Fr. J. A. V. BURKE, of the Catholic Film Society, writes of
Catholic Responsibility • in the
*Film World of Today MANY people, hearing of the
Film Congress in Brussels, have been astonished to discover that we spent three quarters of the time in discussion and only a few hours each evening at the Festival. To the general public, the idea of the representatives of 19 nations at a Festival of Film, learnedly discussing morals and culture seems somewhat far removed from reality.
Until the war compelled the cinemas to give a place to the Government's official documentaries in their programmes, the average person probably had no idea of the extent of the influence of film in fields outside that of mere entertainment. Its function in education, the part it plays in medical training and scientific research, not to mention the possibilities of cafechetical films was something quite foreign to the mind of the man in the street.
The reason for this is that the general public is mainly dependent upon the feature film industry for its knowledge of the uses to which the film can be put. This highly centralised industry which measures the popularity of film only in terms of box-office has shown little sense of responsibility towards the film as an artistic medium or to the public as intelligent beings.
The Seventh Art ?
The cineaste at Brussels repeatedly referred to the Film as the Seventh Art, hut it would seem that the film industry as a whole has few illusions on this point. It allows the public little or no control over the choice of films shown at public cinemas. Many of the best documentaries as well as some of the more intelligent feature films are never seen by the general public at all. The machinery of film distribution works on the conveyor-belt system. Films move round the 'cinema circuits at a predetermined speed regardless of the preferences of the audiences, regardless of ago or education.
Unhappily, there is a vast, inarticulate, inchoate audience ready to see any film rather than no film, and it ts on this absorbent material that Hollywood depends when turning out its products.
The one way in which this state of things can be changed is by stimulating interest in films and film activities by means of enlightened criticism, thus helping the public to form its own standards of judgment. The film trade affects to despise criticism and avers that the public take no notice of it, but it is significant that as soon as uafavourable comment is printed there are com plaints of unfair criticism," evidence that some impact is being made. Indeed. there has been, of late, considerable vilification of some critics on the part of some American companies; an implicit refusal to accept the true function of criticism, which is information of the public.
In fairness to the British Film Industry, it must be admitted that it has shown a much more enlightened attitude both towards the film and towards the film-going public. Whatever can be said of the financial backing which it has received in recent years, there is, as Mary Field pointed out at Brussels, a sense of artistic freedom now perceptible among the British technicians, a feeling of independence from the dictatorship of mere money which, so far, is not found in Hollywood. The result has been a series of films which, whatever other criticisms may be levelled at them, cannot be accused of being machine-made. This fact was duly noted by the Brussels Festival, and although individual French and Italian films won higher praise, the British films, as a whole, received the warmest welcome.
Alongside this growth of artistic freedom in British films there has developed also a school of criticism which has already had some effect upon the higher levels of cinema goers. It has provided a core of responsible film criticism bearing some relation to the criticism to be found in most worthwhile journals in the case of music and literature. The public has now both standards of assessment and information to replace the vapid superlatives of the publicity merchants.
This is the point where the responsibility of the Catholic towards the cinema begins to be apparent. The Brussels Congress left one in no doubt as to the size and the importance of the part which Catholics have to play.
The Proper Catholic Place
It is, of course, one of the perennial weaknesses of Catholics. on the Continent as well as in this country, to tend to remain outside the general stream of ordinary life. This kind of superpharisaism has been responsible for some disastrous chapters in our history. political and economic as well as religious.
The proper place for the true Catholic is at the centre of operalions He has something so vital and important to contribute that one may fairly say that, without it, complete success is not possible. This is a point of view which is, naturally, not likely to impress the non-Catholic or non-Christian. Hence the part which the Catholic has to play is not that of preaching but of practice.
"We have to be active on all five stages of the cinema," said Dr. Jean Bernard, President of the Catholic International Cinema Office, " that is to say, we must influence the public, the cinema, the distributor. the producer, the legislator. This will not be done by building tip a Catholic Cinema beside the Real Cinema. but only by penetrating the professional life of the cinema and bringing to it all the riches of our Faith."
Catholic interest in the cinema must be governed by the consideration that whatever is made must be well-made. That is to say that technical efficiency is necessarily bound
up with moral principle. A good work must be something more than mechanically perfect in order to deserve the adjective of excellence. Film production that is to be considered as artistically excellent must be made in accord with the principles of right reason. This demands a positive attitude on the part of Catholics with regard to the Faith. It is the only way in which the thing which we know to be paramount in importance for the good of the world can be brought to bear upon the activities of the world. Not by force or compulsion but by living and knowing.
Recognising the Good
This means that Catholics must take more and more trouble to realise the importance of the part played by the cinema to-day. It means that they must be something more than passive spectators. It means also that they must be willing to do something more than merely to ban bad pictures. They must be able to recognise the good when they see it. They must know how to ask for it.
'' Good motion pictures are capable of exercising a profoundly moral influence upon those who see them," says Pope Pius Xl," In addition to affording recreation, they are able to arouse nobie ideals of life, to communicate valuable conceptions, to impart a better knowledge of the history and beauties of the Fatherland. and of other countries, to present truth and virtue under attractive forms, to create. or at least to favour understanding among nations. social classes and races, to champion the cause of justice and to contribute positively to the genesis of a just social order in the world" (Vigilanti Curet).
As Mr. Paul Van Zeeland expressed it: " The cinema represents a total way of art in the world, the Church represents a total way of life; it is for Catholics to penetrate the way of art with the way of life. They have all the answers."
J. A. V. BURKE.