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FIRST-PERSON: Then & now

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–Studios once were regulated by a Motion Picture Code established in the 1930s to protect the values and moral concepts society regarded as the standard to live by. The code stipulated that violent acts, for example, be filmed so that the result was not jolting to the viewer. Actors could not utter God or Jesus in a profane manner. And nudity and perversity could not be shown.

Sound restrictive? Many filmmakers thought so.

But when closely examined, films from that period were able to deal with the same issues moviemakers address today. The difference: Their content tended to be more profound when handled with discretion.

A few examples:

Theme: Crime

Then — “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950). This heist caper gone wrong is as much a character study as a suspense adventure. Intense, with realistic situations and dialogue, yet it contains absolutely no obscenity.

Now — “Snatch” (2001) (R). This heist caper gone wrong contains more than 130 uses of one particular obscenity alone. Even though hoods may talk like that, is it really creative film dialogue?

Theme: Drug abuse

Then — “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955). Frank Sinatra plays a convincing junkie and we sense the dark hole a drug addict lives in. It is a horrifying examination of addiction.

Now — “Blow” (2001) (R). This is the rise-and-fall story of George Jung, who became the world’s premiere importer of cocaine from Columbia, changing the course of an entire generation. While the film portrays Jung’s glamorous life, the producers fail to show even one example of a life ruined by cocaine use. Had they done so, we might have seen the film’s protagonist and his accomplices for what they truly were — not charismatic rebels, just soulless.

Theme: Male/female relationships

Then — “His Girl Friday” (1940). This fast-paced war between the sexes is driven by witty dialogue.

Now — “There’s Something About Mary” (1998) (R). This fast-paced farce is driven by crudity.

Theme: Love and marriage

Then — “Father of the Bride” (1950). Spencer Tracy stars in this sensitive, often hilarious look at a father dealing with his daughter’s upcoming nuptials.

Now — “”American Wedding” (2003). In this sequel to “American Pie” Parts 1 & 2, most of the humor stems from outrageous and vulgar behavior. Indeed, with only a few exceptions, most comedies from this era rely heavily on bathroom humor.

Theme: Life in the old west.

Then — “My Darling Clementine” (1946). Full of John Ford details and the descriptive photography of Joseph P. MacDonald, this is a first-class (if highly fictional) telling of the legend of Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral. The style, the look, the performances — everything about this film is exceptional.

Now — “Open Range” (2003). As a western, this is a thrilling, moving and often funny throwback to an era when westerns were king of the cinema. Alas, there are a couple of problems, chief among them the profane use of God’s name, and one scene that is difficult to register as anything but blasphemous. While burying one of their friends, a good and decent man, the Robert Duvall character says, referring to God, “I won’t pray to that — [curse word].” I understood he was having problems understanding how God could allow this deed to befall such a good man, but there were other ways the filmmakers could have expressed the sentiment without blaspheming our Creator.

So am I saying that movies were better then than now? Some were. But my analysis is not meant as a critical evaluation of today’s films, so much as an examination of what the culture now accepts.

The Motion Picture Code is long gone, a distant memory to some movie buffs, while completely unheard of by younger generations. Maybe we have evolved into beings capable of processing any amount of abuse Hollywood puts before our eyes. But is that what our Creator intended for us?

As society slips further away from biblical principles, we who follow scriptural teachings will seem even more peculiar. But if the Bible truly is God’s guideline for our lives — and many a wise man has believed so — then it applies to every part of our lives, including how we entertain ourselves.
Phil Boatwright, on the Web at www.moviereporter.com, reviews films from a Christian perspective.

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  • Phil Boatwright