Earlier this month, I wondered out loud about the kinds of films evangelicals are watching and reviewing. The responses to “Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck” ran the gamut: some agreed (“Finally!”) while others resisted any attempt to question film-watching as a key aspect of cultural engagement.
I mentioned movie reviews and linked to Christianity Today’s review of The Wolf of Wall Street as an example. Though the post wasn’t primarily about movie reviews but instead the bigger question of how evangelicals develop and maintain standards when it comes to movie-watching, Alissa Wilkinson (the reviewer) interacted with my initial post in her lengthy article “Why We Review R-Rated Films.” Alissa seeks to frame the discussion within the broader context of movies, art and criticism.
So, although I’m not speaking only about movie reviews, and although Alissa’s article is about more than my post, I want to interact with her article’s rationale for reviewing all kinds of films.
Different Responses to Different Films
First off, if you’re looking for a quick history of how the Motion Picture Association of America developed the rating system, you’ll find Alissa’s article to be a good resource. She sums up what brought about the rating system in the first place and how it has developed over time.
Secondly, the article explains that different people have different responses to different kinds of films. This is a self-evident but helpful reminder. She says The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the type of film that she simply cannot tolerate in any form. Other people may find that movies about eating disorders or traumatic experiences trigger painful memories. So far, I’ve been unable to see Lone Survivor. My brother served in Iraq, and though I’ve been invited to watch the movie with friends and family, I cannot bear the thought of seeing a film depict, in brutal honesty, the kind of carnage that today’s warfare leaves behind. My brother’s deployment was nerve-wracking enough the first time. If he gets deployed again, I don’t know how I would handle the tension if scenes from that movie are bouncing around in my mind. All this to say, I recognize that no one is the same. What may be beneficial to one person is a stumbling block or intolerable to another.
The Art of a Good Movie Review
Next, Alissa explains the art of writing a good movie review and why evangelicals should make educated choices about what films to watch. She doesn’t believe it’s a movie reviewer’s place to tell a Christian whether or not they should watch a movie. Movies are something that “helps us understand the world we live in new ways; it teaches us about and records our cultural history; and it helps us keep a pulse on ourselves and our culture.” As such, a good movie review has this goal: “to try to help readers think about movies in new ways, informed by the Christian understanding of the world that undergirds everything we write.”
On the surface, this kind of review is commendable. I am not advocating a simplistic method for reviewing books and movies, where the story is embraced or rejected on the basis of the main characters’ actions (Are they good role models? Did they do bad things?). For example, you may be disgusted by some of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, but the story is meant to turn your revulsion toward the bigger questions of suffering’s role in redemption. A Christian who critically consumes a cultural artifact will look for the bigger picture, not try to ban Tom Sawyer.
The Way We Tell a Story
So now we come to the example of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alissa writes that the film (despite its filth) still has a “clear moral sense of the universe.” Scorsese is condemning the excess of the characters, not celebrating them. For this reason (along with its artistic merits), the film gets a high rating, even with the lengthy section of caveats where viewers are warned of all the objectionable content.
Alissa would argue that the aesthetics and milieu of the film help reinforce that message. But I wonder if the same kind of self-deception is going on in this film that Alissa points out so perceptively in her review of The Hunger Games – Catching Fire.
I’m not just frustrated, I’m appalled: all this tie-in merchandise declaws the story of The Hunger Games, in much the same way that the actual affluent Capitol in the books declaws the seriousness of the “real” Hunger Games—a forced gladiatorial battle between teenagers—by staging flashy weeks-long television specials around it in order to distract from the horror of juvenile carnage by making it entertaining.
The Hunger Games is a dystopian story that challenges our culture’s thirst for violence as entertainment, and yet, in its marketing, it has become the very thing it critiques. Alissa is perceptive in pointing this out: “They give us what we ask for. Bread and circuses. Chocolate and theme parks. Remember who the real enemy is.”
I think something similar is going on with The Wolf of Wall Street. How many filmgoers got the subtle “condemnation” of sexual excess that Scorsese was communicating? Like The Hunger Games, I suspect most people walked out of the film remembering the way the story was told, not the underlying critique.
Neighbor Love and Our Viewing Habits
According to Alissa’s article, good movie reviews are a way of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
“Loving someone means being able to live life alongside her. It means being able to talk about what matters to her.”
The rationale for watching The Wolf of Wall Street is this: “We knew everyone would be talking about it, and will be for quite a while.” In other words, it’s a cultural artifact that is creating conversations, and Christians need to be part of those conversations.
Loving our neighbor means entering their world and letting them know that we’re interested in what they’re interested in. A good movie review can clue us in on what others are talking about. But this doesn’t mean, when it comes to viewing a film, evangelicals should start defining “neighbor love” as sitting in a dark theater surmising how to use The Wolf of Wall Street as a connection point in our next “spiritual conversation.”
Do We Draw Lines Anywhere?
At this point, I feel like we are heading down a rocky terrain without any brake system working on our vehicle. Without any brake system in place, there is, in principle, no film we could not or would not see.
I’ve seen Hollywood elitists raving about the lesbian love story, Blue is the Warmest Color, which contains lengthy, explicit sex scenes with graphic nudity. Should we watch this film in order to speak knowledgeably about it if it comes up in a discussion with our neighbor?
Likewise, women can’t get enough of 50 Shades of Gray - both the book and the upcoming movie. Will we watch and review 50 Shades? If you’re a woman in a book club that decides to read and discuss this book, are you failing to be a witness by opting out of that discussion? Or are you being a faithful witness precisely because you withdrew?
After all, some would argue that the book is implicitly critiquing Christian Grey’s perversion and the damage it inflicts on others. Is it worth viewing two hours of sexual bondage in order to digest that critique? Most would say no. Why? Because no matter what the ultimate message of the film may be, the aesthetics and milieu (the way the story is told) overwhelm the point.
If we say, “No, that’s too far” to a film like 50 Shades or to watching an NC-17 movie, my question is Why? And why wouldn’t the “too far” rationale apply farther up the hill, before we’re off the cliff and heading toward the abyss?
My goal is not to create an artificial line, a legalistic rule that we cling to as a mark of purity. Instead, it’s a question of discernment, and that’s why I am left wondering: Is there anything to which we would simply say, “No matter how much artistry may be involved in this film, it uses copious amounts of sewage to get across its point. Stay away, for your own health.”
I’m not the only one drawing lines; I just wonder why the lines get drawn where they do. That’s why I believe Christians need a “theology of no” when it comes to certain forms of media. A recent NPR article shows how what was once considered R material is now becoming PG-13 or PG. What was once NC-17 is becoming R. The culture is sliding into decadence, and far too many Christians are sliding right along with the rest of America.
Contextualized or Compromised
Is our bigger problem a lack of contextualization? Or is it that we’ve compromised ourselves without knowing it?
That’s the issue here. And I suppose I worry more that we are failing our neighbor because of our compromise than because we’ve failed to contextualize.
Alissa is right that film watching is a matter of wisdom, not fear. But my great fear is that we are being unwise.