Mailbag #8

The Wicker Man, The Dark Knight, Pixar, Witness, Hotel Rwanda, The 40 Year Old Virgin, ClearPlay, Scooby Doo and more.

Re. The Wicker Man

I enjoyed your review of the original Wicker Man, which was up to your usual (and high) standards of thoughtfulness. Perhaps, however, the film, without overt comment, inclines a little bit in favor of Sgt. Howie’s Christianity. As you say, the filmmakers do not clearly take sides. Nevertheless, the viewer cannot help but notice that the pagans of Summerisle are willing to kill a stranger in order to try to save themselves, while the Christian Sgt. Howie is willing to risk his own life in order to try to save a stranger. I think that a person with normal moral sensibilities will feel that Christianity comes off better.

I think it’s fair to say that a person with “normal moral sensibilities” will feel that Sgt. Howie acts decently, if also priggishly, and the Summerisle neopagans act horrifically and sadistically, if also cheerfully and enthusiastically. Are we meant to take our cues from moral actions, or from mood? Is the moral perspective the movie’s, or is it ours? I think your take is a perfectly reasonable one. I think it’s also possible to argue the other way.

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Re. The Wicker Man

So, you believe the forces of good and evil fight to a stalemate in The Wicker Man, eh? Nothing wrong with that interpretation, although your moral-spiritual rating suggests that the film tips slightly in favor of the pagans. Is that correct? It might be worth noting that all the Wicker Man fans I’ve read or spoken to side with the Summerisle folks. To them, the villagers are a generally happy lot, while Howie is repressed and dull, unwilling to realize his full potential. The humiliation he endures is the most troubling aspect of the film (he is dressed as a fool during the May Day celebration) because it invites the audience to jeer at him. Just whom are the filmmakers (particularly screenwriter Anthony Shaffer) siding with?

It obviously wouldn’t be accurate to say that “good and evil fight to a stalemate.” In a sense, it’s the story of the “death of God” in the Nietzschean sense, i.e., the Christian worldview has lost its cultural ascendancy, and, here at least, something else has supplanted it. But I don’t find that the film “sides” with that something else over the Christian worldview.

Certainly, the film allows the pagans to be cheerful and unrepressed, and in that sense more attractive representatives of their worldview than Howie is of his. I’m not convinced that we are actually invited to jeer at Howie with the villagers, though that’s certainly a reasonable interpretation. I think it’s just as reasonable to take that scene as deliberately troubling, as you find it troubling.

If Howie were more sympathetic and admirable, I can’t see how the film would play as anything other than a Christian polemic against paganism. As it is, I think most normal viewers will agree on the heinous wrongness of the climactic action, and to that extent the pagans will be found to be clearly in the wrong. The very cheeriness of the pagans in that scene may reasonably be felt to tell against them. I would thus be more sympathetic to an interpretation of the film as anti-religious in general, or at least anti-fanatical, than pro-pagan.

Ultimately, I think the film leaves the whole question open. The inclusion of that last line from Summerisle that I quoted in the end of my review seems to be a significant acknowledgement (from the film, not Summerisle) of the Christian worldview: What is happening here can be seen either of two ways.

Having said all that about the film’s lack of resolution, does it tip one way rather than another? Yeah, maybe. I don’t think the film “sides” with the villagers, but it’s fair to say its sympathies lean — I wouldn’t want to use a stronger word than that — in their direction. The moral-spiritual rating does reflect that sense. It’s also partly for Willow’s nude dance, which as noted in the review crosses the line into exploitation.

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Re. The Dark Knight

Thank you for the insightful and enjoyable movie reviews. I have been reading them in the National Catholic Register for some time now and always look forward to reading them. I was eager to see what you had to say about The Dark Knight, and as usual, it was a pleasure to read.

As much as I enjoyed the movie, for many of the qualities that you point out in your review, there seemed to be something off when I thought back on the movie as the credits rolled. It would seem that the only character in the movie who really understood himself, and the other major characters in the movie, was the Joker. I think even he knew that he deserved to be killed and that it would have been just and justifiable for him to be killed.

