Let’s Go to the Movies


The Board at St Joseph’s Catholic School decided to hire a chaplain that does not have a teaching role in the school. Great choice as far as I’m concerned. I like teaching, but a teacher has a different relationship to the students than the chaplain does.

Nevertheless, I’ve been asked to teach the Film and Media elective course for 11th and 12th graders. This is fun, and quite a shift since I guess most Catholic school students would expect their priest to be teaching theology or ‘How to Behave Yourself 101′.

We just started the course with a discussion on the nature of Art. We began with the question: “What is Art?” The answer the students themselves came up with is: “Art is a reasonable, creative expression of human emotion.” Not bad eh? Can you come up with something better?

This led to a discussion on how the ancients viewed art. The Greeks and Romans had seven categories of art: 1. History 2. Comedy 3. Tragedy 4. Dance 5. Poetry 6. Music 7. Astronomy. The great thing about the ancient arts is that they were essentially performance arts–even the history and astronomy had a performance element in that the history would have been re-told in epic form and the astronomy would have been applied with fortune telling. Furthermore, this art was integrated. The History was told and re-enacted through the drama, which included music and dance, and inasumch as it was the stories of the gods and goddesses (each of whom had their familiar planets) it also included astronomy. In addition, this art was religious and communal. It was the means whereby the ancients made sense of the universe and made sense of their own lives, and it was religious in the largest sense because it was the way they interacted with their gods and goddesses.

What is most interesting about all this is that since then the arts have become more and more individualistic and ‘creative’. Modern art is all about iconoclastic, individual nihilism. There is nothing communal about it, and certainly nothing integrated with the other arts, and nothing religious.

Film is different though. By it’s very nature film has to be created by a community of people. Making a film is team effort. Furthermore, it integrates the seven ancient forms of art in a way no other art form ever has. With the possible exception of astronomy the seven art forms are woven together in film. The fact that film is a popular art form shows that it is also communal, and since the films are global in their distribution the communal aspect of a great film affects virtually the whole human race. Finally, many films are, in the largest sense, religious. In other words, they deal with the big moral questions, the big questions of who we are, what our lives mean and what our ultimate destiny might be.

This is one of the reasons I find ordinary popular films so intriguing, because we have come full circle and with the most modern of technologies we are together practicing the most ancient of communal art forms.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • jacobus

    I hope, Father, you’ll post more about this class. Even though I’m somewhat young, I’ve never really “gotten into” cinema, as art or otherwise; there is so much dreck out there that it is hard to know where to begin at least from a Catholic perspective. Hopefully, you’ll say more about film as (traditional) art in general and in specifics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06534825533948115912 Chad Toney

    Father,The class sounds like a blast!Jacobus,You could always start with the Vatican Film List Or maybe AFI’s Top 100. I’d recommend getting things on DVD and watching any documentaries and all the available commentary tracks. You can learn a ton about film that way.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Thanks Chad. I have a lot of those films on my list already, so nice to see my choices vindicated. I forgot Lavender Hill Mob though, as one of the best of the Ealing comedies and a great example of British film making. (not to mention a great performance by great Catholic convert Alec Guiness)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15185875893212146794 Ttony

    Art is emotion recollected in tranquility. (Well, that’s poetry but it works for all the arts when done properly.)

  • Michael

    Is “Cool Hand Luke” on the list? While not obviously “Christian”, it has quite a few Christian elements to it, even “types”.I’ll be interested in what the class learns about the nature of “good films”. We sure don’t get enough of them.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01262662173303042998 Freder1ck

    I liked Nacho Libre, but it has a certain amount of vulgarity that folks object to if it’s not delivered via the Inferno, the Canterbury Tales, or Flannery O’Connor…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15000747762174079070 PraiseDivineMercy

    Father, sounds like fun. Let me know if you need any help with anime. You might find a few fans(otaku) in your class. ^_^ It’s good to hear about a priest in tune with popular culture, since film always exposes the most frequent vanities and foibles of the time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15000747762174079070 PraiseDivineMercy

    Oh, I meant to add, may I suggest the film “Grave of the Fireflies”?

  • Anonymous

    What period do you teach that class Father?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    This course is taught 6th period Tuesdays and Thursdays and Omega Wednesdays.

  • http://www.ruah.stblogs.com Jessica

    Padre,How about a book on the anti-nihilistic, team oriented tendancy of cinema?? Solidarity & Cinema? It’d be the first film course to cite both Frank Capra, Barbara Nicolisi, and Rodney Stark! Keep your eyes on Grassroots Films for their first feature, “The Human Experience.” Our arts group is doing a premiere in the Madison Dicoese in November, and they may bring it elsewhere (Naples?) also.


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