The Last Licorice Pizza Duel

Why is our movie discussion zeitgeist so idiotic?

The Golden Globe nominations came out last week and among the more obvious snubs was The Last Duel from director Ridley Scott. With a cast featuring Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Adam Driver, The Last Duel stands out as probably the single most bizarrely proportioned movie of the year in terms of famous stars versus awareness in the zeitgeist. I hadn’t even heard of the mid-October release until Ridley Scott gave an infamous interview in late November where he blamed millennials and their cell phones for the movie’s poor performance.

This was a podcast interview, one that people probably would have ignored entirely if not for Scott’s inflammatory statements. So the marketing wasn’t exactly great. The continued lack of availability on subscription streaming platforms probably has also been bad for The Last Duel. Yet critics ignored these more obvious explanations for why the well-reviewed historical film did so poorly at the box office in favor of a far more ludicrous one—that the film was an insensitive depiction of rape. One critic likened The Last Duel to the Rashomon of rape, apparently oblivious as to the subject matter of Rashomon itself.

Now, for a bit more context—The Last Duel is based on a real-life incident in One Hundred Years War-era France, specifically, the last legally sanctioned incident of the “trial by combat.” The knight Jean De Carrouges accuses the squire Jacque Le Gris of raping his wife, Marguerite de Thibouville, and en lieu of the inherently he-said he-said nature of the allegation, the powers that be order the two are to fight to death with any non magically enchanted weapons to settle the dispute. Divided into three chapters over a whopping two and a half hours, The Last Duel tells its story each character’s point of view. Already it sounds like a movie that’s best to watch with with breaks, not a good fit for theatrical experience.

The social criticisms of The Last Duel aren’t exactly subtle. Even the story as told by the viewpoint of Le Gris makes the rapist look rather gross, and a clear beneficiary of a patriarchal power structure. What’s more, the story as told by De Carrouges so obviously paints him as a noble white knight with conspicuously snipped portions that he’s not exactly a huge improvement. It’s Marguerite’s story that’s by far the longest and persuasive of the three, with “the truth” lingering after the rest of her opening title disappears.

If the patriarchal criticism of the Le Gris story was a little obvious, Marguerite’s story practically hits the viewer over the head with these ideas, almost detrimentally. A Todd Akin-inspired reference to established science claiming that women can only get pregnant if they orgasm hits quite differently in this era of COVID-19. Still, the whole inquisition of Marguerite, and how the world assumes her to not even be a legal person just on account of being a woman, is a well-done indictment of rape culture. The titular duel has a similarly bittersweet taste as the narrative has already exhausted Marguerite, and the viewers. It’s hard to really get excited about De Carrouges winning, knowing as we do that at this point that  personal pride motivates him more than what’s actually best for his family.

The Last Duel benefits a lot from viewers not knowing what the movie is really about going in. Hence another marketing issue. Yet ultimately what really doomed The Last Duel to mainstream success is that the main audience this kind of woke messaging would appeal to is the same kind that now thinks any depiction of truly repugnant acts is tantamount to endorsement.

Acknowledging De Carrouges sees himself as a noble hero while Le Gris doesn’t think of himself as a rapist at all carries the risk of someone agreeing with these views. It’s just more of the usual trigger warning logic, by now excessively removed from the original trigger warnings that inspired that logic, which is antithetical to any kind of serious film discussion. As frankly ridiculous as that might be, The Last Duel getting shut out of the Golden Globes shows that even bad publicity isn’t enough to buoy a low-performing film’s award prospects these days when it’s publicity about a movie being dangerously pro-rape.

Licorice Discourse

Licorice Pizza
Sean Penn macks on Alana Haim in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Licorice Pizza.’

Speaking of which, Licorice Pizza, the latest from director Paul Thomas Anderson, managed to dodge a discourse bomb just in time to scoop up four Golden Globe nominations. And what discourse bomb might that be? Well, based on a cursory reading of the plot summary, you might think it’s because the movie is a love story between a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman. But you would be wrong! Actually, the problem is racism. There are a couple of scenes where the owner of a local Japanese restaurant speaks in a weird, racist way to his Japanese wife. Somehow, he acquires a completely different Japanese wife between these scenes. That’s the joke.

It’s not…a very funny joke, at least in my opinion. But an actual critical interpretation of the scenes in question requires looking at the movie’s full context. And what Licorice Pizza does, for two hours, is have its pedophilesque lead relationship stumble in and out of various 70s-era vignettes. Compared to the drubbing the 80s have gotten lately, Licorice Pizza is actually relatively well-researched in its approach of distinctive seventies curiosities. Waterbeds, the 1973 Oil Crisis, daredeviling, pinball machines, Jon Peters, queer issues, and an intensified Brady Bunch pastiche all make appearances.

More importantly, all of these vignettes take place in the exact same context that the racist Japanese restaurant owner does. They’re random one-off references to stuff that happened in the 70s. I’m not sure any of the vignettes are actually supposed to be funny. They just inspire a sort of wonder about how weird the 70s where. Was anyone laughing at the sadistic gay dinner scene? And if they were, was it at the expense of the gay people, rather than the awkwardness of their situation?

Going by the current discourse, it’s genuinely hard to tell. Part of the problem is that hardly anyone has actually seen Licorice Pizza. It’s only available in major cities at the moment and doesn’t get a wide release until Christmas. And it’s obvious reading much of the controversy on the topic that even many of the people complaining haven’t actually seen the movie. For a sense of perspective, the Japanese restaurant vignette scenes also have a moment implying that white waitresses at the restaurant are dressing up in yellowface. Is that less offensive than the restaurant owner using a racist tone of voice? Or just not as obvious? Or maybe just not as racist because the waitresses don’t have control over their work costume?

Basically all of Licorice Pizza is about that shallow. The movie breaks down almost entirely if you try to read the story as any more complex than just wow, people sure did crazy stuff in the 70s. So I’m not exactly upset about people dragging Licorice Pizza for racism–critics were already overpraising the movie, as far as I’m concerned.

Yet coming on the heels of The Last Duel discourse, it’s hard not to gape in wonder at just how patently idiotic the zeitgeist has become on such subjects. Whether it’s The Last Duel’s brutal critique or Licorice Pizza’s shallow one, there simply isn’t any way to attack morally depraved ideas at all if simply depicting them is now verboten. What does it say about us as a society that even obviously strawmanned ideas are now considered a serious risk for corrupting the youth? If the mere existence of dissent is enough to dissuade others from your beliefs, that suggests you think your beliefs are remarkably unpersuasive.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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