Reflections on family movie night.
“I didn’t say I was going to explain myself. I said I was going to tell you the truth. But if that’s too cryptic, let’s get literal.”
– Bill, Kill Bill: Vol. 2
When the monochrome profile of a beaten and dying bride flashes on the screen during family movie night, you begin to reflect a bit – especially when your mom is seated on the couch across the room.
Tonight we’re hoping to watch The Tree of Life.
The night before, we watched Volumes 1 and 2 of Kill Bill. I’m currently debating how to introduce 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially after working – and I mean working – through Memento. As far as summer films go, we’ve seen everything from Frozen to Fargo.
For our family, movie night has become a sacred time. Rather than letting the tv wash over us,[i] we tune in to the cinema, engaging it as the art of our age and an accessible commentary on our culture. After my mom’s incredible popcorn is gone, we’ll discuss what we experienced on the screen.
We definitely argue from time to time, particularly regarding the merits of Fireproof, The Matrix, and anything with Tyler Perry’s name on it. But for the most part, we laugh, reflect, and share great joy talking about how we could listen to Benedict Cumberbatch read just about anything or how Joss Whedon really knows how to write a screenplay. We’ve examined the parallax of “Bayhem”, the mise-en-scène of Nolan, and we’ve had a blast observing bits of steadicam, gawking over tracking shots, and commenting on composition.
But between watching my mom giggle at the charming visuals of Moonrise Kingdom and my dad draw in to the shadowy warmth of Mud, I’ve had to see both of them stare with confusion and disgust at the highly stylized violence of Kill Bill: Vol 1. I’ve had to watch my mom bury her head in the couch when a human eye is crushed underfoot in Kill Bill: Vol 2.
While watching this Japanese spaghetti-western smashup, I wonder if I’m respecting my family.
When Is It Okay to Invite Someone into the Dark?
Perhaps you’ve asked yourself this question: at what point have I dishonored someone I love by inviting them into ‘dark art’ – into art marked by suffering, ugliness, immorality, or poor quality?
I want to honor and love my family by simply inviting them into the artwork that I cherish – into Doré, Dante, and The Dirt and the Flood – but am I bringing shame upon them by inviting them into Pulp Fiction and The Silence of the Lambs?
Maybe you’re like me, and you struggle with this question – with sharing dark art with your family and friends[ii]. Perhaps you question if you’ve dishonored them – if you’re obscuring goodness, truth, and beauty – foregoing dialogue and constructive judgment for the purpose of entertainment. Can we honor our parents, friends, and loved ones by watching art that is good and beautiful, but perhaps not true?[iii]
What about art that is true, but not necessarily good or beautiful? When the three transcendentals are malnourished, lacking, or perhaps not even present in the art, what do we do with it?
I think we keep looking, listening, and receiving.
I think we tune in to the art, judge it, and weigh it against truth.
I think that we keep watching.
Dogmatism and fundamentalism would tell us to avert our eyes and cling to the pure. Libertinism and hedonism would tell us to drink up – all things are permissible. Wisdom seems to lead us somewhere in between – purity balanced with liberty, permission weighed with benefit.
A Line Drawn Somewhere
But there are good reasons why my family refuses to watch The Wolf of Wall Street. There are good reasons I don’t plan on watching American Psycho with my mom, even though I may find the critique of the American dream, greed, and pride fascinating and powerful.
There are some movies that host a darkness I will not share or invite. There are some films we simply will not experience together.
For my mom, we stop watching when “vulgarity” and “unnecessary violence” dominate the story. Upon some respectful pressing, she would describe this as “torture violence, racial violence, or violence against women.”
So, my mom predictably hated The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. As for vulgarity, she comments, [regarding The Usual Suspects] “I heard the f-word 20 times four sentences ago. I don’t need to here it again.” Likewise, we’re probably not going to watch The Departed together.
