Friday, April 21, 2006

Review of an Egregious Book About Television. First Published in Denver Journal

Nick Pollard and Steve Couch, Get More Like Jesus by Watching TV. Waynesboro, GA: Damaris, 2005. 127 pages, paperback.

"When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship. When everyone is moving toward depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting as a fixed point"—Blaise Pascal, Pensées.

This little book, despite its good intentions, exemplifies nearly perfectly the central problem with much evangelical engagement with popular culture. The authors assume that electronic media—in this case television—is culturally neutral. That is, there is nothing about the nature or form of the medium itself that should give us pause, or cause us to critique its very nature or form. (Not surprisingly, the book has no references to the insightful media analysis of Neil Postman or Jacques Ellul.) On top of this is the ever-present evangelical cliché that we cannot “reach unbelievers” unless we are conversant with the popular culture in which they are immersed. Further, “There are things in our culture that we just can’t seem to get away from no matter what we do. TV is one of those…” (p. 46). When these three assumptions are combined, the conclusion becomes that we must watch television in a way that honors God and is holy: “…that is what it means to be holy—to be set apart in our hearts for God, and to let nothing take the place of that bond which we have with him. And that is what we will then want to apply to our TV watching. Whilst there is nothing intrinsically wrong with watching TV, or studying TV, or being involved in TV production, or even in developing a reputation for one’s knowledge and involvement in TV, we will want to ensure that we do nothing that damages our covenant relationship with God” (p. 37). Therefore, the book is peppered with illustrations from popular programs and seeks desperately to draw significant ideas from them.

While many evangelicals rightly object to television on the basis of its content (gratuitous sex, violence, materialism, and blasphemy), the more profound question is what the form of this medium does to one’s soul and to our culture. Anyone who still believes in the authority of the Ten Commandments, and who is not comatose must admit that there is much with which to object on television: homosexuality depicted as normal (or even morally superior to heterosexuality), Christianity as incorrigibly stupid and intolerant, the occult as exciting and fulfilling, and so forth. In fact, David Myers has documented the fact that extensive viewing of such behaviors increase the likelihood (amazingly enough) that viewers will engage in these behaviors. (See David Myers, “The Supply Side of Television and Film,” in Don Eberly, editor, Building a Healthy Culture [Eerdmans, 2001], 424-449.)

But Pollard and Couch are not too concerned about moral content. Consider their statement about sexual depictions on television: “…some programmes which contain swearing, nudity or sex scenes can actually build people’s relationship with God because of the message at a far deeper level (although we should still be very wary of the effect such images can have upon us…)” (51). Despite the qualification, this statement is questionable at two levels. First, it is unlikely that programs containing such crassness will be edifying at “a deeper level.” Second, when one watches television, one cannot really “decide” whether to watch crudeness and lewdness; it is everywhere (including especially commercials) at some level. Remember Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” a few years ago. If one is at all attempting to heed Jesus’ warning about lust (Matthew 5:27-30), the pandemic of immodesty on television should render that medium as nothing less than a moral mine field.

It is commendable that the authors encourage their readers to discern the worldview of whatever program they are watching and to compare it to biblical Christianity. They repeatedly quote and refer to Romans 12:1-2 in this regard: we should not be worldly, but transformed in our thinking (see also 1 John 2:15-17). However, the book never interprets the sensibilities that constitute television. These are the very elements that make it problematic and thus not neutral, inevitable, or necessary for Christians to consume, however hard they may work at it (see p. 88). I have addressed these features of television in the appendix of my book Truth Decay: “Television: Agent of Truth Decay.” In brief, rapidly moving images can never match reading or unmediated face-to-face communication concerning depth of analysis and the discernment of truth and error. These four features dominate the medium of television:

The moving image trumps or humiliates the written and spoken word (see Exodus 20:1-4; John 1:1). Images are limited in their power to communicate truth, although they may be very persuasive. On television, the image always “humiliates the word,” as Jacques Ellul put it. The inimitable curmudgeon Malcolm Muggerridge, who was well acquainted with television from the inside out, declared in his later life that “The camera always lies.”

