Movie Ratings, Mormonism and Morality
by Joseph L. Puente
Revised January 11, 2005
One evening, while tapping away at my laptop, I was approached by an acquaintance. He asked me what I was working on and I told him I was writing a screenplay and that I was a filmmaker. He then asked me, "How do you reconcile being a filmmaker with being a member of the church?" That is, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which we were both members. He asked me the question as if being an artist is immoral in some way. No one would ever think of asking LDS author Orson Scott Card how he reconciles being a novelist with being a member. Or asking the Osmonds how they reconcile being musicians with being members. It seems to me only filmmaking has this stigma about it.
I think it all started when LDS President Ezra Taft Benson said, "Don't see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive, or pornographic." (Ensign, May 1986) However, President Benson was not the first to make this admonition. President Hartman Rector, Jr. of the First Council of the Seventy (also a General Authority in the church) made a similar statement in the January 1973 issue of the Ensign, in which he suggested a number of barriers for unmarried young people who are dating to help them avoid the compromising situations. Number six on the list read, Do not attend R- or X-rated movies, and avoid drive-ins. (emphasis added) When most people quote President Bensons statement, they fail to identify the context in which the statement was made. President Benson was not speaking to the Church as a whole. He was addressing his comments to the young men of the Church, most of whom are too young to watch R-rated movies unaccompanied anyway. In this address, he also stated that "The Lord wants every young man to serve a full-time mission." It's been clarified in subsequent addresses that all worthy young men should serve missions.
This is what's referred to in LDS teachings as "counsel." When one belongs to a religion that follows the pattern of the ancient Christian church, that is having officers and authorities including prophets and apostles, one tends, in theory, to listen more closely to what those prophets say. The very nature of having a prophet is that said prophet receives revelation from God. But let it be understood by the non-LDS readers of this treatise that "the Church" teaches that everyone can receive revelation for whatever body or organization they have authority over. An individual can receive revelation for him or herself. A parent can receive revelation for the family. A Bishop can receive revelation for his ward and the President of the Church can receive revelation for the Church. However there are a few things that need to be understood. 1) Prophets are fallible individuals entitled to their own opinions and capable of making mistakes. 2) Just because a prophet says it, doesn't automatically make it doctrine. 3) There are guidelines that must be adhered to in order for something to be disseminated to the body of the church as policy, doctrine or commandment.
Unfortunately, a great deal of church members do not understand these things. Which leads to flocks of people who believe that because there is a prophet on the earth today, they must follow every syllable of what that prophet says in order to stay in God's good graces. However, this does not stop them from tuning out one bit of opinion or counsel in favor, or even in spite, of something else that might be easier to follow. For these individuals, there is no distinction between what a prophet says and what God would have us learn. They simply ignore the facts that opinion is not doctrine, policy is not prophecy and counsel is not commandment.
For example. The late apostle Bruce R. McConkie, once said, in his 1966 book Mormon Doctrine (which, it should be noted, is NOT official doctrine of the LDS Church), Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty. In 1978, through revelation, blacks were allowed to hold the priesthood. A number of members called Elder McConkie out on the carpet for what he had said before the revelation. Elder McConkie stated, at a BYU symposium in August of 1978, Forget everything I have said, or what... Brigham Young... or whomsoever has said... that is contrary to the present revelation... We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
In recent years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced a change in the design of the lettering used on Church buildings and documents. Some people might believe that this was by divine decree. That somewhere there's a bit of written revelation in which God commanded the Church to "Go ye therefore, my fellow servants, and changeth thy letterhead." Which is as ridiculous as it sounds. This was a matter of policy. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles may very well have discussed changing the design. They may even have put it to a vote. But God didn't come down and give a commandment to make Jesus Christ more prominent in the way his name appears on the church's printed material. It's more likely that it was among a number of proposed designs presented to the Church by its public relations firm.
The Word of Wisdom, or the Church's health code, was given by revelation as counsel. It contains the guidelines that Mormons throughout the world are known for. Not to consume alcohol, "hot drinks" (caffeinated beverages) or tobacco. It also speaks of eating meat sparingly and getting enough sleep and exercise. Why was it given as counsel and not commandment? Because God understood that a number of the church members at the time of the revelation were genuinely addicted to tobacco and alcohol. By offering the Word of Wisdom as counsel, it gave the members time to wean themselves from the substances that God had revealed to them as being harmful. Only after it became general practice for the members of the Church was the Word of Wisdom voted, by its members, to be accepted as a commandment. However, there are members who insist on not making these distinctions, despite what the leaders of the church have taught.
Countless times I have been reminded that "The Prophet said" not to watch R-rated movies. Usually when I mention having recently watched a film that happened to have that rating. I was once called a sinner, on Easter Sunday, no less, because I watched The Passion of The Christ. A film based primarily on scripture. All because Ezra Taft Benson made a rather brood statement to the young men of the church about immorality in the media. It should be noted, that the church has never made Ezra Taft Benson's remarks official policy. They have not been included in the "Standard Works" (scriptures) of the church. There is no official doctrine that mentions any rating system, let alone the words "movie," "film" or "cinema." And there has been no revelation announced to the church at General Conference or otherwise since the 1978 Revelation regarding worthiness to hold the priesthood, let alone giving a divine stamp of approval to the Motion Picture Association of America's Ratings and Certification Board. But there has been a lot said on the subject.
In the May 17, 2001 issue of The Salt Lake City Weekly, Scott Renshaw wrote about a rally protesting pornography on February 19 of that same year. "According to comments published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Morgan High School senior Karlee Adams included in her definition of pornography 'R-rated movies.'... Most memorably, Timpanogas High sophomore Ashley Spackman placed in the category of pornography Michelangelo's sculpture of David.... [LDS filmmaker Richard Dutcher] reacts bluntly to the quoted statements from the students... 'It seems to indicate we're raising a generation of idiots,' he says. 'It's ridiculous to claim that R-rated movies are pornography. It seems to be something that's just happened over the past decade or so, this idea that all movies or television should be for everyone... I don't think you can illustrate morality without illustrating immorality. It's an artistic impossibility. It's very possible for a well-meaning story-teller to sacrifice his integrity and tell lies in order not to offend... I think choosing our entertainment or art based on the rating of the MPAA is ridiculous. Purely from a Mormon standpoint, I don't think what President Benson meant to do was to have everyone surrender their agency to the MPAA. Since the only thing that's been said officially by the church leadership is to avoid inappropriate films. And that lays a greater burden on the viewer.'... In a fitting example of thematic synchronicity, [Dutcher's film] Brigham City... addresses the subject of insulation vs. exposure. Through the challenges faced by his own character in the film, Richard Dutcher explores whether it's possible for a community to remain pure by refusing to acknowledge the realities of the wider society. 'I hear this debate a lot, over whether to include violence at all, to include sexuality at all,' Dutcher says. 'I find that a strange argument to come from a religious people. The perfect storyteller--God--told his stories with violence and human sexuality, and all those stories are told for a reason.'"
How can any intelligent person come to believe that something as arbitrary as a single letter in the alphabet can mean the difference between experiencing a work of art and committing a sin? Many people assume that movie ratings stand for something that they were never intended to; the morality or quality of a film. This simply is not what the rating system was created for. The rating system is not a morality meter. It is not intended to tell you if a movie is good or bad. It is only there to tell you about the content of a film, not the context in which it's presented. It is also there primarily for parents so that they can have a better idea of what their children are watching or want to see. Ralph D. Barney, an associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University in the 70s wrote in the December 1975 issue of the Ensign, "...parents should use caution in assuming too much about the meanings of the ratings for individual movies... I would suggest that parents not rely completely on the rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America in the selection of appropriate movies for the family. Such reliance would delegate the parents' decision-making for their family to a force outside of the home." As to the counsel not to watch R-rated movies altogether, he wrote, "...such advice should probably not be construed as an endorsement of G- and PG-rated movies. Rather, parents should set up their own rating system... responsibility should not be turned over to movie raters in Hollywood [or] hometown theater owners..."
Joseph Walker in the September 1990 issue of the Ensign wrote, "Judging a movie--for good or ill--solely on an MPAA rating is a little like playing Russian roulette with your standards: Maybe your values won't be assaulted, but maybe they will."
