The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.
Gather ‘round, kids! It’s time for the creepiest show on earth – Hollywood’s Most Despised Villain by Geoff Botkin!
I know, I know, I don’t usually start posts like that. But in all seriousness, Hollywood’s Most Despised Villain was the creepiest lecture I’ve heard so far. In fact, by the end I felt unsettled even listening to it – and I was only hearing the audio, not seeing Botkin and his body language. So why is it so creepy? Bear with me for just a moment and I’ll show you.
Daddy plays house?
As it turns out, the creepy starts almost right away. Botkin delivered his address at the 2004 San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival (SAICFF), so as we should expect from the title, it’s heavily geared toward film and media. He begins with a discussion of some terms he will be using throughout the lecture, and spent the most time on the phrase “aesthetic elements”:
Aesthetics…is the science of defining goodness, truth and beauty and how culture is perceived, and what you perceive by walking through these homes are the aesthetics and aesthetic elements, rather, of the cultures in these homes. Each home has its own culture. Through aesthetic elements, we feel, perceive and see a culture’s religion, and each one of these homes also has its own religion. Aesthetic elements are cultural dressing, just like in films, a director employs a set dresser to make every set look exactly like he wants according to the script, and aesthetic elements are the culture dressing, how the culture is dressed, literally, every single little element. …
Aesthetic elements are the external elements of culture, the physical building blocks of culture. Aesthetic elements are the imprint of faith on life and culture. … All aesthetic elements are religious. Aesthetic elements are the theological marks of society, even secular society. There’s no such thing as a neutral or secular society, every society is religious and every culture is religious. Aesthetic elements are the marks of one’s affections, values and moral code.
Leaving aside the question of whether something as intangible and subjective as aesthetics can be properly described as a “science” (I don’t think it can), let me explain the context of these quotes. The homes Botkin mentioned in the first paragraph are part of an extended illustration he gave to help his audience better understand what he meant by “aesthetic elements.” In it, he contrasts, one by one, the interiors of three houses all for sale on the same street. For example, in the first house there are posters of scantily clad pop stars, a prominent entertainment center with a huge television, Playboy magazines all over the sofa, and a sink full of dirty dishes decorated with pictures of cartoon characters. In the third house, well-behaved children are reading wholesome books and playing Moonlight Sonata on the piano, there are family-themed paintings on the walls, and a mother is chatting with her daughters while preparing a home-cooked meal. The point is, of course, that the aesthetic elements in the third house reflect a Christian worldview, while the ones in the first house reflect a secular or hedonistic one.
I do agree with Botkin to a point, in that we can often learn a lot from subtle (or not-so-subtle) clues in art and media about what the artist believes and intended to communicate. But since we’re talking about subtle clues, let’s delve deeper than this surface-level analysis of Botkin’s illustration. Namely, let’s ask what Botkin is defining as an “aesthetic element” in the first place. The artwork on the walls? The books? The level of cleanliness in the home? Yes, yes and yes – but notice that, in the third “Christian” house, the family members themselves and their activites have been defined as an aesthetic element. This is even clearer in the full illustration, where the first “secular” house has rap music blasting at a high volume from the end of a hallway – i.e., the family members are engaging in “worldly” activities (in contrast to the godly, wholesome activity in the third house).
Aesthetic elements are cultural dressing, just like in films, a director employs a set dresser to make every set look exactly like he wants according to the script, and aesthetic elements are the culture dressing, how the culture is dressed, literally, every single little element.
If we think this one through, we realize that what Botkin has actually done here is compare sentient human beings and their actions, to inanimate objects being arranged on a set at the whim of a director. And I don’t know about you, but this may just be the single most disturbing thing I’ve yet heard a patriocentrist say in public. It’s unnerving enough to say that a daughter or wife’s will should be subject to that of her father, but this has gone far beyond even that.
