Thursday, December 6, 2007

Reading In Between the Scenes: Propaganda and Film

Propaganda can be defined as the communication of information through a medium which influences behavior. One might first associate propaganda historically with its war-time usage, primarily political in nature. Propaganda can be seen much more generally, however. When applied to its presence in film, the term can expand to concern the mere presence of ideas which, through the affect of ideas on behavior and culture, can play a sizeable role in economic and political spheres. Film is a particularly powerful medium with which to communicate ideas. According to John W Cones, “movies communicate ideas, ideas influence human behavior, therefore movies must also influence some human behavior.”

There shouldn’t be an argument as to whether or not propaganda exists in film. Any claim to reality cannot be void of bias, representation choices, and adherence to ideas. Propaganda may not be blatant or seemingly intentional. By claiming a film to be propaganda-free, its existence is less recognizable and it is in fact made more effective. The question lies in the manner in which the ideas presented are selected to serve particular interests, how they are received by a mass audience and the extent to which they ultimately influence a greater cultural and societal landscape. From understanding the film industry as a corporation with interests which rely on the culture of consumers, film quality as a medium for the communication of ideas and cultural construction, and the industry’s use of propaganda in film to promote certain ideas with governmental support, the issue of propaganda in film is both important and contemporarily relevant, particularly concerning its potential to discourage independent thought and weaken an individual’s power as a cultural and political voice.

There are many qualities of film in particular that aid in effectively communicating ideas. Film is a medium which allows for a one way transfer of information as the audience function is limited to reception. Information is presented in a manner which is not open to discussion; the reality presented is a fixed one. Propaganda is most effective when its presence hidden from the observer. In film, the selective information isn’t acknowledged as such because it is presented under the guise of “mere entertainment.” They are presented as being excerpts from reality versus constructions of reality. Much attention is paid to realism in film which blurs the boundary between the reality of the audience and that of the action. In his book Theory of Film, Siegfried Kracauer mentions the ability of film to “weaken the spectator’s consciousness” as it “reduces our contacts with actuality, depriving us of many environmental data needed for adequate judgments and other mental activities.” The audience views the reality that is depicted on the screen and understands it as a representation of their own realities. The attitudes and actions present in the film act as cultural cues to show what is “normal” and are then implemented in the individuals own situations. In a sense, film acts as a cultural mirror, both reflecting elements that do exist, but also constructing and reinforcing others as well.

As a medium, film can influence behavior through ideas and cultural construction. The film industry, due to its profit-oriented nature, depends on an established behavioral pattern of consumption. Decisions concerning which ideas are promoted in a given film and the manner in which they are done so are made by executives of media corporations to serve particular interests. The industry cannot make a profit without the driving cultural forces of capitalism and consumerism. Alternatives to these forces may be tainted in their depiction or excluded altogether. Naturally, the government also holds interest in the promotion of such forces and has a kind of symbiotic relationship with the film industry involving the exchange of “political contributions” during campaigns and general policy support. As Noam Chomsky points out, “modes of handling favored and inconvenient materials (placement, tone, context, fullness of treatment) differ in ways that serve political ends.” By communicating certain ideas and not others, corporate and political forces may utilize film to nurture a culture which will support and maintain an established system or structure. Being unaware of the interests affecting film production could lead one to digest the ideas presented as a truth within a specifically established reality which allows no room for change.

This is of particular concern when considering ideas of power. Democracy literally means “rule by the people.” The people’s power to “rule” resides in the opinions one forms and the actions one takes in support or disproval of something. This opinion can be voiced politically through voting or economically through selective purchases. The rise of corporate power has added a shift in the character of the system. As author Alex Carey wrote,

“The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”

The people will continue to have a significant amount of power as a physical body, but by influencing the manner in which opinions are formed and choices are made, corporations can strengthen their own power. By using propaganda, such as through film, to influence the mass’s adherence to ideas, a particular culture is cultivated which suits the purposes of those making decisions in media content. It has the potential to remove power from the individual that is rooted in individual conceptions of reality by constructing a culture in which one thinks they are thinking for themselves. According to Noam Chomsky, the manner in which ideas are presented in film and other media forms shape ones perception of issues and society is a “manufactur[ing] [of] consent.”

Due to its nature as a medium, the audience is limited by only being able to take in information. Films that are promoted as being propaganda by taking a blatant position in an issue (Jar Head and its treatment of the military for example) encourage its viewers to pick a side, limiting them to the ideas provided for them and nothing in between. Fahrenheit 9/11 was said to have “cheapened debate [and] polarize[d] [the] nation.” Films of this nature also encourage individuals to avoid political involvement as they feel it to be limited to association with an extreme and exclusion from others.

On the other hand, films which claim to “take no sides” can still impose limits on the conception of an issue. The producers of the film United 93, for example, claimed to treat the subject apolitically without a recognizable right or left agenda. The film is focused on the emotional and visual chaos of the immediate which forces the audience to absorb the situation as presented as the product of Islamic extremism and terrorists acting seemingly randomly. By engaging the viewer in the moment, they are prevented from questioning what other factors may have been involved leading to the event. The past does not exist in this particular claim to reality and the role of the government is excused in its role in the ordeal. Other examples of films also remove the government from the world of the individual, encouraging a culture of passive viewing in which people are shown to be concerned only with those things that affect them personally and at present, an image of the “citizen” as complacent if not apathetic. This idea might influence an individual to view government actions as “none of their business,” something that excludes and disinterests them.

An individual’s power lies in their ability to think and form beliefs for themselves with which to base their behavior on. By accepting the constructed culture of apathy as presented by the media, individuals contribute to the weakening of their own social and political society.

It is important to be aware of its existence in film as well as every produced media text, the interests which underlie content inclusion, and the role of the film medium in the interconnected realms of profit, politics, and culture. Media literacy concerning the role of propaganda in film would enable one to recognize the power one has to examine and question information presented, as well as the ideas and cultural values one possesses which impact the manner in which that information is personally and socially interpreted and applied. To be media literate would mean to be able to recognize one’s role as a consumer of film media and then to remove the limits that role enforces so as to be an individual who can develop conviction independently. Ultimately, to employ what Erich Fromm calls “the best level of human judgment” so as not to be “the powerless onlooker…[who’s] expressed opinion is hardly more than the applause at a sports event.”

[spring 2007]

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