For my dad,
“gratuitous sex and cussing for the purpose of shock factor” are the dark marks. Per his fascinating clarification, “there is no gratuitous violence in Tarantino, by definition. It all makes sense…that’s like saying that Wes Anderson’s films have too much color or people are dressed too perfectly. That’s his style. That’s what he does. We all get that Captain Kirk is a playboy [in Star Trek Into Darkness]…and we don’t need the camera to pan to the woman in bikini underwear to get that.”
My father is more offended by the random trunk shot of the obligatory, nearly nude, unrealistically attractive blond woman than similar scenes in Kill Bill – and I am too. His point is that Tarantino films, ipso facto, host more violence and sex than your summer sci-fi, but there is something about the purpose of the violence and sex that allows his films to work in context.[iv]
It is the combination of violence, sex, and torture following a meaningless banner that is non-negotiable. Purposeless darkness that neither tells a story nor teaches a lesson turns off our TV.
Upon some self-criticism, we examined Inglourious Basterds, Taken, Casino Royale, and L.A. Confidential – films that we enjoyed that were also marked by language, violence, and even torture.
We all admit they were difficult to watch, and yet they each reflected something to be celebrated – justice and beauty hidden throughout the terror and blood – hints of truth glowing in the darkness.
The Good, the Bad, and the…Edifying?
Dark art is difficult, but I think we should be free to engage it.
We should experience the shadow, listen to the discord, and question how the horrid teaches us more about truth, goodness, and beauty. This frees us to read Flannery O’Connor and talk about why her stories are disturbing and beautiful all at once. It frees us to experience Dante’s Inferno and discuss the grotesque horrors of contrapasso[v], knowing there is movement and light and song and beauty to follow in Purgatorio.
We can be free to find Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ frustrating and invective, yet do our neighbor the justice of engaging it with patience and grace. We can consider what Manet’s Olympia and Titian’s Venus of Urbino alternatively teach us about intimacy and eroticism. We have room to talk about why Tracey Emin’s My Bed pales in comparison to Delacroix’s Le Lit defait – “The Unmade Bed”. We can savor the self-sacrificial love of Harry Potter without being crippled by the cruciatus curse. We can wrestle with Dalí’s dreams and Pollock’s chaos. We can listen to Makoto Fujimura wax poetic regarding soil as layers of death bringing forth new life and be moved.[vi] We can watch Edson’s Wit and weep.
And, I think, we can view Kill Bill – examining its indecency while listening to the lesson it teaches us about depravity. We can enjoy Silver Linings Playbook, critique its love-conquers-all conclusion, and celebrate it for its potent examination of forgiveness, portrayal of mental illness, celebration of family, and reminder of our universal brokenness. We can watch Cold Mountain and reflect on how it leaves us, indeed, cold. There is great value in discussing how beauty affirms the grotesque in our theaters and why canaries sing in the cinematic coalmine. I am in awe of how David Bentley Hart says it here:
“Yes, we take pleasure in color, integrity, harmony, radiance, and so on; and yet, as anyone who troubles to consult his or her experience of the world knows, we also frequently find ourselves stirred and moved and delighted by objects whose visible appearances or tones or other qualities violate all of these canons of aesthetic value, and that somehow “shine” with a fuller beauty as a result. Conversely, many objects that possess all these ideal features often bore us, or even appall us, with their banality. At times, the obscure enchants us and the lucid leaves us untouched; plangent dissonances can awaken our imaginations far more delightfully than simple harmonies that quickly become insipid; a face almost wholly devoid of conventionally pleasing features can seem unutterably beautiful to us in its very disproportion, while the most exquisite profile can do no more than charm us. The tenebrous canvases of Rembrandt are beautiful, while the shrill daubs of Thomas Kinkade, with all their sugary glitter, are repellant. Whatever the beautiful is, it is not simply harmony or symmetry or consonance or ordonnance or brightness, all of which can become anodyne or vacuous of themselves; the beautiful can be encountered—sometimes shatteringly—precisely where all of these things are deficient or largely absent.”
