“In Frank Miller’s influential 1986 series The Dark Knight Returns, Batman drags an unconscious perpetrator up to a rooftop, and hangs him upside down with his eyes covered. When the bad guy wakes up, Batman begins to question him, and then uncovers the guy’s eyes. Hundreds of feet above the city, the bad guy starts to scream in terror, prompting our hero to ruminate smugly about how much fun he’s having.
Last year, in the film Olympus Has Fallen, the American agent played by Gerard Butler stabbed a North Korean bad guy in the knee to get him to talk. The audience at the preview I attended cheered enthusiastically.”
But this is hardly the only part of the moviemaking industry that is incredibly wasteful. Some efforts at sustainable production may seem trivial at first glance. As cultural leaders, the cutting edge that people naturally look to in their off-hours, the movie industry has a responsibility to promote sustainability.
By simply issuing reusable water bottles and filtering water thousands of plastic bottles can be saved. This practice is good for your home as well. Water bottles are extremely wasteful and the plastic leaches into your drinking water to boot.
Productions that are green-friendly are demanding LED lighting systems, saving massive amounts of electricity. Hybrid cars are in wide use, and these should be phased out in favor of electric.
We are an insanely wasteful culture, destroying the natural ecosystems at unprecedented rates. This should matter to you.
I just posted Chapter 18 for kicks. Perhaps this story is not what you were expecting?
So the family dragged me to Thor: The Dark World, which I immediately sensed was unwatchable. Crap action movie cliches, the same stuff from the first film, one-liners, pomp and overacting. To top it off, the speakers were pushed so loud that audio was blatantly distorted.
So I left, to go check out Anchorman 2 instead.
Listening to the story of Thor, in the car ride home, it seems so bad as to be beyond parody. Evil elves, the powerful malignant malakabop of some sort. Loki and Thor, Loki bad, Loki good. Odin good, bad, ugly, blah, blah. The best part of the entire experience was in getting to the theater late and being spared the commercials and trailers.
Anchorman 2 is the stupidest, most offensively dumb movie I can recall. Certainly the stupidest big budget movie I’ve ever seen. There’s no excuse really: they’ve had a decade since the last one to come up with something worthwhile and funny. This was neither. So many scenes were painful from the get go. Then they keep hammering them home like a bad Saturday Night Live marathon of all the worst skits. The idiots attempt to make a point about dumbed down non-news sold as news to the dumbed down public, for what it’s worth.
I would have stayed home altogether, but it’s been a month and a half since the last decent movie. How does this business stay afloat pushing such garbage nonstop?
by Joseph E. Green (with permission)
Of the top thirty grossing films on this world list, there are two films which do not really fit the mold. They are Titanic, by this measure the most popular movie in the history of the world, and Forrest Gump. Much has been written about Titanic, both pro and con, and William Goldman even went so far as to say that it deserved the Oscar for its screenplay – despite the banal dialogue – because the structure of the screenplay was such that it carried audiences to (for many) an emotionally devastating conclusion. That is, if structure is screenplay, then no other structure was as successful that year.[i] It may be useful to briefly analyze Titanic for a moment, because from the first time I saw it, I was struck by how calculating it was for the audience. The character played by Leonardo DiCaprio is a street-smart young man, struggling with no money, but possessed of roguish charm, good sense, good looks, and a disdain for snobbery. Lead characters in popular movies frequently have such characteristics, and if they can snap off a wisecrack or two so much the better, as with the John McClane character in the Die Hard pictures. In addition to all this, there are rich snobs (most notably the one played – in a performance so inane it approaches a kind of surrealism – by Billy Zane) to contrast to DiCaprio’s inherent goodness. The Kate Winslet character comes from the upper-class world, and although used to the accoutrements of a comfortable existence she nonetheless falls in love with penniless DiCaprio, thus earning audience empathy.
There are gargantuan fantasy elements here in the treatment of social class. Although somewhat unusual for an American film in that it recognizes the existence of social classes (albeit safely in the past rather the present), the presentation is infantile. Indeed, the politics of Titanic are no more complicated, nor is the love story substantially different from, the Disney film Lady and the Tramp.
