Skip to comments.[Harry Forbes & USCCB] Film Office under fire for doing its job
Posted on 12/21/2007 6:27:25 PM PST by GratianGasparri
USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting under fire for review of "The Golden Compass"; Director reminds readers, "We have the Church's best interests at heart."
By JOSEPH McALEER Fairfield County Catholic, December 22, 2007
"Hollywood history is rife with examples of literary works that, by dint of problematic sexual, violent, or religious content have been softened to varying degrees to mollify public sensibilities."
So began a review of The Golden Compass written by Harry Forbes and John Mulderig, director and media reviewer, respectively, of the Office for Film & Broadcasting (OFB) of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The review, published in the December 8 edition of Fairfield County Catholic and in Catholic newspapers across the country, was withdrawn suddenly on December 10, three days after the film opened to lukewarm reviews and lower-thanexpected box office.
"The USCCB gave no reason for withdrawing the review," reported Catholic News Service. The review was also removed from the USCCB website and will not be included in subsequent listings of USCCB film reviews and classifications.
In effect, it vanished into thin air.
"YOU CAN DISCONNECT A FILM FROM ITS SOURCE, even if the source has a very different meaning," says Harry Forbes, director of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The classification service has come under fire for its recent review of The Golden Compass, based on a trilogy of anti- Catholic novels. (PHOTO BY JOHN GLOVER)
"I really cannot explain what happened," says Forbes. "In my four-year tenure with the Office for Film & Broadcasting, this is a first. It really is unprecedented."
Forbes sat down with Fairfield County Catholic in his New York City office on December 11, one day after the review was pulled. The OFB reviews films and television programs from a Catholic perspective, classifying them on a descending scale from A-I (general patronage) to O (morally offensive). The Golden Compass, rated PG-13 ("parents strongly cautioned) by the Motion Picture Association of America, was given an A-II classification: adults and adolescents.
Reaction to the Compass review on Catholic blogs and websites was almost universally negative, as advance word from the Catholic League about the source material's atheistic themes had circulated widely, and sparked a flood of e-mails and letters. Correspondents objected to what was perceived to be a positive review that did not sufficiently condemn the film's source material: the His Dark Materials trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman. Pullman has made no secret of his intention, as an avowed agnostic, to counter traditional beliefs, an agenda revealed in the Catholic League's material.
"I am all for the death of God," Pullman has said. "When you look at organized religion of whatever sort, you see tyranny and repression. It's almost a universal law."
Not a Rave
"I think people were expecting a really bad review from us because of all of the build-up prior to the opening, so they mistakenly characterized our review as a rave. It's not," Forbes says. "In fact, I don't think many people actually read our review. So many of the writers began their e-mails with, 'I understand that' or 'I have heard that you have written a positive review,' and they're off."
Forbes has a point. While the OFB review appreciates the quality of the acting in this "exciting adventure story," it states clearly the problem with the source material: "the author's professed atheism, and the more overt issue of the novels' negative portrayal of his (very much fictionalized) church, a stand-in for all organized religion."
"The good news," the review continued, "is that the first book's explicit references to this church have been completely excised, with only the term 'Magisterium' retained . . . . Most moviegoers with no foreknowledge of the books or Pullman's personal belief system will scarcely be aware of religious connotations, and can approach the movie as a pure fantasy-adventure. This is not the blatant real-world anti- Catholicism of, say, the recent Elizabeth: The Golden Age or The Da Vinci Code. Religious elements, as such, are practically nil" ("as nearly all the professional critics, secular and Catholic, noted," Forbes adds).
"It is not our place to pass judgment on the books," Forbes elaborates. "We absolutely referenced the controversy. From the lead paragraph we kept reinforcing the fact that the movie was very different from the source material. If, in fact, the film had been a more faithful adaptation, the review and classification would have been very different."
As an example, Forbes cites the 2005 film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, which earned the OFB's worst rating, an "O" classification.
"Right up to the last minute with The Da Vinci Code, we were hoping that the name 'Opus Dei' would be changed to something fictitious; that the divinity of Christ would not be questioned; that viewers' religious sensibilities would be respected; and that all the pseudo-spiritual baloney would be excised. If it had been, the movie could have received a better classification. It was not an automatic O, despite the book."
Nonetheless, in the published review, Forbes chastised Director Ron Howard and the producers: "It does seem irresponsible of all parties involved not to have changed the name of Opus Dei in light of the obvious falsehoods, or even provided some kind of disclaimer." ]
So, why not challenge The Golden Compass makers on keeping the name Magisterium in the film?
