No one doubts that America's popular culture is undergoing profound change as a result of the events of Sept. 11.
But it is tempting to believe that these events will trigger a moral renewal that will make our nation a better place — and that outcome remains to be seen.
Hollywood is often singled out as a prime example of everything that's gone wrong with the culture. And, to be sure, the transformation of what it produces would be an essential part of any cultural renewal.
As traditional institutions like schools and the family have weakened, the influence of mass media on the formation of our moral values has increased. Movies are a crucial part of this. They have always been judged according to their worth as entertainment and art, but now many think they must be held to other standards as well.
Pope John Paul II has repeatedly addressed these issues. As a former actor, poet and playwright, he has a special sensitivity to the creative process and its relationship to mass media. His words on the subject provide an excellent set of guidelines.
The Holy Father emphasizes the importance of media in an era of global information. “Through the media, people form their opinions about the world they live in — indeed, form their understanding of the meaning of life,” he writes. “For many, the experience of living is to a great extent an experience of the media” (World Communications Day Message, 2000).
This overwhelming power brings with it responsibilities. The Pope suggests that mass-entertainment products “can be works of great beauty, revealing what is noble and uplifting in humanity and promoting what is just and true” (1987 address to U.S. communications workers). Those presentations “which call attention to authentic human needs, especially those of the weak, the vulnerable and the marginalized can be an implicit proclamation of the Lord” (World Communications Day Message, 2000).
In this spirit, the Vatican's Pontifical Commission for Social Communications compiled in 1996 a list of 45 films of special artistic and religious worth. (The Register has reviewed all but one of them.) The values they promote reflect the Pope's thinking. They're also relevant to the collective soul-searching the current crisis has provoked in our country. But the current Hollywood mindset is not yet fully open to these views. Deep cultural trends are pushing things in another direction.
“The very forces which can lead to better communication can also lead to increasing self-centeredness and alienation,” the Holy Father has warned (World Communications Day Message, 1999). This leads to a celebration of what he characterizes as “the false gods and idols of the day — materialism, hedonism, consumerism” (World Communications Day Message 2001).
John Paul points out that the media culture “is deeply imbued with a typically postmodern sense that the only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths. As a result, the world of the media can seem no more friendly an environment for evangelization than the pagan world of the Apostles’ day” (World Communications Day Message, 2001).
This moral relativism affects the content of films. “The cinema can oppress freedom when it presents itself as the mirror of negative types of behavior, using scenes of violence and sex offensive to human dignity and tending to excite violent emotions to stimulate the attention of the viewer,” the Holy Father writes (World Communications Day Message, 1995). “It is the task of communication to bring people together to enrich their lives, not to isolate and exploit them” (World Communications Day Message, 1998).
Many currently successful films perpetuate negative values, sometimes in subtle ways. In recent years, the most damaging Hollywood blockbusters have treated apocalyptic acts of mass destruction as $100 million video games (Armageddon, Independence Day, etc). Unlike some action-adventure thrillers, they do not wallow in excessive blood and gore. But they do present violence as fun, without human consequences or cost.
After Sept. 11, the major studios put on hold dozens of these kinds of projects. Let's hope this is the beginning of a deeper change of heart.
Either way, other noxious trends remain. “It is not easy to remain optimistic about the positive influence of the mass media when they appear either to ignore the vital role of religion in people's lives, or when the treatment that religious belief receives seems consistently negative or unsympathetic,” the Holy Father says. “Some elements of the media — especially in the entertainment sectors — often seem to wish to portray religious believers in the worst possible light” (World Communications Day Message, 1997).
Recent hits like The Others, Dogma and Chocolat indicate the truth of these observations. Let's hope the increase in regular church attendance after the terrorist attacks will be noticed in Hollywood and that it will encourage filmmakers to end this anti-religious bias.
John Paul II believes that the present clash of civilizations offers a special challenge. “Media products are seen as in some way representing the values that the West holds dear, and by implication, they supposedly present Christian values,” he writes. “The truth of the matter may well be that the foremost value they genuinely represent is commercial profit” (World Communications Day Message, 1997).
The Holy Father reminds us of the true meaning of our heritage. “For all those who hold the Judeo-Christian tradition, the nobility of communication is linked to the wisdom of God,” he writes. Those who make movies can be “stewards and administrators of an immense spiritual power that belongs to the patrimony of mankind and is meant to enrich the whole of the human community” (1987 address to U.S. communications workers).
These words set the bar high. One prays that, if Hollywood wasn't listening before, it's listening now.
John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.