A CleanFlicks world?

Just today I came across a fascinating website: Clean Flicks is an online movie rental store that provides movies without any graphic sex, graphic violence or graphic language of any kind. Apparently they used to actually edit certain movies for content but they cannot do this anymore for straightforward legal reasons. Their movie catalog is predictably quite bland and heavily skewed towards movies made before about 1950.

This is not the only example of attempts to restrict access to movies with 'questionable' content, of course. We have come a long way since the days of the Hays Code which regulated not just distribution and ratings but the production of movies itself, but we still frequently hear outcries against movies which supposedly lower moral standards by desensitizing people to extreme violence and foul language. There are any number of ratings websites (many but not all of them religious) that discriminate between movies based not on the depth of characterization, quality of cinematography or realism but on the number of cuss words, the square inches of human skin that are exposed and/or the number of physical blows or bullets fired. Movies without graphic content are said to be 'wholesome' and 'decent' while those that feature it, although they include some of the best movies ever made in their number, are called 'vulgar' or 'repulsive' or 'insidious'.

Of course some of these groups have a point when it comes to the kind of movies children should be allowed to see. I wholeheartedly affirm that certain movies are clearly inappropriate for children under a certain level of psychological and moral maturity. I also accept that too many action movies portray violence and sex in a completely unrealistic way that does 'sear the conscience with a hot iron' when it shouldn't. I find it disturbing that one reviewer of the recent torture porn remake The Hills Have Eyes describes the movie as "sadistic, twisted and gruesome...just the way I like'em!" I wouldn't hesitate to call that person morally stunted, even if he/she would claim that in real life they would never endorse or engage in that kind of behavior.

What I do react against, however, is the idea that the only good movies are anodyne movies without any of the grittiness and ambiguity that characterize the real world. Movies, like all good art, should aspire to tell the truth about the world. A great movie is one which opens our eyes to a truth about ourselves or the world that we had forgotten or we never knew in the first place. Often this realization is uncomfortable. We may watch an explicit sex scene that forces us to acknowledge our own voyeuristic tendencies, or identify with a character struggling with lust or abuse. In my view the distinction between pornography, which is audiovisual content with the sole purpose of arousing lustful thoughts and feelings and explicit sex in the context of serious drama is pretty clear. With regard to violence, explicit content may be dramatically necessary in a war movie to really put us 'in there' with the characters, or in an action movie to show how high the stakes are. If done right, movie violence should be disturbing or at least indict us for our fascination with it (there is a great line in Gladiator where Maximus kills his opponents in a particularly gruesome and spectacular fashion and then yells out to the cheering crowd, "Are you not entertained??"). But that is not an excuse to forbid graphic violence in movies. On the contrary, we are supposed to be disturbed.

What these ratings groups miss is the wider narrative in which explicit content has its proper place: the story of a fallen, groaning world yearning for redemption and the appearance of the Sons of God. Many questions still puzzle me about the nature and origin of evil and what place it might have in God's plan. What is clear to me, though, is that this side of eternity conflict (in the dramatic as well as literal sense) is built into the fabric of our world and our psyche. The first lesson aspiring writers learn is that for a story to be interesting, there has to be conflict; something has to stand in the way of what the main character wants, and this something has to 'squeeze' him or her to the point where a fundamental decision has to be made and the character's true nature is revealed. Moral choice is only meaningful when the stakes are real: if nothing really bad could ever happen as a result of being selfish, untruthful, violent or unfaithful these choices would be meaningless. A story in which everyone gets along and gets what they want is a story that no one will read.

This brings me to an interesting observation about skeptics' reaction to the Bible: very often it resembles very much the reaction Christian ratings groups have to 'unwholesome' movies. How can the Bible be the sublime Word of God, they ask, when it has such unwholesome content as adultery, war, torture, cursing and plague? The answer has been hinted at above: the Bible features such content because it is God's message to a fallen world. The only reason it is relevant to so many people is that it rings true to our experience. A G-rated Bible is a Bible that cannot speak to fallen man where he is. No one could take it seriously if it laid out a drama in which nothing bad ever happens to good people, everyone always makes the right choices and God never has to judge those who disobey Him. Like the best movies with explicit content, the Bible tells the truth about the world, but thankfully it also offers hope for a better one even as it takes this one absolutely seriously.


Steven Carr said…
'....s adultery, war, torture, cursing and plague? The answer has been hinted at above: the Bible features such content because it is God's message to a fallen world. '

God's message to a fallen world is that he is going to curse some people, command wars to be fought and send plagues to kill people.

