Every other month or so, I sit down to re-watch one of my favourite artsy docufilm Oceans (Disneynature). Why do I watch it so often? What is it about this film that draws me back again and again? Why do people watch films? What role does film play within art and culture?
Cultural theorists have had a lot to say about film from Adorno and Horkheimer’s denunciation of the art form to Benjamin’s uncertainties and Mirzoeff’s explication of film’s ability to produce and contest visuality. Yet, I would argue that the role of film is far more complex than a simple binary of good-evil. Although the original modes of production, exhibition, and distribution could cause concern over the role of film as either a cultural opiate for the masses, or a tool for hegemonic interests, the technology surrounding film today has broadened film’s abilities as a cultural medium for expression. On Youtube, Tumblr, and other similar sites, film moves from a graphic/visual medium in which visuality is most powerfully visible – where ideological processes take place in order to affirm current hegemonic interests – to a space where contestation or telepoesis may be created. Let’s look at some categories of how we may view films…
The Low-Brow Film
Confession time: I have a guilty pleasure film – the Bridge Jones series. I even went so far as to read the original book by Helen Fielding. Some folks might view Bridge Jones’s Diary as an enlightening look of a modern woman overcoming obstacles in career and love. Yet, there is quite a lot in Bridge Jones’s Diary that is less about social commentary and more about just having fun (the amazing Grant vs Firth fight sequence). These kinds of films, often denounced as crass or low-brow by critics, still gain a cult following for some reason. Some films appear hopeless – Sharknado and Snakes on the Plane, for example; but others, like the Bridget Jones series or Bright, are not so simply defined.
Adorno and Horkheimer in The culture industry; enlightenment as mass deception denounce the use of films as a form of mass manipulation and deception. They argue that the “menu” of entertainment is limited (38), that beauty is mechanically reproduced (39), that laughter is in reality derisive or fraudulently founded (106/39), and that the individual is an illusion (40). These two critics rather cynically suggest that “Every kiss in the revue film has to contribute to the career of the boxer, or some hit song expert or other whose rise to fame is being glorified” (41). In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin notes that with the advancement of replication, the aura of art is lost (104). Is this a neutral statement of fact? Or is there something to be mourned?
Still, I wonder if the low-brow film has its place in our culture and lives. Linked to the medicinal film, perhaps the low-brow film is that form of entertainment which allows us to just release and let flow. In a world where we are bombarded with opinions and thoughts – often new, sometimes oppositional – it is easy to see how these kinds of films are incredibly attractive to certain groups of people. Must we be always preached at? Must we be always stimulated?
The Medicinal Film
I think that in a similar way the medicinal film operates. There are times when stress has made the world intolerable and requiring more than just not thinking, we wish to be invited to a fantastical world where there are problems – and, even better, solutions that create a happy ending. Films like Lord of the Rings (epic in scope and length), Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, or even dystopian films such as Hunger Games, create worlds filled with challenges which the hero(ine) navigates to his/her success. Other film genres, particularly the superhero film so popular in recent times, play a similar role, inviting us to imagine ourselves as empowered, special people who are capable of not only creating order out of chaos, but also helping others about us.
Singer, in his book Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts, contends that the melodrama played an important role in aiding audiences in the navigation of the heavily industrialized, urbanized, and isolated modern landscape. He states: “Melodrama conveyed the stark insecurities of a modern life in which people found themselves “helpless and unfriended” in a postsacred, postfeudal, “disenchanted” world of moral ambiguity and material vulnerability” (132). He further suggests that melodrama “portrayed the individual’s powerlessness within the harsh and unpredictable material life of modern capitalism” while also offering “a quasi-religious ameliorative function in reassuring the audiences that a higher cosmic moral force still looked down on the world and governed it with an ultimately just hand” (134). Benjamin suggested something similar in his essay as well: “If one considers the dangerous tensions which technology and its consequences have engendered in the masses at large – tendencies which at critical stages take on a psychotic character – one also has to recognize that this same technologization [Technisierung] has created the possibility of psychic immunization against such mass psychoses. […] Collective laughter is one such preemptive and healing outbreak of mass psychosis […] trigger[ing] a therapeutic release of unconscious energies” (118) [italics in the original].
In this way, watching films like Equilibrium or Unbreakable, Black Panther or Miss Potter, offers more than simple respite. In some cases, it may also give perspective to our world and offer a healthy space in which to escape, rest, and thereby heal.
