Bright, Dark Lights

Bryan Singer, like Harvey Weinstein, used his movies to sexually abuse others.

The Atlantic has published the results of a 12 month investigation into director/producer Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns, Bohemian Rhapsody). Of all the #MeToo bombshell articles I’ve read, and I’ve read many, this one was the hardest to read. Singer and his collaborators named in the article appear to be intensely depraved predators. The piece, which is graphic in detail, documents nothing less than an unofficial sex trafficking operation that targeted dozens, and probably hundreds, of adolescent boys. Assuming even the barest portions of this reporting are correct, Singer is a sexual menace who has continually used his work and connections to facilitate abuse.

It’s that last part I can’t stop thinking about. As I described it to a friend this morning, you can’t read this article and discern where the entertainment industry began and the sexual predation ended. Like Harvey Weinstein, Singer made his work as a filmmaker an integral part of how he abused teens. He funded “production” companies whose sole purpose was apparently to create a pretense for getting boys to parties. He abused boys on-set. In one instance, according to the piece, a group of teenage extras in one of his movies was directed to disrobe in front of camera after being misled to believe nudity wasn’t required. The portrait this investigation paints of Bryan Singer and his co-conspirators (of whom there appear to be many) is not one of work during the day, sexual abuse during the night. The work was part of the abuse. The abuse was facilitated through the work.

This should sound very familiar to you. Recall that Harvey Weinstein told actress Salma Hayek that he would pull funding for her movie unless she did a sex scene. A major theme in Hollywood’s #MeToo nightmare is how the films and studios themselves become not only complicit but instruments of the abuse. In Hayek’s case, her accommodation of Weinstein’s predatory demands is forever captured onscreen. In the case of some of those “Bryan boys,” theirs is, too.  Can you separate the naked “just acting” that you see in the film from the threats and manipulation that put it there? At what point are we actually watching the abuse we read about?

Of course, it’s impossible to know why every sexually explicit scene on TV or in film is put there. I’m sure there are many that exist solely because a writer or director thinks it makes for good entertainment. But ask yourself this: How likely is it that Harvey Weinstein and Bryan Singer are the only Hollywood storytellers that have used their stories as pretenses to sexually exploiting somebody on that screen? So much sexual content in film is extraneous, especially in big budget films. Almost invariably onscreen nudity seems to exist wholly apart from the narrative of the film; it’s just there, and then it’s just gone. Knowing what we know now about people like Weinstein and Singer, it seems almost impossible to notice an unnecessarily explicit scene without wondering if literally the only reason it exists is to satisfy a fantasy of someone behind the camera.

In fairness, I’ve never really admired the argument that Christians sometimes make against pornography that appeals to the exploitation of actresses as a reason not to watch. It’s not that I think such exploitation doesn’t exist (it most certainly does), nor that I think it’s fine for people to enjoy watching father-estranged girls being exploited (it’s not). My problem with using this as a reason to not watch porn is that I honestly cannot imagine such a reason ever working. Wanting to watch porn is not a desire that can be undermined by appealing to the injustice of the industry, anymore than an overwhelming desire for a Snickers bar can be blunted by an economics lesson on child labor in overseas candy factories. Lack of empathy is a real problem, but it can’t be the main focus of every ethical choice. Sometimes your heart has to turn away from something evil on the basis of what it is rather than what it does to others.

But what I find interesting is the way sensitive Christians who abstain from watching Hollywood sex scenes look a little ahead of the curve nowadays. For most of my life refusing to watch an explicit film made you a stodgy fundamentalist, on the basis that “It’s just a movie” and “Sex is a part of life, get over it.” Unless I’m very wrong, the tide is turning. As secular culture turns it attention toward sexual injustice, it catches pop culture red-handed in just the way that those stodgy Christians have suggested. Can you read these bombshell reports, watch the films named in them, and tell me where the sexual abuse ends and the “acting” begins? If not, don’t those dour fundies at least have a point?

photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.

