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.