In 1968, a year of upheaval in ways too obvious to mention, Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, officially dumped the Code and put into place a ratings system that was supposed to offer the public general guidelines as to what was appropriate for certain audiences. This system has been modified over the years, mostly to accommodate films with increasing levels of violence and explicit sexual content. Yet it has become as popular to trash the current ratings system (see the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated) as it is to laugh at the perceived puerility of the old Code (see Gregory D. Black’s Hollywood Censored).
Growing frustration over the industry’s inability to curtail its own excesses has given rise to a new generation of critic-guardians eager to come to the rescue of exasperated moviegoersespecially Christian moviegoers. Foremost among them is Dr. Ted Baehr, whose popular website MovieGuide.org and biweekly newsletters offer exhaustive critical examinations of films both popular and obscure. Baehr has degrees from Dartmouth College and New York University School of Law, and studied theology at the Institute of Theology at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. (That was a lo-o-o-ng time ago.) Baehr also has a long history of working in and with Hollywood. Currently he is chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, “a non-profit organization committed to educating the entertainment industry and the general public of the impact that mass media has on its audiences.”
Uppermost in Baehr’s mind, undoubtedly, are Christian audiences. His website and literature make no bones about the religious nature of his mission, which is dedicated to “redeeming the values of the mass media according to biblical principles by influencing media executives to adopt higher standards imbued with Christian and traditional family values, and by informing and equipping moral people in America and around the world, especially parents, families and Christians, to make wise media choices based on the biblical worldview.”
Most recently Baehr has published his “2008 Report to the Entertainment Industry: The Transforming Power of God’s Amazing Grace” (available online but only to members of his MovieGuide site). The report is a summa of how Hollywood has performed in reference to meeting the entertainment needs of “parents, families and Christians” over the past year. And it’s by no means all bad news:
2007 was the year that Spider-Man went to church to be delivered from his sinful nature . . . Bella, August Rush, Juno, and many other movies chose life over murder . . . Ratatouille and The Astronaut Farmer showed that everyone should be free to pursue their God given gifts and talents . . . I Am Legend lifted up Jesus Christ and His Salvation . . . Shrek the Third affirmed life and Fatherhood . . . [and] Jason Bourne apologized.
Baehr is not shy about claiming some credit for this growth in righteousness among the Hollywood heathen: “Because of our early efforts . . . the tide began to shift in 1999, when 40 movies had strong, positive Christian content. Titles as widely different as The Green Mile, The Straight Story, Runaway Bride, Toy Story 2, and the Winslow Boy contained firm nods to Christianity and Christian virtues. . . . Since then, Hollywood has been averaging 33 movies with strong positive Christian content each year.”
And the news gets even better: “Looking at all the major movies released by the entertainment industry in 2007, those with positive acceptability ratings from MOVIEGUIDE® (+1 to +4) earned $56.6 million per movie, or 11% better than movies with negative ratings based on MOVIEGUIDE®’s traditional and objective Christian, biblical standards.”
So it looks like the good guys are winning a few battles in the war for hearts and minds, and a conservative Christian is on the frontlinesBible in one hand, Daily Variety in anotherfighting the good fight for you and me. What could be the problem with that?
Here’s the problem. Let’s take a look at how Baehr evaluates films for their “Christian, biblical, or moral content.” He has devised an elaborate two-part ratings system that can sometimes emit more heat than light. His starred “quality” ratings run 1–4, while his “acceptability” ratings are plus or minus 1–4. For example, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild yielded a three-star (good) quality rating, yet was slapped down with a -2 acceptability (extreme caution). Michael Clayton, which starred George Clooney and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, received four “quality” stars and a -2 ratingan “excellent” production about which we should nevertheless exercise extreme caution.
Once you grasp the keys to the codes you can unlock the reasoning here: Something can enjoy high production values (acting, directing, cinematography, art direction, etc.) all in the service of a morally offensive or idiotic theme. Not that goofy a notion: Think Children of Men or the recently, rightly execrated Golden Compass.
But if I believed Michael Clayton or Into the Wild should be viewed only with “extreme caution,” I wouldn’t have given them three or four “quality” stars to begin with. A film, like any work that aspires to art, is a whole. A well-acted, well-photographed movie about the glories of genocide is getting zero stars and a call to the State Department. Should Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries get four stars for qualityan "A" for effort"when the didactic purpose of the films is to lionize Nazism? (Rent Barry Lyndon for a lesson in the aesthetization of militarism.)
So when I see that a film has garnered three or four “quality” stars, even though it is judged “unacceptable” by another set of criteria, I tend to relativize the qualifying negatives. In short, the two ratings cancel each other out, and I’m left curious as to whether I should just go to the movie and judge for myself. In other words, I’m right back where I started.