LDS filmmaker Keith Merril wrote in the April 1981 issue of the Ensign, "With a few exceptions, R-rated films have proved to be unacceptable to the tastes and moral conscience of most Latter-day Saints... Whoever the judges [of the MPAA ratings board] may be, they are the single source of motion picture ratings. The criteria employed by the board are (1) theme, (2) language, (3) violence, (4) sex and nudity. The final judgment is by majority vote. One person's preference, therefore, can make a difference between a G and PG, or between a PG [or PG-13] and an R. Consequently, reliability in the ratings totally disappears with the narrow margin and capricious choice between a "hard G" and a "soft R," as these borderline films are described." (emphasis added)
I'd like to point out a few additional facts about the ratings board. They don't meet in the LDS Church office building in Salt Lake City. Nor do they meet in a temple, stake center, synagogue or any other kind of religious facility. The ratings board is NOT a religious organization or entity in any way, shape or form. Its members are not composed of clergy or religious leaders of any faith.
Merril goes on to say, "There is no rating system that will satisfy every person's individual standards. It remains for each of us to sort through word-of-mouth reports, media reviews, publicity, and then compare what we find with our own conscience. The only reliable standards are the ones we set for ourselves, guided by our quest for perfection and inspired by the principles of the gospel."
"With a few exceptions," says Merril. Keith Merril is not a General Authority and the Ensign is not pure doctrine but authorized counsel. But they wouldn't have printed his comments were they not worthy of deeper thought and reflection by its readers. So, what are those exceptions? That's up to the individual to decide. Personally, I think that all high school aged students should see films like Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. There's a great deal of spiritual symbolism in The Matrix trilogy, enough to get me wondering if the Wachowski brothers based any of their story elements on LDS theology. But just as there is no rating system that will satisfy every person's individual standards, there can be no definitive list of "Exceptional" R-rated movies. Basically, it all comes down to individual taste. Sin is in the heart of the sinner. We can't assume that because a person is watching an R-rated movie, that he or she is sinning for doing so. There are plenty of dirty old men out there who are watching The Lizzie McGuire Movie for all the wrong reasons. Does that make the movie sinful? Of course not.
In the May 17, 2001 issue of the City Weekly, referred to above, Keith Merril states, "I've been quite outspoken about the mistaken notion that people should tie their morality to the MPAA rating system. But I've been careful never to go on the record as saying people should go to see R-rated movies." "In his subsequent comments," the article continues, "it's clear [Merril] often subscribes to even higher standards than the MPAA... [Merril] 'defers to the personal standard' in defining pornography, he admits to being slightly offended by the idea that Michelangelo's 'David' could be considered pornographic because 'experiencing that for me was a religious experience.'... What Merril does say without reservation is that content is not the same as an artist's intent with that content. 'I've certainly made films where I've had partial nudity, or violence,' he says, 'but there was no exploitation in the way we shot it... It's an attitude of exploitation in the filmmaker that may make the difference between whether it has redeeming value or whether it doesn't.... To me, the standard is where it modifies behavior and where it damages the soul. I know where that is in my own life. I know what I'm not willing to expose myself to because it may corrupt me.'"
Consider what you are doing if you tell yourself, "I won't watch R-rated movies because it's immoral." You are allowing your morality to be DICTATED to you by a SECULAR organization. Instead of heading the spirit of God, you are heading the opinions of fallible human beings who aren't even rating the morality of the films they watch. They are only rating the content.
In the May 1971 issue of The New Era, Dr. Victor B. Cline, then an associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah and an active member of the church, answered the question: What would your thoughts be about the kinds of movies we see and the books we read--where should we draw the line? thus: "All I can tell you are my personal feelings. Certainly it's difficult to live in the world and to avoid knowing and seeing what's going on. The problem is, of course, that many movies are worthwhile. They may be sheer entertainment or about a great historical person or about an event in human history, and yet they may contain several moments of inappropriate behavior.
"If you're a sound Latter-day Saint, certainly you should be able to keep things in balance and not have your mental and spiritual nature disturbed or affected by these influences. That's the challenge! Simply being in the world presents these challenges to us. I don't see, frankly, how we can avoid them... Even though we live in the world, and will read and see and learn, still we are not to be of the world. We must evaluate why we are doing, seeing, or reading something--check our motives."
Living in the world and not being of the world doesn't mean we're supposed to bury our heads in the sand. Lying to ourselves about the reality of our existence is still a lie.
John, a member of an LDS filmmaking e-mail list that I also subscribe to wrote, "I rented the R-rated movie Bunker, being the incurable WW II buff that I am... we were exposed to a few iterations of the "s" word. As I watched I contemplated the recent suggestion that I could not have the spirit if I was in disobedience, but I nevertheless found the spirit to be with me. I think it was because I was not the one using the language, and I was not watching the film because I wanted to indulge myself in foul language. I was watching the film for another purpose, and I did get a valuable aesthetic experience from the film, both in decoding/experimenting the meaning, and in the meaning itself (somewhat along the lines of Schindler's List in a psychological study of the effects of killing on the human psyche). As far as the bad content, I find myself discarding it mentally rather than focussing on it. Maybe I would feel differently if children were in the home. Maybe it would rub off on me if I were exposed to it frequently. We are certainly exposed to it in real living situations in which we do not have the option of turning it off."
I used to worry that I have become too jaded because I have experienced a lot in my life. More so than many friends of mine that are around my age. I was worried because very little offended me. I can hear most opinions without taking it personally. I think very little about the "bad" content of a film that I enjoy or the language of other people (My five years in the Navy might have something to do with that) and I was starting to wonder if maybe I was missing out on something. For my thirtieth birthday, I was given a copy of James C. Christensen's Personal Illuminations spiritual journal. In it was a list titled "When the Spirit Strives With Us." The first item read, "We are not easily offended." This put me at ease. The comments made by the previous writer reaffirmed it.
Jeff, another list member, wrote, "In Canada, ratings are done by the individual province's film boards. We do not have a national R rating, and the other ratings do not necessarily match up with the American system (MPAA). Many of our U.S. LDS expatriate members living here in Canada who I have met in local wards are pleased to 'be able to' watch a film here that they 'wouldn't be able to view in the U.S.' (Given that it is exactly the same film, how logical is that?)"
Jeff's comments put American LDS attitudes into a very interesting perspective. Let's throw a hypothetical situation out there. A filmmaker completes a project. It is unrated. He shows it to some of his LDS friends. They enjoy the film. They're moved by it on multiple levels. They walk out of the screening with tears in their eyes, eager to tell their other friends about it. Then the filmmaker presents it to the MPAA Ratings Board. It comes back with an R rating. Does that mean that all the people who watched it are retroactively sinners? Suppose the filmmaker appeals the rating and the Board decides, "We were kind of quick on our last judgment this is really more of a PG-13 movie." Are the "sinners" now forgiven because the ratings board reconsidered their earlier decision? I didn't think the MPAA had that kind of moral authority.
Jeff went on to write, "A perfect example of an excellent film that casts doubt on the efficacy of theater ratings being our barometer for what we, as LDS, should or should not view is Saints and Soldiers. I saw the film prior to its rating, so I surmise that what I viewed was the version that eventually got rated 'R.' Personally, I would stand behind this film even if it had not been re-edited to its current U.S. rating of PG-13. I am sure in Canada it would have received no more than a 14A rating, and possibly PG."
In the April 1, 2004 "Best of Utah" issue of The Salt Lake City Weekly, the controversy surrounding Saints and Soldiers was listed as "BEST MORMON MOVIE CONTROVERSY (CONSERVATIVE DIVISION)." The article stated, "R-rated films and strict adherence to Mormon guidelines generally go together about as well as a Relief Society luncheon and Starbucks. So it was a huge blow to Potential LDS ticket dollars when the Mormon-themed World War II drama Saints and Soldiers earned itself the taboo designation from the MPAA ratings board. The filmmakers appealed the ruling, arguing that the sex- and profanity-free film is actually less violent, despite its wartime content, than many other PG-13 films. Only by selling their souls to the MPAA and, of course, making a few crucial nips and tucks to the film, did the filmmakers receive the coveted PG-13 rating." (emphasis added)
I'm not sure what director Ryan Little's thinking was on his decision to censor his own film for the sake of a lower rating. If it was indeed a purely business decision, PG-13 movies are generally more profitable than R-rated movies since they don't require parental accompaniment, I have no problem with that. But if the decision was made because of the false belief that R-rated movies are somehow immoral, I would have to take serious issue with Ryan's decision. I feel for a filmmaker to allow such prejudices to influence his creative license would bring into question his integrity as an artist. Perhaps we can hope for an "unrated director's cut" of Saints and Soldiers on DVD.
