Week 5 – Final Film Critique

Table of Contents

Film Critique

Final Film Critique

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You can choose from When Harry met Sally, The Wizard of Oz, or The Godfather.

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Please click  here  to view the Week Five Assignment Video transcript.

Throughout this course, you have been writing essays and participating in discussion forums that analyze various elements of film such as theme, cinematic techniques, and genre. It is now time to combine those elements into a comprehensive analysis of one movie.

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You will be completing this assignment in two stages. For the first stage (1500 to 1800 words), you will analyze an entire movie. In the second stage (300 to 600 words), you will reflect on how you analyzed the movie as well as how your ability to analyze film in general has evolved.

You are encouraged to incorporate writing from your Week Two and Week Three assignments if (a) you have reflected on the instructor’s feedback, (b) you have revised the relevant parts of the essays accordingly, and (c) the essays discuss the same film that you discuss here.

Stage 1: Analysis

For this stage, you will be analyzing a movie selected from the  AFI’s 10 Top 10 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.  list. The film you choose can be one that you have previously analyzed in this course. While you are allowed to choose a film that does not come from the AFI lists, you are strongly encouraged to email your professor to receive approval before doing so.

The analysis portion of your paper should be 1500 to 1800 words in length. You should analyze the film through the lens of one of the broad theories you have learned about in class (auteur theory, genre theory, formalist theory). Your analysis must address four main areas (contextual information, story/plot, aesthetic choices, and social/personal impact) and how these areas work together to develop the theme of the movie. As you construct your analysis, assume that your reader is not familiar with this film. Use your analysis to explain to your reader why they should watch this film.

In addition to the film you are analyzing, you must use three scholarly sources to support your arguments. Refer to the  ENG225 Research Guide  in the Ashford University Library for guidance and to locate your sources. Cite your sources (including the feature-length film) within the text of your paper and on the reference page. Cite your sources according to APA style as outlined in the  Ashford Writing Center (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. .

Your analysis must address the following components (noted in bold below):

· Contextual Information – In this area, you will provide some of the basic identifying information of the film. This includes:

· Title

· Director, cinematographer, major actors/actresses. Be sure to describe their roles in the overall design process.

· Year of release

· Type of film (blockbuster, indie, documentary, etc.)

· Genre

· Story/Plot – In this area, you should offer a brief summary of the film, and then show how it was deployed in the narrative structure of the film. Explain the difference between the film’s story and its plot. This area can be addressed as a separate paragraph, or can be threaded throughout your analysis of the film.

· Aesthetic Choices – In this area, you will assess the efficacy of specific techniques and design elements employed in the film as they apply to the overarching narrative and theme of the film. These elements include:

· Mise en scène (e.g., lighting, sound, composition of frame, costuming, etc.)

· Editing (e.g., cuts and transitions, shots used, angles, etc.)

· Technology (i.e., analyze the impact of any notable technological effects: film stock, targeted release venue, special effects, etc.)

· Social/Personal Impact – In this area, you will critically address the following questions:

· What impact did this film have on society (i.e., politically or culturally, positive or negative)? The impact can be as major as inspiring political or social changes or as minor as inspiring the production of toys or lunchboxes.

· How did society affect this film (i.e., what currents in society led to the creation of the film)?

· If you are unable to find any information about the social impact of the film, explain the personal impact it has had on you.

Note: Not every bullet point under the four listed components will necessarily apply to your movie. However, you will still need to discuss each of the four main components thoroughly, which means that you may need to explain a concept even if it can’t be directly applied to your movie.

Your paper should be organized around a thesis statement that clarifies what you will attempt to accomplish in your paper, and how you will proceed. Additionally, you must conclude with a restatement of the thesis and a conclusion paragraph. Review the  Final Film Critique sample , which provides an example of a well-developed analysis as well as insight on composition.

Stage 2: Reflection

After completing your movie analysis, you will reflect on the analysis process and how you have learned to more thoroughly analyze film as well as how rigorous study of film enhances your development as a student and thinker. In this 300- to 600-word reflection, review your initial post from the “Post Your Introduction” discussion in Week One, and consider how your ability to analyze movies has changed or grown. Append your reflection to the analysis portion of your paper and submit as one document. Your reflection should be personal and exploratory in nature.

Address the following questions in your reflection:

· What can be gained through analyzing film?

· How has this changed the way you view movies?

· How are you able to use film theory and criticism to find and interpret meaning in movies?

· In what ways has this course changed your understanding of how movies are related to society?

· What skills have you developed during this course, and how might those skills be applied to your major, profession, and/or life?

The Final Film Critique

· Must be one document that is 1800 to 2400 words in length, comprised of a 1500- to 1800-word film analysis and a 300- to 600-word reflection.

· Must include a separate title and reference page, and be formatted according to APA style as outlined in  Ashford Writing Center (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. .

· Must include a title page with the following:

· Title of paper

· Student’s name

· Course name and number

· Instructor’s name

· Date submitted

· Must begin with an introductory paragraph that has a succinct thesis statement.

· Must address the topic of the paper with critical thought.

· Must end with a conclusion that reaffirms your thesis.

· Must use at least three scholarly sources (reviews, articles, or book chapters) other than the textbook to support your points. Refer to the  ENG225 Research Guide (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.  for guidance.

· Must document all sources in APA style, as outlined in the Ashford Writing Center.

· Must include a separate reference page that is formatted according to APA style as outlined in the Ashford Writing Center.

Week 3 – Assignment for ENG225 Introduction to film from Ashford EDU

Establishing Theme

Week Three Assignment Video transcript. Ashford University | ENG225 WEEK 03 The week 3 written assignment is an important continuation in our analysis of film. In understanding a film’s theme, we are getting to the core of what that film is about. Analyzing a film of your choice, you’ll identify that film’s primary theme and the elements that work to establish it throughout the film. Make sure to read through the guidelines carefully, noting all the different required elements, and take a look ahead at the rubric so you’ll know exactly how your work will be assessed. Here are a few key points to keep in mind as you work on your paper. It is important to explain theme in your introduction using your own words and clearly state the film’s theme in your thesis statement. You will identify at least three techniques– cinematography, lighting, acting style or direction, and/or design elements, set design, costuming, or hair and makeup and explain how these techniques and/or design elements contribute to the establishment of theme. Be sure to reference particular scenes or sequences in your explanations and describe how these techniques are being used in those scenes and what they do to establish theme. In analyzing the film Mise En Scene, you’ll want to describe how the things that appear on screen work to establish theme and how those design elements are consistent with the theme. Note– remember that a theme is an overarching idea that recurs throughout the plot of the film. It is the distilled essence of what the film is about, the main design which the specific scenes and actions lead a viewer to understand. Students often confuse theme with genre. The theme is not the genre. For instance, a Western and a fantasy can both have a theme of good versus evil. Here are a few more tips to remember. See the sample paper we’ve uploaded in the assignment prompt. This is a model of good student work, what your professors are looking for and the type of comments we will make. Also, keep in mind that the titles of films should be italicized. Click into the Ashford library English 225 study guide. It’s a portal dedicated to the kinds of articles, essays, and books that will be the most helpful resources as you work on your written assignment. Try to budget your time so that you can take advantage of the various resources offered by the Ashford Writing Center to ensure that your paper is written and polished. The week 3 assignment is a chance to develop your analytical skills and your understanding of the concepts introduced during our first three weeks. Give yourself an opportunity to succeed by preparing yourself thoroughly and working diligently to complete the paper.

### Directions for the paper Select a movie from  You can use one of the following (Gangster) The Godfather, The Godfather II or (Fantasy) The Wizard of OZ and explain how three cinematic techniques and/or design elements have helped establish a major theme in that film.

In 800 to 1200 words

· Describe a major theme of the movie you have selected using evidence from the movie itself as well as course resources and other scholarly sources to support your position.

· Identify at least three techniques (cinematography, lighting, acting style, or direction) and/or design elements (set design, costuming, or hair and makeup), and explain how these techniques and/or design elements contribute to the establishment of the theme. Reference particular scenes or sequences in your explanations.

· State your opinion regarding the mise en scène, including

· How the elements work together.

· How congruent the design elements are with the theme of the movie.

· Whether or not other techniques would be as effective (Explain your reasoning).

Note: Remember that a theme is an overarching idea that recurs throughout the plot of a film. It is the distilled essence of what the film is about, the main design which the specific scenes and actions lead a viewer to understand.

Your paper should be organized around a thesis statement that focuses on how the elements of your chosen feature-length film both establish and maintain one of its major themes. Review the Week Three sample paper, which provides an example of a well-developed analysis as well as insight on composition.

The paper must be 800 to 1200 words in length and formatted according to APA style as outlined in the Ashford Writing Center (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

You must use at least two scholarly sources other than the textbook to support your claims. Refer to the ENG225 Research Guide  # SEE BELOW in the Ashford University Library for guidance and to locate your sources. Cite your sources (including the feature-length film) within the text of your paper and on the reference page. For information regarding APA, including samples and tutorials, visit the Ashford Writing Center.

ENG225 Research Guide


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Film and Its Impact on Society


I believe it’s through film that our culture and values are passed along. Who’s the good guy,

who’s the bad guy, what’s right, what’s wrong. —Peter Lalonde

Still from Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). ©Warner Independent Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Film: Beyond Entertainment Chapter 2

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following: • Explain how films incorporate meanings, attitudes, and information beyond the obvious

actions and events in their stories. • Describe the impact of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, on film today. • Discuss how certain films actively address current sociopolitical topics while others

provide audiences an escape from them, and how many that appear to be escapist often incorporate deeper issues and content reflecting contemporary concerns.

• Explain the influence of regulation and censorship, including the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, the MPAA ratings system, the Hollywood blacklist, and the ways films are edited for TV.

• Discuss how film can affect society and how society may affect film.

2.1 Film: Beyond Entertainment Since their inception, movies have provided inexpensive mass entertainment; cinema is an incredibly popular medium. As we have already seen, audiences spent more than $10 billion on movie tickets in 2013. People obviously enjoy going to the movies. It is clear that movies have had a profound impact on society. And not only are audiences influenced by what they see at the movies; audiences influence what is shown in theaters as well.

Whether it is in appearance, fashion, or behavior, films romanticize a certain lifestyle that is eagerly imitated by audiences. Fashion magazines promise that we can “Get Angelina’s Look” if we follow the tips inside. Celebrity gossip publications keep readers up to date on the comings and goings of seemingly everyone who has appeared in a movie. The Internet and social media are practically choked with chatter about film—box-office results, reviews, gossip, and more. Beyond these shallower aspects, film can influence how we live, our morality, and our behavior. What is open to discussion, however, is the direction of the influence—do films influence culture

or do they reflect it? Or is it both?

Yes, we go to the movies to be entertained; as Steven J. Ross says in Movies and American Society, we go

to laugh, cry, boo, cheer, be scared, thrilled, or simply to be amused for a few hours. But movies are something more than just an evening’s entertainment. They are also historical documents that help us see—and perhaps more fully understand—the world in which they were made. (Ross, 2002)

Movies, in other words, have something to say, often beyond their literal meaning. Even bad mov- ies, silly movies, pornographic movies, when taken as a whole, serve as a sort of pop-culture barome- ter that often measures more than just the fleeting. It takes longer to produce a feature-length movie,

Courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Howard Beale’s mad rant in Network was given new currency in the 2010 electoral campaign: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Social Media Chapter 2

after all, than it does an episode of a television show (the other most popular visual medium). Filmmakers who have something to say about society, then, are better off with subjects that have lasting impact, rather than trying to capture flavor-of-the-month subjects that quickly become dated and soon seem silly.

