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

  • John R. May (a1)

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.

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

2 Greeley, Andrew M., “Why Hollywood Never Asks the God Question,” The New York Times, 18 Jan. 1976, II, 1, 13. “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. 122128; Schrader, Paul, Transcendental Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972): 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); Wolf, Leonard, “In Horror Movies, Some Things are Sacred,” The New York Times, 4 April 1976, II, 1, Ferlita, Ernest and May, John R., Film Odyssey: The Art of Film as Quest for Meaning (New York: Paulist Press, 1976).

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

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. 25. 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. 3147.

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

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

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

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

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. 28.

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

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