Film: Trivial and Dangerous or Powerful and Reactionary?
What better defines a romantic evening than a dinner and a movie? One absorbs food to food the body and entertainment to feed the mind and soul. Movies define and are defined by culture: they are vanguards for the dissonant voices that form a society. Sometimes they are propaganda of varying qualities, such as with Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ; other times they embody some spiritual criticism of modern culture, such as in American Beauty; and elsewhere, they are embodiments of militarist values, such as in every vapid action movie from Commando to American Ninja. Critiques of film follow roughly two paradigms. The first is, loosely speaking, a “conservative” paradigm. Film is viewed as a triviality, vapid entertainment that through its very frivolity encourages violence and sex to be desensitized and glamourized. This aspect of the media is considered to be dominated by liberal forces who question sanctified truths and thus launch a headfirst attack at the moral fabric of the nation. However, this critique fundamentally regards films as such simplistic entities that they can be regulated by state intervention or community activism, so basic and trivial that such basic intervention is unproblematic. While there are disagreements internal to this paradigm as to the strength of the media, the underlying assumption seems to be that the structure of film is a simplistic way of communicating narratives, and the only thing that should and can be changed is the content of those narratives. The “liberal” paradigm is markedly different in crucial respects. While the advocates of the paradigm also disagree sharply over the exact degree of impact the films pose, the general consensus is that film is capable of at least rivalling, if not surpassing, the complexity and depth of symbolism and meaning of the novel or philosophy textbook. Here, if glamorizing violence or sex or racist values is a concern, it is not because the media is so frivolous that it encourages these subjects to be portrayed frivolously, but because the art form of film has such untapped reserves of potential. To this paradigm, abstract or non-sensical narratives, documentaries, and cultural criticism are all within the capabilities of the art form. The concern here seems to be instead that the media, by wasting and squandering its potential, instead serves as a reactionary bulwark for society. Both paradigms ignore that film is like any other art form: it is capable of vapid triviality, inciting dangerous and unchecked change, and equally capable of squandering beautiful potential and acting as commissar and thought enforcer.
The conservative notion is expressed in the Hays code and in the outcry of the Legion of Decency. Its tactics are described in James Rorty's August 1, 1934 piece, “It Ain't No-Sin”: blacklists, whitelists, boycotts, arguments that the “government should do its duty”, and an attack on the industry as a cesspool of filth that distributed these trivial substances masquerading as art, almost like heroin packaged in the Mona Lisa. Rorty points out that private distributors kowtowing to the pressure of the Legion placed blame on the distributors' “block booking” and “blind booking” practices, where one was forced to buy all but 90% of the block of movies from a company, yet these exhibitors used these privileges to cancel 'Cradle Song' and other wholesome and artistic films yet didn't use the privileges to cancel 'I'm No Angel' or similar sexually charged films. The criticism of this opinion scarcely focuses on businesses as economic entities and instead characterizes and constructs them as cultural forces that are naturally regressive and seek to peddle filth for profit. The disgust comes from the filth, not the profit. Often, this criticism is bounded together with ethnic hatred, as in the case of the Warner Brothers producing Confessions of a Nazi Spy (see Steven Ross' article in the collection Warner's War), where the Warner Brothers were attacked by anti-Semites, thinly veiled and not-so-thinly veiled. The conservative criticism rarely offers a guideline for films' artistic content; they simply demand that certain social and political questions not be breached and that certain types of narratives and language (such as obscenity, sex and violence) be restricted by community and government intervention.