For example, George Clooney could write, direct, and act in the film Good Night, and Good Luck in 2005 and expect that its subject matter—CBS television reporter Edward R. Murrow’s disman- tling of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the mid-1950s—would be relevant to contemporary audiences. It was a modern recreation and interpretation of an era more than a half century in the past and will likely live on as an effective historical drama. On the other hand, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, a 1984 film that attempted to cash in on the then-current craze of break dancing, was dated practically the day it was released. Such a film may have little relevance or appeal to audi- ences of later generations, yet it can serve as a valuable time capsule documenting a popular cul- tural element and attitude of the period in which it was created. Not every film can be timeless; most are not even designed to be. Some blockbusters exist as profit machines for studios, as we have discussed. But the better, more challenging films speak to audiences of their times and long afterward.

Certainly, movies are not made and released in a vacuum. The government and special- interest groups have tried to police and cen- sor film at seemingly every turn. Experts debate the effect that films have on the behavior of society—for example, whether violent films encourage violence in the members of their audiences, and whether promiscuous sexual behavior on the screen results in audience imitation. Movies are a constant and easy source of debate because of their ubiquity and their popularity. There are movies made about almost everything, so naturally opposing sides have no trouble finding a film that represents their side of the argument on culture wars, often taking their examples out of the context in which the films were made and intended.

In this chapter, we will discuss this impact—how movies at least attempt to shape society and how society shapes movies. Both topics are fluid, as the ever-growing Internet and social media become increasingly powerful elements in discussion of films and what’s in them.

2.2 Social Media In seemingly no time, online services that at first appeared to be nothing more than niche prod- ucts for young people have become essential tools for marketing and journalism. In particular, Facebook, which has more than 1 billion users, and Twitter, which has more than 550 mil- lion users, are an increasingly important part of everyday life. Personal Web logs, or blogs, are another popular form of self-expression and social interaction, as are numerous Internet discus- sion forums, some devoted exclusively to online discussions and others that are part of informa- tional sites such as IMDb or Blu-ray.com. Even though their missions are different, they can all

Courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has become an enduring classic. As robotic intelligence becomes a reality and astronomers discover planets in distant galaxies, the themes of this film and the questions it raises are more relevant than ever.

Social Media Chapter 2

be lumped under the category of social media. How long they will remain popular is anyone’s guess, but the major services have shown no sign of decline.

Social media has plenty to do with movies. As the number of professional film critics dwindles, thanks in part to the poor outlook for traditional newspapers and magazines, many movie fans take to social media to register their feelings about a film instantly. Some comments and cri- tiques are silly or promotional in nature; however, the sheer volume of responses to a movie (or television show, CD, book, or any other form of entertainment media) means that they cannot be ignored. It’s almost like an instant poll, conducted in real time, by average people. Or, perhaps, like the world’s largest bar, with patrons all over the country, sometimes all over the world, com- menting on what they see as they watch it, and commenting on other people’s comments.

However, the true effect of social media on the popularity and profitability of a movie remains a hotly debated topic. In 2009, the movie Bruno, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, enjoyed a profit- able opening day on Friday, the traditional opening day for films. But by Saturday attendance had dropped steeply—36% in a single day. Why? Immediately, the media began pointing to the “Twitter effect.” Millions of people, it seems, tweeted (the verb used for posting an update on Twitter) negative responses to the film. While they, like everyone else, were limited to 140 char- acters per post, there’s no limit to how many posts a user can make. Soon, carried along by an excitable media eager to report on anything related to social media, the Twitter effect was a full- on social phenomenon.

Until, one day, people decided it wasn’t. In a widely circulated story in July 2010, Daniel Frankel wrote in The Wrap, an online publication, that the effect of Twitter was in fact overstated when it came to Bruno and other films that suffered sharp, fast drop-offs in business in 2009: “One year later, the social media trend that was going to revolutionize word-of-mouth hasn’t demonstrably done so. There are few movies this summer where you can point to Twitter causing a huge box office bump, or drop” (2010). However, there is no question that—as Facebook and Twitter users can attest—movie studios are fully immersed in the world of social media, seeing it as a marketing opportunity, a way to spread good word of mouth more quickly than almost any other method of delivery. And what about the bad word of mouth? Well, some things can’t be prevented. As consultant Gordon Paddison told The Wrap, “People say Twitter causes a movie to bomb. I say a bad film causes people to trash it on Twitter” (Frankel, 2010).

Whatever the case, social media shows no sign of going away anytime soon, and its importance can also be evidenced by the increasing number of filmmakers and stars who use it. Studios have their own elaborate websites for individual film releases, but they also create YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter accounts for their films, hoping people will follow them for information and updates (and, of course, recommendations to see the film). Twitter users, however, may decide to follow a hashtag movie title rather than the studio’s movie title account, thus seeing every tweet in the world that mentions that film, favorable, neutral, or unfavorable. Often—perhaps always, really—there are promotional considerations. But there is still value. Ron Howard, for instance, for months before the release of his Formula One racing film Rush, tweeted pictures from the set and the editing room, giving us a peek behind the scenes of the making of a hotly anticipated film from an Oscar-winning director, while at the same time allowing Howard to build anticipation for the movie’s release. In early 2013, director Robert Rodriguez even solicited online fan partici- pation in a short movie project called Two Scoops that he created especially for the Internet.

Following Twitter and Facebook accounts or hashtag topics can be an easy way to keep up to date on a favorite film, filmmaker, or star. It can indicate what topics are trending at any given moment. But this can also distract from the topic in which one is originally interested. The most

Movies and Escapism Chapter 2

heavily discussed topics show up on the side of a Twitter feed as “trending,” and people can instantly see the changing interests of those using the service regionally or worldwide, whether trivial entertainment, natural weather disasters, or serious newsworthy activities. In mid-2013, trending topics included the ongoing protests and revolution in Egypt, several days before it was reported in the traditional Western news media outlets. Thus, social networks like Twitter can both distract their users from real-world issues and draw their attention to those issues while they are unfolding.

2.3 Movies and Escapism There is little debate that Americans have endured tough times in the first decade of the 21st century. The national dialogue has revolved around a lingering, increasingly unpopular military intervention in the Middle East; partisan politics that seemed to divide the country; and an eco- nomic crisis the like of which has not been seen since the Great Depression. A national discontent developed that threatened at times to turn to panic. During all of this, what movies were people going to? The answer might really surprise you. Then again, it may not.

The year 2012 was the most lucrative year at the box office in the history of the movies, and the top five movies were The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Skyfall, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Briefly, we have a film with a group of superheroes, a movie about a superhero, a futuristic killing game, a James Bond thriller, and an adaptation of a novel about an imaginary creature. Meanwhile, Argo, a fictionalized retelling of the escape of six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis, won the Academy Award for Best Picture but was only the 22nd most popular film of the year, according to box-office returns. The most seen films of 2013 were Iron Man 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Despicable Me 2, Man of Steel, and Frozen.

In previous years as well, similar movies came out on top. In 2009, the top grossers were Avatar, Up, and sequels in the Transformers, Harry Potter, and Twilight franchises, while in 2008 they were The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Hancock, and WALL-E— all of which were fare for escapism, or using entertainment to escape the realities of daily life. Although many of these films do have strong social or political subtexts, that is not often the main focus of audiences. In 2007, the most popular movies were Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Do you notice anything in common among these films as well? It appears as though despite, or perhaps because of, the troubles in their lives, audiences have chosen to escape them by spending two hours in a movie theater. A similar phenomenon occurred during the Great Depression and during World War II, when audiences flocked to light comedies and musicals that often depicted enormously wealthy characters far removed from viewers’ everyday reality. Mark Waters, the director of the fantasy film The Spiderwick Chronicles, summed up the situation in 2007, observing that social and economic crises created among the American population a general feeling of powerlessness to improve the state of things.

©Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Scene from the movie The Hangover Part III. Some of the harshest critics of Hollywood suggest that there are too many films that may be nothing more than a profitable exercise in mindless entertainment.

Movies and Escapism Chapter 2

However, as Waters observed, “[w]hen you reflect that back to the movie . . . it allows people to have hopefulness and excitement and the possibility of ultimate victory” (Goodykoontz, 2007).

Jon Favreau, the director of the first two Iron Man movies, argues that we have needed escapism more than ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. For Favreau, it is unsurprising that a period of “good-vs.-evil escapist fantasies, with very simple, operatic paradigms of good and evil playing it out in some alternate worlds, allowed us to feel very simple emotions” (Goodykoontz, 2007).

Bear in mind, however, that box-office numbers reflect the audience’s point of view, taking into account what they wanted to see. This does not mean that filmmakers have avoided the troubles of contemporary life. In addition to The Hurt Locker, an intense film about a bomb- disposal unit in Iraq that won Best Picture in 2010 but barely earned back more than its mod- est $15 million production budget, In the Valley of Elah (2007) was a critically acclaimed film dealing with the effects of war in Iraq on the father of a soldier killed there. Yet In the Valley of Elah couldn’t find an audience and made less than $7 million at the box office. Brothers, about a woman who believed her husband was killed in Afghanistan but who returns, fared better, taking in more than $28 million, but it still barely cracked the top 100 of the most popular movies of 2009.

In many ways, this trend can be traced back well into the past. Hollywood chose to release few films about the Vietnam War during that conflict, for instance, because it seemed that war hit too close to home, with its daily television presence of violence and death beamed into our living rooms. John Wayne’s Green Berets (1968) was one such attempt to buck the trend, but its disas- trous reception by both critics and audiences discouraged any further attempts. Interestingly, however, a few years after the war ended, films such as Coming Home (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986) showed that audiences, with the passage of time, were ready to explore what happened during the war. Note that a healthy box-office show- ing does not make a movie good or important. We use it here simply as the easiest measure of a movie’s popularity among audiences; we are strictly going by the numbers.

Audiences may or may not be receptive to films whose directors have made them primarily to explore social issues. Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001) both dealt with the terrors of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s by incor- porating escapism and telling a fairy tale-like story through the eyes of children, with a fantasy creature in the former and a ghost in the latter. While both films were critically acclaimed, Pan’s Labyrinth found favorable audience numbers at the box office, but The Devil’s Backbone (argu- ably the better film) was not a financial success, especially in the United States, where it got little distribution. David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012) dealt heavily with modern social-economic concerns in an unusual, stylized way, eliciting mixed, though generally positive, critical responses but a disastrous reception from general audiences.

People like to be entertained and may prefer mindless escapism to thought-provoking drama about current social problems or past political conflicts. As we’ve seen already, and will see from another perspective in Chapter 4, it is not impossible for films to fulfill audience expectations at the same time they’re expressing underlying societal concerns, questioning or reinforcing estab- lished values, or reflecting contemporary issues. Highly successful films such as The Dark Knight and Iron Man managed to deal with issues of personal conscience and social responsibility while also allowing the audience to escape. The former explored themes of vigilantism in the face of pervasive urban crime and the latter looked explicitly at the war in Afghanistan and its relation- ship to greedy corporations supplying military arms to both sides. But at the same time, both had appealing heroes whom audiences could enjoy watching triumph over evil. Even a family-oriented

Censorship and Hollywood Chapter 2

animated sci-fi fantasy like WALL-E could depict a bleak future world devastated by past wars and pollution, while the survivors became dependent upon machines to sur- vive. The hero was himself a machine, but too cute to be threatening to viewers.

