ROY M. ANKERRoy M. Anker is a member of the English department at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. This year he is on leave at the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Movie Identification Quiz: Identify the following well-known movies:

Film #1: With glee on their faces, the villains incinerate a boy—while the audience watches his excised, fearstruck heart beat ever more furiously as he is lowered in a sling into boiling lava. Later in the movie, as an encore, a bosomy blonde begs and screams as she, too, is lowered into the volcano. The hero watches, smiling, relishing.

The movie comes amply stocked with torture implements: whips, chains, knives, potions. Body parts, slaves, spiders, voodoo dolls, magic rocks, and some blood drinking are also thrown in. Nice stuff. And yet, according to the ratings code, this PG film is acceptable for kids eight and older.

Film #2: In this PG film, a strange, winsome, teddy-bearlike creature comes, as an early Christmas present, to live with an ideal teen in an idyllic American village. When wet, the pet spawns clones that soon mutate into snarling pests, half human and half reptile. The cackling brood savors killing as much as their endless practical jokes, usually mixing the two. The picture’s last half allows for inventive, graphic ways for the humans and creatures to stalk and kill each other: blenders, chain saws, microwaves, catapults, crossbows, and various means of decapitation and incineration. And it all takes place on Christmas Eve. With its cuddlies and sentiment, the movie is pitched straight to the preteen market.

Film #3: For a secret mission, authorities give a life-term, rock-pile prisoner freedom. During that mission he single-handedly kills about a hundred enemy soldiers. Survival and mission success are hardly the point, nor is plausibility. What stands out is variety of assault, which is graphic and continual: burning, carving, impaling, gutting, garroting, bludgeoning, exploding, hanging, plummeting, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

This R-rated film helped make its star the favorite actor among teens in 1985, which poses an interesting conundrum: He made it to the top mostly because of a movie kids were not, according to the rating code, supposed to see. Despite its rating, this blood-drenched pageant of ritualistic machismo found its most fervent devotees among pubescent boys.

Film #4: In one of the most profitable teen films ever made, again rated R (those under 17 not admitted without parent or guardian), a group of fifties’ teens infiltrate and pillage both the high school and a local roadhouse, not to mention the local female population. These good, clean boys spy on the girls’ shower room, befuddle the police, enrage authorities, booze continuously, and score all they want, even the wimpiest one. In addition to these violent visual and attitudinal assaults, the language is relentlessly abusive of people, God, and sex. This is male teen heaven.

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Film #5: A deranged and hideous man searches the night for victims, usually teens, whom he then proceeds to hunt down, one by one, to mutilate and kill. Always the camera’s eye is the attacker’s as he spies and closes on the unsuspecting and then terrified women (male victims do not merit this close cinematic attention). The audience repeatedly enters his pursuit, slowly approaching couples or girls caught in vulnerable moments, such as bathing or love making. Blades of all sorts—knives, axes, and chain saws—slash and dismember. The camera then pauses to appreciate the carnage pinned to walls or splayed all over. The monster turns away only when butchery finally sates his thirst for pain and murder.

And there is no ending this phantasm from hell. When the beast is finally killed, the movie leaves ample suggestion that it has not really died but will resurrect for even gorier escapades of carnage.

Answers To The Movie Quiz

Answer #1: Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) ranks eighth in all-time box-office receipts, right behind Spielberg’s other tale of fear, pain, horror, and black magic, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Answer #2: Gremlins, another 1984 Spielberg production, ranks twentieth in all-time box-office receipts. Admittedly, saying bad things about Spielberg, the sweet fellow who brought us the lovable ET, is like impugning Mom and apple pie. It also labels one, in the minds of most, as suffering from hysterical paranoia. As much as the characters he has given us—such as ET and Indiana Jones—Spielberg himself has become a contemporary cultural icon, a kindly and trusty guru for parents as much as for kids. After all, Spielberg-directed or produced films account for 5 of history’s top-10 moneymakers (and 7 of the top 20) and have hauled in well over a billion dollars.

Answer #3: Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood II stands number 22 in rank and is one of a successful series of seven Stallone films (four Rockys and three First Bloods, earning more than a half-billion dollars). Usually written by Stallone, these movies exalt the capacity to endure and inflict pain as the sole means of establishing manhood. In the First Blood and now Cobra movies, the motive for both taking and giving hurt lies in the desire to seek not justice, as did perhaps the old Western hero, but retribution—what we might call the “make-my-day” syndrome—in the manner of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Eddie Murphy. And a gloried route it is, full of muscle, sweat, blood, and sass, where nobody important ever really gets hurt; at least very much or for very long.

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Answer #4: Porky’s (1982) cost less than $5 million to make and earned roughly $180 million. While clearly the most successful, it is only one of a whole spate of teenage sex films that border on soft-core pornography. A kind of middle-class high-school Animal House (which cost $3 million to make and made $ 150 million), Porky’s abounds in raunchy groin humor that rationalizes, normalizes, and then sentimentalizes adolescent randiness and promiscuity. Any means for dealing with a hormonal drive other than immediate and frequent copulation receives abundant ridicule. No one in this fantasy world ever experiences bad sex, let alone any unhappy consequence thereof, such as guilt, disease, or pregnancy.

Porky’s is simply the best known of a horde of money-making “teen pics” whose shapes and focus resulted from studio research into adolescent male sexual fantasies. Two of the more famous, Private Lessons and Risky Business (which gave Tom Cruise his start), put such dreams at their center. These films cover the walls of video stores and fill the late-night hours of cable stations.

Answer #5: In truth, the answer to this description could be any of 50 films, movies such as Halloween, Friday the Thirteenth, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and their innumerable sequels. Their malevolent superhuman and indestructible monsters—Jason, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Meyer—return over and over again, no matter what the finality or gruesome mode of their destruction. And one can hardly imagine more painful and permanent departures. Until then, however, a vast abominable toll of hurt falls upon kids, mostly girls. With unfathomable malice and relish, the stalker’s pleasure, vicarious for the audience, inflicts terror, torture, and death. His strength and knives flash, threaten, coerce, subdue, and invade. Throughout they are clear-as-day surrogates for phallic assault, an obscene predatory distortion of any semblance of normal male sexuality. Women are the inviting game, and the pursuit itself, for the audience, becomes a game.

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In its first weekend in the theaters, the third sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street took in nearly $13 million, more than double its production costs. Moreover, the first three Elm Street episodes have thus far sold more than a half-million videocassettes and who knows how many Freddy masks and bladed gloves ($15 million in spin-off merchandise).

The Power Of Art

All of these films, like it or not, somehow address and engage the interests and emotions of preteens and teens. Because stories, images, and melodies are hints and clues about the nature of life, whether beatific or horrific, they have particular appeal for young people who are very much in the business of figuring out who they are and what the world holds. That particularly difficult stage or passage in life explains, broadly speaking, both kids’ attraction and susceptibility to most any kind of artistic representation. They can hardly help being voracious consumers. For kids, then, art—movies, rock, TV, advertising—provides stories, images, and songs that serve as guides and comforts in the travail of growing up.

Of all the arts available to teens, movies are perhaps the most potent. Film utilizes and in many ways heightens several separate artistic elements—story, picture, and melody—and thus carries a kind of cumulative, synergistic clout. The total psychic consequence can surpass the sum of the ingredients. Ear and eye are fully engaged; story, movement, sound—all combine to provide a total experience that is brighter, larger, and louder than life itself.

And the movies are becoming more and more accessible. Hollywood thrives and prospers by figuring out what will appeal to kids and, given the lucrative enticements, is more than eager to chum out film upon film. As the commercial successes of the movies profiled earlier well illustrate, more than small change is at stake.

The market for movies among kids is simply prodigious. According to Gallup, in 1987 the average American teenager between 13 and 17 saw roughly 90 movies. Only about 10 of those were in theaters, a drop of 50 percent from 1985. The rest were viewed at home. Sixty percent of American homes now have a VCR, and another 30 percent receive a pay-cable movie channel (such as HBO). About a third of teens’ movies come from cable movie channels, and another third from rental and purchased videocassettes, a teen market that in three years has more than quadrupled. Hollywood films now earn as much in cable and cassette rental as they do in commercial release.

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At the same time that home viewing is increasing, access to movies with offensive material is getting easier and easier. This is due to a number of factors. For one, a long-time problem, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating code is rarely enforced, allowing just about any junior-high kid to see any film, regardless of content. Movie makers insert questionable material—graphic sex, violence, and language—because they know that kids, who want to feel grown-up, want it. However, when critics complain of moviedom’s irresponsibilities, the filmmakers characteristically take refuge in rating-code enforcement—a willed and convenient delusion if there ever was one. Use of the rating code by those in the industry is a sham: They intentionally ignore it and then, if things get hot, hide behind it.

An additional problem with the code appears in the gradual dilution of its criteria. There has been a definite trend to allow ever-more controversial subject matter into the next lowest rating category—thus to ensure ever-larger audiences. R-rated material has become acceptable as PG or PG-13. This stands out most clearly in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and Gremlins, the two films that occasioned the creation of the PG-13 category. Spielberg and crew apparently thought that his sado-mayhem was just fine for the youngsters and bristled under the limitations on audience that an R rating afforded.

The tendency of the rougher material to seep down into the next-lower niche becomes even clearer when looking at two once-controversial R-rated films of the past. Both The Graduate (1967) and The Godfather (1972), initially condemned for their boldness, would today receive a PG-13 rating, if not, with slight alteration, a flat PG. And the list, sad to say, could go on and on. The only films now meriting an X are those that display the anatomical details of coitus—witness, if you must, the wretched 9½ Weeks, Angel Heart, or Fatal Attraction, all rated R despite frequent and graphic sexual content.

What nominal restraint the rating code exerts in theaters disappears altogether in video stores, where code enforcement, except for X, is virtually nonexistent. In big cities and small towns, with at least one video store per commercial half-mile, very young kids can rent virtually any film, from sex romps to slasher and war-gore flicks. Retail and mail-order pornography floats freely among the same young clientele. And if kids do not see it at night with parents home, they do during summer days while parents work. Furthermore, what rental outlets do not provide, cable movie channels, such as Cinemax and Showtime, are glad to furnish.

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What this all adds up to is that curious kids usually find a way to see what they wish to see. Going to the movies—any of them—has become less and less difficult, though more risky.

Teaching Violence

Perhaps one theme or image ties together all the kid movies listed at the start, and it provides ample cause for alarm. That common motif, simply put, is the relish of a coercive violence—a violence that is, more often than not, insistently sexual in focus.

At the center of the Christian account of creation, in its grand vision of intimacy and harmony arising from the inmost heart of God, lies a deep aversion toward, and a fundamental ban on, violence and violation. In our lost Eden, mutuality and care infused the very texture of being, a posture of reverence and adoration toward every living creature. Neither violence, pain, nor death had any place.

Carnage, hurt, and dying now form the chief interest in almost all pictures made for children between the ages of 10 and 20. To be sure, violence has always been a strong component in American film, especially in Westerns and gangster pictures. Still, the nature and purpose of the violence depicted has radically changed. Cowboys and private eyes did what they had to with their weapons, but behind the violence lay concern and care for justice and for the defenseless. And in those old movies, the hero’s violence was always self-defensive and socially necessary, a way of keeping away a malignant, devouring chaos. The hero’s code provided for force, but the motive was always protective, and its actual use was reluctant and restrained, only enough to subdue foes. The more realistic the violence became, the more likely the film was to depict its social and emotional consequences.

By any estimate, a sea change has taken place in the climate of entertainment—not only in kid movies but in music and pro sports. Violence is now portrayed as pleasurable. Rambo kills with relish, again and again, pleasurably defusing his pent-up anger. Whether as a modern cop, Dirty Harry, or in the old West, as in Pale Rider and countless others, Clint Eastwood kills eagerly, promising his victims that their death will “make my day.”

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The same spirit infects our comedy. In the Beverly Hills Cop series, Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley “blows away” all villains, and physically and verbally humiliates everyone in sight, friend and foe alike. The same applies to Murphy’s comedy concert films, such as Raw, in which he utters more than 500 expletives, offers a constant derision of women, and encourages a homophobia that falls just short of promoting violence.

As violence is portrayed more positively and provoked with less and less motivation, as in the slasher films, it is ever more graphically depicted, both visually and verbally. In the recent and very popular Robocop, an R-rated film pitched to kids, a group of sado-thugs using shotguns methodically shoots off a captured police officer’s hand, then blows off his arm at the shoulder, riddles his torso with salvos (the bulletproof vest he wears allows them to do it for some time), and then kills him with a bullet to the forehead. When the “dead” officer is transplanted into a new sort of mechanical policeman, Robocop, he, or it, goes after thieves with similar excess and abandon.

Slasher films exhibit every conceivable sort of mutilation and direct most of it toward women. With knives as phallic surrogates, predatory sexual assault forms the chief narrative interest: Who will get killed next and how, and how will the “monster” finally be defeated (they never die)? Body counts for a single film range from 4 to 20. The level of brutality astounds at times and is generally made to seem fun. Since the monsters are always male, sexual arousal mixes with the pleasure of assault.

The experimental research of numerous social scientists, most notably Edward Donnerstein, has shown with some certainty that aggressive violent sexuality, as depicted in the slasher films, has measurable short-term consequences on male attitudes toward violence toward women. Researchers of the effects of watching violent pornography, a category into which the slasher films fall, agree that the material (1) reduces college-age males’ sympathy for rape victims, (2) increases their willingness to coerce women sexually, (3) increases levels of anger, and (4) “disinhibits” its expression, toward women generally. When films offer a mix of sex and violence—always from the point of view of a crazed male aggressor—those movies effectively model and advocate aggressive male sexuality.

That much researchers feel quite comfortable in asserting. We can only wonder, for example, about long-term exposure of violent pornography to pubescent boys. If viewed repeatedly, as much of this material is, by those whose notion of sexual relations is just forming, this stuff may prove a particularly volatile conditioning apparatus. Psychically and socially corrosive attitudes and practices can become deeply embedded. The movies’ message is more than clear: It’s all right and fun to hurt women to get what every male desires and deserves. To be sure, not many boys will grow up to be crazed rapists and murderers, but the spread of violent films will certainly spread hurt and suffering in the fraying of our social fabric.

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These findings of modern social science on the effects of mixing violence and sex only reinforce what the moral and spiritual traditions of Judaism and Christianity have argued all along. Images and stories do shape the mind, mood, and imagination, and influence thought and behavior. But now we have movies that make obscene stuff seem feasible, interesting, and heartfelt—erotica with a punch and a slash, and its point is the pleasure of watching and inflicting pain.

Violence for kids has long been standard fare on television, and ample evidence suggests its very real dangers. Now with the advent of the VCR and easy access to extreme graphic violence and violent sexuality, its impact seeps ever deeper and more widely into our homes and into our children.

Getting Kids to Watch Good Movies

Given ten bucks and the car keys on a Friday night, most teenagers will head for the cinema or the video store. They probably won’t see Hamlet, either. Chances are, they will end up watching something shallow, sexually exploitative, and gratuitously violent. Concern over such movies can lead adults to overreact, condemning all films.

But there are lots of great films available, especially on videotape. The trick is getting kids to watch them. Teenagers and preteens tend to choose films from a few tried and true genres—horror, comedy, science fiction, action, and sexploitation. As a teacher, I used to spend a lot of time decrying such fare, but it didn’t have much effect on my Christian high-school students.

The best solution I found was to take them to good films myself. I looked for films with serious intentions that examined the human condition. Yet serious films often deal with historical, political, or cultural themes that are too obscure for young people to understand. Here is where the adult must help out.

For instance, the Oscar-winning movie The Last Emperor is a compelling story, magnificently staged and masterfully executed. After seeing it at a press screening, I decided to take all my juniors and seniors. It had what teenagers like in a movie—action, romance, drama, and visual spectacle. But it also dealt with important historical and spiritual themes.

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Before we went, I asked them what they knew about China, which was almost nothing. So I began with a map and showed them China’s boundaries and traditional enemies. We discussed the dynasties and the tradition of the emperor. I explained the decay of the Qing dynasty, the emergence of warlords, the invasion by the Japanese, and the civil war between Chiang and Mao.

Because they had some background to work with, my students loved the film. When we discussed it later, they asked penetrating questions and shared thoughtful insights. Many of them even went back with their friends or parents to see it again.

I asked my students if they would have gone to The Last Emperor had I not taken them. Most said no. They said that a long film about a Chinese emperor would surely have lost out to movies like Nightmare on Elm Street 4 or Beverly Hills Cop 2.

I’ve taken high-school students to some sophisticated films over the years. They have seen the three-hour-plus Russian epic, Siberiade, and the Polish masterpiece, A Year of the Quiet Sun.

Young people like to think. They like to be challenged and stretched. But someone has to guide them lovingly. Parents can help by taking their kids to thoughtful, intelligent movies at an early age so they won’t think of movies as pure escape. Forget the concept of a “kid movie” and just look for a good movie.

The best way to choose such a movie is to read film reviews and then do some research. For example, before going to see Lawrence of Arabia, read up on the Ottoman empire in the encyclopedia and look at a map of World War I Arabia. Explain the basic issues to the kids and then see the movie. After the movie, have an informal discussion. Don’t work it to death, but try to take the experience a bit farther.

With some guidance and encouragement, kids can learn to choose movies for content and approach rather than for cheap thrills.

By Stefan Ulstein

Parents And The Movies

There is not an easy path for parents to take. Movies are not easy cultural products to assess. Almost any movie can be made to look good in ads or previews. And critics these days do not offer much help. In fact, few reviewers risk any mention of the nature or necessity of a film’s violence or sexuality. To the contrary, a sort of cutesy violence, however gruesome, as in Gremlins, seems fun and witty, even to critics with estimable reputations.

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Parents must learn to play the role of quiet prophet for their children. Burdensome and painful though it may be, parents should watch the films themselves and work hard to label properly the realities of the screen. In watching the material with their kids later, parents should show their own reactions, speak afterward with candor about plot and images, and when the movie includes questionable material, name the foulness for what it is.

Of course, it is sometimes next to impossible to keep up with the more mobile teenagers, and, as noted earlier, kids have a knack for finding ways to see the movies they want to see. In these cases, it would be profitable to get them to verbalize their experience: What was the plot? How were good and evil portrayed? How did they react to what happened? Did the movie seem true to life? and so on.

Movie audiences, including adults, generally prefer to enjoy rather than reflect on the exact nature of movie content. Consequently, simple verbal description—plain talk—can go a long way in clarifying dubious content.

Summarized and translated into words, the images and content of a lot of films sound less than appealing: dismemberment, torture, evisceration, mutilation, slaughter, massacre, revenge, sadism, hurt, pain, rape, and death. Giving words to what we see can give us a new perspective. Indeed, appetites for certain films might differ radically if advertisements described their actual content—details such as “15 women slowly mutilated in graphic detail,” or “90 Vietnamese killed in delightfully different ways,” or “Monsters and people blended and microwaved.”

Cultures that pander and gorge on violence do not last long (the world before the Flood, Sodom, Rome). God only knows our fate if we further smother the spirit’s capacity for delight in kindness and love. How long can we watch and relish the cruel leer on the tormentor’s face without ourselves turning mean, just plain mean?

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