The world is fallen, and the Bible shows God kicking it when it is down.
Leslie said…
My wife bought me Vanilla Sky from a place like this a few years back. I saw the movie for the first time on TV, and loved it. But due to sexual scenes, I was unwilling to buy it. This wasn't just some sort of statement for me - I won't buy movies with nudity or extended sex scenes simply because I know my own struggles. Honestly, I think most men would be better off to avoid this type of stuff.

But as you say, there's a line where reality becomes part of effective story telling. For example, I own and love Band of Brothers - a very violent series on WWII. But the violence is not over the top - it's just real. Then again, perhaps there are some stories that just shouldn't be told. A movie that graphically depicts a homicidal maniac enjoying the torturous murder of someone seems to me to fall into that category. If it were really about art, maybe I could deal with it (although, even art should have limits) but you'd be hard pressed to convince me that most of it is actually about art and not just money.

I appreciate your point about the Bible in regards to this though. There's a lady at my church who doesn't want her 9 year old son to read certain parts of the Bible that she deems too violent. I find this a bit odd when we teach even the youngest of our children that all mankind save a handful of people were drowned in a massive flood. That's pretty violent. And as you say, part of the power of the Bible is its ability to speak to a broken world.

I kind of wish we'd do more classes in our churches about some of the stuff that is in the Bible. Due to the inability of our translations, a lot of people don't realize how graphic parts of the Bible are. I've always found it odd that one of the places I feel least comfortable openly talking about certain Biblical passages is when teaching a class or preaching.
Anonymous said…

Thanks for your great comments. I basically agree with them. If the kind of explicit content a movie has is of such a nature as to tempt people to either glorify violence or acquire an unhealthy view of sex then I think they should avoid it. What I am against is the blanket refusal to concede that a good movie could have any explicit content.

I also agree that there are some 'stories' (I really wouldn't dignify them with that label) which shouldn't be told. I think torture porn like "Hostel" or "The Last House on the Left" just shouldn't be made. There's no point I can see to them. On the other hand, I can stomach the graphic violence in something like "Kill Bill" because it is deliberately over-the-top and the story and characters were good enough, in my view, to justify it. Again, there's not a hard and fast rule.


What and if God does choose to curse some people or send them plagues to further His purposes? Were you there when He laid the foundations of the earth? Did you have a hand in forming the relationship God chose to have with his creatures? Didn't think so.
Weekend Fisher said…
Enjoyed the post.

I'm also glad the Song of Solomon got left in the Bible. Can't really figure why the atheists suddenly sound like Puritans when they come across that book ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF
Anonymous said…
"This brings me to an interesting observation about skeptics' reaction to the Bible: very often it resembles very much the reaction Christian ratings groups have to 'unwholesome' movies. How can the Bible be the sublime Word of God, they ask, when it has such unwholesome content as adultery, war, torture, cursing and plague?"

I don't think the objection is to the fact that there is such content in the Bible, it's the apparent inconsistency between God's alleged goodness and his participation in those unwholesome acts which is at issue.
Steven Carr said…
Could we have a link to atheists saying the Bible should contain no accounts of people committing adultery?

I can probably find links to Christians saying they like reading the bits about people committing adultery.... :-)
Jay McHue said…
WF said: "Can't really figure why the atheists suddenly sound like Puritans when they come across that book"

Because they are hypocrites. On the one hand, they want to portray Christians - esp. fundamentalists - as sex-hating prudes. On the other, they treat Song of Solomon as some sort of dirty little secret among Christians. Furthermore, they go on to take the parts of the Bible describing adultery (e.g. Lot's daughters getting him drunk and having sex with him) and try to portray it as if it is approved behavior for Christians.

Thanks for a great post. I drew attention to it on my blog a few days ago. Even as a secularist I can appreciate where you're coming from. (And don't worry about Steve Carr. He doesn't get it and never will -- right Stevie?)

With regards to Hostel and (the remake of) Last House on the Left, they actually weren't too bad, though each depends on an unrealistic third act of righteous payback which incenses me. A film like Eden Lake is vastly superior, though it would be too nihilistic for you. And no, people who like these kind of films aren't "morally stunted" for liking them (as you suggest), though that's a subject I plan to blog about soon as well.

Best wishes!
Kelsey said…
I believe that there are a lot of good movies that have questionable content in them. This is why I choose to watch edited versions of those movies. I just don't want to see it. But I also believe that people have the right to choose what they want to see so I have no real objection to the movies being made. I do wish that there were some good film-makers with some good production back up with morals. It seems they're all gone these days.

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