In his haunting allegory Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs), written during Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror, Ernst Jünger describes auxiliary gendarmes who are given the task of keeping order in the affluent coastal cities that resent, but do not resist, the growing power of an evil tyrant: “We found them armed with inferior weapons, with slings, ropes, and crooked daggers that they call bloodletters; most of them were draped with rodents and similar beasts.” These “guardians” amused themselves by catching the beautiful little mink-like animals that live in the marble cliffs, skinning them alive, and throwing their bleeding bodies down the cliffs to die. “Deep is the hatred,” Jünger comments, “that burns in base hearts against that which is beautiful.”
The United States is reeling under the impact of the Watergate affair, which appears to indicate an almost universal indifference to moral values at all levels of American political life. The mass media, especially the newspapers that have played so tenacious and distinguished a role in bringing it all to light, are indulging themselves, for the moment, in rare professions of righteousness and paeans to virtue. The political and editorial pages—even those of columnists whose own integrity has been shown to deserve contempt—glitter with outraged innocence and the sense of violated decency.
And yet, at the same time, if we turn to the entertainment and style sections of our indignant daily and weekly publications, we find no concern for virtue, or even for beauty, but a fascination with evil in all its forms: slings, ropes, and crooked daggers. Deep is the hatred that burns in base hearts against that which is beautiful. As Walter Berns points out in the May Harper’s, even the New York Times, while priggishly denouncing pornography and prostitution in Times Square, regularly celebrates the triumph of like evils, posturing as art, in its drama and film Pages.
More than one observer, including the heavy-handed political moralist Carl T. Rowan, has drawn attention to the evidence of decadence to be found, for example, not merely in the production of films such as Last Tango in Paris, but in the almost hysterical acclaim lavished on it, first by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, then by the two leading weeklies, Time and Newsweek, and most significantly by the sophisticated bourgeois audiences who, as Norman Mailer points out in the New York Review of Books, stand in line and pay high prices to witness the audience-degrading self-degradation of Marlon Brando. Rowan was perceptive enough to sense, although he did not explicitly enunciate, the relation between the corruption of the traditions of bourgeois political and social morality evident in Watergate and the degeneracy of the traditions of bourgeois personal and sexual morality reflected in the celebration and popularity of pornography as “art.” Most significant is the apparent feeling that what is coarse and degrading when produced for hoṙpolloi (peep-show pornography on skid row) is elevating and liberating when it successfully exploits the jaded bourgeoisie (“art” pornography, from stage shows like Oh! Calcutta through “social commentary” pornography such as I Am Curious (Yellow) and A Clockwork Orange to the crass but lucrative self-prostitution of Brando in Last Tango).
It is surely no historical accident that the morality of the Bible, like that of other great religious traditions, sees sexual self-control as a matter of tremendous importance and is not willing, as so many modern authorities seem to be, to concede that individuals and societies can be good in any significant sense, e.g., by eschewing violence and commercial and political exploitation of the weak, while at the same time engaging in and celebrating license in the realm of sexuality.
The slogan “Make Love, Not War” certainly implies that the “liberation” of the sexual appetities in promiscuous forms of sensual gratification is an effective substitute for the exercise of the more violent appetites in war, strife, and the quest for political power. And somehow this illusion is perpetuated and continues to dominate the media and popular mythology, which exalt license in the sensual passions (the lust of the flesh, in John’s terminology) but decry it in the passions of violence and power (the lust of the eyes and the pride of life). The tenacity with which this illusion is propagated is indicated by the fact that films highly celebrated as triumphs of the imagination (for example, A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango) graphically connect sexual viciousness with interpersonal violence.
The Christian has a biblical mandate to think about and concern himself with what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious, with what is edifying and imparts grace (cf. Phil. 4:8, Eph. 4:29). Such a mandate effectively rules out the frequenting of such spectacles as A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango, where one is not merely degrading oneself but is in effect paying the wages of prostitutes and their promoters.
But even the secular public, which does not feel itself bound by the biblical injunction, can only be debased by productions of this type. The medium of the film, especially in the hands of a brilliant director, is uniquely gifted to impress images on the beholder’s mind that can continue to affect or even to obsess him long afterward. A Clockwork Orange has only evil characters, ranging from the contemptibly despicable to the violently vicious; it is difficult to imagine a full-length feature film dealing with so many different kinds of people and situations without a single character who is in any sense worthy of approval or respect, but A Clockwork Orange does it. The implication is clearly that everyone is corrupt; one has only to choose his corruption. In an interview with the French weekly L’Express, director Kubrick indicated that he feels society must be prepared to impose certain controls to limit the evil within men. Yet his film seems to be telling us that we can know we are free only when we are engaged in senseless and vicious cruelty.
Perhaps the negative impact of A Clockwork Orange on the viewer is mitigated by the fact that few viewers may be likely to identify with the chief character and his gang—though I fear there are possibilities for identification. Last Tango, by contrast, is presumably trying to present less eccentric and more representative characters. Both movies, and many other current ones as well, present a degraded and degrading view of life, and it can hardly be expected that the general viewer, Christian or non-Christian, can absorb much material of this kind without being adversely affected by it, in imagination and in conduct.
It is often suggested that one must see all, or at least a substantial number, of such film sensations in order to be aware of what is going on around him. Certainly one does not get the full impact from reviews. But does one want the full impact? If realistic scenes of sadistic torture were being filmed and shown, would it be desirable to expose oneself to them, just for the sake of “cultural” awareness? There are people, such as the pathologist or criminologist, whose callings demand that they constantly observe degenerate conditions and situations. Surely those of God’s people with a pastoral or teaching role will occasionally have cause to examine degrading aspects of our contemporary scene. It should always be borne in mind that such exposure can be harmful, even to the “specialist.”
