Last year’s “Gosnell” and the recently released “Unplanned” present a thorny problem for Conservatives who choose to write about film.
The morals that drive these films are undoubtedly in line with the cultural right since both are anti abortion films. That is their sole Raison d’etre. It is the reason the films were made and the reason viewers bought their tickets.
So their status as art is dubious from the get go. The question of whether or not film, and photography generally, is an art is still seriously debated in certain circles. But leaving aside that very complicated discussion, which seems to have no purchase on the popular imagination, these two films represent a perfect litmus test for whether or not a film enthusiast of the Conservative persuasion has integrity as both a person of virtue and critic of the moving picture.
Because neither film is a great exemplar of cinema. They are essentially serviceable films made in the Lifetime or TV movie mode. Neither is interesting in their own right as a film. Neither will be watched for their own sake. They will not be enduring classics, eventually relegated to that shadowy forgotten land where “The Cross and the Switchblade” and the “Thief in the Night” series rest undisturbed. Because if artistic outcomes mean anything they must mean that something is valued for its own sake. A great film is sought out for the same reason that a great dessert is, simply because it is delicious.
The Conservative and especially the Christian must begin their philosophy of art with the doctrine of creation. God didn’t need to create, otherwise he would not be God. The classical conception of ultimate divine reality is at the very least a being for which nothing is required. God is perfectly sufficiently happy in and of himself. This is how he can be the source of all good things. He himself needs no source. He is the source. And so the things he creates are created for their own sake and not his. They are inherently useless to him. He does not need them.
In fact the Christian story of creation is not only useless to God but dangerous. Because unlike most conceptions of the divine the Christian believes that God became human and literally died. He came back to human life of course, but still the perfectly happy one created something that he knew would require his own pain to save. This is a far thornier problem than the traditional logical problem of evil for someone desiring a perfectly “rational” faith. For present purposes it is not helpful to dwell on this, the reader simply needs to understand that the Christian doctrine of creation being the foundation of the Conservative philosophy of art entails that true art be inherently useless. It must be something valued for its own sake not its utility.
Tolkien’s Legenderium is a perfect example of this aesthetic. In particular “The Lord of the Rings” is delightful just because it is delightful. The prose itself is marvelous, simultaneously unpretentious yet beckoning the reader forward with its sheer uncomplicated gravitas. Tolkien’s perfectly chosen words both serve the wondrous narrative and are consumed greedily for their own sake.
But it is true that Tolkien was attempting to create a distinctly English myth. Therefore his works of fiction were done in service to English culture. And a healthy English culture serves to create healthy Englishmen. So he was striving after some utility.
But the truer truth is that Tolkien, being the original Lord of the Nerds, created the worlds of Arda in order to have a medium to formulate and play with his own invented languages. In other words the Elves were created for Elvish, or more specifically the Noldor were created for Quenya. The inherent uselessness of this endeavor is what makes his writings so culturally useful as a distinctly English myth. The idiosyncrasies of Tolkien as a person, particularly his philological genius, are what give “The Lord of the Rings” its depth and enduring cultural capital.
This does not refute the claim that true art is useless because it merely shows that the concept of useless and useful are not opposed to each other. But something that is only useful can never be art.
Hollywood makes this mistake all the time with their Oscar bait films. For decades now half the films that are nominated for best picture, and most of the films that win, are simply not among the best of their respective years. Some infamous examples serve to highlight this point. “Jaws” lost best picture to “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Star Wars” lost to “Annie Hall”, “E.T.” to “Ghandi”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Chariots of Fire”, “Field of Dreams” to “Driving Miss Daisy”, and most notoriously if “The Dark Knight” had been nominated it would have lost to “Slumdog Millionaire”.
The irony is obvious: when great art is the goal the product is more often than not completely forgettable. This is a crime against art itself and it will be an enduring legacy of decadent mediocrity for Hollywood until they purify their aesthetic worldview. Because the problem with most of the “artistic” films that become darlings of the Academy is that they trade narrative prowess for morality du jour. “Moonlight” won best picture in 2016 and no one will ever watch it again. But at least four of that year’s losing nominees feel like they could become what marketing guru Ryan Holiday calls perennial sellers.
For Hollywood real Art, art that “matters”, is morally useful. For them the only virtues that matter are the ones they can easily signal. A good story with excellent performances is simply not good enough. Its gotta have intersections to be worthwhile.
Sadly this is the reason that Contemporary Christian Music, Evangelical production companies like Sherwood Pictures, Thomas Kinkade, and actors like Kirk Cameron are so embarrassing to Christians and Conservatives that care about culture. These things attempt to emulate and compete with popular culture, just without the swears and ugliness. And because they choose to serve their simplistic vision of morality they continually fail to create anything of enduring quality.
