THERE IS an old adage that says, whoever discovered water, it probably wasn't a fish. This refers to the idea that it often is difficult to understand the significance of a situation in which one is immersed deeply. The bromide has become commonplace in media studies, which emphasize the notion that people are so caught up and conditioned by media, it is difficult to stand back and assess those institutions. Oddly enough, while the cinema obviously is a mass medium, it has shown no timidity in such an examination. Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" may be something of a shock to many viewers for its caustic assault on the mediascape, but what he is up to here has its roots very deep in film history.
The cinema has been conscious of itself since fairly early on. From Buster Keaton's "Sherlock Jr.," to Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow Up" to Francois Truffaut's "Day for Night," there has been a constant self-reflexiveness and self-consciousness about the cinema's concern for the ways it transmits meaning. In the past 20 years or so, a similar, but far more profound, thrust has been seen--the cinema as interrogator of media and of the creation of meaning in an image-saturated society. The breakthrough film was Sidney Lumet's "Network" (1976), a staggering and seminal effort that formed a devastating critique not just of television and media culture, but of the commodification and trivialization of virtually all lived experience. (The network of the title refers not merely to TV, but to the new transnational corporate and financial structures that run civilization.) The picture caught remarkably well post-modern alienation and the ways that even alienation is absorbed by mass culture. The movie's catchphrase and rallying cry--"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore"--even has been used in TV commercials.
"Network" now seems only a prelude to ccinema's intensive probing of media and society. Horror/science fiction especially has been fascinated with the subject, perhaps sensing the innately horrific and foreboding aspect of media culture touched on by such authors as George Orwell in 1984. The works of David Cronenberg, especially "Videodrome," show science fiction's sense of the media as captor, weapon of power, and mind-manipulator. Such an approach has been repeated ad nauseum throughout the enre. The film and later TV series "Robocop" take place against a parodical media backdrop, with soundbite ads interrupting the action, reminding viewers that all experience has become corporate, one huge bread-and-circus extravaganza.
While the media still seem fantastic and grotesque, calling upon genres like horror and science fiction to annotate them, the most sweeping indictments are coming from the mainstream. That so many motion pictures are preoccupied with mass media and their social effects is a measure of how pervasive is the concern with the dehumanizing elements of the new technology. "Man Bites Dog" (1992), a black comedy by Belgian director Remy Delvaux, concerns a TV crew that follows a serial killer through his daily routine. …