Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Beowulf the Movie (review Christian) ReCAPped

The last time I typed "movie review Beowulf Christian" into Google, the first thing that came up was the review of Beowulf and Grendel at Catholic News Service and the second thing that came up was the review of Beowulf at The Sci Fi Catholic (I don't know whether to be pleased or frightened). Further down the page was the review of Beowulf at CAP (Childcare Action Project) Movie Ministry. Since I'm on the Internet mainly to pick fights with this sort of people, and since a Google search with a very specific word order says I'm Better Than Them, I figure now is the time to strike.

First, I will reiterate that Beowulf is a film lacking in good taste and containing foolish criticisms of religion. Besides my own review, I recommend the hilarious dismantling of the movie at Got Medieval. For a more cool-headed explanation of why taking cheap shots at religion in a movie about Beowulf is a bad idea, check the review at Filmcritic.com.

But I'm not here to criticize Beowulf. I've already done that. Let's take a look instead at everything wrong with CAP's analysis.

First of all, we have the website's slogan, "Stay informed...OBJECTIVELY...on what Hollywood feeds your kids." Already several questions appear in our minds. What's with those ellipses? Why is objectively in capital letters? Why is feeds your kids in italics and bold? Besides that, we may ask how exactly Hollywood can feed your kids anything without your knowledge and consent. If you're kicking the kiddies out the door to see a movie without knowing what the movie is first, that's your fault.

But then we have to ask the question, why is objectively in the slogan in the first place? The answer is on CAP's site, and you can find it here. Essentially, their movie reviewers watch movies, jot down content they find objectionable, and then fill out a form, the contents of which are processed statistically (how or to what purpose, I have been unable to discover). Somehow, the filling out of a form is supposed to remove subjectivity from the moral evaluation of a movie's content, even though the form itself is an arbitrary human creation.

The fallacy of the CAP system is easily visible in the Beowulf review. Besides the (presumably subjective) review itself, the list of "objective" objectionable content appears in a sidebar on the right. The first problem with this list of "objective" criteria is that it is entirely negative. There is a listing for "Impudence/Hate (I)" and one for "Wanton Violence/Crime (W)," but no space for, say, "Positive Moral Messages (P)" or "Selfless Acts (S)" or "Loving Characters (L)." CAP is uninterested in finding anything positive in movies and is apparently proud of it.

CAP's system of rating movies is admittedly clever, but it leaves out one important thing, key to Christian morality, and that is intent. I can't imagine how CAP could possibly produce a form listing every conceivable potentially objectionable scene in a film, but even if it can, it cannot take into account how that content is used. I can sit here and condemn every man who has ever stuck a blade into another man, but if I do, I condemn surgeons as well as ax-murderers. In evaluating movies, this means taking into account not only the "objective" content, but the way it is presented and the reason it is presented, something we are ultimately unable to perfectly evaluate. The underlying message of a film is more important than its "objective" content.

Listed beside the review under "Offense to God (O)" is "exchanging soul for power and riches," something the character of Beowulf does indeed do in the film. Here we see CAP's great error, divorcing content from context: it fails to evaluate how this exchanging of the soul is used. Beowulf's selling of his soul is depicted negatively, and he pays the price for it. This is a positive message, but CAP, "objective" as it is, is unable to take this into account.

I sincerely wish the people who do this sort of thing would think first. Is any story containing the selling of a soul automatically negative? Then we must condemn Doctor Faustus, Tannhauser, and The Scarlet Letter as well as Beowulf. Are we really willing to take that step? Are we really willing to condemn all stories that say emphatically that there are more important things than power, riches, and earthly joys just because they inevitably depict characters who revel in power, riches, and earthly joys, and in many cases pay the final price for their foolish dissipation? If we are willing to take that step, how many stories in Scripture will survive our scalpels? Indeed, how many stories is it even possible to tell without moral offense if we rigorously abide by the ironclad rules of CAP's "objective" criteria? Probably none.

Beowulf contains much that is objectionable, but what is most certainly not objectionable from any sane, thoughtful, and subjective Christian standpoint is the basic story of a shallow braggart who seizes wealth instead of goodness and ultimately pays for it. This is the tale of Dives; Jesus spoke of him. The basic moral of Beowulf is good: only the trappings are obnoxious.

So intent and context are supremely important. Had Beowulf told the story of a man who sells his soul and receives redemption without repentance, as Goethe does, we might say the depiction of a man selling his soul is immoral, but that is not the story Beowulf tells. When watching a movie, put down the fill-in-the-blank form and use your head.

Finally, I should point out that CAP's actual review is frankly weird. Get a load of this:

I have read lots of poems but never have I seen nudity in a poem. Even the nudity in some Bibles was not there when the inspired pen was put to paper; man put nudity in the Bible, not God. That some church approved nakedness in the Bible does not make it acceptable to God.

I am a science fiction reader, but those are easily the strangest three sentences I have read for many months. Weird, man. Weird.
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