Mailbag #9

The Dark Knight, The Last Temptation of Christ and more.

Re. The Legion of Decency

Going back to 1936, a Jesuit priest named Father Daniel Lord SJ founded the Legion of Decency. It was very successful in keeping the film industry making decent films. Every year on the feast of Christ the King every Catholic church had its parishioners take the pledge to avoid going to indecent movies. Why don’t we bring back the Legion of Decency?

The Legion of Decency was founded in 1933. Fr. Lord did not found it, although he supported its work, as did Pius XI. Fr. Lord did cowrite the 1930 Production Code, which governed Hollywood morality from 1934 until its eventual demise in 1967, when it was replaced by the MPAA age-based ratings system.

Prior to the Legion, American Catholic film criticism operated on a “white list” basis, meaning that approved films were positively reviewed, but problematic films were simply ignored rather than “black listed.” The Legion changed this by classifying movies for moral and age appropriateness including condemning movies considered unacceptable. Countless Catholics vowed to avoid films classified as condemned, and sympathetic non-Catholics including Protestants, Jews and even atheists supported the work.

Fearing organized Catholic boycotts, Hollywood finally agreed to a system of strictly enforced moral self-censorship, and in 1934 the major studios established the Production Code Administration, which worked with studios as films were being developed and issued a seal of approval to finished films that were judged to meet the moral standards of the Production Code. The PCA was headed from 1934 to 1954 by Hollywood insider and Jesuit-trained Catholic Joseph I. Breen.

Cracks in the system began to appear from the post-war years onward. The rise of foreign film and independent theaters showed that it was possible to make and distribute movies without the PCA seal — and such films might have considerable artistic or even moral substance while treating subject matter in ways not permitted by the Code. With changing social mores, the line between violations of morality and violations of decorum became harder to find.

The effort to apply moral concerns in an objective, codifiable way, whether by the PCA or the Legion, was always problematic. Breen had strong ideas about what was and wasn’t acceptable, and while I think there’s a lot to be said for his approach, there were also flaws.

In the 1960s the Legion of Decency was absorbed into the US bishops conference, and eventually became the Office for Film and Broadcasting as we know it today. It still carries on the work of classifying movies for moral and age-based appropriateness, including classifying some films as morally offensive. The fundamental difference is that these decisions are no longer considered binding on individual Catholics, as they once were at least for those Catholics who took an annual vow to avoid offensive films — meaning, of course, films condemned by the Legion.

Nor do I think that responsible adult Catholics today should consider themselves bound by any one verdict on movies. In 1960, for example, the Legion condemned Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. I have no quarrel with anyone who mounts a moral critique of Psycho. But I don’t think that putting Psycho on a list of films that Catholics are expected to vow not to see is the best way to serve Catholic or public moral standards.

In the past I’ve done some writing for the OFB myself, including classifying at least two films as morally offensive for the bishops. I can thus confidently say that the classifications of the OFB, like its predecessor the Legion of Decency and like my own ratings here at Decent Films, are a matter of individual judgment and opinion. Particular OFB classifications can, have and sometimes should be questioned by individual Catholics.

Likewise, here at Decent Films I want and expect my readers to think critically about my reviews, opinions and arguments. The critic’s task, as I see it, is to offer an informed and responsible construal of a film, one that provides readers with information and perspective that may be helpful in selecting movies to watch and evaluating movies they’ve seen.

Of course I’m pleased when readers find my work on-target, but I neither want nor expect anyone to agree with everything I write. I certainly don’t want even individuals, let alone groups, taking vows not to see movies that I — or frankly anyone else — has classified as offensive. The only people on the planet bound by any decisions of mine live under my own roof.

Immorality in movies and other entertainment is certainly an individual and social problem that the Church ought to address. However, the idea of renewing an annual pledge not to see indecent films doesn’t strike me as a workable or advisable idea. Among other things, it presupposes a commonly agreed-upon, workable standard of which movies are or aren’t decent, which we aren’t going to get. Whatever moral consensus may have existed in the first half of the twentieth century about decency and indecency is long since gone. Organized controversy over a film today arguably helps rather than harms it at the box office. Finally, not only movie production but also distribution — including DVD and the Internet — is far too decentralized for studios or exhibitors to feel intimidated by boycotts.

