Movies: Reel Truth or Graven Image?

(Presented in Dixon Center Chapel, February 24, 2011)

The 83rd Annual Academy Awards are set to come off in style this weekend. I’m not inclined to advertise the show, as I typically find it agonizingly dull. I understand that there’s an I-Pad and I-Phone app you can download to follow every second of the event even through commercials, so if you’re a fan, go ahead and knock yourself out. I used to be really interested in who was going to win what, but after years of disappointment in both the ceremony and the results of the ceremony, I’m sorry to say my interest has begun to flag. It’s hard, though, not to feel a little curiosity about whether The King’s Speech or The Social Network or Inception will get Best Picture, so I might suffer through it anyway.

Of equal interest are the Golden Raspberry Awards, also this weekend, where the worst in the year’s films also receive the recognition they richly deserve. I hear the latest Twilight film is one of the nominees, though it’s hard for me to be objective as I suffered a kidney stone about halfway through it. I’m not at all sure the movie didn’t cause the kidney stone. I’m actually afraid to try to finish it.

So, as you now know, today’s topic is movies. I’d like to address a question that tends to make people uncomfortable—What role to do the movies play in the life of a Christian? And, perhaps more importantly, is there a RIGHT way to think about movies?

I should provide a disclaimer at this point. By talking about movies at all I am guaranteed to disappoint, anger, offend or otherwise provoke just about every person in the audience today. If I fail to do that, then it’s highly likely I will have been of no use whatsoever.

First for some background: In 1973, when I was eleven years old, my family did two things that would change the course of my life. We sold our television and we stopped watching theatrical films. The last TV show I remember watching in those days was the pilot for “Little House on the Prairie.” The last film I can recall was a terrible Disney thing called, The World’s Greatest Athlete. It was really horrible. Considering the fact that I wouldn’t watch another theatrical release for twelve years, it was a decidedly bad way to end. I didn’t own a TV set for the next 15 years.

Some people would applaud such a drastic move away from the eye candy of the world, the flesh and the devil. And I have to admit that from one standpoint, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Freedom from mainstream visual media allowed me to focus on books, newspapers and radio for a decade and a half. I should mention that newspapers and radio were contraband. The strict religious community to which my family belonged at the time forbade both, but my father ignored the newspaper ban (thanks, Dad!) and I ignored the radio ban, listening to National Public Radio every chance I got, along with weekend sports. I never saw the Super Bowl all those years, but I could have recited you a mean play-by-play.

When it came to books, I read several each week. I generally didn’t tell people what I was reading because if you did that in our particular religious community, you fell under dark suspicion of heretical and unholy leanings that you caught, like a disease, from the paper on the pages. The book might be yanked and you might be placed “on restriction,” which meant an indefinite period of penance marked by silence, fasting, heavy Bible reading and lengthy essays confessing the error of your ways.

But in spite of all the good things that came from my decade and a half hiatus from visual mass media, I was pretty unhappy about it at the time. I would have preferred to be John J.B. Wilson, founder of the Raspberry Awards who also wrote a funny book called Everything I Know I Learned From the Movies: A Compilation of Clichés and Un-Truisms Gleaned from a Lifetime Spent Entirely Too Much in the Dark. (As a side note here, last year, Sandra Bullock was the first person to win a Razzie and an Oscar in the same year. She also showed up for both ceremonies.)

Before we go any further, allow me to set your mind at ease. I love movies. Growing up in the strictest of religious sects produced in me a spirit of such towering rebellion that I went forth and became a media specialist and I have immersed myself for the past thirty years in virtually every form of mass media imaginable, from pamphlets to smart phones. I spend more hours on Netflix every week than I care to confess to this group. Most of you aren’t even my Facebook friends, so how can I trust you with such private information?

Let’s begin the discussion with one of my favorite false analogies. Maybe you’ve heard the inspirational parable about the wise father and the brownies. It can be found here, but I’ll read it to you:

