A trip to the video store is a little like searching for a diamond in a vat of pig slop. You know there's something good in there somewhere, but is finding it worth wallowing through all that muck?
My wife and I crave adult entertainment now and then. Not adult in the genre of, say, Showgirls, but adult in terms of a movie that isn't a cartoon musical and doesn't feature annoyingly cute kids or a dog that shoots free throws with his nose. Trouble is, there isn't much out there that doesn't slap at our sensibilities and values.
Our friends, Lincoln and Ann, married three years, face the same dilemma. They sometimes rent movies and don't consider themselves prudish. Yet a fixed standard is hard to determine.
"If you don't let a couple of things like swearing slide, then there's nothing to rent," Lincoln says. "What if you were to set a standard going by the Bible, which says 'whatever is right, whatever is pure … think about such things'? If you were to take that [standard] into the video store, I don't think you'd walk out with anything."
Hmm. Do I stop writing here and just end with "Thus saith the Lord"? Some couples we know take that position on movies, and I can't say it's an unhealthy approach.
Here's the thing, though: my wife and I really enjoy watching movies together. And so do a lot of other couples we know. With a little effort, we can find titles we agree on that actually enhance our relationship. High prices generally keep us away from the theater, but once in a while we enjoy curling up and watching a video together. Makes for a cheap date, even with the microwave popcorn thrown in.
But even though video dates bring spouses together, they also drag us into a gray area: when it comes to entertainment, what's appropriate and what isn't? Is it okay to watch Mel Gibson splitting open an enemy's head in Braveheart? Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep engaging in an extramarital affair in The Bridges of Madison County? A convicted murderer, played by Sean Penn, spewing foul-mouthed bigotry when befriended by a nun in Dead Man Walking?
All of those films, depending on whom you ask, have something positive to offer adult viewers. And every one of them, according to other observers, contain material inappropriate for anyone with a conscience.
"Every couple is different, but the one thing you can agree on is that we don't have that much time to spend together," says Michael Medved, radio talk show host, former cohost of PBS's "Sneak Previews" and author of the book Hollywood vs. America (HarperCollins). "If we decide to spend time watching something, let's limit it to something that might enrich our lives—maybe it makes us laugh, teaches us about history or just broadens our sense of what it means to be alive."
At this point, I was afraid to tell him how much I'd enjoyed Dumb and Dumber.
Engage Your Brain
Where does a couple searching for a reliable standard begin?
"My standard would be discernment, not denial," says Ted Baehr, publisher and editor in chief of Movieguide, a magazine that rates movies in light of artistic merit and moral acceptability. "Be informed before you go. Make sure what you're going to see is what you want to see. That can get lost in all the media hype and peer pressure."
Quentin Schultze, professor at Calvin College and author of several books on Christians and the media, advises couples not to just wander through a video store and choose something they've never heard of, based on the box's description.
"My wife and I tend to research films pretty well before we rent them," he says. "To just squander time on some meaningless two-hour video is worthless."
And, once you're settled into your theater seat or living-room couch, don't shut off your brain. Theater patrons used to throw rotten vegetables at the actors when the performance stunk. Baehr doesn't suggest a trip to the produce aisle on the way to the movies, but he does recommend watching everything with a critical eye.
"Don't be so open-minded that your brain falls out," he suggests. That might mean shutting off a video or walking out of a theater if a film turns out to be garbage. Escapism is one thing; exposing yourselves to something that assaults your values and sensibilities is quite another. Better to have wasted a little money than to burn a damaging image into your memory.
What you do in the time immediately following a movie is just as important. "My wife and I always discuss what we view. Always," Schultze says. "We feel it has to be processed through our relationship."
Well sure, it's his job to study and teach others about the media. But what Schultze is recommending is a tough assignment for most of us ordinary people, especially guys. "Women naturally want to discuss what they've watched," he acknowledges. "Men tend to burn up a lot of family discretionary time watching stuff that they discuss very little."
Well, just how deep a conversation can you have after watching The Road Warrior on the late, late show? But guys, you can score major points by initiating a good conversation after movies you've watched with your wife. "It says 'I love you' to a wife," Schultze contends.
He offers, as an example, The Bridges of Madison County, a film avoided by many because it romanticizes adultery. "My view was that it was a stupid movie," Schultze says. "It was stupid for her [Meryl Streep's character, Francesca] to seek that relationship outside of marriage. My wife didn't see it that way. She said the woman's emotional needs were being totally unmet by her husband. That conversation led me to be far more sensitive in meeting my wife's emotional needs."
While agreeing that adultery is wrong, Schultze and his wife differed on the film's nuances. My wife and I have had our own differences of opinion while wandering around in video stores. Let's see, do we choose Sense and Sensibility or senseless violence? Terms of Endearment or The Deer Hunter? Sabrina or Mortal Kombat?
