• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On "Cuties"

October 2020

A prudish mind and a conservative bent, however becoming to the refinement of a modern gentleman, are attributes unsuitable for the work of a critic.

Rather than serving as adornments to the state of his character, or polish to the delicacy of his taste, these qualities impose upon the critic an unnecessary hindrance. They catch him in the tough fibers of their ethical net, a terrible mass of knots and cords from which he’d prefer to be disentangled. Indeed, they cast upon him so many burdens and nettles by which, ultimately, his analysis is punctured and his intellect stifled.

Instead of offering constant guidance to his criticism, to which their voice, sotto voce, encourages brisk movement and virtuous ease, these forces act in the role of a sub-conscious dictator, from whom neither concession nor leniency are to be obtained. They prevent his exploration of indecent topics, his penetration into ugly ideas, his familiarity with meretricious scenes, at which depraved but far more liberal minds haven’t a hesitation to look, to which, without need of invitation, they’re far more likely to flock.

That said, as it pertains to the critic whose unfortunate job it is to assess the Netflix film, Cuties, he must attempt, if at all possible, to cool the temperature of his simmering disgust, and silence the boil of his conservative zeal. In his efforts at a critical and disinterested analysis of what has become this year’s most controversial and polarizing film, by which this disease-infested summer’s last weeks have been punctuated in a most unwholesome way, they’ll benefit him little. Should he fail to do so, the clamor of their resentment, heightened by the shouts of their outrage, will render an appreciation of the work impossible, and our critic without the valuable insight by which we might measure our own.

To be clear, at the outset, by “appreciation”, I mean to use the word in its most neutral sense, for there’s little of positive value by which this film might be recommended. That, of course, isn’t a universal opinion on which all viewers of this film will concur. Such an idea, after all—that of a “universal opinion”—is what we might call a contradiction in terms; opinion is necessarily idiosyncratic and personal, never to be generalized and held unanimously by the world. Rather, it’s the humble conclusion drawn by a single critic, a modest heretic, a quiet traditionalist tapping away on his keys. Usually, he’s the one with whom the larger, though seldom the better part of the culture (to whom, frankly, such cringe-inducing films are catered) will disagree.

No matter. For the critic, this means nothing. He’s inured, after all, to absorbing the rush of the water as he swims against the current of the stream. In his march toward the publication of a lonely point of view, toward the suggestion of an unusual manner of thought of which he alone is possessed, he’s been desensitized to the onward rush of the crowd. He’s stopped his ears from the siren calls of popularity, to whose enchantment and dulcet voice, lesser writers will sacrifice not only candor and honor, but identity and wit. He alone retains them all, despite the loss of less faithful friends, and the scorn of less capacious minds.

The chief problem with Cuties, I think, is one of images and words; of hard depictions and malleable fancies. The former, the more concrete of the two, is actual and it’s real. It’s depicted and it’s seen. It’s the physical display, the corporeal exhibition upon which, for an unmerciful ninety-six minutes, the viewer’s eye is fixed. Little work on his part is to be done, as he’s purely receptive to the demonstration brought before him on the screen. And that demonstration, in the case of Cuties, is absolutely repugnant.

It includes, among other things, a voyeuristic glimpse, a behind-the-scenes view of young girls in flower—or, if not quite yet, in a state very much in hope of their imminent bloom. But these aren’t the same demure, enticingly modest nymphs by which the great Marcel Proust’s budding grove might’ve been populated. His preference for the female type was rather different, as was the literary soil in which she was drawn and cultivated. Girls were, for him, detached, mysterious, amorous, discrete, and—to his occasional frustration—tantalizingly Sapphic. They were abstract yet minutely-detailed. Yet always, the full coloring of their form was left to the reader to complete.

The girls of Cuties are not of the same species; much seems to have changed since the days of Balbec and the Guermantes Way, to those of the sordid Parisian streets about which these unpleasantly modern girls strut. The wastrels of Cuties, more canine than coquette, are hyper-sexualized and under-parented. The main problem, we come to realize, isn’t the tacit emphasis on the latter (on which, through the course of the film, more time might’ve been spent), but the explicit parading of the former.

