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Thoughtful: Film Content

The ugly realities of life mean that, if a film is part of engaging with life and diving deeper into who we need to be, it’s likely to have ugly stuff. Many films have “questionable” content: violence, language, explicit sex, glorified drug use, and so on. If we think seriously about who we need to be, there’s more that fits into the questionable bucket: arrogance, cowardice, greed, misogyny (and misandry), meanness, selfishness, and much more. Diving deeply into such issues, a film can help us along in clearing them out of our character but, on the other hand, we’re not all ready to engage with all forms of ugliness and a film can treat ugliness inappropriately. How much should we take? When is enough enough? Where should we draw the line?

To gain perspective, asks three questions. First: What, exactly, are we enjoying when we watch ugly stuff? Second: What does that say about us? For example, if we’re enjoying one person’s inhumanity to another, that’s no good, and it tends to reinforce us staying how we are (or even to make us worse). Instead, we can, in a sense, “enjoy” the fact that inhumane actions can push us toward being more humane. Third, we ask about the film itself: Is its ugly content an integral part of the film’s exploration, or is it there merely to revel in ugliness?

Thoughts on dealing with film content include:

  • A film’s content matters less than what we do with it. Because it’s in our hearts that we are who we are, the mere content of what we see matters not so much compared to what our hearts do with it. Some might watch a sex scene, catch nuances of the characters’ expressions, suddenly see clearly how we can be self-centered in sex, and come away changed. Others might only be sexually stimulated and driven toward some quick adulterous sex-fix. A film’s content can go too far, reveling in ugliness, wanting us to simply enjoy it. By staying aware of what we’re enjoying, we can catch ourselves being taken in by ugliness, then consider what it says about the brokenness in our hearts. Where our hearts go with a film’s content is the important thing.
  • We can expose the darkness to light. To expose a thing’s dark side, we must talk about it, and film is a powerful medium for dialog. Filmmakers may choose to deal in ugliness specifically to show that it is ugly — to bring a bit of darkness into the light of day. Sometimes, the best way to expose something as ugly is to show it in its full ugliness and say nothing more. We don’t want to fall into darkness ourselves, but talking about it, even via the visceral medium of film, is not in and of itself entering into the darkness.
  • Ugly content should be ‘organic’ to the film. Exposing the darkness is good, but a film can have ugly content for no good reason. Whether it is profanity, nudity, violence, mysogyny, pride, prejudice, excessive luxury, or anything else, to the degree that ugly content contributes to film’s core exploration, it is integral, or organic, to the film — it’s part of the living fabric of the film. To the degree that it’s not organic to the film, it’s gratuitous — there simply for viewers that find pleasure reveling in ugly content. Still, we may see differently on whether or not any particular content is organic, so it’s good to talk about it and gain others’ perspectives.
  • To love better, we can learn the foreign language of those around us. It’s a beautiful thing to engage with and learn from all sorts of people, including those that find Beauty we missed or find it in places where we don’t. If a filmmaker has a very different lifestance and worldview from ours, it’s not surprising if their films seem to be in a foreign language, so to speak, with content that we don’t understand or that we find ugly. Pursuing care and concern and love, we can seek to understand their language and, even if we don’t connect with what they’re saying, we can still seek to learn from the questions they ask and the ways they wrestle with the questions.
  • Engaging with film requires grace and forbearance. When we see something and think its content went too far, it’s good to step back, withhold judgment, and have a bit of grace toward it. It is difficult to explore well life’s dark side. In dealing with ugly content, filmmakers must decide what will best embody the film’s exploration. Their decisions will fall along a continuum from abstract portrayals with few details to visceral portrayals with strong detail. They may go too far — or not far enough. Besides, we will differ in our our own sense of what is appropriate along this continuum for any given scene. Again pursuing love for all, we can be gracious toward a filmmaker’s choices, seeking to understand and learn from the film’s exploration, even if it’s not done as we would have done it.

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