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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Embargo on boycotts

As an erstwhile student of language, I am fascinated by the process by which a person’s name gets turned into a verb. As a contemporary event, this seems mainly to happen in the political arena For example, when Republicans want to convey the idea that a president’s judicial nominee is being maligned so as to appear out of the mainstream of values and judgments, they are likely to say that he or she is being “borked.” As for Democrats, one I’ve noticed increasingly is to get across the idea that one of their candidates is having his or her character slimed by a proxy political group is to say that person is being “swiftboated.”

These verbs may or may not persist after the people (or groups of people) that inspired them are forgotten. It is rarer for such a verb to become a permanent part of the language. Sometimes people’s names become nouns (examples in my part of the world include mackintosh, or mac, for raincoat, and wellingtons, or wellies, for a kind of boot), but it is less usual to find such eponyms as verbs. There is “mentor,” which comes from the name of a wise friend of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, but we cannot be sure that Mentor was even a real person and, besides, purists would say that “mentor” should be used only as a noun, not as a verb. But there is a more recent example with which I am very familiar. You see, not very many miles from my house is the location where an Englishman lived some 125 years ago. His name was Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott.

Capt. Boycott ran an estate in the west of Ireland for an absentee landlord. An apparently charming man, he charged high rents for tenant farmers and ejected them from the land when they complained. But the farmers organized themselves into something called the Irish Land League, and the league called on everyone in the area to refuse to have any dealings with Capt. Boycott. The ploy worked, and after months of not getting his mail or being able to buy items in the shops or, more importantly, hire workers for the harvest, Capt. Boycott gave up and moved back to England. By then, his surname had entered the English language.

As it happens, Capt. Boycott did not give his name only to a verb. He also lent it to a movie. The 1947 British film Captain Boycott featured Cecil Parker in the title role and brought its star, Stewart Granger, to the attention of Hollywood.

Capt. Boycott Centre
The Capt. Boycott Information Centre at The Neale, County Mayo

Of course, the idea of the boycott existed long before the word “boycott,” but once the action had a proper name, it took off as a political tactic. Over the years, boycotts have been used as weapons in civil rights movements (India, the U.S.), to support union organizing activities (California lettuce, grapes) and to put pressure on governmental regimes (Israel, South Africa). And, occasionally, movies.

I started thinking about the boycott thing last week, after speculating about The Da Vinci Code and reminiscing about The Last Temptation of Christ. The religious controversies over those films prompted me to ask: when, if ever, is it appropriate to boycott a movie? While there seems to be no widespread organized boycott of The Da Vinci Code, there are clearly groups and individuals that are not particularly encouraging people to see it. And I was surprised a while back to read, in an online discussion group (non-movie related) that I frequent, a call (by a well-established member of the group, not a visiting fanatic) for people to boycott Mission: Impossible III, in general protest of Tom Cruise’s, well, general existence. The writer’s point was that paying to see Cruise’s movies was only encouraging him, and why should people encourage a jerk? In any event, the animosity felt by some of the public does not seem to be hurting the box office business of either The Da Vinci Code or M:I3.

The earliest account I can find of a movie boycott involved the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, and that had nothing to do with the movie itself but with a publicity stunt that backfired. Universal’s overseas rep organized a military escort to bring the print of the American movie from the Port of Southampton to London. The British press portrayed the stunt as an insult to the king’s uniform, and the British public largely boycotted the picture. As discussed here previously, from the late 1920s through the mid-1960s, the Legion of Decency was in the habit of condemning movies it found objectionable for Catholics. So I suppose we could say that every time the legion issued its scarlet C rating, that was tantamount to a call for a boycott.

My own faulty and failing personal memory can only evoke two instances of my own actual personal crossing of a line of protesters to see a movie. And both of those were in the 1980s. One was the aforementioned The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. The other was William Friedkin’s 1980 film, Cruising. While certain Christians protested the former for allegedly blaspheming their religion, it was certain members of the gay community objecting to the latter, as a libel against the gay lifestyle. Leonard Maltin summed up Cruising quite succinctly, with this terse summary: “Cop [Al] Pacino goes underground to ferret out bloody killer of homosexuals in this distasteful, badly scripted film. Gay world presented as sick, degrading, and ritualistic. Filmed on authentic NYC locations.”

I likely would have never seen either movie if not for the brouhaha stirred up over both of them. Last Temptation I was actually glad to have seen. Cruising just left me confused. In my foggy, dim recollection, I think it was trying to make some point (and a common theme in cop vs. murderer movies) about the line between law enforcer and criminal growing fuzzy, as the former goes under deep cover trying to find the latter. If I was glad I saw it, it was only because it meant that I didn’t have to wonder about it anymore.

So what’s the answer to my question? When, if ever, is it appropriate to boycott a movie? The short/simple answer is: it never is. Given that a boycott is tantamount to censorship, artistically it is wrong. But it’s not as simple as that. Movies are also commodities that we pay to view or to possess on discs and tapes. That means that we filmgoers are supporting financially the artists and companies behind the films we see. To that extent, movie-going amounts to a purchasing decision. We cannot see every movie that is released (much as some of us would like to try), so we must pick which ones to see and, conversely, not to see. So, in the end, movies are subject to markets, just like most other things in life.

That fact is, however, that the boycott as an economic weapon just doesn’t seem to work. A boycott may have humbled Capt. Boycott. But, in the long run, the boycott of Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera didn’t hurt that film financially or prevent us from regarding it then and now as the definitive version of the story.

-S.L., 25 May 2006

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