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The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture)
Feature films, in addition to their presence in cinemas, are now commonly watched at home on commercial videos and DVDs, as well as on broadcast and pay television. Access to films for entertainment is now at its highest level ever in most countries. The words ‘home cinema' would have had little meaning for people in the 1940s and 1950s; they would have had no inkling of the prominence that film would come to have through its prevalence in home entertainment as well as in the public cinema. Film, and especially its progeny television and video games, would change patterns of social life significantly.
Both propaganda and documentary films are intentionally concerned with personal change. However, this intention is usually disclaimed in commercial feature films and most television, even though they often have implied moral and political messages and, in television, a wealth of commercial ones. Hence the analytical categories built up in relation to propaganda and documentary films, for interpreting potential spiritual and moral influence, may have limited applicability to this genre, and will not be enough to account for its effects on viewers.
The personal influence of commercial film may be more of an unintended consequence. Any particular film may have little or no effect on people, apart from its entertainment function. But over many years, the combination of film and television may have subtle but significant effects. It is more likely to be the culture or atmosphere of entertainment films and television that is influential; it can insinuate attitudes and values, and it creates the most potent image of what constitutes the ‘good life'. And this influence is mediated mainly through its storying role.
Television is more complex than feature film because while films are prominent in its content, television gives special attention to public information, news, sport, current affairs, education and advertising, as well as to its own varied entertainment formats. But, in the light of comments made about the primal storytelling role of film and television, it will be possible to bracket the two together for most of the following analysis; hence ‘film' will be used generically to stand for both feature films and television. Then, at the end of the chapter, special attention will be given to television because of its omnipresence in the culture and its strong links with commercial advertising.
Also relevant to this discussion is the educative function of film and television. While specifically educational programs are akin to the documentary genre considered earlier, entertainment-oriented film and television make an enormous contribution to people's education. They occasion much new knowledge; they provide people with a vicarious experience of different cultures, ethnic groups and countries that would otherwise not be within their horizons; they show various perspectives on contemporary issues; and they help to develop historical perspective.
Commercial feature films are, in the main, different in character and purpose from propaganda and documentary films. Their purpose is to entertain and to be a commercial success. But all three types use the same basic filmic techniques, so interrelationships should not be ruled out.
Historically or politically oriented feature films can have documentary and even propagandist characteristics to varying degrees. For example, a film may be subtly propagandist if its unstated worldview reinforces a particular ideology, and this may depend on the cultural context of the audience (an example would be the Iranian interpretation of American films noted earlier). Also, the idea of evangelising for a cause is not unknown in movie producers and directors. Thus familiarity with the characteristics of propaganda and documentary films, as discussed earlier, is a prerequisite for a critical evaluation of feature films and television. Correspondingly, an understanding of the purposes and techniques of feature films can inform the evaluation of documentary films because documentary film-makers make use of narrative techniques and effects to enhance the impact of their films.
Storytelling, in the view of many film-makers, is the basic fabric of films. It is central to their audience appeal and entertainment value. Storytelling was taken to a new level when television was introduced to the majority of homes in industrialised nations; limited but significant access to television also came to the so-called undeveloped countries. In addition, television advertising has a strong story component, and often depends on this for success.
What is known as the classic ‘
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It has been suggested above that film and television provide resource material for people's construction of meaning, identity and spirituality, even though this is not the intention of the film-makers or the media industry. But it is a potential unintended consequence that needs to be taken into account by educators and the wider community, and it warrants investigation by students at school.
Some critics claim that much of what happens in film and television, in the drama and sitcoms as well as in advertising, gives the impression that life goes on without a spiritual dimension. The social reality they project often shows people giving little time to moral reflection. Also, the treatment of religion is often so stereotypical as to be negative.
On the other hand, it can be argued that film and television are rich in portrayals of meaning, identity and spirituality, even though the moral content and implied values are not always positive. The spiritual and moral dimensions are certainly there, but they are embedded in the characterisation, just as they are in novels, and are not written in so explicitly that the narratives become homiletic or moral exhortations; to do that would render them inauthentic and unpopular as entertainment – as well as making any evangelising purpose counterproductive.
Evaluation of the spiritual and moral dimension to film and television requires two levels of interpretation. First, there is interpretation of the film or program itself. It is not an instrument of moral education and does not have an inherent responsibility to project particular values or follow any intended moral pedagogy. As an artistic construction with its own integrity, whether or not it is a ‘good' film should not be judged by the moral content of its story; many criteria would be involved in such a judgment, and many of these criteria would be subjective. For example, one could not expect a film about Hitler or Stalin to get a high ‘moral score' on the basis of the morality of the principal characters.
A second level of interpretation and evaluation is concerned with the moral and spiritual issues raised in the film. This evaluation is not concerned with the film per se, apart from reference to it as a vehicle for demonstrating moral stances that are judged positive or negative. Also, this interpretive activity is made with reference to some accepted set of values. For example, the values demonstrated by Hitler and Stalin in a film could be judged harshly.
