There’s a movie that just came out this weekend. You may have heard of it: it’s about a tortured man who appears successful (at least in certain ways) on the outside, but is hiding a deep hurt and pain within. This hurt directly affects his romantic relationships, for all intents and purposes shutting off the possibility of genuine vulnerability and intimacy, leaving him instead with the intense desire to control whichever woman he is with, making her follow a rigid set of rules he has established for how their ‘relationship’ will have to go, if she wants to “be with” him. Ultimately, his view of his romantic partner is purely sexualized: she is, to him, nothing but her sexuality, which must be manipulated to fit his (and only his) desires for what sexuality has to look like.
Really, the movie—like its main character’s view of women—is all about sex. And that’s why everyone expects it to make a boatload of money. It knows what its audience wants, and it plans to give it to them.
The movie I’m talking about is, of course, Old-Fashioned. Were you thinking of something else? Perhaps you thought I was referring to 50 Shades of Grey, the Hollywood blockbuster, based on the international best-selling trilogy, that explicitly depicts bondage and masochistic-themed sex. Grey has generated its fair share of controversy: a bishop and several Baptist organizations have called for Christians to boycott the movie because it is an “attack on Christian marriage,” while other Christians and domestic violence groups have protested the film and also called for a boycott over the films glorification of abusive behavior. In fact, the movement to boycott the film has even spawned its own hashtag–#50dollarsnot50shades–which, in turn, now has its own Facebook page.
Clearly, there are problems with 50 Shades of Grey. And those problems are causing a lot of Christians to wonder whether they should watch the film or not. Some people might question the motivation behind the Christian angst, but I don’t think it’s bad to question whether we should watch a particular movie or not. I do question, though, what criteria we are using to help us make these decisions.
What makes a movie “good” or “bad”? With Grey, the focus has largely been on the underlying “message” of the film, whether that message is perceived to be “Abuse is sexy” or “Pornography is cool.” But little attention (at least so far) in these “Christian conversations” has been given to the fact that the movie is just poorly made. It has as 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a MetaScore of 47 out of 100 and gets an aggregate score of just 3.3 out of 10 on IMDB (based on reviews from over 15,000 viewers). Some professional critics have given backhanded (at best) compliments (my favorite so far: “sort of classy-looking, in a generic, TV-ad-for-bath-oil way”), but in general, the consensus seems to be that the movie is poorly directed, unevenly acted, poorly written (though perhaps less badly written than the book; backhanded compliments again), and—this might be the most damning criticism of all, for a movie of this type—fairly boring. After all, movies are not just complicated content-delivery systems; shouldn’t a movie be evaluated, at least in part, by how good it is as a movie?
I ask this question, in part, because during the lead up to the movie’s release, I really wanted to ask the people encouraging boycotts: “so, what movie should I watch instead of this one? If this movie is ‘bad’, what movie would be ‘better’?”
The “Christian” film industry1 is ready with its answer: Old-Fashioned.
But what makes this movie “better” than 50 Shades of Grey? That depends on what you think the “problem” is with 50 Shades of Grey. The marketers of Old-Fashioned (and they aren’t alone) seem to think that the problem is that Grey is simply perverted in its depiction of love and sexuality; Old-Fashioned is better because it has a better ‘message’ concerning love and sexuality. I have two questions for people who would pursue this line of argument to say that Old-Fashioned is “better”:
What meaning of ‘love’ is portrayed here? The tagline of the film is “Love is patient, love is kind, love is…Old-Fashioned.” An obvious allusion is being made to 1 Corinthians 13, the standard “Biblical definition” of love. It is worth quoting at some length here: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
How does the film (at least as portrayed in the marketing video) live up to this definition of love? Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the tagline stops its Biblical quotation when it does. The main character certainly seems to keep records of wrongs (at least his own, if not also other people’s), and certainly does not seem to trust (others or himself). Further, the film appears, at least to some who have seen it, to be the epitome of pride and boasting, and this promotional video fairly clearly dishonors others (specifically, in this case, 50 Shades of Grey). Does this movie really help us love the world better—or does it just let us feel comfortable that we are right and safe, and the ‘world’ is going to hell in a hand-basket?
