Movies: America's Secular Religion Synopsis

Movies: America's Secular Religion Synopsis

Robert W. Cort

Film Producer, Executive Producer and Author

Robert W. Cort, Hollywood producer of such films as Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) and Mr. Holland's Opus (1996), opened his discussion with the observation that, while the act of believing might seem to be in jeopardy because of the supremacy of science, belief is all the more necessary to navigate this heady age of information. Likening producer to high priest, movie house to church, and academy to Vatican, Cort describes American cinema as an organized secular religion that provides its faithful with sustenance for the soul.

Cort reminisced on his early movie-going by way of explaining the roots of his cinematic faith. In 1958, an eleven-year-old Cort braved a snowstorm to see a matinee showing of The Bridge on the River Kwai, a war film that would win the Oscar that same year. Cort feels that Kwai changed the course of his life by revealing the "reality and madness" of war and by giving him a "visceral comprehension" of courage and redemption, concepts that would otherwise have remained abstract and remote.

Likewise, Cort was profoundly affected by movies such as In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967); the unflinching pride of Sidney Poitier's Mr. Tibbs in the face of demeaning prejudice and the exploration of interracial marriage, respectively, made race issues immediately relevant to him in spite of the homogeneity of his native Brooklyn neighborhood.

Movies, says Cort, have the capacity to teach and touch, to inform and infuse us with a sense of the world. Great cinema creates a mythology about ourselves, which in turn inspires and engages us in a dialogue about our values and beliefs. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) explores the marriage compact; Terms of Endearment (1983) shows us what it means to survive the death of a loved one; Pretty Woman (1990) reinforces our belief that love can conquer all; Chinatown (1974) and American Beauty (1999) warn against corruption; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1947) give us hope that it is faith in life, not soulless corruption, that will win the day. Of course, Cort admonishes, movies also perform social prejudice, as was the case with westerns that portrayed whites as the victims of Native American atrocities without suggesting the reverse. In spite of these shortcomings, Cort firmly believes that film has the ability to make its audiences experience a full gamut of feelings, from mourning to awe.         

But how well have filmmakers performed over the past 15 years? Have they continued to produce films that stimulate and elevate the sensibilities and beliefs of viewers? In Cort's view, Hollywood has failed in this mission. He believes that big-budget movies have grown "clumsy" in evoking emotions, and that the public and Hollywood's "high priests" alike are frustrated by films that leave their spectators on the "outside, untouched."

Cort identifies several factors responsible for this decline. First of all, the current generation of elite Hollywood filmmakers lacks the experience of life-struggle and is diverse neither in race nor in social class. This "alarming insularity" does not lead to risk-taking. Second, the corporate landscape has changed dramatically: media conglomerates exert great control in the selection of projects and push for movies that can support the studios, driving the cost of a single movie up to $100M. Third, movies now target audiences that can most swiftly generate box office revenue. As a result, effects-driven action movies have proliferated because they appeal to young males who tend to be prompt and repeat customers, and because such movies tend to travel well overseas in an international market that accounts for 50% of all sales. In short, Cort warns, "The Reformation won't be coming soon to a theater near you."

Yet he also insists that there is hope, and that it lies in Hollywood's power to effect change. Attesting to the importance of movies in molding sociocultural values, Cort cites a trajectory of films including Making Love (1982), Philadelphia (1993), The Birdcage (1996), In & Out (1997), and The Hours (2003) as having constituted a long process of confronting prejudice against homosexuals.

With respect to cinema's profound capacity to explore the human condition, Cort points to the recent renaissance in animation, beginning with Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) and followed by Dreamworks' Shrek (2001) and Pixar Studios' Toy Story (1995, 1999). In fact, one young movie-goer at Pixar's Finding Nemo (2003) reminded Cort of his young Kwai self, for he had the distinct look of a convert to the belief in the "power and glory" of cinema.

Film allows individuals to "make a difference," Cort concludes. He intends to steer the course of faith in his quest to make movies that not only entertain, but also illuminate our times and our souls.