In (and Out) Like Flynt


Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), California State University, Fullerton

Panel discussion during the conference for the
National Communication Association
November 20, 1997
Chicago, Illinois

Film analysis is a long and complicated process that deserves our most thoughtful and deliberate consideration. When popular culture reviewers resort to easy tricks of symbolism as "thumbs up, way up" or a rating of "9 out of 10" they cheat their audiences of the revelations that can occur when an in-depth analysis is undertaken. Unfortunately, in a forum such as this one, a serious analysis of the film chosen for this discussion cannot hope to be accomplished.

But we will, of course, all do our best.

In my textbook, Visual Communication Images with Messages (1995, Wadsworth) I advocate the use of six perspectives when discussing any visual message--a motion picture included. These six perspectives are:

* PERSONAL: A gut reaction to the work based on subjective opinions.

Upon first viewing any image, everyone draws a quick, gut-level conclusion about the picture based entirely on a personal response. Words and phrases such as "good," "bad," "I like it," or "I hate it" indicate that a person initially analyzes an image on a superficial, cursory level. Personal perspectives are important because they reveal much about the person making the comments. However, such opinions have limited use simply because they are so personal. These comments cannot be generalized beyond the individual, nor do they reveal much in the way of how a culture would view the image. A memorable image always solicits strong personal reactions, either negative or positive. A viewer who rests a conclusion about a visual message on personal perspective denies the chance of perceiving the image in a meaningful way.

* HISTORICAL: A determination of the importance of the work based on the medium's time line.

Motion pictures have a unique history of circumstances that were set in motion and fostered by individuals interested in promoting them. A knowledge of movie history allows one to understand current trends in terms of their roots in techniques and philosophies of the past. Creative visual message production always comes from an awareness of what has come before, so present applications also will influence future uses.

* TECHNICAL: The relationship between light, the recording medium used to produce the work, and the means for presentation of the work.

A film critic must know something about how movies work. A thorough critique of motion pictures requires a knowledge of how the director generated the images shown. With an understanding of the techniques involved in producing an image, one is in a better position to know when production values are high or low, when great or little care has been taken, or when much or little money was spent to make the movie.

* ETHICAL: The moral and ethical responsibilities that the producer, the subject, and the viewer have of the work.

Six principle ethical philosophies can and should be used to analyze a motion picture. By considering these ethical philosophies when analyzing a film one becomes much more aware of meanings and motives that may lie hidden below the surface of any production. The six philosophies are:

* categorical imperative. A rule is absolute and must never be broken.

Directors use this philosophy when deciding to make a movie about a theme they are intensely interested in exploring visually.

* utilitarianism. The greater good for the greater number.

The telling of a person's life story might not be appreciated by that person's family and friends, but a greater number of viewers are benefited by the telling.

* hedonism. Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.

Whenever there is a purely personal reason for making a motion picture--money, fame, relationships, power, and so on--the hedonistic philosophy is at work.

* golden mean. Look to the middle way.

Between two extreme points of view--not making the movie and telling all aspects of a person's life--is a compromise position that is best achieved through the editing process.

* golden rule. Do not add grief to anyone's life.

This philosophy states that gratuitous acts of violence in many action films must be avoided because they contribute to negative stereotypes of certain cultural groups and damage the soul of society.

* veil of ignorance. Walk a mile in my shoes.

By imagining what it must feel like to be portrayed as a cultural stereotype in a major motion picture, a film critic empathizes and learns about he meaning of negative stereotyping that is so prevalent in the mass media.

* CULTURAL: An analysis of the symbols and aesthetics used in the work that convey meaning within a particular society at a particular time.

Cultural analysis of a picture involves identifying the symbols used in the image and the aesthetic qualities that give the work a sense of artistic style. Symbolism and aesthetic style may be analyzed by the movie's use of heroes and villains, by the form of its narrative structure, by the graphic choices, by the use of words, and by the attitudes about the subjects and the culture communicated by the director.

* CRITICAL: A reasoned and objective personal perspective after a film critic has considered all of the previous perspectives.

