Is there a right way to advise people to care about authorial intent? My instinct would be to tell most people that they can disregard it, but I think that—as a whole—that can rob us of some really fascinating perspectives.
Obviously without authorial intent movies can feel “of the moment” in the wrong (or at least, unintended) way. Battle Royale hit the U.S. at a time when it was recovering from its first school shooting; the notion of paying to watch kids killing kids seemed to fly in the face of the idea that violent culture breeds violent kids. And so it was largely “banned” and made difficult to access in the U.S.
But in Japan it was a whole different ball game. Director Kinji Fukasaku came up during WWII, working in a munitions factory that kept getting bombed, as a 15-year-old (the same age as the students in his film). When bombs came the kids sometimes used each other as human shields, and survivors would be left to bury the dead. It made him “understand the limits of friendship,” and he realized that the government had lied to Japan about why they were even in the war to begin with.
“This was his film kind of giving a finger to the Japanese government,” said film critic Amy Nicholson on The Canon. “I love that the last film he made is [like] ‘You can’t trust adults, you can’t trust the government; they grind up kids and use them for meat.'”
This seems like a crucial block of knowledge to bring to a Battle Royale viewing; it colors the culture of Japan (which, during the movie’s release in the ’90s, was also going through some changes reflected in Battle Royale like high unemployment) as a post-war state, and informs viewers about how that makes Fukasaku feel. As authorial intent goes, this one is wide-reaching and savage. It touches on the war, the nation, and human (or at least, survivalist teen) nature.
But that only makes it all the more peculiar when directors like Christopher Nolan say that the wiretapping debate had no impact on their decision to give Batman the ability to wiretap the citizens of Gotham in The Dark Knight, or the clash of grassroots protesters versus the police just happened to make its foray into The Dark Knight Rises after #OccupyWallStreet. It seems disingenuous for audiences to implicitly trust that Nolan wasn’t affected by these things. It seems wrong to think that there’s no way the two worlds could bleed into each other.
Which is what makes The Birth of a Nation controversy so irreconcilable. How can a movie, centered on a graphic rape, be trusted to be appropriately handled by someone who committed (alleged and murky) sexual assault? How can the audience react to a movie organically, knowing that fact in the back of their minds? Will they be able to divorce authorial intent and the creator from their viewing? Should they have to?
It’s easy to cast off a notion like Nolan’s when you see parallels in The Dark Knight trilogy. Incorporating Fukasaku’s past is a fascinating spotlight that only illuminates the statement of Battle Royale all the more. But with Nate Parker the line is murkier. And I’m not sure there’s an easy answer there.