Look Closer: Catholicity in the Entertainment Industry
I’ve heard many a Catholic complain throughout the years that there are too few options in the realm of entertainment toward which a devout, religious man or woman can turn without endangering their souls. If such a notion were true, it would certainly spell out the promise of a dismal and hopeless future, since the art of any generation is typically an accurate measure of that generation’s hopes, dreams, fears, etc. I argue, however, that such a notion is not only not true, but more harmful to the survival of the Catholic Faith than any collection of vulgar, blasphemous, or vehemently anti-Catholic movies or TV shows. In fact, to argue that Catholic Truth is somehow less adequately represented in contemporary art (and entertainment) than it has been in years past is to argue that Catholic Truth itself is somehow diminishing over time, which we know to be impossible. Granted, the Truth as it has been taught by millennia of Catholic Tradition may be more heavily veiled and “accidental” in much of what we see on TV and in movies these days, but it is there… in all of its potency, nonetheless.
Almost all Catholics will admit to a certain degree of demonic influence in the affairs of this world, especially in the entertainment industry. So why is it so difficult to believe that such a thing as angelic influence occurs? A quick glance at a list of recurring themes in entertainment will reveal that the concept of a “savior” coming to humanity’s aid in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil is quite popular in Hollywood. You’ll also find a large number of protagonist characters who make highly moral judgment calls through their unshakable, heroic traits of courage, fortitude, and personal sacrifice. As long as such traits are prized as admirable qualities in fictional role models, all is not lost. Truth prevails in the end and Catholicism itself remains untarnished, if unnoticed by all but the extremely attentive.
One of my favorite examples of this is the film American Beauty. Although not at all child-friendly, the film explores a character who becomes tired of his “fake” life and decides to no longer participate in anything that doesn’t directly serve his own, immediate whims. He quits his job, starts smoking marijuana, and begins to lust after the high-school aged friend of his daughter. During a pivotal scene, he reminisces over his lost youth, when he used to “party and get laid,” in his words. In the film’s finale, he finally achieves his lustful goal… almost. When he discovers that the young girl, after whom he has lusted throughout almost the entire film, is in fact a virgin and preparing to make the same wrong turn he once made when he was her age, he becomes fatherly again and prevents the sexual act from taking place. His wisdom finally comes into play as he transitions from disgusting, middle-aged pervert to a protector of innocence and virtue.
The recurring, theme word “beauty” can easily be replaced with the word “Christ” at any point during American Beauty without altering the theme or message. The movie’s tagline, “Look Closer,” provides an important undercurrent to the story (thanks mostly to legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall). Throughout the film, the main character’s face is often visually barred by prison-like reflections or obstacles, only to be remedied in the end by shots of wide open, blue skies when the character dies in a state of grace and achieves “Heaven.” The most sublime image in the movie is a dull, black and white photograph of the main character’s family sitting on a counter next to a brightly colored bowl of fruit. This bowl of fruit, which visually draws the eye before anything else, is unimportant. The truly important element in the scene is obviously the family photo… but it requires a “closer look” in order to even notice its presence.
Another great example would be the film Gattaca, which is a speculative fiction piece about a not-too-distant future wherein genetics are manipulated in order to “create” perfect children. The main character, who was born the “natural” way (i.e. without genetic manipulation), desires to be an astronaut… a career typically reserved for the genetically-superior. To achieve his goal, he “borrows” the genetic identity of a genetically flawless man who suffers from a lack of motivation as well as a permanent physical injury. In the film, the unaltered human (created as God intended… a point that was even highlighted in the film’s dialog), is shown to have more spirit than the lab-created person. Essentially, the main character’s drive to succeed was unquenchable, even in the face of gene-based discrimination.
The film becomes even more Catholic in nature when the deleted scenes are taken into account. In one deleted scene, at the office of a geneticist, the “disposal” of the unchosen, fertilized, genetically-engineered eggs is presented as murder (abortion) without actually mentioning the words “murder” or “abortion.” Another deleted scene suggests that the genetic-engineering process is still subject to class warfare when the geneticist offers engineering “extras” to a husband and wife for a fee. They can’t afford the extra offerings, so their son (in adulthood) is prohibited from achieving any of the most coveted career fields. The resulting slave vs. wealthy caste system presents even further obstacles for the main character. Finally, the deleted, original ending is extremely anti-abortion in tone because it lists well-known names of great men throughout history who would never have been born if genetic-engineering was common practice among their parents.
I firmly believe that the current, despairing position of most Catholics regarding film and entertainment comes from a combination of a misplaced nostalgia for the Hays Code of the classic Hollywood era and an unwillingness to understand the broad, all-encompassing nature of Catholicism. While the Hays Code did successfully keep most entertainment family-friendly, it also promoted a simplistic, puritan view of existence. Traditionally-speaking, most classic art and literature was not puritan in character. A brief look at famous, classical writings and paintings will make that fact more than apparent. And Catholic Truth is Universal Truth. Everything that is true is of the voice of Christ. Did He not make it a point to say that “He who is of the Truth, hears my voice?” It is for this reason that books/movies like Lord of the Rings can be so thoroughly Catholic, without ever treating directly of Catholicism.
If we, as Catholics, remember that our religion’s domain is the Truth… all of the Truth… then we will begin to see contemporary cinema and television entertainment in a different light. There will always be shows like The Kardashians which will offer nothing of substance to the viewer, and in many times will be destructive to society in general. But then again, there will also, always, be shows like Doctor Who which, while being pretty unabashedly atheistic at times, also promotes a highly developed respect for life and an evolved sense of forgiveness. In short, the Light of Truth will shine through any darkness laid before it, no matter how dense that darkness is.
By Oliver J. Olinger