Monday, July 17, 2006

Freeze frame

I'm no Binx Bolling, and Jurisdynamics doesn't hold a candle to IMDb, but I do love the movies. My curriculum vitae boasts titles such as The Last Picture Show and Come Back to the Nickel and Five. When the Supreme Court finally conferred First Amendment protection on moving pictures in the 1952 case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the Justices implicitly recognized a phenomenon that the American public had already made very real: movies represent the signature cultural achievement of the United States during the twentieth century.

Therein lies the jurisdynamic irony. Movies, made possible by concatenating images and accelerating them beyond the limits of human perception, ultimately freeze the culture of their time. As amber is to natural history, celluloid is to cultural history.

Consider one of my all-time favorite movies, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Mickey Rooney's role as Mr. Yuniochi comes dangerously close to destroying Audrey Hepburn's perfect performance. As much as I cringe at the overt racism of Mr. Yuniochi's part in this otherwise sublime movie, I would not want it edited away. The very process of enjoying Breakfast at Tiffany's, or any other movie, demands engagement with the entire cultural apparatus underlying any film, no matter how obsolete or offensive certain aspects might seem. As moviegoers and as Americans, we reconcile artistic enjoyment with our collective cultural history, in all its glory and its shame, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond our cities, where the dark films of the Republic roll on under the night.

Among the most accessible of art forms in a country committed to a considerable degree of cultural populism, movies express the American civic religion of their time. On the Waterfront, To Kill a Mockingbird, Inherit the Wind -- who needs Technicolor to understand the Old Time Religion of the U.S. of A.? It's not even sporting to ponder the political ramifications of The Revenge of the Sith's climactic line, “Only a Sith speaks in absolutes.”

Moving pictures as art, freeze frame as social commentary -- the movies provide the perfect cultural emblem of American civic religion, especially for those of us who believe that the Constitution evolves with time. Even the most hidebound originalist must concede the ebb and flow inherent in phrases such as “cruel and unusual Punishment,” “unreasonable Searches and Seizures,” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Artistic evaluation, performed on an emergent basis by individual moviegoers, enables the grand laity of America's civic religion to reconcile its older cinematic expressions – as frozen on celluloid – with more contemporary dogmatic demands. Within every religious tradition, and not merely those informed by Colossians 1:26, a prophet must master “the mystery hidden for ages” and make it manifest to the saints of her own generation.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorite “freeze frame” occurs in It’s a Wonderful Life (a favorite movie of yours as well as mine, Jim!) Clarence is showing George what life would be like without him . . . he shows him that Mr. Gower spent years in jail for accidentally poisoning a young boy because George wasn’t there to stop the poisoning; he shows him that George's brother died as a boy because George wasn’t there to save him; he shows him that George's mother went insane as a result of George's brother’s dying . . . But there’s one thing more awful than all the rest. The one thing so awful that Clarence just can't bring himself to tell George about it until George forces it out of him. You see, without George having been born, Mary Hatch (George’s wife in a world with George), well . . . she NEVER MARRIED!! In Clarence’s horrified words, she became “AN OLD MAID!”

But like you, Jim, I’d never want to see that scene deleted . . . perfect freeze frame!

7/17/2006 8:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


First, congratulations on joining the world of blogging. Given your eclectic interests, I am sure that your blog will prove to be interesting and valuable for potential readers.

On the issue of film dated by the biases of the era, recall the original version (1927) of the Jazz Singer. This is a classic movie about assimilation and identity. The troubling part of the movie (no, not the fact that Hollywood decided to remake the movie in 1980 with Neil Diamond in the lead role) is when Al Jolson performs in blackface. Upon seeing his son in blackface, the character that plays his father in the movie says, "He sounds like Jakie, but he looks like his shadow!"

7/19/2006 10:34 AM  

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