But it's only a movie

by James Linton

from Jump Cut, no. 17, Appril 1978, pp. 16-19
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

U.S. film producers and film executives defend themselves against attacks on the moral degeneracy or aesthetic crudeness (or whatever alleged shortcoming) of the movies with a notable consistency. In 1950, Eric Johnston, then head of the Motion Picture Producers Association of America, articulated this defense in response to Norman Cousins' attack on American movies. Cousins (1950) argued that Hollywood was working against the public interest by "portray[ing] Americans in exported films as a nation of slap-happy, triggerhappy dolts whose main concern in life is where the next drink or murder is coming from." Cousins contended that such a picture assisted in the Russian propaganda effort to convince the rest of the world that Americans are "selfish, depraved, ruthless, acquisitive, anti-humanitarian and anti-cultural."

In replying, Johnston described the Hollywood product as

"Light and frothy musicals. Comedies. Yes, and some 'bangbang' pictures, too, in which rustlers bite the dust when the brave cowboys take after them. Fun stuff. Escape stuff."

As to the charge that American films assisted the Russian propaganda war, Johnston observed, "The world is fed up with propaganda. It is the absence of conscious propaganda in our films that foreigners like." Hollywood, Johnston claimed, was doing a good job making films of "entertainment devoid of ideological lecturing and sermonizing."

Red Skelton offers another component of this defense in an ironic remark delivered on national television, on the occasion of Columbia Studio founder Harry Cohn's funeral. Before the two thousand people who had filled sound stages 12 and 14 at Columbia Studios to attend the gaudy funeral, Skelton observed: "Well, it only proves what they always say — give the public what they want to see, and they'll come out for it" (French, 1971).

We can characterize the combined elements of the defense which film producers employ to rationalize their activities as ideological in the sense that they "constitute a set of closely related beliefs, attitudes and values characteristic of a group or community" (Plamenatz, 1970). [1] Plamenatz distinguishes among ideologies in terms of spread (i.e. the sort or the size of the group or community who share an ideology), comprehensiveness (i.e. the proportion of total ideas, attitudes and values an ideology covers), and explicitness (i.e. the extent to which the ideology is theoretically developed and consciously articulated). While it might appear that the film-as-entertainment ideology is confined to the producers of movies, it actually encompasses the vast majority of the audience as well, as the data on audience motivation would indicate (Opinion Research Corporation, 1957). It concerns only one portion of reality (the production and consumption of dramatized symbolic material), however, and is not fully articulated as a theory or doctrine. The film-as-entertainment ideology, then, is widespread, but partial and implicit.

One might question the concentration on the filmic version of the entertainment ideology when it is clear that television is a much more pervasive and powerful medium of communication and entertainment. Film has a much longer history than television, of course, and film executives have had to invoke this defensive ideology much more often, given the numerous times individuals and groups have criticized the moves over the 80-odd years of their existence (Jowett, 1976; Jowett, Reath and Schouten, 1976). As a result, film executives have been the most prominent in articulating this entertainment ideology (i.e. making it explicit). Television executives and performers have been less vociferous in defending themselves against such attacks, but when they have spoken out they have tended to employ similar rationales (Baldwin and Lewis, 1971; Kaufman, 1976).

Researchers, however, have more fully documented evidence of the widespread audience acceptance of the entertainment orientation for TV than for film (CBC, 1975; LoSciuto, 1971).

What are the tenets of the film-as-entertainment ideology, then? In broadest outline, this ideology posits that films are non-ideological. More specifically it claims (as David Kunzle [1975] observes of the apologists for Disney comics) that films "made in 'innocent fun' … are socially harmless." Films are simply vehicles for allowing the tired citizen to relax, enjoy him/herself and escape from the care of the workaday world by exercising his/her imagination. They share in what Herbert Schiller (1973) describes as the

"one central myth [that] dominates the world of fabricated fantasy; the idea that entertainment and recreation are value-free, have no point of view, and exist outside, so to speak, the social process."

Extending this perspective leads to the identification of many positive social and psychological functions provided by entertainment (Mendelsohn, 1966). And if all else fails, there is always the claim that they are "just giving people what they want" anyway.

