Of all the comments made following the tragic shooting in Aurora, perhaps the most piercing were those of Peter Bogdanovich, the Hollywood director:
At first, some of the people [at The Dark Night Rises] thought it was part of the movie. That’s very telling. Violence on the screen has increased tenfold. . . . Today, there’s a general numbing of the audience. There’s too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible.
Bogdanovich went on: “Very few people have experienced murder directly. Generally speaking, the average person hasn’t experienced it, and the average director hasn’t experienced it. I think if they had, they would make their films differently.”
The comments were part of a broader discussion at the Hollywood Reporter about the effect graphic films were having upon American society. In a candid piece titled, “Beware the Dangers of Film’s Dark Side,” the paper’s lead reviewer admitted that “few critics want to come right out and say that films they love might be responsible for murderous behavior.”
Of course, for even broaching such views, the Reporter (hardly an organ of social conservatism) provoked scorn. The Atlantic dismissed Bogdanovich’s “mind-numbingly wrong-headed piece” and even ridiculed moralistic “hand-wringing” after the tragedy. From others, came a different refrain: “Millions of ordinary Americans watch modern films all the time, with plenty of sex and violence, but they don’t suddenly snap and commit insane acts of evil.”
True, but comparing common decency favorably with psychopathic behavior is an incredibly low standard by which to judge moral conduct. Furthermore, there is a larger question to ask.
Even if no direct causal connection can be proven between acts of terror and the modern cinema—and even if the vast majority of moviegoers remain outwardly decent—what are harmful films doing to their souls?
As the Gospels teach us, a believer’s inner well-being can be damaged by what they absorb, even if they appear healthy on the surface.
Dr. Alice von Hildebrand has asked how many realize this:
Am I wrong in fearing that “modern man,” deafened by sounds, poisoned by evil images and pictures, can no longer register cacophonic sounds which harm the sensitive enamel of their souls? This is why I often hear people say: “I do not see why this is shocking. I do not see why this is wrong. I do not see why others call this coarse.”
Film is a very powerful medium, arguably the most powerful in the arts. For many years Hollywood understood this, and exercised restraint. Whatever sins were going on in the real world, moviemakers had enough sense not to glorify or graphically depict them on screen; action and character development took place within a moral framework, where right and wrong were recognized. For roughly three decades, 1935-1965, mainstream films maintained standards that broadly (albeit imperfectly) reflected a Judeo-Christian outlook. And for all the complaints against the Motion Picture Production Code, as it became known, it did not impede (and in the opinion of many, it fostered), what is now known as the golden age of cinema. This was the era when William Wyler and Orson Welles, John Ford and Frank Capra, and Alfred Hitchcock and Fred Zinnemann produced their greatest work.
Then—almost overnight—the roof caved in, and the film industry became one more casualty of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The film code was scrapped, and by the end of the decade, and into the 1970s, a slew of films, unimaginably graphic for a previous generation, were released: Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris, A Clockwork Orange, and Taxi Driver. Hailed as works of cinematic genius by avant-garde critics, they deeply offended the sensibility of others, and were early warning signs of the present-day culture wars. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy—whatever its technical achievements—is a product of this break with the past.
Bursting at the seams with secularism, and often driven by anarchic impulses, its not surprising that modern Hollywood has suffered a cultural descent.
What is surprising is the number of modern-day Christians who’ve fallen prey to a misguided notion of art.
During the height of the Sopranos’ appeal, it was amazing to see how many practicing Catholics were addicted to the series—notwithstanding its ultraviolent, sexually degrading content—discussing each episode, as if the experience was no more unusual than attending a local parish council. Alas, one suspects they knew more about the depravity of Tony Soprano and his fictional family than they did about John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which specifically condemns abuses in the audiovisual arts; or the 1989 pontifical document directly linking “sadistic violence” in film with pornography.