“A father of some teenage children had the family rule that they could not attend PG-13 or R rated movies. His three teens wanted to see a particular popular movie that was playing at local theaters. It was rated PG-13. The teens interviewed friends and even some members of their family’s church to find out what was offensive in the movie. The teens made a list of pros and cons about the movie to use to convince their dad that they should be allowed to see it. The con’s were that it contained ONLY 3 swear words, the ONLY violence was a building exploding (and you see that on TV all the time they said), and you actually did not “see” the couple in the movie having sex – it was just implied sex, off camera. The pros were that it was a popular movie – a blockbuster. Everyone was seeing it. If the teens saw the movie then they would not feel left out when their friends discussed it. The movie contained a good story and plot. It had some great adventure and suspense in it. There were some fantastic special effects in this movie. The movie’s stars were some of the most talented actors in Hollywood. It probably would be nominated for several awards. Many of the members of their Christian church had even seen the movie and said it wasn’t “very bad”. Therefore, since there were more pros than cons the teens said they were asking their father to reconsider his position on just this ONE movie and let them have permission to go see it. The father looked at the list and thought for a few minutes. He said he could tell his children had spent some time and thought on this request. He asked if he could have a day to think about it before making his decision. The teens were thrilled thinking; “Now we’ve got him! Our argument is too good! Dad can’t turn us down!” So, they happily agreed to let him have a day to think about their request. The next evening the father called in his three teenagers, who were smiling smugly, into the living room. There on the coffee table he had a plate of brownies. The teens were puzzled. The father told his children he had thought about their request and had decided that if they would eat a brownie then he would let them go to the movie. But just like the movie, the brownies had pros and cons. The pros were that they were made with the finest chocolate and other good ingredients. They had the added special effect of yummy walnuts in them. The brownies were moist and fresh with wonderful chocolate frosting on top. He had made these fantastic brownies using an award-winning recipe. And best of all, the brownies had been made lovingly by the hand of their own father. The brownies only had one con. The father had included a little bit of a special ingredient. The brownies also contained just a little bit of dog poop. But he had mixed the dough well – they probably would not even be able to taste the dog poop and he had baked it at 350 degrees so any bacteria or germs from the dog poop had probably been destroyed. Therefore, if any of his children could stand to eat the brownies which included just a “little bit of crap” and not be effected by it, then he knew they would also be able to see the movie with “just a little bit of smut” and not be effected. Of course, none of the teens would eat the brownies and the smug smiles had left their faces. Only Dad was smiling smugly as they left the room. Now when his teenagers ask permission to do something he is opposed to the father just asks, “Would you like me to whip up a batch of my special brownies?”

I thought you would like that story. The problem with a false analogy is that it forces your perspective to the range of choices before you. It does not ask first just how alike or unlike the two things are that are being paired. For example, here’s a great false analogy: “Employees are like nails. Just as nails must be hit on the head, so must employees be hit on the head.” In the brownie analogy, we find ourselves wondering whether or not consuming brownies and watching movies are sufficiently alike to draw the likeness between them. Then we have to ask whether the presence of fecal matter and the incidence of vulgarities are also enough alike to make the analogy hold up. If you think eating a nutty, chocolaty brownie and sitting down to a romantic comedy fall into the same general category of pleasure inducing excitement, then for you this analogy is pretty tight and you should therefore avoid any filmic work that has anything in it that might represent dog poop in your fragile consciousness.

We all know that when you start talking about Christians and movies, you cannot be too careful. The opinions on what is wise and what is permissible are as varied as they are vehement. On one side you have this father with his brownies who believes that the 13 in PG 13 movies is a pinch of arsenic in the mocha latte of life. “Touch not the unclean thing!” But clear on the other side you have people, like some Christian pop culture experts I could name, who say that those who are offended when they watch explicit material are weaker brethren. Since all good things come from God, we should strive to see the good in filmic art and celebrate it. We should be willing, like Jesus, to sit down and eat with the publicans and sinners. How else can we be salt and light in a fallen world, how else can we be faithful witnesses shining a light in the darkness?

Guess what? I’m not going to presume to dictate to anyone today just who is right or wrong in this wide ranging debate about Christians and film. What I can tell you, from having good friends on opposite ends of the spectrum, is that the trench lines in this debate are deeply dug and firmly fixed and the culture warriors manning those trenches are more than eager to lob holy hand grenades at each other across the no man’s land of Hollywood. And while I’m certainly one of those warriors, I have no doubt at all that if I were to attempt to impose my personal standards on anyone here today, I might as well have showed up in a Darth Vader costume (a small one).

So what do I have to offer today that might be of any use in this discussion? What can I toss out there that might provide some sort of plumb line for the faithful?

