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Art And Whatever

Like Phoebe Maltz and Will Baude I don't quite understand what's going on in Jonathan Last's review of Closer. I'm going to see the movie in a couple of hours, so I won't say anything about Last's characterization of the film, but as he writes on his blog, Galley Slaves, "it deals mostly with Natalie Portman and the cultural legacy she's left behind." In particular, as Will says it "really seems to be nothing more than lingering fury at Portman's admittedly-chilling role in Leon." And here's where I must protest. Last's beef:

In her big-screen debut, Luc Besson's 1994 Léon, Portman played Matilda, a pre-pubescent orphan who is taken in by the movie's titular middle-aged professional killer. Matilda dresses mostly like a prostitute, with tight leggings and a black velvet choker. Trying to shock another character, she refers to Léon as her lover, before later telling Léon that she is falling in love with him. In the European release, there's a scene in which, while the two are in bed together, Matilda asks him to make love to her. In Léon, Natalie Portman is 13-years-old.
There's no explanation of what Last thinks the wrongdoing is here, but I take it the point is that it's immoral for a girl as young as this to be sexualized and especially immoral for a middle-aged man like Léon to have some kind of sexualized relationship with her. No disagreement from me there. But here's the thing -- the movie is about a professional hit man for the mafia. That's also a pretty immoral line of work. Another character is a corrupt cop. That's an immoral thing to be. Immoral characters, in fact, are popping up all around the worlds of cinema, literature, and drama. It's sort of integral to the enterprise. Sometimes these immoral individuals are pitted against clearly moral, heroic individuals. At other times, in the fictional world as in the real world, things are rather more complicated and most everyone does bad things to some extent. Weird, uncomfortable situations arise. I wouldn't describe Leon as a rigorously realistic work, but it's about seamy underworld life so the characters in it are a bit, well, seamy and underworldish. Obviously, you could make a movie about gangsters without featuring a sexualized 13 year old girl. But you can't make a movie about hit men, corrupt cops, drug dealers, and a mafia boss without something shady going down. And you can't have art -- decent art, at any rate -- if the bad guys always need to be beaten by a pure-of-heart knight in shining armor type. Plato, for just this reason, wanted to expell poets from the Republic, but we generally think that was a bad idea.

December 5, 2004 | Permalink


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Tracked on Dec 6, 2004 9:25:47 PM


Oh what a self-absorbed moron. No wonder writers are held in such great contempt. His premise has the consistancy of vapor.

In Beautiful Girls, Portman had a crush on an older guy. That's all. Nothing more. No physical contact. To him, she "tries to seduce" Timothy Hutton's character. It was cute by any standards.

I think this fellow has a few issues to deal with if that's what he's seeing in such films...

Posted by: dolce vita | Dec 5, 2004 2:49:12 PM

"There's no explanation of what Last thinks the wrongdoing is here, but I take it the point is that it's immoral for a girl as young as this to be sexualized and especially immoral for a middle-aged man like Léon to have some kind of sexualized relationship with her."

It sounded to me more like Last was bemoaning the fact that Natalie Portman, the real-world person, was 13 when this was done, not that her fictional character was. (Maybe that's what you're saying too, but it's not totally clear to me).
And that this points to something unhealthy in our society's attitude towards sex, women, etc. ... you can fill that in.

Posted by: xxx | Dec 5, 2004 2:51:31 PM

Oh grow up. As usual, you as a leftist are being hypocritical. If a movie were to portray a sympathetic racist, or a sympathetic homophobe, you and the entire chattering class would get your panties in a knot. Movies now have to have the right mix of races and genders to be acceptable, they have to incorporate homosexual characters, they have to portray women in equal or even dominant positions-there is a whole slew of politically correct blocks to check to make sure the movie world is acceptably cosmopolitan, interracial, gendered, etc etc etc. Your complaint-that 'art' demands shocking the sensibilities of the masses, is really a complaint that 'art' shock the sensibilities of the conservatives, the religious, and the republicans. You still don't get what 2004 was all about: you are the old guard now. You are the power base that is being displaced. The hippies from the sixties are old and gray-and they're not being replaced by more hippies.


