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Tuesday, March 18, 2003
CHICAGO VS. THE THEOLOGY OF THE BODY?

A lot of my friends are troubled by the movie Chicago. It's a hard film to recommend or dismiss for Christians. I think this is one of those films that good and thoughtful people can very well have differing opinions on (as opposed to movies like The Hours, Far From Heaven and American Beauty, about whose insidiousness I am intractably correct).

Here is a message from one of my friends and former students raising legitimate questions about Chicago. It gets to my concern about the ethics of filmmaking method, as opposed to just the story in a movie. So, I thought to print it here, and my response.

I saw Chicago this weekend -- I agree, it's a great film. Director Rob Marshall has done something that could only be done on film. It's beautiful artistry and some of the scenes were just brilliant (loved the press on strings bit).

BUT...well, actually, maybe I should say BUTT...because that's what I saw of the women in the film! I have been thinking about this, trying to justify it in my mind, but it comes back to the same question we discussed at Act One about a kind of "ethics of the human body" in film. The spectacle at the beginning is beautifully choreographed and the music is fantastic...but the choreography and camera shots were designed to emphasize women's body parts being shaken, thrust and bounced (this is true throughout the film).

One justification I tried was, "Well, that's what the burlesque was probably like." But, then, I thought, "Most of the people in a film audience wouldn't go to see a burlesque."

So, I tried another excuse..."It's part of the message of the film that women are used sex objects in show business, and men are all about talent
(the Gere "strip tease" was very funny)." But that was countered in my mind with, "For many, if not most people, the film will have nothing to do with a deep message about the horrors of objectification. These images will be indelibly etched in their minds as something they enjoyed seeing. Is that really a good thing?"

And lastly I tried, "Maybe, I'm just a prude." That didn't work either -- my comeback was that this is precisely what a lot of entertainment has been in our culture: the human body in sexually provocative dances, poses, situations. And should we be trying to do better than that?

I won't be recommending this film to friends because I know how uncomfortable, and even scandalized they would be. And these aren't particularly sheltered or overly sensitive people, just plain folks who are trying to live virtuous lives.

What would have been lost in Chicago if the women had more clothing? Nothing really. I'm not talking about putting everybody in sweats
-- but there are many, many, many degrees of modesty that could be achieved between what these women wore and, say, underwear. The black dress that Roxy wears for the fantasy of her last solo number looked like it had been designed by her worst enemy. It didn't even have a neckline...just a waist.

Honestly, do you think I am being extreme about this? Or would it make a good "case study" for a discussion of ethics of the human body in film?


And then, my response...admittedly incomplete.

I share all of your concerns about the objectification of women in the film. And yet, I think that objectification of women was one of the main themes of the film, wasn't it? From Roxie's murder of the man who was exploiting her for sex, to all the women's stories in the prison (ie. "He had it comin'") a major theme of the film is the evil of using women as things. By having the women dance the way they do, it makes the point that woman herself is complicit in some of this. That is, woman has figured out that if she cooperates in being exploited, she can find a certain degree of power. So, it isn't just men who are the villains in the film. Which makes the film humane, in a certain sense.

What I think is interesting about the film is that the dancing of the women didn't strike me as being erotic, or titillating. (And I checked with a couple of my male friends on this, just to be sure!) The women aren't really objectified in the film BECAUSE we hear their stories, so they are always subjects to us. We feel sorry for them, but the film wasn't "sexy" the way, say, Top Gun was sexy. Or Out of Sight.

It is not a movie that I could have made, because of my scruples. But I can't imagine that world having been represented much differently and still made its point.