Tuesday, 28 August 2007

If you want to send a message, make a movie?

Purely entertainment, or is there a message in this film? That’s a question I often find myself asking during the title sequence at the start of a film। A film often gets you thinking, releases emotions, reminds one of familiar situations or tells us a little bit of history. Most films, though, particularly those emanating from Hollywood, are undoubtedly made with only one aim in mind and that is to provide commercial entertainment. They are billed purely as a leisure pursuit for the viewer; we are lured into the cinema by the promise of an exciting storyline, amazing special effects, that feeling of magic, extravagant costumes, the chance tosee one or more big-name stars in action, the prize which the film has won or – best of all – a combination of all of those things. We watch, enjoy and then return home. But is that always the sole purpose of the filmmakers?

Some directors, producers and actors believe so and make no bones about it, the notable Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn among them, who said ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union’. I don’t share that sentiment, however. In my view, it is certainly possible to convey a message to the viewer via the silver screen, and that happens more often than we think. The best and perhaps oldest example is the religious message. Spiritual themes are regularly woven into films. You only have to think of the fuss surrounding the launch of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of Christ’, a controversial film which stirred up a heated debate in quite a few homes. In the United States and Israel in particular, there were all kinds of theories about the ‘real’ intentions of the film’s maker. Large parts of the Jewish community, for instance, believed that Mel Gibson was trying to put across the message that it was mainly the Jews who had been responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion (and hence for condemning the Son of God to death). Admittedly, films like ‘The Passion’ are the exception and don’t come out on a weekly basis but you don’t have to look far to find films involving a religious theme, aspect or figure. Think, for example, of ‘Barton Fink’ (a vision of hell if ever there was one), ‘Groundhog Day’ (redemption), ‘Cool Hand Luck’ (self-sacrifice) or the book ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (with its numerous religious themes and moral codes). Precisely what the message is, the viewer often has to guess, but the fact remains that filmmakers have a growing desire to weave religious symbols or stories into their films. Myths, sagas, legends and historical figures are brought to life in this way. Films like Ben Hur, Cleopatra and Spartacus (and in my view the recent BBC series Rome as well) opened our eyes. By creating a certain atmosphere they aim to allow viewers to forget their ordinary standards and values, making certain situations and social relationships seem acceptable and understandable despite the fact that, in this day and age, such attitudes and behaviour are totally unknown or objectionable. It tells us that there was nothing strange about making offerings, about beating your slaves, about infidelity or about having sex with young boys. There was no such thing as perversity. Possibly that was not what the makers of those films had intended at all, but it was what they had achieved.

Does the message in a film necessarily have to be intentional? Or is there sometimes an ‘unintentional message’? Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’, released in 1993, is a good example of this, as is the book ‘If This Is a Man’ by Primo Levi. In both cases, the creators wanted to paint as realistic a picture as possible of the conditions in the concentration camps during the Second World War without explicitly expressing an opinion or moral message, though few people, having seen the film or read the book, will be able to avoid the feeling that ‘this must never be allowed to happen again’. Were there perhaps unintentional messages in these works? The message cannot have been totally unintentional, because filmmakers and authors are, of course, not exactly dim. They know full well what effect the product of their efforts is going to have on their audience and what response it can be expected to provoke.

It is therefore tempting for filmmakers not to adopt any particular standpoint in public and to declare at press conferences that they ‘were only trying to present the facts and that it is up to the public to make of them what they will.’ This was the line taken by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch member of parliament, and Theo van Gogh after the release of their film ‘Submission’ in 2004. Featured in ‘Submission’ are four abused women dressed in translucent clothing through which their breasts are clearly visible and written on their bodies are various contentious fragments of Arabic text of a misogynistic nature. Hirsi Ali has stated in several television programmes that the aim was not to be provocative but to be thought-provoking. The fact that the film provoked a violent response is undeniable; less than three months later, Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam. The perpetrator, the young Muhammad B., stated in court that Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali had insulted the Prophet Muhammad with their film. Claiming that Islam was a religion that mistreated and denigrated women was false, according to him, and apostates ‘should not be allowed to go unpunished’. Hirsi Ali, championing freedom of speech, immediately announced that there would be a ‘Submission 2’. Back to the previously mentioned ‘Groundhog Day’, released in 1993. It was no accident that this film was recently included in the exhibition ‘The Hidden God: Film and Faith’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Though God is not explicitly mentioned, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians will be able to recognise elements of their systems of belief in the jokes, one-liners and storylines. Briefly, the story is that of a man for whom life is meaningless, who is unable to get on in life until – that is – he finds love. You can only live life if you have love is the message which the filmmaker wanted to convey. But again, to what extent the message was intentional remains a mystery.

Filmmakers are sometimes every bit as mysterious as the works they produce. Sometimes puppets are used to put across a particular message. Perhaps the best example of this genre is ‘Team America: World Police’. ‘Team America’ is both a critical and a defensive film about American foreign policy. Although filmmaker Parker said that the project should only be seen as ‘one silly puppet movie’, I wondered whether the filmmakers in this case (just as with ‘Submission’, for example) had used the tactic of producing a politically highly charged film while at the same time leaving the interpretation of it to the public and the media. Film companies and producers generally have no other mission than to make a pile of money. Two new film companies, however, Participant Productions and North Country have deliberately chosen to weave social themes and moral standards into their films. Participant Productions announces on its website that it intends to bring out dozens of new ‘thought-provoking’ films over the next few years. Nothing wrong with that, it seems to me, and freedom of speech combined with the creativity and originality of filmmakers can produce some exceptional results. There is nothing wrong with a politically motivated, subjective film carrying a clearly formulated message as long as people are aware that it is just one person’s opinion. But it becomes dangerous when film and television are used for propaganda and for deliberately misleading the public: when opinions and views are presented as facts and truths.

There are already signs of such a trend (in the free world), such as in certain media in the United States and Italy, and even in the United Kingdom, France or my native country the Netherlands, there are filmmakers and producers who are not averse to presenting their opinions, beliefs, convictions or views as ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. Oh so help us god.

(pic 1: cinemavistodame.splinder.com pic 2: www.usdoj.gov