Thankfully “Gosnell” and “Unplanned” escape this cultural ghettoization because they know what they are. These are message films with no anxiety about competing with Hollywood for eyeballs. They probably should have been documentaries because they are both based on true stories. But the trouble with documentaries is that no one watches them. If you want to get a message out to a lot of people the packaging is important. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”. And the medicine these films convey is deeply unpalatable. Abortion is probably the single most unpleasant subject of our times. And not just because of the political firestorm it generates.
Abortion is far more ethically complicated than most are willing to admit. It represents the intersection of every contradiction western society has been built on. In many ways it is the philosophical climax of Classical Liberalism’s failure, so eloquently outlined by Patrick Deneen. Calling abortion murder doesn’t encapsulate its gravity. The idea that humans could or should have the ability to completely control realities as complicated as sex and pregnancy is an inexhaustible hubris.
This is what makes “Unplanned” a truly interesting narrative in its own right. It is a deeply Conservative (read Burkean) film in a way that “Gosnell” could never be. Because the story of the sociopathic Kermit Gosnell isn’t ultimately about abortion. It’s about an aboritionist gone mad. It’s about the failure of mainstream media to care about truth over ideology. It’s about the ineptitude of government to protect the individual. In other words it’s a right vs left culture war story through and through.
“Gosnell” makes the blood run hot, partially because it’s clearly the better film as a film. Earl Billings is a legitimately great actor. His performance as Gosnell is truly chilling. Whereas the villain of “Unplanned” was played cartoonishly by Robia Scott, a veteran of low grade television.
But what really makes “Unplanned” Conservative isn’t its lack of incendiary subject matter (because there certainly is some) but rather that it lays bare the entire enduring reality of abortion in America with genuine empathy. And it does this with uncompromising moral clarity about the unborn.
It is only able to do this because it adheres faithfully to Abby Johnson’s life story. Her story is not merely that of a Planned Parenthood turncoat, it is the story of a woman who had more than one abortion. It is a story of the gradual moral transformation of a young Texan who truly thought she was helping women and tragically learned that she was not.
This narrative is not compelling because it was told with the Hitchockian brilliance of a Christopher Nolan. That was never the point. Abbie’s story is compelling because it’s true, and more than that it’s good. The tapestry God has woven with her painful life overcomes the film’s cinematic shortcomings and gives the viewer a deep look into how the Conservative vision of Social Justice is supposed to work. The Radical vision requires unbridled emotion and violence. The Radical demands justice today and always winds up enduring tyranny tomorrow. But the Conservative knows that the world belongs to what Russell Kirk called an enduring moral order.
“That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.”
This is almost explicitly stated by Abbie’s husband during a conversation about viability. Viability was always Abbie’s cut off. Anything after viability was a baby and interfering at that point was wrong. But Doug challenges this with simple logic and science beecause medical knowledge keeps pushing viability back. So should our ethics be based in ever changing science or eternal principles?
It was for this reason that “Unplanned” was made. It is a testimony to the wisdom of patience and love in the face of horrendous evil. Human flourishing is only possible when we go with the grain of the universe. Shaming, blaming, and shouting at people to not get abortions does no good. Murdering abortion doctors does not save any babies. Persuasion through reason driven by the peace that surpasses understanding is what ultimately changed Abbie. The virtuous humble activists with the Coalition of Life loved her away from Planned Parenthood. This is much more explicit in Abbie’s book of the same name.
At one point in the film Abbie actually outlines that the success rate for convincing women to get abortions decreases when people are praying at the fences that surround Planned Parenthood clinics. Apparently PP collects actual data that shows prayer does something to the women inside the clinic. And this should not surprise us! Jesus promised his disciples that the fence of hell (paraphrase) could not triumph against his followers.
But people can only pray at the fences as long as love reigns and not passion. The Westboro Baptist types within the pro life brigade are literally doing no good. They give PP excuses to have the civil activists removed. Psychologist Jeffrey Schwartz once wrote:
“here’s a piece of practical advice: don’t be reckless about openly showing your disapproval…It’s an easy time to make needless enemies. Discretion may not be the better part of valor, but it is a part of it.”
“Unplanned” may not be a great film in its own right. But Abbie’s life is a work of art, beautifully forged by divine providence. And this is the goal to winning the abortion battle, because it starts in our hearts and minds. The Conservative must be willing to submit his mind to the truth that everyone, on both sides of the Planned Parenthood fence, are fearfully and wonderfully made. That everyone was knit together in their mother’s womb by God. Peace within the womb starts with peace inside ourselves. Without love we have nothing to offer anyone.
God could have chosen not to create and we would have been spared the pain of existence. This is what makes human life and the beautiful tragic story God is telling in humanity the greatest work of art. None of this needed to happen. It was not necessary. Yet God chose to do it for the simple joy of creation, even knowing what it would cost him.
“For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”