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 Movies with Harry: OFB's Harry Forbes brings a fresh eye to films and TV

Harry Forbes takes Catholic press readers to the movies all week, every week. (CNS photo by Nancy Wiechec)

OFB’s Harry Forbes brings a fresh eye to films and TV

Harry Forbes is the new director of the Office for Film and Broadcasting in the communications department of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He came to OFB after a successful career at the New York affiliates of NBC, CBS, and PBS, and most extensively, for PBS itself. Besides a lifetime of movie and TV consumption as a viewer, he brings experience as a theater reviewer for NYC public access TV, Time Out New York and Manhattan Spirit, which is the largest circulation weekly in the city. His reviews and media analysis are distributed to clients across the globe by Catholic News Service.

Recently, CNS media reporter Mark Pattison sat down with this native and lifetime resident of New York City to discuss his new role, what’s right and wrong with the movies, and just what all those reviewer terms mean.

Q. Do you believe the vast majority of movie and TV critics use a moral compass when writing their reviews?
A. I actually think they do, though not necessarily from a Catholic perspective, as we do. But I do think there’s so much drek out there that even the most callous critics speak up when something offends them, even above and beyond the quality of the film.

Q. The USCCB system of film classifications is meant to be a guide for parents. What do you hear from parents about the classification given a particular movie, or the classifications in general?
A. Parents certainly have a special interest in our ratings, but films are an important influence in our society. We also write our reviews to be of assistance to adults who are deciding what films are worth their time and money. They are written for those who may have seen a film and are looking for a reaction to it that is morally informed. Our review of the “The Passion of the Christ” is a good example of a review written mainly for adults. From the number of hits on the USCCB film section on the USCCB Web site, our sense is that parents are appreciative of the guidance our office provides in assessing films. Once in a while, we’ll hear from folks who want to know if it’s a sin to see a certain film. We try to make it clear that “O” ratings are a guide to help people make their own or their children’s viewing choices.

Q. You see movies so everybody else doesn't have to. But when it comes to offering a movie classification in terms of its moral suitability, there are certain phrases that you -- and fellow critic David DiCerto -- use to allude to a film's content. Let's go through some of the phrases that were used in some of this summer's movie reviews and crack the code, as it were. What will make this more challenging for you is to avoid using the very words that earned some films their classification! First off, what makes a sexual encounter "explicit"?
A. Before I answer, let me say this isn’t a precise science. And it’s important to point out that we view everything contextually, but an “explicit” sexual encounter would probably include nudity and suggestive bodily motion that leaves very little to the imagination.

Harry’s Favorites

     1. Gone With The Wind
     2. The Wizard of Oz
     3. Once Upon a Time
         in The West
     4. Children of Paradise
     5. Marriage Italian Style
     6. Wuthering Heights
     7. 2001: A Space Odyssey
     8. Sunrise
     9. The Lord of the Rings
     10. Swing Time
Q. And then, what makes a sexual encounter “implied”?
A. A clear indication that sexual intercourse was about to take place or may have just taken place. It could be something as discreet as the closing of a bedroom door, for instance.

Q. What qualifies as “sexual innuendo”?
A. Something suggestive, either spoken or mimed.

Q. How much, or how little, nudity must be shown to be called “partial nudity”?
A. No frontal nudity, but perhaps a scene of someone taking a shower, as Will Smith did in “I, Robot,” with a side view or Brad Pitt’s artfully posed love-making scenes in “Troy.” Clearly, in those instances, the characters aren’t wearing any clothes, but we don’t see any private parts either. In the old days, “partial nudity” might have referred to say, a shot of a woman’s breast, but nowadays, we would simply call that “nudity.”

Q. Does “full frontal nudity” refer to one gender or the other, or can it refer to either gender -- or must it refer to both?
A. Either.

Q. In terms of language, what would be considered a “crass” expression?
A. Something vulgar that falls short of an actual cuss word.

Q. And a “crude” expression?
A. Probably the “s” word.

Q. While on the word "crude," what would be a “crude gesture”?
A. I think that’s pretty obvious. Someone giving the finger perhaps, or any gesture of an offensively sexual nature.

Q. And an “obscene gesture”?
A. We’re in pretty much the same ballpark. Which phrase is used may depend, for instance, on whether the gesture is a sexual come-on or an expression of anger or frustration.