A viewer uses the critical perspective to learn about a medium, its practitioners, and the images produced to make more general comments about society that accepts or rejects the motion picture. As such, a critical perspective redefines a person's initial personal perspective in terms of universal conclusions about human nature.

But I'm not here to analyze The People Vs. Larry Flynt. That's been done to death and certainly by this time is old news. My point in the above is to simply state that it takes more time to talk about any visual message--especially one so rich in symbolism and cultural meaning as a motion picture--than the short time allotted here. So I want to concentrate on two issues:

* the poster controversy and

* the curious notion that movies must always tell the truth.

One of the enduring ironies surrounding this motion picture (besides the need to even talk about it) is the fact that a movie rebelling against censorship in America has its poster advertisement banned.

So here are the two posters. On the left is the original submission from Columbia Pictures that was banned by the Motion Picture Association of America (I didn't know they had to approve every movie advertisement). The poster can only be seen in France (and the Web). The other poster is the cleaned up version. At the time Forman said, "I don't feel at all that the original artwork was obscene. I thought it was tasty and funny. There are very conservative forces in the Senate and Congress, and they are trying to somehow establish censorship." Indeed.

I bring up this issue as one way to talk about the movie to your class. Since most of my visual communication class is composed of advertising and public relations students, the issue of the use of visual messages in a commercial appeal and its subsequent censorship is appropriate and stimulates much discussion about image symbolism, ethics, commercialism, and cultural values.

The other issue, whether movies must always tell the truth, is a bit more interesting. Many critics of the movie have complained that much about Flynt's sordid life--his early years, his many wives, the brutality of his children, details of his publishing empire, and so on, were missing, glossed over or exaggerated in the movie. For example, Gloria Steinem's chief criticism was that the movie shied away from showing the worst parts of Hustler magazine--images of women in bondage or being raped, brutalized and mutilated. In addition, scenes were "improved" and historical figures combined into single characters for dramatic effect. But since when in the history of feature motion pictures do they ever tell the truth? Recent examples abound:

* You won't see in Seven Years in Tibet that Heinrich Harrer played by Brad Pitt was probably a Nazi spy gaining information about the takeover of Asia,

* President Clinton never called a press conference about communication with extraterrestrial life ala Contact, and

* David Helfgott, as it unfortunately turns out, can hum a mean tune but is far from ready to perform complicated musical pieces with any degree of technical competence.

Truth? Come on. That's just too much to expect from the screenwriters who also penned the unforgettable Christina Ricci star vehicle, That Darn Cat. Even Milos Forman is quoted as saying, "If you tell the truth, you are always criticized."

The chief reason for Forman's reluctance to be truthful is neatly summed up by Julian Barnes in a review in The New Yorker of Kitty Kelly's book, The Royals when he writes, "Rumor, despite its mythical cloudiness, is really much sharper and clearer than fact. Fact is messy, doubtful, ambiguous, interpretable; rumor has a wonderful simplicity. It's so much easier to worship rumor than fact."

But there is one messy fact about Larry Flynt's early life that was omitted from his movie and should have been included because it would, besides being a great visual, would have helped explain his later relationships and attitudes about women.

The following transcript is part of a May, 1996 interview with Erik Hedegaard with Details magazine:

Are there any sex acts you consider unnatural?

We stay away from pedophilia, bestiality, necrophilia. I'd say those are beyond the norm. They're a little too far-out for me.

Okay. But I have it on good authority that in your youth you had sex with a chicken.

I grew up on a farm. All young boys that grow up on a farm experiment with the animals. Those that say they didn't are lying.

Explain to me how you do it with a chicken.

Well, you screw the chicken in the egg bag.

Oh. I do admire you for that.

Well, don't admire me for that. Admire me for my candor.

That's just what we're asked to do in this movie, in others like it, and on television talk shows--admire those portrayed--not for their actions--but their willingness to tell the rest of us about those actions. Sorry, that's just not enough for me to make a movie worthwhile.

And finally, what is the major lesson learned from The People VS. Larry Flynt?

Don't ever turn your back on Larry.