Charity without a sense of justice is only sentiment. Alfred (Michael Cain) points out to Bruce Wayne that some people just want to watch the world burn; you can’t reason with them. The Joker told everyone in that movie that he was that guy! And what did everyone do? They all tried to reason with him, or extended to him charity that was more for the satisfaction of their own egos then for any priciple. By not dealing with the immediate and imminent threat that the Joker clearly represented, they made it possible for the deaths of innocent characters as well as their own in some cases. And all the talk and action for justice by Batman and the good cop and the DA looks like posturing or bluffing. To serve justice would require the use of deadly force, when necessary, to stop or repel an unjustified us of force. I would suggest this would have been one of those cases.

Whether the Joker deserves death is one question; whether it would be morally legitimate for Batman to kill him is another. You mention the danger of charity without justice; I think that Bruce knows that, for him, the practical danger is all in the opposite direction of justice without charity, and ultimately vengeance without justice. Even if you take issue with his decision not to kill the Joker, I don’t think this is due to ego on Bruce’s part.

Bruce is legitimately concerned about what he may become in the course of fighting evil, especially someone like the Joker. Even in the first film it’s clear that the moral legitimacy of his extra-legal crusade depends significantly in his mind on his not becoming a mere vigilante, killing bad guys just because he can. Killing bad guys is a line he will not cross, even if it means sometimes not saving all the lives he could.

It may be helpful to remember that you, the viewer, have access to more information than the characters do. By the time Batman meets the Joker, you know the Joker better than Batman does. For that matter, you already know something about the Joker going into the theater. Batman spends much of The Dark Knight on the steep slope of a cruel learning curve, and he does struggle and make mistakes. He’s human. The Joker is something less than that. Batman doesn’t want to go the same route.

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Re. The Dark Knight

My problem is that the heroes were too compromised in this film. Batman decides to do something he believes is immoral in order to save Gotham, and in the end he doesn’t have enough faith in people so he decides to lie to the people of Gotham in order to protect them from hard truth about their DA. Batman breaks the law all the time but when he taps phone lines the omnipotent deity Morgan Freeman tells him he has gone too far and that this is unethical.

One can see the connection between Joker and the terrorists that we are dealing with in the real world but I noticed that the Joker makes his point too well and in the end he is proven to be correct in his summation of mankind because the heroes Harvey Dent and Batman choose to ignore morality when chaos breaks loose. Interestingly, Batman, Harvey Dent, and the Joker are all in a similar predicament; they have lost faith in mankind.

On a high note in the midst of chaos the people of Gotham actually do the right thing and begin to pray. Maybe the heroes are relying too much on their own power and not enough on God’s power. One does walk away from the movie feeling like Gotham city needs saints, not superheroes. That could be a good thing.

What I love about superheroes is that they make me feel like there is someone out there that can set things right. When the terrorists come in and take over the tower and we know that Bruce Willis is in there with them, we know that things will eventually be set is right and he will make sure justice is done. It makes me feel safer. I walk away from the superhero movie feeling glad in the knowledge that there is someone watching over me. This film caused me to doubt that superheroes really have that power and it made me feel a little despairing. I have always thought that superhero movies were supposed to be escapist in that way. But this film seems to say that superheroes are not to be depended on; that it is really up to us. This may be a great theme but it is not the reason I go to the theater to watch heroes. It is a paradigm that I’m not used to. I watch the heroes to lift me up and to see a great virtue being practiced and consequently, it makes me want to be like them. I don’t know if I’m ready to have a superhero tell me tell me he is imperfect and that he needs me to step up.

I’m very impressed that you connected the theme from Liberty Valance and Dark Knight — so did I! In Liberty Valance the legend became bigger than the truth so they let things lay. But Batman decides to tell us lies because he lacks faith that we can handle the truth. But we proved on the ferries that we are capable of handling the truth. I went through that idea in my own head even before reading your review, but I didn’t come to the same conclusion.

Keep up the good work, Steve, but we may have to disagree on this one.

