Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Breeding Ground for Lust

Does pornography celebrate marriage? The question might cause you to snicker. And for good reason. The porn industry depicts sexual perversion, not sexual purity. Onscreen acts include fornication, adultery, sadomasochism, ménage à trios, and orgies (to name a few).

In contrast with the cheap thrills of porn, the Bible celebrates the act of sex within the context of the covenant of marriage. Husbands are encouraged to drink deeply from the well of conjugal relations (Pr. 5:15-19), and couples are told to enjoy sex often (1 Cor. 7:3-5). Both the Old and New Testaments prohibit sexual activity outside of marriage (Ex. 20:14; Pr. 6:24-35; Matt. 5:27-30; Eph. 5:3), for such acts are a denial of the God who made us and are damaging to one’s own body (1 Cor. 6:18-20).

As Christians, we believe sex is more than a physical act: it is a mystical union that ties two beings together, even if there is no love or commitment involved (1 Cor. 6:16). The monogamy provided in marriage points us to the faithfulness of Christ toward His beloved bride, the church. Sexual relations in marriage exist, at least in part, so that we may know God in Christ more fully. Sex is no mere triviality.

There’s obviously a great contrast between porn’s vision of sex and Scripture’s vision of sex. So how do we categorize sex acts portrayed in mainstream movies?

Succinctly put, mainstream sex scenes are largely characterized by lust. Does that sound like a controversial statement? It shouldn’t. Consider that the majority of sex scenes in films depict acts between unmarried persons. And it does more than just portray the immorality that exists in real life; it celebrates it:

In the movies, immorality in general, and fornication in particular, is almost unanimously portrayed as acceptable, if not laudable. [In sex scenes,] Hollywood isn’t just portraying reality. It’s putting a stamp of approval on immorality.

As I’ve pointed out before, even if it could be proven that depictions of married sex were legitimate forms of entertainment, we would still have to eliminate 99% of what Hollywood has to offer. Mainstream sex scenes regularly depict the same acts celebrated in porn: fornication, adultery, sadomasochism, ménage à trios, and orgies (to name a few).

A popular argument is that there are a lot of people who aren’t negatively affected by sex scenes in movies. While that may be true, I’d ask you to contemplate the questions listed in Sex Scenes in Movies Don’t Bother Me. There are a handful of factors that are regularly overlooked.

Is one sex scene likely to ruin your marriage or destroy your capabilities to enjoy your conjugal rights? No. (Although even one erotic image can easily be ingrained in one’s consciousness.) But we’re not talking about one or two instances, are we? We’re talking about regular, socially acceptable entertainment. Sexually imagery is powerful, and repeated exposure to sex acts outside of the marriage relationship encourages audiences to cultivate a taste for sex as it shouldn’t be.

What happens when you feed your soul a steady diet of sexualized, tantalizing, obscene, voyeuristic, unrealistic, lustful entertainment? You start to desire the love, excitement, and fulfillment supposedly found in immorality. You find an increasing desire for what God has said is off limits. You develop a stronger and stronger appetite for what God said you should never taste.

If you’re married, you may very well experience a weaker and weaker enjoyment in your spouse. You compare your spouse to the naked bodies you’ve seen on screen. You compare your love life to the thrilling, animalistic, lustfully euphoric sex depicted in movies. The lovemaking you experience with your spouse becomes more and more boring and unsatisfying.

To be clear, this is not because marital sex is inherently mundane. On the contrary! Rather, it is because you can’t fully enjoy what is pure when you have cultivated a taste for what is impure. And no one in the history of mankind has found true love and lasting fulfillment through sex outside of God’s provision. Fleeting pleasure, maybe, but never soul-enriching satisfaction. You can’t quench your thirst with salt water.

Just so there’s no mistake, I’m not saying it is wrong for films to deal with sexual topics—even sordid ones. Scripture deals with sordid sexual topics, and some movies should deal with sordid sexual topics. What I’m focusing on here, and what we’re focusing on in this blog series, is the narrow topic of onscreen sex acts. That’s it. You can disagree with me if you want, but please don’t disagree with something I’m not even saying.

