Ha Jolly Ha

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...

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Benefits of Social Hierarchy

I just finished reading a novel by Anthony Trollope, entitled The Warden. As far as style is concerned, it seemed reminiscent of both Austen and Dickens. It is the first in a series of books about a cathedral town in England, and the author purposefully raises some interesting questions. The plot surrounds an Anglican cleric, appointed by his friend the bishop to be Warden of a charitable hospital. This hospital is supported by the estate of a man long dead, whose will made provisions for the support of twelve elderly or disabled tradesman of the town, unable to care for themselves. The will also directed that a Warden and Steward be appointed to run the hospital and decide who in the town needs that kind of help. At the beginning of the story, the salaries received by the Warden and Steward fall under legal scrutiny. It seems that many clerical fortunes were suspect at that time, and an idealistic youth of the town suspects that the poor men are being cheated out of their dues. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the hospital inmates receive much from their Warden that cannot be estimated in monetary terms. He arranges everything for their comfort, sees that the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, consoles them in their griefs, and tends them in their illnesses. How their happy situation is upset by rash interference! After a life of struggles and poverty, these old men were living comfortably under the kind care of a gentle, spiritual shepherd. When the legal action begins, that peaceful world falls apart; though many of them are near death, and thus cannot hope to enjoy any greater comfort from a larger pension, greed engrosses their days and divides their happy community. Suddenly, they resent the situation of their generous benefactor, who lived for their good. Meanwhile, he suffers from their fickleness and his own scruples. His agonies increase when the public attacks his good name and the case is used as a vehicle of political reform. In the end, the action against him falls through, but he gives up the position anyway because his conscience is in doubt. Thus, the old men are left in loneliness and neglect, their unworthy hopes disappointed and their friend and protector gone. Impoverished and cast from his home, the Warden has neither the time nor the means to offer them the same attentions, much as he would like to. The idealist who prosecuted him thought to enrich the lives of the old men by securing them a greater allowance of money, but it seems that that money benefited them most in the hands of someone else.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Duc in Altum?

This whole blog deal is new to me, but here goes all the same... As a recent graduate of a tiny, liberal arts, traditional, Catholic college, I'm experiencing once more the culture shock of every summer vacation. In my little college community, certain spiritual goods were taken for granted. Those who desired higher things need not go far to find: a reverent Mass, enriched by the forgotten arts of Gregorian Chant and polyphonic choirs; good conversation, stimulated by group readings of the giants of the Catholic tradition (Newman, Chesterton, Pieper, Belloc, Tolkien, etc) and facilitated by the shared vocabulary of a unified curriculum; wholesome diversion, from parlour games and scenic walks, to folk songs and contra dancing; and most importantly, virtuous friendships. Now I find myself cut adrift from that again, and left in the poverty of modern, American culture.
At home, my family and our small circle of friends are a bastion against the spiritus mundi. In lonely confederacy, we struggle against the sirens of materialism and pop culture. More and more I realize how difficult it is for such a small band to maintain a flourishing Christian community, and how little influence they have to draw others from the false promises of the world to a truly happy life. So deeply have errors insinuated themselves into the very structure of our society that, in many respects, a healthy community must isolate itself to survive. Nevertheless, I am not despondent; as Newman said, "Christ never will reign visibly upon earth; but in each age, as it comes, we shall read of tumult and heresy, and hear the complaint of good men marvelling at what they conceive to be the especial wickedness of their own times." Rather, I feel blessed to be among the minority of those who have been introduced to the wisdom of the Christian tradition and shown the true end of man. Now it remains only to discover the best means of attaining that end, how the reditus to God is to be carried out. This is a daunting task, but I am fortified by the graces of the sacraments, and consoled by the friendship of like-minded people (those who are mens nostra, to use a favorite phrase of my good friend D.M.), scattered across the continent though we may be. At the very least, my fellow graduates and I can share the treasury of the Catholic tradition with our families and friends and children, and apply it as much as possible to our own lives. Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!