Surviving Our Humanity

Bird Box, just recently released on Netflix, bears an obvious resemblance to John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. The latter is a superior movie in almost every way, but that’s not my point. My point is that Bird Box and A Quiet Place are strikingly similar in how they ask the audience to consider how much less human we’re willing to become in order to survive. Each film is a horror-parable about our own humanity’s being weaponized against us.

“A Quiet Place”

In A Quiet Place, apocalyptic monsters have taken over and almost invariably kill whoever and whatever speaks above a whisper. In Bird Box, the same idea is turned to a different sense: Sight. Unseen monsters put whoever glimpses them, even for a second, into a lethal trance that ends in suicide. Thus, the heroes of both tales have to live without a part of their normal human functions: Sandra Bullock and her two children are blindfolded even while boating in rapids, and the family in A Quiet Place verbalizes nothing above ground. Human beings are threatened by the very things that make them human. The monsters are of course the problem, but they are quasi-omnipotent; they’re not going away. The real enemies are sight and speech.

I can’t help but wonder if these stories are connecting with audiences at a spiritual level. Might we think of many of the problems of contemporary life as a felt conflict between human flourishing and human nature? Take consumerism. Consuming is a natural human impulse, yet isn’t there a palpable sense right now that our consuming nature is at odds with our desire for meaning and transcendence? Or consider the setting of A Quiet Place, a world in which it is dangerous to speak. Ours is the age of near endless speech, amplified by mobile technologies that allow us to live intellectual and emotional lives out of our phones. Amazingly, this technology has been most efficiently leveraged to make us depressed, insecure, outraged, distracted, and lonely. Perhaps A Quiet Place resonates as a horror film because its premise is actually true for us right now—our sounds invite the monsters.

A similar idea emerges in Bird Box. I was disappointed the movie’s screenplay didn’t explore a bit more the monsters and their power. For example, most of the people who see the monsters immediately commit (or try to commit) suicide. But there a few who instead of killing themselves become quasi-evangelists for the monsters. They violently try to force blindfolded survivors into looking, chanting stuff like “It’s beautiful” and “You must see.” What’s the reason for the difference between the suicidal and the possessed? Regrettably the movie never comes close to saying. It’s fascinating though to consider Bird Box‘s theme of becoming what we are beholding through the lens of the monsters’ creating both victims and victimizers. Those who look at the monsters and live only do so because they are actually dead on the inside. They survive the monsters by becoming the monsters. That’s a pretty potent metaphor for the era of “call out culture” and strong man politics, not to mention the modern shipwrecking of the sexual revolution that is #MeToo.

In both movies, death comes through the body itself, through the senses. This is a provocative way to think about what Lewis famously dubbed the “abolition of man.” Lewis’s essay warned that the death of binding moral transcendence and the subjugation of nature would not liberate mankind, but merely re-enslave it to itself. “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out,” Lewis wrote, “in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.” This is the world depicted by both A Quiet Place and Bird Box, a world in which nature, especially human nature, has been weaponized against us. In both films people must find ways to live below their own full humanity, because it is the expression of their full humanity that brings violence.

To me, this is a stirring poetic summarizing how divided we feel from ourselves in a secular age. The indulgence of our nature in the affluent postwar glow of the latter 20th century failed to slake our thirst for righteousness. Now, slowly awakening from nihilism, we find our own humanity turned against us, especially through technology’s power to shape the mind. To look at modern life, in its pornographic despair, kills the soul, and to speak above a whisper invites the demons of doubt and shame.

It’s interesting to me how both films center on kids. Each story’s drama mostly concerns whether the adults will be able to save their children. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because children are a common literary stand-in for renewal of innocence. But also, perhaps it’s because one of the few motivations left in a world of living beneath one’s humanity is to protect those whom we hope may not have to do so. Perhaps it’s also because such a world inevitably slouches toward new life, one of the final touchstones of grace in a disenchanted world. I sometimes wonder whether protecting children is the closest an unrepentant mind can come to true faith, as if to say, “I cannot become like a child, but I will preserve those who still can.”


Movie Reviews and Evangelical Blind Spots

I have respect for the ministry of Plugged In and how they serve Christian families by flagging objectionable content in film. I think there’s a place for this kind of thing and have availed myself of the site frequently over several years.