What I am saying is simply this: whether it involves the protagonists or antagonists, central or secondary characters, most cinematic sex acts portray and normalize immorality. They encourage us to find sexual pleasure, not in our spouses, but in the looks and acts of others. They can’t help but promote what they portray. As I’ve argued earlier:

The reason all sex outside marriage—from the socially acceptable to the fairly “kinky” to the outright violent—is tantalizing is because it’s forbidden. Therefore, displaying a sex act on screen (real or simulated) is to display sex as it should not be. In other words, it is tantalizing. In other words, it is pornographic.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

INTERSTELLAR (2014) – Film Review

As a fan of Christopher Nolan, and of science fiction in general, I was intrigued to see what the revered auteur would bring to this particular genre. Would his storytelling genius wow audiences once again? Would this movie become my favorite sci-fi film of all time (as I dared to only slightly hope)?

In anticipation of the experience, I enacted a self-imposed media blackout: I decided that I wouldn’t watch any trailers for Interstellar or read any critical reviews before seeing the film for myself. I wanted to step into the theater with as little knowledge about the future as the astronauts in the movie. The fewer preconceived notions I harbored, the less likely I was to be disappointed—and the more likely I was to be satisfied.

So, what to my wondering eyes did appear? Let’s take a look. As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: morally objectionable content (C), artistic merit (A), and my personal opinions (P).

CONTENT (C): 9 out of 10
Let’s be honest: one problematic characteristic of Christopher Nolan is that he loves his anti-heroes. In his films, you find yourself rooting for people whom you wouldn’t invite over for dinner in real life. In this case, however, the main character is a more traditional protagonist. He is not just sympathetic, but also quite scrupulous. This is a man you can fully support.

One laudable characteristic of Christopher Nolan is that he consistently rejects opportunities for reveling in the obscene—and he’s been given the opportunity several times (not the least of which was the presence of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises). Nolan has taken the admirable path of decency once again in Interstellar, for which I am thankful.

Probably the most controversial elements of the film are a smattering of language (including the explosion of an f-bomb) and an implicit declaration that there is no room for faith in a world of science. Although, later in the film, another force is given its due reverence, which could be interpreted as either complementary or subversive to the earlier declaration. Whatever the case, there is a strongly humanistic slant to the film’s resolution, but it’s not anything I would consider problematic.

ARTISTRY (A): 8 out of 10
The most captivating aspect of this movie is Matthew McConaughey’s performance. The range of emotions experienced by his character are intensely palpable. If it were up to me, I’d nominate him for an Oscar.

The script is padded with a bit of extraneous material (a pointless baseball scene, redundant exterior shots of the spaceship, etc.), but it’s nothing terribly bad. Some critics might complain about logical inconsistencies, but those come naturally with a story saturated in metaphysics.

I love how Nolan decided to go completely silent for the shots of outer space. Such a restrained approach, especially when used in a few key plot points, is atypical for big-budget Hollywood—and, as a result, is more poetic. It shows that you don’t necessarily need to juice everything up to the nth degree in order to be dramatically effective.

The one place where I think Nolan is consistently weak is in the music department. He picks composers and/or scoring techniques that hover in the realm of mediocrity. True to form, the music composed for this film is bland, although there are a few moments of genuine creativity. Why composer Hans Zimmer chose to use an organ as his main instrument is beyond me. The instrumentation isn’t nearly as bad as that employed by Ennio Morricone in Mission to Mars, and it still technically works in the film, but I’d like to see a Christopher Nolan movie with a musical score that is more than just serviceable.

Speaking of audio problems, there are times when the music is mixed so loudly that the dialogue is incomprehensible. It only happens a few times, but the poor mixing quality is surprising, considering the caliber of those behind the camera.

PREFERENCE (P): 5 out of 10
Unfortunately, Interstellar isn’t anywhere near my favorite sci-fi movie. Not to say that I hated it. I never found it boring. In fact, I was fairly interested throughout the movie’s entire 169-minutes. But a Christopher Nolan film usually does a lot more than just keep me interested; it captivates me and, in the case of The Prestige, causes me to geek out long after the credits have rolled. That didn’t happen this time around.

And then there was the ending. I won’t give any spoilers, but I will say that I found the climax a bit…hokey. It didn’t take me out of the experience, but it did seem farfetched. Then again, Nolan is dealing with various phenomena about which we have only partial understanding. I can appreciate his attempt to avoid being clichéd in the third act; I just didn’t find it completely satisfying. (I will point out that my wife, who is smarter than I am, guessed one key aspect of the film’s ending only a scant few minutes into the movie. In that sense, she would say the ending was, if not clichéd, too predictable.)