The importance of "enjoyment" in this conceptualization of film-as-entertainment suggests that films emphasize experiences and subjects which are pleasant. The tremendous popularity of films such as THE EXORCIST, JAWS and the recent wave of disaster movies should dispel that simplistic notion rather quickly, however. An understanding of the attraction of rather unpleasant and, in some instances, downright disturbing subjects requires a wider notion of "entertainment." Herbert J. Gans (1957) supplies such a wider notion by defining entertainment as the satisfaction of "various latent needs or predispositions."[2] The crucial point to note here is that the needs or predispositions are latent, they exist and are fulfilled below the level of conscious awareness. In this sense, then, film viewing is analogous to dreaming as formulated by Freud (1923): In the dream the psychic self renounces the external world and the principle of reality which dominates it. As a result, the dream will express in some form the wishes that in normal life remain opposed by the conscious world. Christian Metz (1975) also draws an analogy between cinema-going and dreaming:

"For the vast majority of the audience, the cinema (rather like the dream in this) represents a kind of enclosure or 'reserve' which escapes a fully social life although it is accepted and prescribed by it: going to the cinema is one licit activity among others with its place in the admissible pastimes of the day or the week, and yet that place is a 'hole' in the social cloth, a loophole opening on to something slightly more crazy, slightly less approved than what one does the rest of the time."

Film viewers, then, have latent desires to be frightened, horrified and so on, and some films cater to such latent desires. In addition, however, the viewer does not want to be overly frightened or horrified. In other words, the viewer wants to leave the theatre in a basically pleasant, or at least non-agitated state of mind. [3] The method whereby the filmmaker accomplishes this cathartic effect (in the Aristotelian sense[4]) is as impressive a feat of cinematic "magic" as is any special effect, and a description of the process goes a long ways toward providing an understanding of the ideological impact of the medium.

The pervasiveness of the notion of the entertainment film as a value-free and innocuous cultural product has already been mentioned. When people approach film in this manner, they tend to lower their "psychic guard," unlike the resistance they would exhibit if the films were approached or presented as "propaganda," or probably even as "education." The physical aspects of the viewing situation make us even less resistant. The darkened theatre, with the heightened intensity of message stimuli and increased sense of social isolation that it creates, and our relaxed posture, combine to make the message more emotionally potent and we are more emotionally susceptible to such stimuli (Tudor, 1969). Metz stresses the conditions surrounding cinema viewing that make it voyeuristic in the psychoanalytic sense.

Finally, films usually cover vast expanses of space and usually condense large time periods into 90 to 120 minutes. Moreover, they do so in a manner which conceals the episodic nature of the events, giving rather a sense of continuity and unity, of the unceasing flow of time and the unquestioned contiguity of space. The methods by which these results are accomplished deserve closer scrutiny.

Films are characterized by the predominance of the "story film," or the "traditional narrative" as it has come to be known. Films can (and do) encompass a wide range of techniques, styles and subject matters, from cinema verité documentaries to abstract films emphasizing color, shape, rhythm and so on. The most widely exhibited and most popular films, however, tend to be the ones which have "stars" playing characters, who become involved in events that are strung together in a basically chronological order, normally referred to as "the plot." Furthermore, filmmakers structure these traditional narratives according to classical dramatic principles. The opening exposition gives way to the complication, in which the problem or difficulty central to the narrative unfolds, and the situation finally turns to the favor of the forces of good at the climax, after which the loose ends of the plot thread(s) are tied together rather rapidly in the denouement. In other words, narrative films employ the curve of rising and falling action, and have a definite beginning, middle and end, which (contrary to Jean Luc Godard's dictum) occur in that order (Metz, 1974).

The object of the filmmaker, then, becomes one of persuading us to cross the distance that separates us from the screen and to imaginatively enter the space of the screen world, experiencing vicariously the events that occur within that world. This is where the emotional aspect of film becomes important. The vicarious involvement affects us both physiologically and emotionally. For example, as the unidentified man carrying a knife stalks the unsuspecting young woman through the jagged patterns of shadow and light in the deserted city streets, we experience fear for her fate, our heart rate increases, and our palms may become sweaty and so on.

How do filmmakers obtain this vicarious involvement in the flow of events? There are two principle factors involved: displacement of attention from medium to message (if you will) and identification with stars, characters and situations.

The desire to have the spectator "enter" the film (to a certain extent at least) can probably account for the narrative form's attraction to the filmmaker and for the particular manner in which the narrative is presented. John Fell (1974) believes,

"In the motion pictures there surfaced an entire tradition of [a continuity] narrative technique which had been developing unsystematically for a hundred years [in such diverse areas as theater, print, optical amusements, 'shows' and graphics]."

