Our discussion of film continues with a new letter from Ms. Bluett:
Ever since Christians came up out of the catacombs, they have had occasion to debate the appeal to the senses. Architecture, art, music, theater, books: all the arts had to face the hurdle of concupiscence. Should the walls be decorated? Would that not be merely an appeal to the lust of the eyes? What about music and the lust of the ears? Even the books had to face this hurdle on the issue of manuscript illumination. Proponents on both sides of the question have advanced arguments for centuries; there has been no resolution. Art and asceticism continue to exist in an uneasy tension.
I am hardly the person who can resolve that centuries-old tension. I can be confident, however, that there is a tradition of Christian art behind me as I make my way in the world of entertainment. The major argument that was advanced for Christian “concupiscence” in the Middle Ages was art’s ability to reach through the senses of the sinful and/or unlearned and appeal to the soul. Art can engage the lesser functions of humanity and direct them to a higher end. Hence, artists needed training in their fields and access to the most precious materials to adorn the world, delivering to the viewer a visual metaphor for the world transformed by Christ. Abbot Suger’s account of the renovations of Saint-Denis are a part of this tradition: gold and jewels appeal to the sensual man’s interests while they tell him how precious is the subject of the artwork. The eyes can direct the thoughts; art can inspire devotion. This was the purpose of the great liturgical drama cycles. Seeing the suffering of Christ was meant to inspire compassion and repentance for the sins that caused the suffering. Like centuries of writers before me, I am willing to concede “that there is something deeply problematic about what appeals in the first instance to the lust of our eyes.” But I am not willing to concede that the appeal cannot be directed to good ends.
I am also more than willing to ”acknowledge that reading is not the same as sitting in a live audience.” There’s something intense and powerful about sitting in a live audience and sharing an experience. That’s why we worship communally. We need both the communal experience and the silent retreat, the time alone with the book (whether or not it’s illuminated). Both of these modes of experience are powerful; each has its inherent dangers. Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction and Roger Shattuck in Forbidden Knowledge discuss the dangers of reading, the way in which the reader’s intimacy with the narrator and characters and the way those characters act against the moral background of the story can have a profound effect on the thoughts of the reader long after he or she has finished the book. I would also advance the case of The DaVinci Code and its phenomenal popularity even among Christians as evidence that the world of books has as much to answer for as the world of movies.
Reading is different from theater, “that in turn is not the same as watching what is presented as life itself, not acted but merely photographed.” True. (For the record, I’d like to note that what we consider the impartiality of the camera and it’s inability to draw moral distinctions is a phenomenon that began in novels—specifically, the novels of Henry James.) Every medium has its pros and cons. Film—especially when combined with “accompanying and seductive music” is extremely sensual. But then, so are we. We can wean ourselves from that sensuality, especially now, during Lent. But we can also direct it to good ends. We fast during the week and feast on Sundays, mostly during Mass—feasting on music and stories and community and, yes, food. These are appetites common to all of humanity, and we are called to feed our brothers and sisters, as well.
Of all the comments to appear in this thread, those that have resonated most deeply in me came from Daniel P. Crandall: “Which path is the Way? I don’t really know. I just think it is wrong to encourage Christians to abandon their neighbors to the most powerful proponent of secularism, materialism, nihilism, and general anti-Christian animosity. It is just as wrong to encourage Christians to abandon the ascetic life in order to shed their Christian light on the culture. Those in the city and those in the proverbial desert oppose the culture of death as they are called by God.”
Not only can Christians watch movies and plays, as well as read books. They should also make movies, plays, and books. According to Genesis 18:32, the Lord would not destroy Sodom if there were ten good men there (there weren’t). If Hollywood is another Sodom, it is a much bigger one, but the number in Genesis hasn’t changed. All we need is ten. Maybe they’re already there (maybe that’s why California hasn’t dropped off into the sea). Maybe God is forbearing. It’s a big world. I suspect that S.M. Hutchens, Anthony Esolen, and I will always disagree about where we ought to be living in it. I can’t tell them to leave the desert. But I don’t think I’ll be following them, either.
Our contributing editor, Anothony Esolen, replies:
Well, I’m a translator of the Divine Comedy, and I’m being reminded that art, by the very means of its appeal to the senses, can lead people to Christ. But neither Dr. Hutchens nor I deny it. We celebrate it. Our contention is that there is something specifically problematic about film: and part of it pertains to the medium itself, and part to the cultural situation in which we find ourselves.