One could expect that most people are capable of seeing the difference between these two levels of interpretation and evaluation.
Values and morals are as essential to the coherence of a film as they are to people's ordinary lives; if not, the story would hardly be credible. If there were not minimal awareness of implied values in the film's characters, it would be unlikely that a viewer could comprehend the story or empathise with the characters. What is important, then, for any ‘education in film' is to enhance this ‘value sensitivity' and make it more articulate through film analysis that develops skills in identifying implied spiritual and moral issues. This analytical work could be extended to include the identification of ideology, power, hegemony and cultural stereotypes.
The potential for affecting people's meanings, identity and spirituality usually cannot be related to one-off learning events; hence there is little point trying to judge whether one film could do this. It is more likely that the culture of film, to which people are exposed over a long period, has a more subtle influence than could be predicted from identifying spiritual-moral issues and value stances in particular films. It may not be the social reality of a particular film, but a more comprehensive social reality projected by the culture of film, television and advertising that affects people personally; this subtle, ‘global', ‘atmospheric' influence may be a source of meaning for some that is ultimately frustrating and damaging, contributing along with other cultural factors to anomie and distress; for others, they may have drawn on this culture in a healthy way, while for yet others their meaning may never be influenced by the social reality of film.
In commercial feature films and television drama and sitcoms (as with most content programs on television), the intention to bring about personal change is usually disclaimed. The nature and purpose of this material are different from those of propaganda and documentary film. When it comes to television commercials, however, the story is different. Supported by all the techniques and formats available within the film industry, television advertising sets out quite deliberately to bring about personal change in viewers – to increase the probability that they will buy the advertised products. This is making use of the expertise of feature film production for propaganda-like purposes. Also, as the logical basis for advertising is to provide information that will inform people's consumer buying, there are links with the information-oriented purposes of documentary film.
One film critic referred to the successful 30-second television commercial as the pinnacle of achievement of motion pictures. Within that brief time-span there is a miniature film, with introduction, worldview, story and conclusion, that communicates a message to viewers.
Particular television commercials in themselves may have negligible spiritual and moral influence. What may be influential is the overall culture of television advertising – its omnipresence and the way it washes over viewers continuously. Some of the built-in assumptions of the advertising industry are: consumerism, competition, the importance of image, meeting human needs through purchase of consumer goods – all these project a social reality of materialism and self-centredness. This can create and sustain the myth that externals are important for individuality and identity and that particular consumer goods can always enhance them.
Promoting brand labels for distinctiveness of identity may be more concerned with economics and business progress than with human identity and welfare. Viewers' wants, which may be more whimsy than anything else, can be appealed to as needs that must be met. Television advertising is synonymous with seduction. A credit card is touted as a key to a free and creative lifestyle – ‘with power to do what you want, and to be who you want to be'. In buying perfume a woman may be buying ‘hope'. In buying a deodorant a man may be buying ‘a powerful lure for women'.
For the culture of television advertising, self-expression is all about consumerism; individuality is about particular brands; freedom is about a wealth of options in consumer choice; and power is about the capacity to buy. Shopping is even proposed as ‘retail therapy'.
Understanding television advertising needs to be linked with youth identity development, particularly with respect to the notion of ‘the seduction of individuality' and the commercial exploitation of young people's ‘identity vulnerabilities'. The idea of ‘retail identity' can be applied to individuals where a more than normal weighting in their self-expression and self-understanding is given to the purchase of particular consumer goods which have a high image loading. The driving force is their desire to participate in brand image and mystique. Retail identity is not so much a moral identity as a superficial one, coloured in with images projected by television; it is abnormally dependent on externals. The other abnormality is that the purchase of consumer goods has gone beyond meeting functional needs and has assumed a role in providing identity satisfaction.
Television commercials extol the ideal of individuality while at the same time proposing that product purchase will give a ready-made identity solution – seducing them away from authentic individuality. In this sense identity has been ‘commodified', along with so many other elements of culture, and it supports a ‘retail identity market'.
One commentator suggested that anorexia nervosa is a television disease. She claimed that in pre-television times it did not seem to be such a problem. The culture of television advertising (and in other media, especially magazines) projects through its models an unattainable perfection in appearance that can never be reached by average people.
For many women there may be a low level of frustration in not being able to look like the slim models with the perfect skin and hair. But it may incline them to buy cosmetic products that help them aspire to that perfection. But for a few, particularly adolescent girls, the love/hate frustration with this imagery may drive them to excessive anxiety about their appearance and eventually to the condition of anorexia. While television imagery may not affect young men in the same way or to the same extent, it can cause other body image problems.
Brief attention only is given here to related topics of significance for understanding the influence of contemporary culture on young people's spiritual and moral development.
Popular music – it is like the soundtrack to people's lives. It is particularly significant for young people. Popular music provides a vivid universal language and medium for the expression of youth needs, interests and aspirations. It is like a pervading atmospheric presence that keeps many ideas, life expectations and emotions on a ‘low simmer'. This is particularly the case for sexuality, relationships, and the ideas of freedom, individuality, pleasure, and what is ‘cool'.
