Nevertheless, as President Benson is so often quoted as saying, "the mind through which this filth passes is never the same again."
I'm really sensitive to this issue, as I watch a lot of movies, more than most people I know, and I have seen how they have changed me. That's true. And very often in prayer something comes that says 'Don't watch that movie.' I've even been directed to throw a movie away days after I had purchased it, never having seen it. I felt so good afterward and never thought of the money. I don't know why because from everything I had read on the topic the film was fine . . . yet I felt something clearly outside myself telling me to dispose of it.
I wrote a post on Thinking in a Marrow Bone on 'R' ratings, but I didn't write there the things that are most important to me about standards. I'd like to share a few of them here. (By the way, this makes me think of an excellent discussion several months back on A Motley Vision.)
How we watch movies is a large part of LDS movie culture (at least half, though I would say more), but I haven't talked about that much up to this point. I'd like to share a few principles here:
- No Torture Principle. I believe our standards should be far more engaged and active in deciding what we will and will not watch. I was extremely impressed to read Jonathan Rosenbaum write some time ago that he would never watch any film depicting torture. Since it was on a blog, someone chided him for his stance since he loved the films of Georges Franju whose films could be construed as depicting torture (I don't believe that they do depict torture, but that is a possible reading). Rosenbaum replied why those films did not apply to his criteria and they had a further discussion.
I mention this because this is the kind of thoughtful criteria making (and by a critic no less!) that I think we should be engaged in and constantly refining. For years I had a specific distinction about what I would watch or not that has changed this year after getting out of the hospital. Something there changed my view and now films with the use of a certain kind of sarcasm are not ones I will watch. I'm saddened when I hear (for reasons I expounded upon on Thinking in a Marrow Bone) that the only thought that goes into what someone will or will not watch is the rating given by an organization I distrust immensely.
- Bishop/Branch President Principle. From my time being a branch president, I've learned that hearing the utterings of sinners is an important part of becoming like our Father in Heaven. I know that priesthood leaders are blessed and have guidance from the Lord, but I also know that there is a skill to be developed in this regard.
I remember being in a theatre history class where the question was asked why we watch theatre. A first-year student raised her hand timidly as she hadn't yet spoken in class. She was the only black student and we could tell that she felt intimidated. She mentioned how it discouraged her when people weren't even willing to experience theatre life from someone else's culture or from someone else's point of view. She mentioned hatred and alluded to racism being rooted in this lack of desire. I think there is a power in movies to do this, but sometimes those perceptions from other cultures and other people may be crass or have swear words. It leads us then to ask if they are invalid. I believe that if we are to love mankind — our brothers and sisters — we cannot claim to do so without first understanding them. Film, as with all the arts, offers a great capability to do so. What does being a branch president require us to do? To hear the most vulgar offenses before God. And this is a holy act. So I ask you, doesn't the lot of the work belong to us? I remember watching Magnolia and wondering if my wife, who, rightfully so, is very sensitive to foul language, should watch it with me a few weeks later. I remember feeling that I was filled with a greater love for people who differed from me and a greater understanding for someone else's understanding of God. I knew I was a better person, and I thought she might feel the same way. So I asked her to listen with a branch president's ear, and the conversations had and feelings shared are some of my favorite experiences we've had from watching a movie. I don't recommend the movie to everyone, but I do feel like there is great good in this principle.
- Principle against passivity. Another friend of mine has said that in his home they aren't allowed to watch anything on Sunday. I italicize it because he believes that the sheer act of watching is in direct opposition to what the sabbath is for. I find the idea compelling and worthy of discussion, though I disagree with its foundation. As I understand my friend's premise, the concept of watching is a strictly passive one. To watch is to be passive, to read is to be active. The Sabbath, and holiness, requires mental and spiritual activity; thus passivity, and watching, destroy spirituality. There is something true in what he says. But we are hopefully capable of being active viewers, rather than passive ones (despite what most films want from us). No matter the film, however, we are ultimately in charge of the acceptance or rejection of the doctrines contained therein. I think that what my friend suggests — that watching is essentially passive — is true until we change it. But if we do not make a vital effort to change it, we degrade our own spirituality by becoming passive. Thus, passively watching the best films is theoretically more spiritually degrading than actively watching a banal, fluffy romp.
