An Enemy of Serious Film Criticism

Rather than a recap/rant about the Oscars (which I did for Relevantmagazine.com), I am going to spend my post today exposing a much more urgent and insidious problem in the world of film criticsm: Ted Baehr and Movieguide.org.

If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Ted Baehr, he is a highly suspicious, frequently self-aggrandizing figure in the world of Christian film criticism. His method of film criticism is of the “how many f-words and sex scenes” variety, and he has a very strange Christian=capitalist bent to everything he writes. For those of us who aspire towards a progressive, insightful, nuanced engagement with film from a Christian perspective, Baehr is a most discouraging figure.

It is especially frustrating that, over the past few weeks, he and his organization have been representing Christian film criticism at large by being allowed to write columns in The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. In these wide platforms, Baehr has played up his usual lines about how family-friendly, G-rated, pro-capitalist films make the most money, and are therefore the best films. If you read the articles, his logic is laughable and his points almost satirical; it’s tragic that this is the Christian critic who is getting the most national media attention.

Anyway, rather than mounting a scathing rebuttal to Baehr’s nonsense (which my editor at Christianity Today did in this insightful blog post), I think it will probably prove the point to just give you some choice quotes from the two recent columns that Baehr and his partner-in-crime, Tom Snyder, authored.

From the Wall Street Journal column, Baehr and Snyder write:

As in past years, films with strong pro-capitalist content — extolling free-market principles or containing positive portrayals of real or fictional businessmen and entrepreneurs — tended to make the most money. The hero of the biggest success of the year, “The Dark Knight,” is a billionaire capitalist who, disguised as Batman, defends Gotham City and its residents from a crazed, anarchistic terrorist criminal. In “Iron Man,” the second-most popular movie with American and Canadian moviegoers in 2008, a capitalist playboy and billionaire defense contractor stops working against the interests of America and its citizens and uses his wealth to defend America and its free-market values.

The box-office receipts of pro-capitalist movies, which also included “Australia,” “City of Ember” and “Bottle Shock” (which extols the virtues of the California wine industry), averaged $152 million per picture in North American theaters. On the whole, they far outperformed movies with strong anticapitalist content. That group, with films such as “Mad Money,” “Chicago 10” and “War, Inc.,” averaged only $5.4 million per picture in North American theaters.

The moneymaking trend was similar for movies with explicit or implicit anticommunist content. That group — including an “An American Carol,” which mocks communism; “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” where Indy reviles communists and their impoverished ideology is exposed; “City of Ember,” where a tyrant steals from the people; and “Fly Me to the Moon,” about the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — averaged $71.8 million at the 2008 box office in America and Canada. By comparison, movies with pro-communist content, such as “Che,” “The Children of Huang Shi,” “Gonzo,” “Trumbo” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” averaged a measly $7.9 million in 2008.

And from the Newsweek article:

Not only did moviegoers prefer heroic movies with very strong moral virtues, they also rejected movies with anti-Christian, secular, nihilistic, and atheist content like “Religulous,” “Adam Resurrected,” “Save Me,” “Wanted,” “Hounddog,” “Bloodline,” “Hamlet 2,” “The Love Guru,” “Stop-Loss,” and “Saw V.”

Furthermore, contrary to popular opinion, 2008 was the year that obscenity, sex and nudity didn’t sell — again. In fact, movies with no foul language, no sex and no explicit nudity earned much more money on average than movies with some foul language, sex and explicit nudity, or a lot of it, by 2 to 1 or more!

Dr. Baehr, I’m sure you are well-intentioned and yes, you are a brother in Christ; but do you really believe what you are saying? The way that you twist and distort statistics to make “your type” of films look the most successful is simply egregious. And seriously: do you think audiences flocked to see The Dark Knight and Iron Man because they featured billionaire protagonists? I mean, couldn’t you argue that people were much more interested in seeing the Joker in The Dark Knight than Bruce Wayne? And the Joker is hardly pro-capitalist. He burned a pile of money!

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15 responses to “An Enemy of Serious Film Criticism

  1. How did Stop-Loss get in with anti-Christian, secular, nihilistic, and atheistic movies? Did I miss the part where being concerned about PTSD = not believing in God?