On television, discontinuity or fragmentation replaces linear development of ideas (see Luke 1:1-4). This is what Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death called “a peek-a-boo world,” in which ideas are not explored carefully but rather are thrown almost haphazardly at the viewer. A two-minute news story on famine in Africa is followed by a panty hose advertisement, which is followed by a teaser for a “reality TV” program. This mentality tends to lead to intellectual impatience and recklessness.

Television trades in hypervelocities—jump cuts, scene changes, special effects (see Psalm 46:10). This is the video equivalent of caffeine. Television images move faster than we can assess them rationally, despite what the authors claim about “working hard” at watching television. These high speeds are out of sync with our God-given natures. When we become habituated to this sensibility, it leads to decreased attention spans. This is one reason why many preachers will never preach longer than the length of a half-hour television program and will litter their sermons with “commercials” (light-hearted “breaks” from anything too serious).

An entertainment orientation rules all of television. Amusement dominates all other values (see 2 Tim. 3:4). Everything on television is crafted to stimulate and please us in some way. Nothing is too difficult; after all, we may switch channels if we do not like what we see. This entertainment mentality is epidemic in our culture. Everything becomes a show, a presentation geared to amuse. As French philosopher and social critic Jean Baudrillard wrote in his book America, “In America, the laugh track is always running.” Yet amusement is not appropriate for many aspects of life, such as serious study and the occasions that demand lament, not laughter, such as funerals, illness, and the sinful shattering of close relationships. There is nothing funny about hell—or about the antidote to hell: repentance.

Yet Pollard and Couch never even begin to address such structural features of contemporary television, as is painfully obvious when they write that there is nothing wrong with “developing a reputation for one’s knowledge and involvement in TV” (p. 37). But given both the content and form of television, one should question this seriously. Such activity is, at best, a waste of time. One could be reading, exercising, praying, or conversing with another human being about things that matter most. At worst, being an expert in television means that one is becoming worldly in myriad ways. Moreover, it is not necessary to partake of television culture to “reach” unbelievers. The primary way to communicate Christ to unbelievers is to love them, pray for them, converse with them, and to present the truth to them in love. Unbelievers are often interested in Christians who are different, those who march to the beat of a different—and untelevised—drummer. It is, then, ironic that the authors so frequently invoke a classic text on avoiding worldliness (Romans 12:1-2) when the very thing they advocate (television watching) typically leads to worldliness.

But television is neither irresistible nor inescapable. Each year in the spring, an organization called TV Turn-Off Week (http://www.tvturnoff.org) challenges people to unplug from the tube for one week. So, instead of reading Get More Like Jesus by Watching TV or (worse yet) watching television, I urge my readers to go TV-free for one week (or more) and discover what might be in store for you.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
April 2006

34 comments:

Tim said...

I think the comment that stuns me most here is this one:

“…some programmes which contain swearing, nudity or sex scenes can actually build people’s relationship with God because of the message at a far deeper level (although we should still be very wary of the effect such images can have upon us…)” (51).

Is there anything, anything whatsoever, in the context of this quotation that might rescue the authors from the charge of having said something absolutely inexcusable here?

Susan said...

In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for disposal of refuse. 21 Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. 2 Timothy 2:20-21 TNIV

The idea that we "cannot escape" the electronic media is ridiculous. Remove it from your home! Turn your eyes from it in the mall (or dont GO to the mall!) Have reading material with you wherever you go so you're not stuck sitting in front of a monitor while so-and-so is changing the oil in your car, hoping you'll be so glued to the tube you wont notice what is (or isn't) being done to your car!

Those who are useful to the Master gain little if nothing from the offerings on TV, Cable, etc. But much can be gleaned from the writings of great authors ~ the godly women and men who teach through the medium of thoughtful, passionate literature.

There is little wrong with a well done film or video that has taken into consideration the best features of that medium as it was composed,provided the subject-matter is worthy. But as a means of education, in the best sense of that term, it is deficient.

-Susan

Douglas Groothuis said...

Tim:

Notice the elipses after their quote. They do go on to qualify their statement further, but it doesn't undo the damage of what they said before that. It reveals a sad lack of discernment, to be sure.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Susan:

Yes, we can escape--but only if we are creative. Most are not creative; they are lazy; so they go with the poisened flow. This is not wise at all, of course. It is the old song, "If you can't beat 'um, join 'um." I say, "Beat 'um!"

gimmepascal said...

