Art can and should be ugly at times. But what is the responsibility of the artist and exhibitor in terms of preparing a viewer for such material? And does this obligation change depending on where and how the art is displayed?
These subjects arose during closing night of the 41st annual Denver Film Festival, when the forthcoming film Vox Lux was given the red-carpet treatment at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. As I pointed out in my review of the fest's second week, most attendees probably knew little about the film beyond its description as a satirical portrait of a pop star portrayed by Natalie Portman, with original music by Sia. But the tale opens with a graphic school shooting set in 1999, when the Columbine attack took place. To make the allusion even more direct, the gunman, seen above, is clad in a long jacket that recalls what the Columbine killers wore.
I saw what I estimated as a couple of dozen or so folks walk out of the Ellie during the movie (which includes another mass-shooting scene), and wrote that "as soon as the credits began to roll, hundreds of them fled toward the exits like inmates who suddenly discovered that a power surge had caused all their cell doors to open." The result, I added, was that Vox Lux director Brady Corbet, on hand for a post-screening Q&A, "was left to offer his take on what had just unspooled to a house that was suddenly more than half empty."
Because my own daughter was among the folks who split early (she grew up in the shadow of Columbine and now works as a teacher), I questioned my own objectivity in determining whether organizers should have been more explicit in detailing what was coming, to tip off people who might be traumatized by references to one of the Denver area's most horrific events. After all, the festival's summary of Vox Lux made it clear that bad things happen. (It reads: "As teenagers, sisters Celeste and Eleanor survived a seismic tragedy; in making music about their experience, Celeste became a star. But now, as an adult [played by Natalie Portman] with a teenage daughter of her own, Celeste is struggling anew — faced once again with an act of terrifying violence.") And prior to the film, Corbet offered a general warning of his own in light of a shooting at a Thousand Oaks, California, nightspot that killed a dozen people earlier this month. That's not the same as saying, "Hey, just so you know, the movie starts with a school shooting inspired by Columbine," but it's something.
To that end, I had hoped to chat about these issues with Denver Film Festival director Andrew Rodgers, who introduced Corbet and was present for the screening. Instead, he chose to correspond via email — and much of his response parsed the numbers. He maintained that of the nearly 800 people at the opera house on Saturday night, staffers counted only twelve people, or 1.5 percent of the overall attendees, who departed early, and he suggested that they could have had other reasons for doing so aside from being blindsided by gory references to the Trenchcoat Mafia. He added that even if his crew hadn't seen some of those who scooted away and the total actually was closer to two dozen, he didn't find that "particularly significant or concerning."
Likewise, Rodgers calculated that 400 to 500 of those at the screening stuck around to hear Corbet chat about the film, which he characterized as typical for festival events, and raised the prospect that some of those who didn't may have been motivated by the lateness of the hour (the film ended after 10 p.m.) or simply wanted to get over to the closing-night reception early.
More to the point, Rodgers says that neither he nor any other Denver Film Society representative with whom he's spoken has received any negative feedback about the film or the Columbine-esque moments in it from audience members — and several offered compliments about the fest showing it.
"As you can imagine, like any film, documentary or short that we consider, there is discussion, there are differing opinions and ultimately, there is a decision made to put that artistic piece in front of our Festival audience," he added. "This is about art and interpretation. Film festivals are about providing access to cinema of all sorts — both pleasing and challenging — and we take that role seriously. We don’t create the content. We showcase the cinematic voices we think are important to be heard."
Rodgers noted that "in the next month, this film is going to open in theaters nationwide [the launch date is December 7], including the Alamo Drafthouse and Sie FilmCenter here in Denver. It’s highly unlikely that theaters around the country will choose not to screen Vox Lux or prepare specific pre-film warnings due to its content and the history of tragic school and mass shootings. Whether it may be an art exhibit at a museum, public art display or film presentation, none of us want to be in a situation where we are censoring content based on our tragic history. A history which continues to play out in communities across our country, by the way."
Obviously, Rodgers's argument is a straw man. No one's advocating for the Denver Film Festival to eschew scheduling risky and possibly divisive fare in favor of innocuous programming that wouldn't upset a five-year-old. (Want to feel like your heart's been ripped out of your chest? Watch Bambi.) And the implication that the aforementioned Vox Lux scene depicts a generic school shooting is simply false. Director Corbet overtly signals the viewer to think "Columbine." So the very specific question is: Should the folks screening a little-known film with a Columbine-centric bloodbath in the place where the slayings happened have given ticket-buyers more of a heads-up? Changing its online blurb to read, "As teenagers, sisters Celeste and Eleanor survived a seismic tragedy that echoes Columbine" would have been more than enough.
Clearly, Rodgers, who moved to Colorado from North Carolina in 2016, thinks that wasn't necessary. In the meantime, though, Denverites for whom the Columbine attacks still produce a visceral reaction now know what to expect from Vox Lux. You're welcome.
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