Brutalized by Art

A couple nights ago, I went to see a showing of Boys Don’t Cry. The producer Christine Vachon was in town and had a Q&A after the show. I hadn’t seen the movie before and in fact didn’t even know what it was about. It came out during my no R movies days and when it got a lot of attention, I filed it away, remembered that if I ever did start watching R rated movies this was one to see. My piety/movie philosophy did not last so long and when I read about this screening I decided to go.

It deserved its R rating. It knocked the shi* out of me.

For those of you who don’t know, as I didn’t, it’s about a transgendered girl going to guy that was raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993. The rape and murder are both very graphic and the pain you feel for Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena is ferocious and excruciating. My friend had to leave during the rape scene it was so much, I stayed but cried that angry, wounded heave that accompanies such human tragedy. It put me in a pretty severe funk.

During the Q&A, someone remarked that critics have said that 3 movies brutalize the audience: Monster, The Passion of the Christ, and Boys Don’t Cry. Ms. Vachon replied that Brandon Teena was brutalized and that this movie gives the opportunity for his story to be told. I expected that answer but the brutalization observation was right on. Monster and the Passion were too much for me. I had to turn them off, but I stayed, I don’t know why, for Boys Don’t Cry, but it did hurt me, it did brutalize me.

My friend wishes he didn’t see it. He wishes I had kept my no R rated movies rule a little longer so we wouldn’t have seen that. I have mixed feelings about my viewing of it and here’s why:

Though I do watch R movies now, I’m still pretty particular. Images stay with us a long time, and because art and particularly movie art does have the capacity to brutalize us I am very careful of what I see. Life is hard enough, there seems to be little reason to add to the hurt life already heaps upon us. Plus I just hate trash (that leaves out many PG-13 movies for me) and I don’t want trashy memories in my head. And though some may disagree, I do not think it is necessary to know the evils of the worldto produce empathy and mercy .

I also think it’s very important to hear and feel other people’s stories. And of course I don’t mean Chicken Soup for the Soul stories, I mean the things in life that have hurt us, changed in ways that we can’t understand, or shown us the world is too complicated for binaries. I have my own stories, and while it took me a long time to be able to tell them, telling them has been relieving. A load off. Having people hear them, read them is a balm of Gilead. I work out those stories in my writing and I frame and reframe the actual experiences. I’ve had a lot of response through the years to the stories that I write, some good and some bad and to be honest, I only get my feelings hurt when people say it’s too much and too hard to read so they don’t, because I had to live it and write it, not just read it.

I suppose this is partly why I don’t want to have a rule for myself that I never watch R movies, because I want to know other people’s stories. I want to know what really happens in the world and I want other people to know that I can hold their stories. However I don’t want to be hurt every time I read or see a movie. I can’t hold all the stories, no one can and how can anyone (read: me) judge about what’s the appropriate amount of hurt to be able to tolerate in what we read or see? Sometimes that makes me want a hard and fast rule (no R movies ever) because like I said before there’s enough pain in the world why risk exposing myself to more?

I’ve decided that it’s what I want to know these kinds of stories and so I’ll watch them, read them, but I’m not always comfortable with the choice I’ve made. Sometimes it hurts.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    It’s funny you should mention this, Amri, because last night I half-watched the E True Hollywood Story on Hilary Swank (I was switching between that and something else). I was reminded that I have never seen that movie, but I have wanted to for some time. I’m waiting for it to show up on my cable’s on-demand list.

    (Personally, I love going to the movies, so I see a lot of them, many of which are R. I don’t pay any attention to the ratings whatsoever. More helpful to me are critics’ reviews, which I allow to sway my choices a fair bit.)

  2. D. Fletcher says:

    I also cannot watch The Passion… and I haven’t seen Monster. There are some other movies that brutalize the audience. I can never watch Reservoir Dogs again.

    Boys Don’t Cry is more powerful as a documentary, in my opinion.