But in my experience, evangelicals frequently place too much trust in services like Plugged In. Instead of using them as helpful meters to determine age-appropriate moviegoing, many Christians use content and worldview metrics to shape their entire approach to consuming culture. The problem with this reductionistic approach is not only that it frequently fails to accurately represent the nature and purpose of art, but that it relies heavily on the idiosyncratic blind spots of a religious subculture.

Here is a great example of what I’m talking about. Plugged In wrote a mostly positive, if somewhat dismissive review of the kids movie Show Dogs. After noting some bathroom humor in the content flagging portion of their review, here’s what they said in the conclusion:

 Show Dogs is a kids’ movie through and through. If you consider its story and presentation on a graduated scale—say, one that ranges from whine and scratch on the low end all the way up to a family pleasing tail-wag peak—this pic probably qualifies as a Saturday-matinee chew toy that lands on the less-enthusiastic, flea-bitten side of the scale. It feels like a talking-dog version of Miss Congeniality: a canine caper the youngsters will giggle at even as parents roll their eyes wearily.

On the plus side, it actually has plenty of action and less doggy doo-doo humor than I expected. And in the negative column, there are some extended dog-private-parts-inspection moments and a couple uses of the word “d–n” that really should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Your kids will likely think it’s silly and fun. But whatever you do, I’d suggest you leave your family dog at home. ‘Cause he’d never forgive you.

For those familiar with Plugged In’s style and language, this most certainly constitutes a positive review. Show Dogs, according to this reviewer, is fine for your kids, if a little trivial. They’ll enjoy it, you probably won’t, but it’s harmless fun.

Today—and to their credit—Plugged In ran a blog post that discusses some of the controversy that’s been growing around the film. You can read the viral review one mother wrote here, but the short summary is that many parents and sexual abuse victim advocates are extremely concerned that the way Show Dogs handles a particular subplot sends a seriously disturbing message to kids about their bodies and private parts.

Apparently, Plugged In’s positive review of Show Dogs caused some concern among their readers, concern which they wanted to address via the blog post. Here’s how they address it:

One thing we try not to do at Plugged In is infer motive, because that’s a game with no real end. Our objective at Plugged In is always to tell you what’s in a film as accurately as we can and let you, the reader, draw your own conclusions and make your own decisions. When I saw this sequence, it translated as simply as an over-long potty joke that wasn’t particularly funny in a silly movie that wasn’t particularly good.

But movies, even the most straightforward of movies, are incredibly complex things. It’s not just the moviemaker’s story that’s at play here: It’s our own stories, too. We all bring our own experiences and sensitivities and baggage to every movie we see. And so, in many respects, even when we watch the very same movie, the messages it gives can be very different. Unique.

I have no idea why the editors at Plugged In noted the controversy surrounding Show Dogs and decided to double down on their positive review of the film in response. Why not simply let the controversy pass you by, noting that you diligently catalogued the movie’s profanity and potty humor and adding no further comment? No clue. But what actually frustrates me about Plugged In’s post here is that it’s not really the truth. When Plugged In writes that they don’t try to infer motive or tell readers what decision to make about a movie, they’re either using definitions of those words I’ve never heard of, or they’re not being totally honest here. Plugged In infers filmmaker’s motives all the time. Plugged In tells readers to stay away from certain movies because of their messaging all the time. This kind of exhortation is intrinsic to the discernment ministry that Plugged In operates. For them to claim that they do anything less is profoundly confusing, because it’s demonstrably untrue.

I don’t fault Plugged In for missing a troubling interpretive angle of a film. Anybody can do that. What I do fault is the impulse within evangelicalism to make Christian discernment and worldview ministries the sole proprietors of virtue and vice in pop culture. There could be an important reason why a major evangelical pop culture review completely missed overtones of sexual abuse in a movie: Namely, because much of evangelicalism, including our churches and parachurch ministries, has a blind spot when it comes to sexual abuse. We fail to see what we aren’t looking for, and we fail to look for what we don’t think about enough.

