Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Case of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: On the Ethical Question of Cinematic Violence

I

Recently an ongoing discussion with my wife came to a head: for her, the violent content of today's movies as represented by Quentin Tarantino is the line in the sand and her wake-up call to the ill effects of cinematic violence in general. One of our favorite memories together is when, as a senior in high school, I organized a viewing of Pulp Fiction at my house for anyone interested, having done so out of the realization that so few people had seen such a great and influential film. I ended up hosting more than 40 fellow students, split between two television sets, and all things considered it was a successful night. I coveted Katelin's opinion in particular, and as I suspected, she enjoyed it as much as I did. We've returned to the film a number of times since, and she even made the goofy mistake of sharing with church camp leaders the following summer that Pulp Fiction was her favorite movie.

Six years later, she's reconsidering. It's not that that particular film has lost its charm, or that Tarantino's other films have disappointed, or that other movies in general containing violence have elicited disgust or rejection. It was simply the long-developed realization that it was not clear why she was choosing to subject her eyes and her ears (and thus her heart) to images and sounds (or, more broadly, to actions and stories) that in any other situation would rightly be deemed damaging, corrupt, broken, horrific, and sinful.

And this realization was uniquely directed at the medium of film; the written word involves and requires the imagination in such a way that we do not -- as we unarguably do with modern special effects today -- come face to face with what our brains understandably receive as the real thing. To read "And he took the adrenaline-filled syringe and injected her heart with it" is of a substantially different sort than to watch John Travolta stab Uma Thurman in the chest with a six-inch needle.

And so Katelin put the question to me: As an on-the-record unabashed lover of film in general and of Quentin Tarantino in particular, would I be seeing Inglourious Basterds, and if so, why? What theological and ethical reasons as a Christian persuade me either to eschew violent movies or to watch them? And is there any reason that would not merely be self-interested rationalizing?

II

Before we came to any sort of answer -- which, allow me to reveal immediately, has not been reached and is therefore not forthcoming -- we discussed the relative presence and merits of violence in the visual medium. At the very least, it was and is helpful for me (a) to recognize differences in style, purpose, and type of violence in film, (b) to refuse the temptation to label it "all or nothing" and then to attempt some arbitrary judgment in favor or dismissal of it, and (c) simply to name the amount and quality of visual violence that dominates so much of American entertainment culture, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status. (The latter observation truly is staggering.)

So I arrived at a general formula or range to quantify or group examples of different types of violent films. If plotted visually, we might go from far left, to left, to center, to right, to far right; or, if plotted numerically, from one to five. (Please refrain from reading political assignments into simple horizontal direction plotting.)

Far left, or #1, would be a film or television show that, however violent or explicit in its content, contains incontrovertible social value, even to the extent that viewing it has the potential to make one a better person (though this of course does not require that people ought to watch it). Examples include The Wire and Schindler's List.

Left, or #2, would be a film or television show that, though undoubtedly artistic, unarbitrary, meaningful, and/or profound, contains enough violence or explicit content to render its relative import on the formation of human being questionable. Examples include The Godfather and Pulp Fiction.

Center, or #3, would be a film or television show whose relatively tamer violence is equal to its analogous taming of clear social, cultural, or ethical relevance or meaning. Examples include Lost and Collateral.

Right, or #4, would be a film or television show whose violence is actually the substance and purpose of the excitement and intent in viewing it, but for that reason is fantastic, unrealistic, heroic, or escapist. Examples include The Dark Knight and The Lord of the Rings.

Far right, or #5, would be a film or television show that both exists for the sake of its own explicit brutality and intends to push the boundaries of what can be created visually to represent as believably as possible the reality of death and violence (though, note that this does not exclude the possibility of artistic or meaningful intent as well). Examples include the Saw series and 300.

Notice, too, that some films or shows fit awkwardly in between certain categories, and that others have elements of multiple categories. The premier example of the latter is The Sopranos, which unquestionably has extraordinary meaning on multiple levels, yet at times seems to exist merely for the sake of being entertained by brutal, voyeuristic violence. An example of the former might be Ong-Bak (a Thai martial arts film, probably a 4.5) or the Revenge Trilogy of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook (whose films some would place at 2 and others at 5, but probably lie around 2.5).

