Article

Seeing believing: Morphological considerations of the depictions of religious folk groups in late 20th century Hollywood cinema

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Abstract

Utilizing the mode of narrative analysis developed by Vladimir Propp and initially laid out in his Morphology of the Folktale, this dissertation examines a subset of mainstream Hollywood movies released in the latter half of the 20th century, and establishes that their plots tend to exhibit a similar structure. Typically in these films, an act of villainy—often a murder which directly or indirectly involves a child—suffices to bring an outsider into a sectarian or folk community distinguished by its belief system and religious practices. This outsider, an individual who in addition to serving as the "I" that stands in for the viewer and thereby represents the larger American culture, in many ways itself a mythic construct, generally disrupts the community and threatens to seduce a nubile young member away from it. At the denouement, however, the community is strengthened and the outsider, theretofore suffering from a lack of some sort, goes away a better person. Also considered is the extent to which an authentic or accurate portrayal of the particular community/folk group is compromised in order to adhere to the narrative structure thus identified and the pervasive commodification inherent in what Theodor Adorno has outlined as "the culture industry." Films discussed include High Noon (1952), The Nun's Story (1959), Elmer Gantry (1960), Witness (1985), Agnes of God (1985), Sister Act (1992), Stranger Among Us (1992), and The Apostle (1997).

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