Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
I like sex and violence as much as the next girl, but do they have to be the driving force of every movie ever made? Is my only option reruns of Shattered Glass and The Social Network? What are your favorite fiction movies that don’t have sexual relationships or violence as central themes? (Or even movies that don’t feature these two things at all?) —Kristine
My mind immediately went to the only David Lynch movie I’ve ever been able to show my parents: The Straight Story, a startlingly G-rated feature starring Richard Farnsworth as a stubbornly independent old man who embarks on a multi-month trip via riding mower to visit and make peace with his brother. It’s an oddball movie, and a huge stylistic departure for Lynch, given the lack of dream logic, surrealism, and twisted sex and violence. But it’s remarkably charming and funny, and even quotable, in its amiable cornpone way. And there are always classic musicals like The Sound Of Music, which sometimes have romantic plotlines or threats of violence, but generally have a lot more going on that that. (Not Oklahoma, though, which is all about the sex and violence and sexual violence.) That aside, though, I love animation, so I generally can’t get enough of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Some are more violent than others (violence is pointedly the central theme of Howl’s Moving Castle, and it’s pretty key to Princess Mononoke, too), but for most of them, the main themes are courage, joy, exploration, and perseverance. Spirited Away is my personal favorite, but My Neighbor Totoro is a close second, and Kiki’s Delivery Service is mighty sweet as well.
The first thing that came to my mind was The Jerk, which doesn’t really feature any sex or violence, but is nevertheless awesome. (It got me thinking that there might be a lot of classic comedies that fit this bill, since love interests are frequently far less important than characters just goofing around.) In The Jerk, Steve Martin plays a guy (he says he was born a poor black child) just trying to navigate his way in the world. The rags-to-riches-to-rags plot is way more important than his relationship with Bernadette Peters, though that certainly provides some sweetness to mix with the silly. Same goes for another of my favorite comedies: Billy Madison. Do casual fans even remember that Billy falls in love with his first-grade teacher? Probably not. She’s another prop to bounce jokes off of. (Great jokes, though.)
At the risk of getting an eye-roll from record-store clerks everywhere, I submit Empire Records. I love it even though the film’s description—misfit record-store clerks try to save their independent record store from becoming a chain—is as painfully ’90s as its execution. It has the B-plot love story, sure, but it’s much more about damning the man and saving the empire than it is about Liv Tyler and Johnny Whitworth sharing their feelings. Maybe 15 minutes of love and sex is nothing next to 75 minutes of shoplifters, washed-up pop stars, suicide, and bedwetting. Far more squarely in the good entertainment camp is Up, which is the first film that came to my mind. Love is the catalyst, but the story is all about adventure and friendship. Plus dog violence is way too adorable to qualify as real violence.
Actually, I’d say that most of my favorite movies--at least the ones I list in my Top 10—are neither violent or sexually explicit in any significant way. I second Tasha’s recommendation of Spirited Away, and could name a number of reasonably “clean” Hollywood classics, including Citizen Kane and Singin’ In The Rain (and Groundhog Day, which should be considered a classic by now). But since some friends of mine were just talking about it, I’ll pitch The Remains Of The Day, an absorbing, poignant study of a butler so committed to serving his master that he avoids ordinary human relationships and stands idly by while England’s power-brokers make the terrible mistakes that lead to World War II. Producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala apply their usual tasteful, elegant touch to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, and get across the book’s central metaphor—of England itself as the fastidious, narrowly focused butler—but they also coax a career-best performance from Anthony Hopkins as the faithful servant, and in exploring his platonic relationship with plucky maid Emma Thompson, the Merchant-Ivory team tap a well of emotion that’s rare in their oeuvre. It’s one of the best films of the ’90s, and still underrated, I think.
I didn’t realize this until I started thinking about it, but most of my favorite films don’t involve sex or violence—unless you count vague, juvenile references to sex. Wayne’s World, for instance, has talk of Garth’s rope-climbing feelings and Wayne orders “cream of Sum Yung Guy” from a Chinese restaurant, but there’s nothing in that movie that I’d feel ashamed about watching with my parents. Moreover, they didn’t seem to mind me watching it when it came out and I was 11, so that’s probably fine. I’m also a big fan of ’60s musicals, be they frothy and fun like Bye Bye Birdie or a little more macabre, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The latter does feature a pregnancy, but considering we watched that movie in high-school French class, I’m going to go ahead and say it’s not that risque. If anything, the haphazard English translation of the French words (“I’m knocked up!”) makes all the sex talk more funny than dirty.
When I think about clean entertainment that makes my soul quake with joy, laughter, and light, the first film that springs to mind is Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a madcap spin through the vivid imagination of one of pop-culture’s most irresistible man-children, and the film that introduced Paul Reubens’ most ingenious creation and Tim Burton to the world. It’s a dizzyingly clever, impish lark that remains defiantly untainted by Reubens’ unfortunate later infamy as a public masturbator, or Tim Burton’s later descent into tired self-parody. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is just about perfect, even without the added attraction of sex, violence, and everything else that generally makes life worth living.
I saw one of my favorite films of all time in fifth grade, when sex and violence were ostensibly forbidden from my movie-watching: It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The film was jam-packed with stars of the day, but that was lost on me, because my love of a good screwball comedy was established at a young age. And It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World is screwball from start to finish, as a group of strangers who witness a traffic accident wind up on a cross-California trek to claim a dead thief’s money. Is it madcap? Oh yes. Are there are hijinks? Yes. Shenanigans? Of course. But no sex or violence, beyond the kind of pratfalls you’d see on America’s Funniest Videos. I’d never laughed so hard in my life the first time I saw Sid Caesar set off fireworks in that hardware store’s basement.
I actually went to my Facebook "About" section to see what I've marked as my favorite movies, and I wasn't terribly surprised to see that most of them aren't about sex or violence, probably because somehow films that can manage to carry a story without relying on those two themes have a good chance of feeling more timeless than those that do. I've expressed my love for several of them in previous AVQ&As (like Back to the Future, Sixteen Candles, and The Thin Man) but a few others include A Hard Day's Night, which holds up wonderfully, both looks and humor-wise, when it comes to a movie about an of-the-moment pop sensation. (Could you say the same about Elvis' movies?) Groundhog Day is one of those few comedies that blends romance, realism, and the supernatural successfully, which means I can watch it with my dad, the truest test of a non-sex, non-violence movie. And finally, I know Christopher Guest purists tend to love Waiting for Guffman the most, but Best In Show is my favorite of his films because of the childlike reason that I just love dogs. And you really can't make a successful mainstream movie about dogs that involves sex or violence.