Regardless: The point is, what is or can be justified for a Christian to watch, what cannot or should not, and why? More to the point, where does a film like Inglourious Basterds lie -- and how can one know in advance? If the artistic merits of a film can commend itself over against the content or amount of its violence -- like, for example, Schindler's List, or as many Christians would argue, The Passion of the Christ, though that is a different case altogether, and not necessarily a happy one -- is it reasonable or foolish to "try out" films before, by point of fact, one can know whether its merits do in fact trump its violence? And is all of this merely a moralistic or pietistic or bourgeois conversation to begin with -- or, alternatively, self-justifying and blinded by forgetfulness of the gravity of sin and by a false desire for cultural participation or relevance -- and therefore to be shunned from the outset?

III

In After Virtue, in a discussion of the potential defects of an inadequate account of the virtues, Alasdair MacIntyre notes the possibility of "too many conflicts and too much arbitrariness" (p. 201). He finds an example of this endless oscillation between innumerable and irrational choices in the life of T.E. Lawrence. MacIntyre goes on to say, "Commitment to sustaining the kind of community in which the virtues can flourish may be incompatible with the devotion which a particular practice -- of the arts, for example -- requires. So there may be tensions between the claims of family life and those of the arts..." Though in many ways unrelated to our discussion, here MacIntyre names a very real but often overlooked fact of a coherent moral life: sometimes things have to be cut out completely. For example, I am sometimes amazed when I hear the responses of Christian friends who fear the specter of sectarianism if the church were to embrace the logical consequences of the renunciation of violence toward enemies -- for think of all the jobs and offices and positions they would be unable to inhabit! Well, we don't think much of the fact that we assume a Christian cannot ethically or coherently make his trade as a pornographer, or a sex trafficker, or a mercenary torturer, or a thief, or a professional propagandist; yet exact or similar forms of every one of these professions exist in the industrialized West today -- many of which are occupied by self-professed Christians!

The point being, as MacIntyre notes and as I argue with others regarding the practice of violence, there are actions and decisions that cannot coexist together coherently or for the betterment of the human person. In this discussion, it may be violence in film, or at least certain types of cinematic violence or certain types of film. Irrespective of the real or supposed artistic merit of a film, the brutality depicted visually and the rawness thereof may overwhelm any reason to see it.

In an essay entitled "Freedom and Decency," after a blistering assault on the argument against any form of censorship followed by a nostalgic remembrance of cinema days long past, David Bentley Hart writes:
Nevertheless, the current state of cinema seems to suggest that where good or at least clever writing is not a commercial necessity, and where there are no artificially imposed limits within which writers must work, the general intellectual quality of the medium cannot help but decline, and do considerable cultural damage as it descends. It would certainly be hard, if nothing else, to argue credibly that artistic expression has been well served by the revolution in standards that has made script-writing an occupation dominated by sadistic adolescents, or that the art has exactly flourished in an era in which it has been proved that immense profits can be generated from minimal dialogue but plenteous bloodshed, and in which practically nothing is considered too degraded or degrading for popular tastes. (In the Aftermath, pp. 75-76)
As a frequenter of "fanboy" movie websites like Ain't It Cool News and /Film, I can attest to this reality: strangely, hauntingly, the more violent, bloody, realistically gory, and/or brutal a film is or possibly will be lends itself in direct proportion to the (froth-)level and groundswell of anticipation. But this phenomenon is not limited to the geeks: legitimate or arthouse critics, though sometimes more sophisticated in their language or their reasons, are just as guilty as their despised brethren of swooning for awful realities depicted visually. As long as it is "honest" or "soul-bearing" or "meaning-filled," or sometimes just plain part of the fun of the movies, the respectable guys are just as much along for the ride, and just as much give their ringing endorsement to films whose content is unspeakably violent, with little to no question of the effect(s) the images and sounds might have on living, breathing human beings who are shaped, molded, and formed by all that they receive through their senses.

IV

But of course, I have no room to speak: last night I saw Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. I saw it with the expressed interest of using it as a test case in my wife's and my conversation about the ethics of cinematic violence. And as I suspected, I walked away with more questions than answers.

