Sunday, September 16, 2012

Lessons on Morality from Shakespeare and Ferris Bueller

This is from a fan of our YouTube page.  He writes to me saying ...

As man of theater yourself, I imagine that you have had the same moral questions from time to time. Should I take this part? Should I assist in this production? And so on. For me, these questions are more difficult to answer because they involve acting and simulation. Playing the part of the sinner is different from actually being the sinner.     
I would like to know how a Catholic goes about finding principled answers to these kinds of questions. Have you found any helpful guides or resources?
I get this question, and variations on it, all the time.  It troubles not only actors, but also movie fans and drama fans and literature fans.  Should I watch this movie or play?  Should I read this book?  Is it moral?  Is it sinful?

Here's the answer - there is a difference between the depiction of sin and the endorsement of sin.

If the depiction of sin were itself sinful, then we should never read the Holy Bible, which is filled with depictions of sinners and their sins.     But these sins appear in context.  They are not there for us to get a vicarious thrill or titillation out of them.  The point of showing sin in Scripture is to show the evil effects of sin, our enslavement to it, and our need to repent of it.

The same is true in drama.  A tragedy like Macbeth is filled with sins and even horrors, but the entire point of that play is to show how committing such sins turn the sinners into people who are more and more miserable - more and more haunted and tormented.

But forget Shakespeare for a minute.  Take Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  There's a movie that is filled with vulgar language and that revolves around the exploits of a student playing hooky.  But I personally think it's one of the most Christian movies ever made.  It's about how a father should love his son more than his car; it's about how the small minded indoctrination of compulsory education is a prison; it's about freedom of spirit; it's about overcoming jealousy; it's about loving your brother; it's about loving life.

But maybe this can't quite be said for, say, Saturday Night Fever, a movie that my girlfriend Missy Tallman (cheerleader for the wrestling squad) and I saw maybe six or seven times in the theater when it first came out.  It's a movie that had a profound impact on me and my fashion sense to this day (as you can see in the photo of Missy and Kevin "Disco Dog" O'Brien at the height of my Travolta craze).  I thought it was a brilliant film, but my high school English teacher thought was scurrilous.

"I don't think the scenes that showed the main character's sinful behavior were in the movie for any other reason than for the audience to exult in them," he said.  "Yes, Travolta's character gets sick of his sinful ways and turns from them in the end, but the movie lingered on them to the point of celebrating them, throwing in a final repentance as a sop for what had come before it - our secret vicarious delight in Travolta's unseemly acts."

(He didn't use those exact words, but this was 1978, and I'm quoting him from memory.)

At any rate, the point is what is the main message of the movie?  Or book or drama?  I've seen Disney movies - indeed even Phineas and Ferb episodes - that I took to be conveying a bad message, despite having no foul language, sexual content or even overtly sinful behavior depicted.

Ferb (left) and Phineas, pondering great literature

So use your own prudence, but look at the work of literary art as a whole and go from there.


Scott W. said...

There are certainly Christian elements in FBDO, but I can never square deliberately lying to just about everyone including the parents.

Anonymous said...

You are so right on this. If you look at prime time cartoon shows, you are looking at the glorification of sin. Tell me that this type of show was not put together by adults knowing full well they were shaking up the brain cells of kids still growing and developing. The perpetrators of this media assault on kids are the sinners.

Howard said...

I prefer Waiting for Gorgo.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Scott W., you forgot the upshot of our whole Morality of Lying debate - "lying is just fine as long as you're lying with the best of intentions. I know the Church teaches otherwise, but to hell with the Church."

That's the lesson we all learned, remember???

Scott W. said...

That's the lesson we all learned, remember???

Yeah, just chalk me up to a obstinate backnumber.

But I should add that I still like FBDO even if it is problematic. The lesson: better to lose a fine Italian automobile and go to Heaven...


i have to take up for my boys phineas and ferb. i have heard these claims to their immorality on a number of occasions from as many judgmental parents, and i issue the P&F challenge: produce a single incident of immorality being celebrated that i cannot refute with context and Church teaching alone, and on my honor, i will send you a twenty dollar gift card to the local restaurant of your choice.

yeah now you know i mean business, huh?

seriously, i watch these shows with my babies (8,6,4,&10mos) as i do all the media they consume, and i see only a promotion of childhood wimsy and the idea that no accomplishment is outside the grasp of one's imagination.

trump me and i will pay up, BUT,,, if no one can, then i ask only for a humble retraction of the reference to their promulgation of evil by the author.

