Often when I go to the movies these days, I feel like Rip van Winkle as though I have awakened from a long sleep and find myself in an unfamiliar world. I grew up during the day of the production code administration and the movies I attended had more influence on my moral formation then did my weekly visits to Sunday school. Coincidentally, the Presbyterian church and The Sedgwick Theater were on the same block on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia.
When I think of my favorites–Dawn Patrol, Four Feathers, Angels with Dirty Faces, and A Star Is Born (to show that I didn’t admire only boys’ movies)–all the films deal in one way or another with Sacrifice. That is, the greatest thing one could do was to sacrifice oneself for another.
So when I go to the movies today not only do I not recognize players, I am shocked by the reversal of moral standards. I can think of no better example than Silver Lining Playbook. To be honest, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I recognize its artistic merit and given the mores of our present day fully appreciate the awards it received. But the morality of the film has turned 180° away from the morality of the time when I was most impressionable. In romantic comedies of the thirties, estranged couples always became reunited. This film goes in the opposite direction. It begins with a disturbed young man recently released from a mental institution whose ex-wife has placed a restraining order on him so he will not harass her. Grown up in a Catholic family and with improving mental health, he desperately wishes to reunite with his wife. As he commences on this project by reading her favorite books, he meets an equally disturbed young woman. She is a recent widow who blames herself for the death of her police officer husband while shopping for sexy Victoria’s Secret lingerie. As a result of her grief and despair, she has become sexually promiscuous. She wishes to enter an annual dance contest at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel and needs a partner. She tries out the young man and finds him adequate. In the process of rehearsals, they begin to fall in love, and raise hopes in the audience their new relationship will solve the mental problems both of them face. The husband has improved enough that his ex-wife relaxes the restraining order and opens the way to new solicitations. By now the audience is afraid that he might go back to her. But at the climax of the film, like a deux ex machina, his seemingly orthodox father intervenes and blocks the possibility of a remarriage. Thus a happy ending.
It was not till at least a half-hour after I’d left the theater that I realized the movie contradicted traditional views of matrimony. Now my Rip van Winkle self has noticed the shift in morality occurs not only in romantic comedy. For instance, in the classic film noir of the forties, crime in the dark city did not pay, and if the mayor was in cahoots with the gangsters, a moral governor would intervene to save the day. In contrast, in neo-noirs such as Chinatown, Body Heat, and their successors, crime does pay, and civic corruption—as in the Bourne movies–leads right to the center of government in Washington itself.
No longer as a wag once said, Hollywood consists of Jews making Catholic films for Protestant audiences. Another wag said Hollywood now consists of atheists making amoral films for agnostics. Do you agree?