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Hounddog: Art or Scandal?

Hounddog: Art or Scandal?

On CNN.com today, the ‘most popular’ story of the day carries the following headline:

Dakota Fanning, 12, raped in her next film (see list on right)

I have a fundamental problem with this headline. This is clearly a noxious attempt to shock and mislead the public. Obviously, Dakota Fanning is not raped in her next film. Deborah Kampmeier’s upcoming film Hounddog, which stars Fanning, reportedly features Fanning’s character being raped. This is an important distinction. It turns out that CNN followed up on NY Daily News gossiper Lloyd Grove’s column, which outlines some of the powerful imagery from Hounddog in the following way:

“The screenplay for “Hounddog” – a dark story of abuse, violence and Elvis Presley adulation in the rural South, written and directed by Deborah Kampmeier – calls for Fanning’s character to be raped in one explicit scene and to appear naked or clad only in “underpants” in several other horrifying moments.”

Like many on the American festival circuit, I became aware of Deborah Kampmeier with her debut feature Virgin, which starred Elisabeth Moss as a southern teenager who, after blacking out during a rape, believes she has been impregnated by God. The film played at the Hamptons Film Festival (where I saw the movie) and at the Sarasota Film Festival (a couple of years before I started working there). It’s a powerfully-made independent film that tackles the emotional difficulties of sexual violence in a responsible, dramatically satisfying way. Not having seen Hounddog, I assume that Kampmeier will continue to bring her uncompromising vision to the screen, but the sensationalized coverage from the national and NY press seems to be the exact sort of manufactured scanadal that has been punishing artistic exploration in the age of the culture wars.

The sexualization of children, a hot topic in the culture and a constant source of sensational news items on networks like CNN, is certainly a difficult, important issue. From the farcical scandal surrounding the photographs of Sally Mann to Paul Reubens’ having to register as a sex offender for collecting vintage photographs, the fictional depiction of childhood sexuality puts any artist on the bleeding edge of cultural examination. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that Americans were having copies of films like The Tin Drum confiscated because of their depiction of sexuality and children. In the case of Hounddog, the issue at hand is rape, an even more potent issue as it relates to a particularly brutal crime and sexual violence directed against a child.

Like any difficult subject matter, the issue of rape has always withstood artistic examination. I think of the opening moments of Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanite as a striking example of how just how challenging this issue can be in a film. But by loading headlines with language that doesn’t differentiate between artistic representations of sexual crimes and the actuality of rape, an already loaded topic becomes sensationalized. I look forward to Kampmeier’s film and to making up my own mind, but in the meantime, here’s hoping that the media begin to treat art and artists seriously and stop exploiting this film’s content without the context of fiction, representation, and the narrative of the film itself.

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