The next question begged by this illustration is, who is the director? God? The patriarch? Neither one of these is a good option. If it’s God, then it’s painting an extremely ugly portrait of Him that looks worse than even the most fatalistic versions of hyper-Calvinism. If it’s the patriarch, then we’re plunged straight into the deep end of some truly terrifying theology (to say nothing of psychology) that basically reduces women and children to property status. The fact that Botkin mentioned teaching his children in the midst of this entire discussion is making me even more nervous:
And when I teach my children, and say, my son, give me your heart, and let your eyes delight in my ways, what I’m showing them when I teach them about my ways – what we do in the Botkin family, and the Botkins believe this, and the Botkins do this – I’m giving them a huge amount of information about aesthetic elements.
There are other negative implications to this discussion, of course. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Botkin that the snapshots of the three homes in his example might be just that: brief moments in time that don’t give us enough information about the true nature of the environment. The beautiful Christian children who smile so much and have such good manners, might be being beaten or molested by their “godly” parents when no one is there to see it. The owner of the second home – which featured electric blue carpet, an extensive Barbie doll collection, and sentimental portraits of Jesus – could be an upstanding Christian woman of impeccable character who just has strange tastes. And thus it’s especially telling that Botkin compares these homes to a set. Sets are stages upon which actors perform a play. In other words, the things that occur on a set are, by their very nature, not reality.
Another concern I have is what sounds like narrow tribal thinking on Botkin’s part. When he teaches his children that “the Botkins believe this,” is this all he teaches them? Does he also teach them about the wider Christian community, Christian belief in general, and the Christian tradition throughout history? Does he teach them about other Christians who disagree with the Botkins (and without poisoning the well)? Or is the only important thing the “Botkin way” and the beliefs of their tiny patriarchal subculture?
The Marxists are coming!
So at this point you’re probably wondering when Hollywood arrives on the scene. Wasn’t this lecture supposed to be about the “most despised villain” in film? Who is that, and why haven’t we heard a word about them yet?
Thankfully, I am, as always, your beloved blogmistress and here to answer pressing questions like these. Hollywood’s most despised villain is, of course, the Christian patriarch (who else?). I can’t, however, strictly say that the lecture was about this infamous figure. That’s what you would be led to believe by the title – I certainly was – but in reality the Christian patriarch wasn’t mentioned more than a few times. Why? Because Botkin had other things to talk about. Namely, this. How did I react?
In other words, Botkin should have titled this lecture, not Hollywood’s Most Despised Villain, but How Soviets and Marxists Conspired to Take Over Hollywood, Destroy Christianity and Brainwash Your Children, because in terms of actual airtime, that was its real subject.
Like I said, this surprised me as much as it may surprise you. I’d never heard of the Frankfurt School or this particular conspiracy theory before. Like most conspiracy theories, it appears to rely so much on secret plots and insider knowledge that it’s rendered essentially non-disprovable, and as such I won’t make an attempt to refute it here. (I also, honestly, don’t know enough about the history of Marxism to refute the precise historical claims even if I wanted to.) I will, however, say that to this author’s nose, it does not pass the smell test any more than the Illuminati, the New World Order or The Da Vinci Code, because it’s frankly just too perfect for Botkin’s narrative. For those interested, here’s an overview of the history and promotion of the theory, from a leading expert on the Frankfurt School (note: this is not intended as an endorsement of the author’s political views).
While I can’t refute the specific historical claims of the theory, I can analyze what Botkin claims are its present-day effects and the aesthetics he thinks originated with the evil socialist masterminds who conquered Hollywood. Let’s start with the latter, and examine Botkin’s account of a young Christian scriptwriter who wanted Botkin to look over his screenplay. Botkin was, needless to say, not impressed:
However, I began reading, and by act 2, the writer had included the following aesthetic elements, ideas and cultural dressing. By act 2 – now I’m gonna list them, please read with me. Businessmen are evil, that was in there. Small country towns are depraved because they are so traditional. Work is to be avoided. This is all by act 2. Sex makes the world go round. Men are stupid. Dads are dopey. Fornication is inevitable after the Hollywood kiss. License or libertinism is virtuous. Rebellion is inherently cool. Selfish hedonism is a path to fulfillment and happiness. Sin is an outdated concept. Homosexuality is genetic. Gays should be celebrated fixtures in society – and he cast actors in this script which communicated this idea – should be celebrated fixtures in society. The state has a duty to provide a risk-free existence to its people. Characters who curse and swear are necessary as a mark of honest reality in a script. These are all the ideas he’s packing into his script, in act 1 and in act 2. To be yet more graphic, the script included specific jokes that seemed to go out of their way to prove the writer’s familiarity with Hollywood’s idea of aesthetic humor, including potty jokes, the newest sex slang, comparisons of Reagan to Hitler, racial minorities dealing out violent arrogance to white Anglo-Saxon males, and the mocking of a famous Christian businessman. A Bible-toting nutcase, which was actually labeled nutcase in the script, totally irrelevant to the characters in the story, made a cameo appearance, in this script written by a Christian writer.
