For the past five years, I’ve had the pleasure of serving on the Cinema Committee and hosting a weekly film discussion series at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks. Our weekly film discussions are called the Tuesday Talkback and provide a unique opportunity to share stimulating conversation with audiences about a wide range of movies, from Hollywood classics like The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to contemporary films from the U.S. and around the world. It’s been a wonderful side gig from my regular work as a professor of film and media studies at Kutztown University. Every week, a new group of filmgoers and I share our insights, our theories, and our appreciation about a new movie. Nobody has to take a test, and just as important, nobody has to grade a test. Win-win!
These past two weeks, the Tuesday Talkback covered Disney’s new live-action remake of its beloved 1991 animated feature, Beauty and the Beast. If you’re a regular patron of the movies at SteelStacks’ Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas, you’ll know this was a real departure for that theater. We’re not the Disney people! In our platonic ideal movie, Wes Anderson directs Maggie Smith snarking her way through World War II as Abbey Road plays in the background. Nonetheless, showing a mainstream film like this at an arthouse cinema gives viewers the opportunity to reflect on it in a way that is not as encouraged in a multiplex.
Frank Banko trends aside, I was still concerned about hosting a discussion of Beauty and the Beast. My primary interest in the film was its troubling representation of romance, and that romance is central to the film’s plot. Even if we just take the male lead’s “beastliness” as a metaphor, we’re still asked to embrace a love story built on a kidnapping. But to address that issue with the audience might mean alienating people who derived great pleasure from that romance: “Hi, I’m from academia! I’m here to diminish that thing you like!”
As legitimate as this concern about the film’s romance may be, however, I was one of many committee members who agreed that it would be worthwhile to bring this movie to SteelStacks. I also chose to host this film (twice) when, each time, there was another option. I wanted to know, firsthand, what people were responding to, what they enjoyed about the film without judging their taste even if I did not share it.
In spite of the troubling romance plot, Beauty and the Beast offers a lot of pleasures. The supporting cast (Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, and Audra McDonald as Gardarobe) is stellar. Songs like “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” are lively and fun. Experiencing the film with enthusiastic audiences, including my respective talkback partners, Lehigh University’s Alex Thompson and Dr. Abby Aldrich, helped me appreciate the film from their perspective. We watched with viewers for whom Beauty and the Beast was their first musical; we talked with women for whom Belle was the first heroine they identified with.
Although I didn’t share that nostalgia and couldn’t relate to that heroine’s romance with the Beast, I did feel for the characters cursed to be the Beast’s furniture and crockery. Early in her captivity, Belle expresses her own concern for what she sees as their unjust fate when she states, “You did nothing.” Mrs. Potts confides that their “doing nothing” is what led to this situation. When the Beast was a little (human) boy and his mother died, his father was terribly cruel to him and the staff “did nothing” to prevent it. What was a tale of a privileged man whose rudeness dooms a household is turned into a story of communal guilt.
That collective guilt finds its counterpart in the actions of the townspeople, who are quick to dismiss Belle and her father as “mad” and condemn a creature they’ve never seen before because a strongman tells them to. There’s a truly compelling theme in this film about the responsibility shared by a community to care for one another, to stand up to those who trade in bigotry and abuse. This was an issue that my talkback partners and I noticed in our viewing, although we didn’t get much chance to explore it amid our conversation about the music, visual effects, and performances.
My frustration with Beauty and the Beast, however, is that the film makes Belle’s romantic feelings for the Beast required in order to redeem everyone else. It’s not just that she might come around to loving her shaggy captor; she absolutely must, or all those beloved knickknacks will go silent forever. It’s troubling enough when our culture perpetuates the idea that it’s a woman’s job to pacify an aggressively, violent man. This film amplifies that guilt and responsibility exponentially.
I know there will be many, many more of these live-action remakes of Disney animated classics: The Little Mermaid, Mulan, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Dumbo have all at least been announced. I realize that the appeal of these films for adults lies in our childhood memories. But the kids who will watch these new versions for the first time should enjoy stories that don’t rely on outdated gender norms. Don’t get me wrong; I am not dismissing the pleasures of nostalgia. We must remain thoughtful, however, about the messages that kids may unconsciously accept from the films we share. And we need to keep having conversations about our popular culture, as families and as members of the South Side community. I hope that the Tuesday Talkback can help to serve that purpose, not just to celebrate film, but also to approach it with critical eyes and a multitude of voices.