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Language, Sex, and Violence — Will We Watch?

In Books, Movies and Television, Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on October 2, 2012 at 5:00 pm

“If it’s not appropriate for children, it’s not appropriate for anyone.”

I’ve always had trouble with this idea, because if I took that approach, I’d no longer be able to read my Bible.

I have been told by those who can read the original languages in which the Bible has been written that some of the language is pretty course, especially in the prophets. And you don’t need to read the original language to find sexual content both the beautiful stuff, like The Song of Songs, and the repellant, the story of Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-36) comes to mind. There’s also plenty of violence. When I was young, my imagination played the tent peg story (Judges 4:21) and the murder of Eglon (Judges 3:12-30) clearly on the screen of my mind.

The good folks down at the Skeptics Annotated Bible give the following, tongue in cheek, review of the Bible using the same categories that some concerned Christian groups give to movies:

• Sex/Nudity: 197
• Drugs/Alcohol: no information
• Violence/Scariness: 957
• Objectionable Words/Phrases: 180

Their jibe does make a point.

Rather than using the MPAA rating system (Read Post “R Rated Movies”) or a misunderstanding of Philippians 4:8 (Read “Dog Poop in the Brownies”), I would like to suggest a new standard by which discerning parents, can determine what movies to watch with their older children or patronize themselves.

It is not the language, sexual content and violence in and of themselves that should keep us from reading the Bible. It is not the presence of Sex/Nudity, Drugs/Alcohol, Violence/Scariness or Objectionable words/Phrases that should prevent us from going to movies.

It is how they treat these things. If they treat them as the Bible does, then we can watch them. Or even OUGHT to watch them? You see, I’m not just looking for a loophole to get away with watching whatever movie I want. I believe that by encountering this art form makes us better neighbours.

Art—and movies are art—is a dialogue about what it means to be human. It explores the good and beautiful; it also explores the evil and sin; and it explores the need and longing for redemption. Experiencing art broadens and deepens our experience and, therefore our understanding of our neighbours. Understanding the language of film, and how to talk about it, makes us better able to attend to, and even contribute to, the dialogue and, thus, be more effective servants to God and neighbour as we partake in Christ’s redemption of creation.

Art has this serious purpose, but it can also be fun. This distinction is important when we talk about movies and some of the more adult content they often contain.

Movies have two functions that occupy points on a continuum. On one side are movies which are made to provide consumers with pleasure or entertainment. Commercial success is the primary goal so these movies are designed to help large numbers of people to escape the tedium or stress of their ordinary lives. This is not in itself a bad thing. Because they want to attract as many viewers as possible, they have to provide a good product, and they need a PG rating, so they don’t have strong language, nudity, or realistic violence.—if successful, everybody wins. I would classify The Avengers (2012) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as a film that occupies this end of the spectrum.

On the other end are movies that are made in the hopes that it may broaden, deepen or sharpen our awareness of the human experience; these bring us into reality, rather than provide an escape from reality. These have a more artistic purpose and they demand more from us in that they attempt to bring us more deeply into life’s joys and struggles, while they and often produce empathy in the audience. Precious (2009) or Ordinary People (1980) perhaps fit into this category.

Because this is a continuum, movies usually occupy some point between the two ends of the spectrum. Some lean toward the entertainment side, but still tell us something about life—Finding Nemo. Others tell us something serious about live, but while they do it, they entertain—Little Miss Sunshine.

How much language, sexual content and violence we are willing to tolerate in a film has something to do with where it is on the continuum. Movies that are on the entertainment side of the continuum ought to have a minimum of language, sexual content and realistic violence. These things are a means to an end, and they ought not to be an end in themselves. If they are presented as such, discerning viewers will avoid them.

But because language, sexuality and violence are a part of the human experience, they can be in the sorts of films that bring us into reality. Context matters a great deal here. The nudity presented in Spielberg’s, Schindler’s List (1993) is much different than the nudity presented in American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (2006). The first shows the humiliation and abuse of women in a very dark time in human history, and the other objectifies women for the viewing pleasure of its male audience.