Okay, whether or not it's wrong to develop "a reputation for one’s knowledge and involvement in TV” (p. 37), it is most definitely pitiful. In my experience, when someone starts talking about his top three favorite reality TV shows, or begins spouting off obscure TV trivia, you know that if the conversation moves to deeper subjects--religion, politics, etc.--he will almost certainly have media-skewed views, because people who sit in front of a TV all day slowly begin to think that all of the information they are receiving is not only TRUE, but CUTTING EDGE, THE INSIDE SCOOP! I mean, that's what the reporter or news anchor or commercial ad said, right?

So this is just one of the problems I have with avid TV watchers: they rarely talk about anything that is not related to something they've seen or heard on TV. And if they do talk about something else, the depth of the conversation usually goes about as deep as they've been conditioned to go after hours of stupefaction in front of the ol' "boob tube" (Is that how you spell it?). And as Dr. Groothuis and others have pointed out, as a medium of information, the TV is not very good at conveying truth. See the appendix to Truth Decay for more information.

So, my conclusion is that the avid TV watcher (and in my opinion, two hours or more is excessive, though well below the national average) is not too concerned with TRUTH.

Of course, many will see these comments as arrogant, as though I'm looking down my nose at anyone who is watching television. Really, though, I'm just concerned that too much TV can lead to an indifference towards important matters of truth. As Christians, the least we can do is point out where some of these stumbling blocks to truth are found, and I believe that television is one such obstruction.

So everybody out there, turn off the TV, begin talking to your family and friends again, and give reality another try.

Weekend Fisher said...

I can't buy the idea that the TV itself is inherently tainted and inferior and that, as a medium, it should be abandoned. Different media have different strengths and weaknesses; in the hands of human beings, we'll find the best and the worst in each. The printed word has unique strengths for pondering the truth. It also has some weaknesses, not the least of which are tendencies towards elitism and obscurantism, a disdain for the illiterate and semi-literate which are no small portion of the world's population, a focus on minutiae which is sometimes badly timed for when people in general are struggling with far broader issues. The audio-visual media are well suited to images; Christianity has some of the most memorable images in the world, and the masterpieces of world art were nearly all of them created by Christians. Long story short, I believe TV needs to be redeemed not abandoned. Like the printed word it will sometimes be used well and sometimes badly, but I think abandoning the field or condemning the medium is missing what's right and wrong about it.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Weekend Fisher conflates images in general with television in particular. The proper respect for certain images--say works of classical painting and sculpture--is one thing. The moving and mindless changing images of television is something entirely different. The images are decontextualized and trivialized in the process. Then people become addicted to them and begin to see all of life through them, as Jedd pointed out.

However, there are intrinsic limits to the power of images. This is why God banned images of himself in the Ten Commandments. See also Jacques Ellul's masterpiece, "The Humiliation of the Word."

One needs words, text, books for exposition, as Postman points out. Images cannot exposit arguments.

Susan said...

It is false to assume distain for the illiterate is the likely outcome of a distain for the electronic image. In truth, a love of the written word compels us to promote literacy wherever we can. Far too many are content to merely accommodate the illiterate, thereby enabling their captivity to the image alone, like children never taught to move beyond the picture-book! It is the one who promotes electronic images to the exclusion of the written word, not the one who promotes literature to the exclusion of electronic images, who holds a distain for the illiterate.

Jeremy said...

During the spring semester of '05, Brandi and I broke our addiction to TV (thanks to Dr. G), and the thing simply stayed off. However, when we moved in with my mother-in-law in Dallas, TV began to eat away at us once again. The house is equipped with a sattelite system--that means something like 300 channels. I leave the thing off as much as possible, but inevitably, with so many different people (with many different worldviews), the stupid thing comes on.

Most of the time it's my brother-in-law watching "reality" shows on MTV or VH1. Otherwise he is allowing his soul to be infested by the drivel that passes for scholarship on the Science Channel or the Discovery Channel. Most recently he has been engaged in watching everything to do with the Gospel of Judas and the "real" history of Jesus. It's extremely hard to cut through the manure, and bring clear thinking to the table. If it's on TV, it must be true, regardless of the arguments I put forward.

