A place for movies in the liberal arts

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Jillian Schroeder, Contributing Writer

 

I find it strange that of all the centuries of Western cultural development, the one from which I am most separated is that nearest my own: the twentieth century.

For me, there are no strong impressions of good or bad about the cultural development of that century. There is only a small light of recognition with Faulkner’s “Go Down, Moses” and a fear of the remaining smokiness.

I long believed that this smoggy understanding was simply because the period had little to offer culturally. I now believe that I was overlooking the primary cultural bequest of the twentieth century: film.

The birth of film marked the beginning the modern age, and its finger has always been on the pulse of modern cultural movements.

So I have to ask – why don’t we ever include it in our liberal arts studies? Liberal education means the freedom of an open mind – even, in this case, toward film.

Now, film is in no way an inferior art form, either in theme or in quality. Homer’s “Odyssey” is no more concerned with the notion of nostos than Selznick’s “Gone with the Wind.” William Faulkner wrote the words for the film “To Have and Have Not” just as he did for the novel “Go Down, Moses.”

I think that over the past hundred years, Western heritage has been predominantly passed on through film. Sometimes it has been warped, and sometimes it has been preserved. Either way, it is through film that our age is connected to the cultural classics of the Western heritage.

There is even a sense in which the stars of Hollywood – their dark victories and expensive failures – have become our own mythology. Clark Gable and Zeus aren’t all that different when you total the points.

So I repeat my question: Why don’t we study it? We don’t just underplay this cultural contribution – at the University of Dallas, we rarely even touch on it.

It’s not that film is inherently better or worse than any other art form. But it was the dominant art form of the twentieth century, and isolating or ignoring it creates an intellectual gap.

By excluding the history and artistry of film from our timeline, we create a cultural chasm between ourselves and the ancient classics. When we ignore modern developments to focus on the classics of the distant past, we break the continuity and widen the distance.

You can’t simply bypass a century’s worth of stories, symbols and legends and still expect to be a force in the present day.

We cannot commune with the classics of literature and music; we can only study them. By breaking off that continuity, we have isolated the classics in a mental museum and doomed them to collect dust on a lonely pedestal – always admired, but never embraced.

That is the great irony. The more we ignore modern cultural developments to focus on the classics of the distant past, the greater the distance grows. The continuity preserves the connection.

The Greeks had a notion of the Fates – three women spinning a long thread in the duration of a life. It’s a beautiful image, and an apt one, I think. If Western culture were one of those strings, we’ve cut out a century’s worth of work. And that’s the continuity of our culture sliced apart.

So this weekend, I’ll be reading “A Tale of Two Cities.” And then, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go watch “Casablanca.”

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