Maybe Plugged In doesn’t want to publicly consider this possibility. Maybe it hasn’t crossed their minds. Either possibility doesn’t really matter in the end, just like the motives of a filmmaker who puts graphic nudity or 200 F-bombs into his film don’t really matter for a Plugged In review. What’s there is there. The question is seeing it.

This isn’t an indictment of Plugged In or a call to burn down evangelical reviews of movies. Instead, it’s a call for humility in how Christians engage culture, and a reminder that holistic approaches to art are superior to worldview litmus tests and curse word-counters. There is a place for the latter, but it shouldn’t be in front and on top of the former.

Why I Gave Up Being a Movie Critic

At one time in my life I had very serious aspirations to sit for hours at a time in a movie theater, watch films, write about them, and make money (or at least, break even!). I no longer have those desires. I still love movies, and am rarely happier than in a cinema. And I will still write about film on occasion. But those desires–to see dozens, maybe even hundreds of films, and to swim in the narrative world and craft of movies–have all but evaporated.

Reading Kyle Smith’s commentary on the Jennifer Lawrence horror pic Mother reminded me of this. I’m not saying reading one critic’s take on a film is always sufficient to form an opinion, nor am I sure I’d have the same takeaways that Kyle had. But here’s the thing: Even if Kyle’s column is mostly true…actually, even if its partially true, I don’t want any part of Mother. I don’t want to watch it and I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want its story and its form to be part of my life. And I wouldn’t want that even if someone were offering me money to watch it and critique it.

I find myself feeling this way about a lot of movies nowadays. There are lots of good movies out there, more than most people realize. But there is also a lot to wade through to get to them. A critic’s job is to wade. I no longer believe I can or would even want to do that. A truly trustworthy critic must often stifle his strongest reactions to a movie in order to become a fair observer. He must also be willing to encounter films like Mother. Whether because of parenthood, or because of my own emotional fragility, or because I find myself desperate nowadays for any semblance of hope from pop culture, I just can’t do that anymore.

I don’t want what Kyle describes in his review to become “normal” for me. I don’t want to lose my gag reflex over films just because, having seen so many, my categories have all been defined down. I’m glad Kyle is a critic and I’m glad he wrote what he wrote. Who knows? He may have saved me a couple hours of my life I would have been desperate to have back. I’m thankful for him. But I know that for me, I cannot imagine ever delighting in a medium enough to be glad I stayed and watched a film like Mother. Critics should be able do that. I’m not. That’s why I’m not a critic, and why I’ll probably never be.

Does Sex Make Movies “Authentic”?

I have a quick word on this take on movies and culture from Freddie deBoer. I agree with 99% of what he says, and have tried at various times to make the point he makes. But I do have one issue with his thinking, and that is his notion that a film without sex is hollow and inauthentic. I think the equivocation of sexuality with authenticity in movies is actually a terrible idea that is ironically responsible for some of the dysfunctions in Hollywood that Freddie picks up on.

Freddie is hardly alone in supposing that sexlessness means inauthentic. Most respected film critics would agree, and most successful film studios seem to as well; for a long time there’s been a disproportionate amount of sexuality in Oscar-contenders, compared to the high grossing blockbusters. Sexuality means seriousness, so goes the thinking.

I see immediately 4 problems with this idea:

1) Healthy people usually devote a comparatively small amount of their life to their sexuality. The idea that a film without sexual activity is “inauthentic” should trigger the response, “Inauthentic to what?” 

One of the major realizations of adulthood is that what Hollywood and pop culture think of as “sex” doesn’t really exist. If you go into marriage expecting that part of your life to look like the hot and steamy stuff you’ve seen onscreen, you will be incredibly disappointed, and such disappointment can indeed threaten relationships. Cinematic sexuality is not authentic to begin with. It’s not really designed to be. It’s designed to be sexy: titillating, exciting, and perhaps more than a little addicting.

I’m reminded here of the stories about the lead actors of “50 Shades of Grey” and their offscreen awkwardness, frustrations and even hostility. There’s something about the exploitation of sexuality for public enthrallment (read: money) that actually undermines the healthier sexual impulses of real people. In much pop culture, sex is the center of existence for everyone. In real life, sex is only the center of existence for desperate, sad, lonely people.

