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The Church Moves Toward Film Discrimination

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education. This essay is reprinted from Religion in Life, Summer 1969. Used by permission of the author.


One of the more urgent tasks facing the church today is the clarification of its posture in relation to the entertainment industry. Traditional attitudes still widely assumed to be valid are, in fact, generally bankrupt, The attempt to force Hollywood to produce "good" films has fallen with the demise of the old Roman Catholic Legion of Decency. The Protestant-. effort to ingratiate the film-makers has also failed with the increasingly complex character of the film industry. In the former case, hints that the industry might strike back via restraint of trade suits hastened th4 collapse of the old paternalism. In the latter case, the church has simply'' refused to be "delivered" to the box office by the clerical bureaucrats am publicists who conceived of their task as a noble effort to sacralize the industry.

We are now painfully aware of the fact that students ,entering graduate schools today are children of the television age. Their world is mediated by moving pictures, not primarily by books. Their perceptions are symbolized in visual imagery. They probably are harbingers of the future. Knowledge will increasingly be mediated by visual—i.e., filmic--events. Therefore, the church has an extraordinary responsibility to its people to educate for cinematic experience. What is needed is not primarily some dogmatic apparatus that will reassure churchmen that such and such a film is "safe." The church of the future will simply refuse to believe such data. What is needed is a new sense of style and discrimination that will enable the church adequately to apprehend and criticize the film. Unless the church can educate its people to the issues of discrimination in film experience, it will have nothing to say to its people in regard to the dominant mode of communication of ideas and values. If the latter is the case, then an entire section of contemporary human social experience will be untouched by the reflection of the church. The important question, then, is not "shall the church involve itself in the film?´ but "how shall it involve itself in the film?

The work of the Film Awards' Nomination Panel of the Broadcasting and Film Commission (B.F.C.) of the National Council of Churches has been one attempt to address this problem. Since its organization in 1963, the panel has struggled with the issues of interpretation and sought to prepare a slate of "award" caliber films for the B.F.C.'s consideration. Each of the years has been stormy and, to put it mildly, the films selected have not always pleased the constituency. But the process has been useful in clarifying the church's self understanding and in challenging outmoded assumptions in the stance of the church over against the film industry.

The film awards process was first proposed by the West Coast Committee of the Broadcasting and Film Commission. The B.F.C. formerly had a staff member and an office in Los Angeles, and a continuing committee of clergy and interested laity in the industry comprised the so-called West -Coast Committee. George Heimrich, now retired, was the director of the office, and Bishop Gerald Kennedy of the Los Angeles Area of The United Methodist Church was the chairman, The committee met twice a year and usually engaged itself- in desultory discussion of procedural matters including how to get the power centers of the film industry to pay attention to the churches. The primary work of the office consisted in script advisement by the staff member. The elimination of "offensive" language and scenes .derogatory to the church was the basic goal of this service The awards plan was one of the concrete achievements of this group.

A high level of hostility normally ruled in the West Coast Committee because of misunderstandings between It and the New York office of the B.F.C. The basic economic fact was that the decision-making center the film industry was New York, although the West Coast people contended that Hollywood was the production center. To add frustration to the situation, fewer films were being made in Hollywood. A certain pietism dominated the West: Coast group so that its members tended to conceive of their role- as "ministering" to the people who worked in the industry. It was tragically naive to assume that pastoral care to a "grip" or even an actor would possibly seriously affect the direction of the industry, controlled as it is from the financial centers of the Fast.

The basic division in the film awards process through the subsequent years has been between the pietists, who generally have reflected the style of the old West Coast Committee, on the one hand, and the more avant-garde, who generally reflect the eastern style, on the other. A fundamental paternalism dominated the early discussions of the panel. The assumption that the church could influence Hollywood by rewarding "good" directors lay behind much of the process. The eastern wing felt as strongly that the panel had to approach its work with a certain disinterestedness and critical distance and that its primary task was the education of the church in film discrimination.