If I were to rank all of Nolan’s films, I’d probably place Interstellar at or near the bottom. I don’t mean for that to be an insult. As I’ve said about Pixar, a bad Christopher Nolan film is still good filmmaking. It’s going to take a heck of a lot more than this for me to say the director has lost his touch. With Interstellar, he just didn’t touch my mind and heart as powerfully as I might have hoped.

CAP score: 73%

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Anti-Science, Anti-Pleasure, and Anti-Reality

* CONTENT ADVISORY: This topic requires a certain level of frankness that may be inappropriate for some readers. While I have taken great pains to avoid titillation, reader discretion is still advised. *

One scene in the screenplay for The Wolf of Wall Street required Margot Robbie to perform a sexually charged act: to take off a part of her clothing in a way that was…impractical.

“I remember thinking when I read it, ‘That’s just impossible,’” Robbie says. She actually sat down at home and tried it. “I was like, ‘No, I’m right, that is absolutely impossible.’” [1]

On the day that scene was shot, they had to improvise and come up with an alternative course of action. (I guess sometimes even Hollywood can’t make the impossible possible.)

This story illustrates a common trait of sex acts portrayed on film: they aren’t exactly rooted in reality. Porn is, of course, the worst offender. “True to life” is not something you’ll see plastered on the advertising for the latest titillation flick. Often, the sex acts in porn are downright fantastical—not in the “man, that’s great” sense, but in the “man, what alternate universe are they living in?” sense. Pornographic films can present us with sexual trysts that are outlandish. Apart from their tantalizing nature (and sometimes even in spite of it), they’re downright hilarious in their lack of realism.

You know what I’m talking about. A woman waltzes in to a public men’s room with a guy and they spontaneously copulate without anyone interrupting. A man opens the door to a woman’s house, walks right in, and the two go at it with the door wide open. A couple decides to have sex out in public, and the surrounding crowds respond not with horror but with enthusiastic support. Business associates riding in a limo suddenly have rabid intercourse with speed, style, and positioning that are physically impossible. Yes, porn isn’t interested in reality.

Except that the above scenarios are actually specific scenes from recent movies. In fact, if I listed the actors involved in those scenes, you would recognize four big-name Hollywood personalities. When it comes to describing the sex act, it seems that Tinseltown isn’t much more concerned with reality than porn is.

Think, for example, about sexually transmitted diseases, which areone of the most critical health challenges facing the nation today.” The CDC estimates that there are over 2,000 new infections every hour in the United States. The greatest protection from STDs, of course, is complete abstinence, followed by monogamy. Another form of protection is correct and consistent use of male latex condoms.

Porn doesn’t deal with these facts. But what about mainstream movies? How many films show, say, the use of condoms? Stop and think about that. Can you think of any instances?

Several years ago, I read somewhere (and I mentally kick myself for not saving the article) that the number of times “safer sex” has been portrayed in the entire history of cinema can be counted on one hand. That’s less than six presentations of condom use in over 100 years of filmmaking.

That number might need adjusting now, but the truth remains: Hollywood consistently gives us glamorized portrayals of unsafe sex. I won’t pretend to know all the reasons why, but there’s at least one: as Health.com acknowledges, “People are always complaining about condoms; they say they’re uncomfortable, kill their erections, or disrupt the intimacy or sensitivity of sex.” It’s harder for filmmakers to make a sex scene engaging when they’re forced to stumble through the unromantic process of breaking out the latex. It’s something of a mood killer.

STDs are rarely involved in cinematic plotlines that involve sexually promiscuous characters. Other than lewd comments or jokes, the dangerous reality of unprotected and non-monogamous sex is almost universally ignored. Practically no one uses condoms or ever contracts a sexually transmitted disease. How realistic is that?

Cinematic sex scenes are also unrealistic in that they present immorality as the most exciting and satisfying form of intercourse. To an incredibly large degree, sex acts portrayed in films are between unmarried persons. I guess it could be argued that movies are just portraying how most people live their lives. After all, sex outside marriage is common in our society.

