Thursday, September 2, 2010

The redemptive power of bad taste

There's no debating it. Kick-Ass (2010) is in bad taste. Which is not to say that it's not good, or that it's just naughty. It is truly transgressive, in a way that art needs to be on a regular basis. It's not in bad taste in a Judd Apatow-Kevin Smith-let's-make-fart-noises-with-our-armpit-in-church sort of way, a child's rebellion. It is part of the barbaric yawp of a generation arriving, and the older generations that protest are suffering from memory loss.

Let's face it: film art is born in the horrifically bad taste of the racist Birth of a Nation. In the early 30's, films were so offensive to some that the Production Code began to be enforced, which tamped down some of the most egregious examples, although some low-budget crime films such as Born To Kill and Detour still manage to be somewhat repulsive. Then came films such as Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole, Baby Doll, Psycho, Dr. Strangelove and Bonnie and Clyde, all arguably in very bad taste. My romance with this breed of film began with The Producers which seems so mainstream now, but is based on A Joke Which Must Not Be Made back in 1968. Then M*A*S*H, A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance each set off a firestorm over allegedly bad taste. The Exorcist brought horror into the mainstream (before then, nobody would argue whether a George Romero movie was in bad taste--it was supposed to be), and the debate escalated.

In more recent years, the debate has swirled around movies like Kill Bill and Fight Club; and they become definitions for a generation. If you like this movie, you "get it." If you don't, you don't. It goes along with texting and Facebook, it becomes part of the ethos of our time.

Cards on the table--I'm squarely middle-aged, I could see that Fight Club was in bad taste, and I didn't like the film in spite of its bad taste; the bad taste was an inseparable part of the quality of the film. Perhaps I'm not a very nice person, but I was hooked from the very idea of using cancer support groups as a place to pick up dates. Now THAT's bad taste!

Bad taste is not to be confused with tastelessness. Sex and the City 2 is tasteless. The Expendables is tasteless. Everything on MTV is tasteless. Tastelessness is not transgressive, it's just unaware. It's not only unaware that there is such a thing as bad taste, it's unaware of good taste. Bad taste knows exactly what it's doing--it hears to grown-ups shouting "Don't go there!" and that's exactly where it goes.

So Kick Ass exemplifies both naughty-kid bad taste and let's-kick-down-the-wall bad taste, and it's got a lot of people excited. Probably most offensive was the indefensibly bad language used by Hurt Girl, an adorable 11-year-old poppet, in particular a single word which is used casually in Britain, but which is unspeakable here in the States. (I am delighted to read that not only does Chloe Moretz, the actress who plays Hit Girl not speak that way, she was not even comfortable saying the title of the film!) Most commenters have been somewhat less disturbed (and perhaps exhilarated) by the sight of a small 11-year-old girl wielding enormous weapons and causing grievous bodily harm to a large number of cartoon bad guys.

To be offended is to miss the point that (a) these are the defining characteristics of Hit Girl--and she is terrifying; and (b) she is the product of sustained child abuse. She has been raised by her father for his own purposes, not for her own good. She is the product of a twisted need for revenge, and if she were not shocking, then revenge would seem to be natural and good. Co-screenwriter Jane Goldman said in an interview for the Creative Screenwriting podcast that some of the studios that turned down the film in development wanted Hit Girl to be a sexy 18-year-old. But an 18-year-old is making her own choices, and this would make ultra-violence, sexy, liberating and a valid choice; as it is, the violence is sick and twisted. One is grateful ***SPOILER ALERT*** for the death of her father, for that is the only way she will be able to purge the poison from her system.

I suppose the survival of Chris D'Amico will permit the sequel project to be fueled by revenge--one wonders how long this particular dog will hunt. We all want to see Hurt Girl again, but that might not be a good idea. After all, when everyone asked Shakespeare to bring back Falstaff after the success of the two parts of Henry IV, he wrote one of his worst, most flaccid turkeys, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

There have been a lot of successful comic book movies before, obviously, and many of them have made big marketing splashes at Comic Con. Kick-Ass seems to be the first big movie made expressly for the Comic Con audience. It speaks directly to them about their preoccupations. Not only that, but in the fight that leads to the capture of Big Daddy and Kick-Ass, director Matthew Vaughn has reproduced the actual look of modern comics better than anyone has done so far, especially with the literally alternating light and black panels. Never has a film seemed to so literally have filmed the storyboards--but in a good way, not in a stilted Alfred Hitchcock way.

If you don't like Kick-Ass, and a lot of good and decent people don't, it doesn't automatically make you a grouchy alteh kockeh. But you just might want to check and see if you have become one while you weren't looking.

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