KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP) — The magic of movies is that one film can reach some, while merely frustrating others. For example, a fellow critic preferred “Melancholia” to my favorite film of last year, “The Tree of Life.” I found this surprising, because Melancholia, an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world, fatalistic drama, is the gloomiest movie I’ve ever seen. At one point its star, Kirsten Dunst, in her passive acceptance of our planet’s doom, states, “The earth is evil … it won’t be missed.” My friend appreciated the film’s depiction of someone suffering from extreme depression, whereas I found its message less than profound because it offered no hope.
As with Terrance Mallick’s The Tree of Life, Melancholia is deliberately paced, resonant in its imagery and contemplative. Unlike The Tree of Life, which examines questions concerning God and the afterlife, Melancholia’s writer/director, Lars von Trier, avoids any such topics. His characters are decadent, self-absorbed and lost — so devoid of spirituality they can’t even find it within to pray as earth faces destruction. But, as I say, she got something out of it, despite its hopelessness.
That got me to thinking of what we Christians are willing to endure in the name of entertainment. Of late, movie studios have been attempting to find material that will attract members of the religious community. That’s great, except some of these films show little difference from those with distinctly non-religious themes. In her review of the recent “Joyful Noise,” my colleague Mary Draughon had mixed feelings about the film’s content: “It is refreshing to see a Hollywood production acknowledging the church as a very important part of a community. … Still, the PG-13 rating should be considered before buying a ticket. The dialogue is spiced with many s-words and other crude expressions among leading church members, although the Lord’s name isn’t taken in vain. Mean-spirited competition, a vicious public ‘cat fight’ in a restaurant, and an unmarried couple caught in an embarrassing and tragic sexual encounter are treated as sources of hilarity.”
And now Open Road Films wants Christians to find an underlining spirituality in the deservedly R-rated “The Grey.” The story concerns a group of men stranded in a bitterly cold wilderness after their plane crashes. In one scene, a couple of the men declare there is no afterlife, and later, another yells out to God to prove Himself, the invective-filled rant becoming downright blasphemous. Still, we are expected to endure the film’s brutal content in order to find life and death significance. Well, I looked and listened past the objectionable material in order to find the existential questions the studio press notes claim are in the film, but by golly, I couldn’t find them.
In years past I have found certain R-rated films such as “Schindler’s List,” “Dead Man Walking” and “Tsotsi” replete with spiritual reality. And I understood that a film such as Tsotsi (http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?2946) could connect with an audience that relates to the harsh realities portrayed and sees past the brutality, finding a deep meaning. But I couldn’t find such significance in The Grey. And, despite its artistic merit, it’s still hard for me to be entertained by a film that resorts to the inclusion of nearly 200 curse words (mostly the f-word). Whatever redemptive moral is buried within this excess was lost to me. What’s more, I doubt there will be a large following that will see this film, then decide to attend church the following Sunday. So, I question the intent of this marketing strategy.
Movies can be parables that instruct. Indeed, we can learn from viewing portraits of man’s folly. And perhaps we are capable of processing any amount of abuse put before our eyes. But is that what our Creator intended for us?
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
Decades ago, studios were regulated by the Motion Picture Code, which was established in order to protect and resonate the values and moral concepts society considered the standard to live by. You didn’t need a reviewer’s content description so much. By the end of the 1960s, however, the Code had vanished, replaced by the MPAA rating system. Since the Code’s demise, content (the reason for the rating) has become as influential as a film’s artistic and thematic elements.
Swearing, irreverence to God, excessive violence, crudity, nudity, perversity — these were forbidden under the Motion Picture Code. But many filmmakers thought this code of decency was restrictive, and were determined to end it. The ideal of the new MPAA system was to allow for more mature themes. Sadly, the reality was a door opening to a bombardment of excess. This one decision made by Hollywood has done more to change our society’s standards than any other social act. There are no restrictions anymore. The “artists” won. But the culture lost.
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. He also writes about Hollywood for previewonline.org and moviereporter.com. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).