The problem with that argument is not that it’s false but that it’s only part of the truth. Sex outside marriage isn’t simply acknowledged in our entertainment (movies, TV shows, magazines, books, video games, etc.)—it is also celebrated. In the movies, immorality in general, and fornication in particular, is almost unanimously portrayed as acceptable, if not laudable.

Hollywood isn’t just portraying reality. It’s putting a stamp of approval on immorality. Of all forms of sex, the film industry respects marital lovemaking the least of all, often downplaying it through the use of derogatory humor. This despite the fact that marriage-based, others-centered sex is the most satisfying of all. Sex scenes in movies don’t match scientifically-proven reality.

We’ve already touched on the unreality of certain sexual scenarios in film. These alternate reality situations extend also to the ways in which men and women are portrayed. As a general principle, men and women view sex differently: men are more experience-focused, whereas women are more relationship-focused. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Some women can be more sexually aggressive now than they were a couple decades ago, and porn use among women (something once considered a “man’s problem”) is on the rise.

Nevertheless, if you’ve had any experience in a long-term relationship with a member of the opposite sex, you’re more aware of the distinct differences between men and women. In contrast to this, women in sex scenes are often written to act just like men do: with a crazed libido focused almost exclusively on external experiences. Such scenarios are tantalizing for guys (which is one reason why porn is filled with them), but it’s not rooted in reality.

Speaking of personal experience in marriage, I remember a conversation in which one of my pastors emphatically stated how fake cinematic sex was. Not being married at the time, I wondered how fake it could actually be. I mean, sex is sex, right? Hollywood couldn’t get it that wrong.

Now that I’m married, I see more clearly what he was talking about. Cinema sex isn’t just a perversion, although it is that. It’s a mirage. A rip-off. A fantasy version of sex that doesn’t exist. As we’ve mentioned before, it sets up a standard for us to emulate, but it’s a standard that is impossible to meet. In that sense, sex scenes in movies are very much like porn.

[1] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/film/slapping-dicaprio-was-just-the-beginning-for-margo-robbie/article16265484 (I’m not directly linking to the article because of some risqué content.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Should We Label Hollywood as “Evil”?

Every year, thousands of children swarm Hollywood in search of fame, but what they often find under the surface is a deep and disturbing underbelly of manipulation and abuse.” So reads part of the description of An Open Secret, a new documentary set to premiere at DOC NY this year. The film is helmed by Amy Berg, the Oscar-nominated director of another documentary that deals with the theme of sexual abuse.

An Open Secret is “a sobering look at the lives of children who were exploited and assaulted by some of Hollywood’s most powerful players.” The film’s title suggests that these secret crimes weren’t so much secret as they were ignored or glossed over. If the content of the movie is true, it’s a scathing indictment of the culture in which much of moviemaking takes place.

It reminds me of my blog post Hollywood’s Secret Rape Culture, in which I talk about the many ways actors—especially women—are abused and mistreated in the process of filming scenes that require nudity and/or sex acts. This rape culture is simultaneously well known (by those in the industry) and relatively unknown (by audiences).

On top of all that, consider the Sex Scenes = Porn blog series we’re currently going through. We can label such scenes “professional” all we want, but just because a movie isn’t slapped with an NC-17 rating, it doesn’t mean all is calm on the Western front of Mr. Rogers’ friendly little neighborhood. (Sorry for the mixed metaphors.)

With all of these considerations, should we write off Hollywood as a lost cause? Is it a subculture so steeped in depravity that it’s beyond salvaging? Should we just slap Tinseltown with a label marked “Evil” and be done with it?

I could be wrong, but I believe the answer is no. Why? Well, such a label is, I think, overly simplistic. In all my critiques of the industry, I don’t want to paint Hollywood with such a broad brush as to condemn everything that plays in a local theater.

It’s way too easy to condemn Hollywood as a whole, ignoring the fact that the institution itself is made up of different studios, producers, directors, actors, and screenwriters who are varied in their approach to controversial subjects, and some of those approaches are not just permissible but laudable. Jeffrey Overstreet recently listed several such laudable examples:

Look at the films of Scott Derrickson, which have earned high praise in the horror genre, but which affirm Christian beliefs and focus on the reality of spiritual warfare and the overwhelming power of Christ. I’m a big fan of Sinister and I admired both The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Deliver Us From Evil

Look at the favorable reviews for films based on the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other great Christian artists. . . .

