J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Short Essays’ Category

On Sex in Movies

Posted by J on July 23, 2008

You regular readers of this site already sense that we have a strict standard about theatrical depictions of sex, or any romantic affection for that matter.  The “strictness” you sense is actually greater than you might think.  It is hidden to a degree by what is not seen here, that is, all of the movies we have considered watching but did not.  Almost all the job of censoring in our household has been completed before the “Play” button has been pushed and the review written.

Now we know others far stricter than ourselves, and we might even agree with them at times.  If it came to it, if a man or women were to err one way or the other in regard to depictions of sex and romance, he or she should err on the side of avoidance.  Joseph ran away at Potiphar’s advance, while Samson let Delilah entice him and the young man in Proverbs 7 had his life destroyed by the harlot.  There is little difference in the nature of temptation between a real person and a virtual presentation of one, such as we find in film.

Sex and romance, however, are treated far more liberally by Christians we know when placed in something honored with the label “work of art.”  The thinking goes that a movie presents something unreal, in that two actors are merely pretending, and that a movie may present a love scene but give a proper moral presentation of it (e.g., adulterous sex as destructive sex).

And, no surprise, the Bible is frank in talking about sex.  We have heard unbelievers squeal with delight in talking about the hypocrisy of prudish Christians who don’t know that their favorite book contains an entire book on eroticism (the Song of Solomon).  So, taking the Bible as a standard for story-making, it appears that there is something to credible, aesthetic representations of sex, sexuality, and romance in film, these all being essential parts of our reality and God’s creation.

Yet several problems exist for those who prefer liberty to strictness.  There is, for instance, a great difference between the medium of film and the medium of books.  These are not just different technologies that have different effects on the brain, but the mode of representation is wholly different.  The actions of a story in a book hide behind the books’ words, which do not necessarily translate to explicit images in every reader’s mind.  We may read that so-and-so “knew” so-and-so in the Bible, but only the perverse are intent on imagining what that looked like.  Film, by contrast, presents a visual image so that nothing is hidden if a filmmaker does not want it to be.   You do not have to read about so-and-so “knowing” so-and-so; the director can just show it to you.

The Bible is clear that nakedness is shameful when displayed to the wrong kinds of people or in the wrong context.  Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves immediately after the Fall, and Noah’s sons covered their eyes from seeing their drunken, naked father. It is hard to imagine any movie nudity (or even partial nudity) that is not shameful for both the actor and the viewer, who are both anonymous to each other.

This problem extends beyond partially explicit or explicit sex scenes, however.  Suppose we had a Christian movie company that wanted to make updated versions of great movies.  This company employs actors who are Christians, and one of the scripts calls for a dramatic kiss between the hero and the heroine.  The actor playing the hero happens to be a married man.  Now what should his wife think of the script that demands her husband not only pretend to love another woman, but also to show that love physically?

Most people tend not to think in these terms, instead passively accepting what the screen tells them, that the actors on-screen are simply good-looking actors playing fictional people who do fictional things.   But actors are real people required to physically do all the things they must in a movie.  That may include passionately kissing a woman who is not even an acquaintance.  Such an act — even if it were pretended on-stage — would not be tolerated in good churches.  And, at best, it would be very weird to stare at two strangers sharing a scene of any degree of physical pleasure.  But this is actually what we do when watching movies.

Our general thinking goes like this: we wouldn’t want either of us to pretend to love somebody else physically (or emotionally for that matter), especially when it’s being recorded for all of posterity to remember.  Not even a peck on the cheek.  So what are supposed to think and feel when we see two real people — not just characters in a movie — being recorded while pretending to have sex?  Or even pretending to be physically affectionate?  It seems like it should be repulsive.  Would you want your wife, or your daughter, or your mother, in such a scene with another man?  Wouldn’t you squirm if you watched such a scene with them?

So that we are not accused of putting heavy burdens on others, however, we are simply not sure that acts of viewing any onscreen physical affection are always and everywhere sinful.  Most might be, but you know better than we do your motives towards God and fellow man.  It does seem better to be strict rather than loose on this issue, however, and that means that many movies praised by the league of contemporary film critics and moviegoers will not even be mentioned here.

