Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Naked people! Oh my gosh!

I was both amused and annoyed by this juvenile rant by a teenage prude at the Mormon blog Millennial Star. Camila B hates -- and she does mean hates -- the movie Black Swan. (Spoiler alert: she summarizes the entire plot.) Because old movies were good and clean and full of beautiful messages and morality. But today's movies, of which Black Swan is apparently the exemplar, are mostly full of sin and corruption.

Black Swan is immoral because a character masturbates "touches herself inappropriately," takes drugs, hallucinates a sexual encounter, self-harms, etc. Camila finds all this "uncomfortable" and "disturbing." That's not what she wants from a movie. She wants to "feel refreshed and glad to have watched something that has inspired me for once." Fair enough; I sometimes like to watch refreshing and inspiring movies too. I'm just not sure why she went to see Black Swan then, since a) it's a tragedy, b) it was made by a director (Darren Aronofsky) who was previously best known for making one of the most relentlessly downbeat movies of all time (Requiem for a Dream). Making people feel "disturbed and uncomfortable" was kind of the point of the film, after all.

Anyway, since Camila believes that movies made 50 or 60 years ago were so moral and had such "beautiful messages," let's take a look at the morality of a couple of the great films she mentions, Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. How do they square with Mormon morality? (Spoiler alert: since they've been out for 69 and 72 years, respectively, I assume you've had time to see them.)

Casablanca is indeed a highly moral film. It's about moral dilemmas and finally extols the nobility of personal sacrifice for the sake of high ideals. Even so, one can scarcely describe it as highly compatible with Mormon morality. To save time, let's skip over things like Rick's alcoholism, or Captain Renault extorting sex from refugees and arresting innocent people to cover for his friend ("Round up the usual suspects"), and cut to the chase.

She's married to someone else
Casablanca, that most romantic of films, romanticizes adultery. Rick and Ilsa had an affair. That's what the story is about: will they or won't they resume their affair? In the end, it is Rick, not the married Ilsa, who decides to break off the relationship. Ilsa is quite willing to abandon her husband to the Nazis for the sake of her adulterous love. In the end, though, Rick sends Ilsa and her husband on their way, not because of some notion of the sacredness of marriage vows, but because he concludes that fighting Nazism is more important than love (or, more abstractly, because he concludes that love without honor won't last long). Again, that's a highly moral choice, but it's not a Mormon one. Mormon morals would demand that Rick and Ilsa not commit adultery simply because adultery is always wrong and "thou shalt not commit it."

They're both married to someone else
And Gone with the Wind? I'm not really sure where the notion of this film having some sort of deep morality comes from. Setting aside its romanticizing of slavery, purveying of racial stereotypes, and condoning of marital rape ("This is one night you're not turning me out"), the film's heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, is arguably a psychopath. She cares only for herself, and she wreaks havoc and ruins lives all around her through her selfish schemes. All that makes for a very interesting character study and a sweeping romance, but it hardly seems compatible with Mormon morality. Indeed, much of the film is taken up with Scarlett's quest to seduce Ashley Wilkes, even after they're both married to other people.

So why do Mormons like Camila B extol the "morality" and "messages" of movies like Casablanca, which actually challenges Mormon morality, and Gone with the Wind, with its amoral heroine, while decrying movies like Black Swan, which usually are actually no more morally unconventional? Because the characters in Casablanca and Gone with the Wind keep their clothes on. And that's pretty much it.

That's how Mormons are trained to watch movies and judge their morality: by what they show. Not by what they say about what they show, but literally by what they show. Depiction equals "glorification." Thus, Casablanca is "moral" despite (or rather because of) the way it glosses over things like alcoholism and the sexual exploitation of refugees and despite its rather positive take on adultery, simply because it vaguely implies sexual situations rather than depicting them explicitly. Black Swan, on the other hand, is "immoral" because it explicitly depicts drug use, self-harm, and sexual situations, even though it depicts them negatively as tragic symptoms of mental illness.

That's what I meant when I called Camila B's piece a "juvenile rant." It has nothing to do with how old anyone is; there are many good young critics on the internet, some no doubt younger than Camila. And in this case, with the "preaching to the choir" venue in which it was posted, other than one mild dissent, the adults in the comments all agree with her. (Although one of them does manage to call up a vague sense that there's something wrong with the morality of Gone with the Wind.)

No, what I mean by "juvenile" is watching movies and seeing no further than Swear words! Oh my gosh! Drug use! Oh my gosh! Naked people! Oh my gosh! What I mean is the childish view that if a movie includes those, it is immoral; if it doesn't include them, it is moral. If that's how anyone wants to look at movies, that's fine, it's only their loss. I just wish they'd choose the movies they watch more carefully and then, no matter what their age, leave the reviews of the grownup movies to the grownups.

