Friday, June 20, 2008

Standards

Adam wrote this in his comment about the Fight Club post and I had never heard it taken from its original context. I don't know if I would have appreciated it had I heard it this way earlier:

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.).
Again, returning to President Benson's quote:
"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.

9 comments:

William Morris said...

I'm going to indulge in more AMV promotion and link to my 2005 post:

Mormons and media consumption

I really like how you discuss how standards can change (and can be different for different people) -- "thoughtful criteria making" is exactly right. But the problem is that it takes work to engage in such processes. And the current media environment is so saturated with content and ways to access it that it's easy to not do the work.

It's certainly something I struggle with. I also find your Bishop/Branch President Principle fascinating. If someone buys that principle then content becomes less important than characterization -- or maybe that's not the right word.

I also really like what you say about passive viewing. In my mind, Mormons should be the most resistant/active (mis)readers/viewers around.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Bravo, Trevor.

I can't say enough about how good this is, especially your concluding sentence.

I do have one bone to pick over this and it's because I want to understand where your information comes from. I added this to an old thread on Thinking in a Marrow Bone just last night, because I didn't expect it to come up here anytime soon.

Here it is: I don't think President Benson's talk was just given to youth. True, it was titled "To the Youth of the Noble Birthright," and true, he specifically said he was addressing the youth, but it was given, as per the Church website, during a Priesthood Session of General Conference and right after saying he was addressing the youth, President Benson said (paraphrase) I'm also glad that your fathers are here with you tonight because I want them to hear my message too (end paraphrase).

This may be a small detail, but to me it changes the entire context of the talk.

Now, I don't think you used this as a crutch or a point of rationalization (like I've heard so many do). I think you acknowedged the "what I say unto one, I say unto all" principle and treated it fairly. Thank you for that. I just want to know, because of this post and some of your previous writings, if you have information about this counsel that I don't have. Specifically, I am curious why you wrote on TMB that the counsel was given to youth before it was included in the Ensign. It was in the Ensign, as I understand it, because it was part of the Conference Report.

I'm not trying to make this a contentious issue, I just want to clear up the point in my mind.

Trevor said...

William,

thanks for the link. I'd missed that, and always appreciate it.

I wonder if you could tell me more about what you mean by 'characterization'? I'm guessing you're not talking about character as in 'plot vs. character,' or as in the genre/character of a piece.


About the current and ever-changing media environment: how right you are! No wonder no one can watch art films or read the scriptures any more. It seem like we're only about to do things in multiple windows and multiple tabs now (not to mention with commercial breaks).

This is the reason that 'active,' 'resistant,' (and therefore more passionate) viewing/reading/creating needs to be taught all the more vigorously.


Adam,

I responded to the General Conference notion on Thinking in a Marrow Bone, but you are very right that it was misleading, and I hope to correct that in the post there.

As per the 'Fathers with you' notion: interesting reading, but I have to admit that I think there is a lot of cultural baggage added to that view. This was not some 'big unvieling' about 'R-Ratings.' R-Ratings had been mentioned as much as a decade earlier in the Ensign from my searches. But the mentions were focused, again, on family viewing.

The talk given by President Benson was primarily focused on reading and understanding the Book of Mormon. I very much think that this was what he was referring when he mentioned the fathers. Though I never knew President Benson personally, from what I do know about him, he doesn't seem to be the hard-line army-type he's painted to be because of this counsel. If he wanted the fathers to stop watching "R-Rated" movies, I think that he could have said "Now Fathers! Listen UP!" Or give the counsel in a talk focused on media in a general session.

However, I don't think that President Hinckley would be too happy about Mothers going out and getting several piercings, just because he gave the address to the youth.

But I hope we can move beyond the R thing soon. There's so much more to discuss.

Bryan said...

This is a very, very interesting post that has given me much to think about.

I've not been a bishop or branch president, but I was an elders quorum president for a year and a half before our family moved to Atlanta. I had to admit, upon my release I was relieved to never have to deal with an elders quorum president's problems again, at least so far as that ward was concerned. I functioned well in the calling because I had the determination, the guidance of the Spirit, and the priesthood keys to do so; however, I would never willingly seek out the kinds of difficult problems these men face.

