Touchstone contributing editor, Anthony Esolen, replies to these letters on movies from our readers:
What a gratifying mailbox of letters these were! Mr. Ivery’s I especially liked. I’m afraid he’s got his reviewer nailed, countersunk, filled with putty, and sanded smooth. I’ll venture to suggest, moreover, that the Golden Age of American movies, roughly from 1935 to 1955, owed much of its glory to the fact that the directors, writers, and actors had themselves done a great deal of the work that he describes. Some boys like Stan Musial escaped the mines to play baseball; others made movies. They knew what it was like to swing a pickax, or pitch hay, or lay brick. They knew what it was like to get drunk and brawl, and come home sheepishly awaiting worse.
In other words, in important ways these films did arise from, and were an expression of, a truly popular culture: a man like John Ford grew up in much the same poverty as did the fellow who saved a buck to take his wife and kids to see Fort Apache. Clark Gable in It Happened One Night could play the man’s man and news hound always living off his last ten dollars because, like everybody else, he had his own scrambling to do when he was young. And the long shadow of the Church is cast over the films of many of the greatest directors: Ford, Capra, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Elia Kazan.
But now I think we need to distinguish between popular culture and mass entertainment. Long gone are the days when those who made movies were the brothers and sisters of people who laid bricks. So too, long gone are the days when those who made movies shared the beliefs and joys and sorrows of people who laid bricks. Movies are now mass entertainment. And mass entertainment, in all its forms, destroys popular culture.
I say this as a guilty consumer of one form of mass entertainment: I’m a die-hard fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals. I have been since I was a kid, and have a perfectly appalling data bank of statistics memorized. But when I was eight years old, watching the Cardinals beat the Red Sox in the World Series, the game really had not yet crossed over from the culture of the people into mass entertainment. Almost, but not quite. If you watch old clips of the games, you notice that there’s no glitz, no pre-game analyses, no post-game interviews to speak of, no entertainment extravaganza. It was a ballgame. People wanted to watch a ballgame, because in their own persons they had played ball themselves, or had watched it, in their own small towns. Even my small town had a semi-pro team in the now defunct Mountain League. They played on a sandlot with no fence—it was about 400 feet to the river embankment. Every once in a while a big guy would plug one in the river.
So here is a non-theological reason why we should turn our backs upon mass entertainment (and I think Miss Bluett would agree with me here—she’s a lover of medieval drama, which truly was an expression of popular celebration): we will never have a popular culture to redeem until we reject mass entertainment. Can’t have town choirs when everybody’s plugged into headphones, listening to Britney Lopez or Jennifer Spaniel or the vast indistinguishable Whatever.