OK, I'll admit it. I've been putting off watching the next film in Empire's 5-star 500. I wanted to get a brief idea of what Lars von Trier's The Idiots was about, so I read the summary on IMDB:
A group of people gather at a house in a Copenhagen suburb to break all the limitations and to bring out the "inner idiot" in themselves.
Not exactly the most action-packed sci-fi-adventure romantic-horror comedy-drama to have ever been scripted, so what exactly is the appeal of such a film and why on earth would Empire award it 5 stars?
To begin with, I ought to point out that I love film, and the list of 5-star films has thrown up some absolute beauties that I would probably never have sat down to watch had I not decided that this challenge was a good idea. Equally, there have been several films that have left me feeling very uncomfortable because of their content.
I'm not simply talking about films that have been tediously boring and the resulting awkwardness that envelopes my friends or family who are watching - I'm talking about ethics. The Idiots touches on a number of ethical issues that make me distinctly uncomfortable - where is the moral undertone in a film full of people pretending to be retarded?
This inexplicable discomfort tends back towards when I watched Crash with my girlfriend. Crash is simply about people who get their sexual kicks from car crashes. No, I didn't understand it, and it was a world very alien to mine. So, does this make me a prude? I don't think so.
The inspiration for this article came from a BBC article on the release of Grand Theft Auto 5 and if ever a game was known for it's disreputable and immoral image, GTA was it. I own GTA 4, have played GTA 4 and enjoyed GTA 4, making my moral issue with The Idiots even more intriguing.
In the BBC article, they quote Mary Hamilton, an Australian journalist, who discusses how games must evolve to become art:
It's a peculiar phenomenon that people invest so much of their identities in the games they play - as with the TV they watch or the books they read - and feel so attacked when people point out the problems they perceive within them. We are not what we consume. Game culture is slowly finding its feet within the mainstream. And in the same way that film, art, literature and so on are open to critique both on content and on taste grounds, games are too.
... and that got me thinking. Who am I to judge a film by its content? There are plenty of films I'd happily watch despite many people finding their content offensive - American History X is a brilliant film that I really enjoyed, but it is full of images, both graphical and historical, that would be deeply offensive to a lot of people.
This ethical issue is not a problem only faced by amateur reviewers such as myself. Even the late, great Roger Ebert found himself breaking his code when reviewing The Human Centipede:
I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine.
The question is, did he like it? Would he recommend it? Does it matter? If your moral standards mean you feel comfortable and relaxed in watching The Human Centipede, then why should he tell you that it didn't agree with him? Why should I tell you that The Idiots may not be my cup of tea?
The reason that these films make for uncomfortable viewing is that they hit close to home. I'm not suggesting by any stretch that you will go out and link a whole host of friends together in some grotesque experiment, or that you will go out and pretend to be retarded in order to garner attention.
No, what I'm saying is that these films could both be happening in the world at this very moment and that they are opening our minds to a world that we would be much happier to block out and ignore. They don't blur the line between fantasy and reality; they just tell it like it is, leaving very little to the imagination.
Admiring Avatar for its CGI-based beauty is very uplifting, but imagine this: replace Pandora with 17th Century North America, the Na'vi with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the humans with European invaders. Suddenly, this sci-fi action film has become a historical struggle and is much closer to home. The story is still the same.
At heart, Avatar is an invasion of one superpower against an indigenous species because it wants their resources. Some theorists would have you believe that Iraq was only invaded for its oil. But that's all far-fetched... isn't it?
And that's really my point. Some films disguise their stories amongst fantastical settings and loveable characters who are very easy to empathise with. Watching 101 Dalmatians doesn't make you want to commit atrocities that would leave PETA scratching their heads, so why should The Idiots make you want to act retarded?
We all need to get a grip. We're not omnibenevolent beings. We may be able to suppress primal instinct in exchange for a form of civility, but it doesn't mean that the world is full of roses and rainbows. Just remember, your shiny red apples are another person's poisoned fruit. Embrace the controversy and learn from it - you aren't what you consume.