I’ve been thinking about what the great Catholic writers of the 20th century might teach us about making great films. By great films, I mean screen stories that artfully manifest the Christian Mystery in the face of the deranged manners of the modern world. The following is a set of notes on this theme, an attempt to learn especially from the writings of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh—with a bit of Dante, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI thrown in.
Diagnosing the Modern Malaise
As Percy says in one of his essays, the contemporary writer’s duty is first to name the death-in-life that characterizes so much of the modern world.
For the modern self is lost, marooned on a desert island, breathing in the noxious fumes of nihilism. This culture of death is often only thinly masked by a grotesquely sentimental “humanitarianism.”
All of which is a result of the fact that we no longer seek to conform ourselves to the transcendental order. We miss the distinction between natural and supernatural ends, on the one hand, and our purposes, or personal projects, on the other. We miss the fact that our purposes may or may not comport with our ends.
The more ends disappear from view, the more human persons are thought to be utterly malleable, and the weak and dispossessed ever more threatened for the purposes of power, which often goes by the name of Progress.
Yet the cultural ideal of Progress, though still captivating to many, is also felt by an increasing number to have run its course (notice the surge of apocalyptic, dystopian stories in books as well as movies).
Still, without wisdom about the true ends of human life, efforts to ameliorate the situation work like Chinese handcuffs, binding us more tightly the harder we try to escape.
The Unwelcome Quest
So what’s a poor Christian storyteller to do? First of all, to remember what Horace said: that while you can throw nature out with a pitchfork, it will always come running back. We yearn for natural and supernatural ends even in the act of discarding them. As Dante teaches us in his Comedy, even the lost and doomed are searching for Love and Truth.
So the narrative problem is that of showing characters being compelled into learning something that they, in a vague, obscure sense, already know. This is the beginning of wisdom, of their re-education in Love and Truth.
Which is to say: characters have to be brought to a place where they see, or the audience sees, all their work as vanity and a striving after wind. They have to see how, in a sense, they have nothing, are worth nothing, can do nothing—that they have no “hope.” For it is only in this place of utter humility, a consent to what we would rather not have to consent to, that the Mystery reveals itself, that God is able to act, and cover us with faith, love, and the Great Hope that is Christ.
When there seems to be no hope, when we abandon, only then does the inexhaustible light of the Great Hope break through.
In his book on film noir, Arts of Darkness, Thomas Hibbs puts these points in the following way while remarking on the work of O’Connor and Percy: “A writer in the position of O’Connor or Percy must seek to effect a double dislocation of the reader. The fundamental goal is to induce in the reader a sense that something is deeply awry in the human condition. But to accomplish that in present circumstances the author must induce in the reader another sort of dislocation, from optimistic assumptions of contemporary beliefs in progress, intelligibility, and the pursuit of happiness. The author must force the reader to take up an unwelcome quest.”
There are various strategies for taking a character on the unwelcome quest, or at least showing him the need for it. In the early work of Evelyn Waugh, we find depicted the savagery of nihilism. Novels like Decline and Fall,Vile Bodies, and Scoop reduce modern manners and mores to darkly comic absurdity.
In later Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honor trilogy, Catholicism plays an explicit role. The only meaningful response to the meaningless of modern culture is shown to be transformations in faith, hope and charity.
Flannery O’Connor believed that it often takes an act of violence to bring a character—and the audience—to the place of dislocation. At the same, her grotesques, especially those doomed prophets the Misfit, Francis Marion Tarwater, Hazel Motes, show us how much the human heart, precisely because it is made for the love of Christ, is haunted by Christ even as when it struggles to reject Him.
In Walker Percy’s novels we have lost souls at least aware that they are living in despair, sunk in everydayness; they can smell the malaise. In contrast to that of O’Connor, Percy’s mode is existential and contemplative.
“The common thread that runs through all my novels,” said Percy in an interview, “is of a man, or a woman, who finds himself/herself outside of society, maybe even in a state of neurosis, psychosis, or derangement….What I try to do is always pose the question, “Is this man or woman more abnormal that the ‘normal society’ around them?” I want the reader to be poised between these two values, ad I want the question always to be raised as to who’s crazy, whether the psychotic person is crazy, or the outside person….Maybe I try to design it so that it will cross the reader’s mind to question the, quote, “normal culture,” and to value his own state of disorientation.”
In the preface to his book, Ironies of Faith, Anthony Esolen writes: “Esteeming the experts too highly, many Christians have abandoned their literature to the mainly secular scholars that inhabit our universities. But Shakespeare, Herbert, Dickens, and Hopkins did not write for scholars in universities. What would have been the point? For the sake of the literature itself, meant to be loved by anyone who could read or attend a play, Christians should reclaim their heritage.”
Filmmakers, too, should not allow the great heritage of Catholic literature to be the sole domain of professors. It demands to regain its central place in our common culture, inspiring not only the novels, short stories, and plays we will enjoy in the future, but also the stories we will watch on television and at the multiplex.