  3. MikeInWeHo says:

    It’s different for everybody. I found Saving Private Ryan much more brutalizing than Boys Don’t Cry, for example. The single most upsetting movie in my memory is old Mel Gibson film Gallipoli, which is rated PG. So go figure.

  4. Kevin, I love E True Hollywood Stories. One of the reason I miss cable. Anyway, I recommend Boys Don’t Cry but the rape scene is pretty powerful, just FYI. Like you, reviews do more for my picking process than ratings but sometimes I don’t see some movies that I know will be too much for me, and then I kind of feel bad. It’s all very complicated.

    D.– Monster’s first rape scene was too much and I had to turn it off. Boys Don’t Cry was very good. I just cried a lot over it. I had a transgendered roommate a bit like Brandon so maybe that’s some of why it hit me so hard but boy did it pack a wallop.

    I am strangely drawn to the sadness/darkness in art. My mom is mystified by, but I prefer it to a movie or book that’s going to make me feel good about the world. I’m a weirdo.

  5. Mike–I agree. Sometimes it totally depends on my mood as to what is way over the top for me and what isn’t. Another reason I’ve given up my ratings piety.

    Tidbit: Christine Vachon said that the movie was originally called Take it Like a Man (much more brutalizing than Boys Don’t Cry in my mind) but Boy George had just written his memoir and and gotten it optioned. They fought to keep the title. The Boy George movie never got made and Vachon was mad but I’m glad. Take it Like a Man? Whoa.

  6. I didn’t watch the Passion because I don’t need a semi-educated action hero guy to tell me about Jesus.

    Platoon was too much for me, to be honest, so I did not see Saving Private Ryan. Though it was not the violence of Platoon but the breakdown of discipline among senior NCOs and their willingness to murder subordinates that shocked me.

    On the other hand, I do value Killing Fields. For many people such movies will be the only exposure to the the realities of totalitarianism. Of course, it is more worthwhile to read Archipelago Gulag or The Children of the Arbat.

    Speaking of reading, it was actually a book that gut punched me the most: the account of the Katyn massacre. I felt sick for more than two weeks. I had to keep thinking about the fathers who had been massacred and their children whose letters had been hidden in boot and clothing seems.

    There are R-rated movies that are wonderful such as Amelie. The bottom line is that the rating system is not very useful. It’s pretends to be empiricist but is really just stupid.

    I am not sorry to have read the book that gut punched me. Life is not pretty. However ugly, the truth shall set us free.

  7. I don’t normally watch R rated movies, with very few exceptions. (Amistad being the only one that comes to mind, which I own an edited version of, but have no idea what is edited out).

    I was really grateful for the edited movie movement in Utah while it lasted, and am sad it is over. But I don’t think I’d watch a movie like Boys don’t cry any way. I can hear the story or read the newspaper article and get all the details I need on something like that.

    Incidently I used to be against the no R policy. The movies that changed my mind were seven and dogma.

    And so no one thinks I am a horrible person for abstaining from R rated movies, deep down inside, my favorite movie is still Army of Darkness…

  8. Thomas Parkin says:

    Agree with Kevin – I let word of mouth and critics influence me far more than an arbitrary rating. Life is R-rated – at least mine is, and I don’t think we, or at least I, have the option to cloister ourselves away. that doesn’t mean we have to let trash pass through our transit – but then I always wonder why anyone would want to.

    My favorite movies include classics like Dr. Zhivago, which romantisizes adultery. I adore David Lynch’s Mullholand Drive: made completely of unconscious material, not just dream-like but actually a dream. And many others that I would never recommend to a general Mormon viewership – mostly out of consideration of my own reputation should the recommendations be taken. These movies have had an impact for good on me, because they have helped educate my soul on questions of good and evil, in other words reality. They are _true_. (It doesn’t follow that just becasue something is true it needs to be said, at any time or in any way. I wonder about the neccesity of unrestrained portrayals of rape, for instance. I appreciate Amri’s use of the word “brutalize.” And there are other movies that have artistic merit, but still have a low appeal. Say, the voyerism that is at the heart of Silence of the Lambs.)