Look at the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire. Classics like Babette’s Feast and, going back farther, Ordet. Look at how many of these films reflect Christianity and are legendary in film history.

Look at the not-so-blatantly religious films coming from Pixar, films that celebrate Christian values. Some of Pixar’s most prominent directors and writers have publicly professed Christian faith.

And that’s only a sampling of what Overstreet’s article addresses.

Another problem with labeling Hollywood as evil is that it can lead to (or spring from) a misguided notion about the source of true evil. Even when the Bible condemns worldliness, it points us back to the source of that worldliness: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). In other words, worldliness is just a term for what happens when the evils of men spring out and into culture.

This evil is, at root, a heart problem. We can spend most of our efforts keeping evil at bay by retreating from a secular culture. Our problem, though, is not primarily outward, but inward. Labeling Hollywood as unredeemable and ignoring movies altogether can indicate a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature (and treatment) of evil.

Speaking of the true source of corruption, I guess you could say there is a sense in which we can—and should—say that Hollywood is evil. If we’re trying to make a theological point about the universal sinfulness of man, than such a label would be appropriate. Even Jesus called His disciples evil—not scathingly or in rebuke, but in a simple, matter-of-fact way (see Luke 11:13). Hollywood is filled with sinful people, but that would be true even if Hollywood generated only G-rated fare that didn’t offend anyone’s sensibilities.

So if we can’t categorically condemn everything Hollywood produces, how are we as a church supposed to respond? I’m glad you asked. (Well, I’m glad I asked for you, at least.) In his book Worldly Amusements, Wayne A. Wilson lists four possible responses:

1.     Avoidance (don’t watch movies at all)
2.     Silence (don’t talk about movies; just let everyone do what they feel is right)
3.     Engagement (immerse yourself in culture in order to be relevant)
4.     High Standards (use wisdom and discernment; abhor what is evil and cling to what is good)

It’s obvious he is a proponent of the fourth view. As he explains, there are at least four benefits to this response:

1.     It avoids legalism by seeking to apply Scripture without adding to or detracting from it
2.     It gives art its due, acknowledging its power for good and evil
3.     It honors the performers by enabling us to obey Christ’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves (as we’ve talked about, among other places, here and here and here and here)
4.     It honors the Word of God by acknowledging that there are applicable principles we should adhere to

True, the High Standards position is much harder to maintain than mere avoidance, or absolute silence, or full immersion. But it is the most Christ-like response. By the Spirit of Christ, let us exercise true discernment by engaging Hollywood with both the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves (Matt. 10:16).

photo credit (cropped and inverted): shdowchsr via photopin cc

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

When Did Voyeurism Stop Being a Vice?

Did you know that the term “peeping Tom” was inspired by an 18th-century story? As legend goes, Lady Godiva persistently begged her husband, the Earl of Coventry, to ease the tax burden of the people under him. Finally, in exasperation, he promised to acquiesce only if she rode through the town on horseback—in the nude. She agreed.

During her ride, the townsfolk remained indoors out of respect—all of them, that is, except one man. This person’slustful curiosity compelled him to gaze at her and [he] was then, according to various versions of the legend, struck either blind or dead in punishment.” What was the pervert’s name? I’ll give you a three-lettered guess.

No Christian would want to be labeled a peeping Tom. After all, it is indecent and immoral to receive sexual pleasure by watching someone other than your spouse undress or engage in sexual activity. We fully acknowledge that.

Or do we? Douglas Wilson says we do not. In his book Reforming Marriage, he lays before our eyes the naked truth (so to speak):

Many Christians are willing to watch, by means of a movie camera, what they wouldn’t dream of watching in person. You couldn’t get them into a topless bar, and yet they cheerfully go to films where they see far more. Would most Christian men be willing to be peeping Toms, roving the neighborhood? Certainly not. But what if they discovered a woman who knew of their presence and was willing to undress in front of the window? That would be worse. What if she were paid to do all this? Worse, worse, and still worse. And if she is paid lots of money, has a producer and director, does all this for the movie cameras, and has millions of men drooling at her window sill? This is suddenly different and becomes quite a “complicated” issue. (p. 111)

Pastor Wilson is exactly right. In light of what Scripture has to say about public nudity and public sex, and in light of what we’ve already studied in this blog series, it isn’t the issue that is complicated, but rather the tangled web that is own hearts.