Postscript: There are ways that sex can be effectively used but hidden in a movie.  Consider a scene from the older version of 3:10 to Yuma.  The evil Ben Wade sets out to seduce the female bartender, and when she looks deeply into his eyes, we understand what is going to happen.  Then there is a cut and the next shot shows them walking out of a private room.  We know what has happened without asking, the needs of the plot are accomplished, but nothing explicit has been put before our eyes.  Obviously, most movies these days do not go for tact, even though sex and nudity are never necessary to a visual narrative.

Posted in Short Essays | 5 Comments »

The Problem with Roger Ebert (and other so-called critics)

Posted by J on September 15, 2007

In his recent Answer Man column, Roger Ebert fielded an absurd question and gave his response:

Reader’s Question: My sister heard about a movie called “Corpus Christi,” in which Jesus is depicted as being gay. Is there such a movie? That would be sad.Ebert: It would be sad if it was a bad movie, not if it was a good one. A movie’s quality is separate from its subject.

If that’s the case, the potential is limitless. We could make a masterpiece about Roger Ebert the homicidal maniac. Or better: a great movie that defames Ebert’s family and friends, mocks his entire career, and jokes constantly about his past girth problems and his current health problems. Undoubtedly, if it were really great, Roger would give it four stars.

This idea, that the quality of a movie can be disconnected from its morals, has been Ebert’s fundamental presupposition for his entire working career. We have seen Ebert say again and again that “a movie is great not because of what it’s about, but because of how it’s about what it’s about.” This is the same thing as saying that the telling of the story is the only thing; a story’s contents and messages are not at all relevant. While we don’t dismiss the need to tell stories well, it’s clear that Ebert trots out the old “art for art’s sake” dictum whenever he needs it. So you want a movie about a gay Jesus? “Art for art’s sake and all beauty is truth!”says Roger. Ebert has sometimes followed this idea to its extremes, calling a nihilist’s nightmare (Pulp Fiction) a masterpiece and endlessly praising the “ground-breaking” Deep Throat (not the Watergate informant). In fact, if there’s one thing we’ve learned by reading Ebert for years, it’s that he enjoys naked women. He just likes his pornography cloaked by things that appear artsy.

Now, though Ebert says “a movie’s quality is separate from its subject,” he’s by necessity a hypocritical humanist. Roger can’t go too far in throwing out all values, or else he’d get the values he doesn’t like thrown back in his face. So of course he’s given zero stars–a very rare rating for him–to movies about which he thought the subject intolerable. The pseudo-documentary, C.S.A.: Confederate States of America, a what-if fantasy abou the Confederacy winning the Civil War, received Ebert’s utter disapproval because it came across as far too serious about its subject (even though the movie was attempting to be ironic). Similarly, Ebert castigated September Dawn for its portrayal of Mormons as murdering, intolerant fanatics because “the vast majority of the members of all religions, I believe and would argue, don’t want to kill anybody.” “There isn’t anything to be gained in telling this story in this way,” says Ebert, because “it generates bad feelings on all sides, and at a time when Mormons are at pains to explain they are Christians, underlines the way that these Mormons consider all Christians to be ‘gentiles.'” So in this case, the political and social morals that the movie depicts make a difference. Fancy that, the possibility that a movie will alter its viewers’ morals matters greatly after all! We wouldn’t want people to start hating Mormons because of September Dawn, would we? As usual, Ebert allows his liberal-humanist views to determine his movie experience and opinion, even when it counters his “a movie about anything can be great” dictum.

So morals of stories matter to everyone–even to those who say they don’t. It only depends, for the person involved, which morals a movie touts are important. For Ebert, a good movie about a gay Jesus Christ is like a good movie about hardcore porn: a “cultural triumph” that advances the causes of social progress. For almost all critics, the same is true. A movie can be good, so long as it’s socially acceptable or provocative, according with the idols of the day.

