[I have started doing a weekly show called “Church of the Masses” on the Radio Titans Network. When I have time, I will edit together my notes/outlines/transcriptions of the show and post them here.]
This show gets its name from my blog which is now hosted at Patheos. Since 2003, the blog has attracted over a million hits. The blog gets its name from a great quote someone sent me way back in 1999 which I used to have as a sign on my office wall at Act One. It’s from an anonymous theater critic who wrote in the 1930’s, “Theaters are the new Church of the masses. They are places where people sit in the dark, listening to people in the light tell them what it is to be human.”
I am someone who believes that and it makes me tremble sometimes in awe and sometimes in terror. Awe when I see the great sermons that human beings preach to one another through the beauty and power of the best screen-based stories. Terror when I realize that very often the people making stories have very little interest in the good and/or needs of the audience. The audience is regarded completely in consumeristic terms – how can we make money off of them? You can make your way through many studio lots and network offices and fin little if any regard for the prophetic responsibilities in storytelling.
Yes, I said prophetic. As our 1930’s theater critic noted, people come to movies and plays looking for meaning about what it is to be human. Aristotle noted that people are driven to story in an instinctual way the way ducks fly south in the winter. When somebody is being driven by an instinct, you have them at a disadvantage. They are seeking without knowing what they need. It is a great source of power to offer a movie knowing the audience is coming to you expecting you to give them something that will make their life better. As Spiderman learned, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Here at Church of the Masses, we believe movies matter. And in full disclosure, we still believe the old fashioned kind of churches matter. I don’t believe that movies can replace what happens at church, or that churches should try and imitate what happens in popular culture. Is there anything lamer than what results when churches set out to make pop music and hip movies? We ned churches because in the same way that men have an instinctual need for stories, Aristotle also says that men are instinctually religious – we are prone to find something to worship. A venerable priest back in New York named Fr. Benedict Groeschel is fond of saying, “If people reject the good God, they always make themselves a bad one.” They can’t help it. They have to worship something.
When Hollywood pursues its mission of prophetic storytelling the results can be wonderful. This year I’m thinking of important films like Gravity and Lone Survivor. But Hollywood is a bad god for people to worship. In many ways, opening yourself to the movies and the movie’s artists the way people open themselves at church is the source of much of the confusion in which we find ourselves drowning in the early 21st Century. Ironically, the problems of the human soul threaten to undermine all the achievements of modernity. My husband is wont to say that living in the 21st Century is an experience of being awash in ignorance, ugliness, and banality.
Banality, now there’s a word we don’t use too much. I think of it as the opposite of the beautiful. We’re going to talk a lot about beauty here at COTM. We’re going to talk about what it is and where it comes from and why it matters.
On Awards Season in Hollywood
It’s the awful season in Hollywood that falls after the industry’s “liturgical year” begins at Sundance. It’s awards show time here in Hollywood. Or as I prefer to think of it “The Chorus of Pretentious Absurdity.” There are tons of awards shows – almost enough for every actor in the business to make some kind of stupid speech. Besides the biggie shows – the Golden Globes and the Oscars – there are the industry unions awards – the Casting Society Awards, the Writers Guild Awards, the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, The Cinematographers Guild, The Art Director Guild, The SAG Awards. One time I attended the SHINE Awards for Sexual Health in Entertainment which was sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It was a truly horrific parade of the worst Hollywood can be. Every award-winner was challenged to accept their award by detailing their first sexual experience. Not joking. There are the issue-oriented awards for movies that celebrate animal rights aor diversity or global warming or, you know, global cooling. There are the Black Cinema Awards, the Latino awards, and the Gay and Lesbian awards shows. There are awards that focus on moral and family movies like the Movieguide Awards, the Catholics in Media Awards, the Dove Awards and the Heartland Award. There is the Spirit Awards for independent cinema.
It never seems to end. A lot of these are thinly disguised fundraisers in which the award is the draw that brings in the industry money to buy tables and ads in program brochures.
Even trying to put the best spin on it all, every year, I experience award season as simply deeper and deeper levels of the the truly absurd and embarrassing. In an industry that prizes subtext, everyone in the business seems to lose all their keen sense of the obvious in February. Most of the awards devolve into incontrovertible proofs that actors should never ever ever speak a word in public that has not been scripted for them. Even smart actors – and yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron – seem to lose what few wits they possess when they are standing up in front of a podium holding some kind of ridiculous statue.
It’s a season in which we need to ban the use of the words brilliant, awesome and amazing. And genius. That one really needs to be banned. We need to do what we can to save those words for actual matters of real importance and distinction, like curing cancer and solving nucelar fission. How many actors will clutch their little figurine and attest with all the vim and verve in their hearts and souls, “Our grip and best boy are the most brilliantly amazing awesome geniuses in the history of the world. No really.”
People ask me what value I think the awards shows have in the world.
In the best sense of all the fuss, the proliferation of awards that the industry showers upon itself, is an expressin of the truth that all of us who work here know: Making a Good Movie is so hard it’s almost a miracle. The individual guild awards also bring out another truth: It is possible to make an amazing part in a whole that ends up failing. “Best Picture” ought to mean many of the parts are excellent and the sum of all the parts is a great harmony. Sadly, too often the award goes to films for other reasons, but generally, the craft-based awards that the industry gives are things that culture watchers should be atuned to. I think all of the awards show merit some thought because they are a cultural meter. In many cases, they are a tragic cultural meter of the decline and fall of Western Civilization.
That’s what I was thinking during the Grammys.
It was an awful thing to watch: akind of freak show of the rich and notorious. A triumph of spectacle over substance. There was Beyonce simulating fornication with herself and then with her husband. There was the travesty of a mass sham wedding officiated over by Queen Latifah, which mainly succeeded in highlighting in what low esteem our celebrity culture holds the Sacrament of Matrimony. Then, there was Katy Perry dressed as Satan and uttering Satanic versus – which was horrific, but strangely fitting. Satan would bless that perverse assembly.
But he worst thing about the Grammy Awards this year was that there was very little talent in evidence. The music was loud and gross and banal. There was very little to delight the human spirit, or bring winsomeness, compassion, consolation and depth. Watching it all, I thought to myself that we have entered a period worse than the profligacy that keynoted the fall of the Roman Empire. Back then, Christians absented themselves from all that was popular entertainment. The Roman theaters and gymnasiums were just too polluted so the Christians kept themselves apart. It is that time for us?