MOVIES: Artistic and Technical Merits vs. Content
by Phil Boatwright

On January 16th the Academy Awards nominations for last year’s movies will be announced. The nominees should be very grateful that only the technical and artistic merits of their work will be judged. Whatever positive messages may be contained in most (I said most, not all) of the likely frontrunners for Oscar’s attention this year, their themes are eclipsed by noxious and extreme content. In American Hustle, for example, a film expected to be nominated as Best Picture, one particular swear word alone is used over 70 times. (I know, I’m a profanity counter, but don’t you think 70 uses of the f-bomb in one film is noteworthy?)

August: Osage County, Her, Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, Out of the Furnace, Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, and most others soon to be nominated for this award or that one could be best described as dispiriting. The masterful performances often overshadow the lasting effects movie messages have on our spiritual equilibrium. And even if you are of a mindset that overlooks abusive language, in which each of these films attempt to set records, then beware of their other movie mayhem: adultery, perversity, drug use, and enough violence to unnerve the Marquis DeSade.

Lone Survivor is based on a true story of a mission in Afghanistan that went horrifyingly wrong for Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and his fellow SEALs. It features a blitzkrieg of bloody war violence and pervasive language in an otherwise outstanding movie. While I understand that today’s cinema attendee now demands “realism” in his war movies, I can’t imagine anyone thinking a night out with the Lone Survivor would somehow relieve the stresses of the day. Indeed, because our senses are so assaulted by this film experience, I’m not sure you could count this one as entertainment. It’s more like a civic duty.

The cinema at its most sagacious was once used effectively as an illusionary art form meant to suggest and imply. Those days, evidently, are long past.

Like most comedies of late, Anchorman 2 also depends on the “I-can’t-believe-I-just-saw-that” raucousness found at the lower end of the comic spectrum. Bathroom humor seems more like it’s been dredged up from the sewer. As for the language...

You'd think the jarring term that combines a reference to God and to damnation would be excluded from a silly comedy meant to raise our spirits. But in Anchorman 2 God’s name and our Savior’s are profaned several times, often by the lead character. That harsh exclamation, which in essence is a call for someone’s damnation, means so little to most moviemakers nowadays and, I guess, to most moviegoers that it is now used as frequently in the comedy genre as it is in gangster movies and war films.

Meryl Streep, in my opinion, is the greatest film actress, ever. Chameleon-like, Ms. Streep can go effortlessly from angelic to demonic, depending on the script. In August: Osage County, she takes the darkest path, being part Mother Macbeth, part Miranda Priestly, and part Cujo. She’s absolutely wicked as this venomous Medusa of a matriarch. The performance is outstanding, but the 130-minute production contains suicide, incest, statutory rape, incessant family squabbling, drug and alcohol abuse, pot smoking, and marital infidelity. You’ve just spent over two hours with a crude bunch who appear to have no moral compass.

What in all of this is entertaining moviegoers?

I have defended films over the years whose profundity, it can be argued, outweighed their profanity (Schindler’s List, Dead Man Walking, Tsotsi). This year, however, a cacophony of verbal and visual abuses drowned out the relevance of many a movie. It saddens me that these pictures will be so praised.

I’m hoping the list of Oscar contenders will include films that uplift. As I mentioned in a previous article for Baptist Press, I felt Gravity was the best film of the year. As Sandra Bullock battles to survive in outer space, the story signals the sanctity of life. And in Saving Mr. Banks, another award-worthy drama, Walt Disney attempts to convince the author of Mary Poppins to let him bring her creation to the cinema screen. There’s a wonderful moment between Tom Hanks (Disney) and Emma Thompson (P.L. Travers), as he recounts his childhood. In it the actor spellbinds while helping us understand how past relationships affect our lives.

Will films such as these prevail Oscar night?

Generally my critic cronies ignore a film’s content when assessing a picture’s artistic and technical merits. Why, I’m not sure, for the content has become as influential as the other ingredients. But what’s our excuse when it comes to supporting films that avoid the light? Ephesians 5;11: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.” Isn’t that instruction just as applicable to how we entertain ourselves as to how we conduct the rest of our lives?

For film critic Phil Boatwright’s end of the year Best and Worst films click HERE.