Cinema and the American Malaise

By Shafer, Gregory | The Humanist, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Cinema and the American Malaise


Shafer, Gregory, The Humanist


In keeping with the policy of the Humanist to accommodate the diverse cultural, social, political, and philosophical viewpoints of its readers, this occasional feature allows for the expression of alternative, dissenting, or opposing views on issues previously broached within these pages.

Editor's note:

Do violent Hollywood movies create a dangerous social atmosphere? And do they divert the public from meaningful efforts at challenging the injustices of the status quo? Or is movie mayhem really an updated expression of those long-standing cultural values that form a necessary basis for our developed sense of right and wrong? In the following dialogue, cinema is interpreted first through the lens of propaganda analysis and then through that of established mythic and literary archetypes.

THE LIGHTS COME UP, the image fades, and the gaggle of moviegoers begins to adjust its eyes to reality. Two hours of fantasy, replete with special effects and carefully choreographed action heroes, have given them a welcomed respite from the taxes, the humdrum of work, and the din of their rather mechanical existence. Movies are special because the hero and villain are clearly defined and the outcome is rarely in doubt. Movies are unique in their efficacy at pacifying audiences and reinforcing attitudes that promote American values.

Mel Gibson's The Patriot (2000), for example, portrays a hard-working, eighteenth-century colonial who battles the British and vanquishes an enemy that is carefully chosen to suit the provincial tastes of the audience. In working to engender a monolithically pleasing scenario that is so important to most moviegoers, the film ensures that Gibson's character owns no slaves, fathers only adorable children, and is immaculately honest. Because it is easy for people in the United states to distrust and hate the British, producers make them the butt of jokes and the evil oppressors.

Was there actually slavery in this colonial era? What about misogyny? Religious oppression? Of course there was, but movies don't illuminate or deal in honesty. Rather, they dole out pleasing images of the people and ideas with which their audience most closely identifies. In doing so, they massage a tired audience and help it forget the real injustices and inadequacies that surround them.

This desire to mislead and massage is hardly new and has become the foundation upon which cinema in the United States thrives. Images that generate doubt or meaningful introspection are supplanted with films that offer pleasing escape commingled with a reinforcement of established cultural values. While Hollywood hyped The Patriot by promising realistic depictions of U.S. history Oust as it did with the May 2001 release of Pearl Harbor), it delivered a distorted tale that carefully omitted slavery, religious bigotry, and U.S. culpability --anything that could be invidious about the established culture--thus reinforcing the status quo.

And, of course, it was hardly unique in doing so. Indeed, cinema in the United States enjoys a dubious heritage of being an organ of conventional wisdom and simplistic, feel-good entertainment. It perpetuates this pattern and thus has a deleterious effect on a population that is becoming increasingly apathetic and programmed.

Guns, Violence, and Going to the Movies

Perhaps what is most insidious about Hollywood cinema is its efficacy at obfuscating the reality of the nation by reveling in its fabricated glory. In an industry where guns become the virtual appendage of most heroes, it is chilling to note the reality that seems omitted or subordinated. The United States today is in a free fall from the deluge of gun violence, and yet movies continue to mete out depictions that are surreal and illusory. Whether the icon is Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood, the images of violence are almost certain to romanticize the use of high-powered firearms. …

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