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Idol Chatter

It’s hard to recall the last time the Sundance Film Festival made any real noise–buzz, yes, but nothing like the howl sent up this year about “Hounddog,” an independent film starring Dakota Fanning as an urchin who is raped by an older boy. Fanning, who will turn 13 next month, is also reportedly scantily clad in some scenes, while two other children strip in another.

The usual watchdogs on the right have raised alarms about decency–Ted Baehr of the Christian Film and Television Commission put none-too-fine a point on the matter last week, calling the scenes “pedophilia”–while others, like child-advocate (and former Mickey Mouse Club actor) Paul Petersen, have said Fanning will be scarred. The mainstream media have even telegraphed their queasiness by implying that Fanning’s mother and agent are exploiting Dakota in a blatant bid for a paycheck-boosting Oscar.

The concern for Fanning is the most curious feature of this debate. Anyone who’s been on a movie set knows that the technical chore of film photography is so distracting and piecemeal that maintaining a straight face–not surviving any emotional intensity–is the greatest challenge. The violent or sexual scene the audience sees has often been interrupted by lunch, naps, and bouts of laughter.

And it’s not for sure that the audience will see a rape at all. According to director Deborah Kampmeier, Dakota’s rape scene consists mainly of a close-up of her facial reactions. “I didn’t shoot flesh against flesh,” Kampmeier has said, “because I wanted to capture a soul going through this experience, not a body.”

Why, then, show it at all? Kampmeier, whose previous film, “Virgin,” also dealt with rape, seems to have something to say about sexual assault. My suspicion is that she believes that depicting the crime on film kills the mind’s ability to confuse it with sex. Think: Would Kubrick’s “Lolita” have been as wicked and sophisticated if we’d seen Humbert putting the moves on his victim? Would Humbert have been able to elicit sympathy for his feelings of love? The box office receipts of the decidedly more graphic 1997 version with Jeremy Irons suggest that the answer is no.

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