Thursday, January 26, 2012

Take It or Leave It

Last week a very nice girl in my film class at the college where I'm teaching, politely asked me how many films on the syllabus were rated "R." Not having it in front of me, I replied "a few." She then informed me that her religion did not allow her to watch rated R movies and she would be checking out of the class. Did she see my CTR ring? It was a little arrogant. I wish she hadn't been arrogant. No problem for me... there is a wait list as long as the existing roll.

But, "her religion?" Though I didn't ask her, I'm pretty sure, we share the same religion. And a stabbing pain twitched in my eye. I hope she didn't notice that. I had been warned that this might happen. I just didn't know how I would feel - until it happened to me.

The leadership of the LDS Church has asked it's membership not to view rated R movies. Still, here I am, teaching "Understanding Film" and I was assigned to teach this class from someone I know is also a member our our religion and so is his boss, and his boss above him. These people are "old St. George" families that go back to Jacob Hamblin himself.

I turned to some research from "The BYU" itself to get perspective. There are classes in which R rated movies are required viewing. Film Appreciation classes for example and Amistad appears in several History syllabuses. They have an International Film Studies Club with a "disclaimer" noting that they will be watching and critiquing several movies that may be considered Rated R (Foreign ratings are very different and usually have an age appropriate suggestion)

We could read about what is going on in our world, or look at pictures, but it can also be recreated through the power of film in a way that puts us inside that piece of the world. It makes us sit up and watch, listen, assign attention . . . that's key. Most of us are visual learners, so anything that a student can watch and decode while they learn increases retention of the lesson.

My syllabus contains 16 units that help us develop critical thinking while we are watching a film. It is a Humanities or Fine Arts credit and consequently, the movies that are shown are rich in historical context including artistic and technological advances through time. We study narrative structure, editing, sound, cinematography, ideology in film, etc... all things that open our understanding to how movies illicit emotional and ideological response. Ultimately, we should have a broader view of our world, and appreciation for the kinds of humanity that we are not exposed to every day. After all, film is the world's number two form of entertainment (after television) and we identify the cinema as a major player in the humanities because it shapes our ideology so clearly. It has so much power! And that is what I think the Mormons (we) are afraid of.
This is a quote from my syllabus : "Film, historically and currently, deals with complex and controversial issues; it often makes us uncomfortable by challenging our identity, our relationships and our beliefs. It is impossible to have a meaningful Introduction to Film class that does not engage, at times, difficult issues..."

We (Mormons) don't criticize the movie for it's content we are advised to steer clear of it. The thought pattern goes like this: as marijuana is a gateway drug, so are rated R movies to porn or violence. I really believe this. But I also believe that it ... depends on the rated R movie. My students would probably rather watch Austin Powers than Pans Labyrinth, but even with that PG rating, Austin Powers offends me to the core and Pans Labyrinth brought me to my knees. What to do?!?!?

Solution: Brigham Young!
After he trekked out to Utah on his own two feet, Brigham Young was criticized for finishing a playhouse before he finished the Mormon temple (After two thousand miles on foot, I would have finished a bar myself), and this was his reply :

"Upon the stages of a theatre can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy result and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon minds of a community an enlightened send of a virtuous life, and also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it." (Discourses of Brigham Young, pg. 243)

So yesterday, after a particularly violent vampire movie (not the sparkling kind I assure you) I was asking myself this question can I teach this stuff and still feel good about following the advice given to me from the mouthpiece of God? I can point out the consequences of sin, but I just can't call it that. I must be the actor I was trained to be. My new lecture notes will have to include a politically correct study guide, clearly stating how society crumbles when vampires are around. Vampires aren't real...right? I'm really confused.

I guess I could edit the movies I'm required to show. The writer George Eliot once noted, “If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.” When we choose to edit film, we are only seeing what we want to see and what we already know. So why study things we already know?

I taught English in a refugee camp in Thailand for about 7 months while I was serving an LDS mission. I had them write about their life stories. I was appalled and shocked at the atrocities these children of God had been through. Their English was bad. Their vocabulary simple. Still, it made me get up earlier in the morning. It made me keenly aware of their sacrifice. BUT... I was not in Cambodia or Vietnam in the 70's. It was not until I had seen the movie "The Killing Fields" that I fully understood what my refugees had gone through. I was racked with pain and empowered to serve after I saw that movie. (I saw it on my mission) My thought is, in a controlled environment (like a film class, or sitting with a group of mature adults, etc...), a movie like Amistad, or Saving Private Ryan, or Pans Labyrinth ("Come sit on the right hand of your Father...) could lift your soul, make you fight back, raise your consciousness! As long as you take advantage of the information the film gives you to put it into perspective and use the film to enlarge your sympathies toward mankind.

But I am nothing if not obedient and I want to do what my leaders have asked me to do. My questions continue to burn...

Last one...when I saw the movie "The Passion of the Christ" (rated R for...the truth, basically) I nearly had a stroke from crying so hard in that film. People were sobbing all around us. Nobody cared. I watched the nails go into his hands (because it is literally depicted in the film) and I quietly thanked the director for including that for me. (Mel Gibson...weird). I needed to know, as closely as they could reenact it, how great that sacrifice was...for me. I'll NEVER forget the sound editing that so clearly created the sound of a whip biting into a human back. He took that for me.

I watched the actors stand around the bottom of the cross, knowing He was the Son of God and I imagined it was me. I was wearing the costume and all. And ever since then...every single Sunday, when I am participating in the rituals of sacrament meeting, I visualize that scene, from that rated R movie, and I am there! And I am racked with pain for what I have done to cause this moment in history. And I beg for His forgiveness.

So do I end up with some inspirational answer to my conundrum? Hehehehe... no. No way. Sorry. You might have been waiting for it...but remember who the blogger is....

This is my only peace: we can use film to enlarge our imagination, create empathy and awareness and learn about the paths of sin... and how to avoid them. (Thank you Brother Brigham) As long as . . . we do it in an environment of understanding and learning and we always, always, always, remember that the rating it's been given, the information it provides, is someone else's perspective. Take it or leave it.

Just like my class.