Thursday, 13 January 2011

Cinematic Objections: Discussion 1

I want to discuss the three big Nos in Conservative Family Film-Viewers. They are, in order of importance: Sex, Language, and Violence.

Today, I will take up the middle of the three, that of swearing, which includes the MPAA definition, along with any and all taking of the Lord's Name in Vain. F-bombs, S-words, milder vulgarities, everything. This, to explain what I mean when I say "Language".

To break it all into as simple distinctions as possible, I have chosen 4 camps or categories in which to place all people. There will be overlap, there will be imperfections. Understand these are camps people more or less fall mostly into; if you know of another, feel free to suggest it. None of this is taken from a distinctly conservative position, as I am not a distinct conservative. Rather, I'm a liberal with more conservative views that would like but no less than I can get away with.

The first camp is that of the liberal-minded viewer, liberal referring to rather broad in interest, and rather uncaring when it comes to content. Not only do the liberal-minded viewers reside in this camp, but non-religious people from "experienced" backgrounds, some Christians quite desensitised from the workplace or prior cinematic experiences, etc, etc. These viewers give no thought to how many or in what way these taboo words in our language are used in film or elsewhere. They may not notice it; they may not care. Maybe both. Sometimes they enjoy it; whatever the reason, it doesn't matter how much or why.

The other extreme are those parents (usually parents; sometimes teenagers; younger kids don't usually have their own mind made up as there is no need) who watch only G- or PG-rated films. Nothing wrong with this of course, but their sensitivity to swearing goes to a heightened degree with God's name, all vulgarities, and rude name-calling strictly off-limits. Besides the parents in this camp are any and all very conservative people from a Christian background, whatever their current affiliation.

The third and fourth camps are probably more similar than I would like, but different enough that I felt it necessary to divide them. The third camp, less broad-minded than the first, does not mind the swearing, but finds it either annoying, or mildly offensive, but not enough to put off viewing. They may not be religious but simply civil persons, respectable who don't enjoy being in the company of vulgar individuals. It doesn't turn them away, but the swearing is noticeable, and they would prefer it not to be. Probably the best way to describe it is a simple putting up with it. Ho-humming Deference, if you will.

And the fourth camp: This is occupied by a great many conservatives who have lived in vulgar workplaces, or have a broader view of the world for any other reason. They do not sanction language, they do not encourage it; they do not enjoy it, but if it is necessary in a film, they do not mind it. They wish there to be a reason for it, though they do not feel a moral pang for having seen a film rated R for language.

Here we come to the main point of this discussion. While the idea of "necessary" language is not always carried out to the extreme, it is, I think, the wrong way of looking at things. Some things, in and of themselves, should not be on screen. That will come in a later discussion. Some things should be used in moderation. Some things only when necessary. Some things only when they add to the story.

The distinction between something that is necessary and something that adds to something is an important one. Whether this differs practically from what people do is unimportant; what is more pressing in my mind is the fact that the perspective of one over the other is somewhat skewed. When it boils down to it, no film could ever sanction the usage of language as a "necessity". I'm not just being belligerent. Every scene in every film could use foul-less or less-foul language, and retain the same basic story, with the same ultimate meaning, however less of an impact it created. The question much more to the point that we should spend time thinking over is, I think, this one: Does the language in this film add to it, or take away? Because it's going to do one or the other.

With the taking of God's name in vain, it changes. Language as the MPAA sees it, vulgarities, are crude and perverted. But they are not, in and of themselves, bad except because we've decided they are. God's name isn't up to us. We may have the word in our English; but he's the one who said it shouldn't be taken lightly. If there is anything in film in regards to language that should be used only if necessary, it is this. Even then, however, how can you determine what is necessary and what is not?

Impact can be created or broken down by the words used. In film, by the speech of the characters; in literature, by the speech and narrative of the author. When a film uses foul language to no purpose but to be foul, or uses foul words in vain striving for dumb comedy, there is nothing added to our experience; that is, there is nothing pleasant or good or positive or helpful added. Our time, should we have consciences soft to that sort of thing, is unpleasant, pad, negative, and cringe-filled.

What does this mean? What does it mean that language should add to a film?

What I find objectionable in a film often depends on whether I think it was an intentional piece of material, or simply thrown in with very little thought. If that thought happens to disagree with mine entirely, I still object, but even in such an instance, I respect the thought for its own sake. When a script-writer, a director, an actor put work into making the dialogue—including the crude references and vulgar swearing—seem either true-to-life, full of impact, or awakening, I respect the reasoning, and take it with the purpose it was given. I cannot explain how language can be used to add to a film in general, because every story asks something different. No story is necessary to it (any story that is centered on foul language is worthless anyway), but a great many can be added to it.

The tenderness of any conscience can be worn away, and quickly too; if you're up for the wearing, it only takes a few films. But it's all on what you want out of a film. If you watch films to be entertained, and read books to learn, then stay away from the vulgar cinematic pictures. They're either poorly done, or they're given to add insight to those who view them. But cinema is more than entertainment: as much as any other art medium it tells even the most powerful stories; especially the most powerful stories. As close as art can come to representing life, cinema does. Foul language isn't about representing who somebody is if there's no purpose in our discovering that person. But when there is thought behind the writing of it, it can become a useful, even a good addition to our experience.


  1. This is great! It's nice to see all these thoughts well organized and well thought-out. It was refreshing to read.

    I guess I probably fall into the fourth camp; though I can't say I've seen a film rated R for language. :)

    I really liked what you said in the last paragraph; especially the bit about how powerful cinema is. A lot of films have shaped my way of thinking, more so than almost anything else in my life. They are amazing things.

    I'm very interested in the rest. :)

  2. Thanks. I'll try to get some thoughts together. :)

  3. Good thoughts. Looking forward to reading the rest of your posts on this topic!