Reality and the Moving Image
by Joseph E. Green
Used with permission.
It is important that films be hypnotizing, or trance-inducing, or mesmerizing. Why would anyone want to make a film that did not cast a spell on spectators and sweep them away from the tedium of everyday life?[i]
Small groups of people can, and do, make the rest of us think what they please about a given subject.[ii]
The most important cultural currency for the United States in the world today is the Hollywood film. In a country without an industrial base, films are our last export. People all over the world imitate and adopt styles derived from entertainment stars. Movies have been chiefly responsible for the remaining vestiges of goodwill still present in our relations with the citizens of other countries. Even when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a speech comparing George W. Bush to the devil, he did so in the context of a Hollywood metaphor: “As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world. An Alfred Hitchcock movie could use it as a scenario. I would even propose a title: The Devil’s Recipe.”[iii] For his part, British comedian Eddie Izzard proposes two methods for dealing with anti-American sentiments while traveling abroad. “Say you’re Canadian,” is one. The other is to invoke universally admired heroes: “Just say Shaggy and Scooby!”[iv]
For better and worse, a good percentage of the world makes judgments about the United States based on what they see in such films. This was brought home to me in a jarring way with the advent of the DVD. I was house-sitting for my girlfriend’s parents one weekend and they had purchased one of the first DVD players. Anxious to see the new technology in action, I put in their copy of Armageddon. Having always been interested in languages, I decided to watch the film in French with English subtitles. However, halfway through the movie a sinking feeling overcame me. The film was a bleating hodgepodge of sound and image, as expected – but the sudden revelation that people all over the world were consuming this product and making judgments about the United States on the basis of its merits was depressing. It reinforced all the stereotypical notions that one imagines they already believe about us anyway – that we are stupid, sentimental, egocentric, lacking in subtlety: The Ugly American as cultural export.
Fortunately, not all Hollywood films bear the same implied characteristics as Armageddon, although most of the popular ones do. There is in fact a strain of American film that attempts to delve into the issues of real life in a real way, some in the level of observational detail in a microscopic sense, and others in the macroscopic perspective of social and structural analysis. Real insights can be gained from such “small films” that concern themselves with individuals above all, as in the work of John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch, or the early films of Richard Linklater. Other filmmakers work on a broader canvas, attempting to summarize keystone historical events, such as Oliver Stone in JFK and Spike Lee in Malcolm X.
It is this latter genre of film that will be the concern of this series. I am going to attempt to make the case that certain American films have been able to get away with a type of historical analysis that often cannot make its way into print – especially newsprint. The peculiarities of the cinematic discourse make such enterprises difficult, but when done well, they are able to create images that intensify the experience and (in the best circumstances) generate further interest in the topics at hand.
Audiences tend to want characters that always behave in a straightforward manner, even when their own experiences should tell them that human actions can often appear random. They believe, and thereby become involved with at varying degrees, one film or another, one character or another. Often, since movies – more than any other art form – depend on audience identification with the protagonist, their favorite films will be those which correspond most deeply to their own set of experiences. They seem “real,” or truthful, in some way. This imprinting is what causes people to think, “Don’t open the door,” about an onscreen heroine or experience a little thrill when James Bond leaps from an airplane without a parachute. It affects one’s perspective to such a degree that deeply individual reactions to films are not uncommon. Although one can get large-scale agreement from the populace occasionally – Casablanca or, say, Gone With the Wind come to mind – idiosyncratic or seemingly absurd choices are bound to crop up, because of this identification process. Pauline Kael, perhaps the most influential film critic of all time, took everything personally – and wrote some wildly eccentric reviews as a result. James Agee preferred Key Largo over Double Indemnity. Gene Siskel’s favorite movie was Saturday Night Fever. Roger Ebert once wrote a film, the amusing if sexually chaotic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I think there is some evidence to believe that films provide a unique experience which demarcates them from other forms of artistic expression; they seem to supply a kind of mainline into the unconscious, a yellow brick road for the id.
