The ‘Song of Solomon’ film festival: Screenings in Blackman auditorium predate the SUT’s closure

By Amelia Leaphart
Executive Editor

While the Sewanee Union Theater’s relocation to Blackman auditorium may have generated some disgruntled film-buffs, Blackman shares a rich connection with Sewanee’s film history. Late French and Film Professor Scott Bates started Sewanee’s Cinema Guild, which offered screenings of experimental films twice a week in Blackman auditorium. Once a year, Bates would sponsor a week of roughy eight screenings of films with erotic themes and sexually graphic imagery, affectionately called the Song of Solomon film festival.

Bates started teaching at Sewanee in 1954 after serving as a French interpreter in World War II and graduating Carleton College (BA) and 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 The Sewanee Purple. 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 Sewanee citizens, one including the university health officer, the letter called for a ban on co-ed mixing in dormitories, a tighter rein university-sanctioned contraception, and a ban on the film festival. These complaints proved futile, 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 much a Freudian. As you also know Freud and his theories touch greatly upon sexuality, and particularly sexual repression and so on. Then you need to understand that avant-garde poets found themselves ill-at-ease with bourgeoisie society, and much of what they did, their magazines and manifestos, were to in a large extent offend middle-class society and shake things up.”

Bates specialized in 20th century France, when film burgeoned as an artistic medium. His contributions to Sewanee’s film scene, according to Spaccarelli, align with Françiouse Truffaut’s (The 400 Blows) influence in French film. 

“Truffaout was a person who, among other things, developed clubs in France to see films that weren’t necessarily being offered in movie-houses. Classic films, art films, older films, because he was infatuated with film, and then he became one of the great French directors,” Spaccarelli says.

Films screened in April 1986, the year of “A Protest and a Prayer,” include: Karen Johnson’s 1970 Orange, Connie Benson’s 1975 Women, Elizabeth Karra-Kasowitz’s 1977 Female Images, and Kenneth Anger’s 1963 Scorpio Rising.

 “A Protest and a Prayer” takes issue with 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 All Saints’ chapel. Student activities funded The Body of the Church’s $200 budget, and Bates aided the students in the production.

The Body of the Church opens with a shot in St. Augustine’s Chapel of a male and female student praying in their gowns. In Bates’ shot-by-shot description, he records that “the woman had a red-rose in her hair; the reference is to the rose window of the opening shot and to the rose of Sharon in the Song of Solomon.”

The film begins in reality and ends in a dream, and the sexually-explicit content occurs outside the chapel, but still bears heavily on religious imagery.

The letter, which partly utilizes the first-person and appears to be the perspective of a dorm-matron, reads, “These erotic films had been described as ‘tasteful’ and were required for Mr. Bates’ film class, so I reasoned they couldn’t be very bad. I was wrong. And when I left the theater I could not help imagining what reaction the parents who were here last week would have had if shown what we’d seen. I also thought of the trustees and the sincere parishioners who send their money to maintain a school with a high level of quality education, atmosphere, and culture within a Christian framework. I don’t believe they would have sat through more than the first, mild 10 minutes without an outcry of disgust.” 

Rev. William Millsaps, a former chaplain of the university, resigned in 1987 in wake of the university’s 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, he claims the church “is not even of one mind regarding sexual practices clearly forbidden in Holy Scriptures.” He continues, “While the media has focused on the sexual antics of certain television evangelists, far more interesting stories are available to them, such as the failure of bishops of the dioceses of the southeast and southwest to speak out against the annual erotic film festival at their church’s only university. Deceptively called ‘The Song of Solomon Film Festival,’ the event is actually a showing of films one might expect to see in a darkened booth in a sleazy part of town.” 

Spaccarelli, in response to the controversy, says, “From an academic point of view, this was nothing more than a replication in some ways of avant-garde attitudes that Prof. Bates had been studying all his life. After all, we are an academic institution where thinking and literature and cultural movements should be what we’re talking about. We shouldn’t be ashamed of them or afraid of them. We shouldn’t even protest them, we should study them.”