This all begs the question of those who say "R-rated films are immoral," where is the sin in a movie? Is the sin in the cinematography? Is it in the writing? Is it in the filmmaker? Is it embedded in some way in the celluloid?
It doesn't take an expert to tell us that most movies aren't worth our time. But of the handful that are left, why are people so quick to label a work of art as something sinful? I had a student once who was reading the book Schindler's List but refused to watch the movie because it was rated R. Schindler's List was a true story!
Is the letter R immoral? Lots of great words start with it. Redemption. Radiant. Revelation. Repentance. Reason. Reward. Reconcile. I'll ask again, where is the sin?
The fact of the matter is this: there is no commandment about movie ratings. We have only been given counsel, and counsel is open for personal interpretation and application in one's life.
In an article for The Salt Lake City Weekly, titled "VOTE LDS," Alexander Nibley wrote, "In General Conference in 1978, LDS President Kimball quoted one of his favorite children's songs that pleaded, 'Don't kill the little birds that sing on bush and tree?' He begged the members to refrain from killing God's creatures for fun, and quoted another prophet of the LDS Church, Joseph F. Smith, who said, 'I never could see why a man should be imbued with a blood-thirsty desire to kill and destroy animal life. I have known men--and they still exist among us--who enjoy what is to them the "sport" of hunting birds and slaying them by the hundreds. I think it is wicked for men to thirst in their souls to kill almost everything which possesses animal life. It is wrong, and I have been surprised at prominent men whom I have seen whose very souls seemed to be athirst for the shedding of animal blood.'"
I am not a hunter, so it's very easy for me to follow the counsel of Presidents Kimball and Smith. But I certainly don't think of myself as a better person than someone who does hunt. In my community, hunting is very popular among the members of the church. The local high schools almost shut down entirely that first week of hunting season, because half the students are "on the mountain" hunting deer. In fact, I have a great deal of respect for hunters who do it out of tradition and for what I feel are legitimate reasons like keeping the deer population down. Deer that aren't hunted may very well wind up as road kill. Others offer the reason of hunting "only for the meat." Not because they can't find meat in the grocery store but because they enjoy eating venison. I sat in on a Sunday School lesson where the instructor brought some deer jerky to share with the class to illustrate that certain people in the Book of Mormon had nothing to eat but game (this particular Sunday school teacher is also very quick to counsel his students not to attend R-rated movies). Hunting also has very deep cultural roots in our country. When we think of hunting, we often picture Davie Crocket or Lewis and Clark. Not to mention the pioneer heritage of Utah Mormons. The only hunting that I do consider morally reprehensible and worthy of Kimball's and Smith's counsel is trophy hunting, where the hunter thinks nothing of letting the meat of his prey rot just so he can mount the head or the antlers. In my opinion, that is done for the sake of feeding an immoral thirst for shedding animal blood. It's very interesting to note that members who don't hunt rarely, if ever, speak out against those who do. They never quote Presidents Kimball or Smith to try and show the hunting Mormon's the evils of their ways. But they don't hesitate for one minute to point out the faults in someone who would dare watch the R-rated film The Deer Hunter. Of course, I imagine if you bring up Kimball's and Smith's admonitions about hunting, their response may very well be, "Well, that's not a commandment, it's just counsel... Besides, they were only talking about birds, they didn't say deer." Why is it, that I can understand and defend the popular interpretation of counsel against hunting, but so many of these Mormons, hunters or not, can't find it in themselves to extend to me the same courtesy in regard to what films I may choose to watch?
Nibley went on to say, "The capacity of Utah Mormons to ignore their leaders on subjects they prefer not to hear about remains extraordinarily resilient... Brigham Young once said about the flock he was leading: 'I have seen months and months, in this city, when I could have wept like a whipped child to see the awful stupidity of the people.'"
Loopholes, Censorship and Protecting the Family
Another aspect of Mormon culture, in fact the culture of any religion really, is the need to find a loophole to commandments. Having some business experience in Utah, I've seen this loophole reasoning quite a bit in dealings with Mormon business people. That is to say, I have been stabbed in the back more than once by Mormons who profess a testimony of the gospel yet justify unethical and dishonest business practices by saying to themselves, "It's just business."
In reference to the Word of Wisdom, as discussed above, Mormons are known for not consuming alcohol, tobacco or caffeine. While I would give members the benefit of a doubt that most never drink alcohol or smoke, it's not uncommon for them to occasionally enjoy a caffeinated beverage. The last time I had a temple recommend interview, I was asked if I follow the Word of Wisdom. I answered honestly, that most of the time I do, but I'll drink a Pepsi from time to time. My Stake President said to me that most of us have been known to occasionally indulge ourselves. As long as such behaviors don't become addictive, it isn't anything to worry about or risk keeping you out of the temple. But I've seen members who allow themselves to become addicted to caffeine, buying caffeinated soda by the case, and just keep telling themselves, "It's just Pepsi. It won't keep me out of the temple." How does this relate to Movies? It relates in one simple word: Censorship.
The popular term for it is "editing." As of the writing of this essay, a final legal decision has yet to be made concerning the rental of films edited by third parties. Legally, copyright law makes it very clear that no one may profit from a derivative version of a copyrighted work unless it was altered by the copyright holder. Copyright law does allow for fair use, that is altering a copy of a work that was legally purchased. This grants individuals the right to make backup copies of movies or music that they own for their own private use. The rental companies, however, are getting around this definition of the law by forming cooperative clubs of video renters. Legally, a group of individuals will pay to be part of a club or cooperative enabling them to "jointly own" films that have been edited. However, while the editing companies claim that they don't make "very much" money on editing services, the video stores that host the co-ops still make money renting out the edited films to the people who supposedly own them.
I'd like to point out something about the words in use here. "Editing," is what filmmakers do. It's part of the creative process in cinema. What these companies are doing isn't editing. It's censoring and has nothing to do with the creative process (despite one censor with the audacity to call himself the "Edit-Artist."), it's about control and disrespecting the rights of genuine artists.
I've heard a number of "good" Latter-day Saints who "don't watch R-rated movies," unless they are edited, reason that the material that gave the movie the R-rating has been cut out, so it somehow makes the movie "okay to watch, while still being able to follow the Prophet's counsel." They found their loophole.
But that doesn't really solve anything. Content is only one aspect of the criteria used to rate a film. Theme is another and it's something that can't be edited out! There are films of ALL RATINGS that, thematically, glorify behaviors and values that are in direct contradiction to church teachings! Anyone who believes that editing language, violence or nudity from a film automatically makes it morally acceptable is seriously mistaken. I have a friend who once told me that he watched an edited film with someone. He knew exactly when an obscenity had been uttered because there was no audio for the duration of the word. He said to me, "When the audio was muted, my mind automatically went through every obscene word I know that could have been used in that sentence. Editing the movie made no difference, I was still aware of what was being said." Dick Cavett once said, "Censorship does more for the dirty mind than the four-letter word itself." I'm not saying that my friend has a dirty mind. I think what Cavett was trying to say was that censorship is inherently pointless. Censor all you want, people still know what's being said.
And what of the people who watch these "bad" movies in their entirety so they know what to edit out for their "morally-conscious" customers? If they think watching an R or PG-13-rated movie is immoral, what's their justification for watching these films prior to reediting them? Perhaps they believe that they are spiritually strong enough not to let this content affect them personally. Or do they see their actions as moral sacrifices that need to be made in order to protect the purity of their customers. Yes, like media-messiahs, they are taking on the sin of watching these "bad movies" themselves so that the rest of us need not surrender our own morality to the evil ones in Hollywood. Hallelujah!
There is a banner posted outside of one of these cooperative video rental stores in my community that reads, "R and PG-13 Rated movies edited for the family." I don't care how much you edit them, films like Basic Instinct, The Exorcist and Freddy Got Fingered will NEVER BE FAMILY FILMS!!! And what about those people who are naive enough to believe that simply editing a movie makes it "safe to watch"? What thematic teachings might they be inadvertently exposed to? Therein lies the danger in judging films solely by their ratings or whether they have been "edited for the family."
