Full Interview with Jonathan Decker, author of 250 Great Movies for Latter-Day Families, which we reviewed here.
SR: What started your love for movies?
Decker: I can trace it directly to Christopher Reeve as Superman. Those films fired my young imagination and I was, in retrospect, drawn to both the escapism and the inspiration for good that cinema can provide. Plus, he could fly! Add John William’s rousing and iconic score, and what little boy wouldn’t be mesmerized? Other obsessions soon followed. My dad got me into Westerns. I got hooked on Star Wars, Jaws, Indiana Jones, The Princess Bride, Back to the Future, and all the other amazing stuff from that era.
SR: Did you search for moral messages in film before hearing Pres. Monson’s talk citing Camelot?
D: I did, but not as consistently as I do now. It wasn’t until 2008’s The Dark Knight that I started making a habit of looking for moral messages with practical applications in order to share them with people. Meridian Magazine ran a review of that film by someone who labeled it as terribly immoral. In the comments section I wrote a lengthy rebuttal arguing why I found it be one of the strongest morality tales in years. They encouraged me to flesh out my comment as a full article and offered me a gig as an entertainment columnist, which I’ve been doing for five years now.
SR: What inspired you to compile this book?
D: In 2006 I went to see One Night with the King, which was an independent film about the biblical heroine Esther. It had some pacing issues and moments of eye-rolling melodrama, but it was lush and epic and ultimately very inspiring. The theater was almost empty; it made me sad that so many people who say that “they don’t make em’ like they used to” weren’t even aware of this movie. I had the very strong impression that these were the types of films I should be seeking out and sharing with others. The book is the natural outgrowth of the idea that cinema could be used to inspire integrity, courage, selflessness, and other virtues. I wanted to compile a resource of films that are more than “clean:” they’re well-produced, well-acted, entertaining, and have something to say.
SR: What makes a film ‘pure, lovely, and virtuous’ for you?
D: If it inspires me to be a better person it fits the bill.
SR: As you mentioned [in the book], we often look for what is absent, generally connected to the MPAA rating and reasoning for it- what role should a movie’s rating play in determining whether a film is good?
D: The MPAA ratings system is so flawed that it’s almost useless by now. So many animated films get a PG when they deserve a G. Truly raunchy movies like Rock of Ages get a PG-13 while uplifting masterpieces like Slumdog Millionaire get an R. Sites like my own, as well as kidsinmind.com and others, make it possible for people to research a film’s content in detail and in advance. The only use I have for MPAA ratings is, if a film is rated higher than a PG, that’s an indicator for me to do some research before I decide to go.
SR: Do you feel like people ‘outsource’ their responsibility to the MPAA, trusting them to give a reliable report of what makes a ‘good’ movie?
D: To some extent. The late Elder H. Burke Peterson (a marvelous man and my grandfather, it so happens) taught that “our standards should not be dictated by the ratings system” (Touch Not the Evil Gift nor the Unclean Thing, October 1993 General Conference). In that same talk he warned about R-rated and many PG-13 rated movies, of course, but the point remains that the MPAA isn’t the final word. The standards of the Church, our own research on a particular film, and the guidance of the Spirit should be our barometers.
SR: How do you balance difficult content and worthwhile moral messages? How much is too much? For example The Dark Knight, a film you and I find inspiring and hopeful, but for others is too dark.
D: The current edition of For the Strength of the Youth encourages us to seek out uplifting entertainment, but also seems to forbid anything with a whiff of violence, profanity, or suggestive content. How does one navigate that? I was helped tremendously by something Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught:
“As a General Authority it is my responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules…But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord” (The Dedication of a Lifetime, CES Fireside, May 1 2005).
I think that particular doctrine has tremendous practical application when it comes to media. For example, we’re dissuaded from watching media that is “violent…in any way” or “presents violence…as acceptable” (For the Strength of Youth- Entertainment and Media], yet several films produced by the Church have depictions of violence. Zealotry would then lead us to avoid The Testaments because Christ is whipped and crucified, The Whole Armor of God because it has a deadly swordfight, Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration because of the assassination at Carthage, the video about Captain Moroni because it has soldiers shot with arrows and a scalping, and O Ye Fair Ones because it has rivers flowing with the blood and corpses of Nephites and Lamanites.
There are two ways to interpret this supposed incongruity. The first is that the Brethren are hypocrites who don’t know their own doctrine. I don’t subscribe to that personally. The second is to accept them as prophets and apostles (which I do), believing in the doctrine that there are exceptions to some rules (including media content) and that we are responsible to the Lord for our choices.
This means that the context of the content matters, as does the maturity of the audience. The Testaments uses violence to increase our appreciation for the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The Joseph Smith film awes us with the prophet’s courage in giving his life for the cause. The Captain Moroni film portrays the man’s integrity and mercy, as well as his righteousness in protecting the innocent and defending freedom. The other films mentioned show the tragic consequences of turning our backs on God. None of these movies use violence to promote revenge or wanton destruction. None of them deaden our sense of compassion or encourage us to act out aggressively; quite the opposite in fact. Context matters.