In the last half of the picture, the ship meets its fate, crashing and coming apart in as effective and dramatic a fashion as possible for $250 million. There is some more heavy-handed attempt at social commentary, as DiCaprio races to save a group of people locked away at the bottom of the ship. However, this is mostly a backdrop to serve as further evidence of DiCaprio’s inherent heroism. Eventually both he and Winslet get off the ship, but he dies saving her life, leaving her with a lifetime of memories that haunt her forever – That Perfect Boy Who Saved Me. Besides being a fantasy vision of a real human relationship, of which there are none in the picture, the film operates in the sort of underlined drama that is easily translatable and therefore marketable to the people of the world: a world united in its desire for uncluttered sentiment in beautiful and dramatic surroundings.
Forrest Gump, the other oddity on the list of thirty, likewise uses big emotions and big symbols to get its points across, and is arguably one of the most insidious films ever made. The movie tells the story of the idiot Gump, played by the likable Tom Hanks, and his adventures in misunderstanding. Although uncomprehending of any single event that occurs to him, he manages to survive although almost everyone he knows dies or is maimed in some tragic event. At the end of the film, he delivers the signature line of the piece, in which he states that some people think we live in a godless, uncaring world, and some people think that a kindly God looks after us. Gump theorizes: “I…think it’s both.” Critic Roger Ebert found the film insightful:
As Forrest’s life becomes a guided tour of straight-arrow America, Jenny (played by Robin Wright) goes on a parallel tour of the counterculture… Eventually it becomes clear that between them Forrest and Jenny have covered all the landmarks of our recent cultural history, and the accommodation they arrive at in the end is like a dream of reconciliation for our society. What a magical movie.[ii]
The concept that Forrest Gump covers “all the landmarks of our recent cultural history” is so ludicrous as to be held in contempt. The film’s attempts at historical reference include such notable occurrences as the invention of the ‘smiley face’ and digitally placing the actor Hanks into existing footage of LBJ, for example. For Ebert to postulate that utopian societal reconciliation is depicted in the relationship between a mental deficient and a suicidal drug addict is lunacy. Nevertheless, audiences agreed with Ebert at some level, as indicated by its massive popularity. The themes of simplicity, happiness, an implied religiosity, and a participation in all of the key institutions of patriotic life are depicted in Forrest Gump. Gump is a successful football player, acquits himself well in Vietnam, always behaves in a simple, ostensibly moral fashion and even raises a child on his own. The fact that he learns nothing, is in fact incapable of learning, never made a dent in the fantasy-seeking audience. The most telling moment in the film occurs when Gump is enlisted into the army. A drill sergeant asks him what he should do. Gump answers: “Whatever you say, Sergeant.” To which the sergeant replies: “That is the most outstanding goddamn answer I’ve ever heard, Gump! You must be some kind of goddamn genius!” Of course. Gump is the perfect soldier and the perfect citizen, one who is happy and content in a world of meaningless symbols, following the orders of authorities and reveling in the wisdom of convention.
Screenwriters are aware of the conventions of film, and indeed in any Screenwriting 101 book you will find a description of the structure and techniques used to create characters for drama. Some characters can be dramatized and some cannot. If your lead is a shy, book-obsessed librarian, then your story had better be a romantic comedy about how an extroverted character gets the lead out of his or her shell. (E.g., Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; if Winslet had also been a nebbish, then there’s no movie.) A plot involving two bookish characters talking about books is, in the best of circumstances, an independent film made in verité style with no budget.
If you want your movie to appeal to a mass audience, it had better have explosive sequences, and they better be up front, in the first ten pages of script. Screenwriting guru Syd Field describes the ridiculous opening sequence of The Matrix (in which a woman dressed in black leaps across tall buildings to elude the Bad Guys) with “Whoa…if that’s not a grabber, I don’t know what is.”[iii] A good example of this convention is illustrated in the James Bond films, which typically begin with some bit of excitement unrelated to the main plot.
