A Review of Fifty Shades of Grey and Old Fashioned by Nick Olszyk
Fifty Shades of Grey
MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, O
Reel Rating, One Reel
|Fifty Shades of Grey|
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, Three Reels
“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, the Church has always definitively taught that the arts…are a grey area.”
- Anonymous priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary
The controversy, celebrity, infamy, and general “talk” surrounding the film Fifty Shades of Grey is a mania only matched by 2013’s Frozen, but hopefully there won’t be any plush toys in the near future…oh wait, there already is. Between Catholic World Report and National Catholic Register, four articles were written about the subject in the span of a week, not to mention countless blog posts and endless airtime across EWTN and Catholic Radio. Meanwhile, the smaller romance Old Fashioned from PureFlix (God’s Not Dead, The Book of Esther), in a brilliant piece of marketing, positioned itself as the Christian alternative leading to a David and Goliath matchup with roses and rope instead of slings and swords. All this leads to a wonderful opportunity to share the Christian message of love and intimacy to a thirsty world, or possibly spend your Valentine’s date at nice restaurant instead. I recommend the Jazz Kitchen at Downtown Disney.
Fifty Shades hits the ground running and barely pauses for two hours to catch its breath or contemplate its better judgment. Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a mousy college student who volunteers to interview billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey (James Dornan) for her yearbook. Grey immediately pursues her with the furious intensity of a wolf stalking its prey. She is pretty but also vulnerable and curious, the perfect candidate to groom for his perverse desires. He uses many psychological tactics familiar to those in the pickup-artist community so devastatingly captured in Neil Strauss’ classic book The Game. He heaps praise on her, then immediately dismisses her. He only gives her enough information to want more but waits to reveal his true intentions until she is wrapped around his finger. Finally, he “purposes.” He wants Ana to sign a legal contract that will establish a BDSM relationship with him as the Dominant and her as the Submissive. This would include fellatio, bondage, whipping, and other forms of sexual punishment all at the whim of the Dominant. “What would I get out of this?” she asks understandably. He flashes a charming smile, “me.” Any sane woman would at this point run for the hills – to his credit, Christian gives her this opportunity – but Ana has been so carefully manipulated that she actually toys with the idea. People find this obviously abusive relationship exciting because it flies in the face of everything they have been told by society. Humans have an instinct towards natural law and obedience to the Father, yet they are told from day one to fulfill every personal desire. If a person cannot bring themselves to express this need in healthy ways, they will be attracted to unhealthy ways.
If Christian Grey represents indulgence to the extreme, Clay Shaw (Rik Swartzwelder) of Old Fashioned goes completely in the opposite direction, not merely exercising chastity but abstaining from any form of sexual expression so far as to render himself almost neuter. He owns an antique store in a quiet Texas town with only a few friends and family as company. One afternoon, a bright, flirtatious artist asks if she can rent the room over the store. Clay sheepishly agrees to help Amber (Elizabeth Roberts) but is oddly immune to her charms. In a fun role reversal, she actively tries to woo him while he quietly distances himself, which of course only encourages her even more. She is a product of the sexual revolution with a string of bad decisions including a divorce in her past. Clay is very “old fashioned” with an arsenal of theories regarding modern romance, especially that “dating only sets us up for failure.” That might be true, but it does little to appease the obvious feelings these lovebirds have for one another.
Very few people want to hear about the story of these films, whether the cinematography is any good, or if the supporting characters compliment the main ones. People want to hear about sex. Usually, this would be really annoying but both movies center thematically on the relationship between sex and love, so here it’s actually quite an honest question. In Fifty Shades, sex is not treated casually but there is a modern sense that intercourse not need be tied to marriage. When Grey learns that Ana is a virgin, he is both surprised and appalled. “Well, we must rectify this situation,” he announces, as if she needs a vaccination before going on a camping trip. One can’t start with gags and handcuffs; that would be rude. The sex scenes are quite graphic, lengthy, and – in the astute words of the MPAA– feature “unusual behavior” as the camera frequently glides across their naked bodies in a gratuitous fashion. The most disturbing scene involves Ana being tied naked to a red bed as she is whipped. With chanting in the background and Ana’s body strung out in a cross-like position, the passion imagery is obvious and very blasphemous, implying that sadistic sex is somehow spiritually freeing. Old Fashioned, of course, contains no sexuality or nudity of any kind but also no fun or laughter. Even when Clay agrees to go out with Amber, all he wants to talk about how they would manage their finances if they got married. It’s understandable to avoid certain behaviors, but love should bring joy, not frustration and certainly not physical pain.
