Brandeis University American studies professor Thomas Doherty has a timely op-ed article in the Washington Post drawing connections between the release of The Da Vinci Code and the old Hays Code that imposed constraints on the content of Hollywod films. Doherty opens by noting that past generations of American Catholics would have greeted a film with Da Vinci’s anti-Vatican conspiracy theories with massive protests designed to “bring Hollywood to its knees.” I happened to notice a few picketers at the Gallery Place Theater in Chinatown (I was in the neighborhood while waiting for a movie at E Street), but the small scattering of protesters drew little attention from the bored pedestrians rushing past them on the way in to the movie megalplex or one of the neighboring bars or restaurants.
As Doherty points out, however, the Catholic Church–or at least a few powerful members of the church–once maintained tremendous control over the content of Hollywood films. The Hays Code was authored by publisher Martin J. Quigley and the Jesuit priest Daniel A. Lord in an attempt to “clean up” Hollywood films:
A deeply Catholic text, the Code was no mere list of Thou-Shalt-Nots but a homily that sought to yoke Catholic doctrine to Hollywood formula: The guilty are punished, the virtuous are rewarded, the authority of church and state is legitimate, and the bonds of matrimony are sacred.
I’m inclined to ask what changed. Doherty suggests that “the post-World War II revolution in morals and manners” is a major factor, and he’s no doubt right about that. But with the ascendence of the evangelical movement and the emphasis on morality there, I think that’s hardly the only factor. To some extent, I think this relative indifference can be attributed to the fact that Hollywood films no longer hold the cultural centrality they had in the past. I don’t have time to write about this issue in as much detail as I would like (I’m flying out to Fayetteville to look for an apartment tomorrow), but I’ll be curious to see how Da Vinci performs at the box office and to see how the film fits within the ongoing discussions of religion and popular culture.