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Movies Forgotten

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For those who hold to the Christian worldview, or perhaps the traditional value system of the west, an interesting study can be made of the Motion Picture Production Code, which was in force from the 1930’s until 1968 in the U.S.  This Code and the reaction against it serves as an American microcosm of a familiar theme in Western Culture, that of the “emancipation of the artist.”   The idea of the artist as an autonomous individual who is answerable to no one except his own expression or vision is now commonly accepted by many, and is almost a sort of “sacred ideal” for those who practice and teach the arts.  Historically however, this has not always been the case, and the Motion Picture Production Code serves as a good example.

The Code was adopted by the motion picture industry without any government oversight, and was a form of self-regulation to avoid such oversight.  Briefly, the Code followed these three “general principles”:

1.  No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2.  Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3.  Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

In the “applications” section more details are provided such as banning the ridicule of religion (specifically Jews and Christians, including ministers), forbidding references to deviant sexual behavior (homosexuality, incest etc…), mandating that adultery must always be portrayed in a negative light, and ensuring that murder scenes should discourage imitators and not be shown in detail.  This is a fairly small representative sample, and the full list can be found here.

As pointed out by Chuck Colson at Breakpoint, Peter Dans writes that “enforcement of the Code brought about the “Golden Age of Film.” Requiring moviemakers to exercise restraint “was, on balance, beneficial to the creative process,” he says. This seems to be demonstrated by most “top 100” movie lists, with only 20 of the top 100 on AMC’s list being made after 1968. Colson goes on to state that, “If modern films are largely inferior, maybe it’s because filmmakers have lost the art of storytelling—along with their grounding in a view of life that fits with the structure of reality. Instead, they offer false claims of salvation—along with graphic sex and violence to titillate instead of challenging the imaginations of their viewers.”

For other western parallels, one only need to study the ways in which Christian governments in Europe adopted similar standards in venues such as the theater, especially in places such as the Hapsburg Empire or Reformation-era Switzerland.  Another limiting element were the ways by which artists were employed.  For example, until the 19th century (with very few exceptions) composers of music were either employed by the Church or the court, meaning certain moral and artistic standards were expected to be followed.  Like the “Golden Age of Film,” referenced above, some of the greatest music was written in such circumstances, such as the music of Bach in the churches of Germany or the music of Haydn at the Esterhazy court.

It seems then, at least historically, that some form of moral and artistic standards have served to encourage creativity, instead of  inhibiting it.  Under the idea of “freedom of expression,” one must ask if this freedom has helped or harmed the arts, and if the creations during this period of “freedom” challenge or surpass those of a “code-era.”  While I accept the fact that there are troublesome implications regarding an enforcement mechanism, it seems that for artistic purposes, let alone biblical purposes, some form of “code” can be a good thing. Any thoughts or responses?


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