Have you noticed that one of the main ways we as a society seek sexual enjoyment is through watching? We justify gazing on people sexually acting out by labeling it as entertainment. We peruse articles telling us what it was like for Actor X to kiss (or share a sex scene with) Actress Y in Movie Z. We pore over Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit magazines with relish. We play videogames that invite us to ogle their characters’ bodies. It could be argued, I suppose, that we’re not actually participating in any sex act ourselves. After all, we’re just watching. But that’s just a denial of how the sex act works. The authors of Every Man’s Battle make a helpful clarification:

For males, impurity of the eyes is sexual foreplay. . . . Because foreplay is any sexual action that naturally takes us down the road to intercourse. Foreplay ignites passions, rocketing us by stages until we go all the way. . . . No doubt about it: Visual sexual gratification is a form of sex for men. As males, we draw sexual gratification and chemical highs through our eyes. (pp. 66, 68)

In light of the sexual nature of even simulated sex scenes, the sexual stimulation that occurs in such acts (for both actors and viewers), and the obscenity involved in these scenes, it’s no wonder that they promote voyeurism.

Cinematic sex scenes and porn films invite us to do something we were never designed to do: watch people sexually act out. Through the medium of film, we have grown accustomed to gazing on moments of intimacy. Something about putting a camera lens between the participants and us provides enough distance for us to squelch our conscience and soak in the sights and sounds of sex.

All in the name of entertainment.

I’m not up in arms about this because I’m an opponent of pleasure, though. Just the opposite! Voyeurism is a poor substitute for true sexual enjoyment. In our voyeuristic culture, we find ourselves needing the sexuality of those outside our relationships in order to enjoy even our own relationships. We treat blatant porn or “acceptable” cinematic sex as the standard to which we (secretly, at least) hope to attain. Only when we can make our sex lives mirror the lives of those we see on screen do we feel like we’ll be happy. We’ve made an unnatural connection between voyeurism and sexual release, between the sex we see on the screen and the sex we hope to enjoy in our own lives.

That is not how sex was designed. God created sexual intercourse to be enjoyed personally, not vicariously. Through His provision of marriage, He wants us to experience the ecstasy of sex firsthand, not secondhand. He has provided us a way to enjoy true intimacy, not just to be on the outside looking in, snagging meager scraps that fall off the table of stars and supermodels.

Remember also that God created our sexuality to know Him more fully. His provision of marital union is an image of the personal and harmonious relationship between Christ and His church. Through marriage, God calls us to see His love and devotion for His cherished, blood-bought bride.

Just as God did not design us to be sexual voyeurs, He also didn’t design us to be spiritual voyeurs. Through the gospel (which is illustrated in the marriage relationship), He calls us to know Him personally, not vicariously. He invites us to experience His grace firsthand, not secondhand. He offers us the privilege of knowing Him intimately, not to watch from the outside.

When all is said and done, voyeurism isn’t so horrible because it seeks pleasure, but because it involves trading in covenantal enjoyment for cheap thrills. It leaves us with much less than God has promised. With that in mind, do we really want to defend entertainment choices that offer such a bastardized version of the beauty and glory of sex?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Turning Sex Into a Spectator Sport

In the wonderfully entertaining film Captain America: Winter Soldier, there’s a scene where two fugitives, a man and a woman, are trying to avoid being caught. A corrupt official who knows them is about to walk by, so the lady turns to the guy with a plan: he needs to kiss her. Confused, he asks why. She answers, “Public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable.” And so they kiss. It’s not a racy kiss, but it still causes the corrupt official to turn his head slightly away, effectively causing him to miss the fact that he just passed by his targets.

We all instinctively respond the same way, don’t we? As a culture, we may be more comfortable with PDA than we were, say, a couple decades ago, but we still don’t automatically gawk when two lovebirds share airtime. Rather, if we see a couple making out in public, our inclination is to turn away. This response hints at something we all instinctually know: intimate moments are not for public observation.

Sexual intimacy isn’t something God positioned on center stage. It is not a spectator sport. And regardless of your stance on PDA, the Christian position regarding the sex act itself is that it is supposed to be off stage, so to speak. A violation of this principle in our entertainment turns art into porn. It is a failure both artistically and morally. Let’s look at the artistic problems first.