Which brings me to the misconceptions of the family film market. There are many people who think that because family films are the top home video sellers it must mean that they're good movies. Readers, have any of you seen some of the direct to video crap that Disney has been churning out for the last ten years? I assure you, it doesn't sell because it's good. It sells because lazy parents, who rely on their DVD players and VCRs to baby-sit and educate their kids, aren't interested in quality films, they're interested in "safe" films. They ASSUME that if it's rated G then it must be okay for their children to watch or at least keep them occupied for a couple of hours while they're out doing something other than proper parenting.
Ralph D. Barney in the Ensign article referred to above said, "...Another limiting factor [in selecting quality films for the family] is the general low quality of the 'family' movies that are made. Because family-type movies seldom attract enough paying customers to cover high production costs, movies for general audiences are quite often low quality and disappointing because they are poorly photographed, have uneven or ineffective story lines, employ poor actors, or are in other ways amateurish. This generally poor level of the G-rated movies, brought about by the economics of movie production and exhibition, makes it necessary for parents to be most careful about evaluating, for their worth, even the G movies they take their families to see... the movie rating system in the United States is based primarily on the content of offensive language, sexual activity, and violence, and has little or no relationship to other values transmitted by the depictions... one major producer of family-type films made and distributed an entire generation of films that have subsequently been rated G; yet these movies consistently contained story lines in which children successfully disobeyed not-too-bright parents and defied bumbling police to track down and capture gangs of thieves. It is not unreasonable to think that a prolonged diet of such portrayals promoting disobedience could have a substantial effect on impressionable children who watch with parental approval."
I'm not a parent myself. Not yet, anyway. But I would rather take the time to educate my children, spend time with them and teach them to appreciate genuine works of cinematic art than bring them up believing the false notion that The Land Before Time XI is a good movie.
I am very particular about what I will spend my time and money to see. I would dare say even more particular than the people I know who eliminate R-rated movies from their options entirely. I do not judge a film based on its rating. I read reviews. I ask people who have seen the movies for their opinions. I don't rush into a movie theater just because the trailer was really cool. Most trailers are better than the movie anyway. Because of this method I use in watching films, I am rarely disappointed when I walk out of the theater or eject a video tape or DVD.
For the record, I occasionally do watch edited films, but they have been edited by the legal copyright holders for broadcast on television.
I once visited a match-making web site for single-adult Mormons. Among the many questions and profile options available to potential matches were lists of "Favorite Movies." Among the lists were several R-rated films followed by the parenthetical caveat: "TV Version." Even in the LDS dating scene Mormons are obsessed with this stigma of movie ratings. What if the "TV Version" option wasn't there? Would single members look at a potential companion as someone who isn't worthy of being in a relationship all because he or she includes Dead Man Walking or American Beauty among their favorite films? As if people who don't watch R-rated movies have some kind of free pass to the Celestial Kingdom? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, I've known many young women whove insisted that they will only marry return-missionaries for the same asinine reason. I've also known a few who regretted their decisions when they learned first hand that return missionaries are just as capable of being overbearing, insensitive assholes as any other group of men. But there are still credulous and naive members out there who think eternal happiness starts with a return missionary and a membership in the edited movie club.
Distinguishing Opinion from Doctrine
In the December 1991 issue of the Ensign, William A. Schaefermeyer wrote, "In our lives, we recognize that many of the Lord's laws, such as the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom, are concrete, and it is easy to judge whether or not we are keeping them. It isn't quite so easy to make judgments about whether a motion picture is appropriate. Perhaps we should give up the struggle as some have done--throw out the television and never see another movie. But I do not believe this is the solution. How can I prepare my children to face the world's challenges by pretending that there are no such things as television and movies?
"...During a well-produced movie, the viewer can experience a wide range of human emotions. I have found myself laughing heartily in a theater while viewing a comedy, or hoping the lights will not come on before I wipe the tears from my cheeks after viewing a tender moment on the screen."
Brigham Young once said, "Upon the stage of a theatre can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and just dread of its consequences."
Powerful words worthy of a medium as powerful as cinema.
I know there are those who will read this essay that will blow off everything I've expressed and fall back on those three magic words members use when they don't want to think for themselves, "The prophet said..."
This idea that all R-rated movies are "bad" is an opinion and not doctrine. Such a generalization can't be taken literally by anyone of reasonable intelligence. And while a prophet may have said it, that does not mean it's an inspired proclamation. It is counsel. It is a place from which to start in intelligently judging what films are appropriate or not.
I respect the opinions of General Authorities but I feel no obligation to agree with all of them because I'm entitled to my own opinions. It is a fact that there is room in the gospel for differences of opinion. For example, there are members of the church who believe very strongly in the death penalty for valid moral reasons. These members are active in the church. They hold callings, have current temple recommends and are doing their best to live the Celestial law. There are also members who are opposed to the death penalty for equally valid moral reasons. They are also active in church, hold callings, attend the temple, etc. Is the pro death penalty person wrong in his beliefs? Or is the anti-death penalty person wrong? The simple fact of the matter is this: Neither are wrong. They just have a difference of opinion. The official policy of the church on capital punishment is that it's acceptable if the law of the land deems it so. The church issued this statement when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was up to individual states to decide whether or not they should establish a death penalty. Utah was the first state to do so. I have often wondered if it was because Mormon legislators in Utah interpreted the Church's neutral position as an endorsement of the death penalty. In fact, the Church's policy leaves a lot of room either way. The same thing can be said about the abortion issue, politics and even movie ratings.
We needn't feel morally conflicted for having an opinion that differs from that of a General Authority. We are also free to interpret their counsel for ourselves.
The latest version of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, published by the LDS Church, talks about avoiding media that glorifies sex and violence. In my opinion, a movie like Basic Instinct glorifies both, so I refuse to watch it. (I came to this opinion not because of the rating but because I took the time to read reviews and learn about the movie.) However, A Clockwork Orange, while depicting sex and violence, does not, in my opinion, glorify it because it is the story of a man who is sent to prison for his sex and violence related crimes. He is later subjected to an experiment that prevents him from ever doing those things again, but by the end of the film you actually feel sorry for him because not only is he unable to commit those crimes, he is also unable to defend himself or have a normal relationship with someone; because the experiment he was subjected to made no distinction between a sex crime and a sex act one might engage in when married or otherwise romantically involved with someone. It made no distinction between physically hurting someone out of malice and fighting to defend oneself. There are clear differences between an act of malice and one of defense or simple human interaction. But the experiment, much like the attitudes of people who think the ratings system is all encompassing, made no distinction.
In his book, Why Do Good People See Bad Movies? The Impact of R-rated Movies, Randal A. Wright echoes the sentiment of Morgan High School senior Karlee Adams by defining R-rated movies as pornographic. He does so by placing the reader in the uncomfortable position of hypothetical parents called in to speak with their bishop to discuss the problem of pornography in their home, which they werent even aware of. This bishop, what the heck, lets call him Bishop Wright, includes in his definition of pornography a lot of whats depicted in television and movies your family watched through the years. All the while, Wright describes the sick feelings that come over you. Lets call it what it is, hes talking about guilt. The last time I checked, guilt was not a principle of the gospel.
I agree wholeheartedly with Wrights concerns about the exploitive depictions of sex and violence in the media. I mostly watch the news whenever I turn on my TV and I cant get enough documentaries on PBS or The Discovery Channel (and I have a handful of favorite shows I try not miss), but as Im flipping through the networks looking for something worthwhile to watch, Im blown away by a lot of the crap thats on during the day. I remember when mature programming wasnt aired until late in the evening. Now we can see it in the afternoons, right about the time most kids get home from school. Between confessions of affairs with lesbian appliances on Jerry Springer or Maury Povich and the cat fights we see between bikini-clad gold-diggers on trashy dating shows, I have to shake my head in disappointment at the knowledge that the masses prefer that over programming that actually utilizes some creativity and thought. What a pity that activities like reading books, going to museums or symphonies or watching plays have fallen more and more out of favor. Courtship has become a game show (Elimidate, The Bachelor, Meet My Folks) and marriage and family have become reality shows (Newlyweds, Trading Spouses, The Osbournes). Is it crap? Yes. Is it Pornography? I dont think so. But it certainly blurs the lines. One morning I turned on the television around 6:30 and started flipping through channels. On channel 25 (Nickelodeon) was Spongebob Squarepants; on channel 24 (Comedy Central) was an infomercial for videos of young women exposing themselves at spring break. Sure, it was censored, but it didnt really leave much to the imagination. I wondered how many children, who get up early to watch their favorite cartoon, flip through the channels to get to Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network and stop on the infomercial? And since when is 6:30 in the morning concidered late night?
