In the groves of academe, studying popular culture is often the preserve of nutty left-wing professors performing exotic Marxist autopsies on the imperialist dynamics of Donald Duck comic books. Academic conservatives are teaching and writing about Homer the Greek poet, not the cartoon, which is important but oftentimes leaves their audience without a learned guide to analyze the themes of our modern culture.
Fortunately, there is Thomas Hibbs, a professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University -- and a film critic for National Review Online. Earlier this year, the Spence Publishing folks in Dallas published a valuable and fascinating book by the professor called "Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption."
The book's primary theme is that while the casual filmgoer may look at film noir and see only dark films mired in hopelessness, there is a strain in many noir films of a quest to arrive at a moral sense of the world. Even characters that are destroyed by their own selfish desires can be found searching for a moral order.
In films from the golden era of Hollywood (like "Double Indemnity") to the modern era (from "The Usual Suspects" to the films of M. Night Shyamalan), Hibbs teases out themes beneath the film's machinations of evil that suggest themes of redemption, of a search for God and a discovery of the devil's handiwork.
This is not only deep thinking, it is hopeful thinking. Cultural conservatives looking at the grip of a secular and hedonistic (and often nihilistic) cultural Left on Hollywood's machinery tend to feel a hopelessness of their own. These conservatives have often felt overwhelmed when offering a counterpoint in the cultural debate against Hollywood's tendency to sensationalize and degrade the human quest for love, justice, honor and meaning. Ultimately, they surrender.
But theorists like Hibbs have found hope in the deeper meanings of some of what Hollywood is producing. Finding the positive in film noir shows an interpretive talent, and not a ludicrous optimism. More strikingly, Hibbs sees a positive trend emerging in Hollywood: Tinseltown has discovered there is treasure in the making of epic films. Hollywood may be veering away somewhat from nihilism.
Hibbs quotes a screenwriter from the HBO war series "Band of Brothers" proclaiming, "They're about men and women of unusual vision, individuals who stand for something greater than themselves. Right now Hollywood might have detected a need for stories like that." Hibbs does find it interesting that Hollywood looks to places other than contemporary America for its epic heroes, from "Braveheart" to "Gladiator."
Add to that trend the popularity of quest films with religious undertones. Hibbs cites everything from the Harry Potter series to "The Lord of the Rings" and Narnia to comic-book superhero films like the Spider-Man movies. He also adds the real epic surprise of the decade, Mel Gibson's spectacular "The Passion of the Christ."
Hibbs may veer off from noir on this point, but again he makes a very interesting set of points. One deals with the most grueling scene for the viewer, Jesus being scourged by Roman torturers with demonic smiles on their faces. Hibbs notes that the Romans saw their Jewish subjects as subhuman, an inferior race devoid of humanity.
"The film's dramatic opposition of the order of politics to the order of the creator renders inconceivable the deployment of this story as an instrument in a national cultural war," he writes, as much as it may have been missed by the Right and Left. "Indeed, the scenes of the Roman soldiers cackling with glee as they scourge Christ and rip hunks of skin from his body is most reminiscent of the depiction of the Nazi soldiers in 'Schindler's List.'"
Hibbs posits that it is in the divine response of Jesus to his persecutors, putting the bloodletting into a scriptural account of sacrifice for all men, that rebuts those critics of Mel Gibson who insisted his film indulged in a "pornography" of violence. Unlike so many blood-spurting films where the viewer is encouraged to laugh or be dazzled at the mechanics of death, "The Passion" compels the viewer to feel the need for repentance, that this bloody sacrifice was both his fault (through his sins) and yet his hope for eternal life.
Gibson's film may not have spurred another explicitly Christian blockbuster. But the idea that a massive audience turnout can turn the wheels of the Hollywood machine, the suggestion that moviegoers can use their own quest for redemption to drag some fraction of Hollywood out of the dark swamp of despair is enlightening -- and encouraging.