A review of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment, by Brian Godawa and The Myth of the American Superhero, by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett
Both of these books, released by Christian publishing houses, attempt to take us beyond the now rather stale debates over the opposition between liberal Hollywood and mainstream America. Both affirm the mythic power of film, despite the secular pretensions of American society and Hollywood. Both detect the pervasive presence of what Joseph Campbell calls the "monomyth," the tale of a hero who passes through the stages of separation, initiation, and return and whose journey rescues a community from ruin. Both think that movie storytelling is typically about "redemption—the recovery of something lost or the attainment of something needed." Both books complain about the paucity of films extolling what Brian Godawa calls the "virtues of accountability to the community" and the plethora of films celebrating purification through violence, the "purging of evil through acting it out."
The author of Hollywood Worldviews is a Christian and an award-winning screenwriter. His audience is the Christian community, which is divided between "cultural gluttons," who mindlessly imbibe whatever form of entertainment comes their way, and "cultural anorexics," who fear a corrosive, secular culture and thus shun it entirely. Godawa counters that Christians need to engage in critical analysis and begin to watch films with "wisdom and discernment." The book contains long sections on the philosophical roots of cinematic themes. These sections, which rely almost entirely on derivative accounts, are decidedly mixed. The author makes a nice distinction between postmodern tactics, which may expose questionable Enlightenment assumptions, and postmodernism as a theory. But the discussion sometimes lapses into indefensibly sweeping claims, for example, that "secular" movements in philosophy from "Aristotle to Wittgenstein" always and inevitably end in "subjectivism."
But then, this is not a book of philosophy; instead, it is a sort of study guide for Christians perplexed about our contemporary culture, with sections devoted to storytelling, "worldviews," and spirituality in the movies; each chapter ends with a "watch and learn" set of suggestions for films and questions and topics for analysis. For its intended audience, the book is likely to accomplish its goal. Using Scripture, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, it defends the importance of art. It urges believers not to recoil from the mere presence of sex, violence, and profanity in films, noting in some detail their presence in scripture. It urges viewers to focus instead on the modes of presentation, context, and narrative use.
Godawa is an adept interpreter of films. He finds things to recommend not just in a film such as "Sense and Sensibility," but also in "Sling Blade" and "Seven." Conversely, he is suspicious of the way some believers have appropriated films like "Star Wars," whose dualism, he argues, is at odds with the Christian story of redemption.
In contrast with Hollywood Worldviews, The Myth of the American Superhero is a more academic book, although it is blessedly free of the sort of jargon that often infects academic cultural criticism. Against the view that popular culture is mere diversion, Lawrence and Jewett argue that its "rituals, symbols, and myths" serve at once to reinforce traditional ways of thinking and to "anticipate" forms of living in the future. American culture, they insist, is saturated with a peculiar myth, the myth of the American superhero, who uses violence to purge society of clearly identifiable evils that democratic institutions and ordinary citizens are incapable of combating.
Lawrence and Jewett see this theme everywhere in American films: "The Matrix," "Dirty Harry," "Death Wish," a variety of Disney films, "Star Wars," and "Star Trek." But there is nothing new in this myth. It was present at the origins of the American experiment and in our mythic accounts of the lives of Washington and Lincoln. It came into its own in what the authors call the "axial decade," beginning in 1929, a decade which witnessed the creation or screen debut of the Virginian, Tarzan, the Lone Ranger, Superman, and Batman. They also see the myth at work in Oliver North's Iran-Contra testimony, in the violent attacks on modern institutions by Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh, and in George W. Bush's military response to the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Lawrence and Jewett are highly critical of this recurring allegory, which they think embodies a simplistic dualism of good and evil, a naïve faith in human heroes endowed with miraculous powers, and an affirmation of violence as the only effective means of purging society of evil.
The monomyth is replete with dangerous, anti-democratic messages. The reliance upon a superhero as a rival to corrupt institutions implicitly fosters a "spectator democracy." Sensing the pointlessness of democratic institutions and practices, citizens await the intervention of a superhero. Whereas Frank Capra's Mr. Smith struggled to save American institutions, contemporary superheroes such as Dirty Harry and Rambo exaggerate this theme by opposing American institutions as irredeemably corrupt. In these films, weaponized lawlessness is the only means of purging evil from the society. But "mythic violence" offers only "negative integration," one that sees a heroic life as a life of renunciation of properly human goods, including notably that of sexuality.
Even a film such as "Star Wars," which appears to defend democracy and freedom from tyrannical bad guys, reinforces fascist notions. The framework for a meaningful human life is not institutions that foster pluralism, but rather a Force that mysteriously subsumes the individual within the group. The authors devote much attention to the influence of "Star Wars" on Timothy McVeigh, who even found justification for killing the innocent in "Star Wars' " depiction of the fate of ordinary clerical workers in the Death Star, whose destruction by Luke Skywalker marks his coming of age as a Jedi.