But for Christians, the entirety of Scripture lays out the rules for man-made stories by providing the moral foundations that should underlie them and by providing numerous stories that serve as capable models and examples. It probably goes without saying for you, but the Word of God is the basis for all thinking, watching, and reviewing of movies. We’ve seen many Christians give into the invented standards of secular critics, praising 300 for ground-breaking visuals or desiring to watch some actor’s stellar performance, while totally ignoring a movie’s contents and messages. Sometimes we want to let others–scriptwriters, film critics, actors who blah-blah about their new film–tell us how to view a movie. But as followers of Jesus Christ, there’s a better way: “be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” We acknowledge that this is sometimes difficult, but this is where we’d like to be. Select what movies you watch, and what stories you ingest, carefully.

Posted in Short Essays | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

On Movie Ratings

Posted by J on September 8, 2007

It’s difficult to say whether movie ratings–G, PG, etc.–are total shams or not. On the one hand, they give you a standard by which to gauge what a movie contains. On the other hand, the standards are vague and misused, and they have changed wildly over time.

Let’s give an example. We’ve had enormous problems with PG movies from the ’70s and early ’80s, before the PG-13 rating came out in about 1985 (because of the “heart” scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). In those years, movies got shoved into either ‘PG’ or ‘R’, which apparently meant that a movie was either family-friendly or for adults only. On that basis a movie like Barry Lyndon still carries a ‘PG’ rating, even though it has a half-second long orgy scene that would make Internet pornographers proud (unfortunately, we discovered this by experience). Similarly, a so-called family movie that critics say will “make you and your kids cheer and weep”–that is, Breaking Away–contained so much “mild” profanity in the first twenty minutes that we couldn’t imagine showing it to an 18-year old (we did not finish it). And Planet of the Apes, with a G rating, contains Charlton Heston’s bare backside.

The ‘PG-13’ rating alleviated these problems only to a degree. Filmmakers can now shoot for ‘PG’ or ‘PG-13’, the optimum ratings for big-budget summer fare that will be marketed heavily to children, teenagers, and adults. No one wants a ‘G’ rating, unless the name attached to it is Pixar or Disney, because ‘G’ does not sell to all key demographic groups and will not make as much money as, say, ‘PG-13’. Meanwhile, what is considered ‘R’ today is so horrific that ‘NC-17’ has become tantamount to pornography. There are unwritten codes that the MPAA ratings board uses to separate the PG fare from the PG-13 and the PG-13 from the R. These codes, you probably have experienced, are both silly and arbitrary and the difference between PG and PG-13 matters to few anyway. In recent years the board has been including brief descriptions along with ratings. For example, Batman Begins is rated PG-13 for “intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements,” while Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is rated PG for “frightening moments, creature violence and mild language.” So what’s the difference between “frightening moments” and “disturbing images”? And what in the world are “thematic elements”?

Let’s go back in time for a moment. In the so-called glory days of Hollywood, the first several decades of the twentieth century, major studios stuck to the standards known as the Hays Code. Some of the highlights from that code are as follows:

General Principles

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Applications

  • Nudity and suggestive dances were prohibited.
  • The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.
  • The depiction of illegal drug use was forbidden, as well as the use of liquor, “when not required by the plot or for proper characterization.”
  • Methods of crime (e.g. safe-cracking, arson, smuggling) were not to be explicitly presented.
  • References to sex perversion (such as homosexuality) and venereal disease were forbidden, as were depictions of childbirth.
  • The language section banned various words and phrases that were considered to be offensive.
  • Murder scenes had to be filmed in a way that would discourage imitations in real life, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail. “Revenge in modern times” was not to be justified.
  • The sanctity of marriage and the home had to be upheld. “Pictures shall not imply that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.” Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.
  • Portrayals of miscegenation were forbidden.
  • “Scenes of Passion” were not to be introduced when not essential to the plot. “Excessive and lustful kissing” was to be avoided, along with any other treatment that might “stimulate the lower and baser element.”
  • The flag of the United States was to be treated respectfully, and the people and history of other nations were to be presented “fairly.”
  • “Vulgarity,” defined as “low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects” must be treated within the “subject to the dictates of good taste.” Capital punishment, “third-degree methods,” cruelty to children and animals, prostitution and surgical operations were to be handled with similar sensitivity.

