Oscars and body punches

One of today’s Deseret Morning News editorials (yes, I still read them from time to time) is squarely a rant against Hollywood.  It treads a lot of familiar ground, but it makes an interesting point:

[T]he leading candidate for best film this year, “No Country for Old Men,” is so gruesome and graphically violent that a good half of the film would have been banned by the Motion Picture Industry a generation ago.

That’s scary.

Is this who we are now — people who sit in the dark eating popcorn with our wives and husbands while unbearable mayhem plays out before our eyes — complete with buckets of blood and severed limbs?

Apparently it is.

Apparently, being a sophisticated moviegoer in 2008 means being able to take a body punch and — without wincing — appreciate the acting and effects. It’s the spook-alley code of honor now — tough guys don’t blink when the going gets gory. And a person who thinks the whole enterprise seems to teeter on madness is automatically dismissed as provincial.

It’s a brazen new world. Until a majority of people are willing to stand up and tell Emperor Hollywood about his so-called clothes, the future promises films even more stark and graphic.

Barring such a backlash, it is the American movie that will remain “no country for old men.”

Now, I’m not going to comment on the film in question, simply because I haven’t seen it.  I doubt the writer of the editorial has either, so the phrase regarding “buckets of blood and severed limbs” may be a slight exaggeration.  I just don’t know.

Sometimes it really stinks to be a “sensitive” film fan, in that the fall and winter bring a lot of great-looking movies with a lot of prohibitive content.  So, one is tempted to wring his hands of the whole blood-soaked affair (pun intended).

But let’s keep a bit of perspective here.  First of all, it’s the Oscars, which is a glitzy exercise in self-congratulation.  Not that heaping honors on yourself is a bad thing; it’s good to pause once in a while to honor the good work you’ve done.  But let’s not take it as a harbinger of a “trend” or “agenda” by Hollywood.  The Academy is simply in a gloomy mood this year.  Other years (like 2004, when “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” took home 13 Academy Awards) they’re not.  Let’s not forget the influence of war and politics on what gets produced, either.  Artists often create work as a reaction or commentary to events that affect them the most.  So this year we’re getting a lot of stuff about war and torture and all that.  The television show 24 already went through that phase and is moving on.  The Academy will as well.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there’s a whole lot more to the Oscars than just the race for Best Picture.  Personally, I think limiting the race to five films does a disservice to all the excellent movies released during the year that weren’t the beneficiary of millions of dollars of studio marketing support to stay fresh in the memories of Academy voters.  Is it gratifying when a movie you love gets nominated?  Sure it is.  I’d love it if Ratatouille swept all of the awards for which it’s nominated.  But I’m not going to get all bent out of shape and huffy if it doesn’t.  Most of my favorite movies haven’t been nominated for anything, but that doesn’t affect my experience of them.  I kind of like that, in a way – they remain a secret that only a select few of us are privy to.  The Oscars serve a good purpose in highlighting Important Work, but it is, after all, an awards show.

As for the increasing violence in today’s films: yes, that is a definite trend.  So, we have a choice.  We can just go along with it, we can wring our hands of it (as the above editorial does), or we can take a more proactive stance to seek out and praise those films that do jive with our sensibilities.  It takes a little more effort, yes, simply because a lot of great films pass under the radar, but it’s far more rewarding than griping about the downward trend of things.  For instance, I’ve got 114 movies on my Netflix queue and another 11 that haven’t come out yet.  Will I ever get around to watching all of these in the near future (or even in the next five years)?  Of course not.  But I know that I’ll never be starved for a good movie that won’t offend my personal sensibilities.  And that makes it so much easier to “cope” with a system that releases and promotes a lot of dreck.  (Plus, the fact that I never have to look at Blockbuster’s grody New Release shelves for a good movie in the midst of so much low-budget horror garbage is a good thing in and of itself.)

So here’s to great films, wherever you may find them.  Rather than take the body punch, we can promote the underdog sitting toward the back of the arena.  He’s still got a lot of fight left in him. 

2 Responses to “Oscars and body punches”

  1. Couple of comments:

    First, I haven’t seen “No Country for Old Men” either, but if the Coens’ “Fargo” is an indicator, then I don’t doubt that there are actually severed limbs in the film.

