A Little Bit

I don’t know about you, but I have a complicated relationship with genres.  As a fiction writer I have great difficulty classifying what I write, and that shows in the reluctance of publishers to embrace it.  We tend to suppose that some kinds of Platonic types exist out there by which we can map what we find here in the physical world.  These genres, however, are far more permeable than they seem.  My wife and I just finished watching the eight-part Ken Burns documentary Country Music.  Neither one of us is what you might call a fan of the genre but I can say that I learned an awful lot.  My stepfather was a country music fan, so many of the names and songs, particularly of the early years, were familiar.  What became clear throughout the century or so covered by the films was that the dividing line was always a blurry one.

While today we tend to think of country music as a southern phenomenon, the documentary made clear that its beginnings were folk music.  And folk lived most places.  While certain styles predominated in certain ages, across the years it was hard to tell some country music from pop music and rock (especially in the early days of the latter).  Even rock is difficult to classify.  What it often comes down to is self-identification.  An artist or band that identifies as country is country.  It is a distinctly American art form and it quite often identifies with religion.  Like rock, it also has some roots in gospel music.  When it becomes secular, gospel can go into many unexpected places.

Another association—again, a generalization—is country music and conservatism.  Partly it’s the promoting of Americanism, but partly it’s based on a false perception.  Performers are actors, after all.  Many of the “clean cut” examples of country singers struggled constantly with drug abuse (often considered the demon of rock-n-roll) and alcoholism.  It’s often right there in the lyrics.  The listeners, however, tend to think of them as stories.  That was the other great takeaway from the series—people are drawn to the stories.  I think that’s something we all know, but country music often excels at the hard-luck story that resonates with people down on their circumstances.  I’m not about to become a country music fan, but watching this series, like any educational venture, has opened me to a new tolerance for what I previously classified as a genre that didn’t have any appeal.

Seeing Belief

Although most of us can recognize it on sight, we have a difficult time defining religion. In the early parts of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals, John C. Lyden discusses this lack of definition and offers some broad categorizations since his thesis depends upon it. How can one assert that film may be understood as religion if religion isn’t identified? Lyden makes clear that this book won’t be about an ideological or theological interpretation of film. It’s more about popular culture and how elements of that culture, such as cinema, may be religion. This leads to the discussion of the topics of his subtitle: myths, rituals, and morals. These all share some conceptual territory with movies, therefore understanding them is important.

To me the most interesting part of the book is the consideration of genres (westerns, gangster movies, melodramas, romantic comedies, children’s movies, science fiction, thrillers and horror) as exemplars of various aspects of this religion. Each genre includes the discussion of a feature film, and some even have two. Of course, Lyden’s book is a few years old now and other studies have shed further light on both how religion and film interact and also on the interpretation of various genres of movie. The hope of the book—that it may be the start of a new kind of discussion about religion—has to some extent been realized, although the analysis has taken off in several directions at once. There can be no doubt that cinema taps deep spiritual needs in a way not unlike a religious ceremony.

It seems that society has come to distrust the usual purveyors of religion. Dishonesty almost as deep as that of the government has been found in it and the responses are remarkably similar—cover-ups and denials and many species of prevarication. Cinema seems downright credible in comparison. What you see is what you see. The big difference between movies and religion, however, is that we’re only too glad to acknowledge the human sources of celluloid. Many religions, especially in the monotheistic tradition, rely on direct divine revelation as their origin. Lyden isn’t suggesting that film substitutes for religion in that way, but on a more practical level it may. It meets our needs. We trust we’ll get what the poster and trailers promise us. We sit reverently in the dark awaiting illumination. And yes, there’s an exchange of money involved for any kind of worship involves an offering. No religion’s free of cost.