It’s A Wonderful Life: The Film Industry as Source of Renewal

“The movies are onto the search. But they screw it up.” Such is the indictment of the film industry by Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer. One begins to get a sense of what he means after perusing some promotional blurbs for the Fall Film Season:

A Dagger Aimed at Young Hearts

Opening September 20th, “Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon play former groupies who spent their youth sleeping with band members; they reconnect after decades in The Banger Sisters.”

Opening October 4th, “The Hannibal Lecter saga goes back in time to the first Thomas Harris novel, with Edward Norton playing the man who put Hannibel Lecter behind bars and now must rely on him for help in Red Dragon. Anthony Hopkins returns to flesh out his part.”

Opening October 18th, “Greg Kinnear plays Bob Crane, the star of TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, in Auto Focus. Crane, who lost his clean image after sadomasochistic romps were revealed, was murdered, and the crime remains unsolved.”

Finally, on November 22nd , just in time for the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, we will be able to celebrate the return of that hardy perennial, James Bond, in Die Another Day. “Expect women, great toys and cool cars,” we are told, as if we didn’t know.

Who is the intended target of this phantasmagoria of the sexually promiscuous, the charmingly cannibalistic, the tragically sadomasochistic, and the omni-efficient, playboy heroic? Obviously, those with too much time and money on their hands: America’s adolescents. In 2001, Jack Valenti, the CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, reported that the most frequent group of moviegoers was those between the ages of 12 and 24, a class made up chiefly of MTV-watching mall-rats, as my local paper describes them. Still, the adolescent demographic is onto the search; these kids are hungry for redemption, transformation, for good to triumph over evil. And the film industry gives it to them, but only in junk-food versions. This is not a recent development. As early as 1930 Evelyn Waugh was complaining about the film industry’s refusal to make films for grown-ups. In an essay entitled “For Adult Audiences” he wrote:

The truth is that the film industry will try to do too much. It will insist, as no other art or industry has ever tried to insist, upon everything being suitable for everybody. The result is that it produces a commodity mildly unsuitable to almost everyone. It will not produce children’s films or grown-ups’ films. It aims instead at the adolescent. The pimply youth and the giggling girl who embody all the lamentable characteristics of both ages—childhood without its freshness and purity and credulity, age without wisdom or maturity or culture.

It hardly requires mentioning that since Waugh wrote these lines the mainstream film industry’s pandering to adolescent attitudes has become worse in a way perhaps only Waugh could have imagined. Any analysis of the ills of our culture must therefore include the ubiquitous influence of this industry. When it is not simply cashing in on the fascination for comic book heroism, it too often promotes an anti-heroic ethic of liberal chic which is the very projection of the adolescent dream of power. There is no question that the images the film industry casts on the wall of the cave confirm that adolescent dream as reality, and are greatly responsible for keeping our culture chained to the ideal of autonomous self-realization.

Creating Renewal

Still, my aim here is not to curse the darkness, but to put a new light bulb into the film projector. My concern is not how bad are the stories the film industry serves up to us, but how it might be possible to tell better ones. The possible beneficial effects of watchdog organizations, boycotts, V-chips, and censorship all deserve discussion, but such efforts only indirectly impact what film artists do. Last week’s New York Times told the story of a growing number of companies that are digitally modifying Hollywood films in order to make them more palatable to those of more discriminating moral tastes. But digitally erasing scenes of gratuitous sex and violence, even if it turns out not to be an abuse of copyright, is one thing. Creating stories which are expressly designed to renew the culture is quite another.

The obstacles confronting such a project in our morally heterogeneous and contentious society are formidable. Today’s filmmakers obviously cannot assume a Christian backdrop of integrated metaphysical, political and moral realities in the way Dante could. Nevertheless, in order to renew the culture, filmmakers have to direct us to the true source of culture, the cultus, which is the practice of divine worship. As John Paul II remarks in his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” “Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where the culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience.” But how should filmmakers undertake the construction of this bridge? There seem to me to be two strategies.

The first makes an end-run around the liabilities of our postmodern society by spiriting us away to another world: the Middle Earth of The Lord of the Rings, the Hogwarts School of the Harry Potter films, the ancient Rome of Gladiator, the 18th-century England of the various adaptations of Jane Austen, the 19th-century France of The Song of Bernadette. To adapt what Walker Percy said about Shakespeare, all of these films celebrate an intact culture, where people more or less know who they are and are at one with themselves, where the virtues are able to flourish. Even when religious themes are not front and center in these films, they confirm a moral order which traditionally has been founded upon religious practice. Such films serve as an important moral counterpoint to our own situation, even beyond their treatment of themes which profoundly resonate across time and culture. And yet, I would like to emphasize a second strategy for the film industry’s contribution to the renewal of our culture.

Inspired by the Catholic Novel

This strategy is inspired by some 20th-century Catholic novelists who, as religious believers aiming to achieve the highest level of their craft, reflected deeply upon the question of how their religious convictions impacted the stories they told. Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy each pondered the question of how to tell stories imbued with an implicitly if not explicitly Christian understanding of human life, to a world that had in significant ways rejected that understanding. What they learned from their questioning provides a genuine source of renewal for all narrative art in our postmodern times, including of course the art of filmmaking.

This second strategy begins with the filmmaker’s acknowledgement that in our times we live, as Flannery O’Connor would say, in territory held largely by the devil. This does not necessarily mean that devils make up the majority of the population. But the devil does hold the territory in the sense of controlling the mechanisms of power, including the mass media, and this situation must also be depicted in the stories we tell.

