Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

You Can't Clean a Flick

The way work has been lately, I haven't been wandering the blogsphere nearly as much as I used to, so I hadn't run into the CleanFlicks controversy. The beleaguered Steven Riddle has some very good posts on the topic. And ZippyCatholic proves that there are plenty more things I disagree with him on beyond evolution.

I think part of the problem is something that our increasingly commoditized entertainment industry has let itself in for. It's rather hard to see many big name movies these days as works of art, and so in a sense, how can we be surprised that people think they should be able to order them a la carte. While 'content' heavy movies such as Pulp Fiction, The Godfather and Full Metal Jacket are clearly works of art (which one may like or dislike, but without question represent a unified artistic vision of the creator) the latest committee-written children's comedy or big action spectacle does not, and so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if someone wants to see Madagascar, Big Daddy, The Fast and the Furious or MI3 minus what they consider gratuitous objectionable material.

Another problem is that many Christians have an overly checklist-oriented system of morality in regards to art. In this sense, I think it's important to take a minute to think about what art is: an act of subcreation. When a writer or director puts a story in front of us, we see not merely the events that take place within the story, but also a view (which may be subtle or explicit) of how the artist believes the world to work, and what he believes it means. A narrative piece of art is not simply a sequence of events taking place within our world (which we as Christians believe was created by God) but rather a sequence of events taking place within the artist's own world, which operates according to laws created (implicitly or explicity) by the author which may be similar or dissimilar to the world in which we live.

Take one of the Lethal Weapon movies. If you cut out all the swearing, and any particularly graphic elements of violence, would you really have any more moral a movie? The relationships between the characters, their priorities and ideas of happiness would remain the same. The elements of 'content' may be the most clearly objectionable element to a parent, to the extent that you don't want your eight-year-old announcing that he's "too old for this shit", but allowing a fairly young child to see the Lethal Weapon movies (even expurgated of all 'content') accustoms him or her to a set of assumptions about how 'the good guys' live their lives which may be rather far from what a Catholic parent would want.

Similarly, the problem with Titanic from a moral perspective is not just what goes on in the steamy Model-T, or the scene of Kate Winslet being drawn in the nude (though a sufficiently un-formed child could certainly be led into sin by one of these) but with the entire understanding of what love is (and the place of sex in it) presented in the movie. Nor would Jerry Maguire (boy, I'm dating myself with all my examples, eh?) be any more moral if the bouncy sex scenes and pervasive use of a certain Anglo Saxon term were removed. The problem with that movie is with its understanding of what integrity, love and sex are at a more intrinsic level.

There are movies with a great deal of "objectionable content" (Rob Roy, Pulp Fiction, Black Hawk Down, Barry Lyndon, The Funeral, to name just a few) which nonetheless have important, sometimes even deeply moral messages. There are other movies which are crass and worthless at heart, no matter how many of the trappings are skimmed away.

But what, you ask, of the movie which a parent believes to be essentially sound, yet contains elements they don't want a child exposed to? Wait, it seems to me. Few children are going to waste away physically or intellectually because they're forced to wait till they're ten before seeing some movie that their friends saw at 6 or 8. If it's a good movie, with some parts that the child isn't yet able to contextualize within the moral framework, then it will keep. And if it's not that great a movie anyway, the kid will be better off. I'm not one for exposing children to the darker corners of the world before they're ready, but I'm also not one for papering over the problems in the world (what's the traditional Protestant image of grace: like snow on a dung hill?) in order to present a book or movie to a child earlier.

As a young child (say six to ten) I was a huge fan of classic Star Trek, yet my parents didn't let me see Wrath of Kahn (by far the best of the movies) until I was nine or ten. They were concerned about some of the language and violence, but more so about Kirk's ex-lover and their out-of-wedlock son who are characters in the story. And indeed, having fixed on Kirk as a hero, when I did finally see it the one hard thing for me was dealing with a character I'd come to see as a hero doing something clearly against our moral code. The degree of distress it caused me would probably seem silly to most outsiders, but at the time it was a pivotal learning opportunity -- that people come with good and bad sides, and you can't allow your admiration for certain qualities of a person outweight your ability to view the rest of their actions through an objective moral lens. And yet that, at the same time, someone who does something you consider very wrong is not thus some sort of human monster without admirable or redeeming qualities. I like the movie to this day, but I wouldn't show it to a child who wasn't yet morally mature enough to deal with the same issues.

So while I have little opinion as to whether CleanFlicks is behaving legally, I certainly think their business model is based on a morally shallow understanding of art and of life.


Reel Fanatic said...

Very well put ... No matter how good their intentions were, they clearly were acting against the spirit of art and invention

Big Tex said...

Hadn't even thought about it this way before. So, do they speak English in What?

Steven said...

Dear Darwin,

Very nicely said. I concur wholeheartedly. Thank you.



Dorian Speed said...

Very thoughtful post.

You know what is fun? Trying to figure out if you or your wife wrote a post as I scroll down. I had this one pegged as a MrsDarwin observation - until I got to the Star Trek reference.

A reference, by the way, in which the name of the baddest bad guy ever to not be a Borg is MISSPELLED. Your fine Corinithian leather will not protect you from the wrath of KHAN!

Darwin said...

So was it the fact that I referenced Star Trek, or the fact that I mis-spelled "Khan" that gave me away?

MrsDarwin said...

It's true that my main memories of first viewing Wrath of Khan (and I also noticed the misspelling -- so dark the Kahn of man, hey?) are of sheer terror at the "earwigs". I couldn't sleep for nights after seeing them crawl around in the crewmen's helmets.

But aside from the differences in our early Trek experiences, I heartily concur with all that Darwin has said here. As we were discussing the issue before he posted, I may have even said some of it first.

Dymphna said...

Cleanflicks was just plain wrong. They do not have the right to take someone else's work and alter it. We Christians should either make our own movies or just not watch certain things. I didn't get to see the Excocist until I was 20 and caught it on TV and I can't say I was culturally deprived.