Film is a branch on the great tree of media culture, and its influence cannot seriously be considered as divorced from other forms of media entertainment such as television, radio and mass news journalism. It is, on the other hand, a hugely influential genre and has qualities that are specific to the experience of film-going, film-making and the film industry.
The wide reaching genres of film, which move beyond Hollywood to encompass smaller films which are for example nation-specific or do not have the commercial backing to enter into multiplex cinemas, invite an even broader sphere of criticism which in recent years has grown into an independent cause for education. This, of course, is partly due to the rapid modernisation of film and its technologies, and the increased activity and availability of mass media as a whole. Thus, the question of whether film either shapes or reflects popular culture does not have a black and white answer.
The conundrum is partly due to the fact that the term ‘popular culture’ is itself problematic. In McCabe’s breakdown of the definition of popular culture, it can be seen as ‘something produced for the ordinary people [and] approved by the ordinary people’ ; in order for film-makers to survive films must be both these things. This does not, however, yet answer the question of how exactly films are received and processed by their audiences. As shown in Keyframes’ introduction to the history of cultural media studies, ‘cinema came to have a not-too-coincidental status accorded to it as one of the primary sites of modernity that moulded masses of people’ – a strong argument is that we are impressionable beings, and are therefore bound to be influenced by such large machines as the film industry. In the light of an active debate over the past 50 years however, it seems to make sense to take a pluralist view and consider the possibility that films actually reflect popular culture whilst also shaping it.
McCabe poses the Althusserian question; ‘[w]hat produces forms of social compliance without the appearance of repression?’ . The answer seems to come from the fact that the vast majority of people in Western industrial societies are obedient to law and generally stay within the boundaries of social rules, and that this compliance must be produced by a mass form of information. In its very method of imparting messages to mass audiences, cinema can appear to aim towards producing a hypnotic state; in a dark enclosed space where the images on the screen are oversized and the sounds are loud, the whole film-going experience is potentially exclusive to the creation of autonomous thought. Therefore, ideas put forward to audiences during the highly charged emotional experience of watching films have the capacity to become the very ideas upon which behaviour is based. What is seen as acceptable and fashionable is easily converted from screen image to audience belief and it is therefore clear to see why it has been argued that film is partly responsible for shaping popular culture.
Alongside this argument comes the issue of merchandising. It is common, even expected, that popular film is not solely occupied with the production of magical screen images for the enjoyment of spectators (that is not necessarily to say that it ever was!), but goes hand in hand with a massive turnover of representative pictures and products. As Turner points out in his study Film as Social Practice; ‘[t]he desire to watch a popular film is related to a whole range of other desires – for fashion, for the new, for the possession of icons or signs that are highly valued by one’s peers’ . This reveals the film industry as just that – an industry, which provides commodities in order to generate profit
Kellner, a central figure in the recent study of media culture, agrees that film, along with all other forms of media entertainment and information, provides ‘the materials out of which people forge their very identities’ . Using Holtzman’s model of ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ culture it seems obvious that, because people in capitalist societies are superficially preoccupied with the disposable and everyday such as what clothes they wear, what kinds of food they eat, what music they listen to and what kind of language they use, film can easily have a profound effect on creation of identity because films too have a surface culture which is intensely visual.
It is certainly a legitimate argument that, to some extent, film-makers present an image of life based on these superficial distractions and therefore shape the habits and fashions within popular culture. In these terms, film is seen as a mass deception of naïve film-goers. This notion was popular in 1960’s and 70’s studies of mass media, and presents the (often heavily criticised) idea of an all-powerful media, controlled by corporate companies and institutional agencies, which impose ‘a monolithic dominant ideology on their victims’ . With this in mind, film can be said to ‘forestall social action by viewers’ by giving the ‘temporary fix of a happy ending’ , and therefore shaping the thoughts that audience members have in mind when they leave the cinema, repressing autonomy by default.