The moral battlegrounds have shifted. The problem of immorality in movies and other entertainment is dwarfed by the corrosion of pornography, especially Internet porn, that ought to get more attention than it does. Society is increasingly threatened at its roots by the collapse of marriage, including no-fault divorce and serial remarriage, contraception, rising cohabitation and same-sex “marriage.” The dignity of the human person is degraded by abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and euthanasia. The demands of charity to the poor, the imprisoned and the stranger cry out to be addressed. The Church is faced by serious challenges of catechesis, leadership and praxis. Our pastors have their work cut out for them, as do we, the laity. God’s mercy and grace be on us all.

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Re. The Dark Knight

I saw The Dark Knight yesterday. It seems to me that the movie leaves us with this question: are we being invited to approve the lies perpetrated by Wayne and Gordon at the end?

The message preached overtly at the end is that sometimes a lie is “better than the truth,” and that people “deserve to have their faith rewarded” even at the price of a grave, pernicious lie. This doctrine is, quite simply, Satanic. Are we being invited to approve it? I fear that we are.

It would be nice to think that this is, rather, a wry comment on mankind’s inability to bear very much reality (as Eliot put it). But whereas the movie tries to champion “decency” over depravity, it shows no convincing sign of championing truth over lies. One character who means to tell the truth is Rachel, but her attempt to do so is thwarted after her death by Alfred, whom we are presumably meant to consider a wiser head. Likewise, Gordon’s objection to calumniating the Batman is overridden by the pragmatic Wayne who assumes the blame for murders he did not commit.

The fact that the film problematizes various immoral acts on the heroes’ part doesn’t satisfy me that it is really on the side of truth. Since Pontius Pilate, the world has done its problematizing of “hard” moral questions; it has done its bit of agonizing, then sent Truth to the wall (or, in Pilate’s case, to the Cross).

The attitude to “faith” at the end also chimes with what the modern world thinks “faith” is: an idea, even if it be a delusion, that people need to sustain them, irrespective of objective truth.

What do you think? Is the ending an indictment of how we are lied to, or we meant to approve the lies?

A priest

I think the ending of The Dark Knight is genuinely ambiguous and conflicted on the morality of the heroes’s final decisions. I don’t think it asks us to approve or to condemn them, only to understand them.

Your unsparing analysis of the world “agonizing and then sending Truth to the wall” is dead on — and, woe to us, it happens not just in the world but also in the Church. I don’t think there’s any question that we need more transparency from our leaders, both in the world and in the Church.

At the same time, there is clearly a place for not telling the whole truth, for judging secrets too damaging to be made public. When and where to draw the lines in this regard is a judgment call, and often enough, alas, it is made badly. But it needs to be made.

I don’t think the film itself is making Eliot’s wry point about our inability to bear very much reality, but I do think Batman and Gordon are motivated by such concerns, whether in this case rightly or wrongly. Countless movies end with the heroes going public with deep dark secrets in a grand moral climax. The Dark Knight is one of a few that raises questions about the limits of transparency.

Whether legitimate secrecy can include offering actual misinformation or lying, and if so to whom and under what circumstances, is another question. I’m not convinced that an affirmative answer to this question must necessarily be satanic. I know St. Thomas thought so, but I’m not sure he was right. The latest issue of This Rock magazine has an excellent article by Jeffry Mirus on the morality of lying that explores this territory. Again, even if lying can sometimes be morally justified, it doesn’t follow that this particular lie is necessarily justified.

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Re. The Dark Knight

Thank you for your excellent and insightful review of The Dark Knight. I read it right before seeing the film and it enhanced my appreciation. This is the first film I’ve seen since Lord of the Rings that left me blinking at the shock of re-entering the Real World from the Reel one.

It seems to me that by the end, Batman has become the Suffering Servant. Assuming the planned third film closes Nolan’s arc, myth-logic would require Batman to allow himself to be killed but Bruce Wayne would be redeemed.

I hope you don’t get too much static from National Catholic Register readers for praising something other than a “wholesome family film.”

Sandra Miesel

Thanks for writing, Sandra. I appreciate your work.

I’m fascinated to see where Nolan may go from here. The Dark Knight puts Batman’s mission and self-understanding to what seems an ultimate test. A third film would have to do more than just more of the same. The Dark Knight isn’t without hope, but it falls short of satisfying redemption, and a third film ought to provide that. I’m thinking, e.g., of the third film in the Jason Bourne series.

