By Amélie Leaphart
While the move from the Sewanee Union Theater to the Blackman Auditorium may have generated disgruntled moviegoers, Blackman shares a rich connection to Sewanee’s cinema history. The late French and film teacher Scott Bates founded the Sewanee’s Cinema Guild, which offered experimental film screenings twice a week in the Blackman Auditorium. Once a year, Bates sponsored a week of about eight film screenings with erotic themes and sexually graphic images, affectionately referred to as the Song of Solomon Film Festival.
Bates began teaching at Sewanee in 1954 after serving as a French interpreter in World War II and graduating from Carleton College (BA) and the University of Wisconsin (Ph.D.). The screenings sparked controversy among many religious conservatives within Sewanee and the greater Episcopal community, culminating in “A Protest and a Prayer,” printed in a 1986 edition of Purple Sewanee. This letter, addressed to Vice-Chancellor Ayres and the Board of Regents, accuses the university of promoting sexual promiscuity and deviating from their Christian values. Signed by six citizens of Sewanee, one of whom included the university health officer, the letter called for a ban on mixed mixing in dormitories, stricter university-sanctioned contraception, and ban on the film festival. These complaints turned out to be in vain, as the festival continued until his retirement in 1993.
Professor Emeritus Thomas Spaccarelli, a close friend and former colleague of Bates, says: “Prof. Bates was also very Freudian. As you also know, Freud and his theories have a lot to do with sexuality, and particularly with sexual repression and so on. Next, it must be understood that the avant-garde poets found themselves uncomfortable with bourgeois society, and much of what they did, their magazines and their manifestos, were largely disproved. ‘to offend bourgeois society and to make things happen.
Bates specialized in 20th century France, when cinema flourished as an artistic medium. His contributions to the Sewanee film scene, according to Spaccarelli, match those of Françiouse Truffaut (The 400 blows) influence in French cinema.
“Truffaout was a person who, among other things, developed clubs in France to see films that were not necessarily offered in cinemas. Classic films, art films, older films, because he was passionate about cinema, then he became one of the great French directors ”, explains Spaccarelli.
Films screened in April 1986, the year of “Protest and Prayer,” include: 1970 by Karen Johnson Orange, Connie Benson 1975 Women, 1977 by Elizabeth Karra-Kasowitz Female Images, and 1963 by Kenneth Anger Scorpion rising.
“A Protest and a Prayer” tackles two films: the cult classic Liquid sky (1982) and The body of the Church (1986), a particularly sexually explicit six-minute production by Sewanee students filmed in the All Saints Chapel. Funded student activities The Body of the Church ‘It’s a $ 200 budget, and Bates helped the students with the production.
The body of the Church opens with a shot in St. Augustine Chapel of a student praying in their robes. In Bates’ shot-by-shot description, he notes that “the woman had a red rose in her hair; the reference is to the rose window in the foreground and to the rose of Sharon in the Song of Songs.
The film begins in reality and ends in a dream, and the sexually explicit content occurs outside of the chapel, but still bears heavily on religious imagery.
The letter, which partly uses the first person and appears to be the perspective of a dorm nurse, reads: “These erotic films had been described as ‘tasteful’ and were necessary for Mr. . Bates, so I thought they couldn’t be too bad. I was wrong. And when I left the theater, I couldn’t help but imagine what reaction the people would have had. parents who were here last week if they had shown what we saw. I also thought of the sincere administrators and parishioners who send their money to maintain a school with a high level of education, atmosphere and high quality culture in a Christian setting I don’t think they would have sat for more than the first 10 minutes without an uproar of disgust.
The Rev. William Millsaps, a former university chaplain, resigned in 1987 following the university controversy. Not only did he condemn the university, but he renounced the Episcopal Church. In an archived copy of The living church, an Episcopalian news magazine, it says the church “doesn’t even agree with sexual practices that are clearly prohibited in the Holy Scriptures.” He continues: “While the media has focused on the sexual antics of some evangelists on television, much more interesting stories are available to them, such as the failure of the bishops of the dioceses of the south-east and the south-west to denounce the annual erotic film festival. in the only university of their church. Misleadingly called “The Song of Solomon Film Festival,” the event is actually a screening of films one would expect to see in a dark booth in a dodgy part of town. ”
Spaccarelli, in response to the controversy, said: “Academically it was nothing more than a replication in some respects of the avant-garde attitudes that Professor Bates had studied all his life. After all, we are an academic institution where thought, literature and cultural movements should be what we are talking about. We shouldn’t be ashamed of them or afraid of them. We shouldn’t even protest against them, we should study them.
