There is a lesson in the story of Rip Van Winkle, as he slumbers on a high hill overlooking the mighty rolling Hudson, lost in a deep sleep brought on by an intoxicating brew. When Rip awoke, and was alarmed by the changes in the world he had known, his first reaction was to ask for his old friends. Where was Van Bummel, the schoolmaster? Where was Dutcher, the soldier? To his dismay, all were long since departed. At which point, the story says, "Rip's heart died away at the hearing of the sad changes in his home and friends..." Today, more and more people are asking, "Where is America?"
Certainly, it sounds strange to hear someone say that America is gone. You might object by saying, "But look at highways, our mighty institutions, our government!" But these are outward forms, and a nation is above all known by its soul. I am not the first to say our civilization has vanished. The poet Ezra Pound said, "All that is left of our civilization is a few hundred broken statues and a thousand battered books." That is a poet's way of saying that the soul of the nation can be found only in a few surviving relics. But we have a better way to revisit this vanished civilization.
We have something that captures the spirit of this vanished America, alive before our very eyes, engaged in courtship, love, and marriage. These are the movies, a window onto the soul of the nation which once existed.
Much of modern life is conducted on a superficial level, without regard for spiritual matters. We exchange pleasantries, engage in small talk, and discuss business, politics, and sports. If you want to open a direct route to the soul of your fellow citizen, talk about the movies. Mary Schmich, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, has written, "You can map your life through your favorite movie, and no two people's maps will be the same." The movies are what the Bible was to an earlier generation of Americans. They provide the context for our communication, our allegories, our metaphors. Many people today would not recognize an allusion to Gideon and his band of mighty men, but most would recognize the concept found in "Band of Brothers."
If I were to call a woman a "Mary Magdalene" few would understand the allusion. Many more would immediately recognize the movie "Pretty Woman," a title inspired by a Roy Orbison song. I mention this only to illustrate how powerful the pop culture is in influencing our thinking. I am certain that many more of you caught the allusion to "Pretty Woman" than caught the allusion to Mary Magdalene.
The movies are able to influence the soul more powerfully, and more directly than any other form of art, including music. The influence of music on the soul is slighter. Movies on the other hand are a type of shared experience involving both sight and sound. I would say that music has the power to shape the soul, like a seal impressed on molten wax. Since movies are perceived by the mind as reality, they leave a permanent impression, like a brand left by a hot iron.
It is a strange property of movies, that like music - they have no independent existence outside the mind. Until you undergo the experience of watching a movie, the movie is merely celluloid tape. The images and sounds exist only when reconstructed in the mind. For this reason, they are a sort of collective dream in which the director, the actors, and the audience participate. You might think of movies as a kind of spirit poured like water from one container to another, except that the container is the mind, and it is part of a soul that is being added or taken away. Hence the great power of the movies for good or evil.
We lock our doors each night to protect our families and our homes, but how unfortunate is the man or woman who fails to set a guard on his soul, and allows a dream, or even a nightmare of a cruel, lustful, or mad individual to enter in.
Perhaps we should mention here the opinion of Tertullian, a Christian writer of the third century, who called the Roman theater "The Christian's worst enemy...a haunt of demons." Some of you are old enough to recall Baptists who refused to go to the movies, calling them "A Tool of the Devil." I wonder what Tertullian would say if he could see the Hollywood of today.
Yet it is my opinion that the movies can either build up or tear down the soul of an individual - they can edify or unedify. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the movies, realized this more than anyone else. Late in life he admitted he was dismayed to see his invention used for entertainment, and not as education as he originally intended.
If anyone doubts the movies are a spiritual force, let them reflect on the use of movies as propaganda. After the Bolshevik Revolution closed churches throughout Russia, many churches were converted to one of two uses. They were turned into Museums of Atheism, or re-opened as theaters for government-approved films. I am saddened to see the same thing has happened to some churches in Maine. They have closed their doors and reopened as theatres.
Movies influence our perception of reality, and nowhere is this influence greater - for good or evil - than when it forms our perception of what it means to be a man or woman.
In an earlier time, the image of man and woman in the movies was healthier; and it was also more realistic. Many people would deny this, and claim that the movies of a bygone era were sentimental and unreal. The matter is not that simple. To be sure, women were portrayed as gentle and feminine, and men as heroic and virtuous; each entering on screen to the sound of harp music, or a flourish of trumpets, as the case may be. Yet the men and women were portrayed as worthy of love and honor precisely to the degree that they represented an ideal. Virtuous characters met with good fortune, and the opposite was true. Bad characters met with a bad end, proving the maxim that "Character is destiny." How much more realistic this is, than portraying characters who meet with no reward for their virtue, and no punishment for their sin. A world without consequences, after all, is an unreal world.
Yet the movies of today go farther. They claim that all actions, even good ones, are based on selfish motives. In doing so, they take the ultimate step in moral confusion. They deny even the possibility that goodness can exist.
The movies of an earlier age showed an element of good in every screen character, even the worst villain. This portrayal of human nature corresponded to the Christian doctrine that each individual is created in the image of God and is redeemable. Such stories carried greater emotional impact, and produced greater art, for the simple reason that they were closer to reality. It is not true, as Hollywood would have us believe, that man is a soulless beast, devoid of a divine purpose.
At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I would like to join others in lamenting that there are no great screen personalities today, no actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Clark Gable. Personality is the product of a free soul rooted in a past, a given locality, a soul capable of working out its destiny through the moral choices it makes. To remove the moral element from the movies is to remove the personality of the characters - to strip the movie of its human element. When an actor plays a character which mirrors his own personality - that is, when the character closely reflects the personality of a real, living person - we say the picture "comes alive."
Personality then, is made up of moral qualities. We say a John Wayne is heroic, or a Donna Reed is wholesome. An actor like John Wayne, or an actress like Donna Reed, is remembered because the characters they portrayed were noble and virtuous - and what is noble is memorable. I imagine that the likes of Madonna and Britney Spears will soon be forgotten. If you reflect for a moment, you will see that they are sadly lacking in the quality known as personality. Of course, Madonna and Britney Spears are a type of the phenomenon known as the anti-hero, in which vice is exalted over virtue.
The question of why vice is preferred to virtue at the movies is related to another more general question about the odd inversion of moral values in our society. This question has many variants. Each question seeks to learn the cause behind the transformation of the moral and artistic values of this society. For example: Why are squibs and dabs of paint, placed at random, considered beautiful? Why is music with no melody or harmony considered music? Why is lust now considered more important than love?
Or we could simply ask why the great film biographies about Alexander Graham Bell, Louis Pasteur, and Madame Curie have been replaced by movies with titles such as "Terminator" or "Hell-Raiser?" The answer to this question is the same in all cases, and brings us to the heart of the matter - "The Loss of Romantic Love"
Part II [Saturday 18th December] deals with how Romantic Love and American Values have been overthrown in large part by the contribution to society of one of the most quoted authors and thinkers of the 20th Century. In Part II, Fritz Spencer answers the question posited in Part I: Why is vice preferred to virtue at the movies?