My relationship with the Register has been a terrific one. There’s been a learning curve for both me and readers as we’ve figured each other out. There are still some who object that, e.g., I recommended Juno more strongly than Bella, but by and large I think I’ve made my case to the readers, whether they agree with me or not.

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Re. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

I know that your review of Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ is 7 years old, nonetheless I have one piece of what I hope is perceived as constructive criticism. This review is not a review of the film (i.e. screenplay, direction, actors portrayals, cinematography). It is, quite frankly, a review of Kazantzakis’ book. You have reviewed and critiqued the main plot points that were created by Kazantzakis almost 50 years ago. Reviewing a movie such as this is like walking a tight rope to insure that you don’t review the book. You never set foot on the tight rope, though, and instead fell to the ground, into the trap of a book review. What I was really hoping for was a film critique.

Thank you for listening. Please don’t take this personally. You seem to be an otherwise good reviewer as far as Christian Faith reviewers go.

I’ve always been amazed at how much attention my Last Temptation essay has garnered, considering I wrote it basically for myself, early in my career, as a test case of the kind of writing I wanted to do. I never thought the film and the essay would continue to attract so much attention.

FWIW, response to that essay has been more or less evenly split into the following types:

  1. Your review completely misses the point of the film. You’re totally off the mark.
  2. Your review says it perfectly. Thank you.
  3. I’ve never understood why Christians had a problem with this movie, but now it makes sense.

The first type of reaction I take to heart, because I want to try to understand any film the way its appreciators do, even if I ultimately wind up siding with the detractors. The second reaction is always nice, of course, but it’s the third that has always been the most gratifying to me, since it confirms that at least for some readers I’ve been able to make another point of view explicable to them, which is a big part of what reading and writing, as well as cinema, is all about.

Your reaction is intriguing, in part, because it doesn’t immediately seem to fit any of the types. It might turn out to be a type-1 response, but I don’t have enough information to conclude that just yet.

The hook, of course, is your distinction between reviewing a film and reviewing a book, and the barb on the hook is that I’m not sure exactly what sort of distinction you mean to draw. In a strictly literal sense, it can’t really be the case that my review is a response to the book more than the film, for the rather decisive reason that I wrote the essay without having read the book. I was thus in the (in one sense) privileged position of being able to respond to the film in itself, without bringing in comparisons or contrasts to the book.

To have read the source material is naturally a privilege of another sort — but with regard to the specific question of responding to the film qua film rather than to the book, there’s a certain clarity in being familiar only with the film and not with the book. Of course this clarity comes at the expense of being able to judge the filmmakers’ specific contributions, which would certainly be an issue for auteur criticism. But it’s no impediment at all in judging the finished work in itself.

Critically speaking, a film is the work that it is. How it has used or adapted its source material, and where it is or is not dependent on it, may have bearing on questions regarding the filmmakers’ judgment and the credit (or blame) due to them, but a brilliant plot is a brilliant plot wherever it came from, and the same goes for a problematic plot. Suppose it were discovered that Orson Welles had stolen the screenplay for Citizen Kane — whole scenes and conversations — from a twenty-year-old stage play. This discovery might considerably dent Welles’s legend and the high esteem accorded his personal achievement in the film, but it wouldn’t make the film itself any less spectacularly entertaining.

When and where the film version of Last Temptation relies on Kazantzakis, Kazantzakis becomes a collaborator in the film, and criticism of his contributions becomes as relevant as criticism of anyone else’s contributions to the film. The crucial relationship for the type of criticism I’m doing is the relationship to the Gospels and to Christian theology.

Perhaps one might argue, as you seem to, that my essay simply focuses too much on narrative, whereas cinema is a visual medium and so more attention ought to have been paid to images. While I do pay significant attention to at least one image (Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene), and have written elsewhere about others, it’s true that my essay is highly narrative-centric, but then it’s not intended as an exhaustive critical evaluation of the film as a work of cinematic art — in fact, I expressly disclaim that intention. Critics often pick out one highly relevant aspect of a film to focus on, and my essay is meant above all as a critical response to the theological and Christological implications of the film’s art — which means, above all, the art of the film’s narrative, whether at any particular point Schrader, Kazantzakis or someone else is responsible.

My whole brief is that, as presented in the film, the material itself overwhelms other cinematic considerations. A film as overwhelmingly and relentlessly misogynistic as this film is blasphemous would be unwatchable; it could only be endured. That’s how I see Last Temptation — or at least how I saw it seven years ago.

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