- Mr. Rogers Question. Anyone who really knows me knows how deeply I love what this man did for television and the world through his program and work. His impact and importance cannot be over emphasized. If I needed to say who the greatest American filmmaker was, chances are Fred Rogers would be my answer. No one I know of has even come close to accomplishing what he did (but it helps that the vast majority would never have wanted to). But my question is this: Would the world be a better place if the only movies that had ever been made were made by Fred Rogers as part of his 'Neighborhood'? My knee-jerk reaction is to say 'YES.' If all the world's films were entrenched in his simple yet piercing sincerity, his love-affirming messages (not to mention his love-affirming form), his profound patience and fairness, we, I'm sure, would be better people. There are very few 'R-rated' (whatever that really means) movies I can think of that meet that criteria.
- Mister Rogers Question (part 2). I do think, however, that there is another side to that question. I once dated a girl who told me that whenever her parents showed the slightest bit of conflict, they went in the other room. As our relationship progressed, I saw that when the slightest bit of conflict arose, she would clam-up or retreat. She thought conflict was evil. I don't believe that, but I do believe that conflict should be resolved. She thought it was evil because she'd never seen it resolved. Though Mister Rogers did tackle topics like death and September 11th, I think there are some topics and some conflicts too devastating to be handled in his forum. Just because we don't see them on a screen doesn't mean that they don't exist. I believe that seeing them on screen, those most difficult of conflicts, can aid us in our lives. Quite often, those most difficult of conflicts are shown in movies designed strictly for adult audiences, as they should be. The difficulty comes from the idea that what the market thinks an 'adult' wants may not be what we think an adult wants.
- Matt 15:11 Principle. "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." I think there is much more in that scripture than we realize. We should be very, very careful about our media choices, but more importantly we should be careful about what we do with those choices. We have much more responsibility as per our eternal progression than simply deciding what movies we will or will not watch. You can watch Bambi and find the filth there, or you could watch Leaving Las Vegas and see the sincere upward strivings, though they don't quite get there. But I do believe that the greatest part of whatever defiling or whatever edifying that occurs occurred by what we do with it, "but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man," so to speak.
- The Clockwork Orange Principle. Principle 6 being said, my wife reminded me that there are some films that will just do damage to some people regardless of how actively they are viewing or how fine-tuned their "branch president's" ear is. I do believe that what these movies are varies from person to person — and very often varies from year to year for each person. A movie that builds and inspires me today may have destroyed me years ago. In this regard, we should remember to be very, very careful about what we watch. For instance, I felt a very strong impression that I needed to watch a certain movie, about which my friend later warned that no one should ever see it unless they had been married for at least three years. This movie, one of the most difficult movies I could ever imagine, is also one to which I attribute many positive aspects of my marriage. However, there are other films that I simply will never watch unless I get an explicit prompting to do so. Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is one of them. This is even more interesting because a woman Ashley and I love very much and whom we look up to in more ways than I describe, who also happens to be our branch Relief Society president, was shocked that I hadn't seen it, and, if I remember correctly, she thoroughly enjoyed the film. But from what I know of the film, have heard from friends, and currently feel about the film, I would describe it, like President Benson, as filth from which I would never be able to recover (though I wonder how that would have changed with Kubrick's original ending, etc., etc., etc.).
"The mind through which this filth passes is never the same again."The talk was given to youth, but this phrase for the most part seems to ring true for all people (in rare cases, I do feel like I've had filthy things wiped from me through the Atonement, for instance). But I'm left wondering if that change is always for the worst. My reading of the Garden of Eden story would suggest that the experience of pain allows us to cherish the pleasure. This is the purpose of probation. This may sound reductive, but if we must do it someway, I hope that we would chose to do it vicariously rather than making the mistakes for ourselves. President Benson uses the term 'filth.' Obviously he wasn't using the term positively. But I highly doubt that he regretted hearing the sins of those who came to see him or that he would call that 'filth.' But he wasn't searching for entertainment in those experiences either, and neither, and never, should we.