I love escapist heroics myself, and I can understand you feeling that what you go to super hero movies for is not what The Dark Knight is doing. I think you’ve done an admirable job of articulating what it is that The Dark Knight is doing in spite of your wish that it had done something else instead.

In particular I think you put your finger on part of what Nolan is doing when you describe the sense of losing faith in super heroes and feeling that it’s up to us. To take it a step further, our super heroes are only us, and every one of us on our own level has to be the hero or not every day. As Harvey Dent didn’t quite say, “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Soldiers, saints, policemen, priests, nurses, bishops, presidents, popes — they’re all limited and fallible human beings, just like we are. It’s not just that often enough instead of Moses and David we get Hophni and Phineas. When you get right down to it, Moses and David are made of the same flawed stuff as Hophni and Phineas.

This is powerful for me because as much as I love the idea of a hero, and as much as I admire particular heroic people, I’m acutely aware that we can’t ultimately put our hope in heroes. What I love about The Dark Knight is that it knows this too — and doesn’t despair. Even if our heroes have feet of clay and may sometimes let us down, there is still hope, both for them and for us.

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Re. Finding Nemo (2003), Wall-E (2008)

As they say in talk radio, I am a “long time reader, first time writer.” I truly enjoy your writing on this site and check it often; my only wish is that there were more of it. I also find myself in agreement with most everything you have to say. I have been a huge fan of Pixar over the years. To my mind, The Incredibles is perhaps one of the most perfect films made for any audience and on a par with Mary Poppins or It’s a Wonderful Life (or even Apocalypse Now if you want to go there). Their sheer output of good to excellent movies is staggering.

But there is a kind of “Circle of Life” rule in the movie business that any successful artistic enterprise eventually begins to believe its own hype, becomes more complacent or self-indulgent, and thus sows the seeds of its own demise. To my mind (and I was almost alone in my assessment), I saw sad confirmation of this in Finding Nemo, a film (admittedly gorgeous to look at — I mean we’re still talking about Pixar) where comedy and high concepts were sacrificed for Berkeley-esque platitudes about “special” needs and inclusiveness. Ironically to me, that film was almost universally hailed as the studio’s masterpiece (and, I believe, is still its most profitable film).

Their track record has been spotty but above average ever since (Brad Bird has been a real shot in the arm), but has reached a new low with WALL-E. As a mere consumer of films I enjoy and judge a film for what it is saying up on the screen. Again, WALL-E is a beautiful film (though the inclusion of live actors was jarring) with nothing to say. Perhaps there were too many hands involved: it seems they were trying to make an environmental film but economic concerns forced them to hedge their bets so much (or perhaps “code their message” so that only the faithful would be in on it) that they were left with nothing but a Chaplinesque love story. Again, this film has been praised to the skies (though perhaps more praised than watched) and I can only wonder where the studio is headed.

Redemption from the aforementioned rule and trend reversals are always possible (think of Disney’s The Little Mermaid or even the Coen brothers’ Fargo), but I have seen no one even acknowledge this problem at Pixar. For me, this site has always been “spot on” in its observations, so I’m writing to ask if you find any substance to what I have observed.

Thanks for writing, and for your thoughtful comments.

Your WALL-E skepticism, though very different from my take, is entirely reasonable, and you aren’t at all alone in feeling that way about the film.

I’ve seen WALL-E twice, and I’m over the moon about it. For me, it works transcendently as pure poetry, as mood and atmosphere and imagery. A “Chaplinesque love story,” yes — with a blend of strangeness, slapstick, wonder, awe, terror, obsession and silliness that is utterly unique and haunting. I see it as daring art on a high level, and a rare moviegoing experience that I can only be grateful for — though, again, I can understand others feeling differently.

I have to admit, though, that I’m gobsmacked by your take on Finding Nemo, in connection with which my only regret is that my current “DVD Picks” review is so embarrassingly short and shallow — something I’ll have to rectify.

“Berkeley-esque platitudes about ‘special’ needs and inclusiveness”? How about devastating insights into parental anxieties? How about one of the most touching and wrenching father-son relationships in animation history, if not all of cinema?