All that to say, that there is very little that I could ever point to in TV consumption that would bring me closer to God. In fact, I think it is quite the opposite. Yeah, the content is horrid, but the medium allows to much distortion of positions without presenting arguments. I don't see how it does anyone (Christian or not) any good.

Prof. David Opderbeck said...

Yes, there's lots of garbage on TV, and watching too much TV is bad for the life of the mind. But I don't buy the "TV is inherently bad because it presents lots of choppy decontextualized images" argument. If that's true, what are we all doing talking about it here on the web, on a blog of all things? Talk about choppy, decontextualized material!

As to the alleged horrors of this statement: "swearing, nudity or sex scenes can actually build people’s relationship with God because of the message at a far deeper level" -- well, the Bible contains swearing, nudity and sex scenes -- as well as lots of violence -- doesn't it?

I'll never forget when I was a kid and my Sunday School teacher taught the story of when David killed a hundred Phillistines and brought their foreskins to Saul as a sort of bounty for Saul's daughter (1 Sam. 18). Would you watch that on TV? (And never mind the Song of Solomon.) Have we become desensitized to the Bible's graphic physicality because of our familiarity wtih the material?

It seems to me that what you're wanting to do here is to perpetuate a "safe" subculture. I agree that there are certain things we shouldn't watch, hear or read, but I couldn't disagree more with the suggestion that we should essentially withdraw entirely from certain forms of media or culture.

Weekend Fisher said...

LOL, you know, the reason I make the parallel between images in general and TV in particular is because TV carries images so effectively. The fact that images are moving on TV does not at all necessitate that in moving they become "mindless ... decontextualized ... trivialized". That's one way people can use the images on TV, but it's hardly the only one. Christians do have the key to the deepest and riches images in the world, and there is nothing about the fact that images move on TV that makes it less a suitable medium for the telling of the good news. TV has unique strengths for having commentary, focus, music blended to a rich experience. That it's underutilized is true, but is a complaint against the use, not the medium. One might as well complain that the printing press is decadent because the ensuing volume promotes mindless drivel. It does, of course, but it's not the only use of the printing press ...

And as far as literacy goes, I learned to read by watching Sesame Street and The Electric Company ... on TV.

I'm still incredulous to find intelligent people opposing TV per se, instead of just its abuses.

Douglas Groothuis said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Douglas Groothuis said...

To the Professor:

Blogs can have intellectual content if the discussion is sustained. My blog--and many others try to do just this. Moreover, I ban images from the blog. So there is no parallel with TV--none whatsoever.

Moreover, the violence, sex, etc. in the Bible is put into a redemptive narrative, for God's sake (literally). How many times can that be said of TV? Further, there are exactly no images in The Word of God. God gave us a book, not a video.

Thus, both of your arguments fail because they trade on false analogies.

"The medium is the message"--Marshall McLuhan.

Cheerful Curmudgeon said...

How do you respond to the fact that Jesus intentionally communicated with rich imagery throughout His teaching in the New Testament. Much of His teaching included parabolic imagery, metaphoric imagery and figurative imagery. By the way, I am not arguing for TV or the abuse of imagery in media. I am just asking how some might respond to how Jesus communicated in His teaching. I would love some commentary on the subject of intentional use of image in verbal communication.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Imagry in words (written or spoken) is very different than actual images, especially moving ones--as on TV. Metaphor, parable, poetry, simile, analogy, etc. are essential features of human language. Images today, as Boorsten point out long ago ("The Image," 1961) and Postman more recently ("Amusing Ourselves to Death," 1985), have been decontextualized and mass produced. Thus they robbed of meaning and reduced to propaganda in most cases.

Bryan L said...

What about the images God had the Israelites set up in the temple?

Prof. David Opderbeck said...

Moreover, the violence, sex, etc. in the Bible is put into a redemptive narrative, for God's sake (literally). How many times can that be said of TV?

What do you mean by a "redemptive narrative?" You mean only a narrative that leads to the kerygma? Or do you mean a narrative that tells us something about life and the human condition? I love the TV show "Lost," for example. It reveals alot about the postmodern human condition, and in that sense I think it has aspects of a "redemptive" narrative, or maybe "pre-redemptive."

