Movies, Beauty, Truth, and Swear Words
I found it ironic that one of the most accepted pro-life movies in recent years was Juno. Yet the screenwriter was not looking to make a pro-life movie. She herself said she was pro-choice, but this is how it came out. The story took those aspects on by itself.
Exactly. And the reason why Juno worked was that the storyteller was telling the truth. The abortion room scene where she walks into the clinic is a great example of what an abortion room scene should be in a movie. She walks in and it's this gross, crass place. Then there's this wonderful scene when Juno realizes that babies have fingernails. Just that thought alone and that image—she looks around and sees all these people using their fingernails in this room. That is the way to address the fact that there is a human inside of her. Other movies have approached the abortion issue and it's two people in a room talking about why abortion is bad or all the reasons why someone would want to have an abortion. First of all, that's boring. Second of all, there's no emotional connection to the debate. But we can all be on the same page when somebody's talking about fingernails.
The word you used was "truth" and that really is what movies should do. They shouldn't have an agenda; they should just convey the truth.
Exactly. And it's interesting—I find that it's more challenging for Christian artists to tell the truth because they want to hold on to their agenda. We need to learn from our secular friends about that.
Let me jump to another aspect of good storytelling; namely, beauty. I went to see a brilliant singer/songwriter named Audrey Assad whose voice and songs can draw beauty out of sadness and suffering. That seems like a paradox because we don't usually associate beauty with those negative things. When you're looking at a story, what are the different ways you think beauty can and should be portrayed?
When a lot of people think of the word beauty, they automatically want to think of things that are nice and pretty. But that's really not what beauty is. Beauty is a lot deeper than that. The cross is a very beautiful thing but it's also a very disturbing thing.
Flannery O'Connor is such a master of looking at beauty and art, and this idea that suffering is actually a great path to a deeper understanding of our faith. There's a quote that I just read by Flannery I'd like to share. She said, "I think there is no suffering greater than that caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment that is. But I can only see it in myself anyway as the process by which faith is deepened. What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket when, of course, it is the cross."
It's such a great point. Beauty is something that really reaches into the soul of a human being. I think beauty is the ultimate truth. It's the thing that we are reaching for as artists. What I would love for the world and for the Christian community especially is to embrace the arts more deeply. We've lost that in our current culture.
Film literacy is extremely important. If only we weren't scared away by a few swear words! I think we would get a lot more out of our lives if we were to go see films that were beautiful and really great art. On the whole, I think a search for beauty, a search for truth, a deep longing for connecting with art that talks about what it means to be alive and is honest about the human condition, which is often quite ugly—we all need to embrace that more. Christians have been great about creating family-friendly content, but there needs to be a lot more effort on the adult front. Adult stories are not cute and pretty most of the time.
I had to laugh when you just mentioned swear words because one of the films we gave a Christopher Award to this year was The King's Speech, which has a section where there is some swearing. But personally, I thought it was the best use of foul language in a movie I've heard in years. Usually it's just cheap and vulgar, but it really played into the story in this case.
That's a great example. That came out as an R rating because of the very well-chosen use of a swear word. This is the kind of movie we want everybody to see, yet how many people were scared away by the R rating or the fact that word is used a few times.
(To listen to the full interview with Vicki Peterson, visit the Christopher Closeup Podcast).
Tony Rossi serves as host/producer of "Christopher Closeup," the radio show and podcast of. The Christophers, a Catholic non-profit that uses media to encourage people of all faiths to live gospel values.