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  1. It's the whole innuendo vs explicit communication thing going on, I think. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-son3EJTrU

  2. Interesting. But how do you see that working in the case of Mormons and movies?

  3. I think implicit content in movies is more acceptable to (some) conservative types. Once it becomes explicit, then it's all of a sudden a bad thing. But the implicit stuff might just be as "immoral" under their standards. And I've noticed some people taking that approach. Some mormons don't watch even pg13 stuff because of innuendo or other implicit content.

  4. This is a great example of linguistic conditioning. Mormons started using the word 'morality' as a shorthand for 'sexual morality', so now, that sense has taken over the whole word, to the extent that it's the only kind of morality that matters.

    You can do all manner of unethical things, and still be considered a 'moral person', as long as you keep your pants on. (cf. Bush, Clinton)

  5. Chris,

    That's true. But it also seems to me that a lot of Mormons just don't get what the makers of films like Black Swan are trying to convey. A filmmaker uses the language of say, drug use, self-harm, and sexual hallucinations to say something, and it's almost as if the Mormon takes drug use, self-harm, and sexual hallucinations as direct speech ("Drugs! Mutilation! Sex!") rather than indirect speech ("Observe the deterioration of this dancer's mind" or whatever).

    Or if they do recognize the message (not very hard with a filmmaker as heavy-handed as Aronofsky), it's still completely overshadowed by the way he conveys it.

  6. Daniel,

    Yeah, that use of "morality" was long a peeve of mine. (I'll actually be posting something related in a few days.) But with movies, it seems like for some Mormons it's not even the sexual ethics of the characters that matters, it's just whether they take off their clothes.

  7. Exactly - for them context means nothing. Everything's just black and white, good or eeeeeevil, and that's that.

    And there's no awareness of the subjectivity of their experiences either. I saw Black Swan and actually did feel inspired by Nina's ability to overcome her psychological and emotional problems in order to escape her mother's controlling abuse, to let go of all her neuroses in order to create a masterpiece of a performance. And just like the story of Swan Lake, I was inspired by the poetic beauty of the heroine finding peace and freedom in death. To get hung up on and turned off by, exactly as you said, simply seeing the depiction of something objectionable, regardless of what the work actually says about that depiction, is telling of a mind imprisoned and paralyzed by the fear of even looking like you've done something wrong.

  8. Oh man, I'm ashamed to admit this but I remember being that girl. I personally boycotted Seinfeld after being outraged by the "Master of My Domain" episode. Somehow I found all the other sex topics hilarious but masturbation was so offensive and dirty. Jesus.

    I guess when you're intensely conditioned from the time you're a tot to define morality to mean "sexual purity" that's your warped view of the world unless and until the cognitive dissonance makes your brain explode and you can grow a new one (hopefully).

  9. "And there's no awareness of the subjectivity of their experiences either."

    Yes, exactly. They just want to be entertained, so it never occurs to them that some people want to be disturbed by movies, that some people think some of the best movies are the ones you hate and never want to see again because they're so harrowing, yet you love them at the same time because they move you so profoundly (e.g., Requiem for a Dream or Platoon). And then they present their inability to engage with movies at that level as a virtue, as if not being able to understand an art form is a superior state of being or something.

  10. CD,

    IME, there's no prude like a young prude. But seriously, "master of my domain" bugged you? Not, say, George's "shrinkage" or Elaine's boyfriend who "won't do everything"?

  11. I laughed and laughed about George's shrinkage. And the episode when George and Elaine both stopped having sex and George became brilliant and Elaine turned into a moron? Brilliant. Do you think I had some cognitive dissonance much? Be honest. (heh)

  12. Maybe "master of my domain" struck a little closer to home? ;)

  13. I think the only reason I continued to watch Friends when I was younger was because I couldn't figure out most of the innuendos. hehehe

  14. Gone with the Wind: Rhett gets drunk. No anguish over that act itself? He discusses strangling her(!!=), then carries her upstairs for what seemed to border on marital rape. Yet, she seemed pretty happy the next day!

    Death of a Salesman: Cheating on his wife? Attempted suicide by gas inhalation?

    While some would get disgusted or maybe aroused by seeing someone "touch theirself", are alcoholics the only one that reacts to drinking scenes? Yet, no equal LDS outcry about booze or smoking in "Classic" films?

    What's the divide on "they can do (insert whatever "vice" in mind here) on screen, I don't have a problem with that, but I would not do it myself", versus the "no one should EVER see that on screen!" reaction?

  15. The dividing line seems to be whether they do it with their clothes on or off.


What do you think?