Those who ignore history are destined to repeat it. Actually, the quotation by George Santayana reads, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” You get the idea. Arrogance, misuse of power, and an acceptance of all things hedonistic have caused one world-changing nation after another to sink from glory to mediocrity. Is it America’s turn? If you’ll take the time to study our history through the cinema, you’ll discover that the makers of movies have laid out a map of secular America’s destiny and it doesn’t bode well for its citizens.
Studios were once regulated by a Motion Picture Code established in the 1930s to protect the values and moral concepts society considered the standard to live by. Violent acts had to be filmed in a way that would not jolt the viewer. Actors could not utter “God” or “Jesus” in a profane manner (can you imagine that?). And nudity and perversity could not be shown. A lot has changed since the demise of the Code in the late 1960s. And if we’ll be honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that not all change is progress.
Throughout the decades since the demise of the Code, films have signaled the slide from reverence for biblical principles and an embrace of concepts that too often debase the culture. Examples.
Then: The Asphalt Jungle (1950). This heist caper gone wrong is as much a character study as a suspense adventure. Intense, with realistic situations and dialogue, yet it contains absolutely no obscenity and the criminals pay a price.
Now: American Hustle. The acting is so good in this tale of a con artist drafted into a sting operation by the FBI that many tended to overlook its crude and deleterious abuses. Seventy uses of the f-word alone pepper the players’ speech patterns, along with ten profane uses of God’s name. I could find no moral compass worth the cacophony of verbal and visual abuses I had just sat through. Name me a crime film from this decade that doesn’t contain the same abusive content.
Then: Father of the Bride (1950). Spencer Tracy starred in this sensitive, often hilarious look at a father dealing with his daughter’s upcoming nuptials. The comedy stemmed from human behavior, not the more common bathroom humor of today.
Now: August Osage County and Nebraska, were both recent Oscar contenders, and both concerned the kind of dysfunctional families one might find inhabiting a Tennessee Williams play, only amped up with enough invective exclamation to cause a sailor’s ears to bleed.
Both of these films revolved around Midwestern families, yet featured the residents of the “flyover” states as completely devoid of any spiritual awareness. Sure, we can learn from the mistakes and foibles of those in movies who don’t seek to develop the spiritual side of their nature, but whatever the positive message that may be found in these comedy/dramas, it’s been eclipsed by noxious excesses. And if a filmmaker wants to catch the true flavor of the Midwest, doesn’t leaving out an example of a committed churchgoer seem a bit myopic? Again, there seems to be no moral compass for any character in these two films.
Like sexuality, violence has always been a cinematic component. Bonnie & Clyde (1967), though stylish, was a trend-setting gangster melodrama containing two things that are now synonymous with hoodlum biopics: it portrayed a sympathetic side to outlaws who in reality were cruel and deviant. And it was grisly in its depictions of slow-mo killings. When it was released, the graphic orchestrations of its bloody violence were considered controversial and received a great deal of negative response from critics and audiences. The volume and gore were unprecedented. Now deafening sound effects and carnage are commonplace in action films.
So, am I saying that movies were better before the loss of the Code? Many were. But my analysis is not meant as a critical evaluation of today’s films so much as an examination of what our society now accepts as, well, acceptable.
Hollywood will always gear its products toward our baser instincts. But there is a price to pay for a constant satisfying of hedonistic desires.
Each decade newcomers to the entertainment community push the envelope when it comes to decency, responsibility and a redefining of moral standards. Moviemakers keep dumbing down and crudding up the culture, taking baby steps with each production that further us from class or social decorum. True, they are attempting to influence the culture, but they are also reflecting what we now freely embrace.
The Motion Picture Code is long gone. Now class is as dead as Cary Grant. And morality in movies is on the critical list.
So what makes a country strong?
“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy.
“Your head is like a gas tank. You have to be really careful about what you put in it, because it might just affect the whole system” (from the film I’ve Heard the Mermaid Singing).
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land,” 2 Chronicles 7:14.
Those are guidelines seldom uplifted in today’s culture. New movie releases remind us of that fact every Friday.