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Offensive Lesson

By Mary Summerbell

I never expected to be writing this – an article about a movie about a pornographic magazine – but especially not for a soul-searching newsletter. It seems a strange juxtaposition of sacred and profane – like going to church naked, or a nun wearing bright red lipstick. But it’s an unlikely intersection that I find too intriguing to ignore.

I come to this by way of my annual quest to Beloit International Film Fest. At first glance at this year’s film descriptions, I noticed “Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story.” Immediately repulsed, I thought, “This is the first movie I can eliminate as an option to see.” Easy choice.

Not quite. Days later, as I kept going through the movie schedule, it occurred to me to ask myself why I responded so adversely to this film. I believe that if we have a strong or extreme reaction to something – attraction or aversion, for or against, love or hate – then most likely there’s an attachment in it for us, something we’re hanging on to, or avoiding, or in denial about that is nudging us to look at and consider it. So, I wondered, what is my issue with this film? What is it about it that caused me to reject it so quickly and vehemently? What do I not want to look at, not want to see? I began to think that just because of my visceral revulsion to it, it might be beneficial for me to see it. Maybe there was something in it reflecting something in me that I needed to see differently.

I saw it. I thought it was a good movie. Technically well made. Bright. Fast paced. Informative. Very well edited. It held my attention, with clips from the magazine alternating with interviews of those who worked on it and news events of the time. I was glad that parts were selectively concealed. And I admit that I closed my eyes a few times, including during the cartoon section. But what I saw of Hustler when I was young was enough for me to know that there are some things I honestly don’t want to see again. What I did see changed my way of thinking about some things.

Regardless of how anyone feels, or what they think of Larry Flint and his magazine, they changed our world. Whatever he was, he was not passive or apathetic. He participated in life, in history-changing ways. Because of him, and many others who worked for him and with him, willing to push beyond all reasonable limits in obscenity vs. censorship issues, United States citizens now have freedoms of expression that didn’t exist before their efforts. Most notably, parody was not protected under freedom of speech laws before he went to court on obscenity charges.

Living in extremes, Larry Flint went from born again Christian, buddy of fundamentalist ministers, at one point, to atheist and friend of high-profile atheist Madeline Murray O’Hare at another. At different times he professed to be a Democrat, then “totally Civil Libertarian,” then ran in a presidential primary as a Republican. He had the business savvy to publish an international magazine, which he chose to devote to the basest of human impulses and behaviors. He’s a paradox of a person, for sure, showing so many faces, hard to know who he really is and what is just “Kentucky hucksterism.”

But, underneath it all, I think he honestly believed in what he was doing. Nobody works on something as hard as he and his associates did without having some kind of convictions about it. These talented, skilled, intelligent people could easily have chosen other work. Instead, they invested themselves in being as offensive as possible in a very public way. Why? Well, if you’re going to defend freedom of expression, it almost inherently demands defending what’s offensive, because if something is acceptable, it doesn’t need defending.

When we’re offended, it stirs things up in us – physically, emotionally, mentally. Something comes up against our ego – our strong, long-held values and sacred beliefs – sometimes imposing on the core values that we hold as defining who we are. It can make us so uncomfortable that it all but forces us to respond, in an effort to maintain or regain our identity and integrity. Being offended pushes us – sometimes fast and hard – into a crisis of opportunity, a chance to re-evaluate, if we accept the challenge. Most of us tend to stay snuggled in our little comfort zones until something, or someone, bumps us out of them. I think Larry Flint very consciously tried to push people out of their complacency by shocking and offending them.

In the film Larry Flint says he believes that a key element of democracy is that freedom is indivisible. And that hypocrisy is the greatest threat to democracy. Lofty thoughts for a pornographer. And not empty words. He paid a high price for his opinions when he was shot by a white supremacist for printing pictures of an interracial couple in his magazine. Paralyzed, he spent years in pain, became addicted to narcotics. And yet he came back. A friend of his said that Larry wasn’t afraid of very much, even after he got shot. I think that’s admirable. Also, being against the death penalty, he tried to keep the man who shot him from being executed. That certainly isn’t the act of a shallow or callous person.

But what most impressed me in the film was Larry Flint’s reaction when his wife, Althea, became addicted to heroin and died of HIV. With a heartfelt tone in his voice he said, “I loved her very much, but you can’t protect someone against themselves.” I thought this was a profound insight for someone I hadn’t previously thought of as being particularly sensitive or introspective. I was touched by his public expression of such a painfully gained realization.

So is this what I didn’t want to see? That a man I once looked at as just another nasty fellow turned out to be someone much more complex, and perceptive, and human? Yes, that’s part of it. The contradictions, the ambiguities of life, of people – they’re so much more baffling, challenging, and real than the simplistic comfort of good guy – bad guy beliefs. Ambivalence – muddy, messy, downright perplexing – is so much harder to live with than reliable old absolutes. Dang. Sometimes it’s hard to grow up – even for grown-ups.

And then there’s that briefest flash of self-righteous indignation I felt when I reflexively said, “Yuk. That’s disgusting,” when I first saw the film title – and pushed it aside. I was judgmental. Ouch! There was a smugness, a feeling of superiority, in me at that moment that I don’t like to admit, or consider. Self-righteousness – a trait I so dislike. And there it was, in me. Oh, my. I sure didn’t want to see that.

But see it, I did. And I give myself credit – for being willing to look, to take the risk of seeing something undesirable in myself – for reconsidering, changing my mind, and ultimately being open to what this movie had to teach me. It’s a great reminder that we can’t get the lesson from something if we reject it. There’s a lot we can learn from people and things that we don’t like, or that make us uncomfortable, but only if we are open to them.

Larry Flint once promoted himself as “a smut peddler who cares.” Years ago this would have confused me. Wondering, “How can this be?” I would have seen it as a clever, but deceptive, publicity gimmick. Now I see how it’s not only possible, but possibly Larry Flint’s best effort to honestly describe who he is.

Seeing “Backstory” helped me gain appreciation for a man and his work that I previously disdained. I now see Larry Flint with ambivalence, and also with compassion for his humanity. Through the power of film Larry Flint and Hustler magazine became a means of spiritual growth for me. And that’s something I sure never thought I’d say.

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