To say “Movies are a big influence in modern life” sounds like a “Well, duh” statement, doesn't it?
But what about in 1917, at the dawn of moving-picture history?
Our editor of World-Herald books, Dan Sullivan, was perusing old issues of the paper on microfilm, doing deep research on one of four book projects he was working on, when he ran across that headline. The lead sentence on the Page 7 article:
“Philosophy and metaphysics — most abstruse of all sciences — officially endorsed the power of the lowly 'movie' yesterday when Jay William Hudson, professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri, spoke to the fine arts society at the Fontenelle Hotel.”
Wow. Hudson can officially speak for all of philosophy and metaphysics? Must be a powerful guy. Or, more probably, a huge overstatement by a reporter. And I love the idea of a fine arts society meeting at the Fontenelle. We could use a fine arts society in Omaha today. Also a Fontenelle Hotel.
Anyway, the article goes on to say that Hudson spoke on “social unrest and its ethical significance.” Hudson rightly told his audience that there had always been social unrest, and likely always would be, because the individual wanted progress to happen even more rapidly than the rapidly progressing institutions of the day.
Politically, he said, and economically too, the country was better off than ever before. The average man had more to eat and wear and enjoy than ever before. “But his wants have increased even more than what he has, and so we have social unrest.”
That's where Hudson said movies come in.
“The moving picture show is at once one of the greatest and one of the gravest influences in our life,” he said. “We Americans do not realize that our amusements are really what educates us. We think a boy learns at school, that what he does for amusement doesn't matter much insofar as his education is concerned.”
Au contraire, Hudson says. The boy is educated when he is doing what he likes.
If he likes to study, his study educates him. “But such a boy is rare.”
If he likes the movies, that is where he is educated. “Such boys are many.”
Well, some things are the same now as they were in 1917. I'm thinking of the young people I hear about whose primary source of news is Comedy Central's “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
“The movie has enlarged the scope of imagination of the average man tremendously,” Hudson said. “The workingman can take his family of five and go to the movie, there to see what sort of a life of comfort he might lead someday. The businessman can find in the movie free play for his imagination. The country boy can learn of life the world over.”
Some things have changed. Now we can learn of life the world over on our phones, our television sets, the Internet. Imagine how mind-blowing our digital world would be to The World-Herald's 1917 audience, most of which was still traveling on horseback. Women did not yet have the right to vote. Radio was a decade away from most American homes.
The article concludes with Hudson saying that as movies enlarge the imagination of men, they enlarge their wants. “And the wants of men are the real key to the civilization of the time.”
I wonder what movies have to say about our wants as a civilization today. Is our consumer-driven culture fueled by what we've seen on the big screen that we want for ourselves?
I'm fascinated by Hudson's long-ago idea that we might seek education at the movies. Surely we have learned things from movies — things like the reality of war and hunger and intolerance and prejudice and injustice. Or pieces of history. Or maybe just the latest trends in fashion, home furnishings, comic-book heroes and zombies.
How does all this affect our inner hopes and desires?
It reminds me of a Robert Redford quote from a November 2007 Playboy interview: “I gave up long ago the idea that a film can change people's lives, let alone their politics. I discovered we Americans enjoy the distraction of entertainment but aren't really interested in the deeper message.”
I'm not sure. Maybe he should have qualified that by saying many or most Americans. And I do think movies change us in subtle ways.
Movies are probably one of the largest American cultural influences around the globe today. Most wide-release movies now make more than half their multibillion-dollar annual box office overseas. But probably nobody knows exactly what the influence of those movies are on the people watching them. What are movies doing to the wants of Third World citizens?
Ninety-six years later, there's a lot we don't know about the influence movies have in modern life. But I think Hudson was right. Whatever the influence, it's big.