If MovieGuideor any film criticis going to advise readers to avoid a film because it’s destructive, dehumanizing (think Hannibal), or just plain bad, then they should beat it to pulp, burn that to ash, and bury what’s left. A recent example: MovieGuide’s homepage features a review of The Dark Knight, giving the film three quality stars, then undercutting expectations with a -2 (extreme caution) acceptability rating. “Very confused and eclectic, or mixed pagan, philosophical perspectives ending on a relativistic, deconstructionist ‘truth does not matter’ sentiment, with some references to good versus evil, justice and crime fighting, a reference to we need God now, references to Jesus, many Romantic refutations of order and discipline, some extolling of vigilante activity, and not a very cohesive worldview” goes only part of the critique.
I think MovieGuide nails it here, despite the inimitable Post-It Notes prosody. Notwithstanding Thomas S. Hibbs’ generally positive review in this space, as well as the effusions of critics elsewhere, The Dark Knight is an overlong, overwrought, bloviating mess. I am loathe to contradict Hibbs, from whom I have learned much and with whom I more often agree than disagree. Unfortunately, though, his analysis of Ledger's Joker and the modern/postmodern distinction is more intelligent and profound than anything in the film. For if Bruce Wayne/Batman is a purveyor of medieval virtues, he’s more Orlando Furioso than Sir Gawain (or, to put it cinematically, more Travis Bickle than Will Kane). His great passion has made him madand willing to sacrifice truth so he can play at sacrificing himself. In the end, Bruce Wayne is just playing the martyr, and all the chin music about free will and the nature of evil is so much sound and fury signifying that I should have used that coupon for the large box of Raisinettes, because this movie simply will not end.
Which is my way of saying that I would have given The Dark Knight a much lower “quality” rating than does Baehrdoesn’t all that confusion reflect poorly on the film’s quality?if for no other reason than to act as a kind of corrective to the encomia heaped on it.
Then there’s Hellboy II, which MovieGuide gave three stars (good quality) but a -3 (excessive) acceptability ratings, chiding it for “strong, somewhat mixed and slightly mixed pagan worldview with strong Romantic elements where people make emotional decisions, strong occult elements (including a ghost is a major character and special occult glasses are used to see the ‘reality’ of objects and beings, including creatures posing as humans), strong moral elements confused by other content.” A -3 is a clear warning to stay away, which would be a shame, as Hellboy is probably the only comic-book hero who regularly carries a rosary. (The original film featured a central characterHellboy’s “father”who was a devout Catholic and clearly depicted as heroic.) Does the introduction of magic and monsters make it automatically unacceptable? What about the Narnia films, which Baehr helped produce, and which, unsurprisingly, he gave very high ratings? Is there a double standard at work here?
Take a look at MovieGuide’s “glossary” again. When you concoct codes such as PCPCPC for excessive political correctness, or FrFrFr for “very strong Non-Christian, heresy or false religious elements,” or RoRoRo for “very strong Romantic, idealistic worldview or Romantic elements,” I can’t help but think of old socialist-realist cinema, famously derided for its party loyalty, ideological rigor, and mind-numbing banality. Then there’s that Newspeak quality: “What did you think of the film, Bob? Well it was a little too PaPaPa for my tastes, with a touch of SS, PCPCPC, and at least five straight minutes of DDD.”
This is the pitfall of what Baehr doesand, frankly, of what most film critics do. Negative and positive numbers, stars, grades, thumbs up/thumbs down, and other codes finally tend to make every film unintelligible and an offense to God or man. There's no getting around it: Codes are by nature reductionist. “Only 25% of the Top 10 had more than 25 obscenities and/profanities, including light ones. . . . None of the Top 5 Grossing Movies in 2007 had overt homosexual content or references in them (Ho, HoHo, HoHoHo).” OKbut did you laugh at the comedies? Cry at the tragedies? Jump at the scary bits? In short, did you enjoy the movie despite the rat-ah-tat-tat of Morse-code initialisms?
In his report, Baehr states that “parents, children, and other moviegoers . . . trust MOVIEGUIDE® . . . because we give them accurate, verifiable information based on objective standards, not subjective whims.” And yet “anti-capitalist” and “anti-patriotic” themes are counted against filmswhich signals to me that more than the Beatitudes are at work evaluating the “acceptability” of a given movie. Here oodles of questions come calling for answers, like tax collectors at a freelancers' convention. Are antiwar films by definition "anti-patriotic," or does it depend on the warsay, American participation in World War I as opposed to the Iraq War? Would the films of theorist Sergei Eisenstein be deemed offensive and off-limits because the father of montage's work was in the cause of the Russian Revolution? For that matter, can movies of controversial and complex historical significancesay, Birth of a Nationbe satisfactorily subjected to the ABCs of ratings systems at all?