These films may appear to be escapist fun on the surface, yet all have a depth that’s able to express ideas the filmmakers want to get across. Generations from now, they will be valuable documents of the early 21st cen- tury, reflecting both what people enjoyed watching and what issues they were think- ing about in their daily lives. Fortunately, movies are a big enough cultural phenom- enon that there is room enough for both what audiences want to see and what soci- etal issues need to be explored. Indeed, movies became so popular so quickly after the invention of the medium that many people wor- ried about what audiences were seeing and what they should be allowed to see.

2.4 Censorship and Hollywood As far back as ancient Greece, philosophers such as Plato argued that art forms such as poetry and theater could be dangerous influences on the public and should be used only to provide inspi- rational or uplifting experiences. In fact, he called for the banning of works that did otherwise. Others such as Aristotle argued that depicting tragedy and realistic events could be cathartic for audiences, allowing them to purge pent-up emotions safely at the theater and go on with their normal lives. Virtually identical debates continue about movies, with some believing movies should be positive experiences and others insisting that movies should accurately reflect what has been happening in our culture, positive or not.

Modern audiences likely feel, with some justification, that almost anything can be shown in a mainstream movie. There is graphic violence in any number of horror films. Explicit sex is shown in Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. A young girl kills several people in a brutal fashion while swearing profusely in Kick-Ass. It is tempting to suggest that these films reflect changing attitudes of society, that again filmmakers are giving audiences what they demand—or at least what they are comfortable with. And there is some truth to that notion, but whether or not it equates to a coarsening of the culture is an open question.

The History of Film Censorship and the Motion Picture Production Code

During the 1910s, filmmakers enjoyed a fair amount of freedom in what they could show on screen. Not the freedom that today’s directors have, of course, but they were under no obliga- tion to produce morally righteous films. Directors didn’t have this freedom for long. From the 1930s to the late 1960s, Hollywood films were required to follow a strict set of guidelines (though clever writers and directors often found ways around them). A series of Hollywood scandals in the 1920s involving rape, drugs, and murder led to the Hollywood studios hiring former U.S.

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▲▲ Animated films are often dismissed as children’s entertain- ment. Coraline is a film that deftly captures both childhood anxiety and adult uncertainty. A world where the border between reality and virtual experience is porous may be too much like our own for comfort.

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Postmaster Will Hays to supervise a system of self-regulation that was intended to appease calls for state or national censorship. Looser moral standards showing up on movie screens by the late 1920s created public outcry and led to the formation of the Motion Picture Production Code, which was adopted by major studios in 1930. For a few years, the studios largely ignored, or at least glossed over, the dictates of the code. Many films gleefully stretched and outright flouted the regulations to the point that Hollywood productions from the 1930–1934 period are sometimes referred to as pre-code films. By 1934, increasing pressure, including that brought to bear by the Catholic Church and National Legion of Decency, resulted in much stricter enforcement, and in July of that year there was a requirement that no studio picture could be released without a cer- tificate of approval from the Production Code Administration, headed by the staunchly religious Joseph Breen.

The Motion Picture Production Code, sometimes erroneously known as the Hays Code, was lengthy and detailed. Essentially, it established specific restrictions about numerous issues and potential plot elements that applied to three general principles that can be summarized as follows:

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence, the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Specific applications of the Code prohibited such things as nudity, obscenity, vulgar language, ridicule of any religious faith, ridicule of laws or the legal system, graphic violence, the condoning of revenge murders, depiction of criminal methods that might be seen as instructional demonstrations for those so inclined, drug abuse or any suggestion of drug traffic, pros- titution, comic treatment of adultery, any sexually stimulat- ing material, obvious suggestions or condoning of illicit sexual activity, sexual perversion, miscegenation, and more. Note that while under certain conditions some violence and sexual- ity could be permitted (though nothing explicit or graphic), the overall tone of the finished film was required to take the side of law and order, stressing that crime doesn’t pay and so on. In theory, this would seem limiting, allowing for only cer- tain types of films to be made. In actual fact, Hollywood would enjoy a “golden age” of filmmaking under the Code, with the best directors, writers, and producers finding clever ways to tell their stories even with the limitations.

The MPAA Ratings System

The Code would remain officially in place until 1968, although after World War II and especially after the rise of competi- tion from television in the 1950s, it would gradually lose its

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▲▲ Films like Baby Face (1933), which are full of sexual innuendo, led to the enforce- ment of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934.

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effectiveness. The 1939 blockbuster Gone With the Wind was actually fined $5,000 for using the banned word “damn” in Rhett Butler’s famous farewell to Scarlett O’Hara. Occasionally, films like Otto Preminger’s light sex comedy The Moon Is Blue (1953) and his dramatic look at drug addiction, The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), would be released without Code approval. By the early 1960s, a number of films (Hitchcock’s Psycho, for example) were advertised with dis- claimers warning that they were intended for mature audiences, until finally in 1968 the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) announced its new rating system: G for general audi- ences, M for mature audiences, R for restricted audiences, and X for films to which children under 17 would not be admitted. The M was changed to GP in 1970, and to PG in 1972. Ironically, Hitchcock’s Psycho was given an M or PG rating for reissues in 1968 through the 1970s, but despite Hitchcock’s use of editing to imply a brutal stabbing without ever showing the knife touch the body, the MPAA re-rated it R for its violence in 1984. That same year, in response to violence in newer PG-rated films such as Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a PG-13 rating was added, but Psycho remained rated R. The X rating was changed to NC-17 (no child 17 or under admitted) in 1990. The MPAA explains the system as follows:

Movie ratings provide parents with advance information about the content of movies to help them determine what’s appropriate for their children.  After all, parents know best their chil- dren’s individual sensitivities and sensibilities. Ratings are assigned by a board of parents who consider factors such as violence, sex, language and drug use and then assign a rating they believe the majority of American parents would give a movie. (MPAA, 2014. Reprinted with permission from the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc.)

Unlike the old Motion Picture Production Code, the MPAA does not provide a code of accept- able conduct for filmmakers to follow in their films—something former MPAA Chairman Jack Valenti, who came up with the idea for the ratings system, specifically wished to avoid, say- ing, “There was about this stern, forbidding catalogue of do’s and don’ts the odious smell of censorship” (MPAA, 2010). Though the system sounds ideal, it doesn’t tell filmmakers what will or won’t be allowed in the films they are shooting. There is ample anecdotal evidence of directors being told to trim a specific amount of time from sex scenes or to limit the number of times a curse word is used to retain the rating being sought, but exactly what is allowed and what isn’t is something of a moving target. Sometimes a filmmaker will refuse to make the changes that would fit a film into a certain ratings category. The MPAA told Darren Aronofsky to trim lurid sex scenes, which were used to illustrate the degrad- ing lengths to which junkies will go to pay for their drugs, toward the end of his film Requiem for a Dream. Believing that the scenes were crucial to the film, the studio released the film without a rating. This can prove troublesome in the lucrative DVD market; some large retail chains will not stock DVDs with NC-17 or no ratings. An edited, R-rated version of the film was released on DVD.

Thus, the MPAA ratings system can have a big financial impact, because, with movies rated R and NC-17, younger audience members are automatically excluded (though with the R rating, those under 17 can attend with a parent

Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

▲▲ Midnight Cowboy was a groundbreaking film that captured both the grittiness of New York and the decadence of its under- ground art world.

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or guardian). In the days in which the X rating was used, mainstream media typically refused advertising for movies with the rating. This was obviously detrimental in terms of the money that a film could make, even though not all films that got the rating were pornographic. One X-rated film, Midnight Cowboy, released in 1969, won the Oscar for Best Picture (though it would hardly be rated X today, and in fact even at the time the Catholic Legion of Decency rated it as acceptable for mature adults). The NC-17 rating was meant to remove the pornographic stigma, but film- makers typically still work to avoid the rating, trimming scenes of violence and, especially, sex.

Independent features are more often released unrated, but for a major studio film, the financial risks are generally considered too great. The MPAA system is in fact often criticized by film- makers for inequity among the films that it rates. Kirby Dick, the director of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a documentary that explored the MPAA ratings system and its effects on society (and sought to identify its members and the members of its appeals board, who are not publicly identi- fied), concluded that the system is inequitable in its treatment of studio and independent films, being tougher with independents. Dick said in an interview that the system has an impact on how people choose their movies, and that it treats sex and violence differently.

So many people have commented that many sex scenes look similar in American films. And I think the ratings board is in large part responsible for that, because filmmakers are shoot- ing for that R rating . . . and as a result, everything starts looking the same . . . . [V]iolent films, which are made by the studios, get through without restrictive ratings, whereas sexu- ality—oftentimes very mature, thoughtful examinations of sexuality—gets more restrictive ratings. . . . [T]here shouldn’t be a corporation profiting from violent films at the expense of films that examine sexuality. (Schager, 2009)

Special-interest groups have lobbied the MPAA to include other elements in their decisions, illustrating the impact films are perceived to have on society. For exam- ple, the American Medical Association Alliance asked that any film including “gratuitous smoking” should automatically receive an R rating. “Research has shown that one-third to one-half of all young smokers in the United States can be attrib- uted to smoking these youth see in movies,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, head of the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, to CNN (as cited in Duke, 2009).

Ironically, some directors and studios seek the more-restrictive R rating, believing that it tells the audience that their films will be more adult and mature in content and treat- ment. The R-rated comedy, for instance, a staple of the 1970s and 1980s with films such as Animal House, Porky’s, and Caddyshack, with copious amounts of nudity and cursing, as well as drug and alcohol use, had gone out of favor in the 1990s. But films like 2003’s

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▲▲ Scene from the movie American Reunion. Some critics point to films as evidence reflecting a coarsening of our pub- lic culture, that is, people growing less sensitive to material considered vulgar, crude, offensive, or generally in poor taste. Others suggest that in fact films are responsible for creat- ing a less civil society. It nevertheless seems clear that there is a strong correlation between grossness and high grosses. The American Pie franchise, a series of R-rated sex comedies (American Reunion, the fourth installment, pictured here), grossed $409,241,234 in the United States alone.

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Old School and 2005’s Wedding Crashers, along with the films of Judd Apatow, which include Knocked Up and Superbad, created a new interest in raunchier fare. By 2009, The Hangover, about a bachelor-party trip to Las Vegas, would become the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, spawning two successful sequels. Films such as Seth MacFarlane’s Ted (2012) and Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s This Is the End (2013) continued the R-rated comedy trend.

Television and Censorship

Many people still see theatrical movies for the first time on television. However, the versions that they see on the small screen do not always accurately reflect what was originally on the big one. This is understandable for the most part; pay-cable networks such as HBO and Showtime play movies uncut and uninterrupted by commercials, but that is not the case on broadcast networks. On network television, films are cut in order to make room for at least three commercial breaks an hour, if not more. But the more noticeable differences in the television version are the cuts made to fall within broadcast standards. Obviously, nudity and gory violence are forbidden on broadcast networks (though shows such as NYPD Blue have at times managed to get bare back- sides on the air). Acceptability of such material varies by network and time of broadcast.