What is more affecting than Marlin’s slow and painful journey of learning to let Nemo go, of allowing him to succeed or fail on his own? What is more poignant than those two wide-eyed moments of realization — Marlin on the whale’s tongue, Nemo listening to the pelican — the beleagured dad grasping the extent of his protectiveness, the disillusioned son beginning to see his father in a new light? (“You think you can do these things, but you can’t, Nemo!” “My dad took on a shark?!”) It’s making me cry right now just thinking about it. I dunno, maybe it’s a father thing.

“Comedy sacrificed”? What cartoon sidekick in recent memory is more hilarious than Dori? Okay, maybe Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove, but after that. I’m not sure I can think of anyone. Finding Nemo is a comic gem.

Are Pixar’s recent films perfect? The Incredibles comes close to perfection, yes, though it’s a work in a well-trodden genre, or rather a number of well-trodden genres. Its subversiveness and daring lies in its thematic territory — the cult of entitlement, marital friction, and, as in Finding Nemo, masculinity in crisis — rather than its subject matter.

Ratatouille and especially WALL-E, on the other hand, represent entirely new kinds of family/animated films. No Hollywood film this year seems to me a more hopeful harbinger than WALL-E. If films like this are possible and viable, all kinds of doors are open. I enjoy the likes of Kung Fu Panda and Horton Hears a Who as much as anyone. But nothing is more exciting to me as a father and a film critic than to be able to bring my kids to a film like WALL-E. I want to live in a world in which artists strive to create family films as unique and peculiar as this one.

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Re. Witness

I saw Witness when I was 25 years old and remember the movie well. Or at least one part of the movie,“…a moment of standing, motionless and silent, looking at one another through a door that ought to have been shut…” You know what? The scene left me angry. Even at twenty-five years of age having grown up with two sisters I knew that there was no way that door was accidently left open. I knew that any woman who looks up and sees a man, any man, while she is “compromised” will react. She will not simply pose. That woman knew what she was doing, that man knew it too and, wisely, walked away.

The length of the scene made me angry too (mind you I was then a twenty-five-year-old, sort-of Catholic who might of made a different decision should I have been tempted in the same fashion). Even then I felt the director paused way too long on the half naked woman, frankly for the sake of prurience. Maybe all this says more about me than the movie but that is what I remember.

I agree that Rachel probably wanted, or at least part of her wanted, to leave the door open, so to speak, to Book. There was a line that she wasn’t willing to cross, but she was willing to get close enough, even though it meant crossing other lines, to give Book the choice of carrying her across that final line if he wanted to. He wanted to, he was certainly tempted, but ultimately he did the right thing.

Whether the filmmaker did the right thing in depicting the temptation is a judgment call. I don’t personally find the scene prurient, but I can understand others seeing it differently, and even the same person may see it differently at 45 or 35 than at 25 or 15.

A related separate question is whether the scene poses a likely occasion of sin for any given viewer. A viewer who finds the scene objectionable, as you did at 25, is not necessarily more likely to stumble at it than one who considers the scene reasonable in itself; in principle he may be less so. This is an area in which viewers must exercise discernment and discretion and decide for themselves where the lines need to be drawn.

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Re. Hotel Rwanda

I was just wondering what you thought of the scene in Hotel Rwanda where Paul asks his wife Tatiana to “take the kids up to the top of the hotel and jump” if they find themselves in a situation where they cannot escape from the Hutu extremists. Although that never ended up happening in the film, I found that scene to be very problematic and kind of annoying in a film that otherwise displays Christ-like courage under barbaric circumstances.

While it’s true that Catholic moral theology holds that that suicide is always morally wrong, even in the face of certain and horrific death, I wouldn’t judge either Paul or the film too harshly. Given the circumstances, Paul’s moral calculus is at least understandable, if not acceptable. It is a realistic portrait of what many sincere people would conclude is a morally valid option under such circumstances. To face being hacked to bits by machete, to say nothing of watching your children facing the same fate, is more than many of even the bravest of us could face without extraordinary supernatural graces. We don’t have to agree with Paul’s decision to sympathize with a husband and father trying to make the best decisions he can under dreadful duress.

