After months of wondering whether or not I would ever be excited by the movies again, I have now seen a film that can be wholeheartedly recommended — Quills. In the spirit of The People vs Larry Flynt, it forces us to acknowledge (that we need to be continually reminded is shameful in itself) that freedom of expression encompasses the “worst” we have to offer as well as the “best” (silly, and relative terms of course). In lesser hands such a theme could have been trite or heavy-handed, but for Philip Kaufman, it is an opportunity to present even the most horrifying ends of depravity as alluring. The performances are bold (Geoffrey Rush, the grandest example of such boldness, as he plays most of the movie fully nude) and the spoundtrack is an utter delight (imagine, a film worth listening to!)
The film is passionate, exciting, and full of a life so rare that when discovered, it literally forces a smile on the viewer’s face. One could argue that the screenplay didn’t go far enough, for the Marquis de Sade was a truly wretched man — a man who not only wrote the most vile tales in all of literature (I have read passages from Juliette and believe me, tales of his perversions are not exaggerated), but who actually lived what he wrote. Still, the film does not shy away from Sade’s depravity and in a particularly fine scene, when he hears about the death of an important woman in his life, he weeps not for her loss, but rather for the fact that he was unable to take her virginity.
The film also presents a gruesome murder that could, if taken out of context, lend credibility to Sade’s detractors as a man who inspires violence. In fact, by including this key scene, the filmmakers push us to examine the strength of our commitment to free expression. If indeed prose (or film and music, for that matter) can push an individual to commit heinous acts, is it still worth protecting? Does material that has no social value whatsoever deserve to be, at least legally, put on the same level as all other works? This also brings about another key question — what is the overall purpose of art? Must it all be “of social value?” There are those on both sides of the political aisle who are moved to defend only that which “inspires” or brings out “the best” in human beings.
For the Right, art must reinforce particular values (faith, hard work, family) or else it is considered detrimental to the social fabric. Such work is in need of “curtailment” (or any of a dozen euphemisms for what they truly desire, censorship). On the Left, art must be “uplifting” in that is brings about the appropriate level of self-esteem and inclusion. Each and every “oppressed class” must be accounted for lest someone, somewhere feel left out of the pity party. Both sides, however, are united in that they both subscribe to the long-held belief that art must be didactic in form and intent. Audiences must understand the lesson that is being put forth and hopefully, they will alter their behavior for the better as a result of exposure.
Quills is just the sort of picture that inspires these thoughts. The film never takes a wrong step or forces issues when none are present. It might be accused of being a “message picture,” but it does not demean itself by forcing pat conclusions. Yes, an idea (or issue) is being expressed, but it is the only one that truly “must” exist if all else that we enjoy in life is to follow. Watching de Sade go to unbelievable lengths to produce his art (and have it surreptitiously removed from the insane asylum in order to be published) is not only inspired filmmaking, but a fine example of the importance of creation to the human animal. And any film that can say of God — “He strung his son up like a slab of veal; I shudder to think what he’d do to me” — has my blissful endorsement.
- Overall: 9
- Direction: 8
- Acting: 10 (Rush is simply amazing)
- Story: 9
- DVD Extras: A commentary track from the screenwriter.
- Re-watchability: 9
Jonny presents: Amateur philosophy hour
I just wanted to add a quick commentary on the end of the film, which is brilliant and almost never talked about. Basically, Michael Caine plays the evil Dr. Royer-Collard, who basically murders the Marquis for de Sade’s art. At the very end of the picture we see that the good doctor has actually turned the asylum into a print shop and is profiting handsomely from the sale of de Sade’s work. Obvious hypocrisy. Bare with me.
The other day I was listening to Dr. Laura. She was talking about a cartoon someone faxed her where one kid was wearing a shirt that said, “F*** You.” Another kid had a gun, another had a bible, etc. I think the point of the cartoon was the teacher telling the kid with the bible that God was offensive in the classroom. One of the kids Dr. Laura described was a young girl “wearing a belly shirt that exposed her midriff in the way that girls do now-a-days.” I have my own opinions concerning what girls should and should not wear to school. Luckily, I don’t make my living trying to enforce some outdated version of “morality.” As the great Nietzsche said, “Morality is conformity to culture.”
That said, Dr. Laura, like Michael Caine’s character in Quills fails to realize that they have a symbiotic relationship with exactly what they are decrying. Without fat, young morons wanting to go to school in bikinis, Doc Schlessinger would be out of a job. I’m sure in reality Dr. Laura realizes this, just like Dr. Royer-Collard did. Though she would fuck a basketball team before copping to it. It is similar to how AOL goes out its way to denounce kiddie porn, yet at any given time there is 90 trillion gigs of kiddy porn floating around AOL servers. I wish I knew how to conduct a proper study, but I’ll bet you that a good sized chuck of AOL’s revenue base is supported by kiddy porn. Like any business, when it comes down to it, AOL is going to fight to keep those customers.
What am I really talking about? Capitalism, of course. True Capitalism, a true market economy, allows for anything. Many people have a hard time with this concept, but the freer the market is, the freer you are as an individual and the freer we are as a collective culture. The unprecedented freedom found right here on the internet is quickly proving me right. Just like Dr. Royer-Collard profited from something he was dead set against, Dr. Laura profits from the very vices and habits she rails against. Both of them are free to do so. Is this moral? Again, according to Neitzsche’s definition, sure. Why not? Is it ethical? Absolutely not. However, there are a bunch of big businesses pushing belly shirts at young girls. There is MTV and a giant music corporation or ten foisting Britney Spears and her ilk onto the uber-impresionable “tween” population. And millions upon millions of dollars are being made.
In conclusion, Quills shows just how little we have progressed culture-wise since eighteenth century France. Freedom is a scary ideal. Because who are you to tell me what I can’t do? Who are you to dictate to me what is forbidden and what is acceptable? And of course, who is going to stop me from profiting as a result of your death? All of our belief systems fall short on these regards. As humans we will keep on trying. And keep failing.
On a side note, Matt failed to mention that the Marquis writes the last chapter of his book with his own feces. Freedom!!!