Is this a healthy vision of sexuality? In the movie, Clay refuses to ever be alone with a woman who is not his wife. Is this “rule” of his commendable for its chastity—or does it suggest an over-emphasis on the sexuality of women, as if all he can think about when he’s around women is their sexuality? The trailer implies that Clay will not kiss the woman he’s dating. Is that an appropriate “rule” to live by? Or do both of these rules repeat the sexual perversity of our culture’s view of sex: that women are primarily sexual beings, that sexuality can be reduced to specific sex acts, and that those sex acts are a matter of individual control, pleasure, and benefit? Is the only difference between Clay and Christian Grey that, while both think of women primarily in sexual terms, one refuses his desires while the other controls them (as the promotional video suggests)? If so, I think both movies offer us a perverted version of sexuality. If we, as Christians, think sexuality is created by God as a way of uniting two people “to become one flesh,” then we think sexual desires should be neither all-consuming nor absent or ignored. Rather, we need to discover how to develop our sexuality so that it helps join two into one flesh, rather than driving a wedge between people. We should stop assuming that policing our sex acts is equivalent to having a healthy, Christian sexuality, and instead explore how to develop a full, vibrant and fulfilling sexual life with our spouses (or prepare to have one with our future spouses). We might find that establishing such a fulfilling sexual relationship might not be as easy as we hope.
But if the problem is that 50 Shades is just a poorly made movie, then we should ask ourselves another question about Old-Fashioned: Is the movie well-made, as a movie?
Obviously, I cannot even begin to judge this, as I haven’t seen the movie (for what it’s worth, neither Rotten Tomatoes nor MetaScore is kind, but user reviews on IMDB are a bit better). The critics suggest the movie is poorly-acted, not very artfully directed and, overall, rather dull and boring. Almost exactly like they thought of 50 Shades of Grey. If this is true, we should ask whether making (or watching) films like Old-Fashioned (or 50 Shades of Grey, for that matter) really a way to honor and glorify the creativity of our Creator?
As Christians, I fear we are locking ourselves into a dichotomy, not just this weekend (Grey or Clay?), but every other weekend as well (“Hollywood” or the “Christian Film” industry?). Perhaps it’s time to stretch beyond both of those to find film and art that really challenges us to develop our relationship with God and God’s creation. Instead of either telling people what not to watch, or dictating what they should watch, could we not help each other come to watch movies better (in addition to watching better movies)? Could we offer some recommendations about good movies, and discuss what we think is “good” about them? My friend Bob DeSmith has started.
Are there movies that you would recommend to fellow iAt readers, or things you would recommend people look for when watching movies? Are there other creative outlets you would recommend, other than movies? Please post them in the comments.
Yes, this is a thing, and it is not necessarily run by Christians. I have a friend who was in the film-making business a few years ago. I knew that he was not Christian, so I was surprised to hear him say he was working on a Christian movie. I asked him why he was doing that. His response? “Well, if you make something with overtly Christian characters and a happy ending, and you put it out around a holiday, there’s a lot of money to be made on the Evangelical demographic.” ↩
FINALLY an intelligent article on this movie debate!!! Brilliant, insightful, inspiring words. Thank you!
Thought-provoking, Neal. Thanks for this post. I too am bothered by “Christian” movies that are simplistic and, essentially, dishonest. And I’m bothered that more Christians aren’t more discerning. I appreciate your analysis of “Grey” and “Clay,” and I also read the review of “Birdman” that you linked to—that too was thought-provoking. It’s good to have examples like this of critical thinking, questions to ask, details to notice. This is my first visit to this site, but I’m going to subscribe!
Thanks Melanie. I’m glad you appreciated the post–and I’m really glad that you’ll be joining us more regularly on the site. Don’t hesitate to let us know if there are issues or topics you’d like us to cover (the “What’s Your Question?” function is a good way to do that, but so is posting comments like this). I look forward to interacting with you more on iAt.
One of my favorite “Christian” movies is the Cohen brothers version of True Grit. The moment where a snake-bit Mattie Ross is being carried cross country by Rooster Cogburn while Iris Dement sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is one of the truest pictures of Christ I’ve seen in a film.
Plus, who doesn’t love Jeff Bridges?
My husband & I are movie goers with another couple and have watched a number of movies in recent years. Some are memorable but others are forgettable & regrettable (spent money to see them). We watched a movie a number of years ago called “Second hand Lions” with Richard Duvall. We still talk about it, it was that good. Nothing “Christian” about it per se but there is definitely strong moral undertones. I prefer not to watch “sex scenes” because they are so graphic I feel like I’m in bed with them but if it somehow enhances the movie so be it, likewise violence but that too is way too graphic. The trouble is nothing trumps it, so those scenes become more & more graphic with no limits put on it. We succumb to “mob mentality” instead of asking for – no demanding better acting. After all if I went to a restaurant and ordered a spicy dish I wouldn’t want them to keep making it hotter & hotter until I could no longer eat it and still have to pay for it. Thanks for the opportunity to express my views on this matter.