I have never been impacted by a scene of violence as much as the opening scenes of A Time to Kill (1993). 10-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally attacked by two rednecks. These two white racists are caught boasting about what they did to Tonya. Her father, played by Samuel L. Jackson is understandably distraught and, recalling an incident a year previous when four white men were acquitted after raping an African-American girl in a nearby town. He is determined that justice will be done. So he shoots and kills the smirking rednecks as they leave the arraignment.

The violence of the initial attack is intense, but it was necessary for us to share some of the horror and violation of the act, so that we could empathize with the distraught father who killed the men who attacked his daughter. The rest of the film involves his trial for murder. There is no doubt that he is guilty, but we understand his actions because we watched the event that motivated his decision to kill. Had you read this story in the newspaper, you’d likely be able to offer a flippant opinion about who’s right in this case, but by your participation in the violence, the issue is at least more complicated and your empathy makes you a better neighbour.

The violence in this movie is not the end, it is the means to an end, and that end is the honest exploration of the human condition.

There are some movies that seem to say something significant about life and human experience, but are really presenting sentimental and over simplistic views of life. One such movie is Remember the Titans, which the filmmakers would have you believe is a realistic representation of how a football team overcame issues of racism and hatred to win the state championship. Although, based on a true story, racism in the real world is not so easily dealt with and movies that tell us that it is are not doing us any good.

The following analogy might be helpful.
• The movies which are just for entertainment are like home-made apple pie with a scoop of good quality ice cream a la mode; they are really good, but you oughtn’t have a steady diet of the stuff.
• The artistic film that bring us into reality is like a well-balanced meal—I’m thinking turkey dinner here—they are good for the soul.
• Then there’s the TV-dinner type movies that pretend to be saying something about life, they got turkey and vegetables, but they are really giving us such a simplified version of reality that we’re better off eating the pie.
• The ones that are full of sex, violence, or base humour are analogous to chocolate covered dog poop—they might look good in the trailers, but you won’t like the taste it leaves in your mouth.

Does movie violence affect the viewer?

In Books, Movies and Television on September 28, 2012 at 4:22 am

Does movie media violence desensitize?

I heard this question asked the other night.  I didn’t think so.  The reason is that I have been exposed to a lot of media violence.  I have played Counter Strike and Call of Duty for over 10 years and have watched a lot of movie violence.  Even after all that, when I see an actual act of violence, I have an instant significant emotional, even physical, reaction to it.  The 1968 execution of Captain Bảy Lốp is one example.  I saw it once.  It affected me profoundly and I will not willingly see it again.

Based on this evidence, I would suggest that all my exposure to violence has not desensitized me to actual violence.

The person to whom this question was addressed claimed there is no doubt that movie violence affects the viewer.

In one sense this is certainly true—one of the purposes of film, indeed all art, is to affect the viewer.  I think, though, that behind the statement was the tacit assumption that movie violence has significant negative effect.

I wouldn’t have been too worried about this claim except that it wasn’t about the violence in Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, or No Country for Old Men.  It was about the action sequences in the Avengers.  I wasn’t so sure about that.

James Potter brings together many studies on the effects of violence in On Media Violence.  Ted Turnau summarizes his findings in his book, Popologetics.

The data suggests that media violence can have an effect of viewers, “but the kinds of effects and the depth of those effects vary greatly depending on the individual viewer and his or her contexts.”

Those who are most affected media violence are:

  • those who watch a lot of television;
  • those who cannot differentiate between types of violence (small children or the mentally disabled);
  • those who already have an aggressive personality;
  • those who are already emotionally upset or angry when they see an episode of violence.

According to the research, “Family background seems to play an important role as well.  Children who come from strong families that teach children that violence is not acceptable do not act out aggressively after seeing media violence.”