In Bates’ archived annotated copy of “A Protest” which he kept for his film students to study, he highlights one specific complaint: Most adults they know (and especially their parents ) would consider films tasteless to scandalously vulgar. His side note reads: “That’s not true, students are smarter than that. “
Spaccarelli and subsequent responses from the administration printed in Purple characterize the controversy because of the vocal minority. Spaccarelli assumes that the vast majority of the student body was not even aware of the controversy, as a small percentage of the campus even attended the screenings.
Vice Chancellor Ayres, in a letter to the board quoted in a 1986 Purple The article goes so far as to state: “Sewanee is exposed to a campaign of rumors, lies and disinformation. It seems that a small group of people have deliberately set out to embarrass and harm the University by manipulating the media and having secret contacts with some of our friends and benefactors.
Although Spaccarelli does not recall the response from the administration or the vice-chancellor, he speculated that Ayres would have backed Bates.
“I don’t think he necessarily agrees with Dr Bates, in fact my hunch is that he wouldn’t because he was a staunch Christian. But I think he also saw his role as rector of a university to support intellectual freedom. Basically that’s what we’re talking about in this controversy. Dr Bates’ right to express himself politically and artistically had to be supported, ”says Spaccarelli.
Spaccarelli shines the spotlight on Picasso The Ladies of Avignon, a cubist rendering of five naked prostitutes, as an example of avant-garde eroticism.
“It’s one of the most important paintings of the 20th century, and it’s a bunch of prostitutes. This does not easily get along with the dominant middle class society often…. To think that Dr Bates with his take on society and where it should go, that controversy would set him back, no, that wasn’t going to bother him, ”he said.
Nonetheless, an update on the The living church 1987 characterizes this year’s festival as having “greater restraint… unlike last year’s films, the sensuality in this year’s offerings was limited to that of a heterosexual guy.”
Spaccarelli attended most of the screenings because of his interest in cinema and said he would not personally characterize the content as pornographic, as “A protest and a prayer” had done.
This controversy coincided with the HIV / AIDS crisis as well as a campus conversation about the availability of contraception. At the time, if a student wanted the pill, University Health Services contacted the parents for permission before providing the student with her medication.
“The idea of their parents being contacted about a very personal decision was seen as offensive to say the least,” says Spaccarelli, “… Sewanee was at a time when, some people considered their freedom to expression and control over their own body, whether the expression is in a movie with Dr. Bates or a young [woman] who might want to have contraception. Some perhaps wanted to restrict these freedoms.
University health officer Dr Naomi Archer, a signatory of Protest and Prayer, was a staunch opponent of prescribing birth control pills to unmarried women in order to avoid promoting sexual promiscuity. His media coverage of his political and religious ideologies as well as his medical involvement with the university led to widespread condemnation among the student body and calls for the university to terminate his employment.
The reasoning behind “A Protest and a Prayer” was the belief that the Song of Solomon Film Festival was a microcosm of the theoretical moral degradation of Sewanee and by extension of the Episcopal Church.
“They were protesting something that was the production of a very limited number of people on campus,” says Spaccarelli, “I guess some of the things they were saying to the episcopal community was that Sewanee was moving to the extreme left, crazy, erotic moment. That’s just not true. First, they distort the people they’re talking about. Then they sort of think it’s the majority, when in fact it wasn’t. they just weren’t, they were, in my opinion, a really interesting minority.
Any controversy, however, is a manifestation of the 20th century French avant-garde that Bates sought to replicate in Sewanee. Spaccarelli says: “I don’t think the majority of Sewanee students gave much thought to these controversies, but the students who were involved in the making of the controversial film and those who attended the film festival were open-minded and have often had their lives enriched. and changed through these films and through the work of Scott Bates. In many ways, he was the representative of Sewanee’s avant-garde.