Because of the demonstrably subjective nature of the film experience, there are those who disbelieve in any Hollywood version of anything. At a more primitive level, there can be a knee-jerk response of “It’s only a movie.” A more sophisticated viewer might observe that all filmmaking is lying, in that one must make subjective choices at every instance when trying to recreate the truth. Why those words? Why that angle? Why that image juxtaposed with the next? Indeed, these arguments are practically as old as film itself. Robert Flaherty never stopped arguing that his 1922 “documentary” Nanook of the North was anything but the truth, despite its obvious staging.[v] All the techniques of film, it could be argued, can be used to create any effect that the director wants, thus making any cinematic communication insidiously unreliable. Indeed, in commercial advertising, these methods are used in just such a pernicious manner.
A McDonald’s commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama – a mythology, if you will – of handsome people selling, buying, and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune…The television commercial has oriented business away from making products of value and toward making consumers feel valuable, which means that the business of business has now become pseudo-therapy. The consumer is a patient assured by psycho-dramas.[vi]
What is the difference, one asks, between the director who wishes to instill in his or her audience a desire to eat hamburgers and one who wishes to generate adherents to his personal vision of a particular historical event? Aren’t all films propaganda of one kind or another? The author Richard Biskind makes a related observation in the way that modern filmmakers may use such elements once designed for a political purpose: “[George] Lucas’s genius was to strip away the Marxist ideology of a master of editing like Eisenstein, or the critical irony of an avant-garde filmmaker like Bruce Conner, and wed their montage technique to American pulp.”[vii] Of course, to say that Lucas was not using montage in the manner of Eisenstein is not to say Lucas removed all meaning from his own work. Star Wars has a message and a purpose, on a semiotic level, just as much as Battleship Potemkin. And all films, regardless of their intent, employ manipulation at some level, whether for pernicious purposes or not. A study done by professors at New York University reviewed MRI-readings of people who watched different types of films and measured the extent of their brain activity. Highly manipulative works produced high levels of attention as measured by brain function, while static shots produced low levels. Alfred Hitchcock, as one might imagine, produced the highest results in their study.[viii]
We can perhaps begin by acknowledging that there is a sense in which every speech act is a kind of propaganda. There is also a sense in which all forms of radical skepticism have a point, albeit one of limited utility in the real world. All points of view are subjective; I can never be you, and vice versa; and one’s beliefs inform one’s perspectives and one’s susceptibility to ideas at all times. And yet to take the position of radical skepticism seriously, one is led by a short trail to solipsism; for it isn’t just movies that exhibit this subjective character, but every institutional fact in the known world. As the American philosopher John Searle has pointed out, all of our lives are in fact interconnected webs of metaphysical symbols which we utilize with unconscious ease. We accept a world in which certain objects can be paid for with money; or, at another level of abstraction, with a credit card. We accept the very fact of a mercantile system. We get married, an enterprise which is wholly institutional and metaphysical in nature.
In the philosophical tradition there is a pervasive further ambiguity in the notion of realism that I need to expose and remove. Typically philosophers who discuss these issues treat them as if they concerned how the world is in fact. They think the issues between, say, realism and idealism are about the existence of matter or about objects in space and time. This is a very deep mistake. Properly understood, realism is not a thesis about how the world is in fact. We could be totally mistaken about how the world is in every detail and realism could still be true. Realism is the view that there is a way that things are that is logically independent of all human representations. Realism does not say how things are but only that they are. And “things” in the previous two sentences does not mean material objects or even objects. It is, like the “it” in “It is raining,” not a referring expression.[ix]
There is also a certain sense in which we ourselves are fictional entities, walking narratives of ourselves. Do we remember every single instance which occurs to us? No. And yet we never think of ourselves as anything other than a particular self, and experience an unbroken chain of selfhood moving through time. The illusion of particularity (which the philosopher Daniel Dennett refers to as the illusion of the “central meaner”; i.e., the “I” who appears to be making the decision to, among other things, write this very sentence) is a profound existential fact which every one of us takes utterly for granted.
