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Movie Report: The Amateurs

Your Humble Blogger happened to watch a movie last night. Not a current movie, of course, no, but a movie. It’s called The Amateurs, it’s written and directed by Michael Traeger and it’s not a bad movie. A little slow-paced for my taste, but the cast is terrific and it’s sweet and rather funny. So that’s all right. The plot of the movie, though, wound up intersecting with some recent news, and since I was looking for a reason to link to Irin Carmon’s excellent blog post Things that look like feminism but aren’t, I think I’m going to talk about it a little bit. Caution: not entirely safe for work, depending of course on your workplace. And, um, spoilers.

So. The plot of the movie is that a bunch of guys in Small Town USA decide to make what they call a porno, by which they mean a feature-length movie with lots of hard-core sex, which will be their ticket to riches and fame. The details aren’t terribly important, but for the purposes of this discussion, it’s half-a-dozen men—middle-aged single men without daughters (one has a son)—who decide to make a movie with lots of sex in it. Oh, and it’s probably important that they have very little capital to spend. It’s important to the movie that one of the fellows is gay, but I don’t think that’s relevant to what I’m going to be talking about. You might disagree. Oh, and it’s worth saying that there are two female investors in the movie, two dumpy middle-aged women without noticeable characters (other than it being funny that two dumpy middle-aged women are willing to put up money for a porno) and who are along with another three guys not involved in any of the practical planning of the porno. It’s the six men who, and this is where I start coming to my point, have to find the performers.

Now, because the guys have very little money, and are besides that totally incompetent, they are not able to hire professionals. Instead, they look around their small town for people they know. Part of the gag is that, while all these guys are all enthusiastically pro-porn, they are also old-fashioned prudes in a lot of ways; they find it very difficult to actually ask women if they are interested in a job being filmed having sex. And another part of the gag is that they are surprised and in fact shocked that there are women who say yes. There is something deep here about our culture and filmed pornography and sex and so forth, but the movie has no idea what it is.

OK, I’m going through a list, now.

  1. Charlene, who is twenty and works at the register of the DQ-equivalent, consents. She’s not enthusiastic, but she says that she is bored out of her mind in the small town, and that she fucks around a lot just out of boredom, so she might as well get paid for doing it in a movie. Plus, the opportunity for fame and riches appeals to her—she seems to recognize that it’s a very slim chance, but she sees no other opportunities at all. She winds up not, in fact, filming a sex scene because of Plot.
  2. Ellie, who is a young woman who works in the mattress store in town, consents. The initial consent is off-camera; in a later scene she puts certain conditions on her involvement, which are agreed to. Her scene is filmed (off-screen, of course) and is watched by the six guys. It isn’t clear whether anyone else sees it. We see her afterward, and she seems pleased about the whole sequence of events.
  3. Veronica, the young woman who owns the mattress store, consents. She is actually one of Ellie’s conditions, and is in the scene with Ellie; we see her afterward, happy and with Ellie.
  4. Peggy, who is middle-aged and has a son, is approached but not actually asked when it is made clear that she would not consent. In fact, the screenplay goes out of the way to indicate that asking her to be in it would have offended her, and kinda congratulates our protagonist for backing off before coming to the point.
  5. V, who is a middle-aged (advanced middle age? Sixtyish, let’s say) stripper, consents enthusiastically. She is bored by the preparations, but appears to enjoy the activity (which happens off-screen) and shows no regret at all. It is implied that she also is a prostitute, although that isn’t made, er, explicit, but that should probably be taken into account in this particular money-for-filmed-sex transaction.
  6. Helen, who has no visible means of support, is the most interesting case. She is initially approached and refuses; in a moment of high emotion she resolves to go through with it (being in need of the money) and does so. It is clear that she feels humiliated by the whole thing, and later she asks to be removed from the film, which they do. This consent issue is complicated, though, because by the time she asks, they have already removed and destroyed the film of the scene. You see, one of the six guys is in love with her, and when he learns that she has agreed to be in it, she is heartbroken and asks for the film. They give it to him and he throws it in the fire. When she, later, hears about this, she (I guess) realizes that he really does love her, and they are married and live proverbially ever after.
  7. There is also a scene where one of the Six Guys asks a bunch of women at the beautician’s, which we cut away from, but which doesn’t result in any participants.