On one level, I find myself utterly befuddled at any attempt to assess the film critically (more on this confusion below). On a technical level, as with all of Tarantino's films, it is a work of identifiable excellence. The man was born to make movies. As a film, it works even better than the sum of its parts (and if you've seen the movie, you'll know that description is as literal as it is metaphoric): it is patient, steady, detailed, well-acted, emotional, engaging, creative, funny, surprising, and morally suggestive. Some critics are decrying the blatant ugliness of rewriting history through a reversal-of-fortunes tale of Jewish vengeance on the evil-and-deserving Nazis; some are commending the well-written, well-directed, superb craftsmanship of it; some are saying there is a great deal more going on than many are recognizing -- namely, Tarantino is turning vengeance itself upside down on its head.

Personally -- and I speak as someone for whom all of Tarantino's previous work stands as the tireless output of an inimitably gifted auteur -- my first thought is that it was brilliant. And setting aside the standards by which I did or ought to judge the film, I was actually surprised by how much less violence there was than I had prepared myself for. There were a few scenes easily anticipated, and brief, from which I chose to avert my eyes for a moment, but as seems to happen with every new Tarantino film, even when expecting the unexpected, the unexpected is a surprise.

What was profoundly more disconcerting than my enjoyment of the film or the relative presence of its violence -- and what is keeping me up into the night even as I write this -- was the reaction of those around me. I saw Inglourious Basterds at 7:00 pm on a Monday night (alone), and I would say there were maybe a dozen other folks in the theater. Of those, most were between 16 and 24 years old. (There was actually a woman with an infant near the front, who left multiple times when the baby would start crying.)

During the most explicit and horrifying violence being broadcast onto the screen, multiple voices, both male and female, from different groups sitting in separate parts of the theater, would start laughing hysterically. (Spoilers herein.) When Eli Roth's character "The Bear Jew" was bashing some Nazi officer's face in with a bat, they were laughing. When Brad Pitt's character was bloodily and gruesomely carving a swastika into the forehead of a Nazi officer, they were laughing. When the Nazi-filled theater (in the movie) was bathed in flames and two of the Basterds started unleashing their machine guns into the fleeing audience, they were laughing. Cold-hearted, real-looking, torturous and terrifying pain and suffering were depicted by moving image and sound on a large screen, and my stranger companions of a similar generation were laughing and giggling and having a grand old time.

This isn't a new experience. I remember the opening night of The Dark Knight, when The Joker is introduced and does his "magic trick" of killing a random criminal by smashing his face down onto a table where a pencil is pointing upward and smashes through his eye -- just describing the scene makes one nauseous, and yet this is a movie young teenagers saw repeatedly! -- and hearing in response a smattering of applause and (masculine) cursing (in approval). Or the packed opening weekend of M. Night Shyamalan's (awful) The Happening, in a scene where out of nowhere a young boy is shot through a window by a shotgun, and a handful of teenage boys on the front row of the theater started laughing and cheering and high-fiving.

These instances are neither rare nor trivial. They are no less serious or concerning than a group of guys cheering on John McClane in Die Hard, or laughing at the gore in Dawn of the Dead, or applauding Maximus or William Wallace slaying their enemies by the sword. Violence on the television or the big screen is cool, fun, funny, removed, heroic, virtual, distant, laudable, amoral, and something to be watched and rehearsed, alone and in groups, as much as possible, and in the name of entertainment.

V

A few things require further elaboration.

First, it still may not be clear why, either from a Christian perspective or for human persons, it might be dangerous or harmful to view violence depicted through the visual medium. Of course, after 2,500 words I am not going to offer a unified theory about the negative potentialities of violence in film. Instead, I simply want to emphasize that Christians, over against the regnant spirit of American culture, not only believe in healthy limits to every aspect of life, but believe that whatever comes into our bodies and upon our spirits shapes us into the type of persons we will be. Moreover, we have no stake in the belief that each individual is so lord of her own life or captain of his own ship that each person knows what is best for his or her own well-being. Instead, we only know what is best for us because God has revealed it to us, and he has done and continues to do so through the life of his Son, through the presence of his Spirit, through the discipline of Scripture, through the gift of prayer, and through the discernment of the community. These are the loci around which our ethical questions and answers, however tentative or guessed at or believed with conviction, gather and are shared and take tangible form through truthful openness, listening, trust, and surrender.

