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April 10, 2009

TIME critic raves for the "Observe & Report" rape scene

TIME film critic Richard Corliss delivers a review of the new comedy Observe & Report that's as disturbing as the rape scene excerpted in the trailer.

Corliss's review is really more of a review of the rape scene than a review of the movie. In short, he loved it:

Here's a scene to frighten the horses. About an hour into Observe and Report, mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) has finally achieved his dream and taken the blonde, egotistical, doltish perfume saleslady Brandi (Anna Faris) to bed, basically by getting her drunk. Problem is, she's pretty much passed out, her puke staining the pillow, as Ronnie happily, obliviously churns away. He pauses for a moment to notice her comatose state, and without opening her eyes, Brandi mutters, "Why'd you stop, malefactor?" Or a 12-letter word to that effect.

Now that's character comedy, I mean tragedy, I mean tromedy, of the highest, I mean lowest, I mean high-lowest order. Beyond the weirdness, if you can get there, is a quick portrait of trailer-park America pursuing its urges by any means necessary. It's clear that Ronnie, no babe magnet, will take what he can get on this night of nights, even if it's not quite the exalted ecstasy he had hoped for; and that Brandi, who's been in this position once or twice before, wants the sexual exercise, even if she's not awake to take an active role in it — somewhere in her stupor, she's feeling a rote rumble of pleasure. The scene achieves what few American movies even attempt: to pinpoint the grim compromise, the desperation, that can attend the sex act. Don't call it love; don't call it grand; but whatever it is, don't stop

That minute or so is the finest thing in Observe and Report, and if it doesn't strike you as funny-peculiar, you may as well stop reading now. (Emphasis added.) [TIME]

Some have defended the scene on the grounds that Observe & Report is a dark comedy and Ronnie the bipolar mall cop is a cartoonishly unsympathetic character. They argue that he's funny because almost everything he does is so obviously wrong. We laugh when he physically assaults people for no good reason. So, why not laugh at the rape scene?

But Seth Rogen's understanding of the joke is entirely different:

When we're having sex and she's unconscious like you can literally feel the audience thinking, like, how the fuck are they going to make this okay? Like, what can possibly be said or done that I'm not going to walk out of the movie theater in the next thirty seconds? . . . And then she says, like, the one thing that makes it all okay:"Why are you stopping, motherfucker?"

Rogen is saying that the scene is a bait and switch: We're led to think Ronnie's a date rapist, but at the last possible minute we realize that Brandi consented after all. Psych!

That she's drunk, drugged out, covered with her own vomit, and unconscious is never in doubt. 

Rogen excels at a brand of awkwardness-based humor where much of the laughter is tension release. Which means that the scene fails on its own terms, unless you believe that an unconscious person can consent. Without the unexpected "evidence" of consent, it's just a rape scene. If you see the encounter as rape, Brandi's slurred semi-conscious interjection just seems piteous. It doesn't make anything "okay."

Corliss apparently relishes the sexual violence in the spirit Rogen intended.

Corliss also reaffirms the patriarchal nostrum that slutty women consent to sex by default. He writes: "Brandi, who's been in this position once or twice before, wants the sexual exercise, even if she's not awake to take an active role in it — somewhere in her stupor, she's feeling a rote rumble of pleasure." So, even when she's unconscious, she's asking for it. 

Don't even get me started on the "trailer park America" line--as if substance abuse and sexual assault are just for working class people. Tell that to the frat boys.

I haven't seen the movie, so I'm not going to judge its merits as a film. It's possible that Corliss and Rogen are misinterpreting what writer-director Jody Hill is trying to do. Maybe the scene is funny in context, despite being apparently morally reprehensible. I mean, anything's possible.

Regardless, Corliss's review and Rogen's commentary are chilling because they so casually reaffirm the stereotypes that perpetuate date rape. Makes you wonder how many other people are in on the joke.


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>...that sex with a completely unconscious person is rape....

Err, there might be exceptions within a relationship that involve non-immediate consent. For example, what if it was specifically requested the day before, in leu of an alarm clock? Hypothetical question, of course.

" 'Delia's Gone' is written by Karl Silbersdorf and Dick Toops."

