Voices
Evan Hughes for WORLD

Real life

Those who try to define it for us always have an agenda

Issue: "A second chance," Nov. 20, 2010

There is a question as to what is "real life." Many a time I have been jolted from a contemplation that may well have been of the Holy Spirit, by a sight or sound that made me think, "Ah, real life." The man in flight from the Hound of Heaven embraces as "real life" the regularity of the kiosk vendor on the city street corner.

In particular, there is a question about "real life" as concerns the movies. I saw Secretariat with my daughter and loved it, though some of the writing made me wince. (The first trainer, the one who got fired, would never have talked like that in "real life.")

But then I checked out Salon.com, and the reviewer had a bigger problem with the film's "real life" quotient than my minor gripe about dialogue. He faulted Secretariat (which depicts the 1973 Triple Crown victory of a spectacular horse) for not mentioning Richard Nixon or Vietnam, though as Roger Ebert rebutted, neither did other films set in the '70s like Apollo 13.

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Salon was just getting started. More serious "real life" violations included the film's "right-wing ideology and xenophobia," as well as its savor of the KKK: (The movie was "so infused with warm golden light, that I began to wonder. . . if someone just off-screen were burning a cross on the lawn.") The Klan charge was earned for having a mostly white cast, and the xenophobia charge because the Italian owner of the rival horse is not depicted as a nice person.

The charges are so astonishing, for a film that is as wholesome and uplifting as any ever made, that when Roger Ebert scratched his head, the Salon writer backed off a half-step and said he was only kind of sort of kidding. This reminded me of a verse from Proverbs: "Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, 'I am only joking!'" (Proverbs 26:18-19). The damage is done. May I say, in short, that the Salon review was hatred disguised as scholarly critique?

But the larger question of film and "real life" remains. Salon complained that Secretariat is a "vision of the American past as the Tea Party would like to imagine it, . . . scrubbed clean of multiculturalism and social discord." So now we are reduced to the embarrassing argument over whether there were enough blacks, Puerto Ricans, and LGBT roles in the story. May I ask a stupid question: Are we allowed to use white actors to make movies about historical events that involved white people? (Let the record show that the horse groomer, a prominent presence, was African-American.)

Secretariat owner Penny Chenery's sin is that she is "striking and magisterial but utterly nonsexual, illuminated from within like a medieval saint." In other words, she is TGTBT (too-good-to-be-true). You know that the culture has spun 360 degrees when we are complaining about a character not writhing and contorting her body. Much of Secretariat concerns the relationship-the thrills of victory and agonies of defeat-between the horse trainer and Mrs. Chenery, often thousands of miles from her husband. It was so cool to me to find not a hint of flirtatiousness between the two of them.

Nowadays "real life" in movies is a potty mouth and sexual polymorphism. Mrs. Chenery is good, ergo she is not "real." But what makes vulgarity more "real life" than wholesomeness? Are we saying that people like Penny Chenery don't exist? I, for one, know women like that-dignified, well-spoken, kindly, strong, and self-controlled.

What is the purpose of telling stories, ever think of that? Here is a better question: What is God's purpose in telling stories? God Himself is a storyteller, and we are to be "imitators of God" (Ephesians 5:1). What kinds of characters does He draw? What is His agenda in telling the story? Every writer of movies, plays, and musicals has an agenda. From The Three Little Pigs to Brokeback Mountain, somebody is sending you a message, spliced in with the Pepsi ads. Call it ideological product placement, or embedded marketing.

What is "real life"? Who are you going to let define it for you? 

Email aseupeterson@wng.org

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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