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In June, the American Film Institute released a list of the 100 best American movies, with Orson Welles's 1941 classic, Citizen Kane, taking the top spot. Quite apart from arguments over the comparative merits of this or that film, the list is valuable for what it reveals about the mindset of the entertainment industry and the public it serves. Beneath the surface variety, a clear pattern emerges. Two kinds of films dominate the list: the sentimental—for example, Gone with the Wind (4); and the nihilistic—Pulp Fiction (95).

American moviegoers want to have their cake and eat it too. The nihilism provides a flattering thrill—"We're giving it to you straight!"—and a warrant to ignore the inconvenient moral absolutes, which, the movies are telling us, are just a polite fiction anyway. The sentimentalism offers comfort—and a warrant to indulge in kitschy fantasies.

So what's new? As Christians, we are used to hearing jeremiads about the increasing depravity of the entertainment industry, and of movies in particular. We hear thundering denunciations of the "cultural elites" who are out of touch with the values of the American mainstream. And what happens? The next weekend, half the congregation heads to theaters to watch Titanic for the third time, while the other half goes to Blockbuster to pick out a video or three.

What is noteworthy about the AFI list is not only the heavy doses of violence and sex. No, it's also that overpowering sentimentality: sweet, sometimes bittersweet, and oh so seductive—designed to paralyze the critical faculties.

What does that smell remind you of? Yes: "Christian" bookstores. "Christian" radio. "Christian" music.

Sentimentality is the unremarked common denominator ...

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Editorial: Sentimentally Yours
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In the Magazine

August 10, 1998

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