Think of Ishmael, in Moby Dick. “Call me Ishmael” is the way the text opens, and we oblige. We don’t call the text Ishmael, and we don’t call Melville Ishmael. Who or what do we call Ishmael? We call Ishmael Ishmael, the wonderful fictional character to be found in the pages of Moby Dick. “Call me Dan,” you hear from my lips, and you oblige, not by calling my lips Dan, or my body Dan, but by calling me Dan, the theorists’ fiction created by…well, not by me but my brain, acting in concert over the years with my parents and siblings and friends.[x]
Dennett’s ultimate conclusions about the nature of consciousness are rather involved and I wish to do no disservice to them here by trying to summarize. The larger point, for the purposes of my discussion, is that the argument about how film is perceived and correlated is irretrievably connected with the argument about all forms of human perception. Our very humanness is one such limit, as Kant observed in his twelve categories of perception from the Critique of Pure Reason. Thomas Nagel, in his well-known essay “What is Like to Be a Bat?” observes this same limitation need not apply solely to events outside the known world. It may be impossible for us to get inside the skin of a humble bat, for instance. “Certainly it is possible for a human being to believe that there are facts which humans never will possess the requisite concepts to represent or comprehend…Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in human language.”[xi] What these facts are, we can’t know; but it points to an inescapable subjectivity in the nature of our everyday experience.
We don’t have to resolve all of these issues in interpreting film, of course. However, by keeping such ideas in mind, we are in effect arming ourselves for the battles of interpretation to come, the analysis of representation that is itself further representation. I simply wish to stress that movies are not unique in the respect that they are artifacts of representation to the senses.
Now, as a matter of course, the only people who do not believe in an actual, physical external world (leaving aside certain Eastern religions) are a few philosophers and perhaps some physicists. All that we experience is accepted by our minds at face value, which is why we can be terrified of a rubber shark in Jaws or moved by the fate of lovers in Dr. Zhivago. There are very good evolutionary reasons why this so, most importantly that it is better to mistake a shadow for a tiger, thus expending some unnecessary adrenaline, than risk missing a real tiger and becoming lunch. When watching a movie, we are thus in a vulnerable position. We can be manipulated; indeed, the goal of a filmmaker is precisely to manipulate our reactions. We can be disappointed or even fooled, if in the hands of an incompetent or corrupt filmmaker. We have to be on our guard at all times.
Without the human bias toward belief, the media could not exist. What’s more, because the bias is so automatic and unnoticed, the media, all media, are in a position to exploit the belief, to encourage you to believe in their questionable sensory information…The media, all media but particularly the moving-image media, which present data so nearly natural, effectively convert our naïve and automatic trust in the reliability of images into their own authority.[xii]
So with films, as with all our experiences, we must be wary. We must think. We must think individually, an even more difficult task because movies are typically a shared experience, in which we both generate and receive cues from the social gathering. Such activity can reinterpret data for us – after all, how often has it been that you’ve seen a comedy that worked in a theater and died on a TV screen? Howard Bloom describes an experiment done at MIT in which students were given contrasting biographies of a given speaker – half of which described the speaker as cold, the other as approachable. The students reacted to the speaker just as they had been prescribed.[xiii] The social element of film-watching is yet another factor that must be taken into account when evaluating ours own perceptions.
This last element is by no means dominant, however. Once the projector starts and the images begin fluttering in sequence, we each distill those images at our own level and in comparison with our own internal narratives. At the beginning of every cinematic experience, we indulge in a social contract with the filmmaker. The good filmmaker rewards our trust, while the bad or incompetent filmmaker betrays it.
Point of View
What point of view is the popular Hollywood film likely to carry? Well, to begin to answer that question, we should perhaps look at inherent biases within the medium itself. Movies (and television dramas) are, first and foremost, dramatic mediums: they are therefore prone to show dramatic visual events that may or may not capture the complexity of a given situation, but in any event must privilege image over text. At its best, film works like poetry, in which specific associative images are ordered together to create a meaning beyond the thing-in-itself or in some cases an elegance that can be superior to words. One example, much debated, occurs at the end of the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs. The film concerns a character, played by Mel Gibson, who has lost his faith and given up preaching due to the death of a loved one. Just after the dramatic climax to the picture, there is a brief pause and we open on Gibson getting dressed in his bedroom. His back is to us at first, but then he turns and walks out, wearing a clerical collar once more. The simple and wordless sequence resolves the arc and tells us that Gibson has regained his faith.