De Liliis said...

The depiction of sin, depending on the sin, can be a sin itself depicted.

For example, blasphemy. And so too, taking Our Lord's name in vain.

And so too sins regarding purity, generally.

And so too any sin which in its depiction causes the viewer to empathize with the sin, and be more likely to commit it.

People look for loopholes and rare exceptions and misunderstand what is required.

There is very little entertainment at all produced by this world that is morally acceptable to the Christian. And so in the baptismal promises Christians renounce the world.

This does not require Christians to live like hermits, but it does require something.

A simple way to determine whether to dispose of your entertainment is to consider whether it takes the Lord's name in vain. This is the sure sign of many other problems, and a sign of problems in the person who holds such entertainment close to the heart, so much so, it is not cared about or considered, that God is mistreated.

It is part of the technique of evil, to add in a little good so a person overlooks all the evil. And so the little wonderful 'endings' to long entertainments full of evils, overlooked, but filling a person's mind and soul, thoughts, and life.

Giving up the TV and movies and such things is the answer to beginning to see clearly. When one is in it, one cannot understand, like a fish in a dark sea.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Ah, Brute Force, you owe me dinner!

First, I LOVE "Phineas and Ferb". It is one of my three favorite shows. The other two are "The Journey Home" and "Judge Judy". The head writer is a Chestertonian and a fan of "The Apostle of Common Sense". The songs are fantastic; the show is spectacular.

However, there are occaisonal problems. Leaving aside the peculiar agnosticism of their first Christmas special, when 16-year-old Vanessa Doofenschmirtz is about to go camping with her friends, her father objects, and even though she's going to be sleeping in the same tent overnight with teen-aged boys, the lesson of the episode is that old Dr. Doof needs to get over his hang-ups and let his daughter do her own thing. Don't want your teen sleeping in a tent in the woods with boys? You're being over-protective. That's the lesson.

To his credit, at least, old Doof won't let her get a tattoo!

Otherwise, we're in total agreement that it's the best show on the air.

So ... when will you pay up???!

Kevin O'Brien said...

De Lillis, I generally agree with you. And I lived without a television for eight years.

But taking the Lord's name in vain is hardly "blasphemy" in the true sense of the word. You remind me of the Focus on the Family movie review site, where they simply count the number of "damns" and number of times a character drinks liquor as an indication of the morality of a film. That's a very short-sighted view of things.

De Liliis said...

Glad to hear you lived without it! It can be lived without for good, thank God! If only everyone would give it up.. St. Padre Pio warned about it. And there is the Apostolate of Our Lady for No TV that can help with this.

And there is a good sermon on the subject of movies on Sensus Traditionis.

You might not think it short sighted when you consider the principle of the integral good, and the great harm one single sin is before God.

astorian said...

Let's start with one important principle that too many Christians (especially Christian parents) don't seem to grasp:

There's a HUGE difference between saying "This piece of art is immoral" and saying "This piece of art is NOT for kids!"

I love all sorts of books, plays and films that I would never allow my 8 year old son to see. I'd never let him watch David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," but I still consider it a brilliant piece of work.

To use another example... there is no bloodshed, nudity or graphic sex in Julia ROberts' "Pretty Woman." There's plenty of all three in "Boogie Nights." And yet, I would argue that "Pretty Woman" is a far more morally problematic film than "Boogie Nights." After all, "Boogie Nights" shows BOTH why the porn business is attractive AND how destructive it is. "Pretty Woman," on the other hand, teaches kids that prostitution is a glamorous job where you get to stay at fancy hotels, go shopping on Rodeo Drive, and marry Donald Trump.

I would NEVER want a 12 year old girl to see EITHER film... but in my opinion, better she see "Boogie Nights."