MOVIES: Crass movie content -- how'd we get here?
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)--I love movies. They combine the essence of all the other art forms, enabling storytellers to express joy and sadness, nobility and fear, love and hate, passion and romance, and hope and faith, sometimes all in the same film. But while they are modern man's medium for relating parables to the masses, these parables are being treated with an ever-increasing dose of secularism. Movies over the decades have reflected changes in the society, but they have also influenced those changes, often proving the adage "Not all change is progress."
Let's take a look at the history of what I call the "seven deadly movie sins."
-- Acceptance of profanity.
We begin with the film that managed to break social and media taboos in the areas of sexuality, marriage and verbal irreverence toward God. Never before had there been a more searing portrait of an unhappy marriage than "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" This 1966 dramatic vehicle for husband and wife Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor brought marital upheaval into the open. The language barrier also went down, with Burton and Taylor profaning God's name nearly as often as their characters belittled each other. Today, the profane use of God's name can be heard in nearly every drama and most comedies. Think the filmmakers had that in mind when they fought to get Virginia Woolf to the screen? Doubtful. But that's where it began.
-- Acceptance of crime.
When the Motion Picture Code was intact (1930s to late 1960s), movie criminals were unable to get away with a crime. Boy, has that changed. In 1969, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford as these two legendary bank robbers, and it was the coolest movie around. The audience found themselves rooting for these mythic heroes, even when they were shooting at peace officers. In 1973, Newman and Redford again played outlaws, this time as men who made their living conning citizens in the "Sting." And this time they did get away with it. Both of these films were stylish, witty and examples of great filmmaking. But they did lead to movie crooks getting away with crimes. Every heist film in the last decade or so -- "Bandits," "Heartbreakers," "The Score," "Gone in Sixty Seconds," and "Oceans" 11, 12 and 13 -- have allowed the outlaws to get away with his crime, while we sat there rooting for them.
-- Acceptance of crudity.
The mention of Mel Brooks usually generates a smile. Responsible for "Young Frankenstein" and "The Producers," he is a creative, funny man. But Mr. Brooks is also a barrier-breaker. He goes beyond bawdy, creating comedy from the crudest of concepts. (His campfire scene from "Blazing Saddles" quickly comes to mind, though I wish it wouldn't.) He paved the way for Mike Myers, Ben Stiller, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen, who have gone on to build much of their comedy on vulgarity. Today most comic actors spend much of their screen time in the sewer. Mel Brooks led the way.
-- Acceptance of sexploitation.
The expression goes -- sex sells. Well, Hollywood has sold everything there is to sell with sex. And nobody is more bombarded by sexploitation than teenagers. Most films aimed at the teen demographic are geared to promote the idea that abstaining is no longer relevant. The world and the movies are telling them to have premarital sex.
-- Acceptance of Christ-bashing.
"Easy A" is a film about high schoolers searching for ways to be accepted by their peers, yet the script counters its very theme -- to accept one another and show respect for one another -- by mocking and belittling all Christians. The lead begins a misleading rumor about herself, letting others think she slept with a fellow student. She does this in order to find acceptance. Then, for money, she aids nerds by letting them tell others they have had sexual encounters with her. In the film, the Christian youth group is seen reading the Bible, praying, singing songs -- all the while showing nothing but hatred and bigotry toward their fellow students. There isn't one single example of a person of faith being shown in a good light, not even when the lead goes to different churches seeking solace for her actions.
I'm sure those responsible for the film would counter with, "It's meant as satire, in keeping with the themes found in Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter." Fair enough, but try painting everyone in a minority group or an entire heritage of another religion with this same caricaturist brushstroke. They'd catch fire and brimstone if they did. Yet somehow, it's OK when mockery is aimed at followers of Christ.
-- Acceptance of blasphemy. "Religion must die so mankind can live." So says Bill Maher at the end of his docu-diatribe "Religulous," which concerns the TV comic's belief that all faith is foolishness. In his polluted assessment of religion, Maher managed to avoid religious discussions with theologians or folks versed in public speaking, preferring to ambush his victims. Not once does he give an example of religious people adding a positive to the culture or our world. Never does he see the life-changing transformation of truly knowing Christ, only the corruption by those who use religion for their own ends. What's more, one gets the impression that Mr. Maher would have people of faith boiled with their own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through the heart. Bah, humbug.
-- Acceptance of desensitizing violence.
The horror film has undergone more transformations than Lady Gaga's wardrobe. In the '30s and '40s, horror films such as "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "The Cat People" were actually morality plays, where good was triumphant over evil. In the '50s, most horror films were, well, goofy, the Saturday matinee screen being invaded by giant lizards, ants and even a 50-foot woman. The '60s saw classic fright flicks resurrected by Hammer Studios, a studio known for using vivid color to captivate, especially with the use of a thick red liquid that looked more like candy apple syrup than the gushing blood it was supposed to represent. But in the '70s and '80s, horror films became gruesome showcases for studio special effects departments, and malevolent and apparently indestructible ghouls such as "Nightmare on Elm Street's" Freddie Kruger, "Halloween's" Michael Myers and "Friday the 13th's" Jason returned sequel after sequel to kill as many teenagers as possible in 96 minutes.
The '90s once again unearthed the classic monsters -- but with a twist. In Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula," his monster was an omnipresent creature who contemptuously burned a crucifix with a stare, rather than turning away from the significance of the cross -- something the vampire had done ever since Bela Lugosi first put on a set of fangs. This new spin changed the entire theme of the Dracula legend. No longer was God the conqueror of the devil; now man alone was in control of his fate.
Thought-provoking thrillers like "Signs" (2002) are outnumbered by the latest horror sub-genre, torture porn. "SAW" showed men and women being subjected to physical pain and mental abuse in disturbing manners. The sequels and the copycats simply got more gruesome. I'm not sure any of us realize the true effect of torture porn movies on our psyches, as it desensitizes us. Is that ever good?
"Garbage in/garbage out" may seem a strident declaration, but we moviegoers are bombarded by a great deal of media influence, much of which doesn't feed the soul. Like all living things, the spirit of man needs to be nourished. We all need to keep that in mind when attending new movies.
Phil Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective for Baptist Press and is the author of "Movies: The Good, The Bad, and the Really, Really Bad," available on Amazon.com.