Thursday, December 14, 2006

JSB: It Shall Not Pass

A few years ago I went to see the movie Red Dragon, the third installment in the Hannibal Lecter series starring Anthony Hopkins. Why did I go? I still ask myself that question.
Mainly, because I love Hopkins. And his Lecter in Silence of the Lambs is one of the all time great performances. Maybe I thought this would be another.

Big mistake. The movie was little more than a gore fest in fancy clothes. I should have known better.

But that is not why I relate this incident. Something even more disturbing than the movie itself unfolded in front of me.

Before the movie started I noticed a 6 year old girl. She waltzed into the theater with her parents, tub of popcorn in hand, chirpy voice yakking excitedly. When she took a seat ahead of mine, I almost leaned over to the parents to shout What are you thinking? But the father had a shaved head and tattoos, and I try to avoid dustups with such citizens.

Well, two hours of mayhem ensued. People stabbed, set on fire, tortured. Your average day at the office for serial killers. Every now and then I'd lean over and see the little girl with her eyes fixed to the screen. But when the bad guy (Ralph Fiennes) bites off the tongue of a screaming reporter, then stands up, mouth bloody, and spits out the offending organ, I knew beyond a doubt that real damage had been done.

How times have changed for movie going families. I remember going to the drive-in with my parents in the early 1960s. Back then, about the worst thing you'd see onscreen was Godzilla stomping through screaming crowds in Tokyo, or Frankie Avalon pretending to surf. On occasion my mom put her hand over my eyes to keep me from seeing something she deemed too scary.

Now we have kids watching slashers, rapists and cannibals because, presumably, Mommy can't be bothered with finding a baby-sitter, or Daddy is so clueless he doesn't see the difference between Disney and disemboweling.

After the movie, I waited outside the theater. I wanted to take a look at the happy trio as they emerged from this uplifting bloodbath. I wanted to glare at them, in fact. The little girl was being carried by the father. She was frozen. Her face was pale, her eyes wide. She looked like she was in shock.

I wept inside for what had just been done to her. What is being done to all of us. And I did not pay to see another R rated film after that.

Until recently, when I paid $8 (matinee price yet!) to sit through Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.

I like early Scorsese. When I was a film major in college, we had him come up and I got to spend some time with him. This was early in his career and he was the hot up-and-coming director (Mean Streets; Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). Nice guy, too. I remember asking him if he liked Capra movies. “I love Capra,” he said.

Capra being one of my two favorite directors of all time (along with Hitchcock), I felt Scorsese was an immediate compadre.

He has made a couple of terrific films: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and After Hours are my two favorites. His so called masterpieces I’m not a fan of: Raging Bull and Goodfellas. These are both well made technically and the acting is great, but they were a little too steeped in unredeemed violence. By that I mean the violence existed for pretty much for its own sake. Yes, the films were about violent people, but I never felt Scorsese overlaid these portraits with some sort of robust moral vision.

With The Departed, that problem has come home to roost. This is a nihilistic film, the very kind of art John Gardner decried in his book On Moral Fiction. Gardner says the moral artist renders a vision of life as it ought to be. As opposed to the kind of art we have too much of these day, art that stares into the abyss, because it is fashionable, and never gets out.

Sadly, that's the kind of stuff we keep getting. The Departed is overlong, violent without purpose, and its use of street language so overripe as to be parody. Jack Nicholson’s in it doing…Jack Nicholson. That riff has gotten old, except in comedies (like Something’s Gotta Give, where self-parody is a virtue).

Also sadly, most critics have raved about The Departed. One notable exception is the terrific Armond White. You can read his review here.

The critical kudos disturb me. We are losing the ability to distinguish moral art from amoral or immoral art. Listen to this line from a major critic reviewing The Departed:
“The violence sickens, but the film seduces.”

Honestly, can you think of a more idiotic sentiment? Something that is sick “seduces”?
I wasn’t seduced. I did not like any of the characters (by the last third there is a smattering of sympathy for Leonardo DiCaprio, but by then it’s too late) and the vileness of many of the scenes just wore me down.

And, as if Screwtape himself were setting the reels in the control room, preceding the film was a long commercial for yet another installment in the American Pie franchise. It has this original premise about a bunch of hormone laced college guys in sweaty pursuit of busty blondes.
Haven't seen that one before, have we?

Oh, and if such fare is not your cup o noodles, you can always go see Saw III. It's the third in a series about a serial killer who tortures his victims before killing them in ever more grotesque ways. But since the victims are themselves "bad people," gee, it's not so heinous. As one reviewer put it, the movie "gives us that rare cinematic serial killer who may be more humane than most of his victims."

(Hey, I found it. A more idiotic sentiment than the one above. That didn't take long).

Our society is hacking and wheezing in an agony of slow death. And in no small part because so many of our artists are sticking with the immoral, staying in the abyss. Without the clarity of moral vision, souls are suffering real, demonstrable harm. I still wonder what's happened to that poor girl forced to see Red Dragon.

Writers, write moral fiction. I don't mean preachy or "moralizing." I don't mean sermons between book covers or screeds posing as stories.