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Re. The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)

As a Catholic film student I find your work very helpful for discerning what movies are morally acceptable. The question I have is one that is in much debate among my fellow Catholic film students. Would it be morally right to make the film The 40 Year Old Virgin. The film contains much crude and vulgar humor but sends the message that waiting until marriage to have sex might be the right way. I would appreciate your thoughts on the subject.

I’m delighted to hear that questions like this are being debated among Catholic film students. Critics can only contribute so much to shaping public discourse; our art is parasitic on the filmmaker’s art. We can call for filmmakers to make excellent and honorable films till we’re blue in the face, but only filmmakers can actually make it happen.

The 40 Year Old Virgin, along with Knocked Up and Juno, represents what critic Stephen Whitty has called the “Crude Romanticists”:

They are a just-missed-the-baby-boom generation raised on equal helpings of Mad magazine and their mom’s teary 4:30 Movie, of screenings of Porky’s and dreams of prom queens. They want to believe in happily-ever-after. But they also know their friends will rag them if they don’t cover it up with a dirty joke.

In other words, the crude element is what gives such films cred and enables them to sell the idealistic element to a jaded audience that wouldn’t otherwise buy it. To that extent, these films subvert the sex comedy genre by suggesting, essentially, that one can’t reduce sex to dirty jokes.

This is, I think, a somewhat hopeful sign, although The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up seem to me to try a little too hard to have their cake and eat it too — to subvert the sex comedy genre, but not before pushing the envelope as far as they can.

I put Juno in a different category. As crude as the first half-hour in particular is, there’s an authorial distance on the characters’ milieu; it doesn’t feel exploitative or prurient the way that much of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up does.

Your perspective as a film student is somewhat different from the typical viewer’s. You aren’t asking whether it’s morally okay to watch such films, or even whether their net effect on the culture at large is more good than bad or vice versa. You’re interested in the legitimacy of making such films.

I think that filmmakers can legitimately treat crude subject matter, and even see the humor in it, while exposing the foibles of those with crude or limited outlooks on life. At the same time, restraint is needed to avoid gratuitous occasions of sin and a coarsening effect on viewers. In my judgment, Juno significantly achieves this, while The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, despite their positive elements, are more compromised and problematic.

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Re. ClearPlay

What do you think of the ClearPlay DVD and membership system?

The ClearPlay system differs from the approach pioneered by CleanFlix and similar services in that it does not physically edit or alter movie media such as DVDs, but uses customized filtering routines to skip designated portions of films. ClearPlay editors create the filtering routines for each film, tagging potentially objectionable material under various categories which viewers can customize according to their own preferences.

Legally, this system has been upheld as consistent with copyright law, in contrast to the CleanFlix approach, which was successfully sued for copyright violations by Hollywood filmmakers.

Artistically, it’s a grey area. Some feel that a film should be seen as the filmmakers intended or not at all. While this argument may be weakened somewhat by existing editing practices for network television and the like, such edits are usually authorized by the studio which has negotiated these rights with the filmmakers. Third-party censors producing editing viewing experiences without any agreement with the filmmakers or studios strikes some as problematic.

On one level, it could be seen as a high-tech version of hitting the mute or fast-forward button. On the other hand, hitting the mute or fast-forward button makes it clear to everyone in the room when and where the “edits” occur, so at least it’s clear where the filmmakers intended something that’s not being seen. Potentially seamless, effortless ClearPlay edits can create the impression that the filmmakers’ intent was other than it was.

This can have jarring consequences. I first saw The Scarlet and the Black fifteen or so years ago via a VHS copy rented from a local Catholic book shop. Somewhat later I saw the film again, and was startled to discover an entire scene that had been edited out of the other version, a conversation in a Vatican archive room between the protagonist and Pope Pius XII in which the Holy Father mentions the Vatican concordat with the Nazis and wonders whether this was a mistake. As an unintended consequence of the removal of this scene, a later remark from Pius XII referring back to this discussion makes no sense.

