Moral but Obscene

January 28, 2011 Length: 17:51

Frederica discusses a possible trend in film of wrapping a conservative message in vulgar jokes and nudity. As examples, she looks to the movies Love, Actually; Knocked Up; and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

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The other night my husband, Fr. Gregory, and I watched a movie that I really like a lot. It came out in 2003. The title is Love, Actually. Having said that, I have to say, “Don’t see it. Do not rent this movie. Do not watch this movie.” There is so much language and nudity, and it is just going to be shocking and dismaying, I think, to a lot of people.

I learned a lesson about that when years ago I recommended the movie Best In Show. It is a fake documentary, a “mockumentary,” about a dog show in Philadelphia, and it is hilarious. I loved the movie, and I wrote a review and praised it. A member of my parish wrote an email to me and said, “We watched it and we were so shocked at the opening scene.”

Then I remembered the opening scene. There is no nudity in this movie. It is a comedy; it is all funny; it is not trying to be sexy, but there is a couple having a conversation with a psychiatrist, and they talk about their sex lives. I realized that I just get kind of hardened or inured to things like that while watching movies: “Oh yeah, that is the kind of thing you have in a movie these days,” and I keep on rolling.

I realized that I was wrong, that I had to be more careful, and, in fact, be careful about this hardening of my perception. Really, as Christians, we should be shocked by things like that, and we shouldn’t be watching movies like that. I just wish there was a way to get all the good stuff without having to put up with that.

I watched Love, Actually when it came out in 2003, and this was the second time I had seen it, and I was so impressed with the morality of this movie. I thought about that being a pattern in various movies in the 2000s. That is, that they have bad language and nudity and a lot of talk about sex and just a lot of gross jokes—not so much in Love, Actually, but in the Seth Rogen type of comedies—and yet, how conservative the morality is in some cases.

Speaking of Love, Actually, gosh, I wish I could tell you to see it. I just admire the subtlety of its stories. There are eight different characters, couples, that are being followed, as their lives interweave in a really pleasant way. “Ah, another rewarding surprise. Ah, she is his sister. Gee.” You keep moving in and out of these stories starting a few weeks before Christmas, and coming up to Christmas.

There is a beautiful story of a couple, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman (who was Snape in the Harry Potter movies), a couple that have been married a long time. She appears to be a stay-at-home mom, and they have a couple of kids. In an early scene she is joking about how fat she is getting to be. It was daring, I think, of Emma Thompson to take off her dress; and you see her in her slip and she has widened a little bit, reasonably so—less than I have, but you know, kudos to her for doing that—and she says, “I am getting to the point where nothing fits me except clothing that was previously owned by Pavarotti,” and Alan Rickman says, “But Pavarotti is a very good dresser.” So they have a nice relationship.

But he has a remoteness and an aloofness to him, and the secretary at work starts flirting with him in a very brazen way. I am not going to give away everything that happens, because the way it works out is just beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful. There are 45 seconds of silent acting that Emma Thompson does that, at the time, I thought, “She needs to get the Academy Award just for that, just for that less-than-a-minute.” It is so intense.

The point of that whole episode is so pro-marriage, pro-fidelity. The secretary is like a cartoon character. They have made her so evil. It is not like this is a balanced story and, ph you can kind of see that point of view, too. Not a bit! She is put in the story just to be a bad guy and nothing but a bad guy. There is a costume party and she is dressed as the devil. How much broader could it be?

I think it is because they have put in enough nudity and language and sexual talk, that, in a way, it liberates them to be able to affirm conservative sexual morality and pro-marriage and that you are supposed to stick together. It even honors Emma Thompson’s life as a stay-at-home mom. At one point Alan Rickman says, “I feel like I’ve made a fool of myself,” and she says, “Yes, but also you made a fool of me, and you made foolish my entire life.” Then she turns around to get the children into their coats, and you see that is what she is talking about, that his attraction toward the secretary is denigrating her life as a mother, and she is the heroine. It is so great! I wish I could tell you to watch this movie.

There are other stories here. There is a very, very noble story of a woman who is in love with somebody, passionately, deeply in love, afraid to ever tell him, but she has another obligation in her life. She has a family obligation that is not at all rewarding to her, but she sticks to it. She sticks to it. It is very touching, and sad, and beautiful, like much of this movie. It just blows your mind to see somebody in a contemporary, big-star, big-budget movie, choose something other than romantic love, because sometimes we have these duties to other family members. Wow, it is beautiful!

Some of the movie is moderately realistic. A lot of it is comedy. Some of it is profoundly touching. The opening scene with Liam Neeson at his wife’s funeral—the expression on his face. He deserved the Oscar for that, too.

Some of it is preposterous, intentionally so. There is a young British guy who is such a goof, and just a jerk, you know, but he is sure if he went to America, women would appreciate him, and the way that plays out is like magic realism. It is very funny, and some people criticized it because it is much more unbelievable than the rest of the movie. But, you know, just take this movie the way it is. I thought it was funny.

Perhaps the most problematic, and also the most delicate and lovely story, has to do with two actors we see early on, a girl and a boy, and they are body doubles. Somebody is making a movie, and they are standing in for the famous actor and actress, and they are completely naked! They don’t start out naked, but they go to complete nudity and to pantomiming explicit sexual acts, and the thing is, they are so shy with each other, and they obviously are attracted to each other heart-to-heart, not sexually. It is like there is no sexual charge at all, they are just like a couple of dolls going through these motions. But they way she is lit, she is just so virginal, and so pure and so beautiful and simple.