And so on the one hand, I am not addressing the question of cinematic violence as one of those "bad" areas of "the world" or of culture "out there," which Christians ought to be afraid of or reject out of hand. Christians are most uptight in this sort of way about language, and in my experience such rigidity is detrimental to the possibility of meaningful relationships with large segments of society whose language is just too salty for good middle-class suburban folks. Therefore my concerns in this discussion imply no fearful seclusion of the church into a safe bubble free from the world's dirtiness.

But on the other hand, Christians also believe that by faith we see the world as it is: a place and a time of conflicting powers, a fallen and violent age passing away before the suffering groans of the coming new creation in which all will be made well. Foremost among the awful continuing realities in this contested arena is the presence of violence, and the gospel of the crucified one speaks a word of peace to a world caught up into the awful machinations of suffering, torture, disease, murder, war, and death. Thus it is or ought to be unquestionably problematic for Christians uncritically to view movies or television shows full of violence, much less for them to enjoy them for that very reason.

What is closer to my heart, and which was borne out in my conversation with Katelin, is that on the broadest level possible, I am simply unsure how to orient myself with regard to the art of film. For, as MacIntyre rightly notes elsewhere in After Virtue, to come to excel in a particular practice -- such as filmmaking or film critique -- one must "accept the authority of those standards [of excellence internal to the practice] and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice" (p. 190). And surely this is right: in order to learn what good film is, I must immerse myself in the happy but patient process of learning what movies are considered to be "good" versus "less good," of watching them, of identifying what makes them "good," and of training my eyes and my language to see these traits, and then eventually to find other previously unknown traits or even to disagree with previous assessments of viewers.

Applied to film, then, the question arises: How, as a Christian, can one come under the tutelage of the art of film at a time when the medium is dominated by the explicit visual representation of realistic and believable forms of violence? The question was not necessarily pressing 60 years ago, for much was left to the imagination, by reason of either artistic restraint or lack of resources. But today, if a medium is so compromised as to render it unable to be healthfully or ethically engaged in its fullness by Christians, does that entail giving it up entirely?

The implications for lovers of film, and for self-fashioned amateur film critics -- and in both categories I place myself -- are not hopeful.

VI

As it stands and as I promised, even if one seems obvious, I ultimately have no answer to offer. I want the awful and seemingly apparent effects of movies on demand that feature uncensored, graphically realistic violence to move me immediately to forsake all or nearly all violent cinema from here on out. Unfortunately, not only did I enjoy Inglourious Basterds, not only did I think it a worthwhile film -- I am deeply glad I am now able to share in the cultural conversation it has produced. Does that mean I should have seen it? Absolutely not. Does its violence render it morally questionable as a piece of art to be digested with the eyes and ears? Without a doubt. Should the state of desensitization and agreeableness toward violence in current American culture (and especially in males) cause Christians to reconsider the content they choose to intake? There can be no question.

But is there an answer in this case? More importantly, is there an answer in the broader sense? Is there any justification for viewing violent films and television shows except on rare occasions?

For my wife, a time has come when the line is drawn and can be seen with clarity. As for me, I'm still searching.

21 comments:

  1. i will keep searching too. great post, i always dreadfully appreciate your conversation on this topic.

    where do you rate Watchmen on your scale? (the film)

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  2. “Revolutions are always verbose.”
    -- Leon Trotsky, 1917

    You have some great points. After I recover from reading all of them, I will supply a response.

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  3. Brad,
    Really a wonderful post. I think it has some classroom potential to get students thinking about the relevant issues.

    Two other things:
    I think your taxonomy (left to right), which a good essay or book could be built around, should be more multi-dimensional than on a flat continuum. That is, you have at least three dimensions squished together: Violent v. Not, Meaningful v. Entertainment, Realistic vs. Fantasy. I think movies can get mapped into that 2 x 2 x 2 space with each location providing opportunities for reflection and contrast. Just an idea.

    Second point. I often wonder about Freud in these conversations. That is, if we have inherent violent impulses is it possible to be violence-free? If not, should we find outlets for our violence that are socially safe? Of course this is a slippery slope, but there is some evidence that a kind of tradeoff is in play, that by internalizing the sex and violence we suck it out of our public spaces. A recent study found that the advent of online pornography has reduced sexual assault in the US. Which, if true, is very problematic. Do we make or encourage such trades? Allowing our interior worlds to decay to preserve our social contract? (And what would be the long term effects of all this?) Take Europe as a contrast. Less violence in the media but more sex. Seems like some kind of Freudian balance is in play (less sex more violence, more sex less violence). Is it possible to remove it all from our entertainments? And if so, what would happen? (And I should not that these questions are more about society and less about ideals for the Kingdom.)