I mean real, full blooded fiction with characters who jump off the page, but are vindicated by the moral vision of you, the artist. I mean fiction that shows, as Flannery O'Connor put it, "grace being offered." Or fiction that, in the words of my buddy Barbara Nicolosi, "makes the soul homesick for heaven."

You don't do this with on the nose jeremiads, like Ayn Rand. But you can do it in many other ways. Gardner himself wrote literary fiction of this type (read Grendel and weep). But so does Stephen King. Read Desperation and see Satan battle God.

Write moral fiction. Don't compromise. Don't let down your guard. In some way, in whatever we write, let us turn to what is pouring out of the abyss and, like Gandalf to the Balrog, shout, "You shall not pass!"

James Scott Bell's website is


At 3:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Not only have you precisely summed up my feelings on movies in America (especially in regard to kids), but you have laid a brick in what I hope is the foundation for a future writing career. I am right now forming my ideas of what is important about being a writer; mentally jotting down the pros and cons and why-for's of a hobby I've just started to consider as a possible career. Now and then I come across an opinion or an encouragment that clicks with my thought processes, as your post has today. Again, thank you.

At 7:24 AM, Blogger Ann Tatlock said...

What an excellent post on how we've lost our moral compass, from the big-wigs in Hollywood to the parents who would take their young child to witness this violence. Scary, isn't it?

At 7:42 AM, Blogger lisa samson said...

Oh wow, Jim. This was great! I wholeheartedly concur. I hate violent movies, I don't go to see them, I don't rent them, I think it's abhorrent.

So why are they so popular? I'm genuinely asking.

At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a post.

Of everything you've written, Jim, these have to rank right at the top of my favorite "memorable words" from you.

And considering everything you *have* written--well,that says a lot.


At 8:37 AM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

And if you have tattoos, you certainly can't be talked to. Add in a toe ring and that's it!!

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Powerful words, Jim. One of the best blog posts I've read in a long while. Thanks.


At 9:49 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

"Write moral fiction. Don't compromise. Don't let down your guard. In some way, in whatever we write, let us turn to what is pouring out of the abyss and, like Gandalf to the Balrog, shout, 'You shall not pass!'"

Great preaching, Jim! And I mean that in the best connotation possible. These are hallmark words. I know. I just turned a noun and verb into an adjective, but it was the word I needed.

Thank you, thank you. Kudos to you for this post.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger Tracey Bateman said...

wonderful, wonderful, wonderful post, Jim. Oh my goodness. This is why you

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Steve Laube said...

Extremely well said! A wonderful reminder to make the definition of "moral fiction" a bellwether for the craft.

You may also appreciate this post from Mike Hyatt, head of Thomas Nelson Publishers, who is trying to define the nature of the CBA author and the CBA book.

At 2:52 PM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

Since Steve mentioned it, Mike also had some comments at The Master's Artist.

At 5:12 PM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

Your comments are very encouraging. Thank you. I wanted to add one more thing for clarity.

I don't see the issue as violence per se. As a suspense writer, I do have violent scenes. But I try to keep them within tasteful limits and, more importantly, have them lead to a moral point. So I see the problem as twofold: gratuitous violence that crosses the line; and violence that is not in service to a moral message.

It's a high standard, but one I hope to meet in my future books. Let me know how I'm doing.

At 7:00 PM, Blogger Judy said...

You've said it perfectly. My DH, a retired law enforcement officer (NY and Fed) wanted to see DEPARTED and we did. He's also a Scorsese fan. I had to close my eyes during some of the scenes. You pegged this movie and most of the others being offered these days. That type of movie has never been my cup of tea. No one knows how to - or cares to try to - write actual dialogue. I love old Sherlock Holmes movies, the B/W spy thrillers of the 40's, etc. THOSE were real stories.
Judy Grivas

At 9:22 PM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

You don't shrink from the tough subjects do you? And you address them well! Amen to what you've said. Thanks for saying it.

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Cara Putman said...

Thank you for this! Over the last couple years I've distanced myself more and more from movies and popular TV shows. It seems everywhere you look people use "art" as an excuse to go to an extreme. And parents have lost the ability to parent. My heart goes out to that girl and so many others like her who have had their innocence destroyed because parents won't step up and say that's not appropriate for my 6, 10, 14 year old to experience.

As writers let's bring the moral ideals back; that there is a right and wrong; that a serial killer shouldn't be a more moral person than those he kills.

At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the pep talk, Jim! It's great to hear someone articulate the need for fiction to be uplifting rather than saturated with images of the most depressing levels of life.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger J.G.H. said...

Your article is spot on. Children are so desentitized that what shocked them yesterday is normal today. When our sons were young we fought weekly with them to keep violent computer games out of our home. Now they appreciate our efforts! My husband and I have not been to the movies in 37 years because we deemed the novies too violent back then (Godfather I)! I can imagine how much worse they must be today... Thank you for saying what needs to be said!

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Rachel Starr Thomson said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent. Even if I do have tears in my eyes for that little girl.

At 12:02 AM, Blogger Lynette Sowell said...

Well said. This reminds me of the old saying, "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." As writers, we'll just keep lighting candles!


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