All the above points seems to move towards the notion that film audiences are subject to a blanketing experience of hypnosis and social moulding. This Marxist view is certainly partial and is hotly contended. By way of an introduction to Keyframes, Tinkcom suggests that ‘we may act and be acted upon, but how we do so and the reasons we make certain choices may emanate from the unconscious as much as from enlightened debate’ . Film is ultimately a form of entertainment, in which people choose either to take part or not, and notions of individuality must come into the argument when considering the effects of a film on its audience. This is the main weakness of those studies that present the film industry as an agent that shapes popular culture.
It cannot be denied that film, in its very nature, entertains us on a sensory level and therefore plays to our superficial desires and needs, but also inherent in film is the necessity of a human narrative. We are entertained by film in that it usually reaffirms our place in society and the world at large; it appeals to us in its presentation of ‘deep culture’ by reflecting the way we organise our own lives around fundamental morality and beliefs. Even in horror and science fiction films, which could be said to be further removed from real life than any other filmic genre, there must always be a human element which audiences can relate to. In arguing against the notion that film shapes popular culture rather than reflecting it, Tinkcom points out that ‘the bulk of popular cinemas do indeed attempt to show something that approximates our own lives… [and] seek selectively to represent our private and social selves back to us’ .
If this affirmation of an audience’s raison d’etre were entirely suppressed in popular film in order to produce a passive law-abiding society, the audience would surely reject film altogether, for its inability to satisfy the most basic of human entertainment needs. Tudor, in his studies in the sociology of film, is passionately against the notion of audiences as passive, accentuating the fact that an audience is made up of individuals and, although films must be designed to please people en masse, each member takes away a different emotion and is moved to extend their world in a different way. In this way, film can be viewed as a projection of ‘emotions, needs and pleasures’ .
It is true to say, as Kellner does, that films help to provide a ‘common culture’ by which people can view themselves and each other. From here, it is problematic to take anything but a pluralistic view, for where film stops directly influencing people, people begin to directly influence film-making. In extreme cases, with violent films being said to induce violent behaviour for example, it could be suggested that there is a danger in films attempting to demonstrate ‘who has power and who is powerless, who is allowed to exercise force and violence and who is not’ because it is not possible to be sure that all audiences can interpret the messages held within films to their full meaning.
As emphasised in Tudor’s study, there have been many empirical studies into the influence films have on peoples’ behaviour, the results of which are most likely to have been central to the formulation of many of the aforementioned ideas about films shaping popular culture. These studies, especially those carried out on children and regarding change of attitudes towards issues such as racism and pacifism after watching films, seemed to presume that films were the only or major source of influence on people’s lives. Although, as mentioned, audiences often require films to confirm rather than challenge their ideas, those ideas must have originated from somewhere other than cinema and media in the first place; from parents and other such life teachers.
This argument is further complicated by the notion, presented by Kellner, that modern popular culture is by now so steeped in mass media that we are no longer able to escape its influence. From the cradle to the grave , media, such as films, shapes our ideas and whether that is a direct or indirect influence we cannot tell. If popular media culture is said to be produced for and approved by the people, the modern media cocoon is not so simply defined as a corporate tool of profit-making and will-destroying but one to which both corporations and the people contribute. Although it is not possible to deny that we are all subject to advertising and the shaping influences, both superficial and deeply moralistic, of such an intense experience as cinema-going, audiences are not passive beings because in the very least they must experience some reflection of the normality of their existence before they will accept the contents of a film.
In general, thoughts about what film is and what it does to people are dominated by Hollywood and popularised film production. In this sense, the notion of film as art is often neglected. Whilst film-making technologies advance at a rapid pace to produce popular films that cross continents and are seen by millions of people, smaller films very often embrace globalisation on more human level to deal with issues that challenge our concept of what goes on in the world whilst still adamantly reaffirming our existence as humans together on this planet. Films are made to make a statement, whether that be in order to provide the escapism so many people seek from the common drudgery of everyday life, or to reassure us that we are not the only ones who think and feel in a certain way – in this way, film-going is a thought provoking activity which both shapes the way we see the world and, in that it is an artistic product of one or a few minds, also reflects cultural experience.
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