Thank you but that's not really the the point.
I'm not defending Cash or the writers of the song he made famous, any more than I'm defending Rogen et al. (and this would include Faris.) But if you want to criticize art on political grounds you're going to have problems. Those problems are interesting -really interesting- but they involve the sort of discussion a self-described rationalist and utilitarian would, or should by her own definition, have no interest in.

We all live in glass houses. As I'm fond of saying there is no "reality based" community. One group may at any given time recognize another as living in a specific sort of glass house, but that says nothing about the dwellings of the first. I have an old friend who stopped listening to Cash after he heard the new version of Delia's Gone in 94 (he didn't know the original) but his own history with women is problematic to say the least. And I've always wondered why Beyerstein the New Atheist used a photo of herself wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the image of a drug addicted born again Christian on her page.
The thing about Cash is he didn't just describe what he wanted to be but what he was, and among other things he was an asshole. But he was an honest complex asshole. He's wasn't just an irrationalist [to use the terminology of rationalism] he described his irrationalism and that description contained a good deal of what we can only call "rationality." You could call him contradictory but could you could never call him a hypocrite.
So by a process of empathy and empiricism we can learn a lot from Johnny Cash, about ourselves too. He separated what he believed from what he described. The question is whether we can learn much from Rogen, or Corliss, or Bayerstein for that matter.
I'd be more complimentary if she were capable of writing this:

Comedy is often cruel, of course, but before 1968, the year the movie rating system was instituted, directors couldn’t squeeze laughs from the suggestion of date rape, as Mr. Hill tries to do here. Like action and horror filmmakers, comedy directors now push hard against social norms with characters who deploy expletives, bodily fluids and increasing brutality. Mr. Hill has upped the ante in this extreme comedy scene not only by creating a working-class, bipolar bully who lives with his alcoholic mother, but also by asking us to laugh at this pathetic soul — and his miserably constrained life — as well as at the violence he wreaks. The dolts in “Dumb and Dumber” had hearts of gold. Ronnie has a gun. Mr. Hill says his movie was inspired by “Taxi Driver,” a self-flattering comparison. Like those of Travis Bickle, Ronnie’s delusions of grandeur do end in a paroxysm of blood. Yet while Martin Scorsese might be overly fond of screen violence, part of what makes that film profound and memorable is how the thrill of violence, its seduction, is always in play with a palpable moral revulsion. No such dialectic informs “Observe and Report,” which exploits Ronnie and his brutality for laughs. This lack of critique might make the movie seem daring. But it’s hard to see what is so bold about a film that, much like the world outside the theater, turns the pain and humiliation of other people into a consumable spectacle.
You could argue, I suppose, that there is no real difference between Ronnie shooting an unarmed man and a comic who throws a custard pie in another person’s kisser: they both make (some) audiences laugh. To insist on that difference is, among other things, to introduce politics and morality into the conversation, and, really, who wants that when you’re watching a Seth Rogen flick? It’s far better and certainly easier, as the old movie theater slogan put it, to sit back and relax and enjoy the show. That, after all, is precisely what Hollywood banks on each time it manufactures a new entertainment for a public that — as the stupid, violent characters who hold up a mirror to that public indicate — it views with contempt.
The responses linked to by Atrios, here and at Feministing were thin stuff: spoiled and self-aggrandizing. But this does not begin with mediocre art criticism. If that's all it was I'd have less problem ignoring it. But after Gaza and the comparative silence on "reality based" american liberal blogs, it's just too much. It's not the glass houses of Zionists so much as glasses in combination with the constant moralizing on every other subject. American liberals remain creatures of faith, in themselves.

seth edenbaum -

RE "The thing about Cash is he didn't just describe what he wanted to be but what he was, and among other things he was an asshole."

In what way?

Those problems are interesting - really interesting - but they involve the sort of discussion a self-described rationalist and utilitarian would, or should by her own definition, have no interest in.

Um, what?

To the extent that fictional representations influence real-life behavior, you would expect that a utilitarian would be more concerned than the average person -- perhaps even exclusively concerned -- about the political ramifications of artistic expression.

Seth Edenbaum, not to be unkind, but I really do not see that dragging in Gaza is remotely relevant here. You may disagree with what Lindsay thinks of the film, or with the views of any of her commenters, but exploiting Gaza as a sort of gesture to your personal and superior virtue is not impressive. Not are vaguely portentous remarks about glass houses particularly helpful. Please stick to the matter in hand, rather than trying to unload a guilt-trip on everyone else.

