Entry #4: Half a Cup of Plot and a Dash of Character

In the previous two installments we addressed the medium of the motion picture and the source of the final product, the movie. Although the Halachic discussions begun by both these discourses are far from complete and the questions raised are far from answered, at this time I would like to move towards the more long-term purpose of this column: the critique and analysis of current movies through the lens of Jewish Thought and Law. So, starting with the next entry I will endeavor to do just that. If anyone would like to suggest a movie which he or she feels lends itself to this challenge please e-mail me the title at dhecht@nishma.org and I will consider it. Please limit your suggestions to films which are currently in, or coming soon to, theatres. Eventually, I hope to broaden the options to include older movies but, for now, reviews will be restricted to new releases.

Still, before we move away from this preliminary investigation, there is one more aspect of movies which must be considered from a Halachic perspective, i.e. the content of a movie itself. Let us, for the moment, assume that our Halachic concerns with the movie medium have been reconciled. Similarly, let us say that we have investigated the various sources of movies and have pinpointed the acceptable sources, as per our discussion in the previous entry. We still must consider the content of the particular film. Specifically, we must assess the content of a movie as we would assess the content of any potential source of information or entertainment for both explicitly and implicitly questionable themes and implications.

Furthermore, it is important to understand that the acceptable guidelines established for movie ratings are not always going to be comprehensive enough or even, necessarily, parallel Halachic standards at all. For example, a movie which has no sexual content, violence or explicit language may be rated acceptable for children of all ages but, from a Halachic standpoint, some aspect of the movie's message or plot may appear unacceptable, at the worst, or a waste of time, at the best. And this is bearing in mind the fact that a movie which is deemed a waste of time can no longer fall under the umbrella of purposefulness which we have previously established as a permissibility factor in the overarching question of the movie.

So, given this consideration, let us consider some of the criteria which must be considered in evaluating the content of a given movie. Firstly, there are the aforementioned, and more commonly problematic, concerns with regard to sexual content, violence and language and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:79, actually specifically mentions these three concerns. These are not simply a problem because of the risk of children viewing the film. There is, in Halacha, a concept concerning the cleanliness of one's thoughts. In the Al Chets this is referred to as sins through "Hirhur HaLev," reflections of the heart or mind. Generally, though this sin is most often associated with lustful or depraved thoughts, this confessional point implies that the mind cannot be entirely separated from the realm of Jewish Law. What we think and how we think must be regulated to some extent.

In line with this, the power of the movie must be considered. Halacha demands a belief structure which may be challenged by a movie even on the most subtle level. The smallest detail can infiltrate the public through its inclusion in movies. This is not meant to sound subversive; it is merely a reflection of the power of the medium. Yet, is the answer simply to shut off a film? By then the damage may already be done. Is the answer, thus, never to watch? A more impressive solution may be the strengthening of one's involvement in the movie-watching process. It is simply imperative that Halacha be remembered during and after the viewing. For example, in the movie "The Birdcage" Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play a gay couple. Obviously Halacha does not approve of the homosexual lifestyle as displayed in this film but the film does raise important questions about familial responsibility and the limitations of love. Although I am not saying that this movie is necessarily acceptable, I would argue that a viewer could successfully glean useful philosophical and sociological queries from watching this film, as long as such a viewer could consistently bear in mind the aspects of the film of which Halacha ardently disapproves.

The mind must be involved in order to take what is good and also, as it seems, to shut out what is bad. But how do we know if it's worth it? As movie-making becomes more and more risqué, this question becomes more and more indispensable. Especially in regard to specific content. Plot, character development, theme and even such details as setting or costume design can make a difference. A good filmmaker rarely lets a purposeless detail let slip in front of the camera. In actuality this, ironically, reflects the Halachic realm. A Jew is defined by all the details surrounding himself or herself. Although we do believe in the importance of the soul over the body, Halacha devotes great attention to the physical world as well as the spiritual. We who must pay attention to everything from dress to food to book care can understand the nuanced nature of a movie better than many. So, the Halachic system, likewise, must pay attention to any and all details of content in a film. Therefore, to properly assess the value of a movie's content, it is not enough to involve the raw mind. Knowledge of Halacha is an unquestionably required pre-requisite. The mind, coupled with this knowledge, is the only way to approach the question of a movie's value, in the world of Jewish Law.

Once again, before I finish, I must stress that this cannot simply be a matter of blind, zealous rejection. If, for example, we were to refuse to watch any film in which actors are dressed inappropriately then, with the possible exception of "Twelve Angry Men," no Hollywood film would make the cut. There is a legitimate call for a proper cost-benefit analysis demanding the weighing of what we can benefit against what we can lose. While some rabbi may forbid individuals from taking a leisurely walk on a beach where many are improperly clothed, this same rabbi will find it difficult to forbid someone from going to work where many also are improperly clothed

Of course, on the other hand, some films, no matter how potentially beneficial, simply cannot squeeze past the Halachic content. I might be compelled to argue that American Pie, with its lewd humor and intense sexual content, would pose too many Halachic problems to be okay. (However, it would be, more than anything else, the plot of the film, namely the bet of four high school students to lose their virginity before graduation, which would be my deciding factor and the sequel, with a plot focus on growing up, might actually make the grade.) The point is, each movie must be considered from a variety of angles and one must be cautious in condemnation or commendation.

To conclude then, we have not, by far, exhausted all the necessary aspects which must be weighed, in Halachically valuing a movie, but, I think, we have touched upon enough to embark on some Halachic reviews. In each review I will be looking at the manipulation of the medium, does it bear more of a resemblance to a book or theatre; the source, what do we know about the director, writer, producer and actors and how do they seem to affect the film; and, finally, the content of the movie, what aspects of plot and setting reflect Halachic values, which do not and when is there too much that is anti-Halachic to make the film unacceptable? As you may have already noticed, these three criteria do easily bleed into each other and I probably won't address them all explicitly but they will be the implicit yardstick by which I shall judge each film.

If anyone would like to discuss this entry, suggest a film for review, or contribute to my present list of criteria please contact me at dhecht@nishma.org.

Dodi-Lee Hecht

© 2005 NISHMA