A standard script has 120 pages, as one page of correctly formatted script corresponds roughly to one minute of screen time. Field goes on to dissect the formula script as one which has three acts. These consist of the Set Up (pages1-30), followed by what he terms Plot Point I, the Confrontation (pages 30-90), Plot Point II, and then the Resolution (pages 90-120). A plot point, according to Field, is an incident in the story that causes action or changes the direction or flow of the action.[iv] Different books have different names for these contrivances, but almost 100% of all film scripts follow this pattern. It is therefore quite easy for someone familiar with the structure to instantly deduce the plot from a trailer, or even a two-sentence description or poster in some cases. The flow of a given picture generally follows an arc in which the lead character is revealed to have a problem or weakness in the first act which is resolved in the final act. For example:
For Cliffhanger, Sylvester Stallone – always a strong protector of his popular character – insisted on adding the opening scene, in which his high mountain ranger fails and a girl falls to her death. This destroyed his [i.e., Stallone’s character] confidence, which he was then able to recover (redeem) his heroic actions in the subsequent story.[v]
Redemption is a highly popular dramatic motif. It is present in virtually all sports films: Remember the Titans, Miracle, Pride, The Natural, etc. Romantic comedies start with a character that has a certain problem which is resolved by the other person. The ending of such films typically has the male and female leads gazing into one another’s eyes before kissing and then fade-out. In bad romantic films, Plot Point II is often the female lead seeing the made lead in some activity that seems morally disreputable but is actually explained by information the audience has and the female lead, by various contrivances, doesn’t. (For example, she walks in on him when he seems to be kissing another girl, but in reality he is fending off her advances, or it’s a goodbye kiss after he’s explains how much he loves the heroine, etc.) In the movie French Kiss, Meg Ryan thinks that Kevin Kline has slept with a dynamite French girl but it turns out he couldn’t go through with it because he inexplicably preferred Ryan. And so on.
Denny Flinn offers the following advice to budding screenwriters: “Think of a Hollywood movie as a good roller coaster ride,”[vi] and “Don’t leave anything unresolved.”[vii] Exactly. The bulk of Hollywood films are meant to be enjoyed as one enjoys ice cream. This generally applies even to “social event” films or “Oscar” type films. They employ a different motif, but the structure is just as present, albeit often with better acting (though not always) and slightly altered music cues. A great many Oscar-winning films have the same characteristics noted by Denny Flinn, in that they present a roller coaster ride in which everything is resolved. A Beautiful Mind, American Beauty, The English Patient, The Departed, Gladiator, Crash, the aforementioned Gump, and numerous others have these qualities.
Another typical screenwriting how-to book was written by Tom Lazarus, author of the screenplay for Stigmata. He insists that screenwriters place the lead character at the center of every scene: “We pay the actor who plays the lead the most money and we want to see him front and center.”[viii] He agrees with Flinn on endings: “Endings should answer all questions, tie up all loose ends.”[ix] And he proposes a structure for the screenplay that resembles attention-deficit disorder: “You want to present to your reader very different images on the end of one scene and on the beginning of the next scene.”[x] This is a very interesting note, and it is reflected in modern films, with their vernacular of the “smash cut” (meaning a “hard” or especially disorienting cut to a different scene) and their emphasis on constant movement. The result of this can sometimes be an entire film that looks like a two-hour commercial, as in City of Angels, which from a dramatic standpoint appeared to be selling insurance, and The Constant Gardener, which employed techniques learned from television commercials to painful effect in annihilating the otherwise compelling story. It also specifically encourages the constant disorientation of the reader (or viewer) as a means of maintaining attention. This extraordinary note reflects the raw speed of the visual world presented to us on a daily basis via television and the internet. With fewer and fewer people able to maintain any level of extended concentration, the focus moves to a constant flow of unrelated invention, a perpetual startling of the viewer. Thus screenplays (and their accompanying films) begin, more and more, to look like someone flipping channels randomly on a television set – as in the Charlie’s Angels films, for example.
