Saturday, November 18, 2006

Movies

I'm not a huge movie-goer. In the last few years I've been to see maybe half a dozen films. I saw all of the Lord of the Rings movies because I've been a fanatic about the books since I was 12. I hesitated to go see the movies because when you love a book as much as I love those books then movies often make you angrier rather than anything else. Add to this the fact that a truly horrible version of The Fellowship of the Ring had been released right after I had read the books (and not long after an even worse animated version of The Hobbitt had been released) and my apprehension level was high. I also went to see The Passion of the Christ. I wound up being very happy with those movies, but that was not the case with most of the other movies I have seen of late. I did not like the Harry Potter movies, but I had to see them because of my kids. Same with the last installment of the Star Wars saga. These kinds of things can be fun, but the entertainment is thin on the ground once you get used to looking at the pretty pictures. I did enjoy Spirited Away so much that I saw it twice, but that kind of thing is rare for me. More usual is the fact that, in the case of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I would not go to see the movie at all because the trailers made it manifestly clear that the movie was going to butcher everything that was important about the book.

Lest you think I'm a snob or something, I'll let you in on my dirty little secret. I love Jackie Chan movies, and I've seen a fair number of them in the last few years. But recently I've been thinking about movies like that and what about them interests me. I used to go to see lots of movies in the lunk-head genre, especially the Schwarzenegger or Van Damme sort of thing. I drew the line at things like Kill Bill or Reservoir Dogs, but I would see a Chuck Norris movie any old day. Godfather movies also interested me, but it was watching things like Scarface that got me to thinking about my whole interest in "action" films. If you check these things out at the USCCB website, you will find that not all are listed as "Morally Offensive" in the technical sense of being a movie that a faithful Catholic should not watch. Kill Bill made it, and so did Scarface, but not The Godfather. Personally, I find The Godfather rather disturbing in its own way, more so than, say, The Terminator, which merited an "O" rating from the USCCB.

As I got to thinking about this, it occurred to me that what is offensive about such films is the way in which violence against human life is so easily portrayed and made an object of spectacle. The wackings, the cruelty, the heinous violence, all tend to objectify human life in a way that is sordid and cheap. Interestingly, these elements in themselves do not always prompt an "O" rating. Here is what the USCCB says about the new Bond movie, Casino Royale:
Adrenaline-charged adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first “James Bond” novel (spoofed in a 1967 film of the same title) in which the iconic British super spy (Daniel Craig in his 007 debut) must infiltrate a high stakes card game organized by a banker (Mads Mikkelsen) to international terrorists. Director Martin Campbell’s addition to the franchise (the 21st overall) jettisons the campy elements of past films for a grittier, more serious return to the hard-boiled tone of the books – especially in regards to the violence – blending virtuoso action sequences and more character development to show the origins of the Bond mythology. Virile yet vulnerable, Craig’s secret agent is less the sophisticated playboy – though there is the usual womanizing – and more the savage assassin, equal parts deadly and debonair. Recurring strong action violence, including an intense torture scene, adultery, partial nudity, sexual situations, and some mildly crude language. A-III -- adults.
So a "grittier", more "hard-boiled" approach to the violence of the original books merits only an "A-III"--not even an "L". But presumably a "gritter", more "hard-boiled" approach to portraying, say, fellatio, would generate an "O" rating every time. Indeed, it's fair to say that the "grittier" and more "hard-boiled" you get in portraying sexual objectification the more likely you are to get such a rating.

I'm not altogether sure why we are so much more queasy about watching sex on screen than watching someone getting their head blown off, but I do know that many of my friends who also enjoy these "action" movies would never in a million years even dream about going to see a porno flick, and yet surely both are cases of objectification and cheapening. Is the sexual function somehow more sacrosanct than life itself? Is it more degrading to watch people pretending to love each other than people pretending to kill each other? I suppose in the case of a porno flick there's possibly a little less pretending going on--maybe that's the difference. The blood in a Bond movie is always known to be fake, and that's not always the case with the fluids involved in other kinds of movies.

I also enjoy watching war movies. I love The Longest Day, and I found Saving Private Ryan to be very compelling in spite of its cheap trick of an ending. In movies like those people are being killed right and left, often in graphically portrayed gruesome detail. Saving Private Ryan was also rated "A-III" by the USCCB, and The Longest Day, filmed in black-and-white nearly fifty years ago, only made it to "A-I".

But wars are real things; super-secret agents, robot warriers, and crazed psychopaths going on killing sprees, while they may have the real-world analogues, are not quite the same. Watching a war movie can help to illustrate for us just how horrible war is, why it ought to be avoided at all costs, and why we ought to be grateful to those who responded to the call to serve when war could not be avoided. Watching a bad-guy get whacked just feeds our gluttony.

So, I haven't been to see one of these movies in a while, and I guess I won't be going any time soon, as tempted as I am by the new Bond movie. Some temptations it may not be so bad to give in to once in a while: gourmet chocolate, single-malt scotch, a new mouthpiece for your trumpet. But some temptations are best avoided, especially when it is difficult to come up with anything like a real reason as to why it should be indulged.

2 comments:

Reel Fanatic said...

One of the most vexing things about the MPAA is indeed their fixation on sex .. I think the entire panel is just made of extremely sexually repressed video-game geeks who just can't get enough decapitations to sate their tastes

Ben said...

Perhaps there is more objection to sexually themed films than violenly themed films because acts of objectifying sex portrayed on screen are much more apt to encourage actual objectifying sex.

What percentage of porn movie watchers then go on to perform an illict sexual act because of what they saw in the film? I would guess somewhere in the 99~100% range.

After watching a violent film, on the other hand, most people do not engage in wanton violence. Maybe they drive a little faster.

Watching filmed fake violence is thus in some ways morally safer than watching filmed fake sex (or even, filmed real sex.)

Now, I would say watching filmed REAL violence would be worse than filmed real sex. If my son were watching a porn, I would be a little upset, but it's understandable. If my son were watching some real film of an execution, I would be really disturbed.

But I understand your overall point: We (as a society) seem to give violence a pass whereas we get all flustered about sex. Why is a movie like SAW III ok to show in regular movie theaters, but not a porno?