That’s a big list, so let’s break this down slowly. First, a lot of things in this list obviously derive more from Botkin’s politics than from Christianity; notice especially his objections to businessmen being portrayed as evil, the state providing a “risk-free existence,” and comparisons of Ronald Reagan to Hitler. Politics is not the topic of this blog, so I won’t comment on the validity of Botkin’s political views. I will, however, point out that one does not have to be a conservative or a Republican to be Christian, so while the content of the original script may have been tasteless, inflammatory or overly broad (something I will never be able to confirm, for obvious reasons), it doesn’t follow that non-conservative politics are automatically incompatible with Christian aesthetics, let alone that they had to be specially planted there by Marxist infiltrators. Non-conservative politics may be incompatible with Geoff Botkin’s view of Christian aesthetics, but Christianity does not start and end with Geoff Botkin, and no Christian artist is obligated to make their work comply with his conscience.
Second, many things on this list make me wish I could read the original script, so I could see what exactly upset Botkin so much. Take, for instance, the statement that “license or libertinism is virtuous.” How does Botkin define “license” and “libertinism”? What happened in the script that made him think the author wanted to convey this message? Similarly, what made him think that the author wanted to promote rebellion as “inherently cool”? The answers to these questions would tell us a lot about how Botkin conceives of “Christian aesthetics” and how they differ from “Frankfurt School aesthetics.” (I’m especially curious why toilet humor had to be pinned on the Marxists. Are we seriously supposed to believe that no one before the Soviets ever found farts funny? I doubt that very much, given that entire books have been written on this topic.)
Third, I believe that after reading the above list, I am able to pinpoint the major difference between the way I tend to think about art and the way Botkin apparently thinks about it. This sentence is the key:
Characters who curse and swear are necessary as a mark of honest reality in a script.
Judging by the above, Botkin believes that Christians should never put profanity in their stories, even if the character in question – say, a pirate or an angry drunk – would almost certainly use it in real life.
It’s here where, I think, science fiction author Simon Morden’s excellent essay Sex, Death and Christian Fiction, which I used a few months back to critique the popular Christian film God’s Not Dead, becomes relevant yet again. Morden’s take is the exact opposite of Botkin’s:
And yes, my characters swear. Not all the time, but sometimes when the need arises. It depends on the character, on the situation, on the setting. I write about soldiers some times. Having hung around the occasional army barracks in my time, the language is positively industrial. Using the F-word as every other word is not only poor writing, is gets boring very quickly. But pretending it doesn’t happen is straying into fantasy reality territory. It lessens your story. It makes it look like you know nothing about soldiers at all.
Morden’s aesthetic is to present a realistic picture of the world as we know it. Botkin’s, however, seems to be about presenting an idealized world as a teaching or evangelistic tool; in fact he explicitly said at the beginning of the lecture that film is a teaching medium and not entertainment. In brief – since I already covered much of this same ground in my review of God’s Not Dead – to me as a reader (and a Christian reader at that), it’s obvious which of these aesthetics works better on the ground. One (Morden’s) produces interesting and compelling pieces of art. The other (Botkin’s) produces preachy, shallow propaganda pieces. In addition, I have moral qualms about Christians basing their entire aesthetic model on essential dishonesty about the sinful condition of the world and mankind. Botkin, however, will brook no dissent:
For Christian filmmakers, there can be no appeasement with anti-Christian culture, no appeasement. No apostate practices of compromise and syncretism with impurity, pragmatism amd worldliness. We won’t allow it here. If you want my help, you’ve gotta get over this. No appeasement, no syncretism with impurity, pragmatism or worldliness. Here’s your responsibility, very simply stated: to tell the truth using the highest skill and the right aesthetic elements as you reintroduce the world to the Biblical perspective on goodness, truth and beauty. That’s your job.