Language is also restricted on broadcast television. Although a 1999 episode of Chicago Hope, a CBS drama, included the word “shit” (a handful of shows would follow suit), in general profan- ity beyond “hell” and “damn” is rarely used. Rather than allow strong profanity, film producers sometimes also shoot a “clean” version of a scene for later rebroadcast. Other films simply “bleep” out the offending word (playing a beeping sound over it so that it can’t be identified). And in some cases, another non-profane word is dubbed, often with comical results for those who have seen the original. In the movie Die Hard 2, for instance, the signature line delivered by Bruce Willis’s character—“Yippee kay yay, motherfucker”—is replaced with “Yippee kay yay, Mr. Falcon.” When Snakes on a Plane was aired on television, the famous line uttered by Samuel L. Jackson’s character (which was inspired by an Internet campaign)—“I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane”—is changed to “I have had it with these monkey-fighting snakes on this Monday-to- Friday plane.”

While this is a fairly common occurrence that typically generates more laughs than controversy, there have been times when editing films for television has created a stir. In 2004, after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined CBS $550,000 when Janet Jackson’s breast was briefly shown during the Super Bowl halftime show, 65 ABC affiliates across the United States declined to show Saving Private Ryan—which director Steven Spielberg insisted be shown as shot, complete with profanity and violence—for fear that the FCC would rule it indecent. However, no com- plaints were made to the FCC.

The debate about ratings will continue, of course, as long as such systems are in place. From the start, the best filmmak- ers have found ways around restrictions to tell the stories that they want to tell, and this remains the case today.

Courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan. Traditionally, films have been edited for tele- vision because of sexual content. It came as a surprise to many that in response to FCC regu- lations the acclaimed film Saving Private Ryan was in danger of being edited for language. Instead, some stations refused to air it.

Censorship and Hollywood Chapter 2

The Hollywood Blacklist

One can debate the genuine influence on society that one film might have, or whether films in general influence society or vice versa; however, one episode in American history shows the level of importance assigned to the impact that art, especially film, can have on culture. The Hollywood blacklist was created by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to bar those in the film industry (and other forms of entertainment) believed to have ties to the Communist Party from working. Its impact was felt from the late 1940s through the 1960s, when more than 300 artists were listed.

Some of the more infamous chapters in the Committee’s history involved asking artists to “name names,” or to reveal which of their friends and co-workers had communist ties. Some actors, directors, and producers refused to do so, landing them on the list. In total, 11 individuals refused to cooperate and were cited for contempt and jailed; one fled the country, while the others impris- oned became known as the Hollywood Ten. Others did name names, including famed director Elia Kazan, whose films included A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954). Kazan’s On the Waterfront was ostensibly an exposé drawn from recent headlines of labor union cor- ruption and harassment of union members, and a study of people following their own conscience against overwhelming outside pressure. Many, however, saw the film as a political metaphor—as Kazan’s defense of his own testimony before the HUAC. Other films from that same era, notably the west- erns High Noon (1952) and Johnny Guitar (1954), were also made as not-too-thinly- disguised allegories whose real topic was the blacklist investigation, yet these films

remained subtle enough to be seen merely as entertainment by those unfamiliar with the politi- cal allusions.

One film, The Salt of the Earth (1954), was considered so subversive in its content dealing with feminist and labor issues that it was denounced by Congress, investigated by the FBI, and widely blacklisted in the United States. By contrast, while all this was going on, a number of unashamedly anti- communist filmmakers created movies such as The Red Menace (1949) and My Son John (1952). These were intended to dramatize the threat of communist activity to American security, indi- vidual personal freedom, and family relationships, although critics and viewers tended to dismiss them as obvious and heavy-handed propaganda. People on the blacklist would be banned from working in the film industry, though some screenwriters worked under pseudonyms—most nota- bly Dalton Trumbo, who was also the first blacklisted writer to resume getting on-screen credit for his scripts.

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▲▲ A scene from the movie On The Waterfront. The nomination of director Elia Kazan for a special Academy Award was met by protests from many Academy members. They recalled his “naming names”—identifying alleged communists—when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Kazan directed On the Waterfront as a justifica- tion for his cooperation with HUAC. In the film, Terry Malloy “blows the whistle” to the Crime Commission, naming the “evil-doers” responsible for union corruption.

Pushing the Envelope: Case Studies Chapter 2

As the Committee lost power and prestige, so did its impact and legacy. It became associated with such “Red Scare” investigations as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for communists in the 1940s and 1950s and lost credibility. The Hollywood blacklist shows just how influential mov- ies can be on society, and vice versa. Even years after the active blacklist, Hollywood has dealt with the blacklist era explicitly in films such as George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Frank Darabont’s The Majestic (2001), and Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976). It is clearly an era that had a tremendous impact on film, especially on the actors and writers who refused to name names.

2.5 Pushing the Envelope: Case Studies There have been films throughout history that have had a great social impact because they went beyond the limits of what previously had been standard in the film industry. Many of these films that pushed the envelope also made a large impact on audiences. How much impact a film has on its audience when it comes to behavior will always be a source of controversy, hotly debated in part because it is almost impossible to prove with assurance how strongly a movie’s impact is felt—or whether it is felt at all. This is true, in fact, of all forms of popular media. Much of the evidence of a short-term impact of films is anecdotal. For instance, it’s widely regarded as fact that after the film Jaws premiered in 1975, attendance at beaches plummeted, though one is hard pressed to find actual evidence of this, other than story after story simply saying it’s true. Other claims, such as that of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids that smoking in movies increases youth smoking, are disputed, both by special- interest groups and others. Still other films seem to inspire copycat behavior. At least three young men were killed after being struck by a car while lying in the middle of the road, apparently mimicking the actions of players in the film The Program (1993). (These scenes were later deleted from the film.)

However, the impact of these movies is mostly unintentional, more a matter of catching the attention of the public for one reason or another than actually setting out to deal with societal issues. Yet some films have had a great impact on society at large—not always intentionally but with a lasting effect. Table 2.1 is by no means a complete list, but it points to a few movies that went beyond the status quo and whose cultural impact has been notable on issues of race, sexuality, politics, and religion. Whether each movie actually caused a societal shift on these issues or merely reflected an existing, ongoing societal shift is up to you to decide.

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▲▲ The China Syndrome built on the fears caused by the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. For more than 30 years, no new nuclear facility has been constructed in the United States.

Pushing the Envelope: Case Studies Chapter 2

Table 2.1 A few movies that made a social impact

The Birth of a Nation (1915) Created large movie audience across economic classes; set precedent for films causing widespread public debate; inspired revival of Ku Klux Klan and provided rallying point to strengthen newly formed NAACP; set precedent for extra-long films; and created demand for lavish and large-capacity “movie palaces.” Interpreted by many as blatantly racist (both then and now), its controversial content has made showings rare for the past half- century, outside an academic context.

The Jazz Singer (1927) Created demand for talking pictures, which would rapidly replace silent films; established template for musical film drama. As with Birth of a Nation, its content—the main character’s career is rooted in the now-obsolete blackface tradition—makes it difficult for modern audiences to watch without understanding its historical context.

Psycho (1960) Set precedent for popular mainstream horror films that depicted previously avoided material, sympathizing with the villain and killing off protagonists before the film is half over.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) Reached a wide audience, first theatrically and thereafter in numerous class- rooms, with the message that racial bigotry is wrong.

Easy Rider (1969) Set precedent that independent, youth-oriented films dealing with contem- porary issues of drugs and sex could reach a wide audience and make a profit.

The Godfather (1972) Legitimized organized crime families in the minds of movie viewers as typical human beings trying to make a living, even if they were outside the law, creating a new wave of gangster films with a new approach to their characters.

Jaws (1975) Created a demand for “wide releases” of summer blockbuster films that would open everywhere at once, rather than travel from city to city over the course of a year, as had been the prevailing practice.

Do the Right Thing (1989) Created heated debate as to its ultimate meaning—whether racial violence can be justifiable or is a tragic extreme to be avoided—in any case forcing its viewers to think about its issues.

Schindler’s List (1993) Created a wider public awareness of the Holocaust; demonstrated that a film shot in black and white, with a heavy topic, could still find a wide audience.

Philadelphia (1993) Created widespread public sympathy for an openly homosexual character, partly by casting a popular star against type as its protagonist.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) Proved that an overtly political propaganda film could find a wide audience far beyond its perceived limited demographics, despite and perhaps because of the debate it generated about its assertions and motives.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Proved that a film dealing with religious faith, with graphically depicted violence, and a foreign-language soundtrack could both generate wide- spread public debate about those factors and find a wide viewing audience.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) Helped propagate sympathetic public awareness that suppressed homo- sexual tendencies may be more widespread than a stereotyped “gay community.”

Pushing the Envelope: Case Studies Chapter 2

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Do the Right Thing (1989)

Americans began the 20th century living as a segregated society; it is not therefore unusual that films would reflect that reality of racial relations as well as society’s changing attitudes toward it. Race remains a sensitive but shifting issue, with gains and losses throughout the years. It is one subject that often remains a taboo topic; it makes many people uncomfortable no matter what their feelings about it. Film, however, has been a place where racial issues do appear, even when they do not in polite conversation. In American society, many of the depictions of racial struggles in film involved African Americans.

Over time, the representation of African Americans in film has in fact changed. We have noted in Table 2.1 and in Chapter 1 the impact of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, both in film and in culture, as well as that of The Jazz Singer, in which star Al Jolson appeared at times during the film in blackface (theatrical makeup to make him appear black). These films were controversial even when they debuted for their demeaning depiction of blacks, espe- cially The Birth of a Nation, but today even pitching such a film would be unthink- able. That these films would not be released today is a form of social progress and shows society’s changing attitudes about race. Nevertheless, no one would dispute that there is still a long way to go in this par- ticular social struggle.

Indeed, people of color still struggle to gain equality in the film industry. There have been films that have advanced the cause of equality without shying away from the problems that minorities face: namely, racism. Yet, as these examples show, even great movies with noble goals can sometimes themselves be problematic in the way they approach racial issues.

To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1962 film directed by Robert Mulligan based on Harper Lee’s well- loved, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is almost universally praised. Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the small southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. Finch, the single father of two young children, is appointed to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. Because of this, his children, in particular his daughter, Scout (played by Mary Badham, who was also nominated for an Academy Award), are exposed to the town’s innate racism. Finch is threatened by the townspeople, and despite his brilliant defense of the defendant (in particular his closing statements), the all-white jury finds Robinson guilty. Still, Finch is treated as a hero by the black residents of Maycomb, while Robinson is shot to death under dubious circumstances.

Peck’s portrayal is at once understated and powerful; his Finch attacks racism through quiet decency. The lesson of the film—that racism and bigotry are wrong and dangerously so—is cer- tainly well meaning. And yet, for all the movie’s good intentions, it exists firmly in the tradition of the white hero coming to the rescue of the wronged black man (and in this case, despite a noble

Courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ To Kill a Mockingbird is routinely read and screened by middle school students across the country. It’s much less likely that they will encounter images of black pride and the asser- tiveness of a film like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.