Plus, "Lost" is just fun and relaxing to watch. Why can't we do some things just because they're fun? Do I have to come up with some sort of "redemptive" purpose, say, when I walk my dog?

Moreover, I ban images from the blog. So there is no parallel with TV--none whatsoever.

But your blog is presented with elements of graphic design, including layout, colors, and typeface. Like it or not, your blog isn't some kind of Platonic intellectual construction.

Further, there are exactly no images in The Word of God. God gave us a book, not a video.

Well, yeah, and the original audience didn't have access to video equipment. Of course, they also didn't have printing presses, so all they had were a few handwritten copies of the text, and most ordinary people heard the Word of God read verbally. So should we ban the printing and distribution of Bibles to common folks? Some in church history have argued for that. We could also point to other historic arguments over form and medium, such as the medieval debates over antiphonal singing and other forms of music. You can't make a medium normative simply because the medium didn't previously exist.

Also, Brian's comment about God's detailed instructions for how the Tabernacle (see Exodus 25) should be decorated, and the exquisite care Solomon took in decorating the Temple (see 1 Kings 6) is very much on point here. God gave us His written word, but He also gave us the community of His people through which His word is received and understood and in which He is worshipped. It seems clear to me from the examples of the Tabernacle and Temple that God expects that the visual will be part of how we learn about and worship Him.

Imagry in words (written or spoken) is very different than actual images, especially moving ones--as on TV. Metaphor, parable, poetry, simile, analogy, etc. are essential features of human language.

Yes, but written text produces mental images. So does spoken text (the manner in which the Bible was originally heard by most ordinary people). When I read about David piling up Phillistine foreskins, I picture it happening. If I were an early Israelite, I'd have even more of a graphic mental picture of it, since I'd likely have observed circumcisions and seen animal sacrifices.

Further, it seems that your argument would suggest there is no place at all for any kind of visual art in Christian life or worship. That strikes me as contrary to the way God made us, and contrary to the examples of the Tabernacle and Temple. If God gave us noetic equipment that is strongly connected to the visual, and He gave us the capacity to create in the visual realm, it seems to me that the visual is part of what it means to be made in God's image. You seem to suggest that we should spurn the visual in some sort of ascetic fashion.

"The medium is the message"--Marshall McLuhan.

This is pithy, but I think you're taking it out of context. It's one thing to ask what has been lost ("amputated" in McLuhan's parlance) by new media such as television that "extend" (in McLuhan's parlance) other noetic capabilities. It's quite another to suggest a medium is inherently evil.

Milton Stanley said...

Another excellent essay about television. Once again I linked to your essay from my blog (and this time I spelled your name correctly). Peace.

Tim said...

It seems that David had my comment in mind when he wrote:

As to the alleged horrors of this statement: "swearing, nudity or sex scenes can actually build people’s relationship with God because of the message at a far deeper level" -- well, the Bible contains swearing, nudity and sex scenes -- as well as lots of violence -- doesn't it?

It is a little difficult to know how to reply to someone who advances this as a serious argument in defense of this passage from Pollard and Couch. (Couch??!!) There is a very great difference between describing in words, say, the disgrace of Noah's drunken nudity or Delilah's seduction of Samson and, on the other hand, producing a film with graphic images of said events. It seems to me at best very naive to suggest that verbal description and visual portrayal are parallel, that it is (say) as dangerous to a young man's mind to be told in bleak words the story of a man's seduction and final ruin as it is to see it pornographically portrayed in technicolor. It seems to me wildly irresponsible to endorse the latter as a means of building people's relationship with God.

Can visual media, so often abused, be used for good? I think so, and I'll put that to the test one of these days when I go to see United 93. But for the love of God, let us not make the grave mistake of substituting visual stimulation (even of the most innocuous sort) for the play of imagination and the active engagement of the intellect that only the written word can provide.

Andrew said...

Tim,

WOuld you post on the experience of seeing "United 93"? Or on what you qualify as a piece of visual media being used for good? This is an interesting question to me given the tone of this thread.

Tim said...

Andrew,

I haven't seen United 93 yet, but if you like, when I do, I'll write about it (if I can).

