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Hollywood is transforming culture in America, according to one filmmaker who wants to do something about it with projects like the Netflix show Medici with Dustin Hoffman.
“Hollywood is a community of about 20,000 people,” Armando Fumagalli said, but “the people who matter in the film industry are probably only 500 to 1,000.” And this small group is telling a billion people what is worth living for, fighting for, and suffering for.
Fumagalli (picture, right) is a screenwriting professor at Sacred Heart Catholic University in Milan. He spoke on the topic “Can Catholics make great TV and cinema?” at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he also held a workshop for Ex Corde Fellows in the college’s Center for Catholic Media.
His answer was not just that Yes, Catholics can make great media — but that Catholics absolutely must.
“Popular stories create a personal connection as they appeal to emotions and reason,” he said. “They reach a big number of people. This makes for a deep impact on culture and on key human attitudes and decisions.”
Video media has even more power to transform people than literature, he said.
“Cinema and television are mass media that can reach an extremely large audience, but the spectators do not feel like anonymous viewers. They feel deeply and intimately connected with the characters,” he explained.
This is all the more reason to be concerned about the media landscape today — and urgent in addressing it.
Fumagalli said it was “unprecedented in humankind that so few people are changing the lives of so many people all over the world. Other countries have developed a particular industry for entertainment products. Most of them are national or regional. “No one at the moment has a global reach like Hollywood does,” he said.
While their power is immense, there is one check on the Hollywood worldview, according to Fumagalli. “The necessity of appealing to audiences all over the world has made its products necessarily connected to the common experience and values of millions of people in the world,” he said.
But shows streaming services are different. “Television has the freedom to become more edgy, extreme, transgressive and to go against common values, changing perceptions and views,” he said. “Made by a cultural minority, they have a strong cultural agenda.”
He traced the history of moral-bending Hollywood stories, from the surprisingly transgressive Out of Africa in 1985 to Brokeback Mountain in 2005 and The Danish Girl in 2015. Television tracked with the same decline, he said, citing Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek, Friends, Glee, Gossip Girl, Sex Education, and now Euphoria.
He pointed out that Hollywood has never been only negative, and cited films that teach the beauty of human love and the family: A Beautiful Mind, The Incredibles, Marley and Me, The Blind Side, Up, The King’s Speech, Inside Out, the Greatest Showman, and Green Book.
Fumagalli has served as a screenwriting consultant on such productions as Anna Karenina and Medici with the media group Lux Vide. “We did not have full control, so we are not 100% happy with the result” in the Medici series, he said. His highly acclaimed saints biopics are well known to American Catholics, covering figures from St. Augustine in the film Restless Heart to St. John Paul II in a movie starring John Voight and Princess Bride’s Kary Elwes. St. Benedict’s Abbey brought Fumagalli to campus as part of their Ut Omnibus program.
Citing Ben Shapiro’s book The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV, Fumagalli cited two principles that can help address the negative power of media. He said what is needed is, first, “The education of taste, intelligence and feeling” by “finding and proposing good content. And, second “Training professionals for entertainment.”
Training the Next Generation
In support of that second principle, he spent time the next day with the Ex Corde Fellows, analyzing the opening scenes of a movie to teach how storytelling works in film.
What is needed, he said, is “A serious reflection about our way of communicating and promoting our values. Stories communicate to the mind and heart. You cannot reach people deeply if you do not connect with their emotions. The power of cinema and television is mainly in the audience.”
But he said self-identified “Christian movies” could learn a lot from the way Hollywood movies are constructed. “They very frequently make the mistake of taking only to people who are already on our side,” he said. “They do not go deeply into a theme, they just repeat. They ‘illustrate’ but they do not ‘illuminate.’ … They do not connect with the average viewer.”
What is needed is to develop proficiency in skills in two different fields, he said: the humanities and communications.
Dr. Jared Zimmerer, director of the Ex Corde Fellows for Catholic Media at Benedictine College, is uniquely suited to meet both of those goals. He teaches in the college’s Great Books program and he brings his experience from Word on Fire Institute to the college’s Transforming Culture in America plan to extend the college’s mission through the media.
Zimmerer said that Fumagalli’s presentation fit well with the goals of the program.
“If our aim is to transform the culture, understanding film and the screenwriting process is one of the best means of capturing the modern imagination” he said. “He helped them see that they are in the right place, with the college’s emphasis on Liberal Arts and our program’s effort to teach them cutting edge communication skills.”
Images: Hollywood sign, Rawpixel;
Armando Fumagilli, St. Benedict’s Abbey.