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Further Reading

DISPATCHES

Cinema Paradiso

How Did We Lose It and Can It Ever Be Regained? We Ask Hollywood Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi

by Bobby Maddex

Barbara Nicolosi has had more than her fair share of successful ventures. First off, she is a gifted screenwriter, her work attracting the attention of such A-list directors as Roland Joffé (The Mission, The Killing Fields), who will begin shooting one of her scripts in September. This Northwestern University graduate is also an astute movie critic, as evidenced by her website Church of the Masses (churchofthemasses.blogspot.com), generally considered one of the best film blogs on the internet. And then, of course, there’s Act One, Inc. (actoneprogram.com), the thriving non-profit screenwriting workshop that Nicolosi helped found in 1999, as well as her enviable position as head of creative development for Origin Entertainment. Clearly, the woman could stand to spread the love around a bit, right?

Well, that’s what I thought, too, until I actually had a chance to speak with Nicolosi. It turns out that you really can’t begrudge her a single one of her accomplishments, so thoughtful and focused is she with regard to her vocation. Her knowledge of movies, including their various themes and production details, is nearly encyclopedic, and her motivation to acquire such knowledge (and then to apply it in her own work) is just about as altruistic as you can get. You see, Nicolosi is a Catholic—a quite ardent one at that—and whether you buy into Christianity or not, you can’t help but admire the aspiration that her Catholicism has inspired: namely, to rescue cinema from the chaotic materialism that has plagued it since the early 1960s. In short, Nicolosi wants to make film—what she calls “the art form of our time”—beautiful again. Here we talk about what such beauty would entail, as well as what needs to be done to achieve it.

How has the film medium changed society?

It’s not so much the film medium that has changed society as the visual image itself. The last 150 years or so have been different from the rest of history due to the primacy of the visual image.

The image allows us to see things for ourselves that should rally us for the cause of good. I was just in Israel, and I went to see the pictures of the Holocaust at the Yad Vashem monument. Had I never heard of the Holocaust, I would have found news of it incredibly hard to believe. But no one could look at these pictures and then persist in disbelief. The image is extremely powerful in this sense.

Our problem today, though, is that we are hit with so many images that they’ve lost some of their impact. We’ve been deadened to their power. I’m not an expert on this subject by any means, but I nevertheless believe that people are unable to process efficiently the overload of information with which they are confronted daily. Consequently, the pervasiveness of images encourages superficiality. People just shut down because they can’t handle the image onslaught.

Another problem is that people these days are easily bored because the glut of images has made them seek constant stimulation. We’re not seeing things deeply, and we’re moving way too fast. Cinema contributes to this, sure, but I don’t think it’s immediate enough to really cash in on the image the way television does.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is this: Who are the creators of the images we see? For the most part, our images are produced by people who don’t have any spiritual context. In both the journalism and entertainment arenas, those who wield the power of the image the most are defined by godlessness, and it is this atheistic worldview that sticks with viewers regardless of whether they process completely the images that they see.

Considering such godlessness, why should we even watch movies? Is watching film important?

It should be. Movies are the art form of our time. Indeed, they are a composite of the four classical art forms: composition, music, literature, and performance. Each of these elements is built into film, which is why people find it so compelling. Consequently, if you are a teacher or a minister or a therapist—if you do anything, really, that involves understanding people and their needs and desires—you have to watch movies. If you really want to know what the masses are being told to contemplate, what kind of heroes they are being told to emulate, you have to keep your ear to the ground, which in this day and age means watching movies.

For example, if you are currently a teacher of high-school students, you simply must see the movie 300. You have to watch such things because they are signs of the times. You also need to learn how to find in them the themes and threads that are influencing our adolescents in order to either counter these messages or support them, depending on their content. Parents, especially, have to watch what’s out there so they can talk to their kids about it. It’s just a no-brainer that you have to be somewhat conversant in the art form of your time.

In actual practice, what is the purpose of this art form?

Traditionally, the arts have been a place where man gives his best to God, where he tries to find—as the pope said in his letter to artists—”the new epiphanies of beauty” for the world. Today, very few works of art are about that. What happened to the religious impulse in man to respond to the cosmos by putting something beautiful and lasting out there? It’s pretty much gone, and this is especially apparent in cinema. People don’t believe in the beautiful anymore. They don’t even know what the beautiful is.

