Saturday, January 06, 2007

How Do People with Similar Starting Points Arrive at Different Conclusions

Here's an exercise for gentle readers. Two film critics, both theo-conservatives, view the same movie, Little Miss Sunshine. The first, Michael Medved, ranks it the best of 2006:

Hysterically funny, deeply touching, occasionally shocking, this wildly original ensemble comedy highlights film’s amazing ability to create an on-screen family that seems as demented, demanding and endearing as your own eccentric relatives in real life. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette take this seven-year-old daughter (the amazing, Oscar worthy Abigail Breslin) on an ill-fated road trip to participate in a tacky kiddie beauty pageant. Along the way, Collette’s suicidal gay brother (Steve Carell) and teenaged, vow-of-silence son (Paul Dano), interact with the porn-and-drug addicted grandpa (Alan Arkin). Despite salty elements that make the film appropriate only for adults, “Miss Sunshine” conveys an unmistakable pro-family message: the members of your clan may count as maddening and dysfunctional, but you ultimately need and love each other as irreplaceable, essential and life-giving. The vivid, vibrant characterizations provide enough fully-realized, expertly rendered individual portraits to populate a half-dozen excellent movies: concentrated in this spell-binding, laugh-out-loud adventure, there’s an overflow of rewards and abundant “Sunshine” (through some tears).

The second, Steven Isaac of Focus on the Family's Plugged In, sees it as deplorable:

There's no denying that life is sad and ugly and funny, sometimes all at once. So it's not my task here to debate Carell's and Berger's statements. What is my task is dealing with whether such truthfulness should be used as an excuse to fill up a film with better than 50 profanities and obscenities. And depictions of illegal drug abuse. And exhortations for teens to have as much sex as they possibly can. Because those things, along with the heartbreaking sight of a 7-year-old putting on a sex show, are exactly what happens here.

Tears welled up in my eyes when the Hoovers banded together and finally bonded in the minutes before the credits. I felt for them. I understood them at that moment. And I was rooting wholeheartedly for them to come out on the other side as better people and as a more intact family. But I couldn't stand the fact that their journey toward maturity and selflessness came at Olive's expense. To make a compelling, artistic, emotional, funny movie, screenwriter Michael Arndt didn't have to make the climax revolve around a child imitating a striptease. He didn't have to include a grandfather who in real life, and with all due consideration to family unity, should have long ago been separated from the lives of his grandchildren because of his incredibly immoral and dangerous behavior and influence. And he didn't have to punctuate every point with an f-word.

Call this, then, the Little Miss Indie Film That Hates Sunshine. "Without all the things we loved about it—the raunchy language, the outrageous behavior—it would have been the perfect family comedy," says its co-director Valerie Faris. "But we wanted to make a film not about family values, but about the value of family."

It shouldn't be so easy to separate the two.
Your task, gentle readers: to figure out how to writers ostensibly starting at a similar point can end up at such wildly different destinations. Your comments are welcome.


Emily said...

Having seen the movie I found myself similarly conflicted. Indeed the movie is rated R for a good reason and any recommendation of the movie should be caveated. However, I think Isaac may underestimate adult viewers' ability to discern the good from the bad in a film. The film does not glorify the language, sex or drug use as many other films do. Of course, it is reasonable to say that such things are not necessary for entertainment but few films are really necessary to see. The film is dark, hilarious, disturbing and uplifting all at once. I think it should be up to viewers to be informed about a movie before seeing it and determine their tolerance for the content.

KevinK said...

If Mr. Medved put this film on his ten best list, then I question if he is a theo-conservative.

steve-o said...

Just watched the film last night and overall enjoyed it. Not something I'm likely to watch again, but I can see where Medved derived his thoughts on the flick.

The brilliance of this film is found in it's sparce dialogue; it says a lot while saying very little. The only pure soul in the movie is the little girl, Olive, who ends up uniting an extremely dysfunctional family with her positive outlook on life.

And one might say that the last scene [with Olive dancing to "Superfreak"] is sleezy, but it too was a remarkable statement. When the other little girls in the beauty pageant performed very adult-like performances, they were applauded as being cute. When Olive performs a childlike form of a striptease [which she obviously doesn't understand], it's seen as disgusting. I thought it was a powerful statement on how we're teaching our children about sexuality.

The difference of perspective from the two reviewers in based on their audience. Medved's job is to analyze the merit of the film as art. What message is the film sending? That's why he understood the takeaway and lauded it.