I’d like to offer today not so much a definitive standard for judging films as a framework for helping people make good decisions about them. People who know of my interest in film are quick to ask me what I think about certain movies. Usually the conversation goes something like this: “Dr. Melton, have you seen Death to Smoochy?” “No, I can’t say that I have.” “Dude! You haven’t seen it? You really need to see it.” “Really?” “Yeah—you gotta watch it and then tell me what you think of it” “Is it any good?” “Yeah! It’s the best movie I’ve ever seen.” “Wow! Okay then, I’ll check it out.” I then go and find Death to Smoochy and watch it. I’m horrified. It’s like scraping my eyeballs with razorblades or squeezing my brains out through my ears like Play Doh. Later, “Did you watch it yet?” “Yes, I did.” “What did you think?” “It … wasn’t … really my thing.” “You mean you didn’t like it? How is that possible? How could you not love this movie?” “Well, to be honest, I hated it.” And they go their way sorrowing.

I’ve had this conversation any number of times and if nothing else, these encounters about film point out just how subjective appreciation of the film art can be. But is that the end of it? Do we settle for endless subjectivity? Is that the answer when it comes to the Christian and film? Or is there a better way?

I think there is. I want to give you something today that I hope will change the way you look at the movies. I hope you take what I offer in the spirit of good faith and apply it to the movies you watch. I’m not naïve enough to think that these ideas are going to bring a sudden unity of feeling with regard to movie appreciation—but I hope it will get us talking on more meaningful terms.

When we watch a movie, we generally get a sense of whether we like it or not. Sometimes the impression is so favorable we’re ready to hang out a banner and declare to all the world, no matter what anyone else feels, that this film is awesome and worthy of worship. We might face ridicule, verbal abuse and mockery, but we sometimes consider it a badge of honor to like movies no one else seems to like.

Here’s the question I’d like for you to ask of your favorite film—what if the universe of that movie were the real universe? No, I’m not getting all mystical and fantastical. I’m just trying to provide a way to read some of the virtues of the piece of art. What if the universe of the film were the real universe? What kind of world would we be living in? Most importantly, what is sacred in this alternative world, not just in plot and dialog, but also in the way the film unfolds, in the camera work, in compositional hierarchies, in all the various ways that a film presents the imagery, the colors, the sound, the music, the action, the characters? All these things are part of the universe of the film and they can speak quite loudly when you stop long enough to listen. It’s not just about the story and it’s not just about the so-called message.

Let’s take an example. In last year’s mega blockbuster Avatar by the same James Cameron who brought us Titanic in 1997 (“I’m king of the world!”), we are transported to an alien landscape and treated, via the miracle of computer animation, to exotic life forms of breathtaking scope and beauty. Somewhere in there we are treated to a plot that pits a destructively evil mining corporation against native plants and innocent life forms.

It doesn’t take a 3D viewing of this movie to recognize that the most important element, the most sacred part of the text, is not the plot or the message or any particular character—it’s the lovingly created world of Pandora. At every turn, the camera leads us to the astonishing color, beauty and even danger of this exotic place. It’s almost an imaginary National Geographic documentary that just happens to have an adventure story clinging to it.

As such, while some Christians dismissed the film as mystical mumbo jumbo, I think some missed a terrific opportunity to allow this movie to inspire love and appreciation of our own world, of the breathtaking beauty and attention to detail provided by our own Creator, of the endless variety of earth-bound blessings we enjoy every day in our sunrises and sunsets, and ultimately of the sacredness of life.

Am I saying everything about this movie is wonderful? Of course not. I am, after all, a critic, and I wrote a review of this film shortly after its release in which I shared a fuller slate of issues, but I only wanted to use it to make a point.

Let’s look at another “artistic” film of recent memory. Take 300, the movie based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Like Avatar, 300 is heavy on the graphics side, filmed almost entirely indoors in front of green screens, much like “Blues Clues.” But what is elevated by the art in this film? Besides digitally enhanced six-pack abs, red capes and speedos, the art of this film is devoted to making mayhem visually appealing to the tune of driving rock music. A near endless sequence of shots with creative variable speeds are affectionately dedicated to the dismembering, decapitating and otherwise dispatching of staggering numbers of people in various states of costumed splendor. Yes, there is an underlying message about courage and sacrifice—not to mention beefcake—but in the universe of the movie, the filmmakers telegraph for us the focal point of the energy and passion in their art.

Now here is where I am likely to offend you, if you are not already offended. As Christians and as sub-creators, certainly we can admire slick graphics, superior technique and glittering production values of a film like 300. But how far do we embrace the piety of the art, how much do we allow ourselves to identify with that which a film elevates as sacred? Should a Christian allow himself or herself to be seduced into finding mayhem beautiful? I certainly hope not. And right now I’m being psychically bombarded by a lot of “but, Dr. Melton.” Let me move on.