    Second, this whole discussion, as I think you would agree, is the inevitable conflict between Mormon culture (and even commandment), and society’s definition of art. I for one, take the view that art is ultimately uplifting or insightful, in that it explores our humanity, tries to examine the purposes of our being on Earth, and helps us understand our existence (this is my humble opinion of art – and I recognize that there are many people that may disagree with me). And yes, if a violent film such as “No Country for Old Men” can explore a little bit of that, then I think it is worth seeing, and actually would prefer to see it as the artist intended, gore and all. This is where a lot of Mormons and hard right Christians split with my opinion – they feel very strongly that they do understand the deeper meaning in life very clearly, and as such, have a hard time understanding why other people would want to see a movie like “Shakespeare in Love”, “Silence of the Lambs”, “Braveheart”, or “Gladiator” – all films that I think are amazing, are filled with language, violence, and sex, but ultimately are very uplifting or insightful (yes, even Silence of the Lambs).

    That having been said, there are a good number of films that I do not think are worthy of my definition of art – for example the so called “torture porn” films such as the Saw movies, or Hostel (two films I have not seen). These films tend to play to the basest of human impulses, and seek to gratify those impulses without provoking us to think about the deeper questions in life. Because of that, I refuse to waste my time watching a movie like that.

    Third, I agree with you 100% on your thoughts on the Oscars. The thing is, everyone is different, and everyone has different tastes, and inevitably, everyone will have a different list of favorite movies. If people like watching movies, they should go find the kind they like, and ignore the ones they know they won’t.

    All of this of course is my humble opinion and is subject to change :).

  2. Ben, I appreciate your thoughts on this topic. Let me see if I can add a few worthwhile ones of my own.

    I agree that everyone has a different interpretation of what is and is not “art.” I attended a high school of the arts when my family lived in Milwaukee, so I have a fairly broad view of what I do and do not consider art. In my posts on the edited movie business I have tried to explain that not only is it OK for people to have varying standards of “art,” but also that it is impossible to form a community consensus on the issue, simply because doing so would eliminate a lot of thoughtful and/or challenging works from the public eye. So there’s always going to be differences of opinion between reasonably intelligent people over the artistic merits of this film or the other. What I think should be avoided are the negative remarks and judgments passed between individuals (particularly members of the Church) because one person’s artistic standard allows for greater latitude in terms of certain kinds of content than another’s.

    Case in point: in college I had a roommate who had a much stricter standard in terms of things he watched than I did. One day we were having a discussion about what constitutes “pornography.” He told me that for him, any depiction of the adult nude human figure unsettles him, so he just groups all of it into the “porn” category and avoids it. Surprised, I asked him if he considered Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to be pornography. He answered yes.

    Now, I could have taken this opportunity to lambast him for being so narrow-minded, but I instead learned a lesson which has been of great benefit to me over the years (and not just when teaching elders quorum lessons on pornography). There is the obvious kind of pornography, and then there is that grey area which is largely defined by personal taste and being honest with yourself. To my roommate, the Sistine Chapel is pornography to him. Therefore, he would do best to avoid it. So, here’s the takeaway: if you feel, deep inside, that what you’re watching or experiencing is having a negative impact on your mind or spirit – regardless of rating – you should turn it off and walk away from it. I applaud my roommate for being honest with himself in this matter, even if it means making himself look silly or narrow-minded in the eyes of others. I try to follow the same rule for myself.

    That said, there is absolutely a stigma against watching R-rated movies in the Church, at least among members in the U.S. where the MPAA ratings have relevance. I don’t think it’s a perfect solution to avoiding evil influences; some very worthwhile movies with “adult-oriented” content (not brazen wickedness), like “The Passion of the Christ,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Saving Private Ryan,” for example, get lumped together with all the other low-rent grotesque or tittilating junk that make up the majority of R-rated movies, and receive far less attention from individual members than they probably should. That’s a real shame, but if it helps keep members from falling down that slippery slope of “acceptable” content, it probably serves a good purpose. I personally believe that members in general place a little too much stock in movie ratings (hence the reason why I applaud the changes in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet regarding media choices to move away from a specific rating system), but I also know that if I weren’t a member of the Church my mind would be filled with a lot more garbage than it is already. :)

Leave a Reply