I think that Chariots of Fire is an example of good cinema. It takes its strength from the absolute authenticity with which the characters and their values are portrayed. Putnam doesn't flinch, as virtually any other director in Holywood at that time would have, from showing you Calvinist piety on its own terms. There is not one prurient scene in the movie.

Andrew said...

Thanks Tim, well put! I'll look forward to your insights on United 93. I am also curious (although I'm not sure this is the place to discuss) about whether the value you find in Chariots of Fire lies with its authentic and unflinching gaze or its treatment of Calvinist piety.

Tim said...

Andrew,

I think that Chariots of Fire succeeds as film because of both points: the values are worth looking at seriously (I add, for the record, that I wouldn't qualify as a thoroughgoing Calvinist) and they're portrayed without a raised eyebrow.

Tim said...

Brief follow-up here on United 93.

First -- and this has nothing to do with the movie at all -- the previews for other movies were outrageous and sickening. They induced in me a strong urge to leave the theater on the spot. Perhaps due to the fact that United 93 is rated R (violence, some strong language), the previews I saw were for a horror movie and a comedy with a sexual theme. Something is very, very rotten in contemporary American culture if those films are money making propositions.

If you must go to a theater, I advise you to buy your ticket for a matinee performance on a weekday (not likely to be overcrowded) and then wait outside until about 15 minutes have passed before going in. You'll be able to tell when the previews are over because the decibel level will settle back down and the theater will stop rocking.

Now with that out of the way ...

The word that comes to mind to describe United 93 is "stark." This is not a movie with any frills. There are no comic moments, no spectacular special effects, no PC genuflections, no big Holywood stars. There is no stirring theme music to remind you which mood you are supposed to be in at which times. It is the story of that single morning told about as simply as it is possible to tell it on film.

If this were a conventional movie, we would expect more focus on individual characters. The director would take us back in time a few days and show us Todd Beamer playing with his boys. If it had been directed by Spielberg we would be subjected to a sex scene somewhere or other. But there are no flashbacks. It is really closer to a documentary, almost as though -- to borrow a phrase from another reviewer -- Greengrass just happened to have his cameras in the right places at the right times. The film expressly, I think deliberately, does not focus much on any individual passenger. And this is appropriate. They were, during that terrifying hour, more or less strangers to each other as well. It is what they did that holds our attention.

What ties the movie together is not a "message" (of the sort that the Slate reviewers are so desperate to hear) but rather the natural emotions elicited by unfolding events: frustration as Air Traffic Control loses contact with one plane and then another, chaos as the authorities try to figure out what is going on and which non-responsive plane or planes out of the 4,200 in the air may have been hijacked, mounting tension as the military personnel try to figure out what their options are and to get authorization for a shootdown should that be necessary, shock and silence in a control tower at the sight of a plane going into the second tower.

And then there are the passengers on this flight, ordinary human beings who, confronted with a situation as hopeless and as terrifying as any of us will ever meet, took action. This is not a moral surd, and our responses to it reveal much about our own character. Ron Rosenbaum, trying hard to find a way to double-talk his way around manifest heroism, laments the film as "a symptom of our addiction to fables of redemptive uplift." There must, he says, mockingly, "be a silver lining; it's always darkest before the dawn; the human spirit will triumph over evil; there must be a pony."

Fables -- how’s that again? Is it because the hijackers were all Muslim? Because the passengers who led the assault to take back the cockpit were white males? To score points for authenticity with Rosenbaum, the hijackers would have been skinheads (remember the ridiculous rewriting of The Sum of All Fears for film?) and there would’ve been token representatives of at least a few other races among the passengers. It is, of course, a bit inconvenient for Rosenbaum that United 93 is simply depicting these things as they were.

In the end this film succeeds because of the director’s astonishing willingness not to lead viewers by the nose, to let events speak for themselves. Yes, of course, he chose which scenes to shoot, selected camera angles and spliced scenes, omitted things that happened on that day that he might have included. Notwithstanding all of that, his choices have left us with a film so realistic and stark that the nattering critics have been reduced to a despairing wail: "What is Greengrass actually trying to say about 9/11?" And the answer is that he is telling you what happened. He is trying to make you see. That -- and no more, and it is everything.

Bill said...

