Cinema shakes bedrock of conservative values

A group of protesters are waving signs and shouting at the top of their lungs, handing out propaganda to passersby. Their zeal stems from the severity of the actions they are protesting. However, they are not protesting to end human-rights abuses or to save the environment. They are protesting because their feelings have been hurt, and they are confronted with a different way of thinking. They don’t understand the thinking; it must be bad.
This isn’t Seattle and the World Trade Organization talks. This is my hometown of St. Cloud, Minn., and a movie cineplex on an old county road. The locals are protesting because the owners have the gall to show the movie “Dogma.” They believe the movie is “blasphemous” and portrays religion in a bad light. The protesters fault the owner for running it — after all, he is responsible for the viewers’ souls. It’s a wonderful celebration of free speech.
I admit that I haven’t yet seen the movie “Dogma.” When I do go see it, I will expect a pretty funny film that pokes fun at some of the more ridiculous aspects of religion. I don’t expect it to say anything terribly new or innovative about religion. It probably won’t cause a teeming horde of people to leave their church. It will have little impact, but it is protested nonetheless.
I have been very amused this past year by an unusually good crop of movies and the controversies surrounding them. These controversies are usually sparked by some group of conservatives who denounce a movie as being terribly irreverent and an attempt to corrupt our youth. They attack the movie’s most obvious aspects, such as violence or sex, but never quite grasp exactly what the movie is about. However, they understand enough to realize that such a movie threatens their very comfortable, superficial way of thinking.
There must have been something in the water in Hollywood this year for so many truly interesting movies to come out. No, I am not talking about “The Phantom Menace,” “Austin Powers” or even “The Sixth Sense.” I am talking about movies like “Eyes Wide Shut” that fly in the face of how people live their lives.
“Eyes Wide Shut” is simply one of the best movies ever made. I will not even attempt to explain what this movie is about because it exists on several more levels than I can understand. What is interesting is that the movie was widely dismissed as being solely about sex. Most people who saw it were completely baffled as they left the theater; perhaps they were expecting the pornography — which never came.
The movie had very little to do with sex, but a lot to do with sexuality and human nature. All people saw was sex. The same people saw no problem, however, with “American Pie.” A movie about horny teenagers is not as controversial, because even though it has far more shallow sex than “Eyes Wide Shut,” everybody knows young men keep their brains in their pants. It doesn’t challenge anybody’s thinking. “Eyes Wide Shut,” however, exposes the lies of human relationships. That is why people can’t get past the sex. It’s their only defense against something that cuts so deeply.
Another great example is the movie “Fight Club.” Again, people can’t see the message. That movie is about the rampant consumerism and materialism of American society. It is about how we are so lazy and unmotivated we have to be threatened in order to follow our dreams, which is played out literally in one scene of the movie. It is about how we have no goals whatsoever besides finding the furniture that defines us as a person. But those messages are lost on most people who are in the consumerism game. Once again, their sole defense is to only see the violence.
The movie does involve people getting into fights. But only one person dies in the entire movie. How many creatures die in “The Phantom Menace”? Better yet, how many people die in “Saving Private Ryan”? The movie starts out with 30 minutes of death, but I don’t know of anybody who said that movie was too violent. It’s good American patriotism to enjoy watching our soldiers in battle! However, when a movie comes out that chooses not to validate their lifestyles, it is un-American. The truly violent movies are celebrated.
It is easy to go on. “American Beauty” is very much like “Fight Club” in what it says about the emptiness of our American value system. It was rebuffed, however, because it involves drugs, sex and a man who wishes to sleep with a teenager. Another favorite is “Trainspotting,” which came out in the summer of 1996. Presidential candidate Bob Dole said the movie was just another Hollywood film that glorified heroin use, which certainly played well with his conservative supporters. Forget the fact that he hadn’t even seen the movie or that it portrayed drug use realistically. It talked about an alternative lifestyle and value system, and that was enough to earn severe criticism.
These movies all destroy a conservative myth. Good people don’t go around taking drugs, fantasizing about sex or using violence for personal enjoyment. (Violence against our enemies is OK.) When people engage in these activities, they are to be swiftly punished. Anything else would destroy the natural order of things. They would be forced to actually think about what they were taught. They might see the underlying themes in challenging movies like these. They might open their eyes. Most people don’t want to. The light is too harsh.
They can continue to go to movies like “The Phantom Menace” and “Titanic,” and once in awhile when they are feeling naughty they’ll descend to the level of “American Pie.” Nice, safe movies that don’t challenge anything. In the meantime, I will go see “Dogma” and anything else interesting that comes along. We’ll pass outside, and they’ll wave their placards and warn me to watch out for my soul. That is exactly what I am doing.
Nathan Hunstad’s column appears on alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]