Q. What would be “rough language”?
A. The “f” word.

Q. How about “coarse language”?
A. Much the same as “crude” language.

Q. And, by the same token, “profane language”?
A. Taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Q. What makes violence “intense”?
A. An unrelenting quality and its graphic nature. For example, instead of just seeing one character punching another, the director shows close up the other character’s face being pulverized.

Q. What would count as “gory” violence?
A. Dismemberment, torture.

Q. And "action violence"?
A. More of the comic-book variety. The battle of the robots in “I, Robot” would be a good example: a sort of glossy violence that avoids being graphic -- violence that’s so obviously unreal that it tempers its negative effects, though sometimes that type can be more insidiously harmful, particularly to a young audience. But again, we take into account the context.

Harry’s Favorites

     1. I Love Lucy
     2. Masterpiece Theatre
     3. Charlie Rose
     4. The Ed Sullivan Show
     5. The Carol Burnett Show
     6. Fawlty Towers
     7. Great Performances
     8. The Sopranos
     9. The Honeymooners
     10. Inside the Actor’s Studio
Q. In terms of frequency, how much must be said or shown to merit the designation “recurring”?
A. That’s a judgment call. It’s difficult to put a number on it, but it’s not hard to recognize. In the example I used of a character’s face being pulverized, some directors make their point by showing the actor’s face once. Others seem to linger over it and to return to it again and again for no particular reason. In terms of increasing degree the adjectives we use are minimal, occasional, some, intermittent, frequent, recurring, and constant.

Q. How prominent must the on-screen action be to be “graphic”?
A. Basically, leaving little to the imagination, as with “explicit.” In the past, if one character shot another, the victim fell down and that was it. Now you can see the bullet cause the victim’s head to explode.

Q. How do you use the word “strong” in noting behavior and language?
A. “Strong” often characterizes the effect the director wants to have on the audience. Does he want to really scare the audience? Or does he want them to face a topic not often talked about, such as incest? Films like these may not have anything “objectionable” in them in the usual sense, but they may have a potentially disquieting effect on an audience to which you want to alert possible viewers.

Q. And, despite all that, it's not just a by-the-numbers recitation of how many times an objectionable action occurs in a movie. What role does the film's tone play in arriving at a classification?
A. It can make quite a difference. Perhaps the best example is “The End of the Affair” which was a serious attempt to put on the screen a great novel about sin and redemption. The sin in question happens to be adultery, and despite several scenes that would earn another film an “O,” we gave it A–IV -- for adults with reservations -– because these scenes were in the context of a larger moral concern.

Q. Not only are there 200-plus movies you consider every year, but there are scads of television shows and specials that come your way. How do you decide which shows to look at for reviewing?
A. Of the two of three shows we review each week, it’s really a matter of seeking out the quality product. Given our fairly long lead time -– 3 or 4 weeks in advance –- many of the networks don’t have their programs available for screening that far ahead of time. PBS and HBO are the best in terms of long-lead material. PBS usually passes the quality test with flying colors, though HBO can be problematic, unless they’re doing one of their quality dramas like the Churchill movie, “The Gathering Storm,” or a solid political documentary, such as their recent “A Death in Gaza.”

Q. Do you ever fear that they'll all tend to blur together at some point?
A. [Laughing] Oh, they do. We’ve learned that if we don’t write our reviews almost immediately after seeing the film or TV program, it can be very difficult indeed. One of these days, we’ll get our “28 Days” confused with our “21 Grams.”

Q. What are some of the other activities your office performs?
A. We write a video column every week, along with a television column which includes the films airing on network television, program highlights of interesting programs we may not have the opportunity to review, seasonal wrap-ups and other pieces for Catholic News Service, such as who's likely to win the Oscars each year. Every other year, we do a “Faith on Film” festival in New York City. And we participate in the Catholic Academy for media professionals. So, as you can see it’s a pretty heavy load.
We also have a good relationship with the Motion Picture Association of America.

Q. What is the overall tone you hope to bring to your position?
A. When friends and colleagues heard I had gotten this position, some expressed a hope that I wouldn’t be too censorious. I think there’s some lingering misunderstanding about the Legion of Decency, particularly in the old days when a movie was objectionable because of suggestive costuming like a low-cut dress. Today, though, if a film has certain objectionable elements, we’re going to point out every one of them, but if it’s a superior piece of filmmaking, we say so as well.

Harry Forbes’ and David DiCerto’s reviews appear on the Web at www.usccb.org/movies and www.catholicnews.com. You can contact Forbes at hforbes@usccb.org.