The Hays Code was slowly abandoned during the ’50s and eventually was junked in the late ’60s. Clearly, none of these standards are in place today; you may see all of them violated in one movie preview shown on daytime TV. This is not, however, to say that Hollywood movies from the 1940s were necessarily more “moral” than those today, although we believe that that’s generally the case. One of the most praised movies ever, Casablanca, blatantly glorifies the thought of adultery, and we have seen a number of Westerns that do in fact glorify the killing of Indians. But the now-discarded Hays Code, compared to present-day practices, demonstrates changes in cultural temperaments. Yes, there once was a time where standards existed. This is why, as a general rule, you will be fairly safe with an “old” movie. You knew this already, but the Hays Code shows you why.

Today there is only the shadow of a code in the MPAA’s ratings, and it will not take much more cultural disintegration before G, PG, and PG-13 are totally meaningless, if they aren’t already.

What’s an adult or parent to do if official movie ratings are vague and unhelpful? We use a site called Kids-in-Mind, though we don’t have children of age to watch movies. This is for our own use because our ideal is to try to watch that which is “true, lovely, and of good report.” We wouldn’t recommend that anyone work for the Kids-in-Mind site, and we wouldn’t pay for their services if they required subscriptions. The reason is obvious: someone is watching all the junk and writing down every four-letter word and piece of skin shown. Nevertheless, as long as the information is there, we’ll use it.

Posted in Short Essays | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

SPOILER ALERTS!

Posted by J on January 28, 2007

Most people who come here seeking a review of a new theatrical or DVD release have not seen the movie.  Conversely, most people looking for an older review of a movie have seen the movie.  Frankly, we’re more interested in analysis, which means discussing what the last acts of a movie mean.  So the general rule is that if we’re reviewing an older movie (pre-2007), we’re likely to discuss its ending.

You are now sufficiently warned.

Posted in Short Essays | Leave a Comment »

FAQ

Posted by J on January 7, 2007

Hey, why are you’re giving away the end of a movie?

Most people seeking a review of a new theatrical or DVD release have not seen the movie.  Conversely, most people looking for an older movie review have seen the movie.  Frankly, we’re more interested in analysis, which means discussing what the last acts of a movie mean.  The general rule is that if we’re reviewing an older movie (pre-2007), we’re likely to talk about its ending. You are now sufficiently warned.

Why are you quantifying Entertainment, Morality, etc.?

There’s gotta be some way of telling you how much we liked a movie, and of sorting out what’s good, pretty good, okay, and terrible.  Every critical rating system is crude, but necessary for the general reader.

Why don’t you talk about my favorite actor’s performance?

Why should we?  Actors are overrated.  They get the glamor job, but much of what we see of them depends on a number of factors, including: the script, the director, the producers, the editors, the make-up artists, the costume designers, the cinematographer, etc. An actor may get ten takes, nine of which may be horrific, but it’s up to masterminds other than the actor to figure out which take is just right.

This is not to say that there aren’t great actors worthy of praise.  It’s just that, basically, they are glorified minstrels.

What about the Oscars?

A glitz-and-glamour fest on the surface.  A big marketing tool for the movie studios underneath it all.  Rarely, if ever, does the best anything win the Oscar it should.  In short, we don’t care.

You seem to hate everything! What do you really recommend?

Rarely watch anything.  Spend time with the family.  Read a book out loud; it will occupy several days and everyone will love it.  And you’ll be having good interaction with people you should be having good interaction with.  (This rarely happens when you all gather around a screen and stare at it.)

Everyone knows that 98% of all movies are junk.  Just like 98% of the novels, 98% of non-fiction, etc.

Posted in Short Essays | 3 Comments »

About Us and Our Ratings

Posted by J on January 1, 2007

We’re husband and wife.

Posted in Short Essays | Leave a Comment »