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What about movie profanity?


KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–Recently several of us who review films from a Christian perspective were the subject of a news article. The piece was written fairly and found its way into several religious or entertainment sections of papers across the land. Surprising to me, the warning of objectionable language in my critiques became a source of contention, not for Robert Butler, the author of the story, but by a colleague in criticism who said of his organization, “We like to think we’re a little more open-minded than to spend our time counting F-bombs and S-words.”

Some Christians consider the signaling of vulgarity in upcoming films to be helpful when movie-choosing, while evidently others think pointing out such language is silly, or worse, pious. Normally I wouldn’t take up this space or your time defending my approach, but unbridled word abuse in movies is now going unchallenged by nearly every film analyst.

And since the MPAA rating system began allowing for more invective speech back in the late 1960s, obscenity (indecent language) and profanity (the irreverent use of God’s name) have become entertainment colloquialisms, staples in a limited screenwriter’s pallet for voicing fear, frustration or most other emotions. No matter the film genre, offensive verbiage once synonymous with sailors on leave has become conventional movie dialogue. (This year’s Best Oscar winner, “The Departed,” contains 155 uses of the f-word, alone. That’s not noteworthy?)

Most critics reward movies for their technical and artistic qualities, while at the same time ignoring the effect of movie content on the culture. This may be shortsighted, for words vocalize our foibles and frailties and nobilities. They articulate views of beauty, humor and meaning. Yet this is a time when crudity and coarseness dominate movie dialogue. And while Hollywood reflects each era’s evolution, can members of that industry deny their influence on how we dress, relate or speak?

Though a rose is a rose, a word is more than just a word. Words have power because they reveal inner character. Notice how beautifully words are used to form imagery in the 23rd Psalm.

“The Lord is my shepherd;

“I shall not want.

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

“He leadeth me beside the still waters.

“He restoreth my soul:

“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

“I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:

“Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:

“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

The following line from “Ben-Hur” succinctly expresses the transformation of the newly converted main character: “And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.” That single line conveys the profound life change that has occurred.

See what I’m saying? Language matters.

The incessant use of jarring expressions often distracts from the theme or darkens the tone of a movie. Years ago I reviewed “The Freshman” starring Marlon Brando. It was, you should excuse the expression, a lightweight comedy with Brando spoofing his Godfather character. I didn’t like the film chiefly because of its frequent use of the f-word and the abundant misuse of God’s name. Months later, I saw the same film on TV, the objectionable words and phrases having been removed. Without the harsh language, the movie had a lighter, more humorous mood. Suddenly, the film worked as comic satire.

I realize this is beginning to sound a bit high brow, a goal the motion picture industry never set out to achieve. Still, the glory of cinema is undeniable when a filmmaker goes beyond showing who we are, and takes us on a journey to what we can become.

As I said, some people don’t mind “swear” words in movies. That doesn’t mean those folks are dumb or bad. Often, they are more concerned with other aspects of the cinema’s influence. But if a filmmaker has the right to infuse lewd lingo into his work, then shouldn’t filmgoers have the right to be forewarned? If so, then perhaps movie criticism should include reporting, rather than mere opinion.

Profanity seems to have little spiritual significance not just for moviemakers, but for many moviegoers. In Exodus 20:7 it is proclaimed, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” That commandment comes before those that pertain to coveting, adultery or even murder. Yet, despite biblical ordinances, in a huge number of films, God’s name is often followed by a curse. If you include the misuse of Jesus’ name in that instruction, then the number of films that defy God’s directive jumps to a majority.

Ever hear movie characters utter in consternation, “Oh for Buddha’s sake”? So why is the name of our Savior nothing more to moviemakers than an expletive?

“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). 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 profanity shouldn’t be tolerated or merely dismissed. They don’t signal evolution, just deterioration. After acceptance comes participation.
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Phil Boatwright is the film reviewer for previewonline.org.

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  • Phil Boatwright