SR: You don’t review any R-rated movies. Why?
D: Many members of the Church adhere, to the letter, to the teachings of a prophet of God (President Benson) and several other General Authorities who have spoken against viewing R-rated movies. I respect and that and write for my target audience by not reviewing R-rated films. Also, I avoid a lot of things I’d rather not see by (generally) avoiding R-rated movies personally.
That isn’t to say I’ve never selectively chosen to watch an R-rated movie. The doctrine taught by Elder Oaks applies here, in my opinion: there are exceptions to some rules, and I am accountable for how I use my agency. I think the R-rated rule is a good baseline because generally the rating signifies excessive and gratuitous content. On a few occasions I’ve done my research and chosen to see an R-rated film, such as Slumdog Millionare, The Passion of the Christ, and 3:10 to Yuma. All three were powerful and tremendously uplifting. I did not regret seeing them. On the flip side, I regularly skip PG-13 movies based on their content.
Films designed to titillate I’ll skip, regardless of the rating. My conscience sits better after Schindler’s List than Austin Powers in Goldmember, no matter what the MPAA slaps on the box. I try (imperfectly) to follow the counsel of John Wesley’s mother, who told him to “avoid whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, and increases the authority of the body over the mind.”
That’s my take on the matter. Some people are more strict, others are more lenient, and I don’t judge them either way. We all have to “work out our own salvation.” My views may or may not evolve over time, but I feel good about them. But again, on my site I only review PG-13 films and below. In the book I’ve tried to do something more inclusive by recommending only those films which I feel most members of the Church can agree upon, so I was very selective with the PG-13’s and have a lot of PG’s and G’s. There’s a lot of great ones that everyone can enjoy. So much so that I’d love to do a second book.
SR: Five favorite movies?
D: So hard to do! How about I give one favorite for each genre? Action: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Comedy: The Court Jester. Drama: Glory. Romance: Roman Holiday. Romantic Comedy: Tangled. Silent Film: Charly Chaplin’s City Lights. Sci-Fi: Serenity. Fantasy: The Lord of the Rings. Western: 3:10 to Yuma. Musical: Fiddler on the Roof. Horror: Jaws. Animated: The Incredibles. Documentary: Lord, Save Us From Your Followers. Foreign: Life is Beautiful. Martial Arts: Any Hong Kong Jackie Chan movie from the 70’ 80’s, or 90’s. Religious: The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. Mormon Cinema: States of Grace. Church-Made: To This End Was I Born.
SR: I loved your section on “Why Artistry Matters,” as I’ve often had similar complaints of good values being found largely in ‘cheesy’ movies. Why do you think ‘good’ movies often drift towards the ‘cheesy’?
D: “Uplifting” and “wholesome” have erroneously become code for “sunshiney” and “non-demanding.” It’s a misconception. Brigham Young taught, about the media of his day, that the stage can aid the pulpit in edifying a community by portraying the contrast between good and evil. Too much cinema tries so hard to be “good” that it fails to portray evil, or at least to portray it realistically. This often leads to weak, spineless storytelling that has no power. It comes across as fake and cheesy. In life, however, there is no righteousness without wickedness, no strength without conflict, no integrity without temptation. In my opinion many of the best stories take viewers to a dark place in order to contrast it with the light.
That’s why The Dark Knight is so powerful to me. For two hours it’s darkness, fear, and despair. Only in the last half hour do Batman and the citizens of Gotham take back their own movie, but that’s exactly the point. Those first two hours give meaning to the last 30 minutes, because the courageous altruism comes after everyone’s morality has been tested to the limit. The Joker loses; his attempts to make others abandon goodness have failed.
Of course, I understand that for many persons the menace and violence (both shown and implied) is too extreme in that film, and I respect that. I’ve chosen not to include it in the book for that reason (again, I’m trying to feature only films that most Latter-day Saints can agree upon). Nevertheless, there are still plenty of powerful, meaningful movies recommended in the book. For example, It’s a Wonderful Life goes to some dark places (alcoholism, attempted suicide, etc) and ultimately brings audiences to a place of hope.
All that said, I enjoy a light and fluffy film as much as anyone as long as it’s well-done. It doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom. I love The Best Two Years, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Shirley Temple’s Little Colonel, for example. All are well made and have great messages, but I wouldn’t call either of them excessively “cheesy.”
SR: What do you hope will be the impact of your book? What will be different for Latter-day families and others that use it?
D: I hope that the book will help readers find wholesome films that everyone will enjoy, but beyond that I hope it’ll help them to both better appreciate the artistry and craft of cinema as well as open the scriptures and have meaningful discussions with each other about inspiring themes, instead of just passively watching movies.
Jonathan Decker is the author of 250 Great Movies for Latter-Day Families and manages the website, mormonmovieguy.com. You can read our review of the book here.