In Bates’s archived annotated copy of “A Protest” which he kept for his film students to study, he highlights a specific complaint: “ ‘…in falling for the advertisements’ lies that these films are aesthetic and poetic, they often fail to realize that most of the adults they know (and especially their parents) would consider the films tasteless to shockingly vulgar.” His side-note reads, “Not true, students are smarter than this.”

Both Spaccarelli and the subsequent administration responses printed in The Purple characterize the controversy as a result of the vocal minority. Spaccarelli speculates that the vast majority of the student body were not even aware the controversy was happening, as a small percentage of the campus even attended the screenings. 

Vice-Chancellor Ayres, in a letter to the Board of Trustees quoted in a 1986 Purple article goes as far to state, “Sewanee is being exposed to a campaign of rumor, false-hood and misinformation. It seems that a small group of people has set out deliberately to embarrass and harm the University by manipulating the media and by covert contacts with some of our friends and benefactors.”

While Spaccarelli couldn’t recall the administration’s or the Vice-Chancellor’s response, he speculated that Ayres would have stood by Bates.

“I don’t believe that he necessarily agreed with Dr. Bates at all, in fact my hunch is that he wouldn’t as he was a stalwart Christian. But I think he also saw his role as a vice-chancellor of a university to support intellectual freedom. By and large that’s what we’re talking about in this controversy. Dr. Bates’ right to express himself politically and artistically needed to be supported,” Spaccarelli says. 

Spaccarelli highlights Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a cubist rendering of five naked prostitutes, as an example of avant-garde eroticism.

“This is one of the most important canvases of the 20th century, and it’s of a bunch of prostitutes. That doesn’t settle easily with middle-class mainstream society often…. To think that Dr. Bates with his concept of society and where it should go, that controversy would pull him back, no, that wasn’t going to bother him,” he says. 

Nonetheless, an update on the film festival in The Living Church 1987 characterizes that years’ festival as having “Greater restraint….unlike last years films, sensuality in this year’s offerings were limited to that of a heterosexual type.”

Spaccarelli attended most of the screenings due to his interest in film, and says he personally would not label the content as pornographic, as “A Protest and a Prayer” had.

This controversy coincided with the HIV/AIDS crisis as well as a campus-conversation regarding the availability of contraception. At the time, if a student sought out the pill, University Health Services would contact the parents for permission before providing the student with her medication. 

 “The idea that their parents would be contacted about a very personal decision was considered offensive to say the least,” Spaccarelli says, “…Sewanee was at a moment where, what some people considered their freedom to express and to have control over their own bodies, whether the expression be in film with Dr. Bates or a young [woman] who might want to have contraception. There were some who perhaps wanted to restrain those freedoms.”

University Health Officer, Dr. Naomi Archer, a signatory on “A Protest and a Prayer,” was a staunch opponent of  prescribing birth-control pills to unmarried females in order to avoid promoting sexual promiscuity. Her publicization of her political and religious ideologies alongside her medical commitment with the university resulted in widespread condemnation among the student-body and calls for the university to terminate her employment. 

The rationale 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 the Episcopal church. 

“They were protesting something that was the production of a very limited number of people on-campus,” Spaccarelli says,  “I suppose some of the things they were saying to the Episcopal community was that Sewanee was moving to the far-left, crazy, erotic moment. It’s just not true. Number one, they’re misrepresenting the people that they’re talking about. Then they somehow think that that’s the majority, when a matter of fact it just wasn’t. They were, from my point of view, a really interesting minority.”

Any controversy, nonetheless, is a manifestation of the 20th century French avant-garde 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 participated in the making of the controversial film, and those who attended the film festival were open minded and often had their lives enriched and changed through those films and through the work of Scott Bates. In so many ways he was Sewanee’s representative of the avant-garde.”