The Propaganda Film
However, not all films are created for the audience’s health or entertainment. Some films can be utilized as a way to form thought on various subject matters. Of course, we might start thinking of docufilms (like Oceans or Planet Earth), which often preach on a specific topic (such as environmental issues). However, even narrative, fiction films have much to say about how to view culture and one’s position in it. One Christmas, two friends and I were offered a copy of Holiday Inn. We began watching it, not knowing the plot and therefore not realizing that we had been given an uncensored version of the film. When the infamous blackface sequence began, my two friends stopped doing whatever it was they were doing – and I also paused. Our jaws dropped. We looked at each other uneasily.
There was a horrified silence.
My initial response was: “Is this for real?”
My one friend, “I…. Don’t… know….”
The scene was an interesting process of hegemonic visuality in and of itself, being a musical/show within a movie. Actors wearing blackface declaimed how amazing Abraham Lincoln was, while actual African-American servants looked on cheerfully. It was clearly a cultural statement about how awesome specific historical figures were – made from the supposed position of the freed.
It reminds me starkly of Mirzoeff’s discussion around visuality. He defines visuality as “an early nineteenth-century term, meaning the visualization of history” (The Right to Look, 474). Mirzoeff goes on to say that this “practice must be imaginary, rather than perceptual, because what is being visualized is too substantial for any one person to see and is created from information, images, and ideas. This ability to assemble a visualization manifests the authority of the visualizer” (474). Visuality classifies, socially groups, and then normalizes the previously mentioned two processes in order to perpetuate the authorities. Film may play a role in this form of visuality.
When it comes to viewing films “of yesterday” (such as Holiday Inn), it is easy to see where problems of perception may lie. Time and perspective (and growth and knowledge) give us a chance to reassess what our ancestors may have accepted as status quo. Yet, when it comes to films within our own era, finding the ‘blind spots’ is not so easily achieved.
The Challenging Film
“Can I enjoy ANY film?” you may ask. Well, I would argue that any film, when treated with the respect a creative product deserves (when taken deeply into consideration, mulled over, and critiqued thoughtfully), may offer us food for thought and may challenge previously held notions. Some films lend themselves more easily than others. Miyazaki’s animated features in the Japanese anime style are good examples of films that question our status quo. Coming from a specific Japanese perspective, films like Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies, bring into question Western narrative surrounding spirituality and World War Two respectively. Indie films, like The Sweet Hereafter, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Bunraku, may push the envelope in terms of narrative structure or content, but in general, these kinds of films were created in order to stimulate thought.
Therefore, one can also argue that film may also function within the opposing position – “the right to look”, as coined by Mirzoeff. Once again, Benjamin suggests that that film and the technology surrounding it offer a new kind of vision previously unavailable before. “It is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis” (116). In this way, our world, Benjamin argues, is altered as film and the camera brings into focus worlds we have never been able to see before – either micro or macro.
Considering Mirzoeff and Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer, I wonder how they may have read the rising creation of fan-made music videos surrounding favourite fandoms, films, and characters. Fanfiction and fanart thrive on, while often simultaneously subverting, the canon of films. Unlike the films of the early 1900s, movies today are easily uploaded, downloaded, ripped, and edited, creating a new space for contestation and challenge within the public. Furthermore, larger audiences have prompted wider arrays of creative works, allowing for multiplicity of vision (ie. the entrance of Kdramas, Jdramas, anime, and Bollywood into North America). Also, with the advent of blogging, vloging, and etc., conversation about film is not limited to one’s neighbourhood and local community. While living in China, I met a girl who was part of a subbing group which translated and subtitled (with great dedication and care) anything involving Tom Hiddleston. Large groups of girls suddenly became very interested in Shakespeare. Suddenly, we all had one more thing to enjoy sharing. Film brought us closer together.
So, after walking away from the movie theater or turning off your TV, I recommend sitting back and considering what you have watched. Form your own opinion. Ask others what they think. Read up on what critics and general audiences are saying. Films have a lot to say. You just need to stop and listen.
Adorno, T and Horkheimer, M. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Deception.” The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. J. M. Bernstein. Routledge, 1991.
Benjamin, W. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938. Translated by Jephcott et al. Harvard University Press, 2002.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “The Right to Look.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Spring 2011), pp. 473-496. JSTOR. Date Accessed: March 5, 2018. <http://nicholasmirzoeff.com/RTL/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/RTL-from-CI.pdf>
Singer, B. “Melodrama and the Consequences of Capitalism.” Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its Contexts. Columbia University Press, 2001.