Seth, you obviously don't have a clue what rationalism entails. Besides which, I'm not a rationalist, I'm an empiricist. Come back when you know what your buzzwords mean.


Yesterday, I was trying to frame a defense of the film that wouldn't be framed as rape apologia, but avoiding that.

The fact is, I've got no stake in defending Jody Hill against accusations that he is a misogynist. However bad his schlubby antiheroes are, they're always treated better than the women around them, for whom Hill seems to have little sympathy.

I don't agree that what Ronnie does is rape, but the reaction to the film from those who do see it this way is certainly expected. If you are offended, the filmmakers meant to offend you, aren't apologizing for offending you and think it is funny that you are offended.

Conclude from that what you will.

Fred in "Foot, Fist" finally gets his moment of empowerment when he rebuffs his unfaithful wife by pissing on his wedding ring. But her infidelity has got to be mitigated by what a horrible husband he was.

Kenny Powers in "Eastbound and Down" is a sexist monster. I think everything that Danny McBride says is hilarious, but if Amanda Marcotte watched "Eastbound," she would probably have a stroke.

Beyond his "every pair of tits is a gaping hole of need" philosophy, Kenny is extremely abusive to everyone around him; he's probably a sociopath. And I am not sure Hill saw April as a victim, rather than the butt of the joke. But it was a funny joke, and Hill is fantastic with dialog.

I think Ronnie Barnhardt is less morally vile than Kenny Powers, but he's more frightening. There is a sweetness to Ronnie's nature; he is very tender toward Brandi and toward his mother. But he is irrational and he has violent tendencies.

This is a movie about a guy who is borderline mentally-retarded, bipolar, delusional, and heavily armed. Ronnie is like a captive bear; exceedingly dangerous, but not morally culpable.

Hill says he modeled Ronnie on Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver," another unbalanced, terrifying character who perceived himself as the last moral man in a fallen world.

Like Bickle, Ronnie is capable of doing something heroic or doing something horrifying, and he lacks the ability to distinguish between the two. So even though he is going to try to do good, he's likely to cause a lot of harm.

Ronnie is a powderkeg, and Brandi is one of a number of characters who might set him off. That's really what the movie is about. The sex thing is really about how Ronnie can't distinguish between something romantic and something gross.

First sentence of the last post should read:

"avoiding that is impossible unless as long as I refuse to accept the contention that any sex involving an intoxicated party is rape."

Mitch, don't be ridiculous. You don't have to believe that all sex involving drunk people is rape in order to understand that, morally and legally, extreme intoxication voids consent.

I don't understand why you're so invested in arguing that what Ronnie did wasn't rape.

Brandi's not just intoxicated, she's unconscious. Sex with an unconscious person is rape.

Before she passes out, Brandi is so profoundly incapacitated that she isn't aware that she has thrown up all over herself two seconds after it happens.

Nobody in that condition can consent to sex. It's not a question of simply being drunk, as in impaired judgment or reduced inhibitions, she literally doesn't know what's happening. Having sex with a person in that condition is rape.

Oh, okay. I'm going to be completely ignored, because I shut down all debate through my logic.

I win.

Thanks, tip your waitresses.

Empiricists begin with description not assumption. You would say naturalized epistemology is empiricism but it's just a dream of solid ground. Your interest in knowledge ignores the obvious, that we perceive before we "know."
Expertise without self-awareness is the sleep of reason. See Chapter 15 for one grotesque example.
I'm sick of American pedants. For every statement you take umbrage at there are others you let pass out of blind preference. That's true of everyone. But you wear that blind preference like a suit of armor and call it reason.
A lesson in perception, description, art criticism and politics.

Because it is fictional therefore it makes it OK.


Hey, Essie. Nice to see you.

Ronnie is a powderkeg, and Brandi is one of a number of characters who might set him off. That's really what the movie is about. The [rape] thing is really about how Ronnie can't distinguish between something romantic and something gross.

