Critiquing American culture is tricky for people in the family newspaper business, especially this week as two controversial movies open at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
I shall try to be discreet.
One film, Hounddog, starring 12-year-old Dakota Fanning, involves the rape of a child. The other, Zoo, concerns - how to put it - an "equine brothel" wherein certain activities lead to a curious death.
Zoo is based on a real-life incident in Enumclaw, Wash., in 2005, and stars - oh, who cares? Suffice it to say, what we have here is a man, a horse and a barn.
More compelling than the depths of man's degeneracy is our cultural rationalization of "art," whereby pushing the envelope is confused with genius and scuttling the last taboo is seen as an expression of sophistication.
In interviews, Zoo filmmaker Robinson Devor and distributor Mark Urman have emphasized the movie's universalism. Mr. Urman says the film is "a universal look at what goes on behind the facade of everyday, quotidian, normal American middle-class life." Mr. Devor admits that the protagonist "seems like an oddball at the outset of the movie" (ya think?), but the filmmaker is trying to reveal "the human capacity to do the most awful things, chart[ing] the journey of this unhappily married man who began to explore sexual alternatives, as so many do."
Forgotten in all the lofty talk about universal themes, testing thresholds and the artful treatment of this forbidden subject is the logic of taboos and boundaries. In most cases, they exist for a good reason - evolved over time, in the service of civilization.
The filmmaker's ultimate justification for laying it all bare is the human factor, which in this case seems overrated. Whatever one's moral objections, says Mr. Devor, these men are "still people. They are still us."
The same taboo-busting impulse drives Hounddog, wherein we witness a real 12-year-old portray a girl waking up as her naked father climbs into bed with her; "dancing" in her underwear while lying in bed; and getting raped by a teenage boy.
We are, in other words, voyeurs to a young girl acting out a sexual predator's fantasies. If we have a problem with that, we're told these are real issues that beg honest exploration. No, amend that. We're lectured - by a 12-year-old, who, we're reminded, is a sophisticated actress. "You know, I'm an actress," Dakota patiently explained to The New York Times. "It's what I want to do. It's what I've been so lucky to have done for almost seven years now. And I am getting older."
Does anything quite equal the ennui born of being scolded by a too-precious child?
Far be it for anyone to suggest that adults know more about such things than children. At least some of them do. Dakota's parents support their daughter's decision to play the rape scene, noting that this could cinch an Oscar for the child star. Even Marc Klaas - the ubiquitous been-there father of his murdered daughter, Polly - has given his nod to the film, vouching for its sensitive, supportive treatment of Dakota.
Only the actress' face is shown during the rape scene, which reportedly has been tastefully executed.
It's hard to get enough of tasteful rapes, I admit. Unless you're a real child rapist.
But it's art, so relaaaaax. And it's real, so get with it.
And it's the last taboo.
Until the next one.
Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.