The draft proposal for the awards was framed by a committee of the West Coast group chaired by the Rev. Hubert Rasbach, pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Los Angeles. Pastor Rashbach is the only surviving member of the first panel still active in the group, and was its first chairman. I have been chairman since 1965. The original proposal called for awards to be presented in "categories." The "categories" were useful in clarifying the panel's work, but they proved to be confusing to the industry. The categories for 1964 awards were announced in the trade press and in more than three hundred direct mail invitations to producers. They were prefaced by the statement that the awards

may be given to American films of outstanding artistic merit that:

  1. Portray American life and culture in - the light of Christian ideals.
  2. Present family life in keeping with Christian principles,
  3. Show the application of Christian ideals to the growth of personality in children.
  4. Treat religious subject matter, whether biblical, historical or contemporary,- with accuracy, pertinence and moral value.
  5. Reflect the predicament and hope of man.

Most of the bias of the first committee is reflected in the statement of the categories. Note that only "American" films were to be considered. It was assumed that the "target" of the committee was the domestic film industry. Not only did the complexities of internationalization of the industry make this an untenable limitation; automatically excluded from the purview of the committee was an extraordinary group of films. It is also instructive to note that no awards were given in the first three categories because of the specific requirement that the films be "Christian" in orientation. Such films were simply not being made. The most fruitful debates in the panel had to do with its own methodology, not primarily with the merit, artistic or otherwise, of a particular film. A vast amount of energy was spent on the process of clarifying the critical goals of the panel. The temptation of the panel was always to substitute institutional questions --"What will our constituency think?"— for critical questions — "What is a film of outstanding artistic merit?" Attacks on the, panel have usually charged that the panel is nonrepresentative. This assumes that its task is sensing the majority views of churchmen and becoming a popularity poll. The panel's makeup was wisely designed to include theologians, pastors, critics, and denominational officers. Its work was to be prophetic, critical, and educative.

In an attempt to be more sophisticated in the awards process, the panel refined the categories in 1965. Eliminating the adjectival use of "Christian," it turned to the more situational- phrase, "within the perspective of the Christian faith."

The Broadcasting and Film Commission of the National Council of Churches may make awards annually to American-produced films of outstanding artistic merit that, within the perspective of the Christian faith and within one or more of the following categories :

  1. Portray with honesty and compassion the human situation in which man is caught in tension between his attempt to realize his full potential of his humanity and his tendency to destroy that humanity.
  2. Portray human society and its cultural environment in such a way as to enhance understanding of the family of man in its richness and variety.
  3. Treat religious subject matter, whether biblical, historical, or contemporary, with perceptiveness, accuracy, and pertinence.
  4. Bring qualities of imagination, beauty, and honesty to subject matter appropriate for children.
  5. Provide exceptional entertainment value appropriate for family viewing.

This statement was a considerable refinement over the original categories, but the industry was still mystified. This confusion clearly reflected the growing awareness on the part of the panel that it was inappropriate to think that the categories had any influence on film-making at all. Further, the careful theological refinement may have satisfied some theologically sophisticated critics, but failed to convince the church filmgoer. Most fatally, however, the categories tended to distract the committee from its proper work, which was identifying meritorious films. With some modest editorial changes, these categories were used in the awards of 1967. The most significant shift was the decision by the B.F.C. to include foreign films in the regular process for the first time.

Continued discussion in the B.F.C. and panel has let to the current mandate on selection which was used in the 1968 award deliberations :

The Broadcasting and Film Commission of the N.C.C. may make awards annually to films of outstanding merit that, within the perspective of the Christian faith, also (1) portray with honesty and compassion the human condition—including human society in its cultural environment -- depicting man in the tension between his attempt to realize the full potential of his of. his humanity and his tendency to distort that humanity, and (2) and portray the vitality, tragedy, humor, and variety of life in such as to provide entertainment value appropriate for family viewing and audience appeal; and (3) present subject matter which, in terms content, will fire the mental, moral and existential development youth."

The panel further proposes to use this statement. as its mandate but to submit films to the Board of Managers with appropriate, citations under the general categories of (1) for mature audiences, (2) for youth, and (3) for family viewing.