    No answers needed. Just stuff I think about.

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  4. Heath,

    I actually almost took up Watchmen as a perfect example of being brutal for the sake of brutality, yet also saying a great deal in the midst of the violence and sex. Rorschach's madness says a great deal about modern society, but do we really have to see him repeatedly chop a child-murderer's head to pieces?

    Richard,

    Thanks for you kind comments, and for the helpful insight. I actually had your blog in mind for a couple portions of the post: your piece on sex and aggression in Freud, and your many charts and graphs. I agree with you about the need for a more complex graph; I felt the tension the most in the middle position, because it could have been either "less meaningful, but less violent" or "more meaningful, but still too much." What would that sort of 3-D graph look like, and what program do you use for the graphics on your blog?

    I also appreciate the tension of your second comment -- both between society and kingdom, and between "trading off" and purity. I'm wondering about a few things:

    1) Was there a trade-off occurring in the films of the 50s, in which you still cheered on the hero amidst violence and derring-do, yet much of the actual violence was clearly fake or left to the imagination? (We could say the same for sex.)

    2) What other trade-offs are occurring, for example, in the tension between pornography and sexual assaults? What if the latter has lessened with the increase of the former, but divorce, sexual perversion, and overall unkindness between spouses (especially of men toward women) have all equally increased? I realize you weren't implying a simple 1-to-1 trade-off, but I have to think that with the advent of pornography on demand, the overall effect on society is negative.

    3) I wonder if this might offer us a moral window through which to characterize violent films, especially in concert with reflection on the Old Testament. Setting aside the visual nature of the medium (which does change everything, as my post endlessly notes!), we have to recognize that cheering on Jason Bourne -- whose cause to a great extent may be characterized as "righteous," having woken up with no memory, no desire to hurt others, and endlessly pursued by monstrous military bureaucracy -- is fundamentally different than cheering on Michael in Halloween II. More to the point, watching No Country For Old Men and cheering on no one, but rather finding ourselves caught up into the awful nightmare of brutal, effective violence, we realize the insanity and pointlessness of death and killing. (Etc.) And combined with the fact that as Christians we remember all of the bloody, corrupt, frightful stories of the Bible must have import on this conversation -- but again, the conversation is not merely the violent nature of stories as such, but cinematic stories.

    4) Finally, what is the difference the gospel makes? That is the most important question for me, at least right now. I have to believe that we have to believe that the Spirit has the power to ensure that we do not need a set of "trade-offs" in order not to kill, abuse, or assault. But then, merely saying "Holy Spirit" is no answer at all. But I hope there is a way to be faithful as followers of Jesus before addressing the question on a societal scale.

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  5. interesting discussion, I usually don't write reviews of movies, but Inglourious Basterds made me ask so many questions that I eventually had to write one.

    One note on the genius of this film though, you kept commenting on how people in the theater will cheer violence - in fact, some were cheering the "baseball bat" scene - and yet, they then get to see a scene later with the Nazis cheering the violence in their own propaganda movie exactly like the "baseball bat" scene was being cheered by us earlier ...

    That's got to make some people think, right? I know it's going to fly over the heads of some, but others can't help but notice the comparison - and the comparison was not a coincidence.

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  6. Hi Brad,
    Great responses. One thought about the 50s.

    First, most of America had a lot of violence to deal with given that WW1 and WW2 experiences were still fresh. I don't think they needed media outlets. They were saturated with death.

    Also, as the Civil Rights movement and the sixties showed, a lot was being bottled up that eventually burst into the greatest era of civil unrest and violence (and sex!) since the Civil War.

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  7. Persiflage,

    Thanks for the comment, and I look forward to reading your review. Re: Tarantino turning the tables on the audience, I think part of my problem is that for the most part, people don't realize that the tables have been turned ... so does it still accomplish its task?

    Richard,

    Agreed on WWII. But wow! What a fascinating point about the 50s. Of course, I was just trying to name the most recent period of time when explicit violence wasn't on screen, but the explosion of the 60s into civil unrest, violent clash, and free sexuality does make weird sense out of a possible society-wide repression. Hm. Lots to think about.