The narrative form had originally "developed to guarantee unflagging interest by omitting the "dead spots" of other drama, enlisting identifications with the performers and refining resources of suspense." Film perfected these functions.

Furthermore, the relation between the two components of the narrative is significant. Hanet (1974) delineates them by applying Genette's general approach to narrative structure to films. A narrative film is a combination of "what is being told" (i.e. the story/plot, or the diegesis) and the "how of the telling" (i.e. the process or method of narration). A central characteristic of narrative films, in this regard, is their general tendency to mask their process of narration in favor of emphasizing the plot or story (Metz, 1975). The conscious aim of the narrative film, then, is "to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience … [Without such an approach] fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness and truth" (Mulvey, 1975).

Film technology, and the particular ways in which it is employed in narrative films, contributes greatly to this masking of the method of narration. As Mulvey (1975) observes:

"Camera technology (as exemplified by deep focus in particular) and camera movements (determined by the action of the protagonist), combined with invisible editing (demanded by realism) all tend to blur the limits of screen space."

In other words, filmmakers orchestrate the action of their actors, compose and photograph images and join shots together in the editing process in such a manner as to hide the technical and stylistic means used to achieve certain responses. Our attention is riveted on the story and we are deeply involved with the characters in the film and in the sequence of situations in which these characters find themselves. For these reasons, the technical and stylistic means are transparent to us.

This brings us to a consideration of the second basic factor involved in bridging the space between the audience and the screen: identification. Film theorists have invoked identification in various guises from the very beginning (Dart, 1975). Unfortunately, however, there have been very few empirical attempts to study the dynamics of the phenomenon, and pronouncements have tended to remain at the level of speculation (Maccoby, 1968). Generally, "identification" has been conceptualized as "putting oneself in the place of" or "empathizing with" one or more characters in the film. It has been "measured by indications of emotional attachment or liking," (Clark, 1971) and two principal forms which have been recognized are similarity identification and wishful identification (Feilitzen and Linné, 1975). In the former, we identify with those characters most like ourselves, while in the latter, identification occurs with those we want to be like.

The phenomenon is much more complicated than most theoretical formulations have presented it, and the typology Andrew Tudor (1974) presents is most useful in this regard. Two types of "star-individual identification" are combined with two different "consequences" to produce a four-fold classification: emotional affinity, self-identification, imitation (of physical and simple behavioral characteristics) and projection. "Emotional affinity" is the weakest and probably the most common, and Tudor describes it as follows:

"The audience feels a loose attachment to a particular protagonist deriving jointly from star, narrative and the individual personality of the audience member: a standard sense of involvement."

Tudor finds this form of identification "subject to rapid and extensive variation."

In the next strongest category, "self-identification," "the audience member places himself in the same situation and persona of the star." "Imitation," the third category, is most prevalent among the young. In this form of involvement, "consequences are no longer limited to the immediate cinema-going situation, the star acting as some sort of model or the audience." This category shades over into the final, most intense and diffuse form of involvement: projection. In this form, "the person lives his or her life in terms bound up with the favoured star." The star, in effect, "becomes a receptacle for the projected desires, frustrations, and pleasures of the fan." Projection is most prevalent in adolescents, a group which is "most likely to grasp at the models provided by the star system as a way of forming a sense of identity and a social reality." This approach also seems more prevalent among female rather than male adolescents. Tudor says that "our societies provide a very different socialization experience for girls than that offered for boys." Females are generally raised to be passive. "Reliance on vicarious outlet through [identification in] the movies must be described as passive and dependent" (Anast, 1967).

Tudor observes that there are also elements of involvement with story type although it is almost solely at the level of emotional affinity. Such involvement is realized through the existence of film genres.

"To see a movie made within a clearly recognized genre, such as the western or the horror movie, is to participate in a familiar locale and development, and this familiarity facilitates easy and immediate involvement."

The individual star (as well as the story type to a certain extent) is clearly important, then, in integrating the film viewer into the screen world. Even if a genuine "star" is not present in a film, it does not follow that identification does not occur. Film viewers also identify with non-celebrity actors as a result of the actor's characterization of an individual immersed in specific situations. (An element of this exists in identifications with celebrities as well.) It is in this regard that one must study such things as point-of-view, since its structure "is a mechanism whereby we experience contemporaneously with a character" (Branigan, 1975).