There is much in his 2008 report, as well as on the MovieGuide website, about politicsand there’s no need to guess on which side of the aisle Baehr sits. The “L” word is thrown around a lot, especially when it comes to evaluating the baleful effects of TV watching. Using a recent poll as a foundation, Baehr writes that “‘heavy’ TV viewers embrace distinctly liberal, leftist attitudes on a range of crucial issues. . . . Heavy TV viewers tend toward socialism, are less religious, are more likely to favor the murder of innocent children, and are less loving and caring.” Alrighty then. Gonna unplug the DVR right now. Knew all those reruns of WKRP in Cincinnati would lead to no good . . . .
Sure there are a slew of serious studies that link early, heavy TV viewing with an increase in violent behavior among kids. And it’s by no means absurd to believe that other undesirable behavior would be reinforced, if not inculcated, in any kid raised on a steady diet of, say, Showtime’s lineup. (One study even linked early TV exposure to the rise in autism.) But, according to a recent Nielsen study, 282 million Americans watch TV every month. They can’t all be filthy communists. There must be some decent folk who love their kids in that mix.
And that’s another thing. I’m as liable to fits of pique, bursts of high dudgeon, and spasms of righteous indignation as any conservative kind of guy, but I must admit that some of Baehr’s language about “moral people in America” and his tendency to throw labels around make me a tad uneasy. Does anyonebesides the sociopath of my opening grafreally think of himself as immoral, as opposed to someone who follows a broader-here/narrower-there code of conduct? There’s a difference between objecting to adolescent dreck that offends merely for the sake of being offensive and a moralism that fulminates constantly against those millions upon millions of degenerate “others” who we just know revel in such things. Remember: This depiction has a mirror image, one in which traditional Christians, conservatives, and “moral majoritarians” are portrayed as a bunch of self-righteous “others” from whom one should flee before the Inquisition sets up shop again and all undesirables are thrown into underground cells wearing nothing but chains and those pointy dunce hats.
Let’s be frank: As much as some of us would love to go home again, I have a feeling “the old days” would prove to be pretty stifling. The days of the Production Code are dead because many movie-loving Americans could no longer agree on where to draw the foul lines anymore. And that goes for Christians too. The earthy, high-church types I hang out with, for example, have a much higher tolerance level for LLL, AAA, VV, and SS than many newly born evangelicals, who are often leery of giving even the appearance of sin by attending, say, R-rated movies. I respect that impulse, and we should be keen not to offend those of sensitive conscience. But is there room in the MovieGuide world for a sliding scale of, yes, subjective “quality” and “acceptability” standards that will not immediately invite the charge of moral relativism?
For example, there are Christian scholars who think Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction had “embedded themes of grace and redemption and the belief that God was real and powerful,” and that the director “opened up the religious possibilities of movies to the next generation.” I thought Pulp Fiction was a bombastic shaggy-dog story that would have died an ignominious box-office death had John Travolta not gotten up and danced the Twist. All Pulp Fiction's rhetoric about judgment and reform rang hollow and shrill to me. Yet even though I think the profs are wrong, I don’t think them immoral for appreciating a film that had enough foul language and violence to make a Hun cry.
Now I know the tendency among some Christian film critics to find the wheat, no matter how negligible, in any mountain of chaff can be taken to an extreme. They are members of what I call the “School of the Teachable Moment.” Graduates of the school are convinced that virtually any film, no matter how egregious, can be redeemed if only we will take the time to look for hints of spiritualityeven when there are none (sometimes especially when there are none). I went off on that school when the aforementioned Golden Compass came out and some Christian reviewers decided to give it a pass so as not to appear intolerant. But there are times when tolerance is intolerable. You have a right to sell dog food and you have a right to sell steak. What you don’t have a right to do is sell dog food and call it steak.
So where does that leave us? MovieGuide undoubtedly provides a useful tool for parentseven the Hollywood types who tend to live in hermetically sealed environments. Given the vagaries of the MPAA ratings, more information is always better than less, and stark numbers recounting the good box office of family-friendly films should make the green eyeshades in Burbank rethink who really comprises the bulk of their audience. I would simply add that we should not give Dr. Ted more authority than he merits. MovieGuide should be one resource among many; it should not be elevated to a moviegoing “Bible.” Read a variety of Christian and secular film reviewers, as well as one or two of the spate of books on movies and religion that have been hitting bookstores recently, to inform your choices and hone your personal critical faculties.
There should be a happy medium between resigning oneself to the rank nihilism emitted from cineplexes like stink lines from an R. Crumb cartoon, and pining for the days when the Production Code had to be formally amended to permit Rhett Butler’s valedictory “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Whether MovieGuide is the road to that middle way . . . well, I’ll let you decide.
Anthony Sacramone is the former managing editor of First Things. He now defuses participles for Time magazine.