The Morality of Movies

I’ve been fascinated for a few months by the cleverly titled Web site Decent Films, whose slogan is “film appreciation, information, and criticism informed by Christian faith.”

The site, created (and mostly written) by National Catholic Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus, isn’t nearly as didactic and stiff as I expected. It has an abundance of thoughtful writing about movies, and it’s frequently clever and funny. (See this verse dismantling of The Cat in the Hat, for example.) You’ve got to like a Christian site that spends a large number of words exploring — seriously — the decline, resurrection, and further decline of the Scooby-Doo franchise over the years.

Still, there’s something disturbing about Decent Films. I have no problem with the reviews themselves — I doubt you’ll find a more consistently insightful source for a humanistic approach to movies — but the “ratings” are downright scary. (Full disclosure, somewhat randomly placed: Culture Snob is agnostic.)

Basically, Decent Films rates movies in two areas: “artistic and entertainment value” (from “superior” to “worthless”) and “moral and spiritual value” (from “a feast for the spirit” to “basically harmless” to “poison”). From those, the site gives movies two summary evaluations: “overall recommendability” (“highly recommended” to “unacceptable”) and “appropriate audience” (“kids and up” to “no one”).

If a movie scores low enough in artistic/entertainment value and moral/spiritual value, it risks getting the “unacceptable” rating, which in turn makes it appropriate for “no one.” And that makes some sense to me.

Where Decent Films gets into trouble, though, is that a very low rating on the moral/spiritual scale automatically renders the artistic/entertainment score irrelevant. The following movies, for example, get the dreaded “unacceptable”/”no one” scores: American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, The Cell, and The Hours.

The distressing thing is that all four get three-and-a-half stars on the artistic/entertainment scale, situated between “superior” and “well made.”

How is it that a movie admittedly excellent in terms of artistry and/or entertainment can be declared suitable for no one?

Keep in mind that these movies are rated on artistic and entertainment “value.” So the critics do find something worthwhile in them. Greydanus, in giving The Last Temptation of Christ the scarlet “U” (“unacceptable”), says of American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, and The Cell:

“Whatever other faults these movies may have, each of them is in its own way interesting to watch. Parts of them I might even want to see again.”

But even that small amount of nuance isn’t allowed in the ratings. Decent Films operates in a sphere of certainty, in which (a) there’s no question about a movie’s morality and (b) upstanding people must avoid anything declared immoral.

I have issues with both assertions. I certainly don’t think American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, The Cell, and The Hours are “feasts for the spirit,” but I wouldn’t say they’re “poison,” either. I’m not sure what I’d call them in moral terms, and I’m pretty damned smart and pretty damned judgmental.

A major problem with the site is that the writers rarely back up the moral ratings, and when they do, the explanations are highly problematic.

American Beauty, Greydanus writes, is

“full of morally charged themes — dehumanizing corporate practices, lust and masturbation and adultery, child-beating and statutory rape, homosexuality and homophobia, intolerance and murder. Yet in the end, it seems as if we’re meant to feel that the real issue is the beauty in a plastic bag swirling in the breeze or a dead dove on the grass.”

Note the qualifiers: “it seems as if we’re meant ... .” How does such a wishy-washy statement translate to a half-notch short of moral “poison”?

Certainly some of the trouble is the poorly considered ratings system. “Moral” and “spiritual” isn’t a natural pairing, because one can be a moral person without being remotely spiritual, and vice versa. And “a feast for the spirit” and “poison” are vague and largely meaningless terms that don’t really belong on the same continuum.

More importantly, though, trying to figure out a movie’s moral character is futile. Nearly all movies are morally ambiguous, containing vast amounts of images, sounds, words, actions, emotions, and messages, many of them contradictory. They’re complex, open to interpretation, and not meaningfully evaluated in a binary system of “good” and “evil” (or “thumbs up” and “thumbs down,” for that matter).

But to take it a step further, movies, like all art (and all inanimate objects), are morally neutral. No movie has ever murdered a person. No song or symphony has ever stolen. No television program has ever coveted the wife of a program in a neighboring time slot. (I will concede, however, that some works of art have taken the Lord’s name in vain.)

Morality is a human characteristic, and the only moral quality that can be ascribed to movies would stem from how humans react to them.

But even then an evaluation isn’t easy. The Passion of the Christ might make one viewer appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice and therefore become more pious, while it might generate anti-Semitism in another person. Where does that place it on the moral scale? Natural Born Killers inspired acts of violence, but Oliver Stone meant it as satire, and as a screed against violence, and the media and culture entralled with it. (The movie is certainly not “basically harmless,” but neither is it “poison.”) Many people consider Forrest Gump “a feast for the spirit,” and many others see “poison,” and both reactions are valid.