Pushing the Envelope: Case Studies Chapter 2

effort, even he can’t defeat the bigotry of his fellow townspeople). This is not to say it isn’t a great movie. But is it a great commentary on racism? Film critic Roger Ebert argues that it is not:

To Kill a Mockingbird is a time capsule, preserving hopes and sentiments from a kinder, gen- tler, more naive America. It was released in December 1962, the last month of the last year of the complacency of the postwar years. The following November, John F. Kennedy would be assassinated. Nothing would ever be the same again—not after the deaths of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, not after the war in Vietnam, certainly not after September 11, 2001. The most hopeful development during that period for America was the civil rights movement, which dealt a series of legal and moral blows to racism. But To Kill a Mockingbird, set in Maycomb, Alabama, in 1932, uses the realities of its time only as a backdrop for the portrait of a brave white liberal. (Ebert, 2001)

Fast-forward to 1989, the year Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing was released. (We’ll discuss this film later in terms of Lee’s directorial vision, of his control over the content and tone of the film, which is complete—he also wrote, co-produced, and starred in the movie). It is the story of a blisteringly hot day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. A sprawling film, it incorporates elements of drama and comedy while depicting the fragile truce with which people of various races co-exist within the community. Lee’s film is filled with a kind of in-your-face beauty and masterful technique, entertaining yet unflinching in its honesty. Unlike Mockingbird, this is a film that could have been made only by someone with personal experience with racial relations. The story is told not just through the prism of race but through Lee’s singular point of view. He is a gifted filmmaker, offering us striking images and funny scenes throughout. But

he is also furious, and that comes through without fail. From the first frames, in which Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power” plays, race is central to all things. As the lyrics say, “People, people we are the same/No we’re not the same/’Cause we don’t know the game/What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless” (Sadler, Ridenhour, Boxley, J. , and Boxley, K., n.d.) Lee never lets up.

“I sort of read it back then, and now, as a black nationalist manifesto,” said Natalie Hopkinson, an associate editor for The Root, to National Public Radio as part of a cele- bration of the 20th anniversary of the film’s release. “[Do The Right Thing portrayed] a purging of elements out of the community that did not respect black people and the black presence in Bed[ford]-Stuy[vesant]” (Martin, 2009).

Whether it is a better movie than To Kill a Mockingbird is open to debate, but it is unquestionably a story about the dangers of bigotry and racism told from the point of view of a director who under- stood the intricacies of race and didn’t shy away from tough topics—as Robert Mulligan, following Harper Lee’s novel and Horton Foote’s script, arguably did at times. Part of Do the Right Thing’s power lies in an uncomfortable sense of ambiguity that caused some to denounce it as promoting racial violence, whereas others lauded it as a powerful condemnation of racial violence. In either case, it forced audiences to think about race in a way that they perhaps had not done in the past.

Courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Do the Right Thing is an intensely thought-provoking exam- ination of racial tension and personal responsibility. The film’s final meaning has been debated, but its ultimate purpose in getting viewers to think is an undeniable success.

Pushing the Envelope: Case Studies Chapter 2

Philadelphia (1993) and Brokeback Mountain (2005)

There is no shortage of examples of stereotypical portrayals of gay men and women; for decades, disparaging portrayals, usually comic, were accepted almost as the norm. Although there were some rare exceptions, Philadelphia, which was released in 1993, was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to feature an openly gay man as its protagonist. While this was in itself note- worthy, what also made news was the level of top-flight talent involved in the film. Jonathan Demme, who had won an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs two years earlier, directed the film. Actors included Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, and Antonio Banderas. But the casting that attracted the most attention was Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett, the lead character in the film. Beckett is diagnosed with AIDS and is fired from his law firm; he sues, claiming discrimination. Hanks, up until this point, had appeared mostly in comedies and light romances, so the role was a shift for him.

Tom Hanks’s role in Philadelphia marked the first time an A-list Hollywood actor accepted a role as an openly gay lead character. Hanks, with his boyish good looks and standing within the industry as an all-around good-natured nice guy, was perhaps the perfect actor for what at the time was considered a legitimately controversial choice. What’s more, his Oscar-winning portrayal—sensitive, intelligent, yet also never backing away from the character’s sexuality (though nothing explicit is shown in the film)—was praised by both critics and peers and was widely accepted by the moviegoing public, inspiring thought and discussion on both AIDS and sexuality.

By the time Brokeback Mountain was released in theaters in 2005, the idea of mainstream actors playing gay characters was not considered as controversial a topic as it had once been (though it still provoked anger and prejudice among some). Director Ang Lee cast Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two cowboys who meet in 1963 when they are hired as ranch hands and slowly realize—even they aren’t sure what is happening at first—that they are in love. Given the time in which the film is set, the characters can- not live together or have a romantic rela- tionship openly. Instead, they both marry and father children, but meet each other occasionally through the years. While their relationship is not explicitly shown, there are scenes of romance—passionate kissing, embraces, and the like—that Lee directs with great sensitivity (he won the Academy Award for his direction).

The film was widely praised and became a box-office success. Jack Foley, the head of distribution at the studio that produced the film, said, “We no longer have to worry about breaking down the homophobic bar- riers, and [the film is] now breaking into the more mainstream boomer market” (Gray, 2006). However, the film was controversial as well. For example, Larry H. Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz professional basketball team as well as the Jordan Commons entertainment complex in a suburb of Salt Lake City, pulled the film from his theater. Despite the controversies both films attracted, Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain are considered milestones in their depiction of gay life because gay characters are not

©Focus Films/Everett Collection

▲▲ Brokeback Mountain not only challenged stereotypes of gay men; it also challenged and revised the conventions of the classic western.

Pushing the Envelope: Case Studies Chapter 2

shown as stereotypes as had been common in past films; they are portrayed as normal people living their lives.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and The Passion of the Christ (2004)

These two movies, both released in 2004, couldn’t have been made by more dissimilar direc- tors, nor could their subjects be more different. Yet each showed remarkable power, both at the box office and in terms of driving discussion of political and religious issues upon their release. Michael Moore is an avowed liberal, Oscar-winning documentarian who delights in taking shots at conservatives with admittedly one-sided films that are both informative and entertaining. Mel Gibson, meanwhile, is an actor and Oscar-winning director with well-known conservative Christian religious beliefs. Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 is a hugely critical look at George W. Bush, as well as the war in Iraq and the media that covered it. Gibson’s film, meanwhile, is a

depiction of the last hours of the life of Jesus Christ. Despite their differences, both films serve as examples of the way that movies can capture the imagination—and some- times incur the wrath—of audiences, and become part of the national discussion.

Because Fahrenheit 9/11 criticizes George W. Bush, his presidency, and more, Moore had trouble securing financing, obtaining distribution, and finding companies that would put the film in theaters. The subject matter was considered simply too contro- versial by some. Released a little more than four months before the 2004 presidential election, in which Bush was running for reelection, the film also generated plenty of discussion. Conservative commenta- tors disputed Moore’s facts and credibility,

while he fought back with documentation of his assertions. Christopher Hitchens was particu- larly brutal in his critique: “Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely dis- guised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of ‘dissenting’ bravery” (Hitchens, 2004).

Hitchens’s take-down, while more forcefully rendered than most, was by no means the only criti- cism. But when the film was released, it was an instant hit—a blockbuster, in fact, by documen- tary standards. The film earned more in its opening weekend than any other documentary had during an entire theatrical run. It went on to earn more than $222 million worldwide, by far the most money ever made by a documentary. This status at the box office, of course, doesn’t mean that Moore was correct in all his accusations. However, it does at least point to an interest in politics among audiences that proved strong enough to get people of any political stripe into the theater. The question now is, did the film really have an impact on voters? Bush was reelected to a second term in office despite the film’s scathing criticism of him; however, whether or not the film had an impact on the number of votes for each candidate is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, Gibson’s film was certainly not the first strongly religious film. Movies such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments were popular, while director Martin Scorsese’s The Last

©Lions Gate/courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ A scene from the movie Fahrenheit 9/11. Both Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ are the products of strongly felt—passionate—beliefs. Michael Moore was convinced that his film could make a difference in the electoral battle between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

Pushing the Envelope: Case Studies Chapter 2

Temptation of Christ and to some extent Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings generated controversy. But Gibson’s movie is different. All of the film’s dialogue is in Aramaic, Latin, or Hebrew, to add authenticity. The depiction of Jesus’s torture and crucifixion is unusually graphic and vio- lent—again, Gibson said, in order to portray violence as realistically as possible. He told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, “I wanted it to be shocking; and I wanted it to be extreme . . . so that they see the enormity—the enormity of that sacrifice” (Sawyer, 2004). The film predictably proved polariz- ing among audiences and critics. Some argued that the blood and gore, as Gibson argues, were necessary to give the film the desired impact. To soften it, the theory goes, would sanitize the message, would take Jesus’s death out of the realm of physical pain and suffering—would make it more theoretical than actual. Others maintained that the level of violence was unnecessary, that it actually distracted from Gibson’s message. Of course, some of these arguments were also thinly veiled discussions of faith, a subject that is inherently controversial.

Like Moore, Gibson had a difficult time secur- ing financing and distribution for his film, so he funded production of the film himself and finally arranged with a small independent distributor, Lionsgate, to get it into theaters. Churches gave away tickets, and church groups helped promote the film. Despite the contro- versy about the graphic violence, the film would earn more than $611 million worldwide, mak- ing it the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time. And, like Moore’s film, it led to much dis- cussion, both about religion and about the level of violence that audiences will tolerate.

Although some focused on the exploitational aspects of both films, it seemed that for a time, in 2004, movies drove the national discus- sion, again proving their power when it comes to capturing the public imagination. People were incorporating these movies into discus- sions of both politics and religion. Instead of movies being an escape from the controversial and often tough issues of the day, movies were central to both. This is a phenomenon that has happened often throughout American history, and it shows that movies can promote both escapism, as in films such as the Harry Potter or Transformers series, and social progress and national discourse in films such as Do the Right Thing and Fahrenheit 9/11. SuperSize Me, released the same year as Fahrenheit 9/11, and a few later documentaries, notably An Inconvenient Truth and Bully, have started to break into mainstream culture by depicting uncomfortable issues the filmmakers hope people will begin to address.

Thelma & Louise (1991) and Winter’s Bone (2010)

Even though women have enjoyed a growing power both in front of and behind the camera, their influence is still hindered by a residual prejudice. Female directors such as Kathryn Bigelow, Amy Heckerling, and Nicole Holofcener enjoy good reputations as directors, but they don’t necessarily make films geared toward female audiences. In its own way, this is a form of equality; why should

©Newmarket/courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ A still from the set of the movie The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson served as writer, director, and producer of this self-financed $25 million film. Due to the religious subject matter and controversial approach of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson had difficulty finding a distributor, but once it got into theaters its unexpectedly large box- office success helped turn Lionsgate Films into a major studio.

Pushing the Envelope: Case Studies Chapter 2

they be pressured to confine themselves to a type? Men are not asked to. Some films, however, including some directed by men, have been influential in the way women are portrayed in movies and, arguably, per- ceived in society. With Thelma & Louise, a major film directed by a big-name direc- tor (Ridley Scott), that is certainly the case. With Winter’s Bone, a smaller film with no major stars (at that time) and very little pro- motion, it might be.

In the simplest terms, Thelma & Louise (1991) stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as women who, motivated by vari- ous issues in their lives, go on a road trip. It quickly turns ugly, as a man tries to rape Thelma (Davis) and Louise (Sarandon) shoots and kills him. Now they are on the lam, and the experience proves transform-

ing for both of them, subverting the traditional idea of the male buddy movie. They are victims of violence, yet they also commit it, an unusual occurrence in a mainstream film. They are liberated by breaking out of their accepted roles in society, and the film is liberated as well. The ending has been seen as both controversial and empowering. However the viewer may feel about it, the film places women firmly at its center. Though it was directed by a man—Ridley Scott—it is the story of two women, told by a woman—screenwriter Callie Khouri won an Oscar for her screen- play—and it remains a cultural touchstone. The movie’s title alone suggests a form of female empowerment.