Of course, the Catholic hierarchy has not always provided sound guidance. The USCCB’s Office for Film and Broadcasting has often appeased, rather than resisted, bad cultural trends: witness its favorable review of the notorious Brokeback Mountain, a rating that changed only after a hue and cry was raised. Even the L’Osservatore Romano has an uneven record here. In 1999, reflecting the papal statements which have warned against morally offensive films and entertainment, the newspaper deplored the degree sex and violence had overtaken movies, and defended reasonable restrictions. Yet, just ten years later, under new editors, the Osservatore paid tribute to the drug-laden Easy Rider and spoke of how “impressive” the horrifying Texas Chainsaw Massacre was. For good measure, the paper also mocked “the hypocritical and anachronistic” production code.
Something is wrong when the Hollywood Reporter is voicing more serious caution about modern film than the Vatican’s own newspaper.
The Catholic Church once had a clear and consistent voice against decadence, and was a huge cultural force in Hollywood, but that unity has fractured, and its influence waned.
It is ironic that many contemporary Catholics, eager to be seen as non-prudish and artistically sophisticated, have lowered their standards, even though some of our greatest artists warned against that.
Bogdanovich commented, “Back in the ‘70’s, I asked Orson Welles what he thought was happening to pictures, and he said, ‘We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.’ The respect for human life seems to be eroding.”
Legendary director Frank Capra was equally direct: “Filming two naked people thrashing about on a bed, what’s that got to do with art?” Capra knew filmmakers “just can’t forget sexuality,” yes, but believed they should approach it with reverence:
It is part of everyday living. It is part of what we live with, and it is part of the great joy of living. I don’t think we could eliminate it. I don’t think we can downgrade it, nor do I think we should defile it. And when you see explicit sex scenes on the screen, they are defiling one of the most wondrous things any human being can experience.
It is a fallacy to claim that directors need the freedom to be explicit to reveal the true experience of human life. Anyone who has seen Waterloo Bridge, The Lost Weekend, Paths of Glory, or The Miracle Worker—all released during the supposedly repressive production code era—knows that romance, sin, alcoholism, war, and disability can be depicted on screen with excellence and realism, while respecting the moral sensibilities of its audience. And beautiful films like Tender Mercies and Of Gods and Men are still being made, despite industry pressure to sanction immorality in scripts.
There is no conflict between high standards and great art, but there is between destructive entertainment and the good life—and Christians should be the first to proclaim that.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Peter Bogdanovich: “What if Movies are Part of the Problem?”—The Hollywood Reporter-July 25, 2012
The Hollywood Reporter: “Reflections on ‘The Dark Night Rises’ Tragedy”—July 25, 2012
“How Aurora Changed ‘The Dark Night Rises’”—The Atlantic online—July 31, 2012
“The Dark Night Rises: Everybody Knows the Culture is Poisonous, and Nobody Expects that to Change,” Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal, July 28, 2012
USCCB Changes Rating on “Brokeback Mountain” to Morally Offensive, Lifesite News—December 16, 2005
Vatican Paper Deplores Exploitation in Films, Catholic World News—September 14, 1999
“Vatican Paper Pays Tribute to 1969 Hippie Film, ‘Easy Rider,’ Takes Swipe at Hays Code, Catholic World News—April 3, 2009
Frank Capra: Interviews, edited by Leland Poague (University Press of Mississippi, 2004).
Pope Pius XI’s Encyclical on Motion Pictures, Vigilanti Cura--1936
Pope Pius XII’s Encyclical on Movies and the Comunnications Field, Miranda Prorsus--1957
“Ethical Responsibilities in Art,” Pope John Paul II, May 6, 1981
John Paul II Addresses Hollywood, New York Times, September 17, 1987
Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media: A Pastoral Response, Pontifical Council for Social Communications—May 7, 1989
“‘Dark Night’ and the Soul: The Catholic Church’s Prophetic Warnings About the Toxic Effects of Cinematic Violence,” by Dawn Eden, The Dawn Patrol—July 24, 2012
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