Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Leonardo's Cipher

News just came in that The Da Vinci Code was given an R-18 rating by the local Movie and Television Review and Classification Board. For the people out there who aren't well-versed in the nuances of a Filipino-American grading system, that means that the movie's been restricted to adults 18 years or older.

Now, I'm not quite sure what the majority of people are going to say about this. I do think, however, that the rating is correct. At the very least, it's quite an improvement for a governing body that once gave an overblown, undeniably excessive penalty to Schindler's List.

At the moment, it's almost certain that the movie will draw large crowds despite religious leaders' opinion that the story is dirty, blasphemous, and otherwise detrimental to moral health. That won't necessarily mean that it's a good movie, of course. It would only mean that the controversy has succeeded in stirring peoples' curiosity, adults and children alike. We're likely to see a lot of crowds queueing up to see the picture, and they'll all be composed of people in varying stages of mental maturity.

It is precisely the presence of this mental variance that makes me feel that the R-18 rating is correct. It's not a question of how blasphemous the subject matter may be, or the graphic depiction of certain scenes; I think that it's more a question of how we accept the things we see on the big white screen in the middle of the movie theater.

Movies are undoubtedly a major influence on us, if only because it's easier to take their messages to heart. We may bear in mind that we're watching actors who are obviously following an indifferent script, or costumes imagined by the warped minds of studio researchers, or computer-generated special effects that only resemble the real thing, for example. But despite all that, a movie will still stick to the inside of your head. It's more memorable than reading a story because it gives you a clear visual of what the characters and the locations look like, and it's more memorable than looking at artwork because you can actually see them move, talk, and otherwise interact with each other.

We may belittle movies as a form of media alongside other literary forms, but there's no doubting their effectivity. Where everything else merely presents a story, a movie presents a simulated experience that is simply easier to keep in mind.

Is it any wonder, then, that the local clergy fears the influence that The Da Vinci Code may produce?

This is really where mental maturity must come in. The biggest argument against these fears is that the story is clearly advertised as fictitious. The major premise has extremely little in the way of evidence to back it up, the writer has quite a few previous works of fiction to his credit, and the paperback volume tends to be stored in the "Fiction" sections of all major bookstores. It's fictitious, and we know it. It's right there for all to see.

But then again, people do have a strange habit of missing the obvious. When Orson Welles debuted War of the Worlds on radio in 1938, listeners became hysterical with the belief that Martians were actually in the process of invading the Earth. Streets became clogged with people desperately looking to escape the "alien attack", houses of worship became filled with refugees waiting for the "inevitable" end, and there were more than a few panicked attempts at suicide. And all this came about despite the fact that the program was broken at various intervals for the ever-present commercials, and that the station gave regular disclaimers that the narrative was nothing more than a radio show.

When it comes to The Da Vinci Code, then, I believe that the R-18 rating shouldn't be there because of accusations of blasphemy or immorality. I believe that it should be there for reasons of mental maturity: Only those people who are capable of processing it properly should be the ones watching it in the first place. (Of course, we can't assume that all people 18 years or older are capable of such coherent thought, but it's the closest generalization we can work with.)

The problem we're looking at right now is that too many people are taking the movie's content merely by itself. But the fact is that it shouldn't be taken by itself, I think. It's only a movie, after all -- a simulated experience that just tends to sticky itself to our minds.

We need to look at things in a much bigger picture, especially with regards to matters of both religion and personal logic. Is The Da Vinci Code likely to influence our beliefs and faiths simply because it presents a fictitious theory in a fictitious plot using fictitious characters? The answer to that question really depends on how easily you accept the viewing experience, and how well your mind works on its own.

It really shouldn't, though. When all is said and done, and no matter how carefully both sides may argue or step around the real issue, the fact still remains that it's just a movie. So watch it if you want, but bear in mind that it really shouldn't exert that much influence on anyone in the first place.

Just make sure that you're at least 18 years old, though. You wouldn't want to annoy the censors, after all.

If you're interested on reading up on a few of the issues described above (and you probably are, if you've gotten this far without falling asleep), I can offer you some informative links:

- A brief summary of the encounter between Schindler's List and the Philippine MTRCB, as given by The File Room, an archive of recent events regarding the issue of censorship
- An archive of news articles following the wake of the original War of the Worlds broadcast
- The official response of the Prelature of Opus Dei in the United States regarding The Da Vinci Code (which happens to be a good read)

- Dan Brown's take on the novel and the controversy

I'm also interested in reading a logical assessment of the situation from an anti-Da Vinci stance, only it's difficult to find a statement that doesn't automatically assume that the story is nonfiction. Does anyone out there know where I can find some of these?


postigo luna said...

how a movie affects each person who sees it in a unique way. some people shrug it off, and some people make a beeline for the nearest street corner and start preaching about the lies of the catholic church. sorry to disagree, but i doubt that mental maturity has anything to do with what that reaction will be. After all, the refusal to treat this material as fiction has nothing to do with maturity. I mean, look, you have billions believing that Christ is God, right? and without a single piece of solid evidence. By definition, that's fiction too. But we believe it. Does that make us mentally immature? And if we disbelieve it (like the Borgia pope did), does that make us mature?

As certainly as we can't legislate morality, I think we can't peg down a person's choice to believe or disbelieve as a function of mental maturity.

Just my two cents, brother.

Sean said...

Postigo Luna: I get the feeling that "mental maturity" was the wrong term to use. What's worse is that a more exact phrase or description continues to elude me, which makes me a pretty bad authority on the subject.

However, I do believe that there's a fine line between fiction and faith to begin with. Fiction, for one, is just fiction for the most part. Fiction by itself does not actively seek to lead people's thoughts in a certain direction -- it's the people who interpret the work who actually do the leading. Fiction is merely an outlet of a single point of view, and it only carries a level of influence proportional to the number of people reading it.

Faith, on the other hand, involves basic personal belief. And Faith causes people to actively support or question different things because these basic personal beliefs inevitably have to interact with the rest of the world. We always have a personal take for every situation, after all. Faith grants this, and ends up leading us in the given direction.

In short, Fiction needs an outlet, whereas Faith is its own outlet. Any copy of the Bible by itself can be taken as just a book, but it is the belief of billions worldwide that elevate it to a status greater than that of a mere story.

It's not a question of literal "maturity" (again, this is not the most accurate term to use), but more a question of how much we're willing to separate the two concepts of Faith and Fiction. For some, it's easy enough to see that just because The Da Vinci Code exists doesn't mean that it should factor into our personal beliefs. But others find it best to stress their beliefs against it, thinking that it holds some measure of influence on its own.

The distinction I make is not that some of us are "mentally mature" and that some of us aren't. The distinction I make is that some of us see the book as Fiction, and that some of us see the book as Faith.

It is that differing opinion, I think, that has led us to our current situation. We each have different ways of looking at the story. As a writer and a man firmly planted in the "Fiction" camp, I just wonder about how everyone else thinks.