Wrights book includes a great deal of statistical information based on his own media research. He speaks of how people spend more and more time watching TV, listening to CDs and playing video games. His book was written in 1993 (and Im not sure if it has been revised) so we cant fault him for leaving out the internet as a growing medium. Basically, in those respects, he doesnt say anything that hasnt been said already.
Wright also includes charted statistics with titles like Consider Self Very Religious by number of 1992 R-rated movies, LDS Youth Who Would Most Like To Change Places With Media Star By Number of R-rated Movies Seen in 1992. What kind of sample was this guy getting? At the time of the books publication, he was a religious instructor at BYU. Were his statistics taken from the student body there? Is he even aware of the cultural bias of his research? The rating system hes using is unique to the United States and cant possibly be applicable to LDS youth as a whole, the majority of which live outside of the U.S. He also includes statistics concerning occurrences of profanity, violence and sexuality in R-rated movies compared to PG-13 and PG movies, which strikes me as totally redundant and proving nothing because the amount of profanity, sex and violence are part of what determines a films rating to begin with. He also includes statistics of rising premarital intercourse and children born to unwed mothers and makes the safe assumption that R-rated movies contribute directly to these problems. One of the first things I learned in public speaking is: You can prove anything with statistics. If a person is standing with one foot in a campfire and the other in a bucket of ice water, statistically, he should feel comfortable.
Wright goes through all the hackneyed excuses that students use to watch R-rated movies, he quotes all the right Prophets that said not to watch R-rated movies. He piles on the statistics and uses every cheap trick in the book to try and make its readers feel guilty and ashamed including quotes from anonymous people like these:
I am not willing to pollute my mind in exchange for two hours of entertainment.
...my friends during the last year have found out that I dont watch bad movies and theyve now stopped going to R-rated movies themselves.
I have not watched any R-rated movies. I have never had the desire to downgrade myself and waste my time.
I dont think Wright considered the implications of these statements. By holding such attitudes aloft as thinking that should be shared by good Latter-day Saints, hes giving a green light to his readers to become pious and judgmental of anyone who watches R-rated movies and he makes a very simple argument for why television and films are bad when they are viewed as only mediums for entertainment. But what Wright has failed to do, is acknowledge one very important fact:
Filmmaking is an art form and like all art, its subjective. Most of it, like most literature, photography, paintings, plays, songs, etc., isnt worth our time, but there are works of cinematic art that are important and representative of our humanity like the best books, photos, paintings, plays and songs are. The only difference between cinematic works of art and works in every other medium, is that cinema is the only art form with a content rating system. The system is flawed but is still valuable to parents and individuals, but it is not all encompassing and it has NO MORAL SIGNIFICANCE. This leads me to ask the question, What if content ratings were applied to other art forms? There are Explicit Lyrics warnings on a lot of CDs but I dont hear much from parents or righteous Mormons about them. In fact, I know a few Mormons who refuse to watch R-rated movies and snub their noses at others who do while putting on their headphones to listen to the latest offerings from Eminem. Television has a rating system now and its not very reliable because the rating standards are defined by the individual stations and networks. A lot of the trashy shows I mentioned above that are aired in the afternoon have ratings like TV-14 or just TV-PG:DSL (for mature Dialogue, Sexual themes and adult Language). The last time I stumbled on Howard Stern on the E! network, his program was rated TV-14. I thought Stern would rate at least a TV-MA (Mature Audiences) and the thought of 14-year-olds even listening to Howard Stern has me concerned.
Suppose we came up with ratings for fine art. What would Michelangelos David get? Yes, it does have full-frontal male nudity, but it isnt explicitly sexual. What about The Birth of Venus? A naked woman in a seashell? What moral implications might that entail? How about Pollaiuolos Battle of the Ten Nudes? Even the title can make you do a double-take. And why stop with visual arts. Lets rate books! Ive read The Color Purple and have seen the movie. The film was rated PG-13. If it was one hundred percent faithful to the book, it would have easily received an X (or now NC-17) rating. Steinbeck sure used a fair amount of profanity in his work. The Kama Sutra would certainly be made available only to adult audiences. Or should we make an exception because of its spiritual roots? No! If The Passion of the Christ gets an R, so should The Kama Sutra (NC-17 even)! And the Bible, for that matter. Adam and Eve are naked, Cain murders Abel, Lott sleeps with his daughters, theres homosexuality in Sodom and Gomorra, David fools around with Bathsheba, John gets beheaded, Christ is scourged and crucified, all the violence and fornication of the last days and did I mention the language? Jesus Christ, God, Damn, hell, ass and bastard are all words found in the Bible! Oh... Can you hear her?... off in the distance... the old woman who goes to all the city council and school board meetings whenever something controversial is on the table and screams, Wont somebody please think of the children!!!
I remember reading the story of Amman in The Book of Mormon. How he cut off the limbs of all those people... It reminded me of Beatrix Kiddo taking on The Crazy 88 in Kill Bill, Volume I. Or the closing gory scenes of battle in The Book of Ether. I dare not quote it here. Children might be reading. Or how about the record of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith in The Doctrine and Covenants? Pretty detailed stuff. Smiths last words: Lord, my God. I think all the standard works of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints merit an R-rating for literature.
A lot of people might find that offensive. But only because they think an R-rating implies immorality in the subject its attached to. Intelligent people know that the Bible and other scriptures are nothing to be afraid of; they know that renaissance paintings arent pornography; that classic literature isnt something we need to protect our children from; Steinbeck, Camus, Hemingway... all writers that people are introduced to in high school. But once you get to cinema, the rules for understanding and interpreting fine art go right out the window because cinema isnt respected as an art form. Why? Because so much of it is fluff. They say, Its just entertainment, it doesnt mean anything. While that may be true for the majority of films that are made, its also true for the majority of works in all art forms. There are as many shallow and uninspiring novels out there as there are movies... probably even more. You can say the same thing for paintings, plays, sculptures, poems, photographs. No one medium has a monopoly on the mediocre.
There are those who believe that parents are hypocritical for watching films they wont allow their children to watch. By that logic, parents are hypocritical for not letting their ten-year-olds drive. How could a parent possibly be showing the proper example when theyre eating a steak in front of their baby whos only allowed to drink formula? Then out come the defenses: Babys dont have teeth, they cant handle eating a steak. Ten-year-olds are too short to reach the pedals in a car, let alone mature enough to understand the complexities of driving and understanding traffic law. You cant compare that to movies.
Yes, I can. When I was 10, my parents wouldnt let me watch The Day After on TV because they knew I wasnt mature enough to understand it. And they were right. I saw it when I was older though, and Im glad my parents put their foot down. It was a pretty intense film and someday Ill show it to my kids, when I think theyre old enough and mature enough to handle it along with a number of other worthwhile films that young children should wait for, like Schindlers List, Platoon, Boys Dont Cry, The Matrix, Alive, The Fisher King, Grand Canyon, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, This Boys Life, The World According to Garp... Just because a work of art is intended for a mature audience, doesnt necessarily mean that its immoral in any way.
The Beam That is In Thine Own Eye
I referred to an LDS filmmaking mailing list a few times in this essay, quoting thoughts and statements from a few of its members. A statement from a talk given at BYU Idaho (Ricks College) by Elder David A. Bednar (then a Seventy and since ordained an Apostle of the LDS Church) was posted to this mailing list. Elder Bednar was speaking of the futility in trying to serve two masters, using terms like double minded and double tongued. The latter he defined as "...partaking of the sacrament on Sunday and publicly proclaiming in a testimony meeting a desire to have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost--then routinely watching 'R' rated and other inappropriate movies and rationalizing that such movies are '...ok because they contain just one bad part, and I can handle it.'"