For one thing, today’s filmmakers simply do not have any sort of mastery over their craft. The industry also lacks the guild system of past eras in art, which allowed one generation to teach the next how to make beautiful things. Instead, we’ve pushed all of our artists into isolation, telling them that all that matters is self-expression. No one teaches with a voice of authority these days, and the result is rampant ugliness.

So what is a beautiful film?

A beautiful film is one that achieves excellence in production and message. At the level of production, the movie must have an outstanding script, strong acting performances, inventive composition (cinematography), gorgeous design, and so on. In other words, the technique must be both inspired and appropriate to the content. That’s the first thing.

But a film should also be judged according to its message. What does the movie want you to believe? Is what it’s telling you the truth or a lie? If the latter, then it’s a bad film, no matter how good the technique may be. There are a lot of movies in this category: American Beauty, The Hours, Munich, and so on.

Incidentally, Munich is probably the best-produced lie that I have seen in the last five years. It’s an amazing film in terms of storytelling, acting, direction—the whole production-design vision. The message of the film, however, is that there’s neither good nor evil; rather, we are all just locked in meaningless combat with one another, and all you can do in response is duck down, cling to your family, and hope that you don’t get caught in the crossfire. Munich presents an extremely cynical and pessimistic view of life and is thus an ugly—a bad—movie.

Now most Christian filmmakers do just fine as far as message goes, but their technique is absolutely horrible. Thus, they are making bad movies as well. Both elements have to be in place for a film to be good, and this is becoming an increasingly rare phenomenon. Let’s see: Finding Nemo has both elements and so does The Shawshank Redemption. Oh, and The Ice Storm, of course. These movies bring it all together. They tell the truth, and they tell it well.

What are some of the more pernicious lies to come out of the film industry?

Lately, movies have been shilling the myth that there exists a personal and a public morality. I’ve seen this over and over again. It was originally carved into our consciousness by Bill Clinton, who argued that it was possible for him to be a good president while screwing around with an intern—as though his public and private lives were unrelated. Now we see it in films like Superman Returns, wherein the title character is a deadbeat dad but still portrayed as a force for good in the universe. And then there’s The Departed. Here, the hero is having an affair with another man’s fiancé, a tryst that the film depicts as completely irrelevant to the ability of this character to do right and stop the mob.

I’ve really had it with this mentality—with the whole “flawed hero” syndrome, for that matter. Heroes aren’t supposed to be like real people. They’re supposed to be better than we are; that’s why we watch them. If real people were enough, we would all sit around in our living rooms eating popcorn while staring at each other. Part of the reason we turn to stories is to be inspired by characters who are bigger and better than the norm—who meet larger obstacles than we do and who have a purity of intention that is much more pronounced than that found in real life.

While in Italy, I was talking to a teacher who’s doing his doctoral dissertation on the television program ER, and he asked me, “Why do you suppose this show has lost its audience?” “Oh, that’s easy,” I responded. “Where in the initial seasons of ER the doctors were heroes, they’ve since become loathsome narcissists.” In other words, the audience used to admire Dr. Green and Doug and Carol because they were self-sacrificing, unbelievably brilliant, and focused on doing good in the world and for their patients. Today, however, ER is comprised of a bunch of sex-obsessed, sulky, petty people who are constantly fighting turf wars and looking as though they are being perpetually exploited. I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes on an elevator with these people, never mind a full hour of my Thursday night. This loss of the hero is a huge problem in contemporary storytelling; essentially, it means that people aren’t getting from their stories what they need most.

How do you watch a film without being infected by its lies?

The first step is to be aware of the lies themselves. And the best way to be aware of lies is to pervade yourself with the truth. The writer Flannery O’Connor once said that it takes someone who is healthy to recognize a freak when he sees one; she also said that the reason why people don’t generally notice just how freakish our culture has become is that they’ve gotten away from . . . well, I’m sorry . . . they’ve gotten away from God. A person’s proximity to God is what allows him to see clearly the sickness present in society.

