The purpose of movies and movies with a purpose
First of all, a confession is in order: I'm not much of a moviegoer, especially recently. I think most of the movies I've seen in last ten years or so are just plain inferior to the older ones. So now--if there was any doubt before--I am officially an Old Fart, because I think They Just Don't Make Them Like They Used To.
So I'm not holding myself out to be any sort of film buff. But I was interested in a discussion at Donkelephant, in which blogger Callimachus complains about a recent announcement from some moviemakers that they consider themselves to be social change agents. He cites a Guardian article in which the makers of the film “Syriana” are quoted as stating that this is their explicit goal in making movies:
Set up in 2004 by Jeff Skoll, billionaire co-founder of eBay, Participant’s express purpose is to make movies that will help to change the world. In the words of Meredith Blake, the firm’s executive vice-president: ‘Our product is social change, and the movies are a vehicle for that social change.’
The statement reminds me a bit of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate press. Long ago, reporters ordinarily used to enter their field (it wasn't really thought of as a profession yet) to write stories, not to change the world. And moviemakers--at least in this country--used to be more inclined to entertain (and make money) than to teach. Although teaching was somewhere in there, too, for some of them, it tended to be secondary rather than primary.
The comments section following Callimachus's post is rather long, and features a great deal of back and forth, and some further comments by Callimachus, including this one:
Hollywood producers are free to do was they wish; that’s the beauty of the free market. The other beauty is, if it sucks, people won’t go see it. And Hollywood seems to have forgotten that, along with the fact that a great chunk of its potential audience has a vague resentment about attempts to socially engineered them by the people who created the culture of Hollywood. Especially when there are so many other entertainment alternatives these days.
Somehow it all made more sense when the “insiders” made status-quo insider films like “The Green Berets” and left the outsiders to make social statement films like “Easy Rider.” Both seemed more relevant then, and more honest.
As far as I know, the founders of Participant are not out to make documentaries, like Michael Moore's (or films that masquerade as documentaries, like Michael Moore's). Nor are they making fictionalized biopics a la Oliver Stone, films that occupy some sort of postmodern halfway position where they purport to be a sort of "higher"--though fictionalized--truth. Participant is out to make movies that are straight fiction, but with a purpose--and that purpose is didactic, a form of propaganda.
This, of course, is nothing new. There have always been some movies (although, except for during World War II, I think they were a very small percentage of the whole) that functioned as propaganda. But the political movies of the past, up till the mid-to-late 60s (surprise, surprise--the Vietnam/Watergate era again), for the most part had an agenda that supported the actions of America and agreed with that of mainstream America and the majority of its population.
If we were at war, these movies supported that war, sometimes in an inspirational way. I can't pinpoint the exact date of the change, but as Callimachus points out, at first it seemed to be an insider/outsider thing; the insiders kept making the old-fashioned films and the renegade outsiders were starting to make films that challenged the status quo.
Now, however, those in charge in Hollywood are mostly the liberals of that Boomer generation and their heirs. The politics of Hollywood are well known to veer quite to the left of mainstream America. Although Hollywood still make movies intended for the masses, the moviemakers seem likely to regard them in just that way--as "the masses." And they, the moviemakers, are going to teach those masses, by gum--to educate them to their way of thinking, using their highly developed film-making skills as subtle propaganda.
I repeat: many films, especially historic or political or war films, were always at least partly propaganda. But this propaganda used to be in the service of what might be called the mainstream point of view of most Americans; now it is in the service of changing that point of view. Once it glorified America (perhaps in an overly simplistic way); now it critiques it (also in an overly simplistic way).
As Callimachus says, Hollywood can do whatever it wants, and people can go to the movies or stay home as they wish. I myself much prefer movies without a heavy-handed political message of any sort (one of my recent favorites was "Groundhog Day," which had a message all right, but it wasn't political).
And I find that whenever Hollywood turns its hand to history, it tends to get things wrong, and then I get angry about it. Film biographies are notorious for that sort of thing. There's the abominable Oliver Stone, and before him the sanctimonious and distorting but Oscar-winning "Gandhi." I'm not too familiar with many earlier film biographies, but my guess is that they also played fast and loose with the facts or the portrayals (a fairly minor one that comes to mind is watching Anthony Perkins throw--well, there's just no other way to put it than "like a girl"--in a movie I enjoyed very much as a child, "Fear Strikes Out").
Recently I did go to the movies, to a film that is supposed to be non-fiction: "Capote." I really wanted to see it; as a writer and therapist, I was very interested in the premise, which is the exploitation of others that authors sometimes commit in the act of writing. The film contained material with which I'm unusually familiar; I had read the Capote biography on which it was based, and also In Cold Blood, the source of a great deal of the subject matter. I'd heard it was a very well-done movie, and that the actor who played Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman, gave a tour de force performance.
But the movie itself disappointed me. It was a cold and repellent film. It made Capote himself into an even more cold and repellent character than I recalled from the biography, and simplified his relationships into the solely manipulative, whereas I remembered them as being more mixed (although Hoffman's performance was indeed excellent). The actor who played murderer Perry Smith was markedly inferior to Robert Blake, who had played him in the original "In Cold Blood.".
But what was far worse to me than all of this was that some important facts were changed in the scene in which Smith described his motivation for the murders. The whole film leads up to this revelation of Smith's, which Capote has been coaxing and manipulating him into giving for most of the movie. So, why did the moviemakers see fit to change the facts?
First, a caveat: I'm relying on memory here (I don't have the script of the scene in the film). But the reason I am relatively sure that there was a change, and why the change especially offended me, was that I'd recently gone back to the book and studied that exact section of it (Smith's confession) in order to compose this post about shame, murder, and terrorism.
If you read the last half of my post, the one that deals with Smith's confession and the shame he reveals as the motivation for the murders, you'll see that it was an emotion apparently triggered by his being misled by his accomplice and a prison friend into thinking that the two would score big, monetarily, in the crime, and his resultant rage. But the "Capote" movie ignores all that, and makes Smith's pivotal confesson revolve around some sort of class issue between the "haves" and the "have-nots." In the movie (again, this is as best I can recall), Smith says he killed Mr. Clutter because the latter looked at him as though he were nothing, as though he were looking down at him.
Not only is this incorrect and gratuitous, it happens to be a libel against the murder victim, who actually did nothing of the sort. My guess is that the makers of the film altered the truth to suit a political agenda, even in this rather non-political film.
I have no doubt that films have always dealt in political messages--sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. And I have no doubt that moviemakers have always bent the truth to their purposes. I know that both things (but especially the latter) have made me turn more and more away from movies.
I'm really not asking for movies to go back to the days of all rah-rah America, all the time (if those days in fact ever existed). But more balance would be nice, and less lecturing. Oh, and it would be awfully good if movies that purported to be based on facts didn't gratuitously change those facts to meet a didactic agenda.