I’m not entirely sure why this scene was considered problematic, but I know I felt rather odd realizing that my original experience of the film had been somewhat falsified. Of course, I hadn’t known at the time that the movie was edited at all; if I were paying for a filter to do precisely that, that would obviously be different.

Still another question is the motive of the viewer in wanting an edited version of the film. I can see the point of view of parents wanting to watch a movie like, say, Seabiscuit with their kids, if only it weren’t for that one brief brothel scene. I would be somewhat less sympathetic to the position of an adult Catholic wanting to watch a movie like, say, United 93 without the bad language. Just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily make it bad for you, and there are dangers in the other direction of trying to adjust reality to your comfort level.

My feeling is thus that a lot depends on the particular film, the particular edits and the particular viewer. Some films (say, American Pie) are obviously so full of problematic content that no cleaned-up version is imaginable. More subtly, some films (say, Titanic) have instances of problematic content that can be easily removed, but remain problematic at their core in other ways. We shouldn’t think that just because nudity, bad language and violence have been stripped out that the movie is now safe or wholesome.

Then there are films (say, Juno) that are very worthwhile, but with potentially problematic content that is integral to the film, which should probably either be watched for what they are or not at all. Finally, there are films (say, Seabiscuit or more recently Man on Wire) that remain essentially intact even when a few problematic bits are removed, making them more accessible to wider (and in particular younger) audiences. That’s where I think the best case for a ClearPlay approach is.

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Re. Scooby-Doo

I wanted to thank you for all of your helpful reviews on these movies. I’m a teenager who absolutely loves watching movies and it helps to come here and see which are good movies and which are bad. Their is one movie I don’t agree with you on though. Scooby Doo. I don’t understand why you gave it the review you did. I’ve been watching it since I was like six and have loved it since.

I expect readers to disagree with me sometimes. There is no one right answer on all films, and no one has to agree with me.

Any review I write is intended to offer you one perspective on a movie that is (a) informative, (b) thought-provoking and (c) worth reading in its own right. From there, you’re meant to arrive at your own decisions as to (a) whether or not to see a film and (b) if you do see or have seen it, what you think of it. Hopefully my review gives you something to think about; I certainly never want to tell anyone what to think.

I’m afraid I can’t offer any further justification for my Scooby Doo review than the review itself. If you love the film, my review probably makes no sense to you. All I can say was that it was fun to write. It’s the only review I ever sang on the air, too.

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Re. Decent Films

I recently stumbled onto your website, and I absolutely love it. Although I come from a slightly different background — I’m a politically liberal Jew — I love your perspective on movies. I especially enjoy the fact that you grade a movie’s morals not on its actual violence/nudity content, but the message that it’s sending out — that’s unusual for a Christian review site, and I think it’s much more honest.

I’m wondering if you could post a couple of reviews of some of my favorite flicks. First order of business is definitely Chinatown, that gorgeously constructed neo-noir that some critics consider to be cinematically flawless (it’s hard to argue with) and is one of my all-time favorites. I’m surprised you haven’t already reviewed it, since you already have a couple of Polanski entries here. I also would love to know what you think of Fargo. It’s my favorite Coen Brothers movie; despite the violence, I think it’s warmly empathetic, very funny, and even morally sound (and Frances McDormand is amazing in it). I’d love to know what you think of these two. Thanks for all the great work. Keep it up!

It’s especially gratifying for a writer to be heard at any sort of distance or from a different point of view. Although I write from a particular perspective, I would hate to think that my work addresses only a narrow spectrum of opinion or belief.

There are, alas, a great many crucial films that I have never reviewed, although I may be getting to a few of them sooner rather than later. An upcoming DVD edition of the Godfather films will probably provide the impetus to finally take on that challenge. And while Chinatown will, alas, probably remain in Decent Films limbo for the foreseeable future, by a strange coincidence I was contemplating a Fargo review just this morning, in part perhaps by way of offering further commentary on No Country for Old Men (which I’ve written about but not reviewed). I will take your email as another straw in the wind leaning in that direction.

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