“Although the characters may not have survived their final flight, Thelma & Louise lives on in unusual places,” writes Bernie Cook in one of many books the movie has inspired. He continues:

Extracinematically, Thelma & Louise has been used as a statement of female empowerment and self-assertion and also as a warning of the perceived dangers of female access to vio- lence. . . . By representing women as both victims and agents of violence, Thelma & Louise broke radical new ground in mainstream American representation, profoundly threaten- ing masculinist critics who objected to its breach of the norm of violence as male privilege. (Cook, 2007)

Will Winter’s Bone be discussed in such revolutionary terms 20 years after its release? It may not, as more ground has been broken in the portrayal of women in film. However, the 2010 film is also very much a woman’s story, directed by a woman—Debra Granik—and placing a female char- acter in a nontraditional role. Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl living in the Ozarks and taking care of her young siblings. Her mother is mentally ill, almost nonresponsive. So when someone has to find her father, who cooks meth and has skipped out on his bail, the job falls to her. Dubbed “hillbilly noir” in some circles, the film puts not just a woman but a teenage girl in the traditional role of detective, as Ree combs the backwoods looking for her father, deal- ing with relatives and acquaintances (both male and female) who are at best reticent, at worst violent. Yet she plugs away, determined to find him. If it is not as blatantly obvious an example of female empowerment as Thelma & Louise, its take on the traditional role of the hard-boiled detective—and Ree is as hard-boiled as Humphrey Bogart in any of his roles—is so matter-of-fact

©MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ A scene from the movie Thelma & Louise. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis take the battle of the sexes to a new level in the title roles of Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, a film that reversed typical male/female stereotypes and provoked much debate among viewers and critics.

Summary and Resources Chapter 2

that it might be even more subversive. Time will tell if the film, highly praised but not widely distributed, will prove influential. To attentive audiences who discover it on video, it may well be. Winter’s Bone proves that in the 21st century there is still new ground to cover in terms of the portrayal of women (and teenagers) on screen—and that it can be done in a fashion both enter- taining and revealing in what it says about its characters, and what it says about us.

Summary and Resources Chapter Summary

Movies have had an impact on society since they began. While one can debate whether films influence society or society influences films, the more likely answer is that each influences the other. The best films offer a reflection of the time in which they are made, yet they also help engender discussion and sometimes change in the community that watches them.

The rapidly rising use of social media adds greatly to this participation. While many of the online public reactions to films are merely vague personal impressions, the availability of social media gives anyone the chance to write and read serious criticism and analysis previously limited to published professional critics, as well as to do it almost instantly after a film is screened anywhere in the world. Due to their instantaneous and interactive nature, various forms of social media have also become key elements in movie marketing.

Social media parallels and even reinforces the popularity of movies as a form of escapist enter- tainment, yet, just like the movies, it may provide a powerful link to the realities of everyday life. Even movies intended and treated as escapism often have sociopolitical overtones reflecting issues current when they were made.

Hollywood has tried, throughout its history, to regulate and influence what kinds of movies are made and to control their content. However, many filmmakers have still been able to achieve their vision through creative means. The U.S. government at one point even felt movies were influential enough on the general public that it sought to ban anyone with communist sympathies from working in Hollywood studios.

Not every film has an impact on society, but many do, and they do so to varying degrees. By watching them, we as the audience are able to more fully form opinions on crucial issues, and even to join in on the discussion of them.

Questions to Ask Yourself About Societal Impact When Viewing a Film

• Does the movie make you feel as if you are escaping your daily life? (escapism) • Is censorship evident in the version of the movie you are watching? (post-dubbing, cutting

out scenes from the original) • Does the movie address controversial societal or political issues? • Can the movie be seen as an allegory for any societal or political issues? How? What evi-

dence is present in the film and outside of the film for this assessment?

Summary and Resources Chapter 2

You Try It

1. Name one film you have seen recently that you believe has had at least some impact on society. How did the film achieve this? Do you think the effect was intentional? The 2010 documentary Inside Job delves into the financial crisis and its causes. Audiences have been outraged. Will it help usher in stricter financial reform? To view an example of what the film explores, go to www.movieclips.com and watch the following clip:

“Lehman Brothers Goes Bankrupt” 2. Have you ever been influenced by social media when making the decision whether to see a

film? If so, in what way? 3. How do films such as Pulp Fiction, Blue Velvet, or others you have seen serve as an escape

from your normal routine and everyday life, and how do they remind you of aspects or issues in your own life or in current society?

4. What changes would have to be made in a film such as Pulp Fiction, Blue Velvet, or another film you have seen that has graphic violence or sexuality in order for it to have been released under the rules of the Motion Picture Production Code? Think of a few scenes from a movie you have seen and how the code would change those scenes.

5. Do you believe that movies can influence specific behaviors (such as smoking in teens or the commission of violence)? Why, or why not? Do you believe that films, in general, influence society, or does society influence what is shown in films? Cite examples of films you have seen to help illustrate your answer. As an example, the 2010 film The Social Network tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook. Did the popularity of Facebook—and jealousy of Zuckerberg—influence the film? Go to www.movieclips.com and search “The Social Network” to view the following clip showing Zuckerberg coming up with the precur- sor to the popular social-media site:

“We’re Ranking Girls”

Key Terms

blog An Internet-based personal Web site often used as a random, cathartic form of self- expression, but also often used to focus on some particular topic the writer is passionate about, such as film criticism; short for “Web log.”

escapism The desire or practice of escaping from daily cares and worries, often through fan- tasy, entertainment, or art.

Facebook A popular Internet-based medium of communication that provides users with a per- sonal Web site of text and photos, with controlled access and the ability for outside comments, often used as a combination online résumé, diary, bulletin board, and discussion forum.

hashtag A word or phrase prefixed with the # symbol, which a computer can recognize as metadata for easy searching and grouping of information on social network services such as Twitter, Facebook, and others.

Hollywood blacklist A list of film industry personnel, especially writers and directors, who were believed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Un-American Activities Committee (also known as the HUAC) to have dangerous communist influences on mass entertainment. People on the list were forbidden to work on Hollywood studio films for many years.





Summary and Resources Chapter 2

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) A group that provides movie ratings.

Motion Picture Production Code A formal list of content restrictions adopted by Hollywood movie studios in 1930 as a form of self-regulation in order to avoid the threat of national or state censorship boards.

pre-code A term applied to many films produced between 1930 and mid-1934 that flouted the terms of the Motion Picture Production Code with risqué or violent content.

social media Forms of communication, particularly through the Internet and cell-phone texting, that promote social interaction without the need for personal contact.

stereotype An overly simplified characterization of something or someone, especially due to race, nationality, geographic region, economic status, and many other attributes.

Twitter An Internet-based medium of communication that uses short text messages of 140 characters or less.

Movies for Fun & Profit, Art & Communication


Every time I go to a movie, it’s magic, no matter what the movie’s about.

—Steven Spielberg


Movies and Their Roles in Our Lives Chapter 1

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following: • Discuss why studying film is important and what it can contribute to an individual’s life. • Evaluate what makes a film “good” and understand how the role of film criticism is

changing. • Define what it means to be media literate. • Explain the history of where audiences have seen films and the many different options

contemporary audiences have for watching film as well as how those options affect the way they see the film.

• Explain how a film’s budget and scale of production affects content and expectations.

1.1 Movies and Their Roles in Our Lives All of us have ample opportunity to see, on an almost daily basis, how much movies mean to people. In a world in which almost every form of entertainment is increasingly available at our fingertips, often from the comfort of our living rooms, and even when the cost of movie tickets soars as the economy struggles, people keep coming to the movies. But why?

It’s fun sometimes to watch people as they watch a movie. They’re sucked in. It’s a cliché to say that “they laugh, they cry,” but there’s always truth behind clichés—audiences do laugh and cry, and they have a variety of other emotions as they sit and watch. Audiences are moved by films in ways that they rarely are by other forms of art.

Why are movies so important to us? There are many answers to this question, some of which we will explore in this text. We’ll also look at how writers, directors, and actors put movies together to create the desired effect upon an audience.

But more than that, we’ll discover why studying film matters, and why and how it’s possible to get even more enjoyment out of watching movies when we understand the process of making them. Examining movies more fully will help us understand why we care so much about them. And it will also help us understand something about ourselves. To fully evaluate a movie requires the use of tools—critical thinking, discernment, judgment, and perspective chief among them—that serve us well not only in deciding whether a movie is good but in all aspects of our lives. Movies are not, and are not meant to be, blueprints for how to live our lives. This is to say that most of us cannot live our lives like James Bond. If we drive fast, we likely crash. If someone throws us from a building, we likely die. Admirable as we may find Bond’s skills and resilience, those talents do not translate to our everyday lives.

Films and their deeper meanings can be, however, reflective of our lives. We may not have license to kill, as Bond does, but we can appreciate the willingness to go it alone in the face of adversity, and even the necessity of doing so in the face of a slow-moving bureaucracy. We may also admire our hero’s personal sense of justice, his perseverance in trying to defeat what he knows is evil, and his efforts to do his best for the betterment of others, even if he must disregard official rules and protocol to do so. The careful consideration of a film, then, applying to it the skills that we all have available to us, is an enjoyable, useful addition to a full life, as it is with any art form. Where film is different is in its active assault on our senses, making it a good starting point for any criti- cal evaluation of art.

Film: Looking for Meaning Chapter 1

Studying film is a part of media literacy, or the understanding of how media affects our lives. We’re bombarded with a constant stream of messages daily through advertising, art, and enter- tainment. It is useful to recognize how a movie manipulates our reactions and, by extension, the ways we respond (even if subconsciously). Media literacy can help us see how what we perceive on the surface as simple entertainment may actually be telling us numerous things about its creators, the culture, and the time it was created. And through this, we may learn more about ourselves, the world around us, and the timeless universality of human nature itself.

Armed with this knowledge, the reader will become a more sophisticated filmgoer, which will lead to not only a more sophisticated analysis of the elements behind what we see on screen, but also a richer enjoyment of a movie when he or she sits down in the theater, with popcorn in hand, as the lights go down and the magic begins.

1.2 Film: Looking for Meaning Movies are how we see the world. But how do we see movies? We see them as escape, we see them as meaningful, we see them as windows into our lives and the lives of others. Perhaps we see a comedy to boost our spirits, to put us in a better mood. Maybe we choose a drama in hopes of a deeper feeling, or a science-fiction film to escape. Sometimes that’s enough, and sometimes we seek a deeper meaning, a deeper satisfaction. We watch them for simple entertainment, we see them as cues for our behavior and tastes, and we find they are convenient topics of discussion with friends and complete strang- ers. Film is a uniquely popular medium, or form of communication, that captures both the imagination and the money of millions of people every weekend. A trip to the movies is a traditional first date, a great way to while away a couple of hours, and the only way to stay in the pop-culture loop when a block- buster such as The Avengers or the latest Iron Man or Star Trek sequel is released.