The way in which young people all over the world share a common language and interest in pop music is not without its significance. It supports an international approach to forming an outlook on life, which is relevant to youth spirituality. Music and its lyrics can trigger emotions and resonate with young people's moods, concerns, hopes and anguish. Along with film and television, it provides the backdrop to young people's perception of the world.
While often an element of youth culture from which many adults prefer to keep at a safe distance, the ‘music video' is a key dimension to young people's love for music. With their many evocative images, music videos increase the capacity of popular music to massage young people's emotions and moods. With headphones or ear plug speakers people can now listen to music from their i Pod, mp3 player or smart phone at any time anywhere. It is as if not a minute should be wasted so even in those intermediate times your enjoyment can be continued uninterrupted.
The deconstruction of music videos has been a part of English studies for senior school students in some Australian states. The following extended quotation from an English teachers' journal illustrates the insights that such a study can generate.
Image and imagination: Retail links with the subconscious
As one advertisement stated, ‘Image is everything'. Much of the storyline and emotional appeal of effective commercials depend not on words and information but on image. The commercial may project an image – say, of the modern, attractive, sexy, smart, successful man or woman – and will link this image with a particular product. The attraction of the image is intended to initiate subconscious associations with that product. Similarly, the commercial may seek to link the image associated with the product with the romantic imaginations of self that viewers might have. Here advertising is more about selling desirable images than about the function of particular products – it is the images that have ‘retail potency'.
No doubt each product has a mundane function. But highly advertised products have also added mystique and social cachet. Television advertising (also in magazines and newspapers) sustains the ‘designer label', ‘superior brand' industry. Buying the distinctive label or brand is an identification process – and this is retail enhancement of identity. ‘You pay for the name' and you in turn are ‘branded'.
As discussed earlier with reference to feature films and television, the appeal to the imagination is also a central part of television advertising. Images that are attractive to self-expression and self-understanding can be embedded in the imagination where they can affect people – with retail consequences. It is not an appeal to information or reason, but to the inherent attractiveness and desirability of the images. There is often a good measure of humour in advertisements and they may try to flatter people's intelligence, but this does not eliminate their play on the unconscious.
This sort of critical analysis is important for evaluating the marketing strategies behind television commercials. In the commercial, within thirty seconds, there is an attempt to activate, and appeal to, images and emotions, desires and values that will be effective in prompting viewers to buy – and intelligently exercise their prerogative as well-informed consumers. The myths appealed to will range widely from a simple ‘enjoy' to ‘look beautiful and irresistible' to ‘caring' and ‘environmentally friendly'. A study of the psychology of advertising is essential for critical media studies.
Taking a lot of time to be with people personally. It is comparatively easy to deal with a number of people by email and social media.
There is also some concern about whether a lot of the social media interaction is purely descriptive about what people are doing – like an ongoing "selfie" that never ends. The newest version of the old-fashioned Days of our lives.
Twitter is obviously the medium for celebrities and politicians. But there is the question about Twitter that increasingly sees communication in terms of short sentences. Will a pre-occupation with Twitter affect levels of literacy? Will it hamper the development of the capacity for making sustained, critical arguments for a case?
Does Twitter encourage posing through saying or writing smart 'zingers'? The sitcom Big Bang Theory also seems to encourage this. With some people it becomes difficult to have an intellectual conversation because they are not really listening sympathetically, but just waiting for a comment from you to which they can launch a smart zinger in reply.
The Twitter feed phenomenon during TV broadcasts of events and debates also needs evaluation. Does it give the illusion of the audience being actively involved in debates? Or is it a forum for people to advertise how smart they think they are by getting some limelight from their Twitter comments? Does a Twitter feed during an academic lecture do little more than give some egos a boost? Does it show thoughtful engagement with the lecturer? Will we in turn have people during a concert performance tweeting "The first violinist has a lovely bowtie" etc etc.
This discussion does not attempt to go into the growing research on the use of social media and the issues. There is an important need to get perspective on this research.
Below are some issues evident in the examples.
The new language and symbolism in Social Media gives you a lot more options if you want to"Break Up"
Facebook and priests
Facebook during an electrical power outage
The desired outcome for both adults and young people's critical investigation of the potential spiritual and moral influence of film, television, the Internet and social media is that they learn how to bring a more informed, critical background to their thinking about the media. This is not trying to protect them from the effects of the media, but helping them develop their own educated responses. While often superficially critical, many children and adolescents are relatively naive as regards both the overt and subtle capacities of the various media to affect their thinking, imagination and feelings, their liking for fashion and particular leisure pursuits, their potential spending targets, and ultimately their values and beliefs.
This section resources educators' theorising about the spiritual and moral influence of these media. The first step towards a critical school education in media is to engage educators in this theorising as a prelude to various efforts on their part to help young people acquire more knowledge and skills for critical interpretation.