Critiquing American culture is tricky for people in the family newspaper business, especially this week as two controversial movies open at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
I shall try to be discreet.
One film, "Hounddog," involves the rape of a child, starring 12-year-old Dakota Fanning. The other, "Zoo," concerns, how to put it: an equine brothel wherein certain activities lead to a curious death. (You might want to hold the Shredded Wheat. While you're at it, cancel lunch.)
Zoo" is based on a real-life incident in Enumclaw, Wash., in 2005, and stars oh, who cares? Suffice it to say, what we have here is a man, a horse and a barn.
The world is not bereft of disturbed people, some of whom apparently find pleasure in the intimate company of stallions. When one such disturbed fellow died from internal injuries suffered during the pursuit of whatever! investigating police discovered a trove of depravity.
Hundreds of hours of videotape revealed that not one, but several men had found unusual companionship in the stud barn.
So much for plot.
More compelling than the depths of man's degeneracy is our cultural rationalization of "art," whereby pushing the envelope is confused with genius and scuttling The Last Taboo is seen as an expression of sophistication.
In interviews, both filmmaker Robinson Devor and THINKfilms distributor Mark Urman have emphasized the film's universalism. Urman says the film is "a universal look at what goes on behind the facade of everyday, quotidian, normal American middle-class life."
Devor admits that the protagonist "seems like an oddball at the outset of the movie" (ya think?), but the filmmaker is trying to reveal "the human capacity to do the most awful things, chart(ing) the journey of this unhappily married man who began to explore sexual alternatives, as so many do."
Ew-kay. We all understand unhappy marriages and the quotidian life grabs me every time I'm in the Piggly Wiggly checkout line. But is Mr. Ed the only refuge for thwarted man?
Forgotten in all the lofty talk about universal themes, testing thresholds and the artful treatment of this forbidden subject is the logic of taboos and boundaries. In most cases they exist for good reason evolved over time in the service of civilization.
The filmmaker's ultimate justification for laying it all bare is the human factor, which in this case seems overrated. Whatever one's moral objections, says Devor, these men are "still people. They are still us. ... It's sad."
To each his own tearjerker. Caligula, I hear, had a rotten childhood.
The same taboo-busting impulse drives "Hounddog," wherein we witness a real 12-year-old portray a girl waking up as her naked father climbs into bed with her; "dancing" in her underwear while lying in bed; and getting raped by a teenage boy.
We are, in other words, voyeurs to a young girl acting out a sexual predator's fantasies. If we have a problem with that, we're told these are real issues that beg honest exploration. No, amend that. We're lectured by a 12-year-old, who, we're reminded, is a sophisticated actress.
"You know, I'm an actress," Fanning patiently explained to The New York Times. "It's what I want to do, it's what I've been so lucky to have done for almost seven years now. And I am getting older."
Does anything quite equal the ennui born of being scolded by a too-precious child?
Far be it for anyone to suggest that adults know more about such things than children. At least some of them do. Fanning's parents support their daughter's decision to play the rape scene, noting that this could cinch an Oscar for the child star.
Even Marc Klaas the ubiquitous been-there father of his murdered daughter Polly has given his nod to the film, vouching for its sensitive, supportive treatment of Fanning.
Only the actress' face is shown during the rape scene, which reportedly has been tastefully executed.
It's hard to get enough of tasteful rapes, I admit. Unless you're a real child rapist, the bunch of whom doubtless will be sufficiently stimulated by Fanning's rape-face, as well as her panty-dance and her little visit from bad Daddy.
But it's Art, so relaaaaax. And it's real, so get with it.
And it's the last taboo.
Until the next one.