For Christian, Ana is nothing but a tool of physical pleasure, not just the carnal desire for sexual release but the deeper pride of controlling a rational being. He is so sure of himself that he hides none of this from Ana and delights in explaining what he plans to do to her. “How many other women have stayed here before,” she asks. He doesn’t hesitate: “fifteen.” Yet despite her vulnerability, Ana is more than Christian bargained. She finds some unexpected confidence and demands that he amend the contract before she signs it for good, and here’s where the story gets interesting. She wants to go on real dates, be kissed, and sleep in his bed; things that are forbidden in his fantasy because they smell too much like the “L” word. “I don’t make love,” he scowls. “I f**k…hard.” Gradually, it becomes clear Grey was not created a monster but made so by a horribly abusive past. He speaks in the language of sexual pain because it is the only one he understands. Despite the criticism regarding the quality of the source material, Christian and Ana are very well written characters, performed wonderfully. At the climax, Christian finally inflicts real, measurable pain on Ana, and she has had enough. She will not be with him if he continues to control her. For all its sexual content, Fifty Shades ends with a surprisingly strong affirmation of basic human dignity. Relationships should not be about control. Love requires supporting people rather than molding them into a mirror of personal desires.
In a weird way, Clay is just as controlling as Christian. When he arrives at Amber’s apartment to fix her oven, he makes her stand outside in the cold because he refuses “to be in the same room alone with a woman.” He loves talking to his guy friends about his theories regarding the downfall of chivalry but won’t have an honest conversation with a potential spouse. Like Christian, he treats women as an idea rather than a person. Christian throws women in the dirt, Clay puts women on an unreachable pedestal. Both reject the very first words uttered by a human being to his beloved: “This is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” Men and women may be different in nature but they are equal in value. This unhealthy attitude also comes from a checkered past that in some ways is worse than Fifty Shades. Fortunately, Clay realizes that he allowed his own pride to block God’s forgiveness and needs to move on with his life, including expressing his love for Amber. She also learns how to respect him; soon they are ready to begin a wonderful life together.
What constitutes great art? As a frequent connoisseur of media, I am faced again and again with films of excellent quality that argue for immoral ideas. Worse still, many Christians seems perfectly content with movies that support great truth but are woefully boring or amateur. Fifty Shades is remarkably sophisticated in its craft – visually stunning, bold, honest, and even quite witty – yet the agony of its content seriously undercuts anything positive it might have to say about healthy relationships. Its message isn’t earned. Old Fashioned has its moments but is nowhere near as clever. First time director Rik Swartzwelder makes a truckload of mistakes from long musical montages to whole scenes out of focus to casting himself as the lead actor, looking a million years older than his female counterpart. It’s entertaining enough to start a good dialogue about Christian courtship but could have been so much better. In the end, it’s simply a matter of good judgment. My judgment is that Old Fashioned provides fun and thoughtful if a bit unstable entertainment for a romantic evening. Fifty Shades of Grey does not.
Many have labeled Fifty Shades of Grey as pornographic. The Catechism states that pornography “consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners in order to display them deliberately to third parties.” What does it mean by “simulated sexual acts?” Does that mean just soft-core pornography where penetration is not visible? What about nudity apart from sex or even simulated kissing?
Something helpful in this dialogue is a list of “forty-five great films” the Vatican released in 1995 on the centennial of cinema’s birth. Several of these films contain sex scenes or nudity, but these scenes serve the story. Sexuality is an important part of the human condition and was originally created by God to help people know His love better. Thus, it is perfectly acceptable to portray sex using the arts. However, due to original sin, any expression of sexuality should respect the dignity of the performers and the audience.
Fifty Shades of Grey is not a sophomoric college comedy; it is a film about sexual perversion and necessitates an honest conversation about its subject matter. Yet, director Sam Taylor-Johnson is extremely imprudent in its portrayal. This is not casual entertainment, especially if someone is prone to lustful temptations. The only ones who might benefit from it are mature adults who are genuinely interested in the Theology of the Body and its comparison to sexual philosophies of the secular world – basically Jason Evert, Christopher West, and me. Shades is pretty bad but not the boogeyman many make it out to be. I can think of better films that are more graphic and many worse that are less.