Posted by: Steve | Dec 5, 2004 3:02:37 PM

In a recent interview she said that the director Nichols, out of fatherly feeling, cut the full-frontal nudity from the film. Hmph.

However. Natalie, who seems to be a very fine person (based on everything I've ever seen about her, which doesn't include any actual movies), seems to be in peril of becoming the Jodie Foster of the liberal blogosphere. So henceforth I will make my smutty comments about someone else more deserving of creepy attention. Winona Ryder, or maybe Bjork (= "Birch", BTW).

Posted by: John Emerson | Dec 5, 2004 3:04:34 PM

Steve, your ability to stay on message is impressive, but J. F. Christ! -- could you save The Moral of the Story for your grandmother, or someone who cares?

Posted by: John Emerson | Dec 5, 2004 3:07:54 PM

I read a book once that said modernism was the "idealization of the ignoble.", specifically condemning Ulysses for much of the reasons Pound was shocked by it. Currently studying Victorian Art, which had socialization purposes, and wondering if Dickens had many anti-heroes.
An interesting contrast with Leon is Taxi Driver both of which has sexualized minors.
Just last week had a long discussion of the Portman/Hutton scenes in Beautiful Girls, which are brilliant. Hutton is the problem, not sexual, but he has a Romantic/nostalgic/immature attraction to Portman. Portman of course finds it slightly flattering, but is sophisticated/mature enough to lead Hutton to a recognition that he really should just grow up. Listen to the perfectly written and acted ice rink scene.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 5, 2004 3:13:10 PM

However. Natalie, who seems to be a very fine person (based on everything I've ever seen about her, which doesn't include any actual movies), seems to be in peril of becoming the Jodie Foster of the liberal blogosphere.

Yep, she's our pin up girl.

Winona Ryder, Bjork (= "Birch", BTW)

But they're too old. Haven't you heard the new meme is liberals are pedophiles?

Besides, Natalie Portman, for God sakes, is a socialist for all our American purposes, and pretty unrepetent about it. I support changing the constitution to allow foreign born citizens be President just so that one day we may have a President Natalie Portman. I'm serious.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Dec 5, 2004 3:13:25 PM

Emerson, I always knew there was a prig in there somewhere. I am long past the point of hoping I will grow up, and reserve my Constitutional right to dirty-old-man looking, as long as I don't touch.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 5, 2004 3:23:32 PM

The Incredibles is another one of those movies where the reviewers latch on to some vague theme or small detail and blow it up into the message of the movie, totally avoiding a review of the actual movie (including scenes that totally contradict the received opinion). To most of us normal people the script writers were just ripping off themes from x-men, office space, or whatever, but you read reviews and it's some discussion of oppressive egalitarianism. Oh yeah, and f+ for mentioning areté or Aristotle and getting them totally wrong.

Posted by: Shai | Dec 5, 2004 3:26:01 PM

Obviously, you could make a movie about gangsters without featuring a sexualized 13 year old girl.

Bugsy Malone? Jodie Foster was 13 when she made that -- around the same time she made Taxi Driver, which I find pretty interesting. Because you just know that the sort of people who got all hung up on Foster in Taxi Driver probably saw all sorts of subtexts in Foster's Tallulah.

Anyway, Last doth protest too much, methinks. As does Steve, the sad, stupid fuck, who probably masturbates furiously over the 'Left Behind' books.

Posted by: ahem | Dec 5, 2004 3:56:32 PM

As a New Orleans boy, I find it strange that people in other parts of the country have difficulty dealing with idosyncratic ideas of morality.
As a N.O. grandma said about 10 years back, "You can be gay, baby, I'm from New Orleans. Gay don't phase me...You're not gay? What? An earring? No, that ain't right on a man."

Posted by: Kiril | Dec 5, 2004 4:14:41 PM

"You still don't get what 2004 was all about: you are the old guard now."

And I thought this was a discussion about movies and movie reviews.

