Harry Forbes, and his assistant John Mulderig, should be replaced as the film reviewers for the USCCB. But let's be clear: they should be replaced not because they are bad men, or "not Catholic" or "not Catholic enough"; they should be replaced because they are not doing their job.
Film-reviewing, like any form of art-reviewing, is a tricky business. Everybody disagrees about art, and this is especially true of films. What one person loves, another person hates; and no matter how much two people argue about a film, opinions on particular films rarely change. This stubbornness and disparity of opinion becomes only more pronounced when it comes to the matter of whether a film is moral or not. Where one person finds putrid and revolting moral corruption, another may find an elevating and inspiring moral lesson. Hence, we should be cautious about making premature and absolute judgments about the moral goodness or badness of films.
But there must be limits. There are some things that simply cannot be accepted by a civilized society, and certainly not by a Catholic; and, when encountered, one must not be afraid to condemn them. This is especially true when one is the official film reviewer for the Catholic Conference of Bishops, when one's very job is to be a moral compass for millions of Americans. Then it is one's duty to err on the side of safety, without, of course, falling into a stifling Puritanism.
Forbes crossed the line in his favorable reviews of "Brokeback Mountain," and "The Golden Compass." And in publishing this year's top-ten list, he has fully played his cards, leaving no room for doubt. The only-too-evident truth, then, is this: Forbes is not a Catholic film reviewer first, but only secondarily, and, even then, only begrudgingly. As such, he should not continue to be on the USCCB's payroll, and he should certainly not be allowed to continue wearing the sheep's clothing of the United State's official Catholic film reviewer. (To read LifeSiteNews' report on the top-ten list, see: http://www.lifesite.net/ldn/2008/feb/08020111.html)
Consider the format and the language used in this year's top-ten list. Forbes and Mulderig open their co-authored article by praising a whole host of films, including "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," "Eastern Promises," "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," "There Will Be Blood," and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
Some of these films are more reprehensible than others, with "Eastern Promises" likely topping the list, with its explicit sex scene involving a prostitute, with "nothing left to the imagination," other instances of full frontal nudity, non-stop vulgarities, gruesome murder scenes, and the onscreen mutilation of a dead body. On the other hand, some are films that I have heard well-formed and intelligent Catholics express an appreciation for, though, of course, with significant caveats. And that, right there, is the point.
What is common about all of the films that Forbes and Mulderig elevate as being the cream of the crop of the 2007 releases, is that they are all at the very extreme limit of the moral envelope. Each of these, if it is to be recommended on the basis of artistic and technical merit, or even on the basis of an underlying "moral groundedness," must be accompanied by a whole host of qualifications – for they are all either extremely and gruesomely violent, and/or full of explicit and violent sexuality.
But Forbes and Mulderig do not give these caveats. Instead, they call the films "difficult to watch," as if to say that it takes a truly exceptional and mature viewer – someone with a really strong and developed moral sense (and stomach) – to appreciate the high level of artistic and moral goodness of the films. Not only do Forbes and Mulderig not point out the serious moral problems with the films, but they actively welcome them as being "dramatically essential."
"Though on-screen violence, like sexuality, can often be gratuitous, 2007 saw a surfeit of major films in which it played a strong – but dramatically essential – part," they write. While this comment only exonerates the on-screen violence by name, it appears to also justify the on-screen sexuality by association; just like violence, sex can "often" be gratuitous, but in these movies the sex is presumably not gratuitous, but rather "dramatically essential". Admittedly there is a certain amount of reading into Forbes' and Mulderig's words in this interpretation; but the pair's complete silence in their article about the extremely problematic portrayals of sexuality in these films is damnable enough.
The reviewers go on to say, "These sometimes difficult-to-watch films were well received by the [USCCB] Office for Film & Broadcasting, as they were morally grounded beyond their aesthetic excellence." The pair does not say these films were "well received with strong reservations," or "well received in certain respects," but simply "well received," and they leave it at that.
"Each of them was artistically outstanding," they say, "and has already been widely honored by many of the awards competitions and in top-10 lists."
Not willing to be left behind on the film-reviewing bandwagon, Forbes and Mulderig evidently felt compelled to make sure that these films were honored on their top-ten list as well, if not officially, then unofficially. "Of course," the whole introduction to their list seems to say, "we cannot put these films on the official USCCB top-ten list (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), but let's just be clear here, before we get down to the unfortunate business of finding films that won't offend the weaker amongst us, that if you want to go see a really good film, you should go see these."
The tone of the article is astonishingly patronizing, and astonishingly devoid of an honest and penetrating Catholic sensibility. Even when Forbes and Mulderig finally get around to listing off the films that are on their official USCCB top-ten list, they still can't resist pushing a few more "artistically outstanding" films that, once again, are chock-full of explicit sexuality and other questionable elements, including "Atonement," "Into the Wild" and "Charlie Wilson's War." And, once again, no qualification is given.
Forbes and Mulderig say that they cannot put these others films on their list, because they do not reflect Catholic values "directly" enough. In so saying Catholic values are thereby reduced to a post-script, an afterthought, an unfortunate limiting factor by which the best films of 2007 (according to their judgment) are excluded from the official top-ten.
Forbes has clearly forgotten that his job exists for one main reason – to act as a discerning moral voice in the midst of a wilderness of excessively violent, pornographic, and nihilistic films. In his job, judgments about the artistic or technical merits of films must be made second and subservient to a careful, and Catholic moral evaluation of the films, and not the other way around.
The USCCB film reviewing office ought to stand apart from the crowd. But instead, Harry Forbes, and his assistant John Mulderig, are revealing that they merely fit in with the crowd.
Forbes should be replaced. Or else, the USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting should be dismantled altogether, for it is doing no good – indeed, it may very well be doing exactly the opposite: adding to, rather than detracting, from the widespread moral confusion of our amoral post-modern age.
To Contact the USCCB:
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 4th Street, N.E.,
Washington DC 20017-1194
To Contact the U.S. Papal Nuncio:
Most Reverend Pietro Sambi, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States of America
3339 Massachusetts Avenue NW,
Washington, DC 20008