Scantily-dressed and lasciviously-suggestive, these girls live as if in imitation of a Cardi B rap video, from which they seem to take their life’s instruction. Their demeanor, crude and debased, seems as if molded by the conduct of a certain Nicki Minaj, to whose ample bosom, latitudinous waist, and queenly likeness they so aspire. The combination of these two ladies’ star power, it’s clear, is the afflatus by which they’re imbued and hope to be raised. And, as we’ve been told time and again, this isn’t at all a bad thing; Ms. “B” and Minaj are the types of strong, consummate feminists from whom these girls, and, really, all girls, should be taking their example.

And so, they do.

Imbued with this deviant spirit of the West, these girls twist their every contortion, shake their every gyration, thrust their genitalia, and twerk their derrière to match those techniques for which America’s favorite rap queens have become so magnificently famous. They hope, very earnestly, to follow in the glory and riches of their heroines’ paths. They want to tread the lines etched in the ground that we, in a state of confusion, agree to call milestones along the journey of women and dance. They strive to jump from childhood, to demimonde, to dancing celebrity, in the split second of a viral age.

A hushed group of men, hidden somewhere in a darkened corner, watches with curiosity the details of this unnatural leap, this perversion of evolution, by whose strange display, it’s quietly aroused. It has to thank for its orgasmic satisfaction the depraved creator of this film, Maïmouna Doucouré. From these pre-pubescent, undeveloped girls, she alone demanded these shocking dance moves. By her, the crudest and most prurient thrusts of the hips were encouraged, to the delight of every pedophilic gaze. Adult pouting of the lips and awkward opening of the legs were met with applause and cheers of which she, at her various international award ceremonies, is sure to be the recipient. The more of it, the better.

Doucouré, one can be sure, never cringed at audacity of these children, but reprimanded their diffidence only. The former, after all, was the attribute upon which her foreign trophies and her Netflix compensation (not to mention her male viewers’ satisfaction) were ultimately to hinge.

Doucouré doubtless oversaw—for what must’ve been many hours before the light of her cameras turned on—the rehearsal of these “dance” moves until the attainment of their ultimate perfection. One’s nauseated by the very thought. She likely demanded their lenses inch ever closer to these children’s unspeakable parts, upon which no decent adult would ever dare focus her eyes. With juice boxes at the ready, and delicious candies of every saccharine sort, she probably accommodated their childish hungers in between takes, as she led them from one quasi-pornographic scene to the next.

If, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Cuties were to be published as a book, as opposed to crafted for the light and dazzle of the screen, it might be startling, but it’d be unexceptionable. This is the best example of the difference between words, merely, on the one hand, and images on the other. Lolita is, by every objective standard, a fabulous, if not discomfiting book, by which every reader’s mind is greatly enriched and his soul heightened. This edification comes to him not by way of the illicit nature of poor Humboldt’s unrequited love, to which, given the context, we might rightly object. It comes, instead, from the sheer power of author’s words, on the wings of whose language and cadence, a reader, so accustomed to the earth, is lifted to that empyrean of the mind.

No children were damaged in the realization of his work. That, more than anything, is the point upon which all comes to rest, and it can’t be stated emphatically enough. None of the bindings of morality, on which our civilization is structured, was broken in its rendering. Never was the sanctity of a young girl infringed. Never was a minor injured. Any indecency, therefore, of which it was productive can’t be pegged to the subtlety of his genius or to the novelty of his words. Rather, it would be affixed to the imagination of the reader’s own mind, into which they crept, and over which they took possession. The fault, then, is not in the author, but in ourselves—a group of readers, joined in our complicity, over whom the law hasn’t sway.

As it pertains to Cuties, this is not the case. Quite demonstrably, children were in fact damaged in its creation, whether they show it or not. In my thinking, the injuries are clear. While they might remain inconspicuous atop the skin, and the salve of a nice income will doubtless ease the acuity of their pain, they’ll be found far deeper between the strings of the soul. They’ll not be easily removed, once settled there. After all, these girls were forced to corrupt the innocence of their childhood and the joy of early age so that they might ape the worst parts of adulthood. They were made to arouse lust by youth, and sex by juvenescence. In having done so, they find themselves now in a strange intermediate state, into which the director enticed them, from which they can’t now be freed.

Put simply, they were the casualty of this transformation of words to images, of black-and-white print, to living colors on the screen. It’s for this reason, above many others, that Cuties is a condemnable film. It’s ripe for the censorious, and detestable to the merely critical. For everyone else, it ought to be watched, if watched at all, with immense disquiet and unutterable shame. It should neither be liked nor applauded, but disowned as not in keeping with the morality of our age.

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