A long-time film enthusiast who observes that “if a picture is worth a thousand words, a movie may be worth a thousand pages,” Daniel Callam, C.S.B., analyzes the equivalent of some 40,000 pages of film in A Catholic Goes to the Movies, a collection of movie reviews that he penned over the past ten years (most of which were previously published in such periodicals as The Chesterton Review). Given the provenance of its material, this new release from Justin Press is both Catholic and Chestertonian in orientation, and the roster of films that Callam reviews includes some likely suspects: Alejandro Monteverde’s overtly-religious 2008 film, Bella, Terrence Malick’s highly-acclaimed Tree of Life (2011), and several Whit Stillman films, including the recent Love & Friendship (2016). It also includes the irreligious action thriller Taken (2008), the nihilistic drama No Country for Old Men (2007), and the partially-parodic horror movie Drag Me to Hell (2009).
As the diversity of these titles suggests, A Catholic Goes to the Movies is not for readers looking for an all-ages vetted list of Catholic movies to watch with the kids. What it offers, however, is ultimately more empowering than even the best list of movies-to-see, for it provides readers with an interpretive paradigm that they can use to decode the moral and philosophical assumptions of any movie they happen to watch, whether Catholic or secular, art film or blockbuster, romantic comedy or horror flick.
The Gospel repeatedly reminds us that we are called to be in the world, but not of it. Why bother, then, with mainstream media at all? Why divert time away from the search for beauty and goodness by watching, never mind writing about, ephemeral genre movies or fleeting blockbusters? Callam anticipates and answers such objections in the opening paragraphs of his book:
My training and interests are theological, which naturally have attracted my attention to films with an overtly religious theme, [….] But I am also inclined to examine the religious or philosophical underpinnings of popular movies, […] for even a crude film […] implies a worldview that should be recognized and commented on by a responsible critic.
Arguably, Callam implies, the crude movie is in more need of responsible assessment than the overtly religious one. Consider the proposition that all social representations have what Callam calls a weltanschauung, an underlying set of assumptions about the world and how it operates. If that hypothesis is correct, then it is precisely those films that are least self-conscious about their philosophical assumptions that most need to have them brought to the surface. The methodology of A Catholic Goes to the Movies comprises precisely that kind of exposure. This focus on the weltanschauung of the movies Callam reviews comes at a cost, of course, for it means that he cannot mask moral assessments behind comments about camera angles and lighting, or costumes and sets, nor can he excuse a film’s dubious moral on the basis of technical skill or narrative excitement. His judgment cuts through the incidentals of properties and effects, and gets right to the heart of what the films are actually about.
At times, as in the comparative analysis of Traitor (2008, dir. Jeffrey Nachmanoff) and Taken (2008, dir. Pierre Morel), Callam’s moral judgments both defy conventional audience appraisals of the films and highlight key differences between structurally- and generically-similar films. Traitor and Taken are thrillers that engage the idea of the global village, with action plots that cross oceans and with characters that come from diverse cultures and continents. Both portray organized violence and exploitation of innocent victims; both have a high body count and superman-style protagonists whose behavior raises questions about the legitimacy of cooperating or even negotiating with criminal entities; and both are contrived in their formulation and resolution of the problem the protagonists are called upon to resolve. This shared weakness likely explains why neither movie was a critical darling on release. General audiences, on the other hand, loved Taken, which is indexed with a whopping 85% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but agreed with the critics’ assessment of Traitor as mediocre at best.
Within this context, Callam’s privileging of Traitor over Taken is instructive, for it has to do with none of the formal aspects of film production, nor even with storyline plausibility. Rather, “the salient difference,” as Callam sees it, “is that between hope and despair”. Ironically given its title, Traitor is the film that upholds a belief in our shared humanity, in the conviction “that virtue is stronger than vice so that the right side will ultimately win”. Taken, in contrast, espouses an individualism so extreme that “the citizen has no obligation to the common good because there is no longer any hope of defending or establishing it”. If the actions of Samir, the protagonist in Traitor, are “highly improbable”, how much worse are those of Bryan Mills, who “is not much different from his opponents,” attacking them “not because they are evil but because they have disturbed his private paradise”.
In his analysis of the conclusion of Taken, Callam is almost prophetic, sensing in the “happiness and light” of the resolution “the presence of a powder keg with its short fuse already lit”. That powder keg blew up in the form of Taken 2 (2012), and again in Taken 3 (2014), and the very possibility that the peace that closes the 2008 Taken could again give way to the extreme unrest of its sequels suggests how untenable an isolated peace is. When paradise—when our conception of heaven—becomes “private,” as Callam suggests is the case for Taken’s Mills, it also becomes relative and volatile, with every fleeting whim and idiosyncrasy undermining its foundation.
Against this backdrop of despair and instability, the heroism and success of Traitor’s Samir in preventing a terrorist attack against America is, indeed, morally uplifting. That said, if Taken is flawed in its extreme individualism, Traitor’s moral is complicated by a latent utilitarianism that sets the collective above the individual. Although the protagonist is “deeply affected” when two real men are numbered among the “fake victims” he accrues while infiltrating a terrorist cell, the paradox of his killing of a few – however inadvertently – in order to safeguard the many remains an uncomfortable invocation of the principle of double effect. Callam acknowledges this problem without further analysis in his concession that “the deaths of the guilty and of the odd bystander are legitimized by the foiling of a master plot to murder hundreds of ordinary Americans”, but given the penetration of his critique of Taken, this reader wishes he would have explored the moral complexities of Traitor more explicitly than he does.