Let’s talk about message vs means. In some film art you have Good Message delivered with Terrible Means—one thinks of the Left Behind movies here. The underlying theme in such art is that God doesn’t care about production values. Schlock with a good message is still good and should not be spoken evil of. I beg to differ and I think most you would agree. Our Creator has the most awesome production values anyone could ask for. Isn’t shabby work an insult?

But beyond cheesy production values is a spate of films that receive a fair amount of support among Christian viewers because of what is seen as their redeeming message. I’m talking about movies like The Boondock Saints, Pulp Fiction, V for Vendetta, the Saw series. The list goes on. Now we’re getting serous. I see many of these on favorite film lists on Facebook and it always surprises me, but I suppose it shouldn’t.

All I can say is that, as I’ve said before, we need to take the step of considering what the actual working of the film elevates as sacred. In Boondock Saints, for instance, a triune gun-crew of studdly Irish Americans execute bad guys in highly stylized vigilante fashion. The movie fits into a genre of neo-gangland films that combine quirky scripts, unconventional filming and artsy pacing to deliver action-packed, pulse-pounding, hard-driving stories with more violence per second than chocolate chips per bite in something from the Cookie Store. Violence in a film is not bad per se, as in HBO’s recent series The Pacific that tells the unvarnished story of American Marines in World War II. But when the violence is elevated to the sacred, when it appears for its own sake to appeal to baser instincts, which it does in some of the films I’ve mentioned, we have a problem.

In the Saw movies, for instance, the message is certainly that your sins will find you out. But they will also chain you in a little room and dismember you digit by digit. Or drown you in a glass box. Or some other terrible fate. Are you getting the picture here?

What about a film that uses Good Means to convey a Terrible Message—the technique is cool but the film preaches bad values? Certainly some of the movies mentioned above also fit into that category, but we often find ourselves being manipulated into cheering for criminals. The Oceans Eleven movies, for instance, do an exceptional job with this. In the old days, the so-called Code did not allow criminals to get away with their villainy. The original 1960 version of Oceans Eleven, abiding by this code, makes use of a wonderfully creative ending to bring the work of the thieves to naught. We seem to have few such compulsions today.

On occasion you get a Good Message and Good Means together, though the old Hollywood adage is as true now as it ever was—if you want to send a message, use Western Union (though we might say Facebook today). Film art that focuses primarily on message tends to get derailed as art. What you want is a great story with solid entertainment credit that elevates as sacred something of genuine redeeming value. New films that fit the All Good category, in my view, would be The King’s Speech, True Grit and Toy Story 3. I could list more, but I’m running short on time.

Allow me to conclude with this thought. Before you stick a film on your lapel or wear it proudly like an article of clothing, please stop and consider what I’ve said today. I’m not charging us to ask ourselves what movies would Jesus watch. Those who say we should hang out with the publicans and sinners at the movie house actually have a point. In John 17 Jesus prays that we would remain in the world but be not of it—that means, I believe, that we are to fully engage our culture. In another sense, as Tolkien said in his essay “On Faerie Stories,” we are creative beings. We have been given these art forms. We should use them and appreciate their beauty when it’s appropriate to do.

I don’t think for a minute that many people in this room will necessarily agree with my conclusions, but if I have made you just a little uncomfortable, if I have made you think, if I have made you stop and consider the piety of an individual movie, if, in short, I have ruined your film viewing experience and made you attempt to fit the films you enjoy into the larger framework of your life as a Christian, then, to quote a famous Star Wars character, “Everthing is going according to plan. Mwahahahaha!”

If you’d like to listen to the podcast, you can find it here.

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3 thoughts on “Movies: Reel Truth or Graven Image?

  1. shaina

    I loved this! I might have to share this with my family who won’t watch Harry Potter…yet the sexy Vampire Diaries is ok haha. and I cannot believe you went so long without TV…I thought I lasted long with just 6 months!

  2. meldenius

    Yeah. I missed basically ’73 – ’88 on TV. Turns out I didn’t really miss that much, judging by the reruns.

  3. Just wanted to say even though I heard this delivered in person and I’ve read it on your wordpress before, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again today! It made me laugh out loud several times, and I was challenged and reminded again to consider what is sacred in the movies I watch (as well as books I read and so forth). Thank you for sharing your wisdom Dr. Melton! 🙂

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