our social advantage?
            That’s impossible to answer without offending a whole bunch of people, and I want to believe everybody’s best intentions, but the problem as I see it is this: There is not a higher proportion of intelligent people now than there was before, while the internet has expanded the public forum and deepened our loneliness and longing for human connection. For that, we seek groups that will take us. Our perceived openness to diversity has maybe shifted its aim, but hasn’t impacted our longstanding problem of inadequate empathy.
Humans, particularly in the western world, still believe in black and white notions of good and evil. It’s comforting. It’s engrained in our genome. It’s why the most successful films have clearly defined heroes and villains, and it will always be why Michael Bay’s films are more popular than David Lynch’s. We’ve widened our net of what groups are acceptable, but we’re still failing to see others as complex individuals, made up of, at times contradictory, shades of grey.
            There’s no nuance in the condemnation of Get Hard. Like people who become targets in internet pile-ons, there’s a movement to define it by only its worst instincts. But why are we so confident of its malice?
            What Get Hard is attempting to say about cultural prejudice, and with what degree of success, is less important than its easy function as an object of derision. 
Broken down on its most basic terms, Get Hard is about how Will Ferrell learns how to stop acting like a stereotypical elitist white man and learns to act like a stereotypical impoverished black man. That sounds awful, because it’s funnier to describe it so reductively, but there’s a simple, undeniable sense of inclusivity to that character arc.   
            Cheap jokes and easy shots abound, yet the film is told largely through Ferrell’s subjective sheltered bigot perspective. His worldview expands, even if in limited ways and through gags that rely on prejudicial attitudes in their audience. This isn’t positive, exactly, but that doesn’t make it completely destructive either.  
Male prison sex has been an awful comedy crutch appealing to those of low-intelligence for ages, even appearing unquestioned as the premise of the 2006 Bob Odenkirk comedy Let’s Go to Prison, and just last year in homopanic-heavy 22 Jump Street. It’s not an inherently funny subject, and Get Hard does nothing to make it seem less than repulsive (I watched most of the film through a mildly disgusted scowl). The trick is that through that intensely unpleasant focus, the panicked comedy of Get Hard actually makes prison rape feel serious and disturbing.
            I’m not excusing the film. Rest assured, I’m not even recommending it. I merely wish to highlight a hostile, reactionary habit that’s overtaken our responses to pop culture. Get Hard is a hard act to swallow in that it’s clearly about issues of race and class, even as it’s openly sexist, and too often conflates the fear of male rape with homophobia, as though they were the same issue.
            So we opt to accept none of this. (Interestingly, Ferrell’s criminal charge results in the whole world turning against him, denying his humanity like the recipient of internet shaming, condemned as thoroughly as the film of which he’s the subject.)
Get Hard never quite feels subversive, but its shocked-dismissal calls to question whether there’s room for real transgression in today’s climate. Where would filmmakers who make personal observations on society, who have things to say and to satirize, and who risk upsetting moral standards by deepening our acceptance of individual neuroses, be able to stand? The culture, on both left and right, has become condescending and condemnatory. The smartest among us have learned it’s easier to avoid social risk and ignore the political opposition altogether.
We’re terrible at talking to one another, and social media has only highlighted and facilitated this. We make no effort to “know our audience,” to try and relate by learning to speak kindly and persuasively to those with whom we disagree. We’re raging without a vision when we need an end-goal of unity. There’s an irony in becoming more aware of injustice, while conversely learning to hate one another, painting the world as an idiocracy of allies and enemies. The left is at a critical juncture. Either it acts or just reacts. Either it takes charge or remains eternally judgmental. 
I realize the irony here. I’m doing the same thing as those whose behavior I’m opposing by using this lowbrow comedy as an easy jumpoff for larger cultural concerns.  

            As for Get Hard, it just kinda sucks.

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