2) Most of the movies that spend a lot of time “exploring” sexual issues are gross-out comedies, not profound artistic pieces. 

Admittedly, this point may not have been true 30 years ago, but I think it’s true now. Equivocating sexuality to authenticity may sound good in theory, but if you look to sexualized films for existential meaning and aesthetic weight, you’re going to be frustrated. The overwhelming majority of films most fixated on sexual themes turn those themes into set ups and punchlines. If there’s anything meaningful to say, it almost always comes in the form of a half-baked, whimsical moral in the conclusion, usually about the very cliches that Freddie talks about (“Everyone is special,” “You shouldn’t be mean to people,” etc etc).

3) If truly authentic films depict sexuality, most of the greatest movies of all time are at least somewhat inauthentic. 

Citizen Kane, The Godfather Part II, Vertigo, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music–all these films would, by this standard, be inauthentic. Obviously that’s not a position anyone would want to seriously take. But flip the equation around. Accepting that these are indeed existentially “authentic” films, what makes them authentic, in the absence of overt sexual themes or scenes? It’s an odd question, because the answer really is: Well, everything! We don’t doubt the profundity of these stories. It’s self-evident. The fact that these movies are “sexless” doesn’t at all mitigate their effect on the imagination, precisely because an emotionally healthy audience doesn’t look for authenticity merely in sexuality.

It would be a strange person indeed who came away from It’s a Wonderful Life frustrated that the film didn’t really probe into the images and inflections of George Bailey’s bedroom. Most people would agree that such a response would be not only wrong, but troubling. The very modern, very Freudian, and also very market-driven notion that all humans are walking around obsessed with sex is merely a projection of our culture’s anxiousness to justify itself.

4) Perhaps it is not the superhero movies that are remarkably sexless. Perhaps its the recent corpus of Hollywood that is remarkably sex-obsessed.

My theory is that audiences flock to superhero films not because such experiences are blissfully sexless but because they are, however inconsequential, 120-minute reminders that courage and intelligence and goodness are real things, not just euphemisms. Perhaps the Avengers and Star Wars are refreshing breaths in the digital age that has monetized sexual addiction and dysfunction more aggressively than any other generation in human history. Perhaps “sexless” stories are not sexless after all, but are actually stories that speak to our sexuality by pointing us to life beyond passion and pleasure. Perhaps, at the end of the day, pop culture’s lack of authenticity is traceable to its insistence on a hedonistic, flawless, pregnancy-free existence.


The Shack and the Problem of Christian Entertainment

Look at this headline from a movie review in The Metro:

The evangelical entertainment ‘The Shack’ is almost a real movie

I’m not entirely sure why, but what struck me most about this headline was not the clever zinger, but the term “evangelical entertainment.” When I read that, I thought: “It is?” I suppose I’ve become too habituated to seeing evangelical critiques of the book’s thin theology and possibly blasphemous depiction of the Trinity to remember that, to most of the world, The Shack is what evangelicals mean when they ask for books and movies for them. Mainstream critics label The Shack movie as evangelical entertainment not because it is entertainment that is evangelical, but because it is entertainment that evangelicals consume.

And the question is, why do evangelicals consume it? I haven’t seen any review of the book to make me think that the answer is The Shack’s quality of writing. And, based on the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score of 17%, I don’t believe the reason evangelicals will (in all likelihood) flock to see it is because it is a cinematic masterpiece. The key factor in The Shack‘s popularity isn’t excellence, because it lacks excellence. And the key factor is obviously not compelling orthodoxy or theological insight. So what is the key factor? Why is The Shack “evangelical entertainment” despite the fact that it’s not really either?

One theory: Evangelicals love The Shack because it is family-friendly. And for many evangelicals, family-friendly is just a euphemism for “Christian.” This, I believe, is the problem of contemporary Christian entertainment. Evangelical audiences accept poor aesthetic quality and erroneous theology if both are wrapped up in a veneer of religious respectability.