"Well, Opus Dei is a proper name, and as such, can only mean one thing," Forbes says in his defense. "Apart from the fact that the term 'magisterium' is one that virtually nobody knows, I've heard the director claim that magisterium, if you study its roots, has other meanings. Frankly, we're not aware of any, but even the press notes for the film define the word as merely a 'government council.'
"You can disconnect a film from its source, even if the source has a very different meaning," Forbes continues. "If they are claiming that, in this fictitious parallel universe they have created, the word magisterium means a government council, so be it. In the same way, their use of the word 'daemon' doesn't mean a satanic demon. In their vocabulary, it means a disembodied animal soul."
Beeline to Books?
Not so fast, says Father Donald Guglielmi, pastor of Saint Mark Parish in Stratford. He has spoken out against the books and the film and published a lengthy column in his Sunday bulletin.
"It is the nature of evil to disguise itself as something good, positive, or entertaining. That is what the first Golden Compass movie does. It does not explicitly attack the Catholic Church, but it does identify 'the Magisterium' as the enemy. If you know your faith, you would know that the Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. But most moviegoers - perhaps many Catholics - don't know that. So they'll get suckered into the Pullman series, only to find out later that the Catholic Church is the enemy."
Therein lies the heart of this controversy: will the film encourage children, or even adults, to read books which some believe are, from a Catholic standpoint, spiritually dangerous?
The OFB review acknowledged this: "Will seeing this film inspire teens to read the books, which many have found problematic? Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens."
"The thought that this is a nefarious plot on the part of the filmmakers, that somehow the film was made as intentional bait for the books, is complete balderdash," Forbes says. "New Line Cinema could care less about more books being sold. Nonetheless, if teenagers are insistent about reading them, this can be transformed into a teaching moment."
A native New Yorker and Catholic, Forbes attended Fordham University and Hunter College before joining PBS as head of program publicity. He moonlighted as a theatre critic, which led to his arrival four years ago at the OFB.
"I knew the office well, as they covered PBS a lot - we had programs you could recommend without a worry," he recalls.
The small staff - Forbes and Mulderig are the only reviewers, occasionally augmented by some regular consultants - manages to cover a prodigious volume of films and TV programs, with the expressed mandate "to provide the Catholic public with information about the role of the entertainment and news media in influencing societal and personal values."
Reviews are posted on the USCCB website, www.usccb.org/movies, and published in the Catholic press. Every review carries a byline in its published version.
"We have to review every wide-release film, whether it's morally offensive or not," Forbes says. "Clearly most do not require the kind of vetting that The Golden Compass and The Da Vinci Code received."
As he watches a film in a studio screening room, Forbes takes copious notes. "Apart from writing down character names and plot points, I'll draw a little 'x' if there's something offensive. Every time someone says the 'f ' word, for example. Nudity, sex scenes. And all the heavy moral questions, such as abortion."
Reviews are not cleared with the U.S. bishops before they are published. "There would be no practical way to do this, given the volume," Forbes said. "I can assure you that any film for which we need external or internal input, we know where to go for it."
"IT IS NOT OUR PLACE to pass judgment on Philip Pullman's books," insists Harry Forbes, director of the USCCB Office of Film & Broadcasting. "We absolutely referenced The Golden Compass controversy in our review. From the lead paragraph we kept reinforcing the fact that the movie was very different from the source material." (PHOTO BY JOHN GLOVER)
For The Golden Compass, Forbes and his colleague spent two days writing the review, seeking input from a number of sources, including priests and nuns.
"I turned to everyone I could think of to weigh in intelligently on the strength of having seen the movie, and/or having reading the books," he said. "But our reviews are neither endorsements nor doctrinal statements. Clearly the USCCB has had this film office for many years and trusts us to make sound judgments. Reviewing is not an exact science, but I think we call it right most of the time."
Forbes noted that the OFB often works in tandem with USCCB departments to promote films with pro-Catholic messages.
"With Bella, with its very strong pro-life theme about an unwed mother, we worked very closely with our Pro-Life Office," he noted. "For Trade, a little film about the human sex trafficking problem - one that is very important to the Conference - we worked with our Migration Department.
"We're always looking for synergy within, and we want to make sure that we never stray from the Conference's mission," Forbes added. "We would never praise a film that, for instance, took a stance against immigrants, knowing the Conference's stance on that topic."
He cited Million Dollar Baby, the Best Picture of 2004, as a good example.