  9. I don’t want to see brutalization or violence for the sake of brutalization or violence. To me, The Passion of the Christ crossed a line where the violence seemed porn-ish (i.e. fetishistic, something to get off on, etc.) instead of instructive. However, I realize that line will vary for everyone.

    Boys Don’t Cry and Monster did not cross that line, in my opinion. Both were wonderful movies, and I’m a better person (more understanding, tolerant, compassionate, etc.) for having seen them. I’d add The Accused, Monster’s Ball, Breaking the Waves, Requiem for a Dream, Bully, and many others to that list. I recognize such movies are difficult to watch, but like Amri, I want to see, feel, and experience other peoples stories. Most of us will never experience these kinds of situations first hand (or even second hand via a friend or family member), but someone is experiencing them, and it is important for us to understand their experience.

    Yes, I feel pain from such vicarious movie experiences, but I ironically feel a sense of love and spirituality too — it is by sinking to such depths in the case of the above-mentioned films (or rising to such heights in the case of other films) that I feel most connected to the very soul of humanity. Most of the middling, two-dimentional PG fare you see in multiplexes these days just can’t do that.

    Mother Theresa’s story should be told. Emma Smith’s story should be told. Plain Jane Doe’s story should be told. But we must also tell the stories of Brandon Teena and Aileen Wuornos. To understand ourselves, we need to see and understand both the triumph and tragedy of humanity.

  10. Matt W., I continue to think that Dogma is a moving statement of sincere faith. It’s a cliche to note that people’s response to art varies, yet it does vary.

    While we’re on the subject of brutal but vital art, can I point out that it doesn’t need to be explicit to be devastating? Neil LaBute’s first film, In the Company of Men, isn’t explicit at all (in any way that I can remember) but it is flattening. Likewise Todd Field’s In the Bedroom (one of my favorite films of the decade, which I will probably never watch again).

    I don’t really know what any film is rated, so I can’t specify, but I know that there are PG films that I find equally as devastating as any of the ones mentioned in this thread.

    Some films, however, are grim and horrifying without a real point. In this category, I’d mention Mystic River. The thing to watch out for, in my view, is confusing the merely vicious with the truly powerful…

  11. IMO we can learn a lot more about what’s going on in the world by visiting the sick and the afflicted or those in prison or by caring for the fatherless and the widow than by watching “brutal” movies.

  12. I have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to movies. One film that really killed me though was Osama. At the end this brave little girl is married off to this vile, dirty, polygamist Taliban sheikh. Innocence lost. Just depressing. But I’m glad I watched it.

  13. JNS, not only does people’s response to art vary, but so does there consideration of what is art.

    That said, I was a huge fan of Kevin Smith before I joined the church, I even had the Mallrats poster to prove it, and still like him as a person, I just can’t watch his films and feel comfortable about it.

    As for Dogma, I loved the platypus disclaimer, but beyond that, it just wasn’t for me.

  14. Okay this might sound totally crazy but sometimes I think the reason I like movies that brutalize me (or are v. sad, dark etc) is because of the Messiah mythology I’ve grown up with. I believe Jesus could atone for me partially because he understood me perfectly. He understood not just the death of a parent but for me the death of my parent. And I’m trying to be like Jesus. I sometimes feel that any depression I have felt directly teaches me about my dad and produces a deep mercy and any salvation that families contribute to each other. So in that way I appreciate depression. Similarly I like art(film, books mostly) like this because I feel like it makes me more like Jesus.
    Weird, I know. I don’t have have a Messianic complex (I don’t think) but I am pretty steeped in this mythology.

    Also JNS I agree that you don’t have to show everything but part of the reason Boys Don’t Cry was so effective was because it did show a lot. I’m still undecided as to is necessity but I felt pain.

  15. Nancy Meyers‘ pictures brutalize me.

  16. I’m not comfortable applying the word “brutal” to many of the films being discussed in this thread. However, I realize it is probably more a case of semantics (definition, meaning) and personality (the different ways we react to something) than a misapplication of the word. To me, “brutal” films are movies like Saw and Texas Chainsaw Massacre and movies of that ilk. Having seen none of them myself, I guess I could be wrong, but the clips and trailers I’ve seen lead me to the “brutal” conclusion. That such movies are meant to be “entertainment” is hard for me to understand.