When I read that I have to say I was a little disappointed. I am not boasting when I say that I partake of the sacrament worthily. I also have a testimony, callings and a current temple recommend. I have my faults as we all do and I sincerely believe in the spirit of what Elder Bednar was saying. He mentioned "'R' rated and other inappropriate movies." As I said before I don't watch just anything. I do avoid most R-rated movies along with most other films, regardless of their rating. But I felt it important to point a couple of things out to the list in regard to Elder Bednar's comments. I stated:
"Even an apostle of the church cannot know what is in the heart of an individual. I'm saddened when any member, particularly an apostle, implies that a person's morality can be judged by their taste in art. Only the art of cinema has this stigma surrounding it because it is the only art form that is subject to a ratings board. When I watch a film that happens to have an R rating, I do not say, 'I can handle the "bad" parts.' I watch films that I find moving and worthwhile to see regardless of the rating. I do not waste my time watching films with sex and violence for the sake of sex and violence. But if those elements have a legitimate place and purpose for the telling of a story, so be it.
"Unfortunately, a great deal of members are shallow and insipid enough to believe that one's taste is an indicator of their morality. That simply isn't so."
Read in light of what I have written and quoted in this essay, I think my statement made sense. I thought it made sense the first time I posted it. In hindsight, I think I could have left out my "shallow and insipid" comment and still made my point. I couldn't believe the severity and accusing tone of the responses that followed. I was accused of speaking out against the teachings of General Authorities of the Church. I was consistently misquoted and grossly misunderstood. Every time I tried to clarify my feelings, I was dismissed as a sinner and a hypocrite.
List member Jack B. wrote a three page rant in which he accused me of being "misguided [in the] notion that art and morality are separate from religion and morality." He then spoke of a conversation between some acting students at BYU in which they were "discussing just how much flesh they were willing to show if they thought the project was right. There should have been NO discussion," he wrote, "because we know what the prophets and apostles have taught regarding modesty. And nowhere in their teachings is there an exception that includes tastefully done nudity for the arts." He even went on to discuss Adam and Eve covering themselves because they knew they were naked and surmised that "naked" is "wrong."
I found it interesting that he said, "nowhere in their teachings is there an exception that includes tastefully done nudity for the arts."
Just because a prophet or apostle has NOT made a statement like that, one can't assume that nudity in art is immoral. The earliest and even most primitive forms of art from tribal sculptures to Greek statues and renaissance paintings all depict nudity. No intelligent person or student of art considers any of those sculptures or images pornographic or inappropriate.
Jack goes on to say, "Yes, I know the violence in movies is simulated, but so is most of the sexual activity. That doesn't make viewing it any more acceptable.
"Elder Cree-L Kofford of the Seventy said, 'What difference does it make why it is rated R? The fact is, a prophet of God has said not to go to R-rated movies. That ought to be enough.' (Ensign, July 1998)."
Remember what I said before? Just because a prophet said it, doesn't make it doctrine.
Jack went on to attack me personally:
"...to be 'saddened' by the counsel of a Church authority shows a much deeper problem than one's viewing habits."
For the record, had Jack read my posting more than once, he would have known that I was not saddened by the counsel. I was saddened by the implication that a person's morality can be judged by their taste in art.
Jack continues, "...to suggest in any way, shape or form that they [Apostles] can't speak out against that which they believe is spiritually damaging is the epitome of prideful thinking. I'd put my trust in a servant of the Lord giving me instruction on how to make it back to God's presence way, way before the teachings of some liberal arts professor."
Again, I made no such suggestion. I also think, at this point, that he accused me of being a liberal arts professor. I've been called worse, but the fact is, I'm not a liberal arts professor and there's nothing inherently immoral about liberal arts.
Jack went on to discuss the perversion of the arts into "something ugly." I think of it as pornography and most of what comes out of Hollywood. I have a feeling that Jack includes much more than that. He continues, "I feel quite confident in saying that the Spirit has never inspired someone to take a photograph, paint a picture, write a song, etc. that is contrary to that which is virtuous, lovely, or of good report." Here he quotes in part the Thirteenth Article of Faith in the LDS Church. I'll discuss that later.
Jack continues, "And since when has nudity, sex, profane language, or graphic violence ever been a necessary element for good art?" He then says there are hundreds of "outstanding" films that have never relied on it, though he doesn't name any. I would guess that the majority of these films were produced before the MPAA was established when movies were subject to the "Hayes Code," that is, censorship. Jack then makes a very subjective statement: "A truly talented writer or director can imply anything he desires without showing it... it takes absolutely no imagination to elicit an emotional response from someone by laying everything out on the table."
I think he just implied that I have no imagination. As an artist, I would be hurt by that if it wasn't coming from a critic who has NEVER seen any of my work.
He then went on to talk about being in the world but not of it. A popular if easily misinterpreted, sentiment. That it means being different, which isn't easy, "but neither is making it into the Celestial Kingdom." Was this an implication that I wouldn't be going there? I don't know. But I certainly wouldn't put it past him.
He then spoke of the popularity of family films, which I've already discussed, and said, "I believe as LDS filmmakers... We have a responsibility and a duty to use our talents to help improve the world around us... Joseph F. Smith taught that during the Millennium life will go on much as it is today and that industry will continue. I believe entertainment will still be a part of that existence, but I can guarantee you it won't be the kind of stuff we see coming from the mainstream entertainment industry. Those who are going to be a part of that world then, have to be a part of it while in this world."
I like the idea of filmmaking in the Millennium. I have no idea if I'll be around then, but if I am, I'm glad I'll still be able to make movies. But, again, I sensed an implication by Jack that I was part of this "mainstream" industry. Considering I live in rural Utah and make movies with community members on the weekends, I'll be the first to say I am the last person in the world you could call mainstream about anything. I think it's arrogant for him to "guarantee" he knows what will and will not happen during the Millennium. I hope he's right in the sense of not having to deal with the crap that comes out of Hollywood these days. But I think he's assuming that legitimate art that he might find offensive is going to be discarded as well. That I disagree with. As far as our "responsibility and... duty" as filmmakers. The only responsibility an artist has is to tell the truth.
He concluded his sermon... er... letter, by misquoting me, "To refer to members of the Church who accept at face value the teachings of the Church leaders as 'shallow and insipid' is quite unfortunate. The spirit of contention behind such comments speaks volumes."
Again, I said no such thing. In addition to his misrepresentation of my words, he reads into them a "spirit of contention." Apparently you can tell a lot from an e-mail that you only read once and haphazardly misquote.
Here's another gem from the list from Nikki J.: "Your comments were interesting, especially the one about willingly watching sex and violence if it pertains to the story. If you and your friends were to sit around watching each other have sex you would be considered perverted. If you were to watch with interest and intrigue someone being brutally beaten, you might be considered deranged, but in cinema it is art?"
I think it's pretty safe to say that in her own veiled way she accused me of being a pervert and deranged. She also wrote it in a way that implies that I don't know the difference between a film and reality. I'm not in the habit of watching people have sex. Nor would I sit back and observe someone being assaulted, let alone be intrigued by it. And just because these things find themselves in films, doesn't mean that every instance is done for artistic purposes. The majority of times it's for titillation. But I do believe that sexuality and violence can be used honestly and responsibly in art without being sensational or exploitive. One of my favorite paintings of the last century is Guernica by Pablo Picaso. Probably the definitive example of expressionism of its time. We see in it depictions of the horrors of War. For those of you unfamiliar with Guernica, it was a town in Spain that was destroyed by the Nazi's with the blessing of Spain's dictator, Franco. If a film were to be made about the destruction of Guernica, with the painting as a starting point, I am sure it would get an R or even an NC-17 rating. One couldn't possibly make the film honestly without depicting the violence in all its horror.
Annie E. wrote, "I keep a mental note of directors that I hope [my children] get to work with someday. Now I also have a category of directors that I would NOT let them work with, even though they may profess to be LDS. Joe Puente is first on that list. Bro. Puente has a different agenda [than] my family does... this is one director who my children would not be safe with on set."
Holy cow! Now I'm considered unsafe for children to work with! Did I mention none of these people even know me? Am I the only one who thinks it's ironic that she makes these accusations and yet insists on continuing to call me Brother (Bro.)? I don't know if I should be complemented or offended by that.
She also misquoted my "shallow and insipid" statement in much the same way Jack did. I'm guessing she read Jack's letter instead of reading mine.
She goes on, "Those of us who choose to pursue or agree to let our children pursue a career in the entertainment field must make sure that each and every offering we make would be acceptable to the Lord. How disappointing to hear that someone who could be in a position to do some real good in the world, feels that sex can have a 'legitimate place and purpose for the telling of a story.' There is NEVER, ever a reason for me to become a voyeur, watching the sexual acts of other people being portrayed on the screen. It serves no purpose and has no place... it's just not necessary. It serves only one purpose and that is to get an inappropriate and cheap thrill. It is NOT art. God never meant for sex to be public in any way, shape or form. It is to be private and sacred."