Their courtship goes by, by degrees, and that is the thing that you are being shown, that even though they are completely naked and simulating sex, as human beings, they are stuttering with shyness, and even modesty toward each other, and wondering how to begin to tell the other person, “I kind of like you, I would kind of like to see you again.” That is so beautifully done, and I think maybe making them completely naked is what gave the movie the permission to do that. I just have been wondering about that lately.

Certainly, another movie I don’t recommend is [The] 40-Year-Old Virgin, which came out in 2005. I don’t remember if there is actually very much nudity, I don’t think there is, but terrible language, and terrible talk about sex—very gross talk—and the version that you rent is going to be even worse than whatever they showed in the movie theaters. But so much of the theme is just beautiful.

Steve Carell is a virgin, and his buddies think that he ought to have sex, and they set up many situations, and it is just horribly gross, but he is the one who is kind of stable. He is the good guy, and they are just idiots, and the more you see of their lives, you see that they are living these sexually profligate lives, and their lives are really screwed up, and they are not people to admire or to copy or to imitate. The Steve Carell character is actually the one who has it together, and they are just clowns. They are just clowns.

Could they have said that without putting it in this really gross context? I don’t know, but as somebody said at the time, if you take away the gross language and all the sexual references, this movie could have been made by Focus on the Family. It is so pro-virginity. There is a point at which Steve Carell is speaking to the female character that is trying, really, to seduce him. He is a collector of toys, of action figures, and of course, the most pristine one that is still in box and never played with, is the most valuable.

He talks to her about this and you know that he is talking about his virginity, about something that has been preserved, that has been cared for, that has not been violated and not disturbed, that deserves respect, and that there is something beautiful about that. He is trying to express to her, in this world that trashes everything, “Why is there something that touches the heart about that protected purity?” And it is a guy talking about his virginity, not explicitly, but through this image. At the end of the movie he actually does not lose his virginity until his wedding night. I watched it a second time with the director commentary, and he said, “Because he waited until he was married, he deserved to have better sex than anybody ever has,” and there is a comical sex scene that follows that. The director wanted to reward [his] waiting until he was married.

You see, I think maybe there is a change coming. Obviously, already, we are seeing a change coming about abortion, that minds are changing on that. All of this affirmation of the goodness of committed love and of even waiting until you are married—I mean, who knew? I just am looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Another movie with Seth Rogen, another very gross movie from 2007, is Knocked Up, another movie I don’t recommend. He gets a girl pregnant, and she refuses to have an abortion. They end up getting together. It is not very realistic because you would say, “Why would she want to, in her position?” Realistic? No, she is either going to be a single mother or she places the child for adoption, because this guy is such a loser.

But part of what the movie is about is that he is realizing that. He is realizing that you just cannot go on, out of your 20s and into your 30s, just living this scuzzy life; you have to pull yourself together and grow up. I think this is a challenge many young men feel in our culture, that there isn’t any rite of passage, and they are encouraged to go on being self-indulgent and getting drunk and sleeping around, because that sells stuff. That is tied to impulse-buying and impulse-indulgence, and that makes the economy go round, and it is funny and cute and forgivable. They are being catechized with this point of view, all the time, in advertising and movies and in other situations.

But there is something about it that kind of makes you sick inside after awhile. That is what Knocked Up is really about. It is about this guy who is living a scuzzy life, realizing that is not what he wants to do. It is not tenable to do it; it is not even enjoyable after a point. He wants to become a better person, and he does, and he becomes a worthy father to this baby. So it ends up being, really, another one of those conservative themes.

In both Knocked Up and in [The] 40-Year-Old Virgin, there are also pretty clear pro-life messages. I don’t see how you could interpret them any other way. The mother of the girl in Knocked Up who gets pregnant is insisting that she have an abortion. Her mother just sees no other alternative. “You have to have an abortion!” She is presented as a bad guy, and as a person who is hard and callous and just sort of despicable.

The girl who wants to continue the pregnancy is more subtle and contemplative, reflective, thoughtful, and just a very good person. Her mother—they should have put devil horns on her, like the secretary in Love, Actually. The mother has this terrific line. She says, “Your sister had an abortion, and now she has a real baby.” Well, what are you supposed to instantly think? The baby that she aborted was also a real baby. The baby that this daughter is carrying is a real baby. It is set up to make you automatically have a pro-life thought. How did they get away with that, you know?

In [The] 40-Year-Old Virgin there is a scene that is mind-blowing. The character works in an electronics store, big box, like Best Buy, that kind of place. There is a whole wall of television sets, as there would be. One day at work, the young black guy who is a member of their circle there, who is married, and his wife is expecting a baby, comes in with a DVD and plays it. It is a sonogram, and you get to see the baby moving, you get to see the baby sucking his thumb, and there is a lot of enthusiastic talk about: “Look at the fingers and toes!”

Pro-lifers often say if we could only get people to look at sonograms, it would convince them how real a baby is, that it really is a life. In this movie, because it is happening in something like a Best Buy store, every single TV on a whole wall of TVs is showing this sonogram. You can’t get away from it. It is surrounding, it is overwhelming. This is a baby. They couldn’t make it more explicit.

So I don’t know what to say. I am thinking back over a number of movies, [The] 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Juno, another movie that has a very strongly pro-life theme. Most of all, Love, Actually, though, is the one that I admire as excellent story-telling. It is so tender, so subtle, so beautiful, and so funny. There is a continuum of serious stories and absurd stories. But even at that, I just hesitate to recommend it because of the bad language and because of the nudity.

Maybe, though, the silver lining might be: perhaps that is how it is possible to have these rather morally conservative messages in movies, by surrounding [them] with enough packing material, or bubble wrap, that is naked and obscene. Maybe that seems to make it okay for the message to be really very different.