Consider just how much of evangelical cultural engagement is “discernment lit.” Finding solid evangelical analysis and critique of mainstream movies is much more challenging than finding sites dedicated to telling you how many profanities are used in a given movie. Those publications, by the way, are overwhelmingly recommending that Christians go see The Shack. Now of course these places have their uses. Christians shouldn’t stop caring about content. But when evangelical culture lacks a thriving artistic worldview and instead relies on cottage industries of promoting family-night discernment, we ought not be shocked when what evangelicals eventually own as “their” kind of entertainment is art that is neither theologically faithful nor aesthetically excellent, but merely safe for the whole family. Francis Schaeffer’s guide to Christian engagement of art seems almost quaint by comparison.

I’m not saying that evangelicals should throw caution about worldliness to the wind. But I am asking if big box office returns for The Shack actually represent the kind of Christian culture that we really want. Yes, The Shack is PG-13 with no hints of sexuality and no profanity. Many youth groups will schedule trips to see it with no awkwardness. But is squeaky-clean and deeply problematic for our conception of God and Christianity the kind of trade-off we should be proud of? I don’t think so.

The Shack has illustrated the inadequacies of engaging with pop culture merely with family-friendly metrics. When Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, recently apologized for the moralistic, non-gospel content of his popular show, he wasn’t apologizing for making it kid-friendly. He was apologizing for confusing kid-friendly with Christian. When your only real demand of your entertainment is that it be clean, clean will soon be the only thing you have. That’s not a good thing, as The Shack amply demonstrates.

Listen to this sad thought from mainstream film critic Peter Sobcynski:

As “The Shack” plodded on (it clocks in at over two hours and makes you feel every one of those minutes), I found myself thinking more and more about “Silence,” the recent religious drama from Martin Scorsese that came and went through theaters a few weeks ago. Like “The Shack,” that film dealt with the kind of spiritual crisis that can develop when someone devotes their life to praying to a God that seems more interested in letting you suffer endlessly rather than answering those prayers. But “Silence” took its questions about spirituality and the nature of God seriously, resulting in a spellbinding film that even those without any sort of strong religious background might still find thought-provoking. “The Shack,” on the other hand, is little more than pabulum that invokes all the right words but fails to invest them with any kind of meaning that might allow it to mean something to those not already pre-disposed to liking it. Of course, thanks to the book’s extensive fanbase, there is an excellent chance that “The Shack” will make more money in its first weekend than “Silence” did in its entire run—a thought depressing enough to inspire spiritual crises in any number of moviegoers.

Evangelicals will pack the house for “The Shack” while many remain completely unaware of the existence of “Silence.” The Shack is PG-13. Silence is rated R. But which of these movies is the more Christian movie?

Dreams Can Break Your Heart

My wife and I saw La La Land last night. I found it dazzlingly entertaining, and even more than a bit moving. Emma Stone fully deserves her Oscar nomination (Ryan Gosling was fine, but his performance has been overrated). I think it’s one of my favorite films from last year.

I was genuinely surprised by the ending. (spoiler warning: Do NOT read on if you haven’t seen the film but plan to) Everything in the cinema playbook suggested that Mia and Sebastian belonged together. Their lives seemed inextricable. They were in love. But, at the film’s end, they had gained everything except one another. I think the question writer/director Damien Chazelle wants the audience to ask here is, “Are they happy?” The last glance in Sebastian’s jazz club suggests yes, but the whole alternative-history-what-could-have-been sequence suggests they know what they gave up on. I think this was a brilliant move by Chazelle, because it touches on something that is absolutely true about the way people live their lives. Some people achieve their dreams. Some people find a soulmate. The lucky ones do both; the pitiable ones do neither. But most people do one or the other, and which one they choose–the dream or the love–demands sacrifice of the other. Dreams can break your heart.

Though the movie is marketed as a peppy romantic musical, there’s a core of sadness to the whole story. I think that’s what I admired most about it. La La Land is about realizing your dreams, yes, but it’s also about losing them. And the alternative history sequence invites audiences to question whether Mia and Sebastian (though I think the key choice made here is Sebastian’s) chose the right thing. Was she right to go to France without him? Was he right to stay behind and try to open his club? Did they miss what’s most important?