Man, Steve, did you ever pull *that* one out of your ass.

Posted by: Joel | Dec 5, 2004 4:35:14 PM

I'm so old that Bjork and Winona still make me feel like a pedophile.

Do you think that Natalie would notice me if I did something really dramatic? Her metaphysical rejection of me is starting to hurt.

Posted by: John Emerson | Dec 5, 2004 4:35:33 PM

if theres grass on the field, play ball...

ok but seriously the entire sexuality line of 18 is really unnatural and artificial especially considering how steeply puberty onset rates have fallen in America over the last 50 years (measured by age of menarche). Thus, while 13 seems way too young to me now, in 8th grade there definitely were ppl in my middle school having sex and its time society faced up to this without the hypocritical moralizing (sadly both liberals and conservatives are super uncomfortable with teen sexuality) about 'kids' who are already sexualized...

Posted by: vik | Dec 5, 2004 4:42:06 PM

And their reviews seem to be "nothing more than lingering fury" at the stains they left on their sheets after watching Natalie Portman's films.

Posted by: Contary Mary | Dec 5, 2004 5:21:25 PM

Despite all her efforts, Natalie Portman's character in Leon never got to sleep with the hitman (who himself was a bundle of ascetic contradictions: milk, etc.) In the end, she plants his tree and grows up. So where's the contemptible message here?

Posted by: phil | Dec 5, 2004 5:28:58 PM

Didn't John Kerry... uh... win the vote of young people? And lose the vote of boomers? (presumably the domain of ex-hippies) And where are the liberals condemning Maus for its sympathetic portrayal of the racist Vladek?

Annnyway, what Last might be trying to say, is something like "sexualizing pubescent girls is more likely to make us think that there's nothing wrong with adult-child sexual relationships than sympathetically portraying hit-men is likely to make us think there's nothing wrong with killing people." I don't know if that's true, but it might be the assumption behind what he's saying.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Dec 5, 2004 5:36:21 PM

I think Last was just phoning it in. He didn't like the movie--I just saw it, and I thought it was very good--and he and/or his editors just felt the need to come up with some "conservative" way of criticizing it. It makes for a more interesting/controversial article than "the dialogue wasn't good, and Jude Law was just playing a less-spoiled version of the guy he played in The Talented Mr. Ripley" (that got a big old "huh?" from me--I've seen both movies, and didn't really notice any similarities at all).

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 5, 2004 6:14:28 PM

You don't have to enter the world of hit men and other shady underworld types to find a world of "sexualized 13 year old girls" or sexualized 13 year old boys for that matter. My son is 14, and I can assure you that by 13 - aside from whatever actual behavior they may be engaged in - most boys and girls are intensely, irreversably, ragingly "sexualized" and have already entered the confusing labyrinth of sexual desire, seduction and conflict.

Nature takes care of that. Nor is this a sign of some sort of decadent stream of modern American culture. Young teens don't need the media to "sexualize" them. For much of human history, 13 and 14 year old girls were actually considered to be marriageable. Contemporary American norms are actually quite strict about adolescent sexuality.

The gap between the age of biological sexual maturation, and the age of legal sexual majority and autonomy - a gap for which there are excellent social reasons - is an obvious source of moral, social and psychological conflict. Surely exploring such conflicts is the very point of the dramatic arts.

As for Last, Perhaps his problem is that Portman was just a little too "hot" for him in *Leon*, and that as the main character Leon was resisting temptation up on the screen, and resolving the conflict between his erotic and paternal connection to Portman's character, Last sitting in his seat felt that naughty tug of conflict within himself. Rather than abuse himself with self-recrimination - "Oh Last, Last, you're a wicked, naughty boy!" - he chooses to resent the filmmaker and the actors for arousing him, and forcing him to confront his own internal conflict between well-justified internalized social norms and a more rudimentary, less socialized, sexual response.

