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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Movies: Art or Not?

Often when I talk to young, orthodox Catholics of my acquaintance, their future ambitions include dabbling into film-making. They assert vaguely that "we need good movies out there." I have an inherent distrust of technology, however, and I have also noted a disturbing confusion about what is actually a good movie. Two questions arise in my mind. First, is film a medium worth devoting one's life to? And secondly, how should a Catholic judge the merit of a movie? As to the first, it seems to me an argument can be made both ways. According to Aristotle, art imitates reality. Since movies represent reality so strongly to the senses of both sight and hearing, they have a powerful influence over viewers; often a soundtrack excites an unconscious emotional response. This is undoubtedly dangerous, but it seems that it can also be put to good purpose. As one of the favored forms of modern entertainment, movies also reach a diverse and numerous audience. Films like The Passion indicate how effective this can be. And yet, I wonder what kind of compromises are involved in becoming a successful movie producer. From what I can discern, Mel Gibson only had the funds to make his movie WELL because of his illustrious acting career, a career which included many roles offensive to traditional Catholic morality. In fact, he made quite a few movies my parents did not allow me to see. For those of my readers who have seen the recent St. Therese of Lisieux movie, it makes an interesting contrast. I was not really pleased with the script, acting, music, or filming quality of that movie, but I am sure that film company did not have the funds Mel Gibson had at his disposal. Furthermore, The Passion still does not escape the "violence dilemma." Yes, I think that a depiction of the suffering of Our Lord is THE story where graphic depiction of violence is most justified and even necessary, but I worry about the same ill effect from it as I would from a more gratuitously violent movie - desensitization. I have only seen The Passion once because it was very moving the first time and I don't want it to acquire the same boring quality other films do when they are watched repeatedly. Still, there are other, non-violent films which I have difficulty criticizing, such as A&E's Pride and Prejudice and Our Mutual Friend. But even those excellent films may discourage lazy viewers from reading the books. I know that when I am tired in the evening, it is much easier for me to sit down and watch a movie than read a book. If I was really prudent, I would probably just retire for the evening and be a lot healthier for a good night's rest. In general, it seems as if television presents many tempations to waste time and zone out, rather than engaging in conversation or other worthy pursuits. Now, as to my second question, not all faithful Catholics share the same standards for movies. This is strange. The images we receive through the senses are very important to our moral life. One of my professors read an article of St. Thomas Aquinas which said that demons have the power to call up all the phantasms, or images, stored in our imagination. Aside from the harmful effect ugly images may have on the imagination, the message of the film is also important. Some students at the college I recently graduated from had a JP II Film Festival to encourage amateur movie-makers. I was quite disatisfied with the main feature, Discretion, although the acting and music and "graphics" were impressive. The plot surrounded a dysfunctional family and a man tortured by indecision in critical situations. It seemed an odd and convuluted way of addressing the virtue of prudence, and I could not discern how it related to JP II's Letter to Artists. The only inherently "Christian" aspect I noted was the two or three scenes when characters encouraged one another to pray about something. It seems to me that a movie must be more than merely not offensive to be called good. As it says in Plato's Laws, "if there be any music of which pleasure is the criterion, such music is not to be sought out or deemed to have any real excellence, but only that other kind of music which is an imitation of the good." Since movies shape the moral life even more forcibly than music, it seems that that statement applies to movies just as truly. A good movie must reflect reality in such a ways as to make the good, the true, and the beautiful more present or intelligible to the viewer. What exactly that entails is perhaps the sticky point. In any case, I think that teaching, or starting up a good choir at your parish, planting a garden, or learning to sew modest and attractive clothing are probably all more feasible and more likely ways of restoring good culture. But thats just me, and I am kind of eccentric...


Blogger The Chevalier said...

Well said--that's my kind of eccentricity! I and a certain gentleman agree with you about *Discretion,* as well. And it seems to me that good movies will be not a cause in changing the culture, but more of an effect of a culture that has been changed. Or, once the culture is renewed, they might not be around at all, since a culture well-ordered toward the higher things will have better things to do, as you pointed out regarding your own life.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes - the movie dilemna. Many believe for some reason that just because an movie is not offensive (or as offensive as others) - then it is good. I can't understand this - except as being a minimilist reaction to the culture or the compromise to make your kids think you are 'fair-minded'. While non-offensive ways to waste time may better than offensive ways to waste time, junk is stll junk.

Yet movies can also inspire - even when they are not overtly Christian, like The Passion. (Of course many of these inspiring movies were more inspiring as books.) As you state movie-watching usually detracts from the precious time we have to spend time either with our loved ones or doing some other apostolate.

On the other hand - everyone is at a different 'spiritual' part of their journey. And to evangelize the culture, sometimes we must go where they are to reach them. (Recall St. Paul identifying the statue of the 'unknown god' for the Gentiles in the Acts as the One True God. He went to where they were at.) So I think there is true validity to the vocation.

Yet again, as you point out, one must not compromise principles to reach the goal - and this must be very hard in the film industry. (I'm sure 'Church of the Masses' blog has an opinion on this.)

Look forward to reading more.


11:46 AM  

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