How We See Movies

Since the beginnings of film technology in the 1890s, and even more so with the rise of feature- length films in the 1910s, audiences have been fascinated, both by the films themselves and by the people who make them. That love affair has not diminished; if anything, it has increased. Some years ago now, in Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars and the Cult of Celebrity, Samantha Barbas wrote:

After nearly 100 years of motion pictures, Americans are still fascinated by the cinema. Although most of us feel quite sure about the way the movies work—that the camera depicts a distorted, constructed version of reality—we still engage in acts of verification. Although most of us accept that we cannot take part directly in the filmmaking process, we still want to feel a part of the movies by learning about the inner workings of film studios and the

Courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ In the midst of the Great Depression, audiences found much to laugh about in It Happened One Night, a classic “screwball comedy” starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

Film: Looking for Meaning Chapter 1

details of stars’ lives. As long as we go to the movies, we will probably always be fascinated by questions of authenticity and involvement. And as twenty-first century technology provides us with more—and more lifelike—forms of entertainment, the more urgent these issues may become. (Barbas, 2001)

Samantha Barbas points out some important aspects of how audiences feel about movies— namely, that we understand that what we see on the screen is an imaginary world, yet we still become wrapped up in the fictional stories as if they are real. Because we feel so affected by what we know is fantasy, we often try to learn more about the people and processes that are able to involve us on such an emotional level.

Film is also, of course, a huge industry. While that will not be the focus here, it is still an unavoid- able and important fact that colors every aspect of making movies—so we must pay attention to it. Box-office forecasts and scorekeeping have become a business unto themselves, and not just for professionals. Despite dire economic circumstances, in 2013 theater audiences spent more than $10 billion on tickets to the 669 movies whose grosses were tracked by Boxofficemojo.com, nearly $2 billion of that just on the year’s five most popular releases, a staggering total for such tough times.

Yet this desire to go to movies, even in a tough economic climate, is understandable. More than most other art forms, movies allow us the ability to escape the world we’re living in and enter another, at least for a short while. Although good books can do the same thing, they require a more active participation and imagination on the part of the reader. A movie allows viewers to sit back and relax while they see and hear the movie world unfold on the screen before them. As the audience immerses itself in the pre-Civil War fabric of Django Unchained or the room-to-room search for Osama bin Laden at the climax of Zero Dark Thirty—vastly different experiences, indeed—day-to-day concerns temporarily fade. Depending on the film, we really may laugh, we may cry, we may be frightened or exhilarated, and we often find ourselves in a world completely different from our own.

Certainly there is something to be said for letting entertainment wash over you without thinking much about it. Laughing until you cry while watching The Hangover (2009), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), or Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) can be rewarding in its own way. But the more discriminating film fan looks for deeper meaning and, by doing so, can find greater satisfaction. It is, simply, ultimately more enjoyable. No one wants to go to the movies with a checklist of suggested behaviors. But armed with the right tools, specifically the knowledge of the different elements that go into creating a film and how they affect its outcome, you can better enjoy the experience.

As you will learn in this text, the finished product we see on screen is the result of the

collaboration of hundreds if not thousands of people. It is a true team effort, as anyone who has ever sat through the lengthy closing credits of a movie can attest. Yet the best films are almost


▲▲ An action-adventure film like Django Unchained, even though grounded in reality, may be an escape for many view- ers from their own personal realities.

Film: Looking for Meaning Chapter 1

always the product of a singular vision, whether it be that of the writer of the screenplay or the director or the producer (sometimes the same person performs two or more of a film’s major creative tasks and may even appear on screen as one of the characters). Ask anyone involved in the making of a movie, and they will tell you that, with all of the obstacles involved, it’s amazing a film ever gets made at all. But a good film? That’s almost a small miracle.

The Players, in Front of and Behind the Camera

Many people contribute to the creation of a film. Throughout the course of this text, we will discuss who they are and what they do. For now, it will be helpful to understand what role each person plays and how they all come together to create a movie before we go further. See Table 1.1 for additional jobs in filmmaking.

a. You: The audience and the critic. These are the end users, the people for whom the film is made, and the people who judge its merits, both by buying tickets and by spreading their opin- ions by word of mouth.

b. The screenwriter: The man or woman who cre- ates the story on which the film is based. The story can be original or adapted from another medium, such as a book or play.

c. The actor: The face of the film and its best- known participant. (Note: The term “actor” will refer to men and women in this text.)

d. The cinematographer: In simple terms, the person who “shoots,” or photographs, the film. He or she is responsible for the visual represen- tation of the story.

e. The editor: The man or woman who puts the pieces of the puzzle together, that is, who takes individual shots and scenes and pieces them together in coherent form.

f. The director: The person with the ultimate responsibility for the overall film. The finished film is a reflection of his or her personal vision, no matter how many collaborators are involved.

g. The producer: The person who brings together all the people and financing necessary to get the film made and oversees the production from development to release, often with varying degrees of creative input.

©Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Meryl Streep has played remarkably diverse roles— a Polish refugee in Sophie’s Choice (pictured here), Julia Child in Julie and Julia, a free-spirited single mother in the musical Mamma Mia!, and Linda in The Deer Hunter, a searing Vietnam War film by Michael Cimino.

Courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Scene from the movie Bonnie and Clyde. Arthur Penn, who died in September 2010, is among America’s greatest directors. His most celebrated film, Bonnie and Clyde, marked a turning point in American film culture. It paved the way for the “New American Cinema” of the 1970s—films like Taxi Driver and The Godfather.

Film: Looking for Meaning Chapter 1

Table 1.1 Filmmaking jobs

Preproduction or planning stage

Producer Arranges for film to be made, finds investors, hires people to make it, oversees production, makes sure it gets done on budget.

Screenwriter Writes script, whether original or adapted from another source.

Production designer Or, on a smaller film, the art director. Oversees the “look” of a film; responsible for keeping the sets, props, and costumes appropriate to the story and characters, and historically accurate if necessary.

Production or shooting stage

Director Interprets script into personal vision and decides overall “look” with the production designer and cinematographer; directs actors and the action while shooting.

Cinematographer Directs camera placement, lens, and lighting choices; sometimes operates camera but usually has a camera crew.

Gaffer Head electrician; rigs and places lights according to cinema- tographer’s instructions.

Boom operator Holds microphone just off camera to get clearest recording of dialogue. On a small-scale production, may also be the mixer, responsible for recording the sound.

Grip Moves props as necessary; dolly grip pushes camera dolly.

Script supervisor Makes detailed notes of every take so that actors and props can be repositioned for later retakes and maintain continuity.

Postproduction or assembly stage

Editor Arranges the best footage that has been shot into a coherent, effective order.

Sound editor Mixes separate recordings of dialogue, sound effects, and music into final audio track.

What Makes a Film “Good”?

In some respects, as with any art form, quality is in the eye of the beholder. One cannot impose a strict set of standards, as if checking items off of a laundry list, when it comes to evaluating a movie (or a painting, a song, a television show, or any other form of art for that matter). The role of film criticism is to examine a film on various levels, interpret meanings that the filmmakers are conveying, and evaluate their effectiveness before arriving at a conclusion as to whether others will find it worthwhile. A simple film reviewer, on the other hand, rather than analyzing a film to any depth, will more likely rely on personal impressions, opinions, and superficial observations to declare whether a film is “good” or “bad” or somewhere in between.

When critiquing a film, we can establish a loose system of benchmarks, or criteria, that go beyond its ability to keep the audience in their seats for two hours. We will work toward identify- ing that system as we move forward, but its basic components are these: The film must be true to itself and reveal a greater truth about us. This is achieved in many ways: Are the film’s messages relatable, not just in terms of the specific story it is telling, but as part of larger themes as well? For instance, in Do the Right Thing, director Spike Lee examines racism in a way that is both entertaining and moving. He uses the racial struggles of one block in one neighborhood to com- ment on the greater struggles of all people who deal with prejudice. Another aspect to consider is

Film: Looking for Meaning Chapter 1

if the emotions that a film portrays are genuine. That is, does the film earn its emotional impact? With the incredible array of tools at his or her disposal, any reasonably competent director can make an audience cry. But the truly moving film makes us feel the emotions we are watching more deeply so that we are not just observing but truly feeling. (Do the Right Thing is again a good example of this experience.)

Throughout this text, we will refer to this measure as the truth test (see Table 1.2). This test may sound as if it limits good movies to overtly serious fare, such as The Seventh Seal or There Will Be Blood, but it does not. Both are, indeed, great films; however, nothing could be further from the truth. Movies as varied as Animal House, This Is Spinal Tap, Halloween, The Godfather films (at least the first two), Toy Story, and Argo are also great if you measure them with this test. No subject matter, no form, no genre (type) of film disqualifies it from satisfying the truth test. It all lies in the creation and execution of the film, no matter what it is about or how it is presented. Before you use the truth test when you see a movie, ask yourself three simple questions adapted from late 18th/ early 19th-century poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s autobiog- raphy, which form the basis of virtually all critical reaction to theater, film, literature, or creative art:

• What is the film trying to say? • How well does the film say it? • Was it worth saying?

(Adapted from Goethe, 1811/1897)

Then, once you have answered those ques- tions, implement the truth test:

• Was the film true to itself? • Did the film reveal a greater truth

about us as human beings?

Table 1.2 Quick criteria for evaluating a film (or any work of art)

Truth test Is the film true to itself? Does the film explore some deep truth about human nature?

Goethe’s questions

What is the filmmaker trying to say?

How well was it said? Was it worth saying?

It is important to be able to evaluate, now more than ever, what makes a film good. As we will see later, due to easy access to movie-making technology and the ability to share movies online, more people are making more films in more ways than ever before. That doesn’t exactly improve the ratio of good to bad films, but it does at least offer more opportunity and variety, both for those who make films and for those who watch and love them. With the onslaught of new product (as movies are referred to in the industry), it is important to remember to focus not only on the method of delivery—how one sees a film, whether it be at a multiplex (a building housing several individual theaters), in a living room, in a home theater, or on a computer or iPhone—but on the

Courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is a complex film. It asks viewers to make their own “truth test.” It’s an explicit call for workers to stand up to corrupt unions—to tell the truth—yet it’s also a political allegory and a representative film from an “auteur” director’s career, as we’ll see in later chapters.

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film itself. It’s not necessarily how we’re seeing something that is crucial, in other words, but what we’re seeing. This text will help you first know what to look for when you are watching a movie; then, you can apply the truth test to determine for yourself what movies are good.

You Try It: The Truth Test

1. Think of your favorite movie, either current or all-time. Then think about why you like it, and jot down some ideas:

• Is it funny? Is it scary? Did it make you happy to watch it? Could you relate to the characters?

• Now think about why it made you feel those things, and how. What caused you to laugh, or to shriek in terror?

• Did you react primarily to the action in the plot, to issues the story treats, to the charac- ters, to performances of specific actors, to the technical style of the filmmaking, or to some combination of these?

2. Using the same favorite film, apply Goethe’s three questions and finally the truth test. Jot down your responses to each of the questions.

• What is the film trying to say? • How well does the film say it? • Was it worth saying? • Was the film true to itself? Is it consistent in how it delivers its message, whatever that

message may be? (It need not be a “serious” message.) • Does the film reveal a bigger truth about us, about the people watching it? Again, this

need not be limited to serious dramas; comedies often use humor to reveal deeper truths about us.

1.3 What Did We Just See? Beginning to Evaluate Films How do we experience movies? We watch them, is the shortest, simplest answer. We watch a series of moving images put together in a way that is designed to entertain us. The first films were such miracles of then-modern technology that they tried to do little else. Audiences who saw The Kiss in 1896—a 47-second movie of a man and woman kissing, as the title promises, in a reenactment of a brief scene from a popular stage comedy called The Widow Jones—were stunned. Why? Because they were seeing something they had never seen before, images moving in a lifelike fashion.