And that leads to what makes me the most angry about Decent Films: It attempts to prevent people from making their own judgments about a movie’s value — even films considered “superior” (or nearly so) in artistic terms.

Personally, I wouldn’t put American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, or The Hours in the league of great cinema, but they are worth watching and considering, especially in moral terms. They resonate because they speak earnestly to the human condition, including the decisions people make and the reasons they make them — which cannot be divorced from their ethics.

Really, don’t nearly all good movies raise moral questions worth pondering, even if the films don’t bluntly endorse a Christian answer? And isn’t an essential part of being a truly moral and spiritual person self-examination, and processing experiences — including movies — in the context of one’s beliefs and philosophy?

(A lengthy, far-reaching, and interesting discussion on this essay can be found here.)

These are some great thoughts about the balance we need to strike when combining Faith and Films. I do believe that the moral/spiritual value of a film overrides the artistic value of it. And I agree that even the worst of films should evoke moral/spiritual questions. But the question for a Christian viewer is, do I need to go see Sodom and Gomorrah in order to ask quesitons about it?

JD:

That’s a very concise question, and difficult to answer.

Here’s a response that only sounds glib: If there’s a really great restaurant (or art museum or sculpture or university) in Sodom and Gomorrah, should it be avoided merely because of the immorality of the community that surrounds it?

“It attempts to prevent people from making their own judgments about a movie’s value — even films considered “superior” (or nearly so) in artistic terms.”

But isn’t a review of any stripe basically doing the same thing? If Roger Ebert thinks a movie sucks, he’ll say so, which may cause someone to avoid that particular film altogether. Is it just the moral criteria Decent Films uses that you find unappealing?

Ando:

My problems with the moral rating system are twofold: semantic (unacceptable for anyone) and fundamental -- the difficulty of determining the moral character or implications of movies. So, yes, I find the moral criteria of Decent Films problematic.

More troubling to me is that the system wants to preclude people from experiencing superior artistic works because of some perception of a movie’s morality.

Is Steven D. Greydanus doing anything different from Roger Ebert? In the sense that Ebert awards stars, no. The effect of a zero-star rating is to say a movie is not suitable for anybody.

But the zero-star rating is not independent of an evaluation of the movie’s artistic quality; it is a reflection of it.

Ebert (or any good critic) uses the star system to boil down the review; they offer evidence and argument for a rating.

Greydanus’ moral evaluation often seems to occur separately from his review, or is poorly supported in his review.

Lastly, he’s using two wildly different sets of criteria -- which is okay -- but in my estimation his swimsuit score trumps the talent competition. (And I expect to get in trouble for that analogy.)

This is a recurrent source of confusion to me about certain types of Christians, where they seem determined to hide away not only from things that violate their personal or sectarian beliefs in some manner, but also things that simply don’t in any way specifically endorse it.

To me, as a non-Christian, one of the more appealing aspects to the message we’re told Christ brought is that he went out among the people, the common people and sinners, not only to preach to them, but to accept and love who they are.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that based on this, one should leap into every movie that seems to celebrate the things that one finds offensive... although, I admit, that eliminates many of my personal favorites...

And what I note in looking at those examples, American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, The Cell, and The Hours, is that, while I think it’s overall a pretty mixed bag and isn’t always successful, it does seem a group of movies that aren’t trying to revel in sinfulness, but are indeed trying - with mixed levels of success, as I said - to understand the struggles faced as part of being humans.

I understand that movies are a more major part of how I go about understanding the world through artistic expression than it is for most people, so it’s not even that I expect people to necessarily choose those. But it rarely seems limited to movies or music or anything... It seems to me that for many it is, in fact, turning away from nearly everything and everyone who isn’t explicitly involved in the specifics of one’s belief system or attempting to understand all of humanity for what it is and what it struggles to be in way that strikes me to not only be but rather even aspires to be be rather un-Christlike.

This is an excellent post, and you sum up many of the problems that I also have with Christian review sites of that stripe. I think these reviews make very different assumptions about their audience than, say, Ebert does, and the audience I think makes very different use of the reviews. A critic like Ebert is assumed to be presenting a subjective evaluation of a film’s artistic worth. To the extent that moral concerns enter into aesthetics, he will evaluate the film’s morality as well. But this is his personal judgment of the film’s worth, and I’d say that Ebert’s thumbs-down will rarely stop someone from seeing a film that they otherwise wanted to see. The difference here is the assumption that morality is a static, unchanging quality (a fundamental tenet of virtually any religion), and that therefore different viewers should all perceive the film’s morality in the same way. But the fact is, morality is not a constant, and only the very worst of films have a totally unambiguous moral character. Different viewers will not perceive a film in the same ways, and sites like this aim to prevent their readers from ever even getting the chance to see for themselves.

