The Authorial Intent Battle Royale

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.

Battle-Royale-Class-Photo-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.

Dark Knight Rises protest still
I mean, come ON

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.

Canned Questions and Interesting Insights

I’ve been following Alyssa Rosenberg’s work for years. One of the things that I love about her is her ability to not just report on camps across the aisle from her, but her inclination to understand them, explain them, and offer a sort of common ground or an olive branch.

Her latest piece that got me thinking is “Seven questions the entertainment industry needs to answer about rape,” inspired by the HBO’s president of programming’s squirmishness around the frequency of rape plots on the premium channel’s shows.

“It’s remarkable that public relations departments aren’t briefing network executives and talent about this question, which has come up at every press tour I’ve attended. If nothing else, better answers, no matter how canned they are, would help advance discussions about the depiction of sexual violence, instead of leaving us stuck in the same frustrating intellectual morass,” writes Rosenberg.

And so she offers them seven questions that they might prepare stock answers for.

On its face it goes against what a lot of journalists believe about the proper format for an interview; the interviewer is traditionally the one with the power and full forethought. But it also undermines the DC/gamergate/Ghost- bros’ argument that critics are only in it for the scoop, Dirty Laundry style. Here Rosenberg is saying—and showing—that critics are interested in getting to the heart of the issue. It’d be easy to write about yet another network exec who fumbled his answer to questions about sexual assault. It fits right into what’s expected; fuels that “outrage culture” we hear so much about.

And yet, she takes the time to offer up some prepared questions for network execs to prepare for, because she genuinely wants to know what they think about it.

“What are you interested in saying about sexual assault, either in the context of a single story or across your network or studio’s mix of programming?”

“If you believe your exploration of violence is “not specific to women,” what stories are you telling, or do you plan to tell, about men’s experiences with sexual assault? Do you believe men and women’s experiences with sexual violence are the same or different?”

“What stories about sexual assault by other artists do you admire, and why? Can you name a story about sexual assault that you think was badly done or unnecessary, and explain why you feel that way about it?”

These are fascinating questions, and any answer to them aside from a squirm and a brush-off would be breaking from the norm in a way pop culture writers are eagerly awaiting. Rosenberg is showing that the answers are worth perhaps compromising a bit for.