The filmmaker’s challenge is then to tell a story that those under the devil’s influence will be captivated by. In his essay, “Novel-Writing in an Apocalyptic Time,” Walker Percy contends that “[B]efore life can be affirmed for the novelist or his readers, death-in-life must be named.” I take this to mean that the storyteller pursuing my second strategy must take us into the territory of the devil, that death-in-life, that culture of death, and manifest through the juxtaposition of narrative images that this realm really is death. Those film protagonists living in the devil’s territory must be forced to recognize their predicament, or at least those watching them must be able to. For only when what Percy calls man’s postmodern malaise is recognized as malaise and not as success, can life as it really is be affirmed by our culture.

In other words, filmmakers must engage our postmodern culture in a kind of dialectical argument, the chief aim of which is a reductio ad absurdum of all its works and pomps. In portraying the absurdity of the culture, the artist makes room for what O’Connor called the action of grace, which is the first step in reclaiming the territory for the angels. As we read in the pope’s “Letter to Artists”: “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

Picturing This Broken World

I cannot underscore enough, however, that in taking It’s A Wonderful Life as a source of inspiration I am not advocating some kind of nostalgic return to the making of Capra-esque films. For in our times we live, as it were, not in the morally intact Bedford Falls, but in the culture of death which is Pottersville, and the only Bedford Falls we might return to exists in the form of subcultures which must at times resist and subvert the dominant culture.

One way the realist of distances may achieve this resistance and subversion is by studiously avoiding the happy ending. He might find that a depiction of our culture’s broken condition is a reductio powerful enough to send us looking for alternatives. This more modest achievement will be an important one if he is at least able to give us a good look at the devil we are possessed by. A good example of such an achievement is Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, a comic portrait of a group of undergraduate New York socialites bereft of any moral guidance from their parents, teachers, or society, who vainly attempt to forge a tradition of their own out of the arcane practices of the debutante season.

Whatever films we hope to see made in the future, there should be some which cut much more sharply against the grain of contemporary culture than most Hollywood or even independent features tend to do. The character arcs these films trace can’t screw it up; they must direct us toward a genuine search for the answer to life’s mystery. They must take the lesson from our great Catholic novelists and speak to us from where we are, reflect our broken condition, show us the dark image of our displacement, and thus demand of us that humility which is the only preparation for the action of grace.

Dr. Daniel McInerny, a postgraduate scholar at Liberty Fund, Inc., is a former chair and director of the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

(This article was adapted by permission from a conference presentation Dr. Daniel McInerny gave in Fall of 2002 at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture.)

Through Reality to Mystery

Allow me to develop this second strategy a bit further by referring to Flannery O’Connor’s idea of the “realism of distances.” Realism is at the very heart of filmmaking. Tom Wolfe has rightly stressed that while films can be other things, they are inherently naturalistic, and it is precisely their intense realism that audiences most adore about them. But the realism of distances goes beyond mere documentary realism, or the grittiness of modern-day thrillers. What O’Connor has in mind is a realism that takes reality to be fundamentally theological. “[I]f the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious,” she writes, “if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.”

In order to express this mystery of the created order, O’Connor instructs the narrative artist to find an image “that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed in by him firmly, just as real to him, really, as the one that everybody sees.” When it comes to the concrete side of the image, O’Connor employs what I’m calling the second strategy by distorting evil into the form of a grotesque. Her preference for freaks is meant to point up postmodern man’s essential displacement, a grim absurdity which, if recognized as such, points the way to redemption. Walker Percy’s version of the second strategy is to give us not grotesques but existential wayfarers who realize that, like Robinson Crusoe, they are stranded naked in a world the mystery of which they are compelled to unravel.

With this much of a sketch of my second strategy in hand, consider the situation of a fairly prosperous young man with a wife and family, who through no fault of his own gets into some pretty deep financial trouble. All his attempts to repair his situation fail. He soon begins to take his anger, fear and humiliation out on his family. One night he goes out to get drunk, and after smashing his car finds himself on a high bridge. In despair, he thinks about jumping

I am describing of course the first half of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Considering the bare bones of its plot is instructive; it helps us get past our sense of having been annually bludgeoned by this film by the purveyors of Christmas warmth and fuzziness. It reminds us of the films noir-ish elements. George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, contemplates suicide not simply, I don’t think, because he is facing financial ruin, but because he believes he made the wrong choice of what to do with his life, and now there is no chance of undoing it. George Bailey had a dream, an adolescent dream one might say, of becoming a great engineer. Of building bridges. Nothing wrong with building bridges, of course, but George’s was a dream more of glory than engineering. But in the press of circumstances he never went on to college, he remained in Bedford Falls, ran the family business, got married, had kids….And in the financial catastrophe which follows he realizes that his dream deferred will never be realized, and that the life he made while deferring the dream is a disaster too. He feels he has nothing left to live for. And yet, he prays to God for help.

In understanding this film it is crucial to realize that while the endearingly bumbling guardian angel who is sent to help George does represent what Flannery O’Connor refers to as the mystery of the cosmic order, he is not there simply to wave a magic wand over the mess of George’s life. This is not a fairy tale. Rather, George’s guardian angel takes George on a guided tour of the devil’s territory, or the territory that would be the devil’s if George had never lived. In fact, it is more than a tour. Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, George is made to do more than look at what might be, he is made to live as though his life was a strange island, and he a shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe. Eventually, the vanity of George Bailey’s dream of glory is revealed to him in all its horror, until its absurd reduction to suicide is regarded by him as a mistake. George Bailey is given the grace to correctly name death-in-life, which makes possible the final affirmation of his own life as wonderful.

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