Reconsidering Jody Hill’s “Observe and Report”: Is It Transgressive Cinema?

by Andy and Jason Pyles
Movie Podcast Weekly.com

Andy and Jason Pyles, the authors of this essay, are two of the hosts of Movie Podcast Weekly, a new movie podcast that launches on October 1, 2012. Andy and Jason revisited Jody Hill’s dark comedy “Observe and Report” (2009), and then had the following discussion via e-mail. Here is Jason’s perspective:

The Flawed Defense of Transgressive Cinema. There’s a phenomenon called “transgressive cinema.” It’s not new. I believe that term was originally coined in the ’80s, but transgressive cinema has been around since the birth of the medium. Indeed, Georges Méliès (“A Trip to the Moon”) used to make nudie films, which, around the turn of the century was transgressive art, even in Paris. But the example that comes to mind is Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1932). Apparently transgressive cinema aims to shock and offend. It smacks in the face of propriety and devolves until it crosses the boundaries of acceptable social behavior and expression.

I’m not here to speak any evil or condemnation against transgressive cinema. I actually believe it has usefulness, albeit limited. But I aim to shoot holes in one popular, modern-day defense of this phenomenon. To illustrate my argument, I’ll be citing Jody Hill’s dark comedy, “Observe and Report” (2009), as well as Seth MacFarlane’s animated series, “Family Guy” (1999). Don’t get me wrong: I think both have their redeeming moments of humor, but I’m going to assert that “Observe and Report” is irresponsible filmmaking, and in essence, we need to be willing to call a spade a spade. I won’t make any in-depth claims about “Family Guy” other than I don’t think it’s as harmless to our culture as some people want to believe it is.

Condemning the Enemy by Becoming Him. I remember hearing defenders of the animated television show, “Family Guy,” who would justify and explain away the show’s racist and chauvinist father figure (Peter Griffith) by saying, “That’s the point! This show is demonstrating how ignorant racist people like these characters really are.” Nice try but no dice.

This contention always seemed like a flawed defense to me, because it’s ironic and unlikely that the cartoon’s creators want to condemn offensive content by parading it as their comedic bread-and-butter. The irony undermines the argument. In other words, they may be saying it’s “wrong” to say such things, but the fact remains, they are creating characters who are committing those very offenses themselves, thereby becoming the enemy while trying to condemn him. It’s like that famous argument, “Should we kill to prove that it’s wrong to kill?”

Indeed, the creators of “Family Guy” and “Observe and Report” are still intentionally creating humorous content out of transgressive material. I’ll cite the most infamous example from “Observe and Report.” There is a scene where a character is date-raped, and it is clearly meant to be humorous. The subject of rape is like the Holocaust to me: I don’t think either of those things could ever be funny in any context or under any circumstances. (Sure, having gotten some distance from it, many people still joke about Ned Beatty squealing like a pig in “Deliverance” (1972), but let’s face it, when you watch the actual scene again, like I did recently, it’s actually very upsetting.)

Setting aside the fact that an alarming number of today’s viewers don’t even realize that this scene depicts date rape (since the woman is too inebriated to give her consent), I think this is irresponsible filmmaking because such a despicable act is not only portrayed in a positive light, it’s also meant to be depicted humorously. Naturally, Jody Hill has the Constitutional and artistic right in this country to create such a scene, but there’s often a huge chasm between whether one can do something and whether one should.

So, my questions for Andy are these: Is “Observe and Report” transgressive cinema? If so, do you think it serves some loftier purpose besides just making viewers laugh? Do you think this movie is an example of irresponsible filmmaking, particularly where it pertains to the date-rape scene? And finally, do you accept the defense that such depictions themselves are meant to illustrate how reprehensible such behavior is?

Andy’s perspective:

Is “Observe and Report” transgressive cinema? Yes, but not for the date-rape scene. I think its transgressivism is in the final scene with the exhibitionist running around. That, to me, was clearly the most “transgressive” scene in the film. And, it was. It was quite offensive, I’ll bet, to most of its audience, even though the audience was likely Seth Rogan fans.

If so, do you think it serves some loftier purpose besides just making viewers laugh? No, transgressive film is intended to serve some loftier purpose, but this was just silly. There wasn’t much of a point for me.

Do you think this movie is an example of irresponsible filmmaking, particularly where it pertains to the date-rape scene? Not necessarily, because it wasn’t a “date-rape” scene in the technical sense. She was conscious enough to converse with him during the act (why he had stopped moving). She wasn’t unconscious, nor do we, as the audience, know whether she consented to such activity prior to the filmed scene. That being said, I would certainly advocate against that kind of behavior.

And finally, do you accept the defense that such depictions themselves are meant to illustrate how reprehensible such behavior is? Yes, I accept the defense that sometimes those characters are portrayed in such a way to show reprehensible behavior. I like the example of “South Park” more than “Family Guy,” though. Many of SP’s episodes are brilliant and make excellent points, and yet the writers use shock and awe to do so.

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