Nick Browne (1975) provides an even more interesting formulation. To the triangle of spectator position, camera point of view and a character's perspective (i.e. the normal notion of identification), one must add an identification "with a character's position in a certain situation." [5] This means,

"The way we as spectators are implicated in the action is as much a matter of our position with respect to the unfolding of those events in time as in their representation from a point of space."

And ultimately, Browne claims, the structures through which the spectator is so implicated in the action "convey and are closely allied to the guiding moral commentary of the film." In others words, the meaning which a film conveys operates in the moral, normative or ideological realm. Such an observation corresponds closely to Franklin Fearing's (1947) old but still relevant conclusion that the two main generalizations about the "effects" of movie content that seem justified are:

"Any film … has some measurable effects on specific attitudes of those exposed to it, provided a measuring instrument (e.g. attitude scale) is devised for it, and provided the audience is sufficiently interested to give it sustained attention."

"Films … assist the individual in structuring his (sic) world."

The sustained attention to which Fearing refers is created in film by the phenomenon of "identification." Given this concentrated involvement and the transparency of the various filmic techniques employed, we are unaware or unconscious of the many things which are happening to us as we watch. In addition, since four-fifths of all films are closed narratives (Linton and Jowett, 1976), the vast majority of films are self-contained experiences. This means that the immediate, conscious and behavioral effects of films are much less prominent than the longterm, unconscious attitudinal ones. The former would seem to be important only in cases of overidentification and for those who have difficulty in differentiating fantasy from reality.

But what are the "effects" of films on the rest of us normal people? Let us take the example of THE EXORCIST, referred to earlier in connection with the appeal of frightening, or otherwise disturbing movies. After much cursing and swearing, shaking of beds and levitation, much horrific self-mutilations and killings, the devil is finally defeated. "Things are back to normal and we get the strong impression that Chris and her daughter, like Karras, are saved" (McCormick, 1974). McCormick explains the overall effect of THE EXORCIST as follows:

"What THE EXORCIST does to people is to turn them to a mystical, authoritarian solution to problems that seem to have dropped out of the sky. The irrationality of everyday life becomes rationalized by the more extreme irrationality of the occult. The status quo, it tries to tell us, is good, and momentary disruptions of it are what cause our suffering, but if we just sit tight and pray, help will arrive, and time-honored values will be restored."

More generally, popular U.S. films operate as "dramas of reassurance." The beliefs, attitudes and values presented in Hollywood films tend to resonate with the dominant beliefs, attitudes and values of American society. In other words, the dominant ideology of a society tends to be reinforced by the ideology presented in its films. [6] This assertion would seem to be in line with the findings of mass communications research, which indicate that its most powerful effects are in the area of reinforcement. [7] (Klapper, 1960; Halloran, 1964). These results are quite possibly due in large part to the widespread acceptance of the notion of film's (and more generally the media's) non-ideological character, which tends to deflect attention from, and make viewers less resistant to the latent messages of the films. It is little wonder, then, that Brazilian Cinema Novo filmmaker Glauber Rocha (1970), has been moved to describe Hollywood's allegedly non-ideological films as both the most political and "the most politically effectual" cinema.

The existence and strength of this film-as-entertainment ideology creates a dilemma for radical filmmakers. This dilemma involves the relationship between the film and its audience, which James Monaco (1976) describes as providing the "one single quality that separates 'political' from 'nonpolitical' film." A number of writers have discussed the nature of this dilemma and the method of dealing with it, centering their arguments around Costa-Gavras' work (Hennebelle, 1974; Kalishman, 1974; Monaco, 1976). Simplifying matters somewhat, one can describe the issue as the relative emphasis given to "political" subject matter ("content") or "political" presentation ("form"). Roughly the argument runs as follows. If one wishes to make political appeals to a large audience, one must not break too much with the aesthetic traditions with which large numbers of people are comfortable. At the same time, however, one must remember that forms are not completely innocent or neutral (especially the traditional, popular ones) and can subvert or pervert the intended political content of films.

Monaco (1976) attempts to clarify the dilemma and "to begin to construct a theory of politics and film … by study[ing] closely the connection between a film and the people who see it." Such an attempt involves a consideration of the audiences' pre-existing ideologies and the ways in which the filmmakers can penetrate them. Monaco's answer is a combination of Shavian sugarcoating to attract an audience and (it would seem a mild) Brechtian distanciation to involve the audience intellectually. While such an approach seems appealing and plausible, on reflection it appears less realistic given the unproblematic approach Monaco takes to the nature of the film-viewing experience and the ideology that surrounds it.