If we throw out Tarantino and Prometheus for their moral darkness and deficiencies, we plant the seeds to eventually throw out Tolkien and Perelandra as well.
We till the weeds that choke out our own stories and the stories of those around us. If we’re not cautious, we’ll be left with an art bearing the fruit of insipid platitudes, empty calories, and, indeed, “sugary glitter.”
“The Shadow Proves the Sunshine”
And yet, as my mother reminds me, we are ultimately meant to dwell on the good[vii].
We are called to meditate on the good, the true, and the beautiful. I’m not suggesting that we should engage dark art because it will make us better critics, aesthetes, or cinephiles. I’m suggesting that we should engage dark art because it will make us better friends, counselors, and lovers.
If we view the tarnished, the chaotic, the grim, and the despairing, we do so in order to see the bright, the melodic, the gentle, and the nourishing more clearly.
We celebrate this art that hosts components of darkness only when the purpose is sufficiently promundo – for the world – and we can judge it with that end of human flourishing in mind – an end of color, harmony, flavor, and rest. In the immortal words of Switchfoot, “the shadow proves the sunshine.”[viii] We look at the darkness to prove the light. We follow the sunbeam up to the sun. We go through the Inferno to see dead poetry rise to life in Purgatorio.[ix]
We see beauty, say beautifully[x], and sing dulcius ex asparis – sweeter after difficulty.
We wrestle with the sources of the bad, the false, and the ugly, so that we may rest in the Source of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
[i] Gene Hackman, Runaway Jury
[ii] Perhaps they didn’t get enough defense at Hogwarts. (Terrible joke I’m so sorry)
[iii] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: a theological aesthetics, Vol. 1 – “Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”
[iv] Objection: ‘Why not grant pornography the status of dark art with its own contextual artistic merits?’ Even if pornography is made with compositional and aesthetic excellence, outside of a Kantian means-end analysis, the purpose supersedes any beauty. There is no world where celebrating porn leads to full human flourishing. Trash is trash, regardless if it is well-framed. So if it is art, then it is lower than dark art – it may well be anti-art. This does raise an interesting question regarding soft porn and horror, neither of which I have room to discuss here. Briefly on the latter, I would say movies like The Cabin in the Woods, The Village, and The Rite provide interesting and helpful critiques of horror while providing commentary on sin, doubt, and faith. They can exist beyond initiating a feeling (fear, thrill, etc.) to sell an experience, in a way that pornography simply cannot.
[v] Commentary Inf III 52-57:http://etcweb.princeton.edu/cgi-bin/dante/DispCommentByTitOrId.pl?SMALL=0&INP_ID=212496
[vi] Objection: ‘You’ve listed a few forms of the high arts: poetry, painting, sculpture, literature, opera, etc. But engaging this art of movies is different because it is, in fact, lower – High art demands to be engaged the way an organ demands to be celebrated over an acoustic guitar. We literally look up to it. Just let the low art of movies go – cling to the great works of literature and music.’ Movies choreograph a dance of writing, visual art, sound design, music, photography, acting, editing, and even poetry in a way that opera and theater also orchestrate. It doesn’t follow that cinema is a lower art form.
[viii] Switchfoot, The Shadow Proves the Sunshine, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypSz8WqRc_M
[ix] Stephen Smith, “Dante, Inferno” http://online.hillsdale.edu/course/books101/part09/week-9/lecture
[x] John Piper, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis; http://www.desiringgod.org/books/seeing-beauty-and-saying-beautifully
My name is John Brewer Eberly, Jr., but most call me Brewer. I am currently finishing up my first year at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. I wanted to be an artist before answering the call to medicine, and subsequently started “AHEM” with some good friends last semester: Ars, Humanitas, et Medicus – “Art, Humanities, and the Physician.” I hail from Greenville, South Carolina, call Columbia Presbyterian Church my home, and enjoy bouldering, bacon, beer, and philosophy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I should probably be studying right now.