Essentially, moral decisions are absolutely worthless if they are imposed from outside. Morality is something that needs to be judged by the individual, and Christians are doing themselves no favors if they’re allowing their morality to be dictated to them by others. Films like American Beauty and Being John Malkevich, while not personal favorites, do present complex images of modern life and pose complicated moral dilemmas. The best aspect of these films is that they demand engagement with their themes and questions, and that they never provide a simple moral answer; it’s up to the individual viewer to work these things out for themselves.

“I think these reviews make very different assumptions about their audience than, say, Ebert does, and the audience I think makes very different use of the reviews.”

This is true, and this is why...

“Essentially, moral decisions are absolutely worthless if they are imposed from outside. Morality is something that needs to be judged by the individual”

The big three monotheistic religions do not believe this statement to be true; they believe in a moral absolute which exists outside of individual opinion. All a Christian review site like Decent Films does (and its target audience knows this going in) is point out how a film’s point of view differs from that moral absolute. Consequently, Decent Films can appreciate the artistic way in which a film communicates its message while disagreeing with the message itself (i.e. Birth Of A Nation). At its most basic level a site like Decent Films warns its target audience in advance if they’re going to blow $100 (tickets, concessions, dinner, baby sitter, etc) just to sit in a theater for two hours and have their faith crapped on.

This kind of rating system isn’t the approach I take personally with films on my own goofy blog (everything I review is wretched), but I understand and appreciate the reason others do.

In your mind, is there a market, demand, need, purpose to Christian-based movie rating?

How would you rate movies under a banner of “Christin” (or any other religious system for that matter?

Hmm, I suppose since stuff like Decent Films, Hollywood Jesus, etc. are thriving, there’s definitely a market for Christian-based reviews. The need and purpose for a rating system, IMO, is a little more tricky.

From a philosophical standpoint, if you believe in the strength of your religion’s teachings, then you should have no fear of being exposed to opposing ideas. Just say whether you liked the movie or not. But I can think of a few instances where a rating system is appropriate.

Parents. For now, parents still have the right to decide their children’s religion, and if they don’t won’t their children exposed to contrary beliefs during their formative years, then a rating system helps. (Anybody who thinks some adults don’t take their children to stuff like American Beauty or The Cell has never worked in a theater.)

Discussion. Religious conversion is a lifelong process and not everyone is in the same place. A new Christian might not know everywhere a movie’s POV diverges from their religion’s teachings and can use a good ratings system to help form their own faith.

Money! Hollywood follows the profit. We’re getting Saw V & VI because the first four made a buttload of money. If you have a movie coming up like The Golden Compass, whose author has stated he wishes to destroy religion in the minds of children, then the movie studio can bite me, that’s a movie that’s not getting my money. Movie studios have NO obligation to make films which agree with my philosophy, but neither do I have any moral obligation to support their efforts to crap on my religion. A ratings system can help those concerned decide who to give their money too.

(Man, sorry this is so long.)

How would I devise a Christian rating system? Hmm. Like I mentioned, I don’t have one on my site. I simply discuss how themes in a particular movie relate to something my religion teaches. As a Catholic I could easily come up with a rating system because we have a published catechism to use as a comparative norm. That’s how Decent Films does it. For non-Catholics, the only way I see ratings working is to make it clear up front what standards you’re using to judge the “spiritual” merits of a film and then determine how far a movie’s POV deviates from that standard. If the individual reader agrees with your standards, then they’ll find your ratings useful.

Sorry for being longwinded. Thanks for asking.

RC:

I don’t think I see a need for Christian-based movie “rating,” but I’m an agnostic and don’t believe in ratings anyway.

I do believe there’s a need and a purpose to looking at movies from a spiritual perspective, and more importantly relate them to our spiritual experiences and beliefs. (Which is why I love your Film + Faith Blog-a-thon.)

Your last question is way too complicated to answer briefly. When I originally wrote the piece, we touched on a lot of critical issues in this discussion.

“The big three monotheistic religions... believe in a moral absolute which exists outside of individual opinion. All a Christian review site like Decent Films does (and its target audience knows this going in) is point out how a film’s point of view differs from that moral absolute.”

Your posts bring up a lot of interesting ideas, but I think you missed my intended meaning with this specific point. I said:

“Essentially, moral decisions are absolutely worthless if they are imposed from outside. Morality is something that needs to be judged by the individual.”