It’s OK to ask these questions, because eventually we all have to. We all have to choose between good things. And when that moment comes, I think pros and cons lists fail to help us because what we need is not a scientific evaluation, but we need to know where home is. We need to know where we ought to lay our treasures. The gospel has a word for that, of course. I can’t help but wonder if its word to Mia and Sebastian would have been: People are more important than careers, and family and home are still there even when the dreams fade over time.

But I can’t sit in judgment. I wanted Mia and Sebastian to grow old together. Maybe that’s not what they wanted. The heart is a mysterious thing. Sometimes it sings and dances. Sometimes it’s just stuck in traffic.

First thoughts on “Rogue One”

Some first impressions from tonight’s screening of Rogue One:

This is the Star Wars film that critics of George Lucas’ prequels wanted instead. I told my brother-in law-in the car heading home that Rogue One is a love letter to fans of the original series.

The comparisons to The Force Awakens are inevitable. But these are, I think, two very different films. The Force Awakens was a nakedly cyclical jumpstart to the Star Wars mythology, whereas Rogue One is more of a panache the series’ best (and sometimes its flawed) elements. Those who left The Force Awakens very satisfied may feel frustrated with Rogue One, and vice versa.

Rogue One stands on its own without having seen any of the other Star Wars pictures, but series devotees will get the most delight out of it.

This very well may be the most action-packed, most violent Star Wars film of them all. It is considerably more battle-oriented than The Force Awakens. Lovers of dialogue and character exposition will be disappointed.

Related note: Rogue One’s characters, outside of Felicity Jones’ excellent Jyn Erso, are not that interesting. This is a film of plot and event, not people (and all the Attack of the Clones bashers said, “Amen!”).

Without spoiling, I will say that the filmmakers here have perfected a remarkable technology that will likely transform the entire way movies, especially reboots and sequels, are made. I won’t say more, but you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about after you see the film. The accomplishment is serious, and audiences will leave Rogue One with their impressions formed significantly by this dazzling technological achievement.

All in all, I think this film’s best achievement is recapturing the energy and joy that the Star Wars franchise is known for. The Force Awakens did part of the work, but its nostalgia was often overbearing and rote. Rogue One isn’t as richly imagined as Awakens, but it might be more fun. And isn’t that what counts in the end?

Some Thoughts on Christians, Movies, and Nudity

To be honest, I had no idea what (or who?) Deadpool was by the time everyone was watching the trailers for the new movie. I’d never heard of that character and had no special interest in learning more (I’m fatigued of superhero movies at this point anyway). But it turns out that Deadpool is a pretty interesting guy (thing?) and has a lot of fans. Box Office Mojo’s unofficial reports have the movie blowing away some meaningful records, several of which are in the “R-rated” category. R-rated superhero films are rare. Studios prefer PG-13 ratings for films they want to be blockbusters, for obvious reasons.

The MPAA states that Deadpool’s R-rating comes from “strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity.” Violence is, of course, very common in superhero films, though it’s almost always in a highly stylized, choreographed context (as opposed to the visceral realism of Saving Private Ryan). Strong language isn’t as common in the superhero genre, but it’s rare to see a film for grownups that doesn’t drop a few four letter epithets.

When it comes to the evangelicals that I know and talk to about movies, violence and language live on the low end of the Problematic Scale. Of course, cinematic violence can be nihilistic and inhumane, and coarse language can be over the top and abusive. But in general, violence and language are the least-weighted categories of movie vice. While an evangelical film critic may warn you about jarring violence or strong language, it’s unlikely, all other variables being equal, that those two things by themselves can actually warrant a spiritually-motivated abstention.