There is also a significant difference in how violence is portrayed.  How it is portrayed makes a significant difference as to how much it will affect a viewer.

Violence seems to have more of an effect:

when the violence is portrayed realistically;

  • when violence is seen by the viewer as justified;
  • when the violent act seems to have no consequences;
  • when the violent act goes unpunished;
  • when the violence is done by an attractive person or a person who is demographically similar to the viewer;
  • when violence in linked to erotic content.

Violence seems to have little or no effect on the viewer:

when the violence is portrayed in a humourous fashion;

  • when violence is seen as having specific negative effects, such as pain to the victim, or when the perpetrator is punished;
  • when violence is done without malice or a revenge motive by a professional, such as a policeman or a soldier in a war movie.

The research seems to suggest that violence does, in fact, affect the viewers.  But it matters a great deal who the viewer is and the nature of the violence presented.



The Hunger Games: Whose Side Are You On?

In Books, Movies and Television, Christ and Culture on March 30, 2012 at 5:29 am

I saw The Hunger Games on opening day.  Those who waited in the line with me fell into two categories: enthusiastic youth (mostly girls) and the parent who drove the car.  Although the drivers were not overtly enthusiastic, I know they were.  Like me, they did not they did not drop the kids off at the theatre and head to Starbucks, as usual–they too wanted to see if the movie was as good as the book.  They were not disappointed.

I liked the book.   It had an engaging plot and interesting characters.  I’m a little embarrassed to say that I read it rather quickly, and my final assessment of the novel was that it read like an entertaining movie.  It took the theatre experience for me to realize it has some pretty poignant themes as well.

The Games themselves are essentially Reality TV.  They are Survivor where the losers don’t just get voted off the island; they get butchered at the Cornucopia.  They are Top Chef, where the main ingredient might be the tribute from District 4.  They are Fashion Star where Cinna gets offers from all three buyers.  There’s even a brief nod to Extreme Makeover where the tomboy from District 12 is waxed and buffed, and this turns into the reveal in What Not to Wear when the Capital audience cheers at the transformation.  North American audiences are obsessed with Reality TV—there are literally hundreds of these shows.  In The Hunger Games, we get a picture of what it is like to take Reality TV too far.  But, when we turn to shows like Big Brother for entertainment, we must ask ourselves, “Haven’t we gone too far already?” If we will watch Toddlers & Tiaras, how far are we from watching twenty-four children kill each other in an arena with a camera in every knothole?

The film also interrogates the appropriateness of violence as a form of entertainment.  It wasn’t that long ago that boxing was the most violent sport on TV and nobody I knew actually watched it.  There were, of course, hockey fights and the choreographed violence of professional wrestling, but these are not nearly as violent as the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) which have a very large following today.  Is The Hunger Games a violent movie?  Yes it is.  But this isn’t the most important questions.  What does the movie say about violence?  Clearly, it doesn’t just censure the fights to the death; it is very critical of turning violence into a spectacle. 

A third theme has to do with the injustice in a system where a minority of the citizens live a life of frivolous indulgence and consume the materials produced by the sweat and blood of the poor.  The Games themselves are a simple reenactment of what is occurring systemically in the world of the movie—the vitality of the residents of the outlying districts is consumed for the entertainment of the privileged.  As ludicrous as we find the painted pets and sculptured facial hair in the Capital’s citizenry, how ridiculous is our indulgence in our pets and coifs to the world’s poor.  Let me put it this way; the money I spent on seeing The Hunger Games, would pay to feed a hungry child in East Africa for a year.

It is my fear that the multitude of young people viewing this film will experience Katniss Everdeen’s victory in this year’s Hunger Games as mere spectators.  Sadly, this would more closely associate them with the citizens of the Capital.  But, according President Snow, hope is more powerful than fear. Maybe I can hope that the young viewers will, rather, identify with the Girl on Fire.  Perhaps this film will help them to reflect a little of what this story might be suggesting about who we are and who we might be.