I have issues with people who so flippantly use the word "Never" in this context. I also find it offensive that she would say that nudity or sexuality "serves only one purpose... to get an inappropriate and cheap thrill."
Would Annie be in agreement with Ashley Spackman of Timpanogos High School who thinks that Michelangelo's sculpture of David is pornographic? Personally, I don't "get an inappropriate and cheap thrill" when I look at David. Nor when I look at the Venus de Milo or the Sistine Chapel. Frankly, I resent the accusation that these works of art are pornographic in any way. Michelangelo did not recreate the Birth of Adam or the Expulsion from Eden to give the worshipers below the frescos something to lust after. The images of naked women forced through the showers of Auschwitz in Schindler's List cant possibly be called titillating. As for making "sure that each and every offering we make would be acceptable to the Lord," is telling lies acceptable to the Lord? If I tried to make a film about the dangers of a sinful life only to sugar coat it or censor it just to avoid offending Annie and others like her, I wouldn't be telling the truth as an artist. I agree with Richard Dutcher. It's very possible for a well-meaning story-teller to sacrifice his integrity and tell lies in order not to offend.
Nudity and sexuality are not one and the same. And while sexuality is something that is sacred, it isn't something we should be ashamed of. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging it as a reality of the human condition or even tastefully depicting it between characters that are supposed to be in love. I've seen love scenes in films that actually work and depict it beautifully and even reverently. City of Angels comes to mind, as does Dances with Wolves. But if one thinks it can "NEVER" be done, frankly it makes me wonder how secure one is in one's own sexuality. Because it's nothing to be ashamed of. And I'll remind the gentle reader that we are created in God's image. And God's image is nothing to be ashamed of either.
The next letter was from Frank A. who, in response to my statement that "even an apostle doesn't know what's in the heart of an individual," took it upon himself to, at first quote then rewrite, scriptures to make me out to look evil. Here are a couple of examples:
"Luke 6:45 '...out the abundance of the heart his [a movie maker's] mouth speaketh.'
"Mark 7:20-21 'That which cometh out of the man [once again, filmmakers], that defileth the man. For from within, out of the HEART of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders.' (Emphasis added.)"
Im so glad he clarified that "emphasis" was "added." As if I couldn't tell. I also appreciated being lumped together with adulterers, fornicators and murderers. I find it ironic that if Frank feels so strongly about the evils of filmmakers, what's he doing on a filmmaking mailing list?
He also went on to speak of the rating system in terms of federal standards for products like food. Concluding, "Even addicts like to know if what they are buying is 'pure.'
"Makes sense that movies, which can have a lasting impression, should have some sort of standard by which the public is warned."
Remember what was said about reading too much into the rating system?
It was interesting to see how many of these people justified their attacks on me with oversimplifications and generalizations. "...if it's good enough for [the prophet] it's good enough for me." "We have been commanded to NOT watch 'R' rated movies, PERIOD!" (stated without reference because none exists) But what's most interesting about all of these attacks is that none of these people have ever met me. They don't know anything about me. They are oblivious to what art I have produced. They haven't read a single story that I have written, looked upon any photograph I have taken or watched any film that I have made. They know nothing of my life, my upbringing, my spirituality. And yet they feel justified in assuming things about me and condemning me.
Some of these writers spoke of "The spirit of contention" behind my comments and having a "different agenda" than one's family. Also that I have "much deeper problem[s] than one's viewing habits."
All this because I don't place any moral significance on a single letter of the alphabet? No, not just that. They are justifying their attacks because of what was said by Elder Bednar: "Double Minded [is]... proclaiming in a testimony meeting a desire to have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost--then routinely watching 'R' rated and other inappropriate movies." I feel this statement was fatuous and irresponsible because a lot of members are taking his counsel and using it as justification for passing judgment on their brothers and sisters both in and outside of the Church. How can they not, when such broad terms are used and they are so willing to take every single thing they hear from a General Authority to heart? A young lady in my community once said. "If you watch R-rated movies, then you must not believe the church is true." I'd say that attitude goes hand in hand with Elder Bednar's statement. And both are WRONG.
There is no justification for such an attitude, despite what Elder Bednar said. His statement implies that ANYONE who partakes of the sacrament, shares their testimony and watches R-rated movies is a hypocrite. Sure, he spoke of "other inappropriate movies" but he lumps them together with genuine works of art. Think of what that reasoning is leading to. I have a testimony of the Gospel, I know the Church is true, I partake of the sacrament worthily, I know all of these things in my heart and I know many other members who can honestly say the same things; but because we watched The Passion of the Christ or The Matrix or Saving Private Ryan, we are labeled as sinners and hypocrites, "because a General Authority said so."
This experience with these letters opened my eyes to a much bigger problem than the stigma of the R rating in the eyes of Mormons.
What did each of these people have in common in their attacks on me?
Answer: Their arrogance. Their self-righteousness. Their judgmental and condemning statements.
I have said before that the most dangerous sin is being self righteous; because when you are guilty of it, you can't be convinced that you're guilty of anything.
These people don't just use the rating system to make moral judgments against films. They use it to pass judgment on the audiences, condemn them and make assumptions about them and they have the words of a General Authority of the Church to justify it. If the former interpretation of ratings is shallow, the latter, to judge the people who watch them, is SINFUL. I think I sensed a certain level of restraint in the comments and accusations that were thrown at me. I cannot see into the hearts of those people, so I don't really know. They can't see into my heart, but they speak as if they can.
Am I judging these people for judging me? Yes. I guess I am. But I'm not condemning them. I respect their opinions, I simply don't agree with them. But I have to admit, it's difficult to respect an opinion when the person who holds it believes that any opposition to that opinion is inherently evil.
I can appreciate the motives behind their views. They are trying to do what they believe is right. They are following the words of their prophet. Trying to be true to the letter of what they believe is law. The letter, in this case, happens to be a capital R, but they are taking this counsel to a ridiculous, and even dangerous, extreme.
I'm sure many will take issue with my belief that Elder Bednar's comments were fatuous and irresponsible. They may think that I don't sustain him as a General Authority. That is not the case. I'll remind the reader that Elder Bednar's comments, quoted above, were made before he became an Apostle. I also want to assure the reader that I sustain Elder Bednar as an Apostle. I just don't sustain him as a film critic. And while some might think that believing his statement was fatuous and irresponsible is indicative of a lack of faith in him as a leader in the Church, you may be surprised by what I have to say next. It actually gives me more faith in him. I'm not in the habit of putting people on a pedestal, regardless of their station in life or church callings they may have. As I said before, I have a great deal of respect for the opinions of General Authorities. I also have a great deal of respect for their humanity and their fallibility. Whenever I make a mistake and beat myself up for it, I remind myself that we all make mistakes. From the youngest member to the President of the Church. Our fallibility is the great equalizer and I sleep soundly at night knowing that no man on earth is immune from occasionally putting his foot in his mouth. While we might look on other members, General Authorities in particular, as having made much more spiritual progress than we have; when we look at this mortal existence on an eternal timeline, we see that it's only a flicker of an instant and in that scale, as far as spiritual progress goes, we're all in a dead heat.
The Misunderstood Art of Cinema
Richard Dutcher has been working for some time on a film about Joseph Smith called The Prophet. He has said that he thinks the film, as written, will get a PG-13 rating. But he has said that if creating a historically accurate film gets an R rating, then it will have an R rating. "You can probably cover things like John Taylor being massacred, or Joseph Smith himself, in a PG kind of way," says Dutcher. "But if that neuters the impact... no, I wouldn't do it."
Dutcher also said, "I got a call from someone who had heard that comment who said, 'We will never see any of your movies, because we'd never want our movie-going dollars going to someone who MAY SOMEDAY make an R-rated film." (emphasis added)
"someone who MAY SOMEDAY make an R-rated film." How can we ignore the absolutely STUPID and MORONIC lengths people are going to in the name of following a prophet's counsel? Those people who have chosen to boycott Richard Dutcher can't possibly believe that their movie-going dollars for the next Disney film won't find its way into the budget of an R-rated film made by a Disney subsidiary like Touchstone or Miramax.