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  8. Christians do have a tenuous relationship with movies. :)

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  9. Brad said - "I think part of my problem is that for the most part, people don't realize that the tables have been turned ... so does it still accomplish its task?"

    I guess you could say the same thing about Christian film critics who used Jules & Vincent in Pulp Fiction as prime examples of Tarantino trying to make evil look attractive. If the people watching the film don't even realize how there's so much more to the story of Jules & Vincent than "making evil look attractive", is it Tarantino's fault?

    and oh yeah, thanks - here's a link to my review here, while I can't say it's that well written, it is (a) from a Christian worldview perspective, and (b) not willing to dismiss the depth of the film simply because of 5 minutes' worth of violence.

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  10. Persiflage,

    I understand what you're saying, which has a great deal to do with the role and function of art in society. The primary point I want to make is less about whose "fault" it is when a misunderstanding or misinterpretation occurs between artist and audience; what I want to say is, how do movies likes Tarantino's form their viewers? And if the formation, whether caught up in incorrect or unsophisticated modes of viewing or not, is negative or violent or sinful or opposed to God's kingdom, should Christians (a) participate in it, (b) support it, and/or (c) critique it from their own or another perspective?

    Thanks, regardless of my response, for your careful reading and comments.

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  11. This is interesting because the Christian take on Tarantino is not (as a rule) a positive one. And yet just about every Christian adores The Passion of the Christ which Roger Ebert said was the most violent film he'd ever seen. I thought Passion of the Christ was incredibly gratuitously violent in the sense that they showed hardly any of Jesus' life before his crucifixion.

    So I guess I'm really curious and frustrated with the Christian perspective on Tarantino. Inglourious Basterds was one of the best movies I've ever seen, easily. That first scene? AMAZING amazing amazing.

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  12. Stephy,

    I couldn't agree more about both movies. I hope you didn't hear my post saying either that I would endorse viewing cinematic violence if it's "religious" (like the Passion) or that the problem with Tarantino's brand of violence is that it's gratuitous, inartistic, or not in the context of good films.

    My issue, as I shared in my response to Persiflage above, is about the long-term, holistic effects of any and all forms of violence as viewed through the visual medium on the formation of human persons, with specific regard to the inherent nonviolence that Christians proclaim and aspire to in the gospel of the kingdom. How does that affect our potential watching of Inglourious Basterds? Well, its quality and artistic content are a couple variables, but, at least in my understanding, they are not (and cannot be) the only ones.

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  13. Brad, I think do get your point and it's a good one.

    "what I want to say is, how do movies likes Tarantino's form their viewers?"

    This is a fascinating question. "Art" (particularly film) has the power to form and change the viewer. I think Inglourious Basterds was actually interested in this question.

    (Possible Spoiler paragraph -)
    It isn't a coincidence that Goebbeols propaganda films are a subject of the film - he's making an effort to "change" Germany with his new studio. It also wasn't a coincidence that Shosanna, the last person in the story who should care, happens to catch a glimpse of a few minutes of film at the climax, and when she does, she is actually moved (changed) to feel compassion for Zoller and act on it - all because of the Nazi propaganda film.

    And if the formation ... is negative or violent or sinful or opposed to God's kingdom, should Christians (a) participate in it, (b) support it, and/or (c) critique it from their own or another perspective?

    No, no, and no. While I would ascribe to the whole power of film to "make evil attractive" or even to "change people so that they desire to sin" to a whole number of films today (Saw, Hostel, Halloween, Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, etc. etc.) I think it's too easy to just dismiss Tarantino's films into this group.

    You said earlier - How, as a Christian, can one come under the tutelage of the art of film at a time when the medium is dominated by the explicit visual representation of realistic and believable forms of violence?

    I'll admit it, I'm desensitized to the point where I can cheer along with John McClane in Die Hard while he is killing bad guys. I'm not to the point where I can enjoy watching crap like the Saw movies. I'd even suggest the first has moral worth, while the second has negative worth.

    "The question was not necessarily pressing 60 years ago, for much was left to the imagination, by reason of either artistic restraint or lack of resources."

    10 year old spoilers - Tarantino has a reputation among Christians for supposed ultra-graphic, cringe-inducing violence. I’ve heard it over and over again ever since back in the early 90s when they were complaining about Michael Madsen cutting off the cop’s ear in Reservoir Dogs or Vincent accidentally blowing that dude’s head off in Pulp Fiction.