I'm not a big fan of senseless violence. But, truth be told, I would sooner spend an evening jamming toothpicks under my fingernails than endure Sense and Sensibility. Thankfully—and here's where I enjoy an advantage over a lot of guys—my wife also would choose the toothpicks. She does, however, heavily favor romantic comedies. But me watch Sleepless in Seattle? Just wake me when it's over.
So we do our best to find films that appeal to us both. For me, Father of the Bride had just enough slapstick humor to defeat its formidable mush factor. And—I believe I get bonus points for this—I was able to remain fully alert throughout While You Were Sleeping.
"Men and women are different," Medved notes. "Any couple that is going to be successful is going to acknowledge that difference. You won't always agree on entertainment choices."
Lincoln and Ann found that out early in their marriage. "If I'm going to feel uncomfortable watching it with Ann, then I probably shouldn't watch it," Lincoln says. "I liked The Untouchables, but I know it would just appall Ann because of the violence."
Medved thinks the easiest ones for husbands and wives to agree on are old movies like Casablanca, It Happened One Night or The Philadelphia Story. "That was at a time when Hollywood was making movies for everybody, not for niche markets," he says. "Also, those movies have passed the test of time."
Ratings help a little, but only a little. It's difficult to find a PG-13 that doesn't attack at least one area of our sensibilities. On the other hand, careful movie viewers still find the occasional R-rated film that makes important statements about courage, justice or mercy.
Medved named a few: Grand Canyon (a film about race relations, rated R because of the language); The Ice Storm (a bleak film that ends with a strong pro-family message); and—this one might surprise you—Fatal Attraction (a story about adultery that can scare the viewer into monogamy). Rejecting a film because it's rated R might be a good general standard, but remember the primary motivation behind the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings system: audience attraction.
"I don't think ratings have any relevance to what the movie has to offer," Baehr says flatly.
Now for the touchiest subject: what about movies that might serve as an appetizer for an evening of lovemaking? I'm not talking about X-rated stuff, but R-rated or foreign films with some nudity or simulated sex. Do these have anything positive to offer?
Medved calls them "sexual catnip" and doesn't see the value. "What you're dealing with in a lot of these," he says, "is just a silicon festival. Movies use so many tricks. All the big stars have body doubles … someone with the perfect breasts, someone else with the perfect legs. Nobody can live up to that."
Medved echoes the advice of Christian marriage counselors who caution against turn-ons that don't focus exclusively on your mate. "You're often excited for the wrong reasons," he says. "It is not ideal by any means, when you are having intimate moments, to be thinking about someone else."
Even if a man isn't imagining himself in bed with Sharon Stone, he might come to expect unrealistic sexual energy and body proportions from his wife. Likewise, Schultze says, a woman might watch a romantic comedy and expect an unrealistic level of emotional intimacy from her husband. Those two fantasies leave both partners disappointed, he warns.
And guys, beware. Baehr cites studies showing that a big reason for the rise of sexual impotence is that more and more men need the stimulation of pornography to get ready for sex. Why invite future problems? Keep destructive elements out of your sex life.
"The most romantic movies are the milder ones," Baehr says. "That goes along with what we know: the primary condition for a good and healthy sexual relationship is a good and healthy psychological relationship." In other words, films that focus not on the mechanics of sex, but on the mechanics of love relationships.
Schultze's favorite in that "milder" category is the Australian film Strictly Ballroom. "If you're in love with someone," he says, "you can't help but love them more after watching that film."
For Schultze, the appropriateness of sex in movies depends on the context. He says he and his wife can be comfortable, for example, with a film that depicts sex within a marriage relationship—although he realizes that's rare in today's movies. In fact, he couldn't come up an example among recently released films, but he mentioned Much Ado about Nothing as one where nudity early-on didn't keep him and his wife from thinking it was a great movie.
Lincoln and Ann don't agree with the "marrieds-only" standard for cinematic sex. "A sex scene is a sex scene," Lincoln says. "To me, it violates the standard of not letting something like that into my head." Ann adds: "Just because they're married doesn't mean you have to watch them."
"I support other people in their standards," Schultze answers. "We are all as created by God different, and we have to respect those differences. … You have to know your spouse well and your children well. You all have to look out for each other's interests. And you follow the biblical principle of always protecting the weaker person."
Looking out for each other's interests might mean simply watching fewer movies. If we'd cut back, maybe we wouldn't run out of the good ones so quickly. Medved emphasizes that movies should be a much more limited part of our lives than they are. Lincoln and Ann agree.
"We're so busy that if we have any time to spend together we don't want to spend it watching a movie," Ann says. "I've found that when we have more time together is when we'll watch a movie. But when we're busy, and we finally get a night, we feel like we should do something where we communicate."
Bottom line: when you do watch movies, engage your brain. Talk before you watch—and afterward. Know where your standards lie as a couple. Recognize and avoid potentially destructive influences on your marriage and your spiritual life.
And don't be afraid to stand up and throw vegetables once in a while.
Jim Killam is a journalism instructor at Northern Illinois University. He and his wife, Lauren, have been married 13 years.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.