Tim:

Not to split hairs, but if “it (United 93) had been directed by Spielberg we would be subjected to a sex scene somewhere or other …” What are you talking about? Spielberg’s greatest films: Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, contained no gratuitous sex scenes whatsoever (though there was a sex scene in Schindler’s List - but that was to accurately depict Schindler’s penchant for cheating on his wife and being a womanizer, so appropriate for the film). And some of his other films like Catch Me If You Can and Indiana Jones contained extremely mild sex scenes – if you could even call them that. If you want to argue Hollywood shows graphic sex scenes too much – fine. But don’t take shots at a filmmaker who during his career has directed some of the most memorable and touching family and historical films ever created.

Second, “If this (United 93) were a conventional movie, we would expect more focus on individual characters.” Yes, we would – and rightly so – given that character development is one of the key components of moviemaking, especially good moviemaking. After watching United 93, I was disappointed because I thought they missed too many opportunities to develop the characters. You don’t need to have cheesy flashbacks or bad dialog to do this either. The movie was called United 93, yet more than half the film was dedicated to the air traffic control mess. Fascinating stuff, but not the heart and soul of the picture. The best parts of the movie, by far, were the scenes on the plane and with the passengers. Who didn’t get goosebumps when they tried to retake the plane and broke into the cockpit? I wanted to know more about what made these ordinary strangers do heroic things in the face of almost certain doom. That is what should be celebrated (for a lack of a better word) in the movie, not the confusion about where the military liaison was at FAA headquarters. A certain part of the air traffic control story worked nicely, and the events at the Trade Center were important to the eventual actions aboard United 93, but for a movie called United 93, not 9/11, I wanted to the story to be about United 93. This wasn’t a documentary, it was a feature film, and those require character development – something United 93 almost did nothing of and took away from the film effectiveness.

These passengers weren’t just names on a flight manifest for a plane that crashed on September 11; they were real people with families, and fears, dreams, and everything else. And United 93 gave us none of that. They could have shown us how the passengers were total strangers to each other, while not leaving them total strangers to the audience.

Tim said...

Bill,

I was giving my impressions because Andrew asked. Sorry you didn't like them.

Spielberg and sex scenes: I was thinking of Schindler's List and Munich. As for whether it was gratuitous in Schindler's List, isn't it possible to indicate that a man is a womanizer without showing him rolling around naked with a girl? The scene at the dance floor and the one where Schindler shows up at the factory with his wife would have sufficed.

As for your criticisms on character development, you write:

I wanted to know more about what made these ordinary strangers do heroic things in the face of almost certain doom.

Greengrass doesn't know. Neither do you. Neither do I. So instead of manufacturing an explanation for their heroism, he simply shows it to you.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I appreciated the film. It does less of what we've come (lazily?) to expect from a movie, fills in fewer things, takes fewer liberties with the facts, and leaves us to come to terms with the events ourselves.

If that blows our categories, maybe it's about time.

Bill said...

C’mon Tim, are you really trying to assert that Spielberg consistently shows gratuitous sex in his movies? Less than 45 seconds of sex is shown in Schindler’s List, hardly gratuitous – even if you remove the historical context. I don’t have Munich on DVD, so I can’t accurately say, nor remember, if it was excessive, but I hardly doubt it. If you look at his entire body of work, saying he propagates sex in movies is wrong. If you are going to pick on Hollywood, why not choose a director that uses sex to sell the films – something Spielberg has never, ever done. But if you thought the point of Schindler’s List and Munich were sex, you obviously missed the points of those films.

Greengrass wouldn’t have had to manufacture characters, he had the families of United 93! Who would know better than them? After all, many of the passengers did call home. With a little bit more research on his part, it would have been easy to give us a glimpse into the lives of these heroes. If done properly (no flashbacks or voiceovers!), how could us learning about those who died taken away from the quality of the film?

If anything, Greengrass gets lazy in his storytelling. Character arcs and character development aren’t “categories,” they are essential tools of successful filmmaking. United 93 suffers from Passion of the Christ syndrome. It’s not enough to take an emotional subject, rely on the audience’s prior knowledge of that subject, then tell a story without character arcs or character development and call it a great movie. That is moviemaking laziness.

