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Con Men and a Conned Society: Religion in Contemporary American Cinema

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

John R. May*
Louisiana State University


Experimental cinema aside, our culturally typical films are all visual stories. To discover a film's religious meaning, we must do more than interpret dialogue; the cultural context of the film and its overall structure as visual story must be analyzed. American culture has characteristically explored the religious question by exposing the demons in our lives. Thus, our cinema at its recent best has—in the mode of visual parable—been subverting the facile optimism of the American dream by revealing the evil within us and our institutions. It has done this most effectively and artistically, not in its blatant presentations of the demon as persona, but rather through the portrayal of human analogues of the demonic: the satanic heart in man and the pervasive presence of the con man in society.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 1977

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1 Crossan, John Dominic, The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story (Niles, Illinois: Argus Communications, 1975), Ch. 2, passimGoogle Scholar.

2 Greeley, Andrew M., “Why Hollywood Never Asks the God Question,” The New York Times, 18 Jan. 1976, II, 1, 13Google Scholar. “The good religious film has eluded the American industry,” Greeley writes. “American filmmakers have produced movies about religion, movies which exploit religion to titillate or terrify, but no religious movies.” As evidence of European directors' “eagerness to come to grips with religion,” Greeley repeats the usual examples: Buñuel's Nazarin and Belle de Jour, Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, and Cries and Whispers, Fellini's La Dolce Vita, and Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's. The American films that he lists as using religion or being “about” it are for the most part not even good films—from The Ten Commandments through Going My Way on obviously to The Exorcist. Only Martin Scorsese seems to make the grade for Greeley inasmuch as he “is able to drag in the God question for a few moments in Mean Streets.”

3 In chronological sequence, cf.: Schillaci, Peter, “Who Will We Get to Play God?New Catholic World (MayJune 1972), pp. 122128Google Scholar; Schrader, Paul, Transcendental Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972)Google Scholar: although the directors treated by Schrader are not American, the implication is that the religious dimension of film is discovered through cinema technique rather than dialogue; Hurley, Neil P., Toward A Film Humanism, originally titled Theology Through Film (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1975)Google Scholar; Wolf, Leonard, “In Horror Movies, Some Things are Sacred,” The New York Times, 4 April 1976, II, 1Google Scholar, Ferlita, Ernest and May, John R., Film Odyssey: The Art of Film as Quest for Meaning (New York: Paulist Press, 1976)Google Scholar.

4 Frederick, John R., The Darkened Sky: Nineteenth Century American Novelists and Religion (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969)Google Scholar; Hoffman, Frederick J., The Mortal No: Death and the Modern Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964)Google Scholar; Levin, Harry, The Power of Blackness (New York: Vintage Books, 1960)Google Scholar; Lewis, R. W. B., “Days of Wrath and Laughter,” in Trials of the Word (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), pp. 184235Google Scholar; McCormick, John, Catastrophe and Imagination (New York: Longmans, Green & Company, 1959)Google Scholar; May, John R., Toward a New Earth: Apocalypse in the American Novel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1972)Google Scholar; Miller, Perry, Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1964)Google Scholar; Percy, Walker, “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” Katallagete, 3 (Fall, 1970), pp. 512Google Scholar.

5 The term “figural,” from the Latin figura, is normally understood as referring to an established connection between a person or event within history that prefigures or mirrors another person or event, within or outside history, but in such a way that the first signifies both itself and the second while the second fulfills the first as in “Jonah is a figura of Christ” or “The Eucharist is a figura of the Kingdom as Eternal Banquet.” Although figuralism in a Christian context developed out of a traditional eschatological model of earth and heaven, I feel that it may be broadened to accommodate less specific images of promise and fulfillment; thus figuralism is used here to include the prefiguration of ultimate revelation (however it may be made) of whatever endures as “mystery” in human existence.

6 Cf. Scott, Nathan A. Jr., The Wild Prayer of Longing: Poetry and the Sacred (New Haven: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 25Google Scholar. Scott calls ours “a world, indeed, which being independent of any other worldly plan or scheme of meaning, has ceased to be a figura of anything extrinsic to itself and is sealed off against any transcendental ingress from without.”

7 American Literary Variations on the Demonic,” in Disguises of the Demonic: Contemporary Perspectives on the Power of Evil, ed. Olson, Alan M. (New York: Association Press, 1975), pp. 3147Google Scholar.

8 Background Material on The Exorcist,” (Burbank, Calif.: Warner Bros., 1973), p. 2Google Scholar.

9 The New Yorker, 49 (7 Jan., 1974), p. 59Google Scholar.

10 The New York Times (27 Dec. 1973), p. 46, col. 1Google Scholar.

11 Can We Live Together?National Catholic Reporter, 6, 1 (29 Oct., 1969), p. 4Google Scholar.

12 According to Peter Fonda, “easy rider” is a Southern expression “for a whore's old man, not a pimp, but the dude who lives with a chick. Because he's got the easy ride. Well, that's what's happened to America, man. Liberty's become a whore, and we're all taking an easy ride.” Campbell, Elizabeth, “Rolling Stone Raps with Peter Fonda,” in Easy Rider, ed. Hardin, Nancy and Schlossberg, Marilyn (New York: New American Library, 1969), p. 28Google Scholar.

13 Wicker, Tom, “A Cascade of Greed, Cruelty, Hysteria,” The New York Times, 15 June 1975, II, 1, 15Google Scholar.

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