If you have read our blog much, you know that I am a film lover. As such, I have had more than one opportunity to ponder the question, When is graphic content of a film necessary for the story and when it is merely gratuitous? I must confess to have such a weakness for narrative that too often I have continued to watch despite the little “angel” sitting on my shoulder telling me certain movies have crossed the line.
When I sat down to watch The Kite Runner, a movie I hadn’t gotten around to seeing despite having heard great things, I wasn’t expecting to face such a value judgment. The story of two Afghan friends whose lives have gone in very different directions hardly seemed a likely candidate for overly explicit material. Perhaps that is why the scene which depicted the brutal assault of one friend by a gang of older boys was so jarring. While I appreciated the overall message of redemption and courage, days later it was that one scene that kept replaying in my head rather than those which helped further the film’s message.
I have seen much worse by way of abusive behavior but somehow this stuck me in a way that other more graphic scenes had not. This realization, that the entire movie was overshadowed by what was really a peripheral moment in the film, has helped to crystallize for me where I draw the line between warranted and unwarranted explicit content in a film.
A few months back, Jim and I were visiting my mom and dad and I was given the herculean task of choosing a movie we might all enjoy. I finally settled on Taken, figuring that, even if everyone didn’t love it, at least no one would hate it. For action and suspense, it was surprisingly (at least to me) good. One thing we all noted was the restraint the filmmakers showed in portraying the plight of women in the sex trade. It would have been easy to throw in some nudity and sexual content and exploit the situation the movie was trying to speak out against. The lack of graphic content didn’t take anything away from the plot and gave credibility to the filmmakers.
I realize that there can be no hard and fast rule when it comes to the subjective responses each individual has. Everyone has different limits and reactions to film and must judge what they can handle. But I do think taking into consideration how certain content enhances or takes away from the thread of a story helps at least in evaluating the intention of the filmmakers and therefore may help us in evaluating a film’s aesthetic values apart from our personal response. Some stories are so shockingly horrific that they require shockingly graphic material in order to help you understand the experience of the characters. I remember seeing an interview with one of the makers of To End All Wars, a film about the treatment of Allied POWs by the Japanese in WWII. The makers of the film were Christians and had apparently been criticized for how much violence they included in the film. What the director said in response has stuck with me and though I can’t recall his exact words it was something to the effect that they didn’t feel they could depict the courage and grace of the POWs without depicting the brutality they endured. The film was indeed violent but not in a way that screamed “Look, we are showing you violence now.” It was completely appropriate to the subject matter and rather than making you a voyeur, it gave you a greater empathy for the characters. And this should be the point of all film, transporting you into another reality, broadening your understanding of the experience of others and the truths that weave through each of our stories.
Too often I hear people completely shutting themselves off to great films because they consider them too graphic and yet they watch absolute drivel simply because it’s PG. The damage that is done to their aesthetic sense has to be at least as great as any damage they might have sustained in watching Brad Pitt’s men scalp Nazis (Yes, the Inglourious Basterds review is coming soon; have patience).
So the next time your celestial shoulder buddy pops up with a caution, listen to your aesthetic sense as well as your conscience and remember to watch with artistic as well as moral eyes wide open.