Agreed, but I also think it's rape. The inability of the characters to distinguish their grandiose delusions from reality is a running theme in all their work -- which is why I don't understand why anyone is invested in the scene being called not-rape. I wrote a longer piece on this at my blog, about Hill's and McBride's general themes of masculinity performance and aspiration, so I'm not going to go into it again. Basically, even though McBride and Hill have dealt with the same kinds of material that Will Farrell or Seth Rogan or Judd Apatow do, I think their presentation of it is vastly more critical. But I do think it's interesting.

In TFFW, like you mention, the "moment of empowerment" scene -- what makes that scene interesting is that it's empty empowerment. The guy is such a bastard to everyone around him, and such an idiot to boot, that there is no redemption. BUT HE THINKS SO. And the cognitive dissonance is what makes it funny.

Finally, I don't see how this is any different than half the viewing audience identifying with Tony Soprano or Travis Bickle or any of the mob movies, in that some people are going to watch it and their take away lesson is going to be that abusive, violent, fucked up behavior is aspirational. Ultimately I think McBride and Hill are aware of this, and in part, they are aiming this back at the audience (it appears to be THE ENTIRE SUBJECT OF THE MOVIE IN QUESTION). Whether the movie pulls it off or whether the audience gets the intended takeaway lesson is yet to be seen.

"The nation came together in a frenzy of hate and fear on 9/11, and has been trying to recapture that glorious moment ever since."

The nation came together in a frenzy of hate and fear and nobody invited me? Not an e-mail? Not even a note in my mailbox? What would have been so hard about writing a simple note: "Dear Mooser, we are coming together in a frenzy of hate and fear, and it won't be the same if you don't show up. Please RSVP"
Does any one think I wouldn't have responded? I would have been there with bells on.

"Having sex with a person in that condition is rape."

It sure is, once you cut all the fine-tuning out of the argument. I certainly believe it is.

I don't remember anybody turning to the audience and saying "All you easily suggestible folks out there, please be sure and imitate this behavior at your first opportunity"

And if you are not easily suggestible, and looking for behavior guidelines and social validation of very marginal behavior, why on earth would you go see this movie, or many, many others.
Don't you get the feeling the producer and director are just off in the wings, laughing at you for wasting good admission money on this crap.

Lindsay, you old empiricist just like mother makes, why are you so sure this scene will lead to harm? (Other than regret for the hard-earned admission fee, given away for something you can witness anytime you're willing to put a wine-glass to the wall adjoining the next apartment, or set up a camera next to your bed)

I'm not sure the movie will lead to harm. As far as rape culture goes, it's just one more piece of trash in the landfill.

What's harmful is the assumption that sex with unconscious people is okay as long as they become semi-conscious at some point and seem to like it.

The "joke" is a reminder of how widespread that morally repugnant attitude is. Everyone I know who's seen the movie attests that audiences find that scene laugh-out-loud funny, just like Seth Rogen said.

Any excuse to expose that dangerous thinking is a chance to do good.

What's with the creepy fantasies about my bed? You're not helping your cause, dude.

So, I guess, in your interpretation of "feminism" a woman has the right to drink, the right to have sex, the right to do pills, the right to decide what to do with her own body, except when she's self-medicated
Thus, a woman has no right to decide "Okay, I'm going to have sex with this guy, but I need to be completely blitzed for it" No no, no planning ahead, dear, you're only allowed to make decisions in the now, any decision you make becomes null and void when you drink! If you pass out, at least partially, even if it was your intention to pass out, you don't get to still consent. You have to go back and fill out a different form now."

So a woman looses the right to self determination when she's had a few. Apparently men are supposed to say "oh no, you don't know what you want. No no, you need me to decide that you don't actually want sex from me."

This...this is progress? Women are still not being allowed to do what they want, and this time it's WOMEN telling them they shouldn't want, or shouldn't do this or that. Silly me, I thought feminism was about choices, so if a woman wants to do something as stupid as getting blitzed and having sex with a weirdo --- she can. Freedom means the freedom to make really stupid choices, too.

So glad I'm gay. I feel sorry for men who have to deal with these double-standards, contrived logic, and constantly-moving goalposts.


A woman has the right to do anything she wants to.....unless other women think it's bad, icky or gross, then she can't be relied upon to make her own choices.

So when do we start separating women into these two classes -

-Then ones who are allowed to make their own decisions(because they always make the right choice"

-The ones that make bad choices, and therefor need both men and women to make their choices for them.

