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Accidentally Capturing the Zeitgeist

For the most part, a trip to the movies these days entails a downward voyage into a dark, musky pit of sound and fury which signifies nothing. That is, modern movies are, on the large, devoid of much real content. You enter the theater and have some emotion, be it fear, pity, lust, or excitement, elicited from you in a cathartic whirlwind which is not entirely unlike a drug, or a strange form of hypno-therapy. And somewhere in the midst of all of the gratuitous sex, violence, and special effects which are designed to toss your intellect somewhere into the recesses of the back of your brain, movie makers often try to insert witty quips or thematic elements which either advance some sort of progressive ideology, or attack institutions which uphold traditional understandings of morality, particularly the Catholic Church. In fact, I wouldn’t be all that surprised to find out that there is some sort of movie-making checklist which reads:

-Bad guys must be Russian or German
-Children can’t get hurt
-Good guys have to win
-Catholics must be slandered

But, despite their best efforts to express poorly-thought-out philosophies and produce a final product whose moral principles stand in the face of any traditional understanding of the human person, it seems like modern movie makers have actually given birth to an altogether beautiful thing.

When a writer sits down to construct a plot for a movie, before they have reached the stage in which they satisfy the four great tenants of filmmaking listed above, they must first chose a subject matter. The plot of a film must of course be interesting and attractive, and it is these very ideas of interesting and attractive that lead the moviemakers into their act of brilliance. What will people be attracted to? What will people want to watch? These are the kinds of questions that writers must ask themselves before choosing a subject matter, and in answering them they unwittingly capture an element of their era’s zeitgeist, a feat which will most likely be the greatest quality of their film, accomplished before pen is ever put to paper.

We haven’t seen any movies lately about aliens coming to enslave humanity, partially because it is not an issue with which Americans are greatly concerned, and particularly it is not something that we can relate to on any great level; it simply isn’t part of our zeitgeist. This was not true in the 1950’s when the idea of space travel was floating about for the first time and inspired such movies as: The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, It Came from Outer Space, and It, the Terror From Beyond Space, to name a few. This interest in and concern with the idea of things greatly more intelligent and powerful than us possibly existing in the inky expanses of space was a sentiment that characterized the zeitgeist of the 50’s just as much as the fear of communism characterized the zeitgeist of the Cold War era.

What we do see in movies these days is what is immensely interesting. In the past ten years or so, movie screens have been filled with images depicting man’s enslavement by, not aliens this time, but technology. Films such as the Matrix trilogy and the more recent Eagle Eye showcase this fear very well. People feel an uneasiness about their reliance upon machinery because certain elements of technology seem to threaten one of the most crucial elements of human nature, freedom of the will, in a way very much like the little green men of the fifties.

Matrix Human Farm

Matrix Human Farm

Our soul is a composite of intellect and will, two things which must operate together, and anything that threatens the operation of the soul by subduing the will is as much a threat to human dignity as is physical violence. In fact, much in the same way as our nature makes use of the emotion “fear” in cases where physical violence is threatened as a means of maintaining safety, so also does human nature use fear to ensure the safety of the soul. And, ironically enough, it is this very fear, the fear of violence done to the soul, that movie makers play upon when they develop many modern films; while simultaneously discrediting its existence by ridiculing the institutions of religion which maintain it.

Cinema, despite largely having sunk to the level of a cheap thrill, seems actually to be able to tell us something about human nature that few other things can. A history book in the future may contain the phase “Americans in the early 21st century feared the encroachment of technology upon their lives” but it could not convey the zeitgeist as well as a fistful of films about the very same thing. This isn’t because a movie can convey sentiment more effectively than text, but it is because there is a kind of honesty inherent in the way that a movie expresses the zeitgeist. We are not talking about something that a filmmaker wrote into the script as an idea that he wanted to convey, we are talking about the fact that he wouldn’t make the movie if it wouldn’t sell, and in order to sell, it had to strike a chord with its audience; a chord that the moviemaker could not invent, but one that he would have to find.

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