I think the same is true of bishops and branch presidents. Hearing confessions from members can ultimately be a healing experience for these men (especially if the member has a contrite heart and is working to change his/her behavior), but I feel certain that they only do it because it is required of them by nature of their calling. I'm sure that, were it left to them, they'd rather forgo hearing the kinds of awful things they do.

Anyway, that may expose a weakness in the analogy to consuming harsher kinds of media.

William Morris said...

I struggled and failed to find a word that really captures what I'm referring to. Characterization seemed the closest.

What I mean by it is the sense that the characters in the movie have some depth (another problematic term) to them and are agents in a world that has some sort of morality/ethics.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Trevor,

Thanks.

You said:

As per the 'Fathers with you' notion: interesting reading, but I have to admit that I think there is a lot of cultural baggage added to that view. This was not some 'big unvieling' about 'R-Ratings.'

I think you misinterpreted my comment. I simply meant that President Benson made it clear that everything that followed was for the fathers as well as the children. I agree with you that the R comment was made more or less in passing. Nevertheless, passing comments of prophets during General Conference have come as direct answers to my prayers in the past.

You said:

Though I never knew President Benson personally, from what I do know about him, he doesn't seem to be the hard-line army-type he's painted to be because of this counsel.

I agree. This wasn't the main focus of his talk, and the R statement wasn't intended to be the crux even of his comments on media. I guess it gave us all an easy standard.

I'm also glad you made your point about President Hinckley and earrings. That needs to be said more often in discussions like this.

Thanks again for this response, as it settled a troublesome issue for me. I'm ready to move on if you are.

Trevor said...

Bryan,

lets do move on... unless what I write isn't moving on, I guess.

"I think you misinterpreted my comment. I simply meant that President Benson made it clear that everything that followed was for the fathers as well as the children."

If I misinterpreted, I'm sorry. I'm just going to say that I don't think "I'd like them to hear this, too" means that it is *for* them. It could, but fathers needing to hear the counsel given specifically to young men in a meeting (where it would be just as appropriate to speak to fathers as well), doesn't mean at all that it was intended for them. I wasn't present, and I don't know, but it definitely seems counter intuitive to me.

That Fathers should be aware, and "hear," how a prophet speaks to the young men of the church and what he talks to them about seems like a grandfatherly and prophetly gesture to fathers to teach them how to treat their sons and what to counsel them about. This is how I understand his comment, and I don't think that I've misrepresented anything.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

About the Matthew 15:11 principle.

This should be a guiding principle for LDS filmmakers. While we may not be utterly defiled by what we take in from the produtions of others (a truth which has probably saved many a soul), we cannot escape culpability for what we create.

In creating we take upon ourselves the mantle of God. God defines Himself as our Father, and parenthood is the highest form of creation. He is also the creator of all that is in any heaven or any earth that we care about, all of which can be seen as things a devoted Father wanted to give to His children because He loves them.

When we create a film, that film (or our part in it at the very least) literally comes out of us and if it is impure, we are defiled by it. I'm sure of that.

What I'm not sure of is how to define "impure" in this situation. My instict is that it should be a subjective measure because any element of a film must be considered in its context. However, I wonder if there are certain things that always fall under this category.

In my humble opinion, nudity always makes a film impure. I'll tell you why if anyone wants to know, but I won't burden anyone unnecessarily with lengthy comments you don't care to read.

I'll only say that LDS filmmakers should adhere to this principle strictly, making sure that nothing in their productions defiles them before the Lord. the fulness of what this means case by case can only be known individually by revelation.

Those who partake of any media should also be careful that any impurities they take in do not find their way out in the form of honest expression. That's when we know we've been tainted. It's what we do with the things we take in that matters. Garbage in - garbage out.

whitney said...

Trevor,
I always appreciate the way you discuss this concept. I'm endlessly frustrated by this debate and I always get angry, even though I don't intend to. When I get angry I lose all my good arguments! So thanks again, maybe I'll just direct family members here next time it comes up.

-Whitney