Not long ago, I was at the recital of the 11-year-old daughter of a divorced friend of mine who had recently remarried. Present at the event were my friend and her new spouse; her ex-husband and his new wife; Mary, the onetime live-in girlfriend of the ex-husband, who bonded with his daughter and still keeps in touch; Mary’s child, who was conceived in another out-of-wedlock relationship; and the two teenage kids of the two new spouses, the latter having been married and divorced before as well. As I watched the little girl perform, I asked myself, “What kind of movie would have an impact on this child?” I mean, her life was already the freakiest of freak shows. What would it take to cut through the lies she has been fed—all of the pain—and confront her with a healthy worldview? This is why Flannery O’Connor used the macabre in her storytelling. “When someone is deaf, then you have to shout,” she said. We’re going to need some seriously macabre stuff to reach the next generation of moviegoers, I think.

Why doesn’t the film industry try to promote a healthy worldview? Why is it a force for lies rather than truth?

There are several factors at play here. Definitely, you can’t understate the role of the sexual revolution, which affected every aspect of society, but Hollywood in particular. Entertainment has to be bigger than the real; Hollywood always has to make the freaks just a little bit more freakish. It magnifies what’s going on in the culture, which in this case means amplifying the confusion and chaos—the challenging of every single cultural value and traditional understanding of everything in every area—precipitated by the sexual revolution. Think about it. What aspect of human life that the boomers inherited has not been completely debunked or rejected or sneered at? Such attitudes acquire an even more perverse dimension on the big screen.

Beyond this, cinema just happened to come along at a very inopportune time. Nietzsche had only recently declared that God was dead, and the world was becoming increasingly infused with all manner of unbelievable error: anarchy and communism and—perhaps worst of all—materialism. We never had a cinematic renaissance to balance out the cinema of modernity. All that we’ve known—and continue to know—is the cinema of modernity.

I would also say that the film industry is a victim of a general decline in artistic beauty resulting from a rejection of the divine. Let’s face it; the most beautiful works of art throughout history have for the most part been directed toward God. Indeed, if you were to take God out of the picture, there would be no Sistine Chapel and no Pietà, no Irish Book of Kells and no St. Peter’s Basilica. When art is directed toward man, you get what the Soviet Union managed to produce: sterile cement blocks. It’s only in an attempt to glorify God that the really cool stuff emerges. The same holds true for the film medium.

Does Hollywood promote anything of value?

It does. For example, the industry is very clear that what really matters is people, that you should love people and put them first. I could point to a million movies that have this message. Most recently, there was The Pursuit of Happyness, which is mostly about the Will Smith character trying to make a better life for his son, and The Devil Wears Prada, a movie about rejecting the high-flying life of fashion for real love. Now, those in Hollywood don’t actually live as if they believed this message, but at least they seem genuine in their desire to believe it.

For a long time, Hollywood also promoted the view that true heroism involves sacrificing one’s life for the sake of others, but this notion has fallen out of favor in recent years. These days, our heroes do everything they can to escape heroism; even Superman is filled with angst and self-doubt. “Do I want to be Superman? Why should I be Superman? Why do I have to be the one to take care of people?”

Why? You’re seriously asking why? How about because you can fly, you idiot? You are Superman, and you have to find yourself? Come on!

You obviously spend a lot of time thinking about the films you see. For what sort of things do you look when watching a movie?

Without question, the first thing to discern is the theme of the story. Once you have identified the theme, then you can analyze all of the other choices that were made in terms of structure, production design, style of performance, and so on. To get at what the movie is about—what it’s saying about human life in the broadest possible sense: that’s the chief objective.

Next, you need to pay attention to each of the four major art forms that comprise a film: narrative storytelling, theatrical performance, music, and composition. How good of a job has been done in each of them individually in contributing to the theme of the movie? How well have they been incorporated together into an integrated whole? Your answers to these questions will reveal how good the film is with regard to technique.

Incidentally, one of the things that really annoys me about my fellow Christians is how absolutely ignorant most of them are about such technical stuff. For example, a movie came out several years ago called A Walk to Remember that was almost universally lauded by Christians even though it was a piece of crap. I’m serious. It featured horrible performances and a stupid script. Nothing happened in it out of necessity. It was banal; it was predictable; and it was done on the cheap. When I finally asked a few people why they loved it, they told me that it was because the two teenagers in the movie didn’t sleep together.

