Do films still have a cultural impact?
Maybe that sounds like an odd question coming from someone who has embraced the mission to impact culture for Christ through media. If I don’t have an answer to that question, though, my mission is meaningless.
What sparked this particular reflection was a book I recently read by Neal Gabler entitled An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. The main premise of the book is that the men who founded Hollywood, all Jewish émigrés, built their studios out of a need to assimilate to American respectability, but somehow they stumbled upon a medium so powerful that rather than assimilate to American values, they created and defined them.
In the chapter about Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Gabler describes the mogul’s personal insight about the impact movies would have on culture. Mayer knew that the movies had the power to influence culture in tremendous ways, and he felt that such power carried with it serious responsibility – an obligation to produce movies that would uphold and strengthen the moral and ethical fiber of American culture.
It seems that todaty’s Hollywood has forgotten its responsibility. After all, just look at all the junk that comes out of Hollywood. There’s no moral center there. There are no ethical standards. Films get made for the bottom line – for how many people will go to the theater and buy popcorn – and not because they will form the culture in a positive and meaningful way.
Well… yes and no. Filmmaking is a tricky business precisely because it is a business. It takes a lot of money to make a movie, and an investor has a right to expect some kind of return on his investment. It’s no wonder, really, that movies like Jackass 3-D get made – there’s almost a guaranteed return on investment there. But most filmmakers, I think, at least try to balance the need for box office dollars with artistry.
The question, then, is whether the artists in Hollywood still believe – as Louis B. Mayer did – that their art is capable of impacting culture. I believe that in their heart of hearts, all filmmakers yearn to create art that will speak to their audience in some profound way because they know the power it has to change the way people think and feel about the world. The only ones who claim they don’t fall back on three (lame) excuses:
“Art has no inherent meaning, only what the viewer brings to it.” This is an offshoot of deconstructionism. Silly Derrida and his assertion that words have no real meaning. Really, Derrida? And how did you express that thought to the world? With words? Hmm…
But seriously, if art has no inherent meaning, or rather if the images and sounds we use to create art have no inherent meaning, then we could never communicate anything. What would be the point of creating? What would be the point of art?
“My art is purely self-expression with no intent to influence a viewer.” Were Aristotle still alive, he would tell us that a painting without a viewer is not a painting – it’s just a pile of canvas and color. Music without a listener is not music – it’s just waves of sound moving through the air. A poem without a reader is not a poem – it’s just ink and paper. Without a mind to receive and to comprehend it, art is not art.
The audience makes your art what it is – don’t insult them with the self-indulgent pretense that you don’t care what they think.
“Art doesn’t change culture; art merely reflects culture.” This is the excuse that producers of pornography and gratuitous violence hope we’ll buy. And it’s baloney. My own experience tells me so. Throughout my life, the more junky TV and movies I’ve watched, the more I’ve struggled with keeping my own language and thoughts clean. Besides, if you ask me, the porn industry not only believes that their product has a direct influence on people’s behavior, they bank on it – porn is a multi-billion dollar business because people form an addiction to it, and it spawns a hundred other nasty addictions. You can’t tell me porn has no effect on the way people behave.
I think we can safely say that filmmakers in Hollywood, even if they don’t want to admit it, believe that they’re work has an impact on society. Why they continue, then, to make such morally questionable films is another post entirely.
So artists believe it, and business dollars depend on it… but does the audience realize the impact of the media they consume? I think some do, but I’m willing to bet that most people don’t even stop to think about it – it’s not that they don’t believe in media’s impact, but that it’s simply never crossed their minds to make a connection between what they consume and what they believe.
That makes our responsibility as filmmakers even greater. We have to know that films have the power to impact people – for better or worse – in ways they won’t even bother to understand. It’s like feeding a baby – we can give a baby good, healthy food or poison, and the baby will never know the difference. (I don’t mean to imply that the audience is stupid. I do think they’re lazy, though.) There’s a lot of poison out there already, and we can’t protect the baby from that. The only thing we can do is make the healthy stuff look so delicious and appealing that the baby will prefer it over the poison.
We have our job cut out for us.