It has been my experience that those people who claim to be offended or outraged by a film, or any work of art, secretly enjoy it. Not the work of art, but the feeling of being offended. They live for it. They look forward to the next time they will be offended so they have an excuse to speak out against it. Why? Because being offended serves as a reminder to them of their own supposed moral superiority. Speaking out about it serves as a reminder to everyone else. And they are oblivious to the dangers of their attitudes.
I feel I've made my case for not judging every R rated movie as immoral. That watching a movie isn't a sin. That it is experiencing a work art. But I understand that a lot of people can't wrap their minds around concepts like that. For the same reason they spend their money on safe, family friendly, direct to video, priced to own crap on VHS and DVD. Who was it that said, you'll never go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator? We used to think the lowest common denominator were the fornicators and adulterers... In my opinion, they've been outnumbered and replaced by people who are lazy, shallow, self-righteous and lacking any real sense of artistic taste. In the end, I can't blame them. It's simply easier and more comfortable to just do as you're told or take some friendly advice as gospel truth, not to be deterred from. Like the sheep on Orwell's Animal Farm who could not understand the laws of the republic as they were written on the barn wall, they simply learned the mantra, "Four legs good, two legs bad." Or in this case "G is good, R is bad." Some might take offense to the Church being referred to in Orwellian terms. I believe any governing organization, secular or religious, is fair game for such a reference. While I will be the first to defend the Church from those who believe it tries to suppress individuality or intellect, no one can deny that there are certainly members who think nothing of appointing themselves "Thought Police."
In the end, those who judge art based only on an arbitrary rating are just cheating themselves. God has given them the capacity to think and make their own decisions and they choose not to exercise it. I can think of few things that would be more offensive to one's creator. I was reminded in one posting to the mailing list of Doctrine and Covenants Section 58:26, "For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward." This reminds me that God does not patronize his children. He knows that we have within ourselves the capacity to follow his commandments and make our own judgments. That we don't need to be told what to do in every single situation.
If someone says, "I don't watch R-rated movies because I'm sensitive to harsh language, violence and sexual themes," I can appreciate that. That's a reason that makes sense and can be respected.
If a person says, "I don't watch R-rated movies because the prophet said not to," I'm okay with that too. It never hurts to follow the advice of a General Authority.
The problem I have is with people who have the attitude of "I don't watch R-rated movies because the prophet said not to and neither should you because if you do, you're a sinner."
That is just making assumptions about what's in a person's heart based on something that's completely arbitrary. One's taste in films. And that is NOT a Christlike attitude. Let alone one that should be held aloft as an example to follow or be emulated.
There are a lot of members who take for granted the blessings of having a living prophet on the face of the earth today. However, there are also those who feel it gives them the option of abandoning their free agency and their capacity to think for themselves all in the name of morality. They forget that the one to emulate is Christ and instead choose to emulate his fallible servants and justify it with the words, The prophet said... In a 1963 issue of Look magazine, then-Church President (Prophet, Seer and Revelator), Joseph Fielding Smith, referred to African-Americans as Darkies. Even in 1963, Im sure that was offensive. President Smith said they are wonderful people, and they have their place in our church. Are we to follow his example and refer to people of African ancestry in the same racist and condescending way? The logic of the attitude says so: The prophet said Darkies, therefore we say Darkies. I suppose we could, if we wanted to undermine nearly 30 years of progress in the Churchs race relations. Or we can recognize President Smiths comments for what they were: A sad testament to the state of racial attitudes at the time and certainly not unique to Mormon culture. Were President Smiths remarks spoken with malice? No. Was their sincerity in his desire for blacks to be a part of the church? Yes. Were his choice of words beneficial to that end? Probably not. Was he speaking on behalf of God in a Thus sayeth the Lord context? I seriously doubt it. Honestly, when I first read the quote, I had to laugh. I think it proved my point, that no man on earth is immune from occasionally putting his foot in his mouth... Not even a prophet of God.
Not all of the postings to the mailing list were attacks against me. There were also a few posts in my defense and expressions of agreement.
One list member named Linda wrote, "Our Stake President got up in Stake Conference a month ago, when the film [The Passion of the Christ] came out on DVD, and told the congregation NOT to see the film. He said that we do not need a film made by a Catholic to tell us what happened. That in no way did we need to experience the violence. What makes it even more irritating to me, is that our Stake President is a personal friend. His wife is my best friend. He knew that I saw it back in February. Well, I am still not over that experience in Stake Conference yet. It seems that some of our members just become more and more self righteous with time... But, they are certainly not perfect in any way. I feel that each of us is doing the best we can at the time, and we should quit judging each other... I love movies. My father owned a movie theater when I was growing up. I grew up in a movie house. I am now 61 years old... I just want you to know that there are probably a lot of people like me who would support each and every thing you said in your letter."
I'm reminded of Elder Bednar's remarks about being double minded and double tongued. Apparently this Stake President said nothing to Linda about the film when she saw it. Perhaps implying that it wasn't a problem. But to get up in a conference and make those statements, knowing that she was in the congregation, strikes me as being a little two-faced or "double tongued" as Elder Bednar put it. It also sounded to me that this Stake President might have had more of a problem with Mel Gibson being Catholic than his film being rated R.
The Thirteenth Article of Faith of the LDS Church states, in part, "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."
Counsel from General Authorities speaks often of listening to music and watching films that "uplift and inspire" us. Different people are uplifted and inspired by different things.
If the messages posted on its web site are to be believed, many people were uplifted and inspired by The Book of Mormon Movie. I, however, did not find it uplifting or inspiring. Frankly, I think it's one of the worst films ever made. I was not born into "the Church," I'm a convert. When I think of myself as a non member, if I had never read The Book of Mormon, after watching that film, I wouldn't want to.
Now, when I think of the first time I saw the film Good Will Hunting, I get a smile on my face. I walked out of that movie theater in a very pleasant daze. I had seen a wonderful film. The first thing I did was get to a pay phone and call a friend of mine to say, "I want to make a movie like that someday." This film happened to be rated R, but that in no way detracted from the overall beauty of the experience and I can't think of anything more sad than denying one's self such a moving and emotional experience as a film, a work of art, as wonderful as that.
What needs to be understood is that concepts like "virtuous," "lovely," "of good report," "praiseworthy," "inspiring" and "uplifting" are largely subjective.
Just because I feel moved by a film like Good Will Hunting or Magnolia, and will sing their praises until the day I die, doesn't mean that others will be moved the same way. Just like The Book of Mormon Movie or Charly might be viewed by others as wonderful films, it's still all a matter of opinion. (I loved Charly, by the way.)
Cinema is an art and art is supposed to move you, but do so in different ways for different people. Not only should it inspire and uplift, but sometimes it should scare you or, "impress upon the mind," as Brigham Young put it, "a proper horror..." Art isn't supposed to be safe and comforting all the time. It should shock you and anger you and move you to change yourself or your world or at least your little corner of it. Art is the expression of ideas, of emotions, of love, fear, anger, hate, everything that makes us human. I feel that if art doesn't move you in some way, it's pointless.
There is another name for the arts. That name is "The Humanities." Because humanity is the only presence on earth that creates art. It's what sets us apart from every other species on the planet. It's also because the humanities represent not just what's beautiful about us, but also what's ugly about us. If the arts were limited to sweet, happy, smiley, shiny representations of us, it wouldn't be an honest representation. We have to include our faults, our flaws, our weaknesses. As LDS Filmmakers, we should depict our unique culture and our members honestly, warts and all. If we made nothing but shallow movies about perfect Mormons with no flaws living up to the ideals of the Church without failing, that would be the worst lie we could tell to anyone who would watch our films. And they would see right through it and walk away thinking, "What a bunch of arrogant, self-righteous jerks. They probably all think they're better than us." Unfortunately, that is exactly the impression a lot of nonmembers have, usually because of members with attitudes like Annie's, Frank's and Jack's.
In my research for this dissertation, Moroni 7:16 kept coming up. It reads, "For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God."
When The Passion of the Christ was released in theaters, it sparked a surge in church attendance for numerous Christian denominations. A number of my LDS friends said to me that they felt like better people for having watched it. That it gave them a greater appreciation for what Christ went through. I have said that the film put Christ's suffering into perspective and that what was depicted on the screen probably doesn't add up to a fraction of a percent of what he really went through. We simply cannot comprehend it... but no one says we can't try.