Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Art, Redemption, Limits

I posted the following on one of my favorite sites Libertas, a conservative film site. They are remaking a Harvey Keitel film called The Bad Lieutenant from the early 1990s. Keitel plays a drug and sex addicted detective who is investigating the brutal rape of a nun. Throughout the film there are recurring themes of redemption through Christ for Keitel's character and he appears to be redeemed by the end. The depiction of the journey earned every bit of it's NC-17 rating -- with graphic sexual material, language, and violence. The question was whether the theme can redeem the filth. I think not. I have no problem with the theme of The Bad Lieutenant or even depicting him sinking low (which he does). That is a realistic tale and common to quite a few Christians who fell to the bottom before Christ saved them. The visual depiction of the behavior is needless. Such depravity can be depicted (or perhaps suggested) without graphic simulated sexual acts. Anyway -- here was my response over there (edited a bit):

Christians don’t usually object to subject matter. The depiction of it is another matter. I can contemplate Christ being tempted to come down off the cross to live a “normal life”, but I don’t need to see him having intercourse with Mary Magdalene visually depicted to get the point. I get that The Bad Lieutenant was “Bad” but I don’t need to see him masturbating in front of a couple of girls to get the point. Such graphic depictions are actually infantilizing and condescending to the audience. It screams — “This guy is a pervert and since you are too stupid and I’m too lazy to show that artfully I’m going to show him actually masturbating in front of the girls. Get it? Get it?” It was shocking in Midnight Cowboy perhaps in 1968. It’s disgusting to see in any case and there are myriad other ways to get the point across.

I agree — the theme of The Bad Lieutenant is very redemptive and Christian, but in a Monty Python and The Meaning of Life sort of way where John Cleese’s teacher actually has sex with his wife in front of the students for sex education. The message of The Bad Lieutenant is redemptive (for those who are attuned to it), the depiction is carnal (where everyone is attuned to that) and overwhelms the message.

We are in the world not of the world.

I debate internally a lot about the boundaries of art and showing graphically problems like human trafficking and the sex slave trade, drug addiction, etc. That using irredeemable methods to redeem the world would be off limits seems to me to be a given. Pornography is obviously off limits and asking real people to get naked and get in sexual positions simulating sexual behavior would seem off limits. Language? Violence? You can't make a decent war movie with "shucks" and "darns" and part of the impact of Saving Private Ryan and Spielberg's tour de force D-Day landing opening was its graphic brutality highlighting war's gruesomeness. The debate as to the limits, utility, and righteousness of theme, method, narrative, etc. in art goes on and on.

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