However saddening the simplistic view of art in the above may be – Christian art apparently consists of combining “the truth” with “the right aesthetic elements” and poof, hey presto – what preceded it was downright disturbing:
For Christian filmmakers, such affections will hinder their discernment and ability to establish an antithetical industry, and frankly, ladies and gentlemen, if you’ve got those and you enter a film in this festival, it won’t go anywhere. It’ll be thrown out. You need to cleanse yourself of all defilement of flesh and spirit to be involved in what we’re doing in this new replacement industry. Film is an entirely legitimate weapon for Christians, but will only be culturally powerful for the kingdom of God if each film is loaded with the right aesthetic elements and ideas, and this is what you’ll learn about at this festival. This is why you need to get all the tapes, listen to R. C., listen to George, listen to Doug. Then begin to develop the right aesthetic understanding so you load your films with it.
On the one hand, at least Botkin is honest about his standards, and the folks who (until recently) operated SAICFF did indeed have the right to set their own criteria and reject any applicants who didn’t meet them. On the other, however, I’m having trouble seeing how Botkin’s proposal above is any different than the strategy the Frankfurt School Marxists supposedly used to take over Hollywood. Like them, Botkin wishes to infiltrate Hollywood with his vision by filling his films with the “right” ideas and then using them as “weapons” in his culture war. So then what exactly does he object to about these Marxists? That they squelched freedom of thought and expression? Or that they hold power when he does not?
After examining the aforementioned script, Botkin gives us a more detailed list of some “Frankfurt School aesthetics”:
…Hollywood is in the business of showing in all their programs, all their productions, all their television programs, businessmen are criminals. The military are psychotic sadists. Minorities of all descriptions are good-hearted. … Small towns are evil. Criminals are the victims of racism and poverty. The clergy are uninformed, unsophisticated, ineffectual. Government social workers are noble, idealistic and hard-working. Fathers are stupid. Children are superior to and smarter than parents, and a liberated female who rejects motherhood is heroic.
Now there are admittedly some films that participate in the narrative Botkin is describing here. But they are hardly the only films out there. I, for one, can think of many hit movies that go against core elements of this list. For instance, how are there so many popular movies that feature positive portrayals of World War II veterans if “the military are psychotic sadists”? Why did a film like Taken, about a father trying to rescue his daughter from sex slavery, do so well at the box office? Pixar especially seems to have flown under the censors’ radar, as they produced both The Incredibles (in which parents protect their children, a marriage is strengthened, and a family bands together to single-handedly stop evil) and Finding Nemo (in which a father literally crosses an ocean to save his son). Are the puppeteers asleep at the wheel?
(Oh, wait – nope. I was wrong. Pixar also produced Wall-E. They are clearly secret drones of the conspiracy and just trying to trick us with those other films that positively portrayed family relationships.)
Botkin finished off his description of the Frankfurt School conspiracy theory with a reference to his own (allegedly) Marxist past:
As a former Marxist, I understand this, and I was a Christian hater, and the Lord was merciful to me. I was a violent Christian hater. It’s even hard for me to even recall some of the things that we used to talk about in meetings that we’d have. We saw no useful purpose for Christians in society. We were literally talking about, well, what could we do, you know, for the glory of the state, for good old Mother Earth, Christians would make good fertilizer. Serious discussion. I’m ashamed to say it.
I say allegedly Marxist because the excellent research of Cindy Kunsman has, I think, given us good reason to take Botkin’s claims of past Marxist affiliations with a grain of salt. For more information about this, definitely read at least this post; I also recommend this one and this one for a fuller picture. (And no, neither I nor Kunsman know for sure that Botkin is lying or exaggerating here. But it is my opinion that there is enough in Kunsman’s posts to at least make us suspicious of the claim of past Marxism.)
So…now do you see why I called this the creepiest show on earth?