Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #5

Re: Decent Films

I’ve read several reviews and I’d like to say that they are all particularly well written. I’d like to commend you on that. I’m emailing you now, I suppose, with a couple questions about being a Christian and a film buff (much like me).

The past few days, I’ve been sort of re-evaluating what I deem acceptable in movies when it comes to violence, profanity, etc. Normally, I’d jump at the chance to see the recent mindless action movie or, with a few exceptions, the most recent pointless comedy.

I guess my dilemma all started a couple days ago when I saw the movie Brain Dead. It’s an older zombie comedy movie with gratuitous gore by Peter Jackson before LOTR made him famous. I became aware by the end of the movie that something happened that didn’t happen before. The usual enjoyment and sometimes laughter at the over the top gore wasn’t there anymore. Sure, I laughed during the movie, but by the end, I couldn’t laugh about it before.

The problem is, though I know that I take my Catholic faith very seriously, I feel as though I’m doing God a disservice by appreciating and enjoying films that promote these types of materials. I have a fairly large film collection (about 200 movies). Though only about 5–7% of them are considered objectionable, I’m not entirely sure what to do. I mostly own action movies (Die Hard, Terminator, etc.) comedies (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Blazing Saddles) and a few horror movies (Saw, 28 Days/Weeks Later, zombie movies)

By watching movies that contain these materials, am I offending God in the process? When evaluating movies for you, how do you know when you’ve crossed the line between good entertainment and something that’s negative for the soul?

You raise some good questions, and I’m gratified by the seriousness with which you are considering these issues.

I haven’t seen some of the films you mention, but in principle I can think of several possible reasons why someone watching a film he has always enjoyed might find himself reacting differently to it as you have.

It’s certainly the case that growing and maturing in one’s faith can alter one’s sensibilities and reactions are no longer the same. It’s also true that one’s tastes and sensibilities in general change over time. Whether for faith-related reasons or other reasons, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves outgrowing our previous tastes in movies, music, books, clothes and so forth — and acquiring new tastes that previously might have held little interest for us.

This isn’t necessarily to denigrate the tastes of youth (though sometimes they should be). It’s simply to say that we aren’t the same person at 25 that we are at 15, or at 45 that we are at 35, etc. Not that we are totally different either — much of what we enjoyed or disliked in our youth may be with us throughout our lives — but when and where this doesn’t happen, it may simply suggest that it’s time to move on, to enjoy other things. This doesn’t necessarily mean we need regret our previous tastes and experiences — although again in certain cases we should.

Another possible factor is a kind of cumulative effect over time, or a saturation effect of too much of something in one’s diet. An occasional Big Mac and fries isn’t going to do you any lasting harm, but a steady diet of fast food will have a deleterious effect on your well-being, and at some point you may find a particular meal not sitting too well — in which case it may be time to lay off the Big Macs. And, of course, not all films sustain repeated viewings as well as other films.

Questions I ask myself while watching a film with potentially problematic content include: What is the hook here? Why are we supposed to enjoy this? Do I enjoy it? If so, why? What are the possible pitfalls? What are the possible safe zones?

For example, with a violent action movie like Die Hard, is the audience encouraged to revel in the gruesomeness of the violence for its own sake? Or is the violence part of a cathartic experience of undergoing great duress and conquering adversity against great odds? In my review I made the case that the latter, not the former, is what that film is essentially about. This doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t ever cross a line in any respect, but I would say that it is basically worthwhile despite some flaws, rather than fundamentally flawed.

By contrast, some movies seem to me to sadistically indulge in violence for its own sake. I don’t see many movies like this (I’m selective enough — not to mention busy — that films like that generally don’t make my playlist in the first place), but I remember feeling that way about John Woo’s Broken Arrow, for instance. (Then again, that was over a decade ago, and I could have been suffering from Big Mac attack.) Much more recently, I felt that Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, despite some worthwhile themes, was marred to an extent by directorial excess in this area.

I haven’t seen any of the new crop of “torture porn” films like Saw, but I would be strongly inclined to suspect that these films make a sadistic spectacle of gruesome and degrading content for its own sake.

When potentially otherwise problematic content is played for comic effect, as you seem to be suggesting in Brain Dead — which, again, I haven’t seen — another set of factors comes into play. Humor can have a significant moral leavening effect on what would otherwise be problematic content — though it doesn’t always.

In part, a satiric, over-the-top presentation may play as a kind of spoof on genre conventions; we don’t necessarily watch such scenes as a self-contained narrative, but as a kind of satirical commentary on other narratives. Also, while humor is compatible with great excess in some areas, it can also impose various kinds of restraints.

An example of the latter principle is the scene from The Pirates of Penzance in which the titular pirates forcibly snatch up the shrieking daughters of the Modern Major-General — a scenario that would obviously be disturbing in a straight dramatic presentation, but in the comic context of the operetta is unlikely to upset even the gentlest viewers.

In part, this is because the comedy depends on the rules of the Gilbert and Sullivan world being such that there is no real harm in the pirates and no one can come to a truly bad end. In this scene we aren’t being invited to wink at rape, but to enjoy a stylized narrative in which even apparently lawless men are ultimately bound by the same basic allegiances, and so the evil of rape is simply unthinkable in this universe.

Another variation can be seen in in Monty Python’s Holy Grail in the bits with the increasingly maimed Black Knight. Here, obviously, it is possible to incur what we would consider real harm — but real suffering is precluded by comic intentions, and so the Knight loses one limb after another while insisting that it’s “only a scratch” and he still wants to fight. We aren’t being invited here to laugh at suffering, but to laugh at absurdity, or, if there’s anything more to it, at the follies of self-delusion and pride (as well as the conventions of dueling and chivalric honor).

However, comedy can also accompany real moral problems in a narrative. Humor can be mean-spirited, inviting us to gleefully embrace the comeuppance of a comically demonized character. Or winking sex farce may suggest that immorality is a lark and no big deal. (Both types of problems are on display, for example, in The Fighting Temptations.)

Well, I’ve rambled on well over my allotted word count; I hope some of it is helpful to you. Whether or to what extent such considerations might shed any light on the films you mention that I haven’t seen, or on others in your collection, is something you need to contemplate for yourself. God bless.

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