John Shelton’s recent Mere Orthodoxy piece, Talking About Sex in a Pornographic Culture, struck a chord with me. I think he’s correct, perhaps even more than he intends to be. John makes the point that in a culture that is awash in sexual imagery—i.e., a culture where pornography is not merely available but permeates the popular imagination—it is impossible to buck against objectification by using nudity. He uses the example of a Hollywood film that is said to be anti-porn. Narrative-wise, it is. Aesthetically, however, the film indulges its own pornographic impulse. In choosing to explicitly depict the porn lifestyle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s film
Much as I like Scorcese, you're spot on about the moral lens of his films. I've seen too many young men look at Goodfellas or Wolf Of Wall Street and take away the exact opposite message than the one that was apparently intended. These craven protagonists are supposed to be grotesques, but some people simply see the excess as something to be imitated and pursued.
I would go further, actually, on the point about pornographic film making. Watching through the Marvel series with my kids, I was struck by how "pornographic" the camera scenes were in the way they depicted and objectified men's and women's bodies. So I think it goes further than explicit sex scenes. The camera angles themselves can be pornographic grooming.
I think early Scorsese tends to glorify violence, and even he would say that (that's why he created Irishman). Later Scorsese brilliantly brings out moral ambiguity. He's not trying to condemn violence, because he's allergic to self-righteousness. Which I love about him, actually. He's trying to find the evil in himself, and be honest about it. So in that sense, I don't think you're understanding his (later) stuff. But I haven't seen Killers yet. Going to see it Wednesday.
Such a tremendous line: "serenading it with a sublime or catchy soundtrack, and after a while my emotions are unsure if I’m supposed to be revulsed or intrigued." I did find @nicholasmcdonald's comment that Scorsese is "allergic to self righteousness" and "trying to find the evil in himself."
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. Much to think about.
So I think you’re off on Killlers here. I don’t think it fits the category of “pornographic” at all. The graphic violence was part of the point that the film was trying to make, which is that these women were killed, and for decades, nobody cared. In fact, the callousness with which these women were killed stoked outrage in me throughout the film. There was no remorse for killing these women, because they were Indians, and so the white community didn’t care. The structural racism of the town of Gray Horse was present everywhere in the film, from this callousness, to the allotments that Mollie and others had to endure because the government decided they couldn’t spend their own wealth without restrictions by virtue of their being Native American. I think Scorsese wanted to force the viewers to be confronted with the violence against these women, and I didn’t find it gratuitous at all, though it was uncomfortable. As far as the worldview of the film, it is true that there’s some hopelessness there. But that’s because after this event historically, nothing at large changed for the Native American people. Even today, tragedies befall them that the general public simply does not care about. If there’s any critique I have of the film, it’s that it didn’t go far enough in depicting the brutality inflicted against the Osage people during that time. I did not walk away from the film happy. But I certainly walked away changed. I also acknowledge the style of this film may not be for everyone. But I think calling it pornographic in some way is off the mark.
Thanks for writing this thoughtful piece.
How does the role of a Christian movie critic interface with Philippians 4:8? It's not like their job is to only watch Passion of the Christ or Toy Story 6.
I've been a Christian for a long time and find it hard enough to not sin (while watching very few films) -- to think I could watch sin portrayed as vividly as I've heard it is in some films isn't understandable to me. I think the graphic intensity would be forever seared into memory.
NOT CASTING STONES. This is just me in my inestimable ignorance. And yes, I may be too prudish.
I avoid violence too, even if it is "artistic"! Great insights as ever....
Resounding agreement. I’m thinking of “on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” and “it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret” from one of John’s letters and from Ephesians. Quoted loosely. Honestly it goes along with what you have sometimes (I think) mentioned, that Christians cannot use the means that the enemy uses in politics, for instance, for the side of the light. Jesus cares about the means in itself. He *is* the means—to paraphrase “I am the way.” Also Marshall McLuhan, whom I have not actually read but you probably have. The medium is the message. I will say, though, that you never know how God is going to use a thing. I don’t personally see any use to violent movies, but I can’t even stand Terence Malik (sp?) whom so many Christians are gaga over. His stuff is too dark for me. (I’ve only seen half of Tree of Life.) But perhaps you would say that’s qualitatively different somehow—I can’t stand any of it, so I am not exactly a nuanced critic.
Solid insights as usual - thanks very much!
Yes - I would agree that many Christian critics of culture and movies esp. are betwist 2 positions - their Christian community and their social engagement in this fallen world. I wonder if a reason why some Christian critics is because their theological understanding and convictions are too thin or narrow? It seems to me that the theology of many of the popular Christian critics goes no deeper than CS Lewis, Tolkien, Wendell Perry, Marianne Robinson, maybe even Nouwen, etc... But the surrounding culture is filled with bigger monsters and challenges that require thicker, high-impact theology?
Interestingly my thoughts about the German remake of "All Quiet on the Western Front" (based on the book which had touched me profoundly) were similar to your thoughts on "Killers of the Flower Moon". I'm increasingly doubtful of the potential of (hyper)realism in art and popular culture as vehicle for moral reflection and/or change.
An excellent piece, Samuel! Well put. Interestingly enough, in his academic book 'The Space of Sex: The Porn Aesthetic in Contemporary Film' (2021), Shelton Waldrep examines the works of recent directors who have dabbled with "not making porn films with a minimal plot but rather making conventional films that integrate porn elements" (p. 8), one of those works being 'Don Jon.' Sadly enough, secular scholars like Waldrep seem to have a better grasp of porn's influence over pop culture than many Christian critics and filmgoers do.
I resonate with your perception of Scorsese's stylistic choices. He often utilizes filming and editing techniques that work against the message he intends. 'Wolf of Wall Street' may be the worst offender. One particular scene in that film (the charter plane orgy sequence) involved actors who were sexually turned on even as they participated in the proceedings. As I have written elsewhere, "Those who fall back on Scorsese’s good intentions in filming material like this—to expose the evils of these debauched businessmen—must reckon with the reality that the material, by virtue of its pornographic nature, came across (at least to some—not the least of which were other actors in the same scene) as sexually arousing, not morally repulsive" (https://capstewart.substack.com/p/does-top-gun-maverick-treat-women).
"Why would these people feel outrage toward such a thing? What part of their conscience is awake enough to respond to William Hale’s genocidal crime ring?"
YES. Excellent piece.