‘Ender’s Game’ – If You Silence A Bad Message, Is It Still Censorship?

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I don’t remember when I’d first heard about the film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Y/A sci fi novel, Ender’s Game – a few weeks ago, a few months – but despite all the talk about the book being some sort of cult fave which has sold millions since it’d first been published in 1985, I’d never heard of Card or the novel before. And having heard of it, I wasn’t particularly interested in reading the book (which I understand is quite good), or seeing the movie (which may be quite good).

Oh, it had nothing to do with Card’s outrageous statements on homosexuality (we’ll get to that in a bit) of which I also knew nothing. It was more my having had my fill of young questing heroes in some fantasy/sci fi milieu delegated by fate and circumstance to crush some great evil. Harry Potter, Frodo, Percy Jackson, Lyra Belacqua, the four Pevensie kids off through a clothes closet to Narnia, the Lemony Snicket and The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) broods, Katniss Everdeen, the videogame geek in The Last Starfighter (1984), the young princes from Krull (1983) and Dune (1984), the souped-up versions of Snow White and giant-killing Jack and looking glass Alice, Muppety The Dark Crystal (1982), Tom Cruise doing the quest thing in Legend (1984), and did I neglect to mention six installments of Star Wars?… I’m long past being done on the youthful fantasy quest thing.

Now, with Lionsgate’s $110 million Ender’s Game due for release in November, I’m hearing a lot about the movie and the novel and, most especially, about Mr. Card, his – in my view – repellant opinions, and the pushback from the LGBT community, some elements of which are calling for a boycott of the film adaptation.

Let me get my cards down on the table up front. At the risk of sounding like a Seinfeldesque, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” but without the irony, I want to tell you that I have gay family members whom I love and care deeply about. I have gay friends whom I’ve known for decades and whom I also love and care deeply about. When the governor of my home state suggested putting gay marriage up for a public referendum, I thought the idea of letting civil rights be determined by popular vote to be offensive, an appallingly gutless way to sidestep a political hot button, and a particularly spineless move from someone who boasts about being a political tough guy.

And as for Mr. Card and his opinions? I don’t know how much you’ve read about what Card – a Mormon who, until this month, was also on the board of the anti-same-sex marriage organization, the National Organization for Marriage – has had to say about gays and gay marriage, but here’s a whopper quoted in a recent Entertainment Weekly story about the flap over Ender’s Game. In 2008, warning about judges acting against what Card apparently assumed to be the popular will by allowing gay marriage: “…when government is the enemy of marriage, then the people who are actually creating successful marriages have no choice but to change governments, by whatever means is made possible or necessary” (italics mine because I still can’t get over that last part).

Though that’s been an oft-repeated quote of late, I should point out, in fairness, that Card’s stand is a bit more nuanced. I may not be doing him justice here, but I think I could summarize it like this: he doesn’t want violence against gays, he doesn’t want to put them in jail, and he’ll keep them as friends. But they’re going to hell and gay marriage is a sin.

The only thing that galls me, personally, more than his gays-are-damned attitude, is that in the wake of the June rulings from the Supreme Court which allow states to legalize same-sex marriage, this guy who has actively campaigned against same-sex marriage and considers homosexuality a ticket to the nether regions, said, “Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.” In other words, he wants a better deal than he was handing out.

Yet, for all that, this boycott thing? I have a problem with that.

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For me, it’s funny this issue comes up at this time.

I’ve just been hired to teach a basic film appreciation course at one of our county colleges. I had a long chat with the guy who hired me; nice guy, somewhere around my age, similar sensibilities. We were talking about what movies I shouldn’t show. Some were flicks that just don’t play well for today’s Wii-thumbed/joystick-addicted/channel skipping/site cruising college kids.

Like Citizen Kane (1941). I know young people who’ve seen Citizen Kane. Bores them to tears. Old guy realizes he’s wasted his life trying to fill the emotional holes in his heart; big deal.

But others we put on the taboo list in the belief that a less cinema-literate, historically-informed group of students would probably go batshit over them.

Like The Birth of a Nation (1915). Yeah, it’s the movie where movies grew up, where they went from nickelodeon novelty to art form, where the basic language of film was created and set. It’s also an outrageously racist film. My boss and I agreed we couldn’t take it on faith that these students could see past the racism to see the film’s cinematic greatness and importance.

That got me to thinking that there were any number of films I saw as a college student back in the 1970s I’d be balky about showing in today’s academic environment. It’s a pricklier, more litigious milieu these days, and I’m not a crusader. I don’t feel like getting hate mail, nasty calls from aggrieved parents, air let out of my tires, and maybe get my ass fired.

