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Movies, Moral Revulsion, and a Post-Christian Age
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 Don Jon produces in its viewers a contrary effect to the one the director claims to want.
We can take Gordon-Levitt at his word when he insists the intent of his film is not to promote porn but to critically examine the way it wreaks havoc in our relationships. Even still, porn functions like a virus. As much as Don Jon’s director might hope that it is sufficiently weakened to inoculate us against further evils, it is too resilient to be turned to our noble ends. Some things simply cannot be tamed. Kavin Rowe rightfully warns that “contrary to our contemporary sense that images are inert, Christian reflection on their power has repeatedly discerned that images are in fact more powerful than we are. They are often our masters, and not we theirs.”
Shelton’s point is one that I believe has gained much more potency in the #MeToo era. Consider an example I’ve referenced more than once: the actress Salma Hayek’s testimony that producer Harvey Weinstein threatened to pull the funding for her historical film if she did not include, at his behest, a lesbian sex scene. Hayek obliged, and had nervous, vomiting breakdown on-set.
To a culturally elite, post-Christian audience, a nude love scene represents realism and liberation. Film critics would strenuously object to the idea that it is pornographic. Such a scene, they would say, tells the truth about characters. People have sex. Movies are about people. Thus, explicit sex in films can, and often are, merely truthful expressions. But Hayek’s testimony suggests something else entirely. The reason such a scene exists is not creative genius or concern for historical accuracy. It exists because of one powerful man and his rapacious desires. It exists not for the audience’s illumination but for one person’s gratification. It is pornography, specially brewed for Harvey Weinstein.
Shelton is thus absolutely right that Christian writers and critics should stop giving explicit films a pass simply on the basis that their narrative arcs seem to criticize the thing being depicted. The point is not that it is impossible for a screenplay to pass a moral judgment against something depicted; the point is, especially when it comes to sexuality, the depiction is itself a moral moment. The imagery of sex awakens desire, and in a culture where pornographic imagery has triumphed over stigma and now supplies most people with their categories of sexual experience, there is no longer any clear line (if there ever were one) between visual sexual experience that elicits our outrage and that which elicits our lust.
Eliciting moral outrage is not a straightforward business. I’ve been meditating on this point since Saturday, when I saw Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. The movie is an unrelentingly brutal film (not sexually; ironically, its handling of love scenes is exemplary). It invites the audience to witness, for three and a half hours, a jaw-droppingly depraved scheme to murder and steal from a people who are largely unable to defend themselves. This is, of course, true to life. The film is based on a bestselling book of true crime journalism that tells the story of a horrifying chapter in the history of the Osage tribe in the early 20th century. This story deserves to be told first as a monument to victims whose blood has cried out for justice for a century, and second as another historical record of injustice toward Native Americans.
The way that Scorsese decided to adapt the book, however, left me feeling numb, not outraged. I won’t say much more than that, except to add that I’ve consistently found Scorsese’s style in this regard to be an example of what I described above. He points his camera directly at evil, sometimes 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. Killers is better than most of his films in this regard, but there’s still an affective emptiness to the whole thing. This story exists in a godless, justice-less universe, and the way the camera looks at the universe is affected accordingly.
This kind of critique is easy to dismiss. Killers is history—brutal history. It would be another kind of injustice to put lipstick on this narrative, to make it happier simply for the sake of the audience. Yes. But there is more than one way to tell a story in a deceptive way.
And here’s where I think Shelton’s point about our own porn-ified context matters. In a culture that is post-Christian, unsure of basic moral categories, and unresponsive to most things except the desire for fame and notoriety, how does a film composed of quick-cut murders and well-dressed gangsters land on the public imagination? Do most young men go into a Scorsese film and come away convinced that death and hell await people who trample over the defenseless? Do Andrew Tate’s YouTube followers come out of these movies feeling in their soul that they really ought not do such a thing? Are daily users of PornHub outraged while watching women being inebriated, poisoned, and then shot in the head? Or perhaps it is better to ask the question a different way. 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?
It seems to me that the idea that you can elicit moral revulsion merely by depicting evil assumes two things. First, it assumes that the realm of the visual can be manipulated to bypass titillation and proceed straight to condemnation. Second, it assumes an audience who possess a moral imagination that would both motivate and equip them to do this. The first assumption could be false. The second assumption absolutely is. Secular society, aided by the liturgical effect of the Internet and the pornographic nature of the Web, has long been feeding itself on images of the morally outrageous. I’m not talking about the “dark web” or the furthest, dirtiest corners of media. I’m talking about rape porn in the most influential, most popular, most award-winning TV shows of the decade.
Christian media critics need to consider not just the intrinsic effects of visual media, but the cultural context in which they occur. This is, after all, part of what it means to be Christian critics. The task is not merely to find a creation-fall-redemption subtext in every cultural artifact. It’s to bring a theological anthropology to bear on what we mean when we say words like “art,” or “true,” or “just.” And we ought not be afraid of engaging critically with filmmakers or films that enjoy widespread acclaim. Imagine being a Christian critic in the early 2000s, feeling a sense of revulsion at the sex scene in Frida, but being unwilling to call it out lest you be labeled. There’s always more going on than a secular worldview ever allows.