The trend toward simplifying the statement of fps reflects the growing cooperation between the B.F.C. and the National Catholic Office on the Motion Picture (N.C.O.M.P.). Members of each agency have been auditing the other's committee work and, in 1967. gave the first joint award. Each agency now looks forward to a completely ecumenical film award process. If this can be achieved, the church's posture in regard to the entertainment. media may have some of the force formerly attributed to it.

II

A survey of the award-winning films is instructive in understanding the panel's development. In the first award year, 1964, three films were cited—Fail Safe, Fate Is the Hunter, and Becket. Cinematically, Fail Safe has been forgotten, whereas Dr. Strangelave, rejected by the panel that year and also dealing with atomic annihilation, has survived as a classic. Fate Is the Hunter, a modest story of mirage in airline pilots, has long since been forgotten. Becket, an artistically superior film, was as close as the committee could come to "religious subject matter," although it begged a great number of historical questions.

In short, the first awards were not particularly distinguished. The "process" really said nothing at all to the industry.. The industry still hoped for a docile church agency that could "deliver" bodies to the box office. Henry Youngstein, producer of Fate Is the Hunter, at the awards luncheon said: "This is a tremendous step that the NCC would do this, and 'now the other half is helping us to make the pictures you like and that you think have something to say by giving us a hand in getting the word out to the local local churches throughout the country."

Edward Anhalt, the distinguished screen, writer, who accepted: the award for Becket at that luncheon, commented that he was then working on the script for BoeingBoeing, a sex farce considerably less "religious" than Becket, a fact that created minor uneasiness among the pious present. It was instructive for the churchmen to see how much the industry was dominated by purely business standards.

The 1965 awards year saw the most far-reaching decisions yet made by the panel. Film historians who worry about such things single out this event as a "turning point". in the church's relationship to the mass media industries. (Cf. G. William Jones, Sunday Night at the Movies (Richmond: John Knox Press. 1967), p. !6. 'See the New York Times, Feb. 4, 1966.) This was the year of The Greatest Story Ever Told. Some prominent members of the B.F.C. had been variously involved with director-producer George Stevens from the inception of the film. An extraordinary amount of energy was expended upon church officers and communications people by Stevens' organization. Trips to the Utah filming site were arranged. Extraordinary publicity releases, purporting to illustrate the pious environment of the production and the religious nature of the entire enterprise, flooded the church press. Not only was Stevens a good friend of high-placed churchmen in Southern California, but his staff cultivated these relationships during the production. One member of the panel itself, who fought tenaciously for the film, was subsequently revealed to have been retained professionally by the Stevens organization. Bishop Kennedy, George Heimrich, and others were outspoken in their support of the film and vigorously advocated nomination. After two days' debate and a subsequent telephone conference call, a majority of the panel voted not to nominate the film, and the silence was like a rifle report across the industry.

The secular critics panned the film without mercy. Time called it "three hours and 41 minutes' worth of impeccable boredom" (Feb. 26, 1965). Shana Alexander, writing in Life (Feb. 26, 1965), noted that "Christ never tried to please everybody"

Stevens has said that he believes his picture will have great ecumenical value because it does not offend any religion : Catholic, Protestant or Jew. But by not offending anybody, he first bores and finally outrages all but the most pious of movie fans. The main trouble with trying to blanket the screen with wall-to-wall good taste, I think, is that you wind up with nothing to show for it but a pile of beautiful pictures. Good taste, relentlessly applied, comes to seem like lack of discrimination, lack of risk, lack of daring, lack of invention, even lack of inspiration. But what the picture seems to lack most is courage. Given his title, his subject matter, his great cinematic talent and infinite resources, I wish Stevens had found boldness to match.

Playboy (May, 1965) commented, "It takes a lot of planning and thought to make the birth, life, work and sacrifice of Jesus Christ into a big windy bore, but The Greatest Story Ever Told succeeds almost perfectly."

The panel's position was a desperate one. A significant section of the church had indeed already tacitly promised to "deliver" its public to the theaters. Not to offend the industry and run the risk of the industry turning its back on "religious films" was implied in most of the argument for the film. These critics argued that it was not necessarily a successful film, but that to snub it would "make us look funny." (See Christianity Today, Feb. 18, 1966, p. 49.) The position of the majority was that a film could not receive the award simply because it was a good try. If it failed to meet the collective judgment of the panel's view of artistic merit, theological pertinence, and accuracy, then it simply failed. The extraordinary mishmash of traditions and legends, including having Jesus recite the 13th chapter of I Corinthians, presented a peculiar problem to a National Council group, in view of the fact that the National Council held the copyright on the RSV "in order to preserve the purity of the text."