These dramatic biases can also be a severe detriment. It is almost impossible to make intelligent points about the hard sciences, mathematics, and economics within the constraints of the medium. Umberto Eco observes: “The shark in Jaws is a hyperrealistic model in plastic, “real” and controllable like the audioanimatronic robots of Disneyland…For their part, the devils that invade films like The Exorcist are evil relatives of the healing divinity or Oral Roberts; and they reveal themselves through physical means, such as greenish vomit and hoarse voices.”[xiv] That is to say, films depict action and physicality. Film is very good at providing exciting pictures of events such as protesters at the G8 meetings, and the violence that sometimes results from provocateurs, but has a hard time if asked to quantify the precise nature of the disagreements at hand. It is a true fact that the assets of the three wealthiest people on the planet are equal to the approximate assets of 600 million people in 48 developed nations,[xv] but such information is difficult to convey cinematically. Jerry Mander observes that television crews at a nighttime riot often focus on trash can fires, partially because they are dramatic, but also because “they provide adequate light for filming.”[xvi] From such pedestrian necessities are our information channels circumscribed.
Besides these inherent biases, there are also the social conditions that inform and define a medium that – because of the great expense involved in producing a film – must be more aware of popular concerns than other art forms. In 2004, for example, then-MPAA head Jack Valenti stated that an average film costs $103 million to produce, of which $39 million is used on marketing alone.[xvii] Also, due to the process of audience preview screenings, many mass-market films tend to be simplified and broadened prior to a general release. And if one looks at the most popular films in terms of worldwide dollars, the list is dominated by big, special-effects dominated pictures made for family audiences – i.e., The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter films, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and cartoons like The Lion King.[xviii] The domestic grosses are slightly different – Gone With the Wind is still the most popular movie of all time in adjusted dollars – but since we are more concerned with how films travel around the world, this list works better for our purposes. The most obvious thing that all of these films have in common is that they are all fantasies, all portray stark battles between Good and Evil, and involve magic powers or futuristic technology. But this is a matter of nomenclature – one remembers Arthur C. Clarke’s famous remark that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.[xix] This retreat into fantasy could be identified with the mass-production and export of mental disassociation in the way of generating a global schizophrenia. Certainly the degree to which such films have devotees who make their experience the defining moments of their lives gives one pause. I will say more about this later, but for now I wish to merely invoke the idea that the more definable and simplistic – even within a fantastic milieu – the themes of a film are, the better chance they have of translating to a worldwide audience.
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[i] Sharon Packer, Movies and the Modern Psyche (Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT 2007), 51.
[ii] Edward Bernays, Propaganda, (Horace Liveright: New York 1928), 57.
[iv] Eddie Izzard, from his standup performance in the film Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill (1999).
[v] Richard Barsam, Looking at Movies (W.W. Norton & Company: New York 2004), 41.
[vi] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin Books USA: New York 1985), 128.
[vii] Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Simon & Schuster: New York 1998), 343.
[ix] John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (The Free Press: New York 1995), 155.
[x] Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Little, Brown, and Company: Boston 1991), 429.
[xi] Douglas R. Hofstadter, ed., The Mind’s I (Basic Books: New York 1981), 396.
[xii] Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (Harper Collins: New York 2002, 1978), 249-250.
[xiii] Howard Bloom, Global Brain (John Wiley & Sons: New York 2000), 76.
[xiv] Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality (Harvest: San Diego 1986), 57.
[xv] David McGowan, Derailing Democracy (Common Courage Press: Maine 2000), 39.
[xvi] Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, 75.
[xix] Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future (Phoenix: New York 2000 ).