And then, of course, because The Amateurs is that kind of movie, the only copy of the finished porno is destroyed before anyone can see it because of Plot. So there are no consequences, properly speaking, at all.

But what interested me is that the movie can’t seem to make up its mind about porn and consent anyway. I think the movie is trying—quite rightly—to say that women who want to be in porn movies can be making the right choice for them, and that women who do not want to be in porn movies can be making the right choice for them, and that the fundamental issue is not sex at all but consent. But it cheats. It thinks that Helen and Charlene ought not to have consented, and so it allows them to not participate (or to have the participation expunged). Doesn’t that take the power of consent away from them? And once you are looking at it like that, doesn’t the movie take away Peggy’s power of consent by not actually asking her? Not to mention that (it being a comedy and all) there is no regret or remorse—other than Helen’s, where her mistaken consent is overridden. There’s no sense that women ought to make their own foolish or ill-informed choices just like human beings.

And see, this is where that article by Irin Carmon comes in. It’s one thing to have an opinion—it’s fine to have an opinion—but it’s another to disregard the choices made by the people who are actually making the decisions and living with the consequences of them. I can’t say what is properly feminist or not feminist, or what’s not feminist enough, or what’s not as feminist as it looks. But I think that if we were to get into the habit of respecting people’s choices, and supporting people’s choices over their own lives even when those choices are regrettable and wrong, then that whole feminism thing would suddenly get much, much easier.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Very nice point about the habit of respecting people's choices, and supporting people's choices as a general rule of conduct reinforcing feminist principles and practices. I wonder, though, whether our historically patriarchal society would be getting into that habit at all if it were not for feminism. The idea that it is right and proper for older, propertied white men to make decisions for everybody else is/was rather deeply ingrained. The civil rights movement, of course, has brought change along these lines at the political and social level, but the discourse of civil rights doesn't speak as much on the personal level of "respecting people's choices."

Two other thoughts.

(1) Since one of the formal principles of comedy is that people are, to a degree, foolish, but that things work out well for us sometimes despite our choices and our inability to understand the truth about our circumstances, comedy is not a vehicle that can fully explore the topic of "supporting people's choices over their own lives even when those choices are regrettable and wrong." Full exploration of that topic needs a different genre.

(2) I wouldn't argue that Peggy's power of consent is taken away because she is not asked, if it was clear within the situation what her answer would be. In some circumstances, it is essential to ask a person directly whether she or he wants to do something or not. But in a case where asking would probably be offensive and not asking would avoid giving offense, there is still such a thing as tact.


These are excellent points. And I don't really mean to say that the movie would have been better had it been more insightful or adept at dealing with the issues of consent. Or, perhaps what I mean is that had the writer been less muddled in his general thinking on the topic, I would be have been reminded less forcibly of other consent-related issues in my aggregator recently, and of my own muddled thinking in our shared muddled culture, and that would have been nice for me.

Oddly, the thing about respecting people's choices really struck me on a totally unrelated topic: the wildcat fast-food strikes. I came across a few notes saying, more or less, I support collective bargaining but these one-day strikes are foolish and counterproductive. And they may have been! But the writers seemed to be proceeding from an analytical habit that occluded the preferences of the people on the ground in favor of a pseudo-objective disinterest. And while of course one must judge between courses, once the course was decided on I felt that my support (for what it's worth) was with the workers, and that whether it was a right choice or not, it was their choice to make, and good on them for making it.

To bring it back to the movie, I do appreciate that the movie's point of view, and therefore presumptively the audience's, and in addition the character's themselves, doesn't signal a difference of opinion about the women after the choice, in either direction—it doesn't dislike the women who chose to participate or chose not to participate. I think it's guilty of a shade of paternalism (which as you say is deeply-rooted in the culture) but boy, could it have been a whole lot worse.

Thanks,
-V.


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