In another comparison, one that focuses on The Dark Knight (2008, dir. Christopher Nolan) and A Law-Abiding Citizen (2009, dir. F. Gary Gray), Callam does analyze the way movies occasionally invoke and, in the process, distort the principle of double effect. Beginning with the same quotation from G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man that appears in his discussion of Taken, Callam identifies these films as reinforcing what Chesterton describes as a “dim idea that [the] darker powers will really do things, with no nonsense about it”. The films succeed, in other words, in portraying evil as pervasive and threatening— “an unsettling aspect of our culture, […] expanded to fill the vacuum formed in men who have abandoned God”. In The Dark Knight, for example, evil is personified in the Joker, whose technique “is a skewed version of the principle of double effect,” which Callam explains to mean (somewhat simplistically, perhaps) “that in certain circumstances a moral agent can tolerate evil in acting to achieve a comparable good” (106). Thus, the Joker presents various characters in the movie with a series of false dilemmas:
he will not destroy a hospital if a man is killed; he will not blow up those ferries if one set of passengers murders the other; the life of the D.A. will be spared if his fiancée is allowed to die. The obvious flaw in the positing of these dilemmas is the lack of connection between the alternatives. Blowing up one ferry does not ipso facto save the other, nor does killing someone prevent the hospital from being destroyed.
Although Batman beats the Joker at this game, refusing to accept the dilemma presented to him, other characters in the film do not fare as well. In A Law-Abiding Citizen, moreover, none fares well, with protagonist Nick Rice giving himself over entirely to his enemy. That there may be a poetic justice in the death of Clyde Shelton, Rice’s evil opponent, by his own contraption matters less to Callam than the moral compromise Rice makes in installing the death machine in Shelton’s cell: yes, Rice succeeds in redirecting the fiery end Shelton planned for city council onto Shelton himself, but he does so only by becoming a version of the evil he had fought against.
Evil is conspicuous in both these films, as it is in Drag Me to Hell (2009, dir. Sam Raimi), which Callam discusses alongside them. What links all three, different as they are, is the conspicuous absence of an incorruptible and omnipotent good to counter the pervasive evil. Nick Rice compromises himself when he resorts to Shelton’s own techniques, and Batman, though he refuses to play the Joker’s game, is nevertheless the eponymous Dark Knight, a vigilante who works outside of the law and jealously protects his true identity at great cost. With its titular reference to the afterlife, however, it is Drag Me to Hell that makes the absence of the Good, of God, most apparent. The protagonist, Christine Brown, lacks the extraordinariness of a Bruce Wayne, but neither does she harbor the evil of a Joker. Rather, she is just an ordinary bank worker who is cursed by a disgruntled client to whom she refuses a loan. The secularism of our time is evident in the lack of options available to the distressed Brown: with reference to The Exorcist (1973, dir. William Friedkin), Callam reminds us that “In the past, when Satan attacked, the victims could obtain help. […] Nowadays people are on their own”. Within the context of Drag Me to Hell, the result is that, far from being able to see a priest about her predicament, Brown can hardly find a single soul in the entire cast of characters to accept her fears as well-founded. Dramatically, at the end of the movie, Brown backs away from her well-intending boyfriend to fall backwards onto train tracks, which open up into a hellfire that sucks her into a world imperceptible to the young man who looks on as a train speeds over the spot where his beloved had fallen. The train passes, the fiery hole closes over, and only gravel remains—a magnified representation of the ashes and dust from which we all come, and to which we all return. Taken from a materialist perspective, people are emphatically on their own, and “the results are not reassuring”.
Indeed, from the prominence and apparent omnipotence of evil in these films, Callam proceeds to interpret their weltanschauung as suggesting that present-day society is moving past secularism into heresy:
Our contemporary sophisticates have actually revived the old-fashioned Manichean dualism in which the forces of evil are in control of the physical universe, undeterred by the relatively puny powers of virtue.
This heresy (perhaps the inevitable successor to the Nietzschian postulate that God is dead, in the absence of a corresponding postulate regarding Satan) is also, ironically, the source of the films’ singular metaphysical insight, “for without God man is indeed at the mercy of powers he can neither control nor comprehend”. More than in the violence and horror that they present, then, “these films are […] frightening in their implications,” for it is the latter that vividly and relentlessly call into question the tenability of a secular-materialist understanding of the world and our place within it.
Callam’s thoughtful reflections on diverse films read, at times, like a kind of cinematic apologetics, identifying evidence of divine truth in even the most unlikely places. As such, A Catholic Goes to the Movies is an uplifting work of critical analysis, exposing hypocrisies and inconsistencies in a secular culture that, despite itself, inevitably directs us toward God.
A Catholic Goes to the Movies
by Daniel Callam, C.S.B.
Justin Press, 2017
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