Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Continuing the conversation from below...

What follows is not a coherent essay, but some (probably) disconnected thoughts on issues raised in the 6FU comment box below.

First, let me say that my predictions were correct. I have considered blogging on 6FU or The Sopranos before, but censored myself because I knew that rather than discussion about the programs, we'd get loaded down with condemnations of any and all who would watch such programs.

And I was right, although the defenses have been good, so thanks for chiming in.

As far as I see it, the biggest problem in popular culture today is not the presence of movies or television programs that have more permissive content that they have in years past. The problem is the lack of alternatives. I don't think that those who are disturbed or turned off by this permissive content would be as bothered if there were another strand of pop culture out there, making films and television programs that were serious, engaging, intelligent and without the language, nudity and attitudes they don't like. It's a vacuum that disturbs me as well - in years past, there were such things - well, not television shows, which have been mostly dreck since the inception of the medium, but movies, certainly - and I mean films that were intellectually provocative, morally serious, without the distractions (as they are to some) of the permissive content. Films that teens could see that would give them insight into the adult world and adult issues and open their minds and experiences without the presence of That Bad Stuff - films like The Third Man or On the Waterfront or The Bicycle Thief... all films directed at adult sensibilities in the best sense.

There just aren't many films made like that any more, and it really is too bad...and if anyone has any modern examples of the kind of film I'm talking about, please mention them in the comments box - it will help us all out.

So, as I said, that's a real vacuum in film and television, and it's too bad, because I think people are hungry for it. A lot of people (including people at the major networks) think that the reason The Sopranos and 6FU are popular (relatively speaking) is because of the language and nudity that HBO allows (although there really is very little nudity on either show - language is the big issue). I say it's not. I say the reason people like these shows is because they really are pretty smart shows that deal with complex issues in a complex way. They're intriguing and provocative, in a positive sense. They don't have to follow the rules of network programming, so they don't have pat solutions or 30-second wrap-ups to complicated issues.

Another issue that has come up is a program or movie "promoting" immorality.

The relationship between culture and public mores is a complex one, and there is definitely a fluid dynamic - society impacts what culture produces and the culture in turn, influences society. You'll get no argument from me there, and despite the protestations of network and recording company executives that no one's influenced by what they see and hear, we all know that's a lie. There would be no other reason to pour billions into the production and promotion of such products if influencing people weren't part of the goal.

But several commenters have decried programs "promoting immorality," and I am really puzzled as to what this means - seriously - and just as puzzled by what a cultural product (pardon my wording. I can't group all of what we're talking about under the category of "works of art". They're not. Most of what we're talking about are products designed to attract advertisers or consumers...so..they're products.) that portrayed immorality in a realistic way that met the criterea of "not promoting" it would look like. The old Hays Code regulation of the fact that all evildoers must be punished? Okay but..in real life...they're not. Or at least, not to our eyes...

Look. Say I were to make a movie about a guy who rose from being governor of a southern state to president of the United States. Quite a shady character, this fellow. Dishonest as the day is long, a serial adulterer, a master manipulater. In this movie, the guy manages to overcome almost every obstacle in his way. He gets reelected to the presidency despite serious charges against him, and he emerges from his second term hardly any worse for the wear - his marriage is, at least, externally, intact. His daughter still loves him. He makes oodles of money speaking and has a generally good time. Sure, his nose gets bigger and redder every year, and who knows what his conscience says to him every night, but as far as the externalities of our story goes - if we stopped telling it right now - he's not been punished or suffered greatly for his sins.

If we told this story would we be "promoting" this guy's mendacity or sins? No...I don't think so. I think we'd be telling the story.

Look. The moral perspective of an artist will come into whatever she creates. Art is not supposed to be merely documentary, for life is more than just a collection of external events. Human life is meaningful, and the exploration of that meaning is the core of great, lasting art.But if that art is not true to life as it is, as its starting point, it is not authentic.

And here's the deal. 6FU features a homosexual character - one of the brothers who owns the funeral home, a guy named David. David started the show in the first seasons closeted and repressed and struggling - and much of his struggle came from his religious faith (an aspect of his character which has been dropped of late). Over the past two seasons, as he has come out, the show has showed him in a relationship - a difficult one, by the way.

Is the inclusion of this character a "promotion" of homosexuality?

I'm sorry, but I just can't get my head around that concept. If David were an angel - perhaps the only nice guy on the show who spends his days feeding the poor while everyone else hung out by the pool, or if his relationship was the only good one on the show...or if the portrayal of gay life were somehow sanitized...you might have a point. But it's not. David is still uptight, is actually far less sensitive to his client's needs than is his heterosexual brother, and always has the bottom line in mind - is perfectly willing to push the most expensive casket on the wall, while his brother worries about the cost to the family. David has been involved in aspects of gay life that are destructive and shallow and are portrayed as such. David's relationship is problematic, to say the least. Alan Ball, the creator of the series, who is a homosexual man, has no fear of playing with gay stereotypes or showing the diversity of gay life, even the negative aspects.In other words...as a character, David is three dimensional.


A novel or a movie or a television show is not about idealized figures. They are supposed to be about specific characters, and the more specific the characterization the more powerful the effect. A show like 6FU is about specific characters - which include, for example a character named Brenda, who is seriously messed up and did some very bad sexual acting out last season when confronted with the specter of commitment. It's clear, though, that all of Brenda's problems ultimately stem from the fact that she's the child of two psychotherapists, who did a serious number on her growing up...so since she is so specific as a character, her acting out or subsequent struggles could not possibly be seen as actions put on the screen for us to emulate. They are what this specific character did in these circumstances.

So yes...we need more real diversity in what's on the screen, and I firmly believe there's an audience for it, and I have every sympathy for those who are turned off by permissive content..and by the way, this is a pretty much continual discussion over at Christianity Today's Film Forum which provides a weekly round up of critical evaluations of the week's new movies, with special emphasis on what "Christian" critics are saying...