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. Linden Lane
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Goodbye to all that

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Boston College, the movie

Jack Foley in the editing studio. Courtesy of Jack Foley

Jack Foley in the editing studio. Courtesy of Jack Foley

Towers on the Heights is 28 minutes of flickering, jumpy, crackling 16-millimeter home movie. Produced by a volunteer crew of faculty and students in 1956 at a cost of $2,500, Towers was ordered up by then Boston College President Joseph R.N. Maxwell, SJ, as a means to extend the geographic range of student recruitment. Eight prints were made, and over the course of about 10 years, those prints were exhibited by a network of alumni admission volunteers who projected the BC story onto portable screens in church halls, furnished basements, and high school auditoriums across the country.

And then the time of Towers passed, and all the copies went missing except for two that lay in canisters in a storage closet in the offices of the University's audiovisual department until 1987, when John (Jack) Foley '56, who had worked on the film as a student and who is currently an administrator in BC's facilities management office, asked Dave Corkum, a producer at audiovisual services, to look around for copies of the movie. Corkum found the canisters and transferred their contents to videotape, from which they were rendered into bits and bytes, in which form they were presented on Boston College Magazine's @BC website, under the title "Distant Spires," which is how, on one recent afternoon, I came to view the film four times in a row from my desk chair in a chaotic office on a bluff overlooking the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon.

Some observations:

  • Everyone at BC in 1956 is well dressed: suits, ties, flowing dresses; swirling cassocks; jaunty birettas; ROTC uniforms.
     
  • Gasson Hall appears so often that it is arguably the hero of the film.
     
  • A priest-professor in the chemistry lab seems to be changing wine into water.
     
  • Many faces are, as my grandma used to say, maps of Cork.
     
  • The fair Ophelia, descending a staircase in a snippet from a production of Hamlet, looks oddly ecstatic, or perhaps tipsy.
     
  • A hamster is manhandled without any apparent regard for its self-esteem or NIH regulations yet to be promulgated.
     
  • The claim is made straight-faced that there is an archery bow on campus for every student.
     
  • During the clips of the BC-Holy Cross football game at Fenway Park, the Eagles' tight end jumps the snap on a play where BC's halfback darts into the Crusader end zone.
     
  • Physics professor James Ring, SJ, in the longest set-up joke in the film, punts a football to, apparently, Iowa, and then winks into the camera for a week.

This is a serious movie, however; serious in its earnest portrayal of Boston College, and serious also in haunting ways that its creators could not possibly have intended: its guileless persuasiveness, its freedom from irony or cynicism, and particularly the quiet confidence of the Catholic world the movie portrays.

A Jesuit in the School of Education and the Reserve Officers Training Corps, from Towers on the Heights

A Jesuit in the School of Education and the Reserve Officers Training Corps, from Towers on the Heights

That world is pointedly celebrated in the film with references to chapel, and set pieces on hymn singing and on the Mass of the Holy Spirit that opened the academic year in the 1950s (and still does today). While Fr. Ring's comic role as the greatest punter in history is the star turn, other priests are shown at work (a very young Fr. Francis Sweeney teaching outdoors) in the background (presenting awards to student cadets on the Dustbowl). Without ever saying so, the movie makes clear that priests were in charge at Boston College in 1956, both literally and figuratively.

That Catholic world in which priests were prime and unquestioned authorities is gone now, both on the Heights and in the world at large, and only the most sentimental among us would mourn its demise overmuch. It was never as sweetly monolithic as it appeared, anyway; the Catholic geniuses Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were trying to wrench the Church back to radical simplicity then, for example, and the hierarchy was silencing such eloquent visionaries as John Courtney Murray. The true measurement of the dustiness of the Church in the 1950s is the word shouted by Pope John XXIII in 1962: aggiornamento! open the windows! let in fresh air! Nor were the 1950s in the United States all that simple and peaceful: The icy savagery of the Korean War, the oily national paranoia led by Joe McCarthy, the violent death throes of American apartheid, the advent of the birth control pill—much more was happening on and off campus than is intimated in the earnest Towers on the Heights.

And Boston College is, to be blunt, a greater university today than it was then, by every measure. Yet it would not be great, or be alive at all, without the confidence, dedication, and zest captured by the students and faculty who made Towers on the Heights.

The first rule of the universe is entropy—all things fly apart, from marriages to empires. The second rule is that nothing dies utterly if one works at knowing and preserving its spirit. So marriages may be reinvented, and nations rise to new grace and maturity. And the Jesuit university emerges from the acid bath of modern and postmodern times an institution that is less sure, less prideful, less at peace than it was in 1956; but more interesting, challenging, difficult, powerful, and capable. The Heights is no longer a place from which one looks out upon the world. The Heights is the messy and glorious world.

Brian Doyle

 

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine, at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies (Loyola Press, 2003) a collection of essays.

 

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