cinemaIn the 1920s and 1930s, the great historian and English man of letters Christopher Dawson lamented the rise of cinema, believing it to be nothing more than a secular liturgy, an ideological replacement of the Catholic mass, and a return to Plato’s Cave.

By 1959, however, after having lived a year in Boston, Dawson admitted he had happily become addicted to westerns.

Dawson’s counterpart in America, Russell Kirk, though two generations younger than Dawson, seems to have gone the other direction in his view on movies. He had fully embraced movie going in the 1930s and 1940s, especially praising the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Even in the 1960s, according to his beautiful widow, Annette, Kirk loved the films of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. By the 1970s, though, Kirk offered skepticism about the products of Hollywood, forbidding, for example, the mention of Star Wars at Piety Hill.

Last night, because my wife was gone for much of the day and evening, and because my children went to bed early, I treated myself to some movie watching. It’s been a long while since I’ve had the chance to savor. Sadly, my time was only fifty-percent well spent. Happily, my experience only got better as the evening went on.

There was a time when movies served as a very important–probably too important–part of my life. In high school, when not on a debate tournament, my friends and I fashioned ourselves rather serious critics, and, frankly, for sixteen and seventeen year olds, we possessed pretty good taste. My experience at Notre Dame in the late 1980s was no different, and I went too often to movies at the Snite Museum (the artsy movies) and Cushing Auditorium (the good popular movies and classics). Many of the latter evenings turned into a bunch of guys who had watched too many movies shouting lines back at the screen. After a long week of study, such a group experience was cathartic, to be sure. In graduate school as well, I went to the movies at least once a week, always to matinees because of the price. In the evenings, I went to Bear’s Place (a local and very good bar in Bloomington) and watched the artsy movies.

This part of my life all changed, of course, when I married in 1998 and had our first child nine months later. Late night viewing and even later and longer discussions following such movies as Blade Runner gave way to Baby Mozart, Anatomy of a Murder for Thomas the Tank Engine, and, the good Lord forgive me, The Killing Fields for the purple demon known as Barney.

So, last night was a treat. As noted above, I used it my time only half wisely. I attempted to watch a recent science fiction film, a remake of the 1951 classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise. The original is a bizarrely brilliant film–campy, over-the-top, and yet still interesting.

It’s 2008 counterpart, however, was a piece of trash, at best. While I’ve seen worse films, they are few in number. A politicized script (as Roger Ebert wrote in his review–the message of the film: you should’ve voted for Al Gore), stiff acting (Al Gore again?), and some mediocre (Al Gore, yet again?) special effects tore the thing apart from its opening scenes, and the film never recovered.

Even Jennifer Cdawsononnoly, perhaps, the most beautiful Hollywood woman of my generation, couldn’t hold my attention. I despised this movie so much that I wish the director and the film company (though, I’ve not bothered to look up either, nor will I wasted any more time on them) ill in all future movie ventures.

Angered at my waste of time, I pulled out a mostly forgotten classic, Michael Mann’s 1995 three-hour tribute to Manichaean morality, Heat. Though Heat is, at best, a purgatorial story, I found myself in artistic paradise. From the opening scene, though I’ve watched this film innumerable times, I was riveted. I only watched about 2/5 of the way through–to the stunningly choreographed bank robbery; probably the best such scene ever filmed–because I want to savor the last half when I have time again. But, what a difference from the previous movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Every camera shot, every line, every character interaction had meaning. Heat is drama at its best. Conflict, good, evil. And, Mann clearly believes in excellence. Amen.

As I type this, my freshmen students are taking their first examination of the semester; it covers Aristotle. As Aristotle taught in the Ethics, while there are many “goods” in this world, we must always pursue the highest good, and we must always do so through excellence, truth, and beauty. Any other thought, inclination, or behavior is a denigration of the human person and of the Divine.

If this is true for the highest things, it should also be true for the lowest and the medium things. Sadly, only a few Hitchcocks, Manns, and Joffes exist. But, even if its just these three (and there are more), film is art, at its best.

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