An artistic failure

How is a public display of sex (real or simulated) an artistic failure? In his book Reading Between the Lines, Gene Edward Veith says it “violates aesthetic decorum” (p. 36). Pointing to the Greeks, who admittedly “were hardly prudish or moralistic,” Veith notes how ancient dramas avoided certain words and deeds on stage. They dealt with violence and sex, for sure, but they did so through “exalted poetry,” not explicit acts that took viewers out of the experience of the story.

Fast forward to modern-day filmmaking:

When an actor and an actress take off their clothes in a movie, viewers begin reacting sexually instead of aesthetically. The dramatic effect is interrupted and displaced by the sexual effect. Stimulating an audience artistically takes skill and craft; stimulating them sexually is far easier. (p. 36)

Anyone with a pulse knows this to be true. We label such scenes as “hot” and “steamy” because of how they affect us. (Heck, my dictionary’s definition for the word “steamy” uses the phrase “steamy sex scenes” as the example.)

When filmmakers present us with an up-close view of an intensely personal and sexual act, they become (unlike Gandalf the Grey) conjurers of cheap tricks. We stop responding to the characters in the movie as characters. Or, as Donald Sutherland once put it, “When I take my clothes off people are no longer looking at me as a character, they’re looking at me with no clothes on.” [1]

When we’re faced with a sex scene on screen, we’re left with feeling either uncomfortable (like those who come across couples making out in public) or aroused (like peeping Toms anxious for titillation)—or possibly a mixture of both. Whatever the case, sex scenes are an aesthetic canker that pushes audiences out of the story.

A moral failure

For the Christian, the problem is not only artistic, but also moral. Veith continues:

The moral problem with obscenity is even more significant than the aesthetic problem. We might think of the “obscene,” in the Greek sense, as portrayals of what should be kept private. Sexuality is for the private intimacy of marriage, not for public eyes. Striptease shows are obscene, not because nudity is wrong but because nudity is private. To pay a woman to take her clothes off in front of crowds of ogling men is to violate her in a very brutal way. Public sex is obscene, not because sex is evil but because sex is sacred. (p. 37)

As I mentioned earlier, the sex act is, by God’s design, inherently private. To publicize the act is to pervert the act. Sex gone public is sex gone wrong.

In the book of Proverbs, the author of our sexuality speaks about His design for its enjoyment:

Drink water from your own cistern, and running water from your own well. Should your fountains be dispersed abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be only your own, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of your youth. As a loving deer and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her love. (Pr. 5:15-19)

Sexual enjoyment that is pure and satisfying and fulfilling involves this component: keeping your experiences private—away from outside intrusion. Public sexuality is no more refreshing than a broken well whose water leaks out and runs through the dirt.

In contrast with our Creator’s beautiful provision of covenant faithfulness, exclusivity, and holy pleasure, sex on the silver screen offers an obscene, pornographic substitute. This cheap replica defiles true pleasure, as well as our experience of the One who created us to delight in that pleasure. For the glory of God and the enjoyment of our own souls, let us not be content with inferior copycats of God’s abundant provisions.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/my-mums-going-to-see-this-actors-and-actresses-reveal-secrets-of-the-sex-scenes-7658255.html (I’m not providing a direct link to the article because of its explicit nature.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

“But Professional Actors Aren’t Sexually Affected”

* CONTENT ADVISORY: The specificity this topic requires may be inappropriate for some readers. I will quote from (and cite) a couple articles that, due to their explicit nature, I would not recommend visiting.*

While on the set of an independent film, I overheard one of the actresses talk about a sex scene she had done in a theatrical production. Based on her limited understanding of male anatomy, it was obvious she wasn’t a girl given to immorality in her everyday life. In fact, she might have even considered herself a Christian (I saw her reading a copy of Left Behind during a lunch break). Whatever the case, the way she described the sex scene made it obvious that her male co-star was sexually aroused by the experience—something he apologized to her for.

Now, I’ve heard it argued that simulated sex scenes in works of art (as opposed to real sex scenes in porn) are devoid of any sense of eros. They’re all business and no pleasure, so to speak. So was the story I heard just an isolated incident?

