What was I thinking? My answers to reader questions about my controversial ‘Reel Faith’ review
Last week controversy erupted over my “Reel Faith” video review of the Best Picture–nominated movie Call Me By Your Name, a gay-themed coming-of-age drama about a same-sex relationship between characters played by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.
Scandal over my video review went semi-viral in Catholic social media, in part thanks to a news aggregation website claiming I had given the film a “glowing” recommendation — an erroneous description that nevertheless stuck.
I’ve been attacked in the past as a hater and a homophobe for affirming the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and marriage, but I’m not sure I’ve experienced anything quite like the venom I received last week from the most virulent Catholic critics.
I am also aware, though, that many Catholics more favorably disposed toward me have been confused, angry or upset because of my video review, for reasons that I acknowledge are clear to me in hindsight, and I profoundly regret this.
Why did I not see this coming? How could I give the film the review I did?
In addition to my full written review of Call Me By Your Name, I have compiled a Q&A drawn from actual questions I’ve been fielding on social media and in other contexts which I hope provides illuminating context, and perhaps peace of mind, to concerned readers.
Why are we talking about a gay porn, pro-NAMBLA propaganda film at all? Why would a Catholic deacon and film critic even review a movie like this?
Whatever else can and should be said about the film’s faults and offenses, Call Me By Your Name is neither porn of any kind nor propaganda of any kind. (See my written review for more.)
Why talk about Call Me By Your Name? Why review it? For several reasons:
- It’s a Best Picture nominee, so it has cultural relevance and affects conversations people are having. For years now as part of my work for “Reel Faith” with New Evangelization Television we have done short video reviews for all the Best Picture nominees.
- Partly because of the film’s Best Picture nominee status and its cultural relevance, I’ve heard from many Catholics interested in a Catholic take on this film.
- The film’s subject matter and its treatment of it are of interest to many people, Catholic and otherwise. Many people watch a film like this and see themselves or people they know. They are aware of the tension between the moral world of this film and the moral world of Catholic teaching. For some, this is a cause of concern. They want to know how their experiences and struggles look from the perspective of Catholic faith. (I’ll have more to say about this later on.)
A movie review should speak for itself, shouldn’t it? If a review requires all this explanation and clarification, doesn’t that make it a failure?
Oh, yes. Yes it does. And not my first failure, alas.
While I’m grateful for viewers who understood what I was trying to express, too many got the wrong idea for me to deny the problem.
That doesn’t mean that all the criticisms of my video review were fair, or that all those who attacked me over it were honest or charitable. But certainly many people were honestly confused and upset, and I shouldn’t have let that happen.
Aren’t you just backtracking because of the controversy?
I’m not backtracking at all. My written review reiterates practically everything in my video review, though with more context and additional insights.
What I’m doing is taking responsibility for a failure in communication. It was my job to be clear, and I wasn’t clear. But my take on the movie, rightly understood, is an honest and responsible one, and I stand by it.
Honest and responsible? A glowing recommendation to a film that positively treats a sexual relationship between a man and a boy?
I did not and do not recommend Call Me By Your Name at all, “glowingly” or otherwise. My video review does nothing of the kind.
So you defend your video review?
Not exactly. Kind of. Yes and no.
Insofar as a lot of people have perceived my video review as a glowing recommendation of the film, which I didn’t anticipate, obviously I failed both to be as clear as I should have been on my overall take on the film and to foresee how my review would strike many people.
I can’t defend that, and I deeply regret the shortcomings of my review which allowed that to happen. It was a failure.
On the other hand, what I actually said in the review is an accurate reflection of what I think of the film — and I’m pleased to say that many attentive viewers have recognized that my take was actually critical, not positive.
How can you say your take was “critical”? Look at all those positive adjectives you used — “exquisite,” “delectable,” “attractive”!
Here is what I said:
The bucolic Italian landscape is exquisite, the meals delectable, the actors attractive and often winsome; this is a film that wants to seduce the viewer.
The adjectives are about as close to objectively accurate as such assessments can be. More importantly, note their function in the sentence: to illuminate the film’s seductive method.
Without letting myself off the hook, I have to admit it didn’t occur to me that so many Catholics would have trouble intuiting that the implication was not an enthusiastic “so let yourself be seduced!”
This was meant to be understood as a cautionary word to the wise. My positive descriptions of the landscape, the food and so forth were all by way indicating the potency of the film’s attempted seduction.
And you thought that one word was enough?
Of course not. The entire review is shot through with critical and cautionary language, although in retrospect obviously I was too subtle and implicit for many (not all) viewers (again, more about that later). For example:
- “Self-indulgent and wish-fulfilling” are obviously disparaging words, especially when used by a film critic. (No filmmaker wants to be called “self-indulgent,” and “wish-fulfillment” as a psychological term has been a negative idea since Sigmund Freud. Compare C.S. Lewis’s disparaging use of “egoistic castle-building” in An Experiment in Criticism.)
- “In the manner of countless heterosexual romance novels” both sharpens and broadens the above critique. Call Me aspires to be Oscar-level art; comparing it to romance novels is meant to acknowledge its appeal, but also to be deflating and to imply a certain lack of truthfulness.
- “A decadent ode to desire,” as used by a Catholic film critic, ought to be recognized as disparaging. (I don’t think I have ever in my life used the term “decadent” positively in film writing. I’m not a food critic!)
- “A pre-Christian classical milieu of sexual liberality, real or imagined” — well, really, how could anyone think I meant that in a good way? Am I saying that Christian morality is a mistake? That Greco-Roman sexual mores were better? As for “real or imagined,” that was my way of hinting that I think the modern idea of the classical world as a bohemian era of sexual tolerance is at least partly a modern fairy tale.
- “The tolerant, seize-the-moment moral” is, it should be obvious by this point, not something I approve of — in context, very much the opposite.