When I said this, I was well aware that there exists a supposed moral absolute within each of the big three monotheistic religions. I question, however, the actual existence of this absolute, particularly since it is derived from multiple conflicting readings of the same religious texts, which seem to be rather open to interpretation judging from the different ideas garnered from the same texts at different times or by different sects. You mention the Catholic catechism, but even this has changed over time, and elements of Catholic dogma have been revised at various times. What does a moral absolute really mean if a film might be considered a grave offense one day and harmless the next, following a change in doctrine or interpretation? And this doesn’t even allow for the possibility of individual Christians reading the Bible for themselves and making their own informed judgments about what it says on morality -- an idea that’s anathema for organized religion, I know, but would constitute a much healthier religion to me.

Another point arises because of the fictional nature of films. If we’re talking about using, say, the 10 Commandments as a moral absolute, it would be quite easy to judge a film based on whether the characters in it commit murder or steal or covet one another’s wives (this is what the odious CAPAlert site largely does). But since this is a fictional film, does it then follow that a Christian would have to avoid seeing it in order to obey the spirit of the Commandments? Would it matter whether the film was condemning the action or praising it or showing it neutrally? Would it matter whether the “sinner” characters were punished for their crimes, as the Hayes Code once required? You probably see where I’m going with this. Although there are definitely certain uncontested moral absolutes in these religions, it doesn’t necessarily follow that these can be applied to the mere act of observing a fictional world.

Ed:

As someone who was (rightly) accused of moral relativism during the original discussion started by this essay, I would guess that absolutists would argue that our different interpretations of the holy texts (or the internal inconsistencies of holy texts) are functions of the limitations of human understanding. In other words, there are moral absolutes, but we as human beings are imperfect at conveying and interpreting the word of God.

Or, to put my agnostic spin on it, if God exists, there might very well be moral absolutes, but we as human beings cannot know them.

“I would guess that absolutists would argue that our different interpretations of the holy texts (or the internal inconsistencies of holy texts) are functions of the limitations of human understanding. In other words, there are moral absolutes, but we as human beings are imperfect at conveying and interpreting the word of God.”

Ahhh, but that brings us right back to my point, doesn’t it? Even if the absolute exists, we can’t very well judge movies based on it if our “imperfect” human understanding doesn’t quite know what the absolute is. Now, if God ever starts a movie review site, that might be another story. I think that moral relativism is all that’s available to humanity, on a practical level. There may very well be an absolute, but it’s apparent that we can never agree on or understand what it is. Even assuming that the Bible really is the word of God, with God communicating his absolute moral agenda to us, it seems we’ve screwed that up too and can’t quite come to a real conclusion about what He actually means.

Ed:

You shan’t hear me disagree. I wasn’t saying you were wrong overall; I was merely disputing you on a minor point that didn’t affect your larger point.

But speaking for the absolutists (which I am so not qualified to do), they could argue that we should still strive to understand, improve our understanding, and apply our understanding, rather than just giving up. If you allow that there might be a moral absolute, then pursuit of it is a noble if futile cause.

Sorry, it wasn’t really my intention to insult anyone or start any kind of philosophical or religious debate. I was just responding to the question as to whether or not there were any valid reasons for a religious-based rating system. And I still think, for a member of a particular religion, a rating system based on their beliefs can be. What I didn’t mean to imply was that the rating system would have any use for a someone outside that religion.

Which does raise a question if I can ask one. What value do those of you who are non-religious find in reading religion based movie review sites, especially ones you find odious? (I’m unfamiliar with CAPAlert, I’ll take your word for it they suck.) I’m a sucker for reviews myself, so if it’s just the compulsion to read everything available about a movie, I can understand that.

Hey, I’m certainly not insulted. I appreciated your comments (and the blog-a-thon as a whole) and thought I’d keep the dialogue going a bit -- a little philosophical or religious debate never hurt anyone, even if the original topic was just movie reviews (“just”?).

As for your question, I have to say the answer is not much. I’ll occasionally check out a Christian review site just because I am interested in a wide variety of viewpoints and I’m curious to see what they’d have to say about a particular film -- and yes, if a film especially gets to me, I’ll often start searching out writing pretty voraciously. It’s a rare case when I get much more out of it than a realization that my view is simply incompatible with theirs, but even that is at least interesting and worth a few minutes to check out something different once in a while. I still read Armond White’s reviews from time to time, too, and I know I’ll disagree with him just as often, for just as fundamental of reasons. As for CAPAlert, I haven’t looked at his reviews in years, since I long ago learned that his rather skewed perspective on movies (he’s rarely interested in them for anything more than their perceived violations of Biblical tenets) only makes me angry. Others, like the Decent Films cited above, are more aesthetically inclined and balanced in their judgments, which is why it’s worth addressing them and talking about their rating system, as we’ve been doing here. It’s been interesting, I think.

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