They note that films such as "Star Wars" and the "Star Trek" TV series have quasi-religious cult followings and propose that the monomyth operates as a sort of surrogate for religion. They astutely observe that, where religious themes surface in popular culture, say, in the TV series "Touched by an Angel," religion is isolated from communal institutions, that is, from churches.
In religious as in other dramatic settings, the monomyth "denies the tragic complexities" of human life; the more popular and mainstream the myth, the less tragic and the more sentimental the story must be. A popular TV series such as "Little House on the Prairie," based on the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder, purges all of the unresolved difficulties from the books, whose dominant tone is one of "hardship" without "miraculous redemption."
The Myth of the American Superhero is in many ways a remarkable achievement: in its historical breadth, in its dissection of the presence of the myth in a variety of genres, and especially in its analysis of the shallow assumptions and potentially dangerous consequences of standard Hollywood mythmaking. There is no question that Hollywood productions typically embody simplistic plots and endings that ignore "tragic complexities," an anti-institutional bent that presupposes and fosters passive despair, and starkly dualistic worldviews and a fascination with violence as a panacea. But, even as they correctly criticize the simplistic morality of the monomyth, Lawrence and Jewett presuppose certain political and moral assumptions that are themselves simplistic.
The authors have a rather naïve faith in the possibility, both domestically and globally, of resolving disputes and fending off attacks on the innocent through negotiation and compromise. They are also repulsed by the mere use of weapons. But clearly these assumptions are as simplistic as the monomyth itself.
Lawrence and Jewett do include a cursory acknowledgment that the monomyth contains elements of truth, but they fail to subject their own assumptions to the same sort of critical analysis to which they subject the monomyth. Take, for example, their repeated reference to the events of September 11. Lawrence and Jewett hope that these events may provide a new, more democratic model of heroism, the heroism of ordinary, working class Americans, even government employees, without weapons. They simultaneously castigate what they take to be the crusading and vengeance-laden rhetoric of John McCain and the Bush Administration.
But ordinary Americans appreciated the need both to celebrate working class heroism and to proceed with a military response. And it is certainly plausible to see the response of ordinary Americans to September 11 as involving a greater sense of tragic complexity than that found in the analyses of Lawrence and Jewett.
At times, the authors give evidence of being caught in the grips of a theory. Consider, for example, their interpretation of "Star Wars." There is no question that "Star Wars" celebrates a kind of romantic affirmation of feeling over reason and a dualistic conception of a cosmic battle between good and evil. Yet is it right to call its politics fascist? Lawrence and Jewett quote passages from Mussolini advocating a heroic nationalism in which the individual sees himself as an instrument of the deified nation. But is the politics of the rebels racist or nationalist? Is it not a multinational force, composed of multiple races? As already mentioned, the authors devote a good deal of attention to Timothy McVeigh's interpretation of the film, especially his claim that the killing of the innocent is justified because they are servants of the evil empire. But here the authors, obsessed with the mere presence and use of weaponry, give little attention to the essentially defensive ends for which the rebels fight.
Another important thesis of the book is a critique of the way simplistic stories of redemption neglect the role of institutions, especially churches. Yet the authors nowhere acknowledge the pervasive media depiction of "organized religion" as inherently oppressive and irrational. And it remains unclear what the authors think the relationship of religion to the cultural need for myth ought to be. In their defense of churches, they stress, in utilitarian fashion, the social benefits of religion. But once religion is seen in utilitarian terms, it risks no longer being seen as a repository of transcendent truth; do-it-yourself spirituality soon begins to make as much sense as, if not more sense than, institutional religion.
Lawrence and Jewett discuss the view of some cultural critics, such as Rollo May and Joseph Campbell, that rising violence and moral confusion are rooted in the decline of traditional myths. Lawrence and Jewett respond that the source is not the absence of myth but the presence of a particular sort of myth, the myth of the American superhero. They also admit, however, that the popularity of the current myth would be inconceivable apart from our religious heritage. The myth, they add, fills a vacuum left by the Enlightenment's attempt to eliminate the need for redemption, even as it advocated the perfectibility of human nature by natural means.
But this means that a revised version of Rollo May's thesis may still be correct: the debased myths of the contemporary era may be feeble, secular attempts to recover what has been lost. Something like this thesis is operative in Godawa'sHollywood Worldviews, which builds upon Tolkien's thesis that the "Gospels contain a fairy-story," a "supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath." Or, alternatively, could it be that in this post-Christian era of mythmaking, Hollywood is offering us glimpses of a pagan vision in which violence is woven into the very fabric of being, the world described by Machiavelli and by Nietzsche, and before them, by Augustine? As Scorsese intimates, we seem to have a voracious appetite for the "catharsis of bloodletting" akin to that provided by the Roman circuses.
Of course, neither book investigates in any detail these lines of thought; nor are they the most obvious lines of inquiry the books provoke. But it is certainly a sign of the high level of cultural analysis in both Hollywood Worldviews and The Myth of the American Superhero that they prompt such penetrating and far-reaching questions.