By the way, Portman was spectacularly good in *Leon*, I thought, and the scene I most remember from the movie is the moving and extraordinarily well-acted scene when Leon makes her leave him and go down through the blown out hole in the wall, thus realizing his love for her and finding that his selfless desires for her well-being triumph over other desires to possess he sexaully. I don't particularly remember finding her character "chilling." I would use words like "sad", "strong" and a "survivor."

Finally, I hate to bring up the old issue of the double standard. But it is the sexualization of young girls that really pushes the buttons, isn't it? When I was younger, the movie Summer of '42 created a bit of a stir, but was very well-received. It was about three 15 year-old boys who spent a summer trying to get laid, including one whose objet d'amour was the much older Jennifer O'Neill. He actually does sleep with her in the end. This is usually referred to, though, as a "coming of age" movie. Like all good American patriarchs, Last is probably especially concerned with protecting the virginity of young American girls.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 5, 2004 6:17:18 PM

Contrary Mary puts it better, and more briefly, than I did.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 5, 2004 6:18:44 PM

A weird early sentence in Last's article:

This isn't the first outbreak [of "pedophilia chic," in Last's words]. In the '60s, Stanley Kubrick tippy-toed up to the edge when he cast the 16-year-old Sue Lyon in Lolita.

Uhh, what? It sounds like Last is blaming Kubrick for having cast a young girl in that role. Well, you know, there was a book, and the girl in it was very young. Maybe he's just blaming Kubrick for bringing that particular child-sex-centered book to the big screen, but it comes off as if he's complaining that someone like Natalie Wood (in her early 20s at the time) didn't get the part.

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 5, 2004 6:20:53 PM

Julian, you may be right about Last, but there are lots of people who think that violence in the media has lead to more violence in real life (if not necessarily a profusion of professional assassins).

Posted by: Otto | Dec 5, 2004 6:24:44 PM

Just last week had a long discussion of the Portman/Hutton scenes in Beautiful Girls, which are brilliant. Hutton is the problem, not sexual, but he has a Romantic/nostalgic/immature attraction to Portman

You are correct. It struck me that Garden State was the fulfillment of the fantasy of Tim Hutton in Beautiful Girls viewers-- Tim Hutton's character was pondering the possibility of waiting "just 5 years" until Portman's character turned 18 so he could be involved with her. What do we find in Garden State? A character who returns to his hometown, deals with his old high school friends and meets... an adult Natalie Portman who not only gives him a new perspective on life, but also is old enough to have a romantic relationship with... which almost makes me think that lots of movie scripts are just a few steps away from fan fiction created by the well-connected in Hollywood.

Posted by: Constantine | Dec 5, 2004 6:25:03 PM

Ahh. Read the Last piece. These things is complicated. In Taxi Driver Foster is fully sexualised and experienced, but quite unattractive. He really mistates Leon. The girl in Leon is in no way sexualized, she is obviously innocent and ignorant, but her family has been killed and she is seeking affection and comfort from what is apparently a cold-hearted hit man. The context is urban and violent, but the story is Little Lord Fauntleroy or the Secret Garden or especially Silas Marner. Orphan child warms the heart of blah blah.

Now the sexual aspects of the gamin are more interesting. Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn,young Goldie Hawn, and maybe Natalie Portman. Brooke Shields does not qualify. Nor Sandra Dee or Tuesday Weld, the 1959 pervert dreams.

Not only child/woman, but also somewhat androgynous, boy/girl....they are usually brunettes, and always have bobbed or pixie-cut hair. Very femme in manner, and mentally precocious. If this is pedophilic perversion, it has been around a while.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 5, 2004 6:30:52 PM

Constantine, interesting comparison, but I think there's an important difference--Hutton's character in Beautiful Girls was dealing with impending mid-life crisis problems, largely centered around questioning the long-term relationship he was in. The younger Braff (younger than Hutton in the earlier movie, that is) has other issues to deal with in Garden State, mainly unresolved tensions with his father.

Still, you make a thoughtful connection that I hadn't considered until you pointed it out. I'm not sure Braff really had it in mind when he made the movie, though it's more likely than not that he saw Beautiful Girls in the process of casting Portman.

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 5, 2004 6:31:10 PM

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