Now what does this tell you about such Christians? Well, for starters, it tells you that they’re only viewing movies through a narrative lens. What is happening in this story, and is it something with which I agree morally? These are the only questions that Christians are asking themselves, and it also causes them to pan good movies, including one of the best films in recent years, In the Bedroom. I had friends who refused to recommend this movie because the two protagonists do not go to jail for their crimes, never mind that these characters endure a psychological hell far worse than any prison. My friends could not get past the actual details of the narrative and so missed the very moral point that the film was making.

It sounds like a fundamental inability to analyze texts . . .

That’s a very good point. Remember: we’re the same church that used to love Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Les Miserables—stories that took their characters on very dark journeys. It’s as though we’ve lost our ability to read critically. I really think that most people living today do not know anything about art. Oh, they know what they like, I suppose; it’s just that they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Do you know who the worst offenders are in this area? Christian movie reviewers. I can name maybe two Christian film critics who actually understand the craft of filmmaking. All the rest are stuck on story. Either that, or they give every movie they see a good review because the studios invite them to junkets at the Ritz Carlton, flatter them, and feed them raspberry crêpes. The vast majority of Christian critics fall into one of these two camps.

Who is most responsible for the overall message of a film?

Probably the director, unfortunately. The script should have the most power, and if directors were humble people, they would look at a script and ask, “What did the writer intend to say here?” However, most directors view the script as a launching pad for their own agendas.

For example, the script for the movie Children of Men was closely based on the P. D. James novel of the same name. It was essentially about the abandonment of hope in society as represented by mass sterility. According to an article I read, however, the film’s director, Alfonso Cuarón, objected to all of the religious moralizing in the script and decided to turn the movie into a sci-fi thriller. Hence, the film makes no sense whatsoever. It has some neat cinematography and some very interesting production design, but the way the characters come in and out of the storyline is ridiculous. I find this unbelievably irresponsible, and it’s egomaniacal. The director has way too much power in this industry.

What I really hate is that possessory credit that directors sometimes run that reads “A film by so-and-so.” Is the movie really just the director’s? Of course not. Chances are, it was written by someone else; it was cast by someone else; and it was produced by someone else. There are just a ton of other people involved. But right now every director wants to be an auteur; they all want to be “important.” It wouldn’t be a problem if they were a bunch of Hitchcocks, but they’re not. They’re just arrogant.

Are there any important filmmakers working today? If so, to whom should we be paying attention?

To be honest, there are very few directors of substance who deliver anything approaching a coherent message. The only person who’s coming to mind right now is Todd Field, the director of In the Bedroom and, more recently, Little Children. The latter was probably the best film I saw last year—a view of human sin from the perspective of God—but it’s also obscene. Indeed, I can’t generally recommend it, and I’m no prude.

A lot of these up-and-coming Latino directors—guys like Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro Inarritu—really, really want to be important, but they’re actually fairly passé. They just don’t have much to say, and it shows in movies like Babel and 21 Grams. And Pan’s Labyrinth? Oh, my goodness. If it had been made by a Hollywood director, it would have been laughed out of the house. It’s such a mess from a story and genre standpoint.

Let’s see; who else is talented and also has something to say? Well, there’s no getting around it: Mel Gibson. Sorry, but Apocalypto was a stunning artistic and social statement. Mel has really matured; it has been amazing to watch. His Catholic faith has intensified, which allows him to see the freaks. That central twenty minutes of Apocalypto, when the human sacrifice occurs and the Mayan people watch it indifferently: what an indictment of modernity! Mel shows us what happens to a culture gone fat and greedy and bored.

Other than Gibson and Field, I can’t think of anyone else. Of course, you have to rule out most of the baby boomers because these are the guys who decided to start over completely in virtually every cinematic category when they could have climbed onto the shoulders of giants, and that’s just dumb. If they had only taken the wisdom of the past and then combined it with their own experiences, they could be making profound movies right now. Instead, they’re saying things like “Ketchup is red,” which isn’t exactly an earth-shattering insight. Honestly, it’s so rare to find a film these days that has a real point of view resulting from serious thought. Frankly, what Hollywood needs is a catholic understanding of itself and its art, but that will never happen unless more of us who care about such things make inroads into the industry. 


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