Plugged In reviews are supposed to judge whether or not a film is suitable to be seen with your family- which is interesting because VERY FEW of the films they review are ever deemed appropriate. A simple curse word is sufficient enough to condemn an entire movie. I'm pretty sure they bashed Passion of The Christ too.

In fairness I should admit that I have huge disdain for Plugged In film reviews. They're absolutely useless. The MO of Focus on the Family is to criticize all of pop culture as being godless. Their Christian worldview is one of total cultural separation. Not helpful at all.

Bryan D said...

My question is whether or not the second writer should be allowed to use his position in order to excuse his promotion of sentence fragments such as "And depictions of illegal drug abuse." Poor grammar is profanity and I am disappointed that Focus on the Family would employ sucha potty mouth.

RIV said...

I believe that their differing analyses spring out of their differing views on what role the media plays in shaping society. Medved feels that this film has the power and potential to better society by displaying a family's true nature, warts and all as the saying goes.
Isaac, however, believes that by displaying said warts will likely do little more than popularize and thus validate them.
But where is the truth? What role does media play? My opinion is that it obviously can (and does) do both, depending on the person taking in the media. There are folks in the world who can view a film or a television program such as this one and come away saying,
"Wow, those guys are messed up. I don't want my family to end up like that." And there are people who will come away, probably not saying, but at least thinking, "Well I guess that my family isn't as bad as I thought."
This is exactly the reason that I can own all of "The Simpsons" DVD boxsets and my unborn son (hopefully born this week) will not be able to watch them until I am satisfied that he understands satire.
In any case, I would like to pose a question. Which do you think that film and television have been more succesful over the years in achieving, making statements that change the world positively, or popularizing and justifying behavior once denounced by society?

Calus The Great said...

I doubt that either reviewer has seriously thought about the question of what constitutes moral art or entertainment. There are several unfounded artistic assumptions held by many Christians and "family values" conservatives.

1. The depiction of sin in art is sinful, especially sex, violence and vulgar language.

2. The depiction of other sins can occasionally be justified so long as negative consequences are clearly linked with the sin.

3. It is sinful to view art that does not "promote" a "Christian worldview."

Of course, I disagree with all three assumptions. I disagree with the first because sin is a part of the human condition and so any art that hopes to depict the human condition must depict sin.

I disagree with the second because Christian morality is not based on the certainty of one's sins causing suffering for oneself that others can see. Indeed, the New Testament demonstrates that righteous actions often bring about suffering while evil men prosper.

The third assumption is particularly silly. It is very difficult to say precisely the worldview promoted by a particular work of art or entertainment. The interpretation of a film is very much dependent on the viewer. For example, I thought that Pulp Fiction was a philosophical film, giving an argument for design. The interactions between subplots are all precarious and happen only because of the miracle of the botched shooting. The miracle saves two evil men, enabling one to inadvertently carry out actions that save others and cause the other to repent and simultaneously behave virtuously. In the film, something supernatural interacting with the world prevents suffering and drives men to good works. But it is unclear whether this is a statement about the actual world or merely a commentary on the role of the creator of a narrative. Of course, most people say about the film, "Dude, that's an effin' awesome movie. Most violent thing I've ever seen. I wish I could bust caps in people like that."

Furthermore, to forbid people from being exposed to competing worldviews shows a lack of faith in the strength of one's own conclusions.

Calus The Great said...

Anyway, to answer the original question, I'd guess that Medved does not hold these assumptions, or holds weak forms of them, while Focus believes very strongly in all three. The only similarity in their starting points is that each is concerned with the morality of the film in question.

I note that I casually glanced at Napster's "Christian Music Best of 2006 List" yesterday and had heard none of the songs, but saw that the first was titled "So Long Self." Now THAT is an unchristian concept if their was one, but I can't see Plugged In panning MercyMe. I suppose the next song in the sequence is called "Hello Nirvana!" (state, not band)

Anonymous said...

For me, the more important question with regard to whether I should watch a film that depicts raw sin isn't: What is the message of the film? Rather, it's Why do I really enjoy the film? The answer is easy. The filmmaker's intent and the film's message are irrelevant. It's the viewers' heart that matters. Sadly, my heart usually is eager to watch the movie precisely because of the sin.

Anonymous said...

I suggest kevink read Michael Medved's autobiography if he questions Mr. Medved's theo-conservatism. Would that more Christians live and demonstrate the convictions of their faith as does Mr. Medved of his Jewish faith.

Anonymous said...

As a former reader of Plugged In, I completely agree with Steve-O.