By Jacob Bruggeman

The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere—in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion, and in ourselves. No one would desire not to be beautiful. When we experience the beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming.

—John O’Donohue

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

—Henry David Thoreau

Of all modern America’s cultural offerings, film flaunts its dominance in its astronomical earnings at the domestic box office. While 2017 marked the end of two consecutive years of record-breaking grosses at the domestic box office, it was still the industry’s third-highest grossing year in history. Despite this minor dip in the industry’s grosses—the 2017 domestic box office closed out just over $11.1 billion, down about 2.6 percent from 2016’s $11.4 billion—the American film industry is on the up-and-up.

Films and the industry that produces them are not merely media to be consumed, but something considerably more important: types of prayers. Not only do films fill our lives more than ever before, guiding our conversations and eating up our time, they also demand devotion from us, their fans. Films, in fact, are the modern American’s sacred texts.

Opium on Our Silver and Flat Screens

As an industry, film in America occupies the minds of both citizens and cultural critics, of children and adults spinning in mid-life crises. Today, films are released in such great numbers that a cottage industry of “best” lists has popped up in the mainstream media and blogosphere both: “Best Battles,” “Best Endings,” and like lists are all over the Internet, not to mention the inordinate number of “Best Movies of 2017” lists. Countless words are devoted each week to reviewing one of the myriad films released throughout the year—and it seems that at least one major film is released every week or two. Not only do we, the American public, flock to see films themselves, we anxiously await the release of trailers.

We occupy ourselves with fan theories and film lore, researching the events upon which a given film is based, learning all there is to know about those starring in the latest documentary or Marvel installment. Then there are the droves of fans who fly out of the movie theater and find the soundtrack from digital services and vinyl shops; the groups of parents spending serious cash on film merchandise; and the hours upon hours spent by fans playing board and video games based in their favorite film worlds.

Words like community, devotion, and ritual increasingly describe the public’s engagement with movies. We find friends and fun in attending releases and talking about an array of movies. We spend hours upon hours binging through franchises and researching their backstories. We’ve made rituals of our love for film in “Movie Mondays,” collections of merchandise (much of which sells for unbelievable sums online), and even role play.

The First Church of Cinema

I point out these cultural trends not to attack the American public’s attached-at-the-hip relationship to film and its related products. I can myself be spotted at the release of any of Marvel’s films, at watch parties for the film adaptations of Tolkien’s fantastic universe, and, quite often, sporting a film- or television-inspired pair of pajamas. Rather, I point out these currents in our cultural consumption to draw attention to the near devotional determination with which droves of fans attend releases, purchase merchandise, and frequent—either by re-watching or literally visiting amusement park recreations—the worlds of film.

The movie theater, along with in-home equivalents in many a den or living room, has become the First Church of Cinema, a palace of awesome production in which people seek out beauty and transcendence, inspiration and moral instruction. True, the movie theater is not always a buffet of beauty and moral instruction. In fact, it often offers quite the opposite. Yet the ever-growing list of critically acclaimed films released in recent years, ranging from American Hustle to Arrival to Manchester by the Sea, make clear that Americans often seek moral instruction, transcendence (though often in a kind of irreligious spirituality or the scientific smallness of humanity), and the beauty of human connection through the community and products of the contemporary film industry.

It’s almost like we enter the theater mumbling to ourselves, as George Bailey does in It’s a Wonderful Life, “Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me … show me the way … show me the way.” Wayward we are, searching for meaning, morality, and common humanity in the products of a not-so-humble Hollywood. In the First Church of Cinema, screenplays are the modern American’s sermons, producers the priests, and large screens the steeples.

What We’ve Got Here is … Failure to Build Community

As a cultural church, the theater provides community, and many Americans—evident in film’s omnipresence in our culture and conversations of all sorts—feel as though they belong. Cinema thus fills a crevasse in our culture, a void of meaning. Offering opportunities for a kind of awe and wonder, a kind of emotional and moral education only possible through the cinematographic display of human action, and the promise of an epic fall or fantastic redemption, the theater can be a bright beacon in the overwhelming darkness cast by the daily beating and dismantling of meaning and purpose in human life, of the human condition itself.

Many films offer creative reflections of the human condition in a cast of characters, closed plots, and the oftentimes clear moral arcs that shimmer upon the silver screen like reflections of forgotten truths. The movie theater is now a kind of pseudo-community center, a gathering place for those looking to expand or displace their understanding of human life by gazing deeply into movies, which mirror, in their own way, mankind’s loves and pains.

In listening to, and perhaps participating in, hours-long conversations and debates over an obscure film fact or a piece of series’ lore, we have made films into one of the strings binding our communities together. A film can be one of those common threads running through many lives, an opportunity to partake in a collective conversation. Whether the conversation follows a superhero’s doings or an epic interpretation of historical events, films can force their viewers to grapple with existential questions, shameful and heroic acts of individuals, kind and cruel chapters of our past, and even the human condition itself.

Okay, You’re Reading into It …

Do Americans really engage with cinema in this way? “C’mon, man,” you might think, “Americans go to the movies for popcorn and a good laugh.” Alfred Kralik, the main character in the 1940 classic The Shop Around the Corner, offers viewers a similar appraisal of humanity: “You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.” Maybe, but we can’t get past the fact that people today devote a good deal of time to discussing movies and their meanings.

In an era in which public faith, traditional mores, and the idea of morality itself are in decline, embroiled in debates, and pushed out of their earlier centrality in the public square, the human impulse to transcendence, our need for morality and meaning, and the call to beauty draw many into the movie theater.

Is the development of this cultural church the latest step in Western culture’s walk toward meaninglessness? Or is the centrality and importance of film, and the things only a film can now provide to the American public en masse, a potentially brilliant pathway to restoring certain mores and meanings of human life in modern America? Perhaps this trend shouldn’t concern us. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” It seems that many films are intended to incite critical conversations on important issues, to instill certain moral lessons, and even to inspire with beauty and transcendence; it also seems like many movies “aim at earth” in their assertive meaninglessness and hedonism. At present, each question can only be answered with a shaky “Maybe?”—but a movie on the topic might change our answer. 

Jacob Bruggeman is an honors student in his third year at Miami University with majors in history and political science, and a combined BA–MA program in political science. Jacob was recently honored for his research as one of fifteen national recipients of the Gilder Lehrman History Scholar award, and is one of two Joanna Jackson Goldman Scholars at Miami. In 2017, Jacob founded The New Herald, a journal of cultural and political commentary.