  2. The first I’d heard of Ted Baehr was Mark Moring’s response you linked to. Baehr’s logic is simply baffling to me. I suppose City of Ember is considered a more worthy film than The Dark Knight due to being both pro-capitalism and anti-communist, as mentioned in the article clip posted.

    Brett, thanks for being a thoughtful and creative critic who can communicate about the redemptive beauty of film by using a more mature framework than counting the f-words. It’s much appreciated.

  3. I agree with Joel — your film criticism is wonderfully mature, nuanced, and thoughtful. I hope you continue to offer your insights to us.

    Other than that, I stopped in to comment because this review could seriously be read verbatim on SNL’s Weekend Update recurring feature, “Really.” Just add a few “really’s” in there for effect, especially toward the end, and you’re good to go!

  4. I actually posted the first comment on that post, after Jeff Overstreet twittered about it. I really don’t get the point of “count the f-words” reviews. The only time those have been helpful to me was when I was a kid, and wanted to get the most boobs for my buck. I’ve always wondered how reviewers like Dr. Baehr can truly experience a film when they’re so busy tallying all the offensive content. Talk about not being able to see the forest through the trees!

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  6. I remember picking up a book of Dobson’s years ago at a friend’s house years ago [1] and paging through it. At the end of the book was a long list of principles to live one’s life by. Among the standard set of sound guidelines exhorting personal responsibility and self-sacrifice he included CAPITALISM, praising it as the greatest economic system in existence. I think it was number thirty-two. I thought to myself, okay, maybe you’re right, but does that really belong in this list? Is a commitment to capitalism axiomatic? I have often wondered how to understand the subset of Christians who identify our religion with capitalism. A cynical view is that many of them cling to both of them as part of the tribal markings they were raised under, and use them to divide humanity according to their two great loves (God and country – and in particular, their understanding of both). But I think that view might be too simplistic.

    In any case, I appreciate your explicitly naming Dr. Baehr as a brother in Christ. As I age I am becoming increasingly frustrated and angry with his kind of Christianity, the attention it gets in our culture, and the role that plays in shaping the impression non-Christians have of Christianity. There is a bad impulse behind this frustration (I want people to like me and not judge me harshly for my beliefs), but there is also a good impulse (the impression is an impediment to evangelism). But I need to be reminded to respond in love, especially to anyone who claims Christ along with me. It would have been easy for you to simply point out the silliness of his argument and have left it at that.

    [1] I *think* it was Dobson’s, but I can’t remember which, and perusing his list of books didn’t bring it to mind. Maybe someone can identify it for me?

  7. I pay no attention to critics whose primary interest is f-bomb counting. From now on I’ll just call them “F-Bomb Counters”. How can I take their opinion on a film’s artistic merit seriously when it is apparent their main interest is the film’s vices? That’s not film criticism. A monkey could be trained to count dirty words.

    I have not read Baehr’s column in the WSJ, but from what you are posting, it is apparent the guy is only interested in twisting the stats to meet his needs. It’s embarrassing.

  8. Hmm, in regards to Baehr’s comments on capitalistic movies, I am reminded of Aristotle’s description of the epic as being a story centered on a noble family or noble man. In other words, important people, or rich people. I would say that it is the importance of the character within the community that lends itself to an epic tale, not the economic policies behind those characters.

    As to the sex/nudity comment, I would simply suggest that these films make so much money simply by virtue of their wide demographic appeal; they’re four quadrant films. An R rated film will make less money first and foremost because a large part of the population can’t easily see it.

    And I am still worried about his disregard for violence. The Dark Knight may be a brilliantly executed film with “pro capitalistic” themes (sarcasm), but it still portrays one of the most violent ethos for a film I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of violent films. Any comment on that Mr. Baehr?

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  11. Triatomic Tortoise

    I accidentally landed on movieguide.org because of a link showed up in Yahoo! search results on Darwin. It is amazing how backwards these folks are. They are as racists as Hitler, has no balanced views on any topic let alone films and self-proclaimed right-wing conservatives. It is a despicable site run by mean, culturally ignorant and arrogant people with very little education. Thank You.

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