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.

Previous entry: Anti-Science, Anti-Pleasure, and Anti-Reality
Next entry: Dehumanizing Actors for Our Entertainment

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.

Previous entry: When Did Voyeurism Stop Being a Vice?
Next entry: A Breeding Ground for Lust

[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.)