To come full circle, Schindler’s List wouldn’t be as powerful of a film if it was just about the Nazi occupation of Poland. It’s the characters, even the evil ones, which make that movie so emotional and wonderful. Spielberg understands that it is the characters that make a film, not just the subject matter by itself. I wish Greengrass would have realized that, too.

Tim said...

Bill,

The term "gratuitous" refers to the lack of an adequate rationale for something, not to the interval of time it occupies.

My objection to Munich and Schindler's List is not that they were about sex -- which clearly they were not, and which I never said they were -- but that there was no need to insert sex scenes in them. You disagree, which is your prerogative. But if you think a movie with a 45 second sex scene qualifies as "family film," then your family and mine have different standards.

I'll add for the record that I thought Schindler's List had merit.

It would be interesting to know what the families of the passengers on that flight asked of Greengrass. We know that he had their full cooperation. The fact that the movie does not give us any of the family background on any of them may be a clue.

One of the major points I was trying to make is that United 93 is a different genre from most movies; it is certainly a different genre from Schindler's List. Apparently you don't like the genre, or you feel that you were subjected to a bait-and-switch. I think the movie works anyway, and works better than it would have if Greengrass had decided to tell the story in the conventional way. We'll get to see what it looks like done the other way 'round when Oliver Stone's movie comes out this fall.

Bill said...

Well obviously Munich and Schindler’s List aren’t family films and not just because of the sex. However, other Spielberg films such as: E.T., Jurassic Park, Hook (although it was a terrible film) and the Indiana Jones trilogy, were family films and contained no nudity or sex. Not to mention his other non-family films like Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, Close Encounters, Amistad (another bad film) also contained no sex whatsoever. If you are going to use Spielberg, Schindler’s List and Munich as the poster boy/movies for Hollywood’s obsession with sex, that’s an illogical choice that doesn’t have any basis in fact.

Movies with no character development and no characters arcs are a genre? Does that genre coincide with bad movies? Yikes. If conventional manner means telling me something about the characters I am watching for two hours, then I guess I’m a traditionalist.

Given the fact that Oliver Stone hasn’t made a good movie since the late 80s, early 90s, I’d like to go on record right now by predicting “World Trade Center” will be a far inferior film to United 93. And be twice as long.

Tim said...

Bill,

Sure, there are worse examples, but in light of what he did in Schindler's List and Munich, I make no apologies for my passing comment regarding Spielberg. Let's agree to disagree there.

I guess after seeing United 93 I'd have to say that "character arcs" aren't indispensable to a good movie. A lot depends on what the director is trying to do.

To me, the term "family film" means something like Captains Courageous or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so I guess we have different tastes there as well. There are numerous scenes in the Indiana Jones movies that disqualify them for my family, but apparently there too we have different values. Each of us needs to make that decision for himself.

Andrew originally asked me to post my thoughts; now he's got yours as well -- two for the price of one. I'd be interested to know what he thinks.

Bill said...

Well Tim, I am glad that 45 seconds of sex is what you took away from a three hour epic about the holocaust. That’s definitely what I was thinking about when I left the theatre. You certainly have interesting criteria in how you evaluate movies though - considering Casablanca’s plot, one of your favorite movies, is centered around an extra marital affair. Like you said, I guess we'll agree to disagree.

(By the way, I never said Schindler’s List was a family film as you said I did – if you’d like, please show me where I said that.)

Thanks for the spirited movie conversation. Seriously, I enjoyed it. Maybe next time we can discuss if the images of the concentration camps shown in Schindler’s List got you as sick as the coming attractions before United 93.

Tim said...

Bill,

There is no need to be either rude or impertinent. This comment, in particular, is childish:

Well Tim, I am glad that 45 seconds of sex is what you took away from a three hour epic about the holocaust. That’s definitely what I was thinking about when I left the theatre.

It does not advance your argument for you to portray someone who does not share your appreciation of the insertion of 45 seconds of widescreen sex into a film about the Holocaust as unable to discern the main point of a movie.

Next time 'round, let's try to discuss these things like grownups.

Andrew said...

Tim, I appreciate your comments. I can't add any at this point as I have not seen it, nor will I for some time, if ever.

Tim said...

Andrew,

Thanks. It was for you that I was writing.