The liberal commentary is slightly more nuanced. Here, film is discussed as a complex institution, often a reactionary one. In Maltby's “It Happened One Night: The Recreation of the Patriarch”, it is argued that It Happened One Night is a traditional narrative of an independent woman infantilized by a powerful male figure, a narrative attempting to explain the neurosis of the Depression Era's crisis of capitalism as a crisis of patriarchy. The film business is understood as primarily that: a business with the profit and power considerations of market capitalism constraining the possibilities of film. The captains of the film industry are portrayed not as demoniac peddlers of perversion but rather as cowards kowtowing to popular demand simultaneously for filth and purity; as Rorty puts it, “... the industry was too cynical, too hypocritical, and too scared to fight.” What is decried is not the violence or sex per se, but the exclusion of any other content whatsoever; Rorty accuses film of “emptiness” and a “lack of genuine social and artistic content”. Understanding of film as a complete artiface and not a delivery system of perversion, however incomplete and distorted this understanding may be, is also part of this paradigm. Dale's :”What Are Motion Pictures For?” does not simply describe the negative (“They're not supposed to spread perversion”) but instead argues that if film is not progressive and socially conscious, it will not be apolitical and harmless but will in fact be reactionary and socially bereft. In his words, “The motion picture, then, should show you just what problems people are facing today and the different ways that these problems can be solved.” Film is not simply art or storytelling, but in fact carries the potential for activism. Peterson and Thurston also stress this conception in their “Motion Pictures and the Social Attitudes of Children”, cataloguing how multiple films stressing the same message can cause a cumulative impact greater than the sum of its parts and thus implying that film should be careful about the assumptions it makes. The alternative here is not censorship or regulation; rather, the liberal critique is an appeal to filmmakers to broaden their horizons. Such a critic may appreciate It Happened One Night as an excellent comedy and yet, as Maltby does, criticize it strongly for reifying the role of the patriarch and act as the knight in shining armor in more ways than one for an oppressive social institution. Admittedly, there is quite a bit of hypocrisy in this narrative. WaltL industry and an artist, yet the dissonance of the two roles is never called into question. “Exposing Mickey Mouse” does nothing of the sort; rather, it focusses on narrow technical questions. This is possibly because “Europe's Highbrows Hail[ed] Mickey Mouse” and because, according to the 1933 Literary Digest piece, “The picture [Three Little Pigs]... has many... virtues, which helped to make it the film darling of the intelligentsia”. Cartoons are not dismissed as frivolous distractions; rather, champions of modernity such as Soupault, Morienval and Jazarin stress not the author but the work, arguing that animation can breach the wall between reality and unreality and end the “tyranny” of traditional art.
Both conceptions conveniently ignore film's true nature. It is neither a predatory monster spewing an addictive drug to snare the young and impressionable nor an entirely untapped cultural heritage. Possibly the best secondary material in the reader discussing this ambiguity is “Black Face, White Noise”. Though the piece does criticize the racial injustice portrayed by black face, it simultaneously shows how The Jazz Singer helped to end an era of silence associated with patriarchal values and how the movie used black face to empower the Jewish singer, bridging the gap between the poor and the rich, the weak and powerful. All film is thus ambiguous. A good story may contain aspects that, viewed in isolation, beg serious questions. Yet the entire work is rarely dragged down by such aspects; rather, the context makes film more than the sum of its parts. Thus, one can watch Dirty Harry and comment on how it enshrines patriarchy and violence, yet it also criticizes bureaucratic ineptitude and creates an almost revolutionary figure. The perennial weakness of both liberal and conservative critiques is that they isolate particular subnarratives of film and make these the centerpiece, in a way that is never done with a novel. When reading Shakespeare, one can see the parochial influences yet still marvel at the handiwork, the skill at crafting the language, the wit and subtlety mixed in with crass and base humor, and the social commentary. If we wish to treat film like a novel, we need to understand it as such: each a story composed of multiple narratives, none of which can be isolated without doing injustice to the whole piece. Film is not simply a trivial drug, because it can deeply inspire and teach in succinct and memorable ways complex lessons, such as in Cabaret; yet it is also not simply a squandered artistic resource, as it does contain elements of pacification and excessive violence and filth. As Rorty says, “The movie magnates have treated the American people like cattle. They have exploited the prurience of our Puritan mass culture, made films to exploit and incidentally confirm that prurience, and added for a good measure a little of their own... Of honest sin or honest sainthood they have given us practically nothing. Fake sin, fake sex, fake social and moral values: how can a culture achieve a healthy maturity on that diet?” Overwhelmingly, film is too complex to wish away to simpler times with one-size-fits-all government regulation or snide liberal critique. It must instead be taken as it is and used
as a vehicle for discussion, as any other story. Otherwise, it will become the worst of its parts: reactionary, encoding militarist, racist, sexist and other values and thus serving as a cultural smokescreen and bodyguard for oppression; trivial, distracting and corrupting for its own insiduous ends through excessive sex, violence and obscenity, all sound and fury signifying nothing; complex, so much so that it becomes a morass of competing nothingness; and dangerous to the utmost.