Most amusingly, in Lazarus’s book he takes a firm moral tone with regard to cinematic violence. He castigates Saving Private Ryan for the “disgusting” and “unrelenting gore.”[xi] However, several pages later, he describes a meeting he took with the creators of the television program Hunter, a cop show. He earned this meeting due to his yeoman work on the David Hasselhoff series Knight Rider. He describes himself pitching an idea for a story for Hunter, about “pornography and snuff films” to be called – no kidding – Rape and Revenge. The idea is accepted with enthusiasm.[xii]
In the course of this series, The Paranoid Style in American Cinema, I have tried to select what I think our examples of skilful filmmaking that, given the restrictions of the medium, have enlightened an American history that, in a paradoxical sense, is kept alive by it. There is a war of perspectives going on, with attendant attempts to bury the past in iconography. Even when political considerations are not uppermost, in any adaptation from life, complexity is often the first thing to go due to the nature of films.
The films I’ve selected for analysis are all from the period after World War II to the present. Whereas the establishment, with its police, military authority, and impenetrable sense of order had been viewed primarily as working for Good, by the end of the fifties cracks began to show. A few films began to question the premises behind the Cold War, for example, and then following the Kennedy assassination a number of films were made questioning the value of the military industrial complex and whether the “American Way” was American at all. These films still moved ahead against the grain, however, digging their way into the stubborn mainstream, often disobeying the conventions of both the larger society and the cinematic language itself.
Perhaps paradoxically, I wish to draw upon the work of a Jewish Biblical scholar as a model for my tasks in this book. In The Death of Jesus, Joel Carmichael outlines his approach for reviewing the Gospel material of the Bible. He first notes that all of the Gospels had been heavily edited and altered in the centuries following the time of Christ. Indeed, certain books had been deemed non-canonical, such as the Gospel of Thomas and so on. Now this editing and structuring had the political point of asserting a universalizing Pauline Jesus rather than a Jewish prophet. It is a kind of literary transubstantiation in which an obscure (and historically dubious) figure from a Jewish sect bent on political revolution becomes a worldwide Savior. However, during the process of this editorializing, not all of the original content conflicting with editorial preference could be removed, due to the fact that some stories and events were too well-known. He thus adopts a methodology for reviewing the original texts:
This theme is basic in any study of Christian origins; it will be reverted to often as our inquiry proceeds.
We shall examine the multiple, disparate elements woven into the Gospels under the influence of this double shift of perspective – theological and historical.
This will give us our cardinal criterion: Anything that conflicts with this transformation of perspective is likely to be true.
That is, any fragment we can manage to isolate that runs counter to the prevailing Gospel tendency of exalting Jesus, of preaching his universality, and of emphasizing his originality, will be regarded as ipso facto probable (other things, of course, being equal).[xiii]
Carmichael’s readings thus attach importance to incongruity in the text – those odd moments and incidents which seldom are discussed during sermon. He identifies and highlights the events that swim upstream from the general narrative. This is what I have tried to do in the context of these political films – identify those going in the wrong direction, isolate the reasons why, and identify the truths that lie behind that movement.
My particular concerns throughout this series will be to connect each film to its real-life inspirations (and, often, its correct predictions, as in The Parallax View and Network). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the bulk of the films I explore were made in the 1970’s – besides being a golden age of American film in general, it is also the golden age for realistic adult films of the macroscopic type, the film of social analysis. The adult world was put aside, seemingly forever, with the explosion of Star Wars and its imitators, but it seems as though such films are making a comeback, with the assistance of George Clooney. This is perhaps a hopeful sign in a United States which seems to have forgotten its history – even its most recent experiences with Watergate, Iran-Contra and beyond.
[i] William Goldman, The Big Picture (Applause Books: New York 2001), 241.
[ii] Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert’s Four-Star Reviews, 1967-2007 (Andrews McMeel Publishing LLC: Kansas City 2007), 265.
