Ben Shapiro was kind enough to take me up on my offer to respond to my critique of his assault on the career of my favorite director, Darren Aronofsky.
Before beginning, I would like to thank Ben for his kind opening remarks about his respect for me. I also respect Ben for his extraordinary achievements and for being one of the most prominent and effective of Generation Y’s conservatives. And despite our differences on social matters — my views are comparable to my colleague Jamie Glazov’s — we’ll surely find plenty of common ground on the more important issues of the battle with Islamofascism, the defense of Israel, the validity of conservatism’s understanding of human nature, the need to defeat the Left, etc.
Ben and I have numerous points of disagreement so to stay organized I’ll go ahead and number them. The first 3 are relatively minor, the fourth is the vital discussion.
1. First, Ben rejects auteur theory as “idiotic.” He cites screenwriter William Goldman and a skeptical quote from Alfred Hitchcock to support his view.
To those who are not film obsessives, auteur theory is the predominant school of film criticism — and has been since the ’70s. Auteur theory regards the director as the “author” of any given film. In my ten years as a cinephile I’ve been a staunch proponent of auteur theory. This developed as a result of my years working at an arthouse movie theatre, writing film criticism for high school, college, and professional publications, and also through taking courses in college on film theory and screenwriting.
To my knowledge Ben does not have this cinematic background so he does not understand why I would make a seemingly ridiculous statement by suggesting that Stanley Kubrick could make a masterpiece from “The Ugly Truth” script. Apparently Ben seems to think that all a director does with a script is follow the instructions as though he were putting together a swing set. That’s not the reality at all, though. In many, many cases the director will radically alter the screenplay before, during, and after filming. Such would be the case with a Kubrick-version of “The Ugly Truth.” Screenwriters are certainly important and do not get the credit they deserve, but ultimately the director is most responsible for a film’s quality.
2. Ben sees nothing wrong with revealing the ending of “Requiem for a Dream” because he assumes everyone has seen it since it’s been out for almost a decade. This is absurd. Casually stating a well-known ending like that of “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Citizen Kane” is very different from that of a small independent film that has not nearly had as much exposure. Revealing a film’s ending is an act of critical violence done to seek vengeance against a film that has offended a critic. (I know because I’ve done it myself in certain rare cases.)
3. Ben defends his preposterous claim that Aronofsky is not a bankable director. I challenged him on his claim that none of Aronofsky’s films had been “a major commercial success” by pointing out that 75% of Aronofsky’s films had been sound investments, bringing back more than six times their investment. Ben does not care. To him Aronofsky is a failure because he has not had the very rare arthouse-to-multiplex success of a “Napoleon Dynamite” or a “Little Miss Sunshine.”
What this tells me is that Ben is merely biased against arthouse cinema. He’s unable to see a film’s success in context. He does not seem to grasp that the arthouse market and the multiplex market are two different beasts. Aronofsky does not make blockbusters. (Though he was attached to relaunch the Batman franchise before Christopher Nolan got on board.) Aronofsky makes challenging, personal films that appeal to the niche arthouse market of which I’m a zealous devotee. To hold this against him as Ben does is unfair and further evidence of Ben’s inability to pontificate accurately on film-related matters. It’s like attacking See’s Candy for not being Hershey’s.
These are minor disagreements, though. The real meat of our debate is on the following point.
4. Ben objects to the shocking climax of “Requiem for a Dream” and the controversial sequence which earned the film it’s original NC-17 rating. He thinks that filmmakers should never show such scenes. Ben further states that,
Sorry – there are still bounds to what should be shown on screen. The limits of decency and taste are still relevant. “Days of Wine and Roses” showed the evils of alcoholism without showing Jack Lemmon whoring himself out for booze money or contracting an STD from a strange homeless man in a barroom stall. Somehow I think we can deal with drug use without showing every depraved detail possible. There is a fine line between morality tale and exploitation. Aronofsky purposefully crosses it by a mile.
This is a fundamental disagreement.
I think the scene in “Requiem for a Dream” is vital to the film — and so did Aronofsky. (He refused to chop it in order to get the bigger box office that Ben mocks him for not having.) I think it’s often necessary to disturb and shock an audience with the harshness of reality.
Does Ben object to “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Boys Don’t Cry” for their extreme content? Further, how he can defend the sexual content of “A Clockwork Orange” — which is far more gratuitous and titillating than “Requiem” — is completely beyond me. I love “Clockwork” a great deal but Ben would be on much firmer ground leveling a critique toward it as “exploitative” rather than “Requiem.” Much of the shock of “Clockwork” is warranted but the film is filled with plenty of nudity that it does not need to have to make its point. Kubrick seemed to enjoy showing topless women. He was the pervert, not Aronofsky.
For Ben to be consistent in his arguments about “decency” and “taste” he must have the same opinion of Cyrus Nowrasteh for the masterpiece “The Stoning of Soraya M.” that he does of Aronofsky for “Requiem.” Soraya’s execution is far more disturbing, explicit, long and misogynistic than the split seconds of Marion’s consensual sex. But in Ben’s view a director should not have to be explicit and shocking to make his point. So Nowrasteh must be little more than an exploitationist, not the gifted, important filmmaker that I imagine Ben would defend him as.
For Ben to argue otherwise would reveal that his position is actually a result of his personal revulsion at cinematic depictions of sexuality. And would prove my point that his staunch anti-pornography advocacy has robbed him of an ability to appreciate cinema — just as it can for many social conservatives. (And would I go too far if I suggested that the fact that the sex act being homosexual further disturbed Ben? Would we be having this discussion if Marion had been gang-raped at the party instead of coerced into a sex act with another woman?)
The reason that “Requiem for a Dream” is my favorite film is very personal and it has nothing to do with being immature as Ben implies. “Requiem” is the most confrontational, aggressive film I’ve experienced. And I am an aggressive confrontationalist. I believe that it’s necessary to confront people with the harshness of reality. It’s necessary to shove things in people’s faces that they do not want to see. It’s necessary for “Requiem” to show the horrors of drug depravity just as “Soraya” must show the brutality of Islamist misogyny. It’s necessary to confront people when they’re wrong or ignorant. That’s why I work for the Freedom Center and it’s that approach that I bring toward running NewsReal.
And since I’m a confrontationalist, I’m going to conclude with something specific that Ben needs to answer, and I’ll address him directly: Have you seen both “The Fountain” and “The Wrestler”? Because I see in both your original article and your reply that you make no critical comments about the content of either of those films whereas you clearly despise “Pi” and “Requiem.” Surely if you had seen “The Fountain” you would have blasted it as a confusing, pretentious mess. And you had to have had some snarky remarks about Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nominated performance in “The Wrestler.” Your silence on both films is damning.
Come on Ben, how much of Aronofsky being on the list is really just your vengeance against him for the disturbing sexual climax in “Requiem”? In fact I feel I can say with some confidence that if you had seen the Blockbuster-edited version of “Requiem” — which obscures the detailed description of Marion’s sexual act that you’ve needed to repeat in two blog posts — then Aronofsky would not be on your list at all. But like myself and everyone else who has seen “Requiem,” the ending has been scarred into your mind forever. This is a testament to the film’s greatness.
Ben, if you have not seen half of Aronofsky’s filmography you are in no position to judge him and must remove him from your list and replace him with either Spike Lee or Tim Burton — choices I would thoroughly endorse, particularly Lee. How ’bout it?