When it comes to sexuality and nudity, the opposite tends to be true. If language and violence are the least weighted content flags, sex and skin are the heaviest. It takes little sexual content–and virtually any nudity–to get most of my evangelical movie-buffs to refuse to see it, or refuse to give a recommendation. (I probably should clarify that nudity in the sense I am talking about is erotic and/or flippant, not the stomach-turning nudity of the Auschwitz prisoners in Schindler’s List)

This dynamic within much of evangelical cultural commentary is not uncontroversial. For example, some Christian film critics have accused this ethos of hypocrisy (and perhaps a little bit of sexism) for having a high tolerance for violence and such a low tolerance for sexuality. After all, isn’t violence, especially gun and war violence, more desensitizing to the soul–and more dangerous for younger, impressionable viewers– than a 2 minute love scene?

A case study here may be helpful. Alissa Wilkinson, a brilliant film critic and chief of Christianity Today’s movie review section, gave a 3.5 star (out of 4) review to the Martin Scorcese/ Leonardo DiCaprio flick The Wolf of Wall Street. The recommendation came accompanied with an entire section of the review that warned potential audiences of the graphic and non-stop nature of the movie’s sexual content. Wilkinson wrote that she admired the way the film demanded an emotional response from the audience, and that, as indulgent as the movie was, it would be “worth the risk” for some.

In response, Trevin Wax, an editor at The Gospel Coalition, linked to Wilkinson’s review and asked whether evangelical cultural engagement had left the door too open to the “unwatchable.” “At what point do we say,” Wax asked, “It is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?” Wilkinson concluded that the movie’s depictions served its story’s harsh judgment of the characters, while Wax was skeptical that a parade of sexual images could be justified at all.

This is an important question for me personally. I love movies and I love writing about them. I’m a critic by instinct. I want to think deeply about movies, and my love of great film has motivated me to see many obscure pictures that my friends often have no idea exist. I love living and thinking and writing in that world.

At the same time, my aspirations to movie criticism have been tempered with an increasing unwillingness to watch sexual nudity. Even as I try to raise intellectual objections to John Piper’s 7 reasons for Christians to not watch movies like Deadpool, I find myself more and more in alignment with his plea. On the whole, I think Christians would be better served in their lives, marriages, and imaginations if they made a point of avoiding films that simulate sexual acts or show nude characters.

Here are a few, very brief reasons I’ve arrived at this position:

  • In virtually every imaginable case, cinematic sex and nudity are placed intentionally into a film in order to give the audience an erotic or titillating experience. In other words, nude love scenes do NOT further a film’s basic storyline more than would having the characters close the door behind them, and fade out. The purpose of simulating intimacy on-screen is to invite the audience to participate in the erotic storytelling, and, as such, I don’t believe that a Christian, male or female, can simultaneously watch it and fulfill Christ’s command to not look at another person lustfully.
  • Piper’s distinction between violence, which is always fake, and nudity, which is never fake, seems to me very compelling. A gunfight between characters is entirely staged. The blood is phony, the bullets are rubber, and the explosions are highly controlled. But a nude actor is really nude, and thus, the audience does not have the epistemological distance from the sexual that it does have from the violent. If a superhero film were produced with real guns that really shot real extras, nobody would find it praiseworthy.
  • The Scriptures teach that the naked human body is not a morally neutral thing. The nakedness of Adam and Eve is precisely the characteristic that the author of Genesis uses to sum up their perfect sexual union (Gen. 2:25). The biblical prophets used public nakedness as a metaphor for a life lived apart from God (Ez. 16). This is not, I believe, a failure of the biblical writers to be “sex positive,” but an affirmation of what we all know by instinct to be true: That our naked bodies are precious, that they have a purpose, and that outside of God’s dominion the naked self is only a sign of shame and despair, not joy.
  • Films have a special kind of potency to shape our moral imaginations. The combination of imagery, dialogue, lighting, and music are what James K. A. Smith refers to as a “pedagogy of desire.” I believe that art not only tells a story but shapes our desires in the images of the stories it tells. To that end, I don’t want my desires to be shaped by the ridiculously unreal, freewheeling depiction of sexuality that movies present. Movie sex is nothing remotely like married sex, and my suspicion is that many people are in deeply frustrated, wounded relationships because they thought it was.

So there you have it, just a few thoughts on the Christian, the movie, and sex. I would love to hear your thoughts on this too.