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MOVIES: The profanity counter vs. the eye-rollers

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP) — We met a few years ago on a press junket, and though she was a Catholic nun and I was a Baptist, we found we had much in common, including a love of movies. She has a brilliant mind, but we don’t always agree, the Sister and me.

In a recent article, she proclaimed her stance on movie appreciation and I found that, like so many of my Christian colleagues, my friend the nun seems more concerned with the meaning of a film than its content (the reason for the rating). Sounds logical, I admit, and to some degree I’m in agreement. I’ve defended films such as “Schindler’s List,” “Dead Man Walking” and “Tsotsi,” each R-rated and each containing language. It can be argued that the profundity found in those films outweighed the profanity, so to speak. But too often faith critics ignore the content of films as a collective amusement, and that’s where I take issue.

Doesn’t it strike you that we are being desensitized and bombarded by all things crude and illicit? The dispiriting condition of our present culture suggests so. This indifference to the cruding up and dumbing down of today’s culture by many in Hollywood gets a free pass by many critique-ers, religious or non. Ah, I sense some eye-rolling from those who ridicule movie reporters they consider “profanity counters.” Well, I hope they’ll hear me out.

Rather than focus on the glaring offenses of sexual content or desensitizing violence, not to mention the political and social agendas of the makers of movies, let’s concentrate on one specific area: language. Surely, coarse dialogue in nearly every film, no matter the subject, the genre, or the class of characters featured, is symbolic of the film industry’s influence on the culture and therefore the society.

At the end of a press screening for some R-rated film, I discussed the subject with a fellow critic who views movies from a decidedly secular viewpoint. As I often do, I brought up the picture’s offensive language. He said he didn’t mind bad language in a film … so long as it wasn’t gratuitous. A bit perplexed, I remember responding, “They used the f-word nearly 70 times. How gratuitous does it have to get?” He had no answer. But at least he was gentleman enough not to roll his eyes.

For a moment, let’s ignore Bible verses that concern what we should and shouldn’t put in our heads. Let’s just look at objectionable material in movies from a non-pious, artistic approach.

Most critics reward movies for their technical and artistic merits, while at the same time disregarding the effect of movie content on the culture. This may be shortsighted, for words vocalize our foibles and frailties and nobilities. Words articulate views of beauty, humor and meaning. Yet we are in an era when vulgarity dominates movie discourse. And while Hollywood reflects each generation’s evolution, can members of that industry deny their influence on how we dress, relate or, yes, speak? Though a rose is a rose, a word is more than just a word. Words have power because they reveal inner character.

There should be a respect for language by those who make their living using it. Their chosen vocation has to do with the world of communication, yet much more effort goes into special effects than the authoring of screen conversation. Or, at least it seems that way. This is an artistic failing as motion pictures shouldn’t just show what we are, but also what we can become. That’s the ultimate purpose of an art form. Otherwise, it isn’t doing all the art form is capable of.

Let’s go back to what the Bible says about what we say.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” (Ephesians 4:29).

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:4). That command comes before those that pertain to coveting, adultery or even murder. It must be somewhat important to the Creator of everything.

If words are the summation of the heart’s thoughts, then surely people who constantly misuse God’s name are contemptuous of His nature. And even if those in Hollywood don’t believe in a Creator, shouldn’t they at least respect those who do? They apparently feel a responsibility to regard everybody else. Well, except for conservatives. But we won’t go there today.

Who am I kidding? Hollywood isn’t going to change. Nor is the surrounding society. What about us?

The Christian, who is instructed to think on things such as “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is lovely,” should find words that abuse the soul to be reprehensible. Obscenity and blasphemy shouldn’t be tolerated or merely dismissed. They don’t signal evolution, just deterioration.

Ignoring the way people talk in movies is like viewing a fine painting while standing in the dark. You’re just not seeing the big picture.
In addition to writing for Baptist Press, Phil Boatwright reviews films for www.previewonline.org. He is also a regular contributor to “The World and Everything In It,” a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Phil Boatwright