[iii] Syd Field, Screenplay (Random House: New York 2005), 152.
[iv] Ibid, 200-201.
[v] Denny Martin Flinn, How Not to Write a Screenplay (Watson-Guphill Publications: New York 1999), 172-173.
[vi] Ibid, 152.
[vii] Ibid, 164.
[viii] Tom Lazarus, Secrets of Film Writing (St. Martin’s Press: New York 2001), 96.
[ix] Ibid, 144.
[x] Ibid, 170.
[xi] Ibid, 178.
[xii] Ibid, 192.
[xiii] Joel Carmichael, The Death of Jesus (Barnes & Noble Books: New York 1995 ), 12.
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.
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.
[i] Sharon Packer, Movies and the Modern Psyche (Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT 2007), 51.
[ii] Edward Bernays, Propaganda, (Horace Liveright: New York 1928), 57.
[iii] “Chavez: Bush ‘devil’; U.S. ‘on the way down’”, CNN, 21 September 2006, http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/americas/09/20/chavez.un/index.html.
[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.
[viii] “Film Content, Editing, And Directing Style Affect Brain Activity, Neuroscientists Show,” Science Daily, 9 June 2008, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080606105432.htm
[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.
[xvii] Carl DiOrio, “Average cost of a movie: $102.9 million,” Video Business, 23 March 2004, http://www.videobusiness.com/index.asp?layout=article&articleid=CA614600.
[xix] Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future (Phoenix: New York 2000 ).
Never a fan of Sofia Coppola, I find her films long, tedious and with a warped take on class and privilege. As a child of money and privilege herself, I can’t shake the feeling of being manipulated. A cat’s paw seems to hover above the frame of her movies.
Bling Ring is no different, of course. In fact, this could be Coppola’s most direct hammer to brain undertaking. It does seem to be based on a pretty good idea. The trailer revealed that a group of Hollywood high school fame whores go on a petty crime spree to adorn themselves with gaudy, ostentatious clothing and trinkets.
As products of this fame whore society, their actions strike a natural evolutionary kind of chord. On that front, it’s not such a bad film. The mindless worship of money and brands leads to bad consequences, okay. These bimbos are irredeemable and perhaps plausible. The whole charade seems expected in that world. People with too much glittery crap than they can keep track of robbed by the wannabes, what could be more natural?
The plot bogs down in the middle, as we’ve already seen robberies and gawking at shoes and jewelry, and so it becomes repetitive pretty rapidly. We also know something bad will happen, and they’ll get caught; so that’s no surprise. As usual with Coppola, it’s about the character study, not the plot.
Bling Ring’s concept used Internet surveillance pretty well. If high school thieves can track famous people on the Internet, using metadata and logistical tips to rob their homes, can anyone imagine what NSA and CIA are capable of doing?
I did not take to the quirky religious nut mom thread. Her oddness is inserted to distract from the obvious, that these Hollywood climbers are the norm and not a product of some aberrant philosophy or religion. It was a bit too out of left field and irrelevant.
I also couldn’t let the trademark fake rawness just slide. Coppola is the one who throws punk rock onto Marie Antoinette, in a sort of pathetic attempt to appear edgy. Here the sin is almost as egregious. For the opening credits she takes a loud pop/techno track and then deliberately distorts the entire mix. The result is hideous noise, offensive to the ears, and not in a musical way. It’s offensive in a manipulative post-production crank an electronic effect too far way.
Similarly, she shoots several daytime shots with completely clipped, blown out footage. This is someone with all the money to shoot it correctly that one could possibly need. The cutting corners Youtube quality is a shallow attempt to establish credibility. The bouncy handheld camera during the opening robbery is similarly fake. It’s not a terrible idea to have a visceral movement for such a scene, but the way it was executed was too in your face obvious.
A lot of images are in your face obvious, and there is certainly no subtlety to be found. Does Bling Ring tell us something about generations raised on TMZ and TV gossip? Does it indict this shallow, mindless view? Eh.