As an aside, practically all of the key ideas here appear in my full review, which unpacks them and puts them in context in a way that I hope makes the video review more explicable.
Wait. Did you like the film or not?!
I liked some things in the film. I didn’t like the film as a whole, no.
That didn’t come across at all in your video review!
I’m sorry. I’ve admitted the review was a failure.
What were you thinking?! Why be so subtle and implicit in your criticisms? Can you explain that?
First, on a general note, the scripts for these short video reviews are challenging to write. The challenge is to try to cram the maximum information and insight possible into the minimum number of words possible.
This can lead to using various forms of shorthand, including subtle and implicit language. This can be done cleverly and well, but there is a danger of being too clever on occasion. It’s a balancing act between economy and clarity, and in this case I got the balance wrong.
More particularly to this case:
Like many writers I write with a particular audience in mind, but the implied audience can vary from piece to piece.
In general terms, my work as a whole is aimed at a dauntingly broad audience: I want to write both for Catholics who may or may not be interested in film and also for cinephiles who may or may not be interested in Catholicism.
That’s a tall order, but my driving passion is to contribute to making these two worlds that mean so much to me a little more comprehensible to one another.
At the same time, I recognize that the audience for, say, a Marvel superhero movie is somewhat different than the audience for a Dardenne brothers film, and that affects how I write about them. So my idea of my implied audience varies from one review to another.
In this case, scripting a video review for a gay-themed Best Picture nominee, I had two groups of people in the back of my mind: a) Catholic cinephile friends and readers who follow film culture and the broader cultural discussion around movies and b) secular film friends and readers — particularly individuals in both categories who are gay or same-sex attracted.
At all events, I was thinking particularly of people who know my work and have an idea where I stand and how I write — in particular, how I’ve written about homosexuality in the past, from my reviews of Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight to my treatment of gay themes in animated family films (including Happy Feet, Happy Feet 2, Madagascar 2, Ice Age 3, and Frozen — for the last of which, incidentally, I was viciously smeared and misrepresented for homophobic paranoia in a number of media outlets, including the UK Catholic website The Tablet, ironically).
In short, a crucial mistake in my video review of Call Me By Your Name was implicitly assuming Catholic orthodoxy and sexual morality as a given and thinking that at this point I didn’t need to restate it yet again, as I did in my Moonlight review last year. I didn’t anticipate the thing going semi-viral and being seen by viewers who in many cases had never even heard of me.
This is not a complete account of my video review’s shortcomings, but I hope that for charitable readers it will be enough to go on.
So you don’t support gays?
Let’s be clear: Individuals who identify as gay or LGBT are human beings created in God’s image. They are my brothers and sisters. I am happy to count them among my friends. Of course I support them.
I trust the intended question is whether I affirm the Catholic Church’s teachings on the meaning and moral dimension of human sexuality.
The answer is that I do, and that I have for my entire Catholic life — perhaps never in a more sustained and public way than in my 2011 blog series against redefining marriage — but with greater firmness of purpose since being ordained a deacon.
In the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, human sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. Homosexual inclinations are disordered and homosexual acts are contrary to the natural law.
In the language of Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, the human body has a nuptial meaning that is fully expressed only in the mutual, total and complementary self-gift of man and woman in marriage. This nuptial meaning is tragically distorted by erotic acts or exchanges that lack this mutuality, totality or complementarity. Human sexuality is distorted in sexual exchanges that are one-sided, temporary, non-exclusive or non-complementary.
I affirm and indeed embrace the Church’s tradition and teaching as the true path to human freedom and fulfillment.
There is much more to be said about the gay experience than this — and in that conversation, I as a straight man need to do far more listening than talking — but for Catholics the tradition and teaching of the Church is non-negotiable, and must be part of the conversation.
Why even bother with a nuanced or in-depth review of a film like this at all? Why not just say “It’s repellent and horrific” and be done with it?
Um, for one thing, because a critic’s job is to provide perspective and insight, not just moral approval or condemnation.
For another, anyone wants to hear me say “It’s repellent and horrific” doesn’t need to hear that from me — and anyone who doesn’t want to hear that might just need to hear something else. In fact, probably both groups of people need to hear something else.
There are many people, including individuals in the Church, for whom the moral world of Call Me By Your Name, with its “sexual liberality,” is on some level attractive or appealing.
I understand this — and I think it’s important that others understand it, and that people grappling with this know and feel and appreciate that they are understood. Throwing around words like “repellent and horrific” is not going to help them; it’s probably not going to help us either. (I’ve written in defense of the Church’s sexual morality for years; I’ve also written for years about my concerns regarding Christians stigmatizing and dehumanizing homosexuals.)
If we who are fully on board with the Church’s teaching can’t countenance a response to a film like this other than revulsion and condemnation, the message we will send to individuals attracted to this film’s worldview — whatever their sexual orientation or preference — is that our own worldview is too brittle and confining to acknowledge and deal with what they see: that there is something here capable of attracting people.
Ultimately, we want to make the case that the Catholic vision of human sexuality — so far given no richer expression than in John Paul II’s theology of the body — offers the most liberating, beautiful and compelling account of this topic. We can’t do that in a persuasive way if we can’t talk honestly about the attractive potenial of other accounts.
Have you considered whether it was a mistake to try to treat such complicated ideas in so short a format?
If so, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve made that mistake. (I got the same criticism for my most recent homily.) Really, though, I think I could have and should have done better even in the confines of the format.
I still disagree with your review and your take on this movie’s gay themes.
Okay. No one has to agree with me. Beyond my film and critical studies and my religious and theology studies, I claim no expertise here; far from it. I try to take the most reasonable and responsible view I can of any topic I write about as my experiences permit. I hope I succeed far more often than I don’t.