I’m thinking here about Leni Riefenstahl’s lyrical paeans to Naziism, the brilliant – if frightening – Triumph of the Will (1935), and the equally brilliant and somewhat less disturbing Oympiad (1938 – my film class used the diving sequence as an examination of the power of editing). Or there’s Sergei Eisenstein’s love letter to Communism, Battleship Potemkin (1925 – the Odessa Steps sequence – who hasn’t studied that?).

Maybe I’m just paranoid. But I have reason.

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In the 27 years I spent at Home Box Office, a good deal of my time there went to dealing with people complaining to the company that something we’d aired offended them: Italian-Americans yelling about The Sopranos, Mormons yelling about Big Love, and every time Bill Maher opened his mouth somebody – actually, usually a group of somebodies – found reason to be offended.

We were anti-American, anti-government, anti-Christian, anti-family, racist, sexist, irresponsible, insensitive, you name it, we were it right up to and including “Instrument of Satan.”

One particularly distinct instance comes to mind the month we ran Under Fire (1983), a left-leaning flick about the 1970s revolution in Nicaragua that overthrew the Somoza regime. In came the calls that we were a bunch of pro-commies pushing pinko propaganda and where did we get off airing that kind of crap? As it happened, purely by circumstance, later that same month – after Under Fire finished its run – we ran Last Plane Out (1983), a right-leaning movie about the same subject. And then in came another wave of calls about us being a capitalist tool of the government pushing fascist propaganda and where did we get off airing that kind of crap?

We used to laugh about it (sort of) that we must be doing something right if we’re offending both sides.

After the first few hundred calls, letters and emails you handle in that environment, many of which always start with, “I believe in the First Amendment but…,” you realize a lot of people really don’t believe in the First Amendment because so many of them think that there’s always something too sacred, too sensitive, too something or another that should be off limits as an object of analysis, criticism, parody, satire.

Again, we used to joke (sort of) that everybody believes in the First Amendment…until you say something that pisses them off.

That sensibility very much informed the writing of my first book about film back in 2001, Peckinpah’s Women: A Re-Appraisal of the Portrayal of Women in the Period Westerns of Sam Peckinpah (I grant, not exactly the kind of title that generates bestsellerdom). I dealt with a lot of the issues that are relevant here: that just because a filmmaker drank too much, screwed up nearly every relationship he had friendly or romantic and could be terribly abusive to those close to him, and was prone to say deliberately provocative – and sometimes stupidly provocative — things, didn’t make his movies sexist.

But even if they were…

This is what it comes down to, I guess. It’s a bit self-aggrandizing to quote one’s self, but I wrote, “Can the objectionable still be art?”

Any Rand, Andy Kaufman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs… That’s a toughie to answer, isn’t it?

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It’s an even more problematic issue with Ender’s Game since the consensus seems to be – including among the LGBT community — that neither the book nor the movie deals with homosexuality in any way, good or bad. It ain’t in there…period. It’s not the art here that’s objectionable; it’s the artist.

To be honest with you, I don’t know the answer. I don’t have one (and I said as much in the Peckinpah book).

Look, if I was a black in America in 1915, I would’ve had to be out of my mind to put money in D.W. Griffith’s pocket by going to see a movie as inflammatory and just plain, damned wrong as The Birth of a Nation. But it’s wrongness doesn’t change its greatness or its importance in the history of moviemaking. And should his being an ass about race in …Nation be a reason for me not to go see Intolerance (1916)?

I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t know. I’m just not seeing that shaded discussion happen here. Right now, it’s very simple:

On one side, it’s, “He’s a bad guy with a bad message, so don’t go see his message-neutral movie.”

On the other side, there’s Mr. Card who hasn’t said much about the issue at all, but, judging from his past, I’d wager his attitude is probably still, “To hell with you all (literally), I believe what I believe.”

And then there’s poor Lionsgate and a $110 million tab for this opus trying to make the understandably self-serving – and not untrue – point that, “What has any of this to do with this movie?”

Like I said, I don’t know the answer. What I do know is this kind of damn-the-artist thing cuts both ways. If you manage to kill the movie (or book, play, song, etc), all you’ve proved to the other side is it’s possible for them to kill a movie (or whatever) they have a problem with. And then you start screaming censorship, but it wasn’t censorship when you did it because, well, you were in the right, after all…and so on. See what I’m saying?

That’s real life for ya; complicated. That’s why we go to movies, especially flicks with Frodo and Katniss and that bunch – the good, the bad, and what to do about it seems a hell of a lot simpler in their worlds.

– Bill Mesce

 






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