"Regardless of the artistic merit of the film, it didn't matter in the end," Forbes recalls. "The endorsement of euthanasia was unacceptable. The world can be praising a film, but if we find that it is morally deficient, we slap the appropriate rating on it. And believe me, we had no compunctions about giving The Golden Compass an 'O' classification if it deserved it. It did not."
Resource for Parents
It would seem that controversy is part-and-parcel of the Office for Film & Broadcasting. The office dates back nearly three quarters of a century when the Legion of Decency held great sway with Hollywood studios, demanding language and plot points be excised to avoid a "condemned" rating. Today, the OFB's power is lessened, but parents especially seem to favor the service.
"Our audience is mainly parents," Forbes noted. "We hear from them all the time thanking us profusely for giving such good guidance. I don't think we steer them wrong."
There are precedents for changing/amending reviews in response to public reaction. Usually it's for films that are decades old, but Forbes changed the classification of 2005's Brokeback Mountain from an "L" to an "O," a few days after it was published.
The story of two cowboys who have a long-running adulterous and homosexual affair seemed like a no-brainer for condemnation in some quarters, but Forbes insists "readers didn't quite realize how very restrictive the 'L' classification is meant to be. In light of that misunderstanding, the 'O' seemed more prudent.
"Just for the record, the Brokeback Mountain review was one that attempted to reinforce the Church's position on homosexual activity and adultery, while allaying fears that this much publicized film - contrary to public perception - was a blatant endorsement of a gay lifestyle," Forbes continues. "Instead, we found it a sensitive, well-handled story with its characters - not just the men, but their wives and children - caught in a tragic situation, from a respected author (Annie Proulx) and director (Ang Lee), whose prior works had not indicated any problematic agenda from our viewpoint."
Nonetheless, the rating was altered and a sentence added: "The physicality of the men's relationship and the film's inherent sanctioning of the affair necessitate an O rating."
Forbes feels The Golden Compass review could not be similarly changed or clarified. "It is so clearly an 'A-II' - based on the actual screen content - that a harsher classification would have been inappropriate," he says.
The USCCB had no comment about the subsequent withdrawal.
Adding to The Golden Compass controversy were initial print ads for the film in major newspapers like the New York Times which, amid the big name reviewers, added praise from the "U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops" - a clear marketing ploy by New Line Cinema to blunt the controversy. Ironically, while the OFB praises many films, its endorsements are rarely, if ever, used by studios in publicity, which is why some suspected Forbes of plotting with New Line.
"My only contact with New Line was asking unprecedented permission to run the review early to benefit all those communication directors who had been calling me desperate for guidance, so they could in turn advise their bishops and their dioceses," Forbes explains. "New Line agreed, and did not want to know the content of our review."
When the ads ran, initially with a misquote, Forbes called and asked for them to be dropped. They were.
"You can't stop a studio from quoting from a review, but you can't chop up sentences either," he noted. "They knew what they were doing. I am not an apologist for them."
Poor Box Office
In the end, The Golden Compass appears to be sinking at the U.S. box office. In its second weekend, ticket sales fell by 65 percent, and the film's ranking dropped from first to third place. Many surmise that the two proposed sequels may never be made.
"That's good news for Christians, in general, and for Catholics, in particular," wrote William Donohue of the Catholic League. "Let this be a lesson to militant atheists like Pullman: keep your hollow beliefs to yourself. And ease up on demonizing Catholicism - no other religion has done more to promote human rights, science and good will. Why not make a movie about that?"
Forbes, who said he has received many letters of support, has moved on to the next review, confident that time will vindicate the OFB's "measured" judgment.
"Like our critics, we have the Church's best interests at heart," he concludes.
Withdrawing was the perfect response. The whole thing is dying a natural death. Ignore it and let it die.
I agree, I saw the film. The Idea that the Golden Compass can convert anyone into any sort of belief is dyslexic. The Movie is terrible, lacking continuity, and coherency within its own presentation of the story. Perhaps this is because the filmmakers felt that they could get away with not explaining anything of the first books underlying philosophy, but the film itself is so terrible that I cannot justify paying for even a rental of the movie. Unless watching someone ride a poler bear, and seeing one wearing “armor” really gets you going.
The only reason that the movie is remotely offensive is its connection with an obvious atheist, who is pushing his agenda in a series of books, that bear some parallel to the supposed universe presented in the film “The Golden Compass.”
I honestly would have preferred to see the more offensive elements back in the movie in order to explain what it was I wasting my time to see. At least then my reaction would have been anger at idiotic philosophy, not disgust at a poorly presented film.
"Even the press notes for the film"??? Oh, OK, then -- there's an authoritative source! LOL!
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