Hardly. The article ‘My mum’s going to see this’: Actors and actresses reveal secrets of the sex scenes attempts to explore what goes on during the filming of a sex scene “when titillation is not the primary ambition.” [1]

Although all the actors interviewed [for this article] claimed sex scenes were unerotic to film, apocryphal tales of male actors who can’t hide their arousal are as old as cinema. . . . Adds [actress Chloë] Sevigny: “There’s the famous cliché where the boys say, ‘Excuse me if I get hard... [and] excuse me if I don’t.’”

The article continues a little later:

[T]hespian lore is full of tales of actors getting carried away while simulating sex, and also of actors suddenly wishing that the love-making was for real. “Sidney Lumet says in his book on directing that when actors fall for each other it will either be in the rehearsal or the shooting of the love scene,” says [actress Natalie] Dormer.

A perusal through the article reveals that emotions and/or hormones can run high during these scenes, often in negative ways—especially for the women (an issue we’ve dealt with before and will revisit sometime in the future). Sexual arousal can be a very present hindrance in times of filming (so to speak). Not only that, but the filming of a sex scene can lead actors to generate emotional attachments to the point of actually falling in love.

As noted above, men are more susceptible to sexual arousal during sex scenes. Actress Maria Di Angelis concurs:

You have to have a sense of humor about filming these scenes. But the men, especially, have to keep themselves in check. [2]

What do men in particular need to keep in check? The answer is obvious: their libido. This makes sense, seeing as how men are generally more visually oriented then women. And since they also generally tend to treat sex more impersonally, they can more easily get hormonally involved without there being any real relationship between them and their female counterparts.

Maria Di Angelis was involved in the orgy scene in The Wolf of Wall Street. Considering that Martin Scorsese was at the helm, she figured this was as good a time as any to do a nude scene. After the shoot, she overheard two male actors talking about her part in the scene:

“I couldn’t help but get an erection,” one of them said. “It was so hot.”

(When the men realized she had heard them talking about her, they quickly apologized.)

Of course, it’s not always just men who struggle on set. One lady who pretended to have sex with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street (in the same scene as above) kept acting like it was real. Angelis, who was present for the incident, said, “She was very—how can I say?—enthusiastic. It wasn’t acting.”

So we see that men (primarily) and women (occasionally) can’t just turn off their sexuality when participating in sexually explicit scenarios. It would seem the human psyche short circuits when attempting to separate sexual actions from sexual feelings.

Notice also how the men in the above scenarios acted when they were “caught” responding to their co-stars sexually: they apologized. They were aware that a line of indecency had been crossed, and the instinctual response was to say, “I’m sorry.”

But there’s another problem with saying sex scenes aren’t arousing for actors. It’s found in a short snippet from the article we first looked at:

…films where the actors have real, as opposed to simulated sex, are becoming more common.

You can’t say actors are uninvolved sexually/hormonally if they are actually having intercourse for the camera. In fact, there’s a word for that: pornography.

Sexual arousal = lust?

In their book Every Man’s Battle, Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker define sexual purity this way: it is “receiving no sexual gratification from anything or anyone outside of your husband or wife.” The book itself is problematic (I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it), but I think this definition is helpful in its specificity.

In light of such a definition, it is problematic for you as an actor—especially if you’re a man—to agree to star in a film that will require simulated sex. Your subsequent sexual arousal cannot be labeled as a merely innocent biological reaction.

Having said that, let me reiterate something I said last week: sexual arousal is not synonymous with lust. If you’re shopping for groceries, a scantily clad woman struts by, and you find yourself sexually aroused, that in and of itself is not a sin. It is an opportunity to sin, but it is, at that moment, a temptation only. (I know it’s easy in our minds to equate temptation with sin, but the two are far from equal.)

What Scripture forbids is actively giving ourselves an opportunity to sin: “make no provision for the flesh” (Rom. 13:14); “do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:13). If you purposefully put yourself in harm’s way, you are being foolish at best and downright sinful at worst. Praying “lead me not into temptation” while willingly putting yourself on the path of temptation is an exercise in futility.

My main point is simply that sex scenes in movies can be, and often are, sexually arousing to actors. We must not pretend otherwise—especially when considering how to best show Christian love to the actors whom we pay to entertain us.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/my-mums-going-to-see-this-actors-and-actresses-reveal-secrets-of-the-sex-scenes-7658255.html

[2] http://nypost.com/2013/12/23/my-orgy-with-leonardo-dicaprio