The panel decided not to nominate the film to the Board of Managers. A brief, desultory debate followed the report at the Board of Managers' meeting, but it was apparent that few of the film's friends had any real enthusiasm for the film, and its critics prevailed. (*For a detailed criticism from the point of view of a biblical scholar, see James M. Robinson, "Neither History nor Kerygma," Christian Advocate, Mar. 23, 1965. A general critical statement is to be found in my article "The Greatest Story; Can It Ever Be Told on Film?" Together, May, 1965. For additional statements see Malcolm Boyd, "The Church's Word to the Film Industry," Christian Century, Mar. 9, 1966, and Arthur Knight, "Who's to Classify?" Saturday Review, Feb. 26, 1966.)

To further exacerbate the situation, the films that did receive the panel's nod in 1965 created additional furor. The Pawnbroker and Nothing But a Man, widely hailed in the general press, attracted heavy criticism from the church public. There was a brief, contextual glimpse of nudity in The Pawnbroker, but the film nevertheless had received the seal of the Code office. Nothing But a Man, which may survive as the only real classic in the panel's list, was objectionable to some because of the slty language of some characters. In interpreting the awards to the presentation luncheon in Los Angeles, panel member Dean Leonidas Contos, now president of Hellenic University in Brookline, Massachusetts, said:

Pawnbroker is cited in the first category, and perhaps we need to isolate in that category what are the operative words, the P>operative ideas. It speaks of the "human situation," and man's attempt "to realize the full potential of his humanity and his tendency to distort that humanity." In short, the tension that began in Eden. Set in that awful tension, played against the shattering flashbacks to the dehumanizing animal behavior of the Nazi camp guards, the camera has here been made to strip nudity itself to that inner nakedness where God's grace seeks to find us and clothe us. It recalled to my thoughts, not then but later, a news photo I once saw as a young boy (and obviously never forgot) of a Spanish woman lying naked on a pocked street, ravaged to the point of death by beastlike soldiers in that terrible civil war.

How is it possible to force such a scene into the same precise rule that is aimed at suggestive voluptuousness, the too familiar boudoir and bathtub scene? I think the point can scarcely be made more cogently than a member of this panel, the Rev. James Wall, has done in a recent editorial in the journal he edits: "As for nudity, anyone obtaining salacious pleasure from those terrifying moments is already dead to the rest of life, and hardly a subject for further stimulation."

But to address a word to those in the industry who may have confused this artistic judgment for a moral one condoning nudity for its own sake, let us be altogether clear what has been said here. Pawnbroker was cited, after genuine travail, in spite of what would have been, not long ago, a violation of the Code. To thrust aside a work of such sensitivity, honesty, perception, to have canceled out its conspicuous merits by invoking a rigid canon which is itself susceptible to much interpretation, would have been to judge ourselves wilfully blind to the contrasts of beauty and ugliness that underlie human life.

The B.F.C. received a number of letters attacking the awards because of their apparent condoning of "blasphemy, obscenity, and nudity." What really underlay the attack was a massive rage that such modest artistic statements were made in the year of the bypassing of the most expensive ($20,000,000) attempt yet made in a genre of film that had outlived the sophistication of our culture and the churches. If honesty is important, then to speak with clarity and force is more important than to speak with halfhearted enthusiasm for theologically and artistically empty productions of an obsolete genre.

Among other films receiving awards in 1965 was A Patch of Blue, which includes the first kiss of a white girl by a black man in modern film and a brutal rape scene. The irony of this is the fact that the panel members most strongly opposed to Pawnbroker were most vigorously in favor of Patch. It is now rather humorous to note that the girl was blind, so the embrace scene was relatively "safe." What the Patch of Blue award illustrated was the inevitable fact of compromise in the committee, and the committee's tendency to trust certain producers, especially those who publicly supported the old Code. (Whereas The Pawnbroker received the Code seal, it forced the Code office to stretch its interpretation. Patch of Blue, on the other hand, revealed the inherent ambiguity of the Code by being formally "clean" but also an extra-ordinarily violent film.) The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, a sensitive and profoundly moving film biography, and The Sound of Music, a surefire family category film, rounded out the list for 1965. It was an eventful, problematic year.

