his morning over breakfast I idly turned on the television, which I tend to leave tuned to Turner Classic Movies. I got wrapped up in The Three Comrades
, which I had heard of somewhere. It's really quite striking for a 1938 movie and some of sensibilities and censorship of film at that time. The screenplay turns out to be an F. Scott Fitzgerald effort, co-written with someone named Edward E. Paramore Jr., and adapted from the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name
, with the protagonist's name changed in honour of the author. It's set in the 1920s, and so it strikes strong chords in my imagination with the free reading I've been doing in Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
. The final shot is somewhere between profound and Hollywood schmaltzy, indicating how anyone who loves inevitably marches through life accompanied by the ghosts of those they've lost.
My imagination and dreams have been a strange blend of that and my dissertation over the last several days: a disharmonious clash of the gracious blending of people's spiritual gifts from my writing on charisms, and a stomach-churning frustration at the unimpeded Nazi seizing of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938. I've been particularly struck, over and over, by the blatant murder of truth by the Nazis, and the difficulty that comes with trying to deal with anyone – whether on a personal or a political level – who has either no commitment to dealing truthfully, or, lacking that, who has no societal pressure upon them to be truthful. Hitler murdered truth as a stepping-stone to murdering people, and the thing that has been so stomach-churning was to see how repeatedly he could have been stopped if only people had had greater access to the truth of what was going on. It's particularly tragic to see how ably he was able to manipulate the people and governments of the West because of their desperate desire for peace after their horrific experiences of the First World War. That the desire for peace should have contributed so mightily to the violence of Nazi oppression and of the world's greatest war has to be one of the chief ironies of human history. It's brought home to me over the last few days just how dependent democracy's stability is upon a free press, and just how significant are the threats we've seen in our own day to that freedom, whether Bush administration manipulation of the press through faked news stories on the political Right, or whether by the dogmatic uniformity often characteristic of a press culture dominated by the political Left. And that's to say nothing of the decline of real reporting in favour of info-tainment and the substituting of stories about current movies, or Dancing With The Stars
and American Idol
results in place of real news. I'm tempted to favour a law – technical violation of the First Amendment or not – that would forbid television news from reporting on current movies and actors and such as though these were truly the responsibilities of a democratic nation.
So, in contrast to what I just said, back to the movie. (The above shouldn't be construed to mean that I don't think film and art isn't important: it's just that I don't think that it's a matter for the press – who do have more significant responsibilities to America, whether or not those are actually legal.) Watching a movie from the 1930s this morning, I'm struck by how much I wish I could talk to any of my grandparents right now: to ask about the sensibilities of film in their time. For lots of us, our vision of earlier times will largely come from movies. This, of course, isn't quite accurate, given that film reflects the politics and mores of their time and place. From film, one might think that swearing in the English language, for example, was invented by Clark Gable's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." in Gone With The Wind
, but really didn't catch on until the 1960s. I found myself wanting to ask one of my grandparents about what differences they were conscious of between the world of film and art back in the Thirties, and their lived reality. I suppose that some of this has been rattling around in my head since re-reading Thomas Merton's The Seven-Storey Mountain
the other month, most of which was set in the 1930s, and which was significantly concerned with the arts, although this particular matter didn't come up. I can extrapolate some differences, but it's not the same as being able to ask someone who was there. And all my family that I might have asked are now dead. That's just one more variation of the tragedy of aging in generations: that there are always things we will have wished to have asked those older than us, that we never thought of at the time. Fr. Sullivan was 16 in 1938: perhaps I'll think to ask this as a sidebar when I next interview him.