Metz (1975) contends, for example, that the political uses of the cinema are much more limited than those of the theater since in the cinema both the represented (i.e. the events, characters, etc.) and the representation (i.e. the film itself) are imaginary. As a result, "Attempts to 'defictionalise' the spectacle, notably since Brecht, have gone further in the theatre than in the cinema, and not by chance." In addition, we have pointed out how widespread and influential the film-as-entertainment ideology is. And an important element of this ideology is the understanding that a film is "a show to be exhibited in large theaters with a standard duration, [consisting of] hermetic structures that are born and die on the screen …" (Solanos and Getino, 1970). The latter characteristic is particularly pertinent given the importance that Monaco places on the filmmaker's leaving "the audience to its own devices with these new materials" [which the filmmaker has generated].

The result is that the main work takes place not during the film (or play) but after it, as the audience begins to work out the dialectic. But the film-as-entertainment ideology considers films as self-contained entities not deserving of serious deliberation. Such an approach precludes viewers from dealing with the film (on a conscious level at least) after they leave the theater. The film-as-entertainment ideology, then, protects the dominant ideology from serious examination while at the same time reinforcing its basic tenets. Further serious study of the film-viewing experience, and the entertainment ideology that surrounds it, must be added to Monaco's (1976) consideration of the relationship between the work and the audience before filmmakers can either realize the "socially conscious entertainment film" (Brom, 1974; Corr and Gessner, 1974), or pronounce it a basic contradiction in terms.


1. Plamenatz (1970) actually restricts ideology to the levels of ideas or beliefs and of attitudes. Given the importance of values and their often inextricable connection to beliefs and attitudes, I have included them in the present formulation.

2. In addition, Gans notes that being entertained also means that viewers "want to be surprised with something new or different." Given that much of what passes for innovation in films is little more than slight variations in surface structure (especially in the case of film cycles), I have chosen to ignore this portion of Gans' definition.

3. Metz (1975) posits that the spectator's psychology ("the desire to go to the cinema") is

"a kind of reflection shaped by the film industry, but it is also a real link in the chain of the overall mechanism of that industry. It occupies one of the essential positions in the circulation of money, the turnover of capital without which films could no longer be made …"

Given this position and the fact that spectators are not physically coerced into attending, "the [cinema] institution as a whole has filmic pleasure alone as its aim."

4. Lucas (1968) notes that in Aristotle's formulation,

"Katharsis, though affording a pleasurable relief, seems to be the consequence and justification of tragic pleasure rather than the pleasure itself. But it is implied that the pleasure is hard to take, which is the reason why happy endings are often supplied; they are a concession to the weakness of the audience."

5. Metz characterizes identification with the camera and with oneself "as a pure act of perception" (i.e. with one's own look) as primary cinematic identification proper, the others together constituting secondary cinematic identification.

6. One should also remember that the U.S. motion picture industry dominates the international film market. Guback (1974) estimates,

"Upwards of 30 million people around the world see the average American film during its period of release outside socialist countries."

Furthermore, the increased emphasis on the international marketing of films combined with "the great weight of the U.S. market and the U.S. film industry tends to give the increasing homogenized product a cultural bias" (Phillips, 1975). A similar domination of the production and distribution structure exists in the international television market (Guback, 1974), but this "global traffic in television" is perhaps even more culturally insidious since

"most programs in international circulation were originally made to satisfy the tastes of audiences in the countries where they were produced and first marketed" (Vans, 1974).

The ideological impact of this cultural bias is exemplified by Trach's (1975) finding that Canadians' beliefs about their own legal system are largely the result of their exposure to U.S. lawyer series. Even in some Third World countries, such as Colombia, "The amusement role of TV [and one would assume of film as well] is considered ideologically neutral" (de Cordona, 1975). The State allows such material to remain in the private domain, exerting de facto political control over only obviously political issues. In other less blatantly ideological areas, the programers are "subject to the power of the [foreign-controlled] advertising agencies and their clients" (de Cordona, 1975).

7. Mass communications are also powerful in those areas in which there are not already strong preexistent beliefs, attitudes and values. This makes them increasingly powerful in the modern world since our knowledge of that world has expanded, but more as a result of indirect rather than direct experience. Similarly, this phenomena could account for the power of U.S. film and television material in foreign cultures (especially ones very different from U.S. society) since the experience presented would be very remote from the experiences of the foreign viewers. This would be more markedly so if the viewers accepted the films and television programs "simply as entertainment."


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