 

The N.C.O.M.P. awards for 1965 were equally startling to the press and the industry. Darling and Juliet of the Spirits, originally rated A- "morally unobjectionable for adults, with reservations," by the old Legion of Decency, were cited by the National Catholic Office on the Motion Picture for their "artistic vision" and "expression of authentic human values." The absence of any reference to The Greatest Story Ever Told by the Catholics and the fact that all but one of the films cited were foreign made, added to the furor of the National Council awards, created a shock wave in the industry still reverberating.

 

III.

The 1966 awards debate revolved around Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which the panel nominated in category 1. The citation to the Board of Managers read: "[Woolf] presents with compassion and honesty the human predicament in which we are caught in the dilemmas of life. This film, recommended only for mature audiences by the panel, reveals the struggle for integrity and wholeness that resists the temptation to live within fantasy and deceit, and to turn instead to courageous acceptance of the responsibilities of maturity." Critical weight of church leadership supported the panel. But shouts of outrage were quick to be heard. A few congregations withheld support for the National Council because of the citation. Outrage was typified by the Rev. Charles P. Smith, in Worship and Arts (April-May, 1967), under the headline "Filthy Movie Wins Award from National Council of Churches" :

Some will say I haven't any right to an opinion at all since I haven't seen the movie and don't intend to do so. .. . But I did read the play, and I thought it neither honest nor compassionate, though others of Miller's (sic!) works appear to have both qualities. It seemed to me to be a work in which the author became fascinated with his ability to twist and contort a situation for the sake of displaying his own virtuosity and inventiveness. Nothing I have heard about the movie leads me to think that this has been altered. And besides, I can't imagine any people less likely to be able to portray "with compassion and honesty" any situation at all save perhaps one of self-indulgence, than Miss Taylor and Mr. Burton. There is a moral stench which surrounds this whole work, and its promotion, which should have ruled it out for the reviewers of the Council.

Woolf was seen by the majority of the panel as a deeply moral film because of its complete honesty in depicting life apart from God. It is God's absence that is the motif of the film, and the possibility of grace that is Nichols' peculiar touch to Albee's frightening story.

The rest of the 1966 list was more or less undistinguished. Sand Pebbles, And Now Miguel, and Born Free, have dropped from sight. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was cited as a family film with "uncommon and humorous treatment of the international situation." And a special award was given to The Gospel According to St. Matthew by Pier Paola Pasolini. The Board of Managers added an additional special award to William Jersey for his thoughtful cinema verite statement A Time for Burning.

A Man for All Seasons was cited in category 3 and became the first joint award with the N.C.O.M.P. As in Becket, the Roman Catholic saint emerged as a problematic hero, but the panel decided that it was a statement "about a man who cared more for honesty and integrity than for his life . . . and is therefore a profound statement of the possibilities of human existence under the pressure of faith to oneself and to God."

1967 produced what is admittedly the most undistinguished list of citations. It may have been, as some members of the panel assert, that exhaustion following the intense debates of the previous two years left the panel in no mood for harsh debate. This was the year of Bonnie and Clyde (cited by N.C.O.M.P.) and Blow Up (hotly debated and narrowly voted down in the panel). The citations went to In the Heat of the Night, The Battle of Algiers, Up the Down Staircase, and The War Game. It should be noted that these films deal with racial intolerance, violence in the cities, crises in public schools, and atomic annihilation. A fifth film, In Cold Blood, was cited by the panel but rejected by the Board. This was the first time that this had happened. It was rejected after a heated attack upon it by Robert E. Lee, prominent playwright and member of the Board of Managers.