"As Seth Rogen says in the interview, Brandi's out cold by the time he starts fucking her."

Does he says this? I haven't found it. It is not in the quote you provide.

According to Manhola Dargis, the film cuts directly from the Ronnie kissing Brandi on her vomit-streaked lips ("I accept you") to the offending shot ("Brandi! Oh Brandi! ... uh, Brandi?"). Ronnie's pause and his question ("Brandi?") seems to indicate that he is surprised -- maybe even concerned -- that she is not conscious. He realizes that she is no longer awake, and he stops.

(Some have said that he has a moment of conscious. I see no evidence of this. If he knows she's unconscious, then why say her name? Perhaps, from this reading, her wants to make sure she's alive.)

It is only on Brandi's line that he resumes, with words that sound more like panic than anything else, and definitely speak to the insecurities as a character: "I'm sorry! Oh God, I'm sorry!"

Of course none of this makes a difference if you believe that the very act of joking about rape -- or even about the possibility of rape -- is unacceptable. And it doesn't matter if your main concern is the effect such jokes might have on the intended (or unintended) audience. Both of these concerns are valid (just think of the arguments surrounding the parody Obama-as-secret-Muslim New Yorker cover).

But I think you are being a little disingenuous when you say that the filmmakers "pulled their punches" by using the "motherfucker" line -- that you would have accepted a joke in which it was clear from beginning to end, say, that Ronnie knew she was passed out, knew he was raping her, and then played into some alternate punchline.

Why would you accept that? Because the evil act would be committed by a clearly evil guy, fully cognizant of his evil (and against whom we can direct our disapproval)? That's not how dark comedy works. And that's not how dark movies in general work. It's certainly not how Jody Hill's inspiration, Taxi Driver, works.

It may be a shitty scene. It may be an evil scene. I guess I'm just pushing for a bit more accuracy in how that scene is described, and a bit more forthrightness in why you hate it.

Lindsay I have not seen anyone call themselves an empiricist in a long time. That aside, I think your over all point here is well taken. The direction of U.S. culture is without a good sense of how people ought to get along well with each other. So consciousness is distorted in what that means. I.e. if someone is drunk then they are morally no longer part of society and therefore subject to the brutalizing outsider society that lurks virtually everywhere.

I think you are right that someone could challenge these issues by a more thorough going critical attitude about the circumstances and be sharper about how to understand things. The depiction of someone who is bi-polar is anti-disabled and grimly ignorant.

The movie was amazing so fuck you to everyone that wants to bitch about a hilarious scene that shows them having sex and she clearly says why did u stop so back off seth rogen hell it wasnt even a rape scene

Intoxicated women cannot consent to sexual intercourse. That is the law in many, many states. If a woman is so drunk that she has passed out and vomited on herself, she is too drunk to consent. That is rape.

Richard Corliss should receive more than a few letters about this review. Can he actually recommend a movie like this? Can he see himself sitting through it with his wife or daughters? Is he completely unaware that 25% of the female audience of the theater he saw it in were victims of rape?

Don't just blog about this or post a comment, write letters to Time/CNN.

"I tend to think that someone who's blackout drunk and overdosed on antidepressants is ipso facto incapable of giving consent, so I don't think the scene becomes "okay" no matter how vocally Farris' character agrees."

This sort of worries me a little in its implications. By which I mean this: Are you really saying that "No matter how much she may protest otherwise, you know better than this poor drunk girl how able she is to give consent, and therefore your judgment must trump hers"?

It seems entirely obvious to me that someone who's drunk isn't in a fit state to be giving consent (Though nothing's ever simple. One could easily imagine a scenario in which two people give consent first, with the intent of becoming intoxicated, then fornicating, cf. Buffet, J.[1973]), but we're entirely willing to say that a person who's intoxicated is *fully* culpable for any criminal activity they undertake, because they somehow assumed that responsibility intentionally when they allowed themselves to become intoxicated, so doesn't it seem strange that intoxication renders you unable to consent to a normally legal act, but perfectly able to consent to an illegal one?

More to the point, I find there to be something intensely creepy and dissonant about defining a case in which it's rape for the man to *not* disregard what his partner is telling him and making the decision for her.

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