James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.
The subject today is the role film plays in changing popular perceptions and cultural norms, piggy-backing off an article in the LA Times about the evolving portrayals of women in cinema. It’s a fascinating piece and I suggest you read it.
In essence, the article says that the richness of the characterizations found in a new wave of female protagonists denotes a cultural shift, partially necessitated by filmmakers attempting to establish broad audiences. I would suggest that it isn’t merely an economic consideration. How filmmakers think about the sexes has changed due to more liberal education and the trails blazed by previous storytellers. They’re also kicking the ball in a different direction, not merely imitating their forebears. Although sexism and egregious hyper-sexualization continue to permeate Hollywood portrayals of women, the next generation of filmmakers have the ability to curb these problems considerably in favor of a fair, realistic norm. They’ll do this simply by doing their jobs.
In Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal ’Inception’, the team works together to plant an idea in a subject’s dreams, the titular process that mirrors the science of narrative cinema. The audience, like the subject, gets carried along for an emotional journey in a world based on its own logic. The magic trick of celluloid is in getting the audience to accept the filmmakers’ philosophical propositions without realizing the process is taking place, at least until the audience “wakes up” upon leaving the theater or turning off the video player. Cinema is the longstanding practice of cultural inception. The influential filmmaker chews the cud and breaks her/his ideas down into the simplest emotional concepts, then constructs a narrative out of the raw material. The narrative itself is a meditation, the gradual awakening to a new idea vicariously experienced through characters.
Now, the trouble is, filmmakers should hold themselves responsible — and if they won’t do it, the critics should — for the ideas that they unintentionally propagate. Unlike the film ‘Inception’, where the titular process is profoundly difficult due to the mind’s natural defenses, cultural inception via cinema is sometimes frighteningly easy. Even in something as common and base as a simple shoot ‘em up action-adventure story, the filmmaker can perform inception. A popcorn thriller can promote sexism, knee-jerk violence, and brainless jingoism while all the filmmaker usually wants is to photograph explosions and attractive people. Because the Hollywood system relies on the kinds of movies that maximize cashflow, the studio system will reflect the negative aspects of culture by giving people what they want. Say a popcorn thriller with bad philosophy earns a hundred million dollars. Then a dozen retreads will spawn and the negativity will not only remain, but spread.
This act of cultural “inception”, trying to radically change gender portrayals in cinema and thus society’s basic assumptions about the sexes, must be deliberately, intelligently handled by filmmakers in every genre. While its true that money is Hollywood’s bread, butter, and gasoline, the opportunities to speak strongly to issues philosophic, political, and even religious are not rare. Conscientious storytellers must seize the day and make sure that when audiences sit down, they are emotionally moved in the right direction. Resorting to heavy-handed preaching isn’t the answer. They must make great movies.