Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hounddog (2007)

The first thing to be said about Hounddog is that it has generated tons of controversy, being the film in which beloved child actress Dakota Fanning gets raped. There's a lot to say about that alone, but most of it has been said elsewhere. My position is that it is only a movie - a fiction - and nothing to get overly worked up about. Furthermore, of all the 12 year old actresses in modern cinema history, Dakota is the one who was most likely to have been mature enough to take on the role - a task that she accomplished in spades. And if you've heard anything about her commitment to the role, she was not only okay with the nature of it, she was actually very supportive of the entire project.

So no, there was no abuse or exploitation of any kind involved with this film, regardless of what you might have heard from the puritanical zealots. In fact, the director herself invited the feds to investigate, and they gave it a big ol' thumbs up. The rape scene itself is a "disappointment", in terms of being rather underwhelming after all of the hype it has generated (which was never the point). And here's a piece of fun trivia you can throw in the face of anyone who doesn't understand the term "acting" - not only was Dakota not actually raped on the set, she wasn't even naked. Want proof? It's right there in the scene itself! One has to wonder whether that "goof" was left in there intentionally to spite the film's critics.

"It's not really happening. It's a movie, and it's called acting." - Dakota Fanning

So moving on, there are thankfully some people out there capable of looking past the hysteria. But it seems to me that a lot of them have come to the conclusion that, while Dakota's performance is noteworthy, the film overall is pretty mediocre. What's disturbing is this trend I'm noticing in people explicitly advising against seeing the film, like as if they're afraid of what others might see in it. Talk about silencing the director's voice. Is the film really so uninspired that it's not worth "wasting" your time on? Well I don't agree. I think you should go see it and make up your own mind about it. Moreover, my personal opinion is that the movie is really good; in fact, it's one of my favorite of Dakota Fanning's many feature films.

So what does Hounddog have going for it? Well, it's a story about a young girl's discovery of the healing power of the blues. Kind of a preteen Black Snake Moan, which is another movie I liked. The southern setting is beautiful (if rustic), and the warm, summery atmosphere is a climate I can really appreciate. And visually - well, you've got Dakota looking fantastic.

(No worse for the sweat and grime. :p)

I think a lot of people get upset about this movie not just because of the rape itself, but because it's one of Dakota's sexiest roles - at just twelve years of age. In the opening scene, Lewellen (Dakota's character) convinces a boy to play "show me yours" with the promise of a kiss. She spends the entire film running around in a minimal amount of clothing. She goes swimming in her underwear. She writhes about in bed. And there's no doubt of the sexual connotations of her hip-shaking Elvis impressions. These are all perfectly natural behaviors for a poor, sexually curious, Elvis-obsessed girl of 12. So why do they make us uncomfortable? I suppose it's because we either think sexuality is damaging to a young girl, or that it's dangerous. Both of these approaches are represented by two of the villains in the film.

Exhibit A: Lewellen's grandmother. She's a very religious, anti-sex type. She sees Lewellen's burgeoning sexuality as if it were a poison in her soul, and she wants to protect her from it, to preserve her childhood innocence for as long as possible. So she forbids the girl from entertaining those devilish thoughts, and from hanging out with boys. What does this accomplish? It doesn't prevent Lewellen from being victimized, but it does add another layer to her suffering - the guilt of sin. Plus it totally destroys Lewellen's innocent romance with Buddy, which could be interpreted as a catalyst leading to her abuse, as well as to the further breakdown of their friendship afterward - leaving Lewellen utterly alone to deal with her pain. With all this in mind, why do we still stress the importance of purity and chastity? Perhaps it's because we see the danger in sex, and we want to protect our youth from it.

"You think she's yours, her daddy thinks she's his."
"And you think she's yours?"
"No, I don't. I don't think she's anybody's. Only person she belongs to is herself."

Exhibit B: Wooden's Boy. He is an older boy from the neighborhood, lacking moral scruples. He gets wind of Lewellen's burgeoning sexuality - just as we, the audience, do - and, disgusting creep that he is, marks her out as a target for rape. I think this is an important point, because we tend to want to follow this script. We see rape as the inevitable result of a young girl's precocious sexuality. So when the director forces us to participate like voyeurs in this girl's sexual awakening, we feel guilty, as though we are condoning the ensuing rape. As if the director were inviting us to rape Lewellen with our eyes. Simply watching the film, and passing it around, becomes an act of support for the rape.

But this belief relies on that presumed connection between a young girl's sexuality and her victimization. Why are we so insistent on that point? That any lapse in purity and chastity is tantamount to violent assault? Talk about a harsh deterrent. Are we really suppressing kids' sexuality to protect them from rape, or are we using the fear of rape to suppress kids' sexuality, knowing that they will soon grow to become the next batch of adults in charge of running society? The villain here is the rapist. Do we hold the girl responsible for the sexual predators she attracts? Do we blame her sexual precocity for the abuse? Is it the fault of the girl's guardians for not successfully keeping her chastity belt locked tight? To say so would be akin to justifying rape as a punishment for impurity. And that's unforgivable. Rape is never justified.

The solution is simply to sever the tie between our notion of a young girl's sexuality and abuse. If we stop viewing her sexuality in the context of abuse, then we stop going out of our way to ensure that abuse is always present. Where it is present, the perpetrator is easy to single out. Where it's not, there's no room for criticism. The villain is Wooden's Boy, not Lewellen. Wooden's Boy is guilty for raping Lewellen. Lewellen is not guilty for expressing her sexuality. And neither are you guilty for witnessing it. And neither is the director guilty for depicting it. It's not something that has to be locked up in a vault, hidden from the world, so that we can all pretend it doesn't exist (like that would accomplish anything worthwhile). And this story is not one that ought to be suppressed. The director's voice has every right to be heard.

And that is truly the point of this film. It's a story about a girl finding her voice after she's had to endure a traumatic and personally devastating event. Her love of Elvis is silenced when it is perverted and used against her. She has to reclaim her sense of identity, and self-worth, and rediscover the value of the music she once cherished - by going to its roots. And she doesn't accomplish this by blaming herself, least of all for things she couldn't control. She learns that hardship is not the end of the world. And with guidance from a wise snake charmer, she learns to take the metaphorical poison inside of her, and turn it into a well of strength. She uses it to enrich the depth of her soul, which she pours into the blues she sings. And in that way, she gains the ability to impart her experience to others who may be down, as she once was, in order to lift their spirits, too. And that's the true meaning of the blues.

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