IV

When the West Coast Committee made its original proposal to the Board of Managers of the B.F.C. to establish an awards process, a committee of the Board was established to evaluate the suggestion and prepare a proposal for final consideration. Philip Johnson, then an executive with the Lutheran Church in America, served as chairman of this drafting group. The Johnson report revealed that members did not begin their work unanimously convinced of the value or importance of such a pro-gram. But the group asserted in its final report that

the program would afford an unparalleled opportunity to dramatize the interest of the Christian Church in the creative process in the arts, would encourage the production of films and programs of the highest standards, would give public support to those individuals in the film and broadcast industries who are striving to lift the general level of production, would present the Church in a positive rather than a negative stance in relation to these media, and would provide the opportunity for the Church in general and the B.F.C. and its members in particular to enter into significant conversations with the entertainment industry on standards, values, and goals.

On balance, one would suggest that the work of the Film Awards Nominating Panel and the decisions of the Board of Managers of the B.F.C. have moved the church in the direction of the purposes outlined by the Johnson committee in 1963. Interpretation by the panel has visibly demonstrated the church's interest in the creative arts by encouraging discussion of films and by drawing attention to films that might not otherwise have been noted. The process has also had modest success in giving public support to film-makers who were bucking the conservative business reflexes of the film industry and were trying to make extraordinary films. I once asked a producer if the award made any difference at all, and he replied that sometimes the difference of a thousand admissions makes or breaks a film and therefore the award has measurable economic value to the industry. There is some evidence that The Pawnbroker was actually nudged out of box-office doldrums by the announcement of the B.F.C. award. The desperation over The Greatest Story is further evidence of the direct economic value of the awards.

The awards have changed the industry's stance with regard to the church. When the old Legion of Decency held a boycott-type club over the film-maker, and the Protestants through more subtle but no less paternalistic devices promised a docile and bland audience, the industry knew what to expect. The formulas were all available. The long succession of "bathrobe operas"—biblical epics—and incredibly dull films such as A Man Called Peter were cranked out for the church folk. A new generation of churchmen, excited by a new generation of film-makers, was a great deal more sophisticated and expected the church to do better in its conversations with the industry.

Sentimental suggestions about industry-clergy conferences were doomed to failure. The economics of film-making are such that not even an artistic giant like George Stevens can risk experimentation in a biblical film. In the last analysis, the development of taste and discrimination was the only way open to the church. The film awards process has hastened the growth of discrimination by creating a growing community of churchmen involved in critical appraisal and discussion of the role of religion in the arts.

It is in the final suggestion of the Johnson committee that the process has had extraordinary influence. Throughout the period of the awards, members of the staff and panel itself have been intimately involved in discussions with Geoffrey Shurlock of the Motion Picture Association of America Code Office. When Jack Valenti became president of the M.P.A.A., relations between his office and the Broadcasting and Film Commission staff increased, and genuine dialogue has resulted.

It is no secret that the Rev. William Fore of the B.F.C., Dr. James Wall of the panel, and Fr. Patrick Sullivan and Mr. Henry Herx of N.C.O.M.P. were consultants with Valenti during the development of the new motion picture code and the new voluntary rating system. In fact, the idea of film classification was first proposed to Jack Valenti by Mr. Fore two years before the film-makers accepted the idea as an alternative to censorship. At first the term "classification" was a dirty word around the industry. A great number of factors go into decisions leading to the establishment of the rating system. It is also true that the code has served in the past to restrain exhibition of films from producers not in the association. But the vast majority of entertainment films are subject to the good faith implied in the new rating system, and the fact that church officials were invited to participate in the establishment is remarkable only in the sense that, for once, it was for the right reasons.

What is the future of the awards process? Some feel that the time has come to consider a more educative device, such as a critical journal in which more extended statements might be made. The cryptic statements in the citations to the film-makers and the press in the awards process are too brief. The B.F.C. does in fact now have a committee working on a proposal for just such a journal.

Given the high level of anxiety in the industry, it may be that the awards process will continue to be useful both to the film-maker and to the church. It is an ambiguous business at best, and the work of the panel during the first four years has left much to be desired. But the National Council of Churches has wisely kept the panel independent of outside pressures and, to a surprising degree, opened a new era of responsible, ecumenical, and theologically informed film criticism.


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