    The two movies that really affected me growing up were Deliverance and The Deer Hunter. I admired both films, but have no desire to see either again. I don’t regret seeing either movie, but the rape scene in Deliverance and the russian roulette scenes in Deer Hunter upset me. Each movie showed me depths of depravity I think I knew existed in theory, but had never imagined so vividly.

  17. Matt,
    Texas Chainsaw is a modern classic.

  18. A thing of beauty and wonder.

  19. amri, enjoyed your post. i also watch a lot of those dark movies. dear sick nietzsche argued that we need to experience tragedy in art because it is how we live out our own fear of tragedy and death. though I’m no nietzsche devote (is it one e for men or two?), i think that’s right.
    i still remember when you had me watch Liza or Eliza or whatever, the movie with seymour-hoffman sniffing fuel as his life collapses. not sure that it was sufficiently well done to scar me. One movie that scarred my wife but I found riveting was Nostalghia, Tarkovsky’s pseudo-Italian film at the end of his career. We had to walk out of the otherwise incredibly powerful Chrystal (billie bob thornton in a sundance film from a couple years back) when it reached the obligatory graphic rape scene.
    I personally think that graphic rape scenes are generally a sign of inferior narrative skill, the cannons of the 1812 overture. Any such scene will revolt and brutalize an audience, regardless of the elegance, skill, or power of the surrounding story.

    Re: the R thing, I personally think there should be many different ratings. The main rating I would like to see is “insipid garbage,” in which I would place the majority of R and PG-13 and probably PG and come to think of it G movies. Then you could have different other types of ratings “super sexy, not great for people with sexual dysfunction or addictions”, “too violent, not great for people in the NRA.” There is more to us than simply our age, and the current rating system misses that entirely.

    I let my wife screen the critics usually in hopes of minimizing the insipidness scale and avoiding gratuitous sex and violence. the only time the “actual” rating comes up is when we’re inviting Mormon friends to join us. I haven’t watched Schindler’s List yet because I can’t imagine that Spielberg could offer other than over-sentimentalized, exploitive schlock to a horrifying chapter in human history, and the clips, reviews, and descriptions have done nothing to suggest otherwise. My skin crawls when that film is used to argue against the Mormon R prohibition.

  20. Anon for this comment says:

    Thoughtful post, Amri.

    Certainly hearing other people’s stories can open us to the empathic experience of imaginatively entering their world and inhabiting their viewpoint; an experience that can increase and deepen our compassion.

    There are, however, some kinds of traumas, those I’ve lived myself, that I cannot watch dramatized. There is no way to be truthful to the trauma and the distortion is disturbing. Further, even the most inaccurate portrayal forces me to remember and partly relive what I want most to forget.

    I wonder if war veterans can sit through graphic war movies?

    Those who have been brutalized by life perhaps have less need to be brutalized by art. I’ve never felt the need to apologize for my polyanna film preferences. I go to the movies to laugh, to fantasize, to escape, to dream.

    I agree with Jack that the real life hard work of visiting the desperately poor, the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned . . . will do more to increase our compassion than a film will, however “sophisticated” the cinematic offering might be. Reading is the next best choice. Film ranks somewhere much further down the list.

  21. Am I the only person who didn’t like Boys Don’t Cry? I went to see it in the theatre when it first came out and I remember it being explicit, but also so obvious–it felt like the movie that “should” change your life–burdened by its own self-importance. I didn’t care for it. But, I also can’t stand Chloe Sevigny (sp?) as an actress. Ugh.

  22. hardlyperfect says:

    As far as movies that may change your perceptions of others and help to recognize the often far reaching implications of our own often thoughtless actions…”Crash”. Hands down, the best movie I’ve seen in eons. This one will affect you…

%d bloggers like this: