Moral Nostalgia and the Movies

This post was inspired by A teenager speaks on new movie standards.

In her recent discussion of the current state of movies, and particularly award winning movies, Camila B. states that she is concerned about “movies throughout the decades and the negative changes that I have noticed.” She then goes on to lament that “the corruption viewed daily by millions of people is disgusting.”

The remainder of her post is pure nostalgia for the “good old days” when “movies portrayed beautiful messages, filled with great acting and baroque orchestral pieces that penetrated deep in to your core. These movies brought laughter with wit and romance with subtlety; they brought morality. It saddens me that we have lost that throughout the years.”

She closes with “My only request is to come out of a movie theater without feeling awkward, confused, and dirty. I would love to feel refreshed and glad to have watched something that has inspired me for once. For now, Ill just stick to the movies of previous decades until something new comes along.”

After reading her post, I am left to wonder, 1) should I really believe the word of a teenager about what was or wasn’t true in the world of movies and entertainment “throughout the decades,”, 2) is moral nostalgia part of human nature, or is it more a function of social and religious conservatism, 3) really, no uplifting movies in the past 5-6 years of her short life, and 4) what is about the movies that gets Mormons all tied up in knots?

What is moral nostalgia? It’s simply the view that life and society was more moral in the past than it is today. Unfortunately, moral nostalgia simply isn’t true. It’s not true of society in generally, and it’s certainly not true when applied to Hollywood.

Movies have always pushed the boundaries of what is socially acceptable even the 40s and 50s, those days of social conservatism that so many Mormons wish they were still living in.

Consider the following list of movies, all of which were nominated for best picture in the 40s and 50s (winners in bold, controversial themes in parentheses):

All About Eve, A Streetcar Named Desire (homosexuality, nymphomania, and rape), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (homosexuality, frank sexual dialogue),The Apartment (adultery, suicide), A Place in the Sun (murder, using sex to advance ones social standing),From Here to Eternity (beach sex scene), Anatomy of a Murder (rape/murder).

All of these movies were controversial to some degree or other, because of content that was felt to be outside of social norms. Yet, today they are considered fairly mild, even by Mormon standards. In 1939 censors even pushed to change the line, Frankly my dear, I dont give a damn. Yet, Camila and other Mormons forget this, because the movies appeal to their sense of what is moral, at this time.

A few years ago there was a great discussion here about the nature of sex and violence in the movies (Rated R ‘just for violence”). And just this week a discussion about the use of F-word in The King’s Speech at Wheat and Tares (The Kings F#!$@ Speech). While these discussions don’t rely upon moral nostalgia to make any points, they do reflect the importance of movies in society. As well as the importance of choosing the movies we, and our children, subject ourselves to. They simply reflect how movies affect us in the here and now.

That’s the beauty of movies (and other art); no matter when they were created, they can have an effect upon our present. And that’s what’s wrong with moral nostalgia and the movies, we project our current morals and standards on movies of bygone eras and say, “Look! These movies are uplifting and contain nothing objectionable. Why can’t they make movies like that anymore?” But we forget that morals and standards have changed, and that in 50 years people will look back at The Black Swan and say, “They don’t make movies like they used to, do they?”

(n.b. Kuri, a frequent commenter here, posts his own rebuttal of Camila B. as well.)

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9 Responses

  1. The movies may have gotten better at shocking us with violence and immorality, but they have also gotten better at inspiring us with moral themes. Frankly, no movie of the fifties even comes close to having the moral gravitas of films such as My Name Is Khan, Amazing Grace, and John Q, to name just a few. What we’ve seen over the past fifty years is not the de-moralization of the cinema, but the escalation and intensification of all its impulses, good as well as bad.

  2. Seth R. says:

    I remember watching Silence of the Lambs once while I was attending BYU as an undergrad.

    Gripping. Absolutely gripping. I watched the whole thing and went to bed thoroughly unsettled and disturbed.

    I could immediately see why the movie had won Best Picture at the Oscars, and why Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar as well. I completely agreed with the decision.

    And I wished then, and still wish to this day, that I had never watched the film.

  3. Holly says:

    You want to be well and truly shocked by a movie, watch “The Dam Busters” from 1955. It’s based on a true story about British military efforts in WWII. One accurate detail is that there is a black dog who plays a role in the action, and it’s name is Ni–er. I watched the entire movie and not once did I fail to wince at hearing the dog called cheerfully: “C’mere, Ni–er! Here! Good boy!”

  4. simplysarah says:

    I remember one of my final Sundays at church (years ago). The RS presidency was announcing an upcoming movie-night activity for our singles ward, and promised that the movie would be Disney since last time the PG movie had offended some people. I sat and wondered if this was the kind of people I really wanted to be around, people so easily offended by words or the thought of an R-rated reality. The truth is, I didn’t.

    I am not one who likes gratuitous violence or being disturbed for the sake of being disturbed, but I find myself provoked to thoughtfulness and reflection by many movies that are also upsetting and or disturbing. For example, I recently watched “Traffic” for the first time and felt sad that it was not a movie I could discuss with my family. Movies like this contain harsh language and content, but also push me to question, consider different perspectives, and work for a better future.

    They simply don’t inspire me to celebrate immorality, as the naive might suggest.

  5. Ms. Jack says:

    Last year, as I was doing research for a paper, I came across this account in Covenant books on women.

    Olga Lindborg served as the director of Children’s Work for the Evangelical Mission Covenant Church of America (i. e. what my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, used to call itself) from 1928 until her death in 1945. Though born in America, she was the daughter of Swedish immigrants and fluent in both English and Swedish at a time when the Covenant was wrestling with its dual identity, so her services in Primary education and writing Sunday School curricula in both languages were very valuable to the Covenant at the time.

    What was controversial among Christians at the time wasn’t what type of movies were okay to watch; it was the invention of cinema itself. Christians looked on cinema with a wary eye, convinced that films would become a gateway drug to immorality and decadence. In 1929, Lindborg published a controversial article in the January 29 issue of Frbundets Vechotidning arguing that films could be used by Christians for “the advancement of edification and righteousness.” She wrote:

    There are probably several different ways by which we may clean up the art of the cinema. And surely there will be a battle! For no one with a zeal for righteousness can tolerate the art as it is now, for the most part, reveals itself in theaters and lecture halls. The protest against the corruption must be strong and definite. Unyielding censorship! But in order to work constructively God’s people must truly make use of the art of film making themselves, and not rely on its commercial promoters. Why cannot a film exhort sinners to conversion and provide edification to believers just as really and simply as a sermon or a tract, a song, a lecture, or a book? A new method to be sure! But not at all an unworthy one!

    Lindborg’s article came under heavy fire from others within the Covenant. “It will be a sad discovery for many that Miss Lindborg is so blind that she insists that we must sanctify the film. Sanctify the movie!” scoffed one writer in another Swedish Covenant publication from February 1929. However, Lindborg had her defenders. Eventually the Covenant uneasily sided against her and affirmed that it was against films in general. Lindborg resigned from her position, a move that caused people to reconsider the fire they’d subjected her to. In 1930, she was again elected by a strong majority as Director of Children’s Work for the Covenant, where she served until her death in 1945.

    The point of this history lesson: people are always afraid of what’s new and makes them uncomfortable, looking to the “good ol’ days” when things were less scary, more comfortable, and supposedly less decadent. I agree that films today have greater amounts of content that a conservative religious person might find objectionable, but I also think films today are much better than the movies of yesteryear (which almost always, without fail, bore me immensely, even the “good ones”).

    And hey, once upon a time, being against films altogether was the conservative religious thing to do. Thinking that, with the aid of heavy censorship, films could be used to uplift and edify was “liberal” and progressive. Our teenage friend just needs to get a wider perspective, but cut her some slack. She is a teenager.

    Personally, my own teenage self wouldn’t even touch a PG-13 rating.

  6. Chino Blanco says:

    Any fans of Sidney Lumet? Why can’t they make movies like that anymore?

  7. Macha says:

    Refreshing and Inspiring movies made in recent years:

    The Bucket List, Up, August Rush, 7 Pounds, The Kids are Alright, The King’s Speech, Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, The Young Victoria, Avatar, Julie & Julia, The Blind Side, Wall-E, Slumdog Millionaire

    These are just from the last few years. Seriously.

    Furthermore, somebody needs to explain to this person the difference between objective fact and subjective opinion. As I said on Kuri’s post, I saw Black Swan and actually did feel inspired by Nina’s ability to overcome her psychological and emotional problems in order to escape her mother’s controlling abuse, to let go of all her neuroses in order to create a masterpiece of a performance. And just like the story of Swan Lake, I was inspired by the poetic beauty of the heroine finding peace and freedom in death. I felt that it did in fact have a moral message about the abuse of children by parents thinking they have a right to have intimate knowledge of, and involvement in, their children’s lives.

    But on a more serious note, I want more Brat Pack. What happened to movies about the trials and travails of high school freaks and geeks?

  8. Buffy says:

    “is moral nostalgia part of human nature, or is it more a function of social and religious conservatism”

    It’s more a function of social and religious conservatism. Throughout history social and religious conservatives have been decrying the horrors of modern life (whatever it might have been at the time) and extolling the virtues of “the good old days”. If only people would go back to Traditional Values we could all live in bliss and harmony again.

    “My only request is to come out of a movie theater without feeling awkward, confused, and dirty.”

    In other words,she wants movies that give her a sanitized, G-rated, whitewashed version of the world so her sensibilities won’t be offended and her mind won’t be challenged. In her world “Leave it to Beaver” was an accurate portrait of life in the 1950s. Everyone knows gay people, sex, violence, atheists, swear words, non-whites and the like don’t exist in *real* life–at least not in wholesome “Mainstream Amurka”. So why is Hollywood foisting them on the movie-going public?

  9. Seth R. says:

    I like to think that people are capable of choosing how they will be challenged by a piece of entertainment on their own.

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