As a minimum rule of prudence, no one should see more X-rated and similar material than he can critically evaluate. If the intake becomes great, the critical faculties are overloaded; there is nothing to stop the imagery and subliminal message from having their impact even on the well-intentioned viewer.
I myself understood the message of A Clockwork Orange well enough from critical reviews that it was not necessary to see it to know what it says, but seeing it made me aware of the tremendous force and intensity with which it says it. It also gave me the confidence that, having read the considerably more explicit reviews of Last Tango, I did not want to have its message seared more deeply into my mind—and incidentally contribute to paying the hire of prostitutes—by seeing it.
It is important to see that one cannot degrade the mind and the imagination in the sexual realm without in effect degrading the whole man. The intimate connection between illicit sexuality and criminal violence is clear enough—it is, indeed, often made explicit in the arts themselves. The connection between the exotic fleshly passions so popular on the screen and the mundane white-collar lusts of riches and power so common in everyday life—and so devastatingly revealed in the centers of national life—may be less evident, but it is none the less real.
The world of stage and screen activates the fantasy to occupy itself with what is unreal or not yet real. In the days when Friedrich Schiller called the theater “a moral institution,” it was widely believed that the theater could educate and inspire by portraying moral struggles and values that the audience could emulate. Today, if an audience is inspired to emulate, the effect will be mere degradation, not moral education.
And even where the theme of a movie does not lend itself to imitation—as in the two we have been discussing—it certainly creates a universe of fantasy in which the unreal that is portrayed can come to exercise a powerful hold on the viewer’s imagination. Fantastic images easily become idolatrous images: to eidolon, the idol, is first of all that which is false, unreal, and secondly that which is idolized—treated, although false, as though it were worthy of worship. When the film idol Marlon Brando, fresh from the tinseled triumph of an Oscar for his role in The Godfather (another and similarly pernicious type of fantasy), implausibly self-crowned as a moral arbiter by his ostentatious refusal of the secured award, creates a world in which sexual exploitation of his partner (and of the paying public) is at the center and in which a service revolver easily provides an unconvincingly facile way out, he is creating an idolatrous universe, one in which evil is venerated.
It would indeed be theoretically possible for those who dwell with Brando’s idolatrous imagery in the arena of physical passion to remain closer to reality and to moral integrity in other areas—for example, those of business, law, and politics. But just as the presence of even one idol pollutes the Temple, so the creation of idolatrous images in one area of morality—the sexual—ultimately pollutes the whole moral realm.
We have already evoked the evident danger that the fantastic imagery of vicious sexuality will pollute the sexual imagination and life of the beholder; we should not ignore the even broader danger that it is in fact polluting the whole realm of moral discourse and decision. Hence the connection, sensed if not examined by Rowan, between the polished bourgeoisie thronging to the Last Tango on Washington’s elegant Connecticut Avenue, and the polished bureaucrats conspiring near the elegant Watergate. In the mind as in the body, a little poison goes a long way and has its effect in many places.
Harold O. J. Brown is associate editor, “Christianity Today.”
‘Twentyonehundred’: A Fight To The Finish
The production Twentyonehundred derived its name from MMC, which stands for multi-media communications and also, as Roman numerals, for 2100. The rather tenuous connection between title and production seems mysterious without explanation from the producers, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. But a more important question remains that staffers cannot answer: Which predominates—the message or the media?
Inter-Varsity describes Twentyonehundred as a four-act presentation utilizing “a battery of slide and movie projectors, lighting effects, and a stereophonic sound track of folk, rock, and soul music.” The triple screen appears to be made of king-size bed sheets, and a myriad assembly of projection and sound machines provide the audience with the hard sound of rock music and kaleidoscopic visions of, at the start, contorted, writhing, pink people and skeletons. Lyrics to “Season of the Witch,” by the Vanilla Fudge, are difficult to understand. But after the initial song, words and images meet on the triple screen.
The fade-in, fade-out impressionism apparently portrays the human predicament. However, for a while the predicament most concerning this viewer was: how much longer must this be endured? Fortunately, like the man giving the marriage supper in John two, Twentyonehundred saves the best for later.
Feelings of alienation and despair pummel the viewer as multiple images move and meld from screen to screen. Songs by such groups as Traffic and the Beatles reinforce the portrayal of man’s isolation. “Where is the someone that tells me why I live and die?” echoes with hollow desperation.
The two last acts clearly show that Christ is the answer to that question. The softer music is performed by the Salt Company, Clapton, and Jonathan and Charles. Jonathan and Charles, who have recorded previously under the Inter-Varsity Press label, make an unforgettable impact in the final song: “But you can now refuse him, and just let him go. If that’s your choice, this life is then the best you’ll ever know.”
The theme of Twentyonehundred is clear: man’s only hope is to accept Christ. But in getting to the answer the production is tedious, boring, and in places contrived. For example, no other reason for the number “The Sky Cried” was evident except that it gave an opportunity for spraying water on the audience to simulate rain. Such effects added interest but not meaning.
According to an Inter-Varsity staffer, response to Twentyonehundred has been positive, especially on the East Coast. Some West Coast viewers complained of its counter-culture emphasis. More than 1,000 persons attended the seven showings in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. After seeing the production numerous collegians have shown interest in exploring further the meaning of faith in Christ.
Apparently the message won over the media. But it was a fight to the finish.
Peggy Durant is a social worker for the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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