    Those two scenes have got to be some of the most famous violent scenes in cinema that have ever occurred … off the screen. The camera doesn’t show either of them happen in either movie. And yet the ultra-graphic violence is why Tarantino is bad. The Kill Bill films are the exception here, but anyone watching those figures out fairly quickly that realism was being discarded for old 60s/70s Chinese/Japanese Kung Fu movie-ism.

    "But today, if a medium is so compromised as to render it unable to be healthfully or ethically engaged in its fullness by Christians, does that entail giving it up entirely?"

    I guess I'd argue no. Giving up the medium entirely is not the answer. But giving up and taking stands against the encouragement/glorification of evil in film? Yes. Staying active within the medium, whether you're a Christian producer, director, or just someone voting with your dollars in the theater and writing reviews to engage in discussion, is how you keep the medium from being completely taken over by the opposing point of view.

    All this to say, there are reasons to support rarities like IB, and to oppose things like the Hostel films.

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  14. Persiflage,

    Thanks so much for your extended response. In general I agree with most of what you said -- and I especially agree that it is supremely odd that Tarantino is blamed for graphic violence when 98% of his movies are simply characters talking to each other, and even then, whatever violence there is is almost always off screen. I also agree that IB is most certainly making thoughtful points about vengeance, war, violence, brutality, and the power of film as an art. And without a doubt, the Hostel and Saw films are in a category unto themselves.

    I guess my lingering question -- which seems answered for you -- is if, however excellent or artistic or profound a point or exploration a film makes, the violence contained within it does not have the power to overtake any positive effects with the negative effects of viewing brutality? To some extent the question isn't answerable, but I hope at least that it is good to continue to be nagged by it.

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  15. Brad,

    Good thinking here. I would push you to come out with more preliminary answers even if you stop short of a definite conclusion. You set up a lot of interesting possibilities and then don't follow them through.

    A few responses:

    Christian nonviolence emphatically does not mean avoiding violence altogether. It means not "committing" violence. Christians are actually called to go into places of violence, to stand in solidarity with victims of violence, to witness and condemn violence, even to suffer violence. Our religion cannot be made sense of at all without the very violent narrative at the heart of the gospel that is Christ's torture and execution.

    In that sense it would be more appropriate to ask what forms of violence in art make us complicit with the commission of violence and which actually have the opposite effect. The value in something like "Schindler's List" for example is that it is likely to stir us to feelings of compassion and empathy and away form violence, no matter how stark the portrayal of violence therein.

    In fact, there are definitely times where violence in film is not merely ancillary nor in opposition to the moral or artistic value of the movie, but fundamental to it. How can we face evil and name it as such if we are too bashful to show it's real nature?

    Connecting with Beck's conversation on purity and defilement on his blog - is it the case that evil even when glorified in art is really capable of infiltrating us from without? Doesn't Christ say that evil comes from within? In that sense, is art, especially film, not just a mirror that can show us who we are? If so, eschewing violent cinema would serve no purpose but to hide from our own shadows.

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  16. what our brains understandably receive as the real thing

    Are you insane? My brain receives film violence as violence taking place on a screen. I can watch Reservoir Dogs and I'm shocked by the violence -- if that was playing out before my eyes in real life, I'm pretty sure I'd be throwing up or fainting.

    This is just an astoundingly stupid premise. Anyone who can't tell the difference between something playing out on a screen and something playing out unmediated before their eyes is mentally ill.

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  17. My brain understandably receives Rembrandt's "The Prodigal" up there at the top of the screen as something very dirty.

    And I love Tarantino.

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  18. Well, I think Tarantino kind of believes in catharsis. I mean, I don't think he believes his movies will make the world more violent. But that is just an opinion. I like his movies and it does not man that I have become more violent after watching them.

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  19. I really appreciate this wonderful post that you have provided for us. I assure this would be beneficial for most of the people. So thanks all to you.

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  20. What about movies he has written, like Natural Born Killers, which inspired a few young folks to kill their parents and some others, kill their fellow students? dont get me wrong, Tarantino is my favourite film maker, i always look forward to his films, but they are influential to some and we cant ignore it. Hailings from Jamaica!

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