I know that some readers may be disappointed by the lack of timeliness for these monthly movie reviews. You might find that by the time I blog the film reviewed is no longer in theaters.
You have to understand I don’t have access to the critics’ screenings offered to the big time reviewers.
Anyway, on to this month’s review of “Way Down East”, a silent feature that was quite a hit when it debuted in 1920.
Okay, ninety years is a tad long of a wait for a review, even from me. But this drama (perhaps better defined as a melodrama) provides an interesting examination of the moral views of the time, and ours.
It’s the tale of Anna Moore (played by one of the first movie stars, Lillian Gish), a young woman who cares for her poor, sick mother. Seeking financial aid, she goes to visit her distant, wealthy relatives. The cousins are embarrassed by their poor relation and offer no help. But at one their parties, Anna meets Lennox Sanderson, a true scalawag. (A title card introduces him as a man with “three interests: ladies, Ladies, LADIES!”)
After Anna rebukes Lennox for his attempts at seduction, she agrees to marry him. The cad arranges a phony wedding ceremony followed by a honeymoon, then abandons Anna, who finds she is with child. Adding to the heroine’s trouble, her mother dies and so does her newborn child. (There is an interesting, theologically problematic scene wherein Anna baptizes her dying son herself, fearing for his soul.)
Anna tries to put her past behind her. She goes to work for a wealthy and yet pious farm family. David Bartlett, the handsome son, falls in love with her and wants to marry her. But when family gossip informs David’s father, Squire Bartlett, of Anna’s past, his actions are swift and harsh and cloaked in Biblical terminology. We then have the film's action packed set piece and Anna is stranded on an ice flow. (The director, D.W. Griffith, bogarted this straight from "Uncle Tom's Cabin". I doubt Griffith, the maker of "Birth of a Nation" was a big abolitionist literature fan.)
I was surprised by how frankly the film dealt with the issues of sexuality and religious judgment. The movie deals with the hypocrisy of men’s immorality being winked though less scandalous behavior of women leads to shunning. The consequence -- condemning a child without a father rather than providing help and comfort -- must have been strong tonic for the time. And viewing trailers for an upcoming teen comedy, “Easy A”, I’ve thought the progress of dealing with such issues in the popular culture has not been all for the best.
From what I’ve read about the film (again, no advanced critics’ screenings for me), “Easy A” is about a virginal high school girl (Olive, played by Emma Stone) who pretends to bed high school boys to enhance their reputations. She then falls under the harsh judgment of the high school Christian club that assures her that she will need to answer to a higher power.
Now I could be wrong, but from what I’ve seen of the new film, it seems to deal with the issues of sexuality and religion with much less nuance than a film made nearly a century ago. It seems all of the Christians in the film are narrow-minded and petty. In “Way Down East”, some Christians are depicted as mean, but some exude grace. In the new film, it seems that sex is a topic of humor and that it would be crazy for anyone to think there could be any negative consequences. (Only Christians could be so crazy, to still believe in avoiding sexual immorality as Paul teaches in Romans 13: 13 or I Corinthians 6:18.)
It is wrong for Christians to judge the sins of others, but it is also wrong to fail to teach that God does have standards for sexual behavior. We should be people with tender and loving hearts. God, as a loving Father, provided sex as great gift in the context in marriage. All around us we see the victims of abuse of God’s gift, whether it be men addicted to online porn, women selling themselves for money (or even a false display of affection) and, yes, children who, according to studies, are less likely to prosper without the care of two loving parents.
As a church, we need to be faithful to not condemn those suffer from the sin that is common to us all, but rather comfort and strengthen those that are weak.
To find a source that deals much better with these issues, you might want to go to a popular novel. I believe the title “Easy A” comes from a work that is now 160 years old, “The Scarlett Letter”. Sexual sin and religious hypocrisy are nothing new. But fortunately, God’s grace is very old, yet ever fresh.