SOME THINK THAT film is an inferior medium — compared to say, written novels — mainly because 90 or so minutes is hardly enough time to cover the material in even a short novella. But no one denies that film is a powerful medium: its immersive quality means that impressions flow directly into our minds, bypassing our critical faculties. The little gatekeeper to our soul, who actively scrutinizes ideas as we read them on a page, is seemingly asleep when we are in a darkened theater watching a film. So cinema can be a two-edged sword — potentially a great good or a great evil.
But in a civil society, should not power come with greater responsibility? Those who have great means have a far greater moral culpability than the rest of us. Cinema is very powerful, but who has the right or the responsibility to regulate this power?
Early commercial cinema tended to be sensational, and it seemed that films with racy or violent content sold well, and this led to an industry-wide trend to embrace this lowest-common-denominator content, as studio executives were not willing to lose business to their competitors. But children and youth were observed to directly imitate the evil things they saw at the movies, and this led Progressive Era reformers to demand government censorship of the media. Eventually, government censorship boards were set up in many states and municipalities in the United States. The censors had the power to cut out scenes or even to deny licenses to films, preventing them from being shown in their jurisdiction. Ironically, this censorship had an effect that was not intended — Hollywood made films that were even more sensational, salacious, and violent, hoping that some would make it past the censors, and many did.
But this is hardly a good way to do business and it compromises the artistic integrity of a film. Besides, is government the best institution to ensure the morals of youth? A better solution would be for the industry to regulate itself in cooperation with associations of cinema-goers, avoiding the heavy-hand of government.
Dawn Eden discusses this self-regulation of cinema in her article "Dark Knight" and the soul: The Catholic Church's prophetic warnings about the toxic effects of cinematic violence. She discusses the role of Fr. Daniel A. Lord S.J., who wrote the self-regulating code used by Hollywood cinema from the 1930s through the 1960s. Lord reportedly wrote one of Pope Pius XI's encyclicals on the subject of film. (Lord's relics can be found in Calvary Cemetery in Saint Louis.)
Now, many decried this kind of self-censorship — even though it is far better than government censorship — as limiting artistic freedom. But what was the result of such self-regulation? It is now called the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” an era of filmmaking that embraced humanism and the high ideals of our civilization, an era where films were more literate, psychologically nuanced, and with a very high quality of art. This was also an unexpectedly profitable time for filmmakers, and many films of that era transcend their time and remain popular today.
Pope Pius stated that films must be morally good — they must encourage the good and discourage evil — but they must also be artistically good. Good intentions must be coupled with good art. Too many Christian groups, naive or dismissive about the medium and business of film, put out nice but terribly inartistic films that have minimal influence on our culture. Good art, on the other hand, cannot be ignored.