Simply put, the closest cultural analogue to film that I can think of, in terms of its combination of sheer visual and emotional power, the utter absorption of the viewer, and a concomitant withering of healthy popular culture, would be the gladiatorial spectacles whose main purpose was to keep an urban rabble satisfied and a bored and jaded aristocracy from getting any revolutionary ideas. Miss Bluett attempts to argue that objections to film can also be made to, say, the live theater, or to reading, or to looking at the glass at Saint Denis. But to say that an objection can be made is not to conclude that it would be valid, or how far and under what circumstances it would be valid.
Let me put it this way: Renaissance polyphony might well distract the hearer from the meaning of the words sung, to the veritable cascade of notes and voices tumbling sensuously one upon the other. But what Renaissance polyphony does not do, even if that complaint is valid, is place within the mind a nearly inexpungeable memory of, say, a man having his heart lanched with a spear while the crowd roars; or a man and woman, ten feet large on the screen, having sex.
That kind of vicarious experience is of an entirely different order from what we have when we read or even when we watch actors perform on stage before us. The danger of absorption into the unreal is far greater; the reason is easier to short circuit; you cannot put the movie down, as you can put down a book, and clear your head; you are not so aware of the artificiality of it all, as you are when you watch someone on stage.
We have, in other words, much weaker protection against this particular medium when it is misused, and the temptation to misuse it is, nowadays, overwhelming. For let us now look at what we are working with—and this has to do not with film as a medium in itself but with the place that film has assumed in our civilization. If we encourage people with good films (and neither Steve nor I deny that there are films that are stupendous works of art, and that all things made by man’s intelligence and love can bring us closer to Truth Himself), then, right here and now, we encourage them to keep watching films; it is exactly the objection that Neil Postman had against ”good” television (and I do think that there is some good television).
The habit of mind that is excessively visual-passive is, as a matter of fact, quite different from the habit of mind of a reader, or even of a devoted follower of plays and operas. We wonder whether it is, finally, good for us to foster that habit of mind, especially when so few among us now have the patience to read a difficult book or listen to a sermon for an hour or so. If we’re going to justify film, it will have to be as film, not as one art form among a host of art forms, and it will have to be justified for people as we find them now, and not for some nonexistent and timeless Rawlsian ratiocinator. And people as we find them now are bombarded with television, even in restaurants, with semipornographic greeting cards (bought by both women and men), by prurient and seductive commercials, by the ever-spammed flicks on the internet—need I go on? We are the last people who need to be encouraged to gape at moving images.
We need something else—an art form that might encourage us to turn our attention away from screens.
Finally, my first objection still stands. We have had great and beautiful films, no question; and we used to have films that themselves sprang from a vital popular culture. But that is no more. Film and television have done what novels did not do, nor opera (think of Italian opera houses in Little Italys across the country), nor plays. They have destroyed popular culture. It is not true that if you turn away from one medium of art, you will have no art. The very point of turning away from what is now a corrupt and corrupting medium is that you will have different and better art: you will at least have a chance of enjoying art that comes from the people, rather than being, as I’ve said, dosed out to them from their caretakers and pocketpickers.
For art’s sake, if for no other, I think it behooves us at least to be suspicious of Big Film. I say this as a lover of just about everything that John Ford, David Lean, and Peter Weir have directed.
One last thing: no false dichotomies between art and asceticism. For true asceticism is a great deal more muscular, more world-engaging, and even more sensual, than is most of the desiccating and world-denying hedonism we see these days on the screen. My accusation again: Of the world, but not in it.
S.M. Hutchens replies also:
Dr. Esolen is right. In reducing us to desert-dwellers, ascetics, world deniers, who have their rightful place in Christianity, just as those, such as herself, who communicate with their culture have theirs, Ms. Bluett is caricaturing us, identifying us with positions neither of us hold, evading our arguments and giving her own a dignity we doubt it deserves. I have taken pains to make it clear I am not inveighing against Christians working in and with the culture, but warning against the danger of approaching it with an insufficiently critical attitude in the name of influencing it for the good, specifically with regard to film and the theatre. Underlying this is my belief that a great many of us are deceiving ourselves about the effect our intimacies with these institutions are having on our souls.
I wish to impress on Ms. Bluett with full force that in an environment that was unduly restrictive, which put down laws that kept Christians isolated from their cultures and prohibited creative flowers from blooming, one would hear the likes of Drs. Esolen and Hutchens singing a very different tune, and being accused of the very opposite of asceticism, neither of us having changed our opinions a whit.