The Golden Compass may have pleased neither general audiences nor fans of the Philip Pullman book nor the bean-counters at New Line — but the only person who may lose his job because of the movie is a critic who gave it a positive review. That would be Harry Forbes, who reviews movies for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and whose review found the movie an exciting children’s fantasy from which most of the anti-clerical content had been excised. “Is Pullman trying to undermine anyone’s belief in God? Leaving thebooks aside and focusing on what has ended up on screen, the script canreasonably be interpreted in the broadest sense as an appeal againstthe abuse of political power,” the review read. This at a time when the Catholic League and other Christian protesters were warning that the movie would inspire kids to read Pullman’s His Dark Materials books and turn them into atheists. Forbes’ bosses responded by pulling the review from circulation, and now some Catholic leaders are calling for Forbes’ firing, noting that he also gave positive reviews to Brokeback Mountain and Rent, in which he cited those films’ artistic achievements while acknowledging that their gay content would likely offend many Catholic viewers.
Whether or not you agree with Forbes’ taste, you have to give him credit for understanding the nature of movies in a way that his detractors do not. Movies are not fortune cookies, easily cracked open to reveal a pithy and explicit message. They’re more like dreams, full of ideas and images that may contradict each other and that are subject to multiple interpretations. The best movies raise questions but don’t necessarily offer answers; they make you think but do not tell you what to think. They spark your imagination.
And one kind of imagination is empathy, the ability to recognize thehumanity in someone who is not like you, whose circumstances may differgreatly from your own. That requires an imaginative leap, one Forbesseems to have been willing to make in his reviews. He seems torecognize that it’s possible to enjoy a movie on a narrative oremotional level even if it has ideological elements you disagree with.(By the same token, it’s possible for non-Christians to enjoypro-Christian allegories like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Matrix, or E.T.on a storytelling level, as well-wrought adventure tales, withoutfeeling proselytized or even noticing their Christian content.)
The bishops are free, of course, to fire Forbes or keep him on, andthey are free to decide that, in movie reviews, doctrinal correctnessis more important than aesthetics. But that seems to me to be acrabbed, blinkered, joyless way to watch movies.
What say you, PopWatchers? Should Forbes keep his job, or should thebishops fire him? Are you able to empathize with movie characters orsituations that may offend you? Are you able to enjoy movies even ifyou disagree with some of what they have to say?