Yet even then, some looked for deeper meaning. One person wrote of The Kiss: “The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage, but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting” (Hollingshead, 2010). And thus, a film critic was born.

Thinking It Through: Watching on a Deeper Level

Many people simply watch a movie. We work hard, we have pressure in our lives, we seek outlets to help us relax. Certain movies are perfect for this. Turn off your brain as a comedy like Bridesmaids or Ted begins, and you can relax and let life’s pressures slip away. While this experience may be

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enjoyable, it’s also the cinematic equivalent of junk food. It’s fun every now and then, but a steady diet of it isn’t satisfying. What is more satisfying is seeking deeper meaning in the movies we see.

The good news is that finding deeper meaning like this doesn’t take an advanced degree, or years of study on the part of a moviegoer. One doesn’t pass an entrance exam to join the ranks of film critic. However, it does require effort, effort that is made easier when one knows more about how films are made, what films have influenced today’s directors, and, more importantly, how to look for what the movies are trying to say. The best films not only hold up to such increased scrutiny; they are even more enjoyable in light of it. The first and foremost requirement on the part of the people watching is a love of film and a willingness to think about what they are seeing.

“Film criticism requires nothing but an interesting sensibility,” John Podhoretz writes in The Weekly Standard in his essay “Thinking on Film.” Podhoretz continues:

The more self-consciously educated one is in the field—by which I mean the more obscure the storehouse of cinematic knowledge a critic has—the less likely it is that one will have anything interesting to say to an ordinary person who isn’t all that interested in the condition of Finnish cinema. (2009)

Indeed, all that thoughtful consideration of a movie requires, in truth, is the willingness to pay a little bit more attention to what the film is trying to say, the ways it is saying it, and the recogni- tion that film is a unique art form. This is not to say that it is any better or any worse than other expressions of art. It is merely different. And it does require a viewer’s devoted attention, or key elements may be missed. To begin evaluating a film you’ve seen, recall Goethe’s three simple questions you should ask yourself about any art, and our truth test for movies.

Books vs. Movies: And the Winner Is . . .

We often hear the complaint, when a well-loved book is made into a movie, that the book was much better. Often this is indeed the case. However, in classic films like The Godfather or Jaws, skilled filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg took lesser novels and turned them into brilliant movies.

In Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws, for instance, subplots involving many of the characters distract from what is the heart of the story: the search for the shark. Spielberg elimi- nated many of these subplots (and allowed a character who dies in the novel to sur- vive in the film), streamlining the action without sacrificing character development, which he establishes in other ways, such as the bonding scene in the boat when the three men drink and tell stories. Most crit- ics consider the film to be much more suc- cessful than the novel.

In reality, however, the comparison between books and the movies made from them doesn’t matter. It’s the proverbial compari- son between apples and oranges. A movie

©Warner Brothers/Courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Scene from the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. An over-the top stylist like Tim Burton brings movie magic to the Willy Wonka story in his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same name.

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is not a book. Nor is it music, even if it is a documentary about music like Woodstock or Martin Scorsese’s classic The Last Waltz. It is its own form of art, with its own set of values, rewards, and challenges. It must stand on its own and should be evaluated as a unique entity.

There is something about experiencing a thing visually that makes the impression lasting. This is not to say that a great scene in a novel isn’t memorable—it is. But film is a visual medium, unlike a book. With a film we actually see the story presented to us, unfolding in what appears to be real time. And seeing it with an audience gives an added dimension missing from the solitary experi- ence of reading (or watching a movie alone on video). As writer Bret Stalcup observes:

Here we have one of the powerful potentials of film, the ability to stimulate prolonged and varied emotional responses. . . . I may move from humor to fear to poignancy to outrage to sadness within the limits of the duration of the film, and in some cases I may still feel emotional after-effects once the film is through. Studies show that sharing experiences that involve mutual emotional responses can result in an increased sense of bonding—perhaps this is why movies are a staple of traditional dating rituals, by creating effects that would otherwise be had over a much longer span of time. (Stalcup, 2010)

Elements of a Film: More Than Story Content

Indeed, more than any other medium, movies require a combination of many different forms of art to produce a successful whole. The screenwriter provides the story, the director shapes it to his or her own vision, the actors put their imprints on it, the cinematographer captures the work on film (or, increasingly, some digital medium), the composer punctuates what we see on screen with music. Behind the scenes, hundreds more specialists offer their contributions. If any one fails, the film cannot succeed as a whole.

But when they do succeed, they offer a com- bination of elements that provide a shared satisfaction that no other medium can offer. Often the different pieces work together so seamlessly that we don’t even think of them as separate ingredients; this happens in the best films, where we see only the whole and forget the parts.

It’s fine and sometimes instructive to know the technical names of all of the things that go into a movie, but it’s not essential. On some level, you can enjoy a great perfor- mance like that of Sam Rockwell in Moon without knowing how the director man- aged to put both of the characters he plays in the same scenes together (though it’s hard not to wonder). You can marvel at the beauty and sweep of a movie like Shutter Island without knowing how meticulously

director Martin Scorsese arranged the lights on the set, or placed the actors just so, to achieve his desired result—giving the film a creepy look that still manages to be gorgeous, albeit in a consis- tently threatening way. And no one really has to know what it is that the key grip does.

©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Still from the set of Shutter Island. Scorsese’s insistence on working within the confines of Medfield State Hospital in Shutter Island inspired Leonardo DiCaprio’s memorable performance.

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However, when we do become aware of and consider these things—these elements of how a film is made and what the director and cast are trying to impart to us—our enjoyment will grow even richer. The point isn’t to define terms so much as it is to simply look at what’s going on in a movie—everything that’s going on. It’s something like tasting a good meal and trying to identify all of the combinations of flavors that make it delicious—or, in the case of a bad meal (or a bad film), why they don’t quite add up. True film lovers don’t just watch a movie; they try to really see it.

And seeing is the advantage film enjoys over other forms of art—seeing the images and characters move, interact, fight, sing, dance. Film is not a static form. Movement is key (it’s why they’re called “movies”)—seeing that movement is what transfixes us.

The Future of Film Critics

One final aspect of the current film landscape may shape the media literacy surrounding the film medium while offering more opportunity to increase the discussion of it. Thanks to a troubled economy, newspapers and magazines around the country have made cutbacks that include lay- ing off dozens of film critics. Why should a local newspaper, if it is part of a national chain, spend money paying a local critic if it can use the services of a wire-service critic, a critic who reviews the latest blockbuster and whose review runs in every newspaper that is part of the same ownership?

In his blog, the late Roger Ebert, who was perhaps the most famous film critic in the United States, explains:

Why do we need critics? A good friend of mine in a very big city was once told by his editor that the critic should “reflect the taste of the readers.” My friend said, “Does that mean the food critic should love McDonald’s?” The editor: “Absolutely.” I don’t believe readers buy a newspaper to read variations on the Ed McMahon line, “You are correct, sir!” A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged. (Ebert, 2008)

In other words, the local critic should be part of a community discussion. Think of a review—a professional critic’s, yours, your mother’s, or your best friend’s—not as the final word on the mat- ter, but merely a starting point. Few pursuits are more enjoyable, after all, than arguing the rela- tive merits of the latest release. A review should be what kicks off that conversation.

If there is a positive side to the thinning of the ranks of film critics, it is this: That conversation is now open to more people than ever, thanks to the Internet. Anyone can create a blog, literally in a matter of seconds, and post their thoughts on a movie (or anything else) for all the world to see. Moderated Web forums and unmoderated “usenet” groups provide ongoing online discussions about film and other topics. In a Weekly Standard essay, Podhoretz looks on what he sees as the bright side of this changing critic landscape:

There aren’t fewer voices, but many, many more. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of working critics on the Web in all fields. There are book bloggers and film bloggers and dance bloggers and music bloggers. The only difference between them and the professionals is that they don’t get paid, except for a few dollars a week from Google ads.

That, he argues, might be a good thing:

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This deprofessionalization is probably the best thing that could have happened to the field. . . . Amateurism in the best sense will lead to some very interesting work by people whose primary motivation is simply to express themselves in relation to the work they’re seeing— a purer critical impulse than the one that comes with collecting a paycheck along the way. (Podhoretz, 2009)

Podhoretz does not take into account that professional critics must submit their work to editors, that they must adhere to a set of standards, whereas bloggers have more of a free rein. Bloggers, meanwhile, argue that they do have editors—everyone who reads their posts, and comments on them, making their writing more interactive and part of a more authentic back-and-forth con- versation. Whether that is true is open to debate. What’s not debatable is that the conversation continues to change due to a combination of factors, including a troubled economy that affects traditional media outlets such as newspapers and better, more accessible technology.

The well-informed movie fan can be a big part of this conversation. That is what we will accom- plish here—helping you discover the language of film, increase your knowledge, and evaluate what makes a film good—so that you not only enjoy the experience of going to the movies more, but also are able to share that knowledge and enthusiasm. Perhaps you’ll even become a film critic, whether professionally or just by blogging.

1.4 Going to the Movies: From Theaters to Netflix to iPhones

Movies are made to be watched, obviously. But they are also usually intended to be watched in certain ways, and seeing a movie in a way other than what it was designed for can greatly affect dramatic impact, enjoyment, and even the understanding of it. Major factors such as uninter- rupted presentation vs. serialized viewing (e.g., two parts with an intermission, planned frequent commercial interruptions, or multiple episodes spread over days or weeks), the size of the screen and image resolution (with visibility of fine details or only basic shapes), and the presence or lack of a large audience (with expected group reactions or merely individual responses) are all taken into consideration by filmmakers when planning the story structure, camera techniques, and editing styles (all of which we’ll be examining in future chapters).

The Theater Experience

For generations, audiences saw movies in one place: the theater. More than just a place to watch films, the local movie house was also a place for communal gathering, where a group of people could share the experience of what they saw on the screen, talk about it, enjoy it, and debate it. In addition, audiences were able to enjoy concessions as they watched—popcorn, candy, and soft drinks, which would prove so popular with audiences that they would eventually become the big- gest source of revenue for theater owners.

Imagine for a moment the startling cultural shift this new movie house created in people’s lives when it first appeared in the early years of the 20th century. At five cents per ticket, movie houses quickly became known as “nickelodeons.” Live theater existed, of course, on Broadway and in smaller regional venues, but costs for production and touring required ticket prices beyond what average working people could afford. Films, however, just had to be produced once, and copies could be sent anywhere, so as movie theaters opened across the country, there was an affordable form of social entertainment that one didn’t have to live in New York to enjoy. The movie theater

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became a destination point that provided not only a sense of community but also a form of entertainment that almost seemed magical when it first arrived. A trip to the movies is something we take for granted today, but when motion pic- tures first arrived, they instigated a seismic shift in the cul- tural landscape.

Simply put, movies were a technological advancement that changed lives. This advancement would hardly be the last in the entertainment industry. The death knell has been sounded many times for the live theater, which survived despite films, and then for films in theaters as well as live theatrical produc- tions. In the late 1920s, competition from radio helped hasten the use of sound technology for films, and in the early 1950s television was a major blow against the film industry when it became widely available in homes. Why leave the house for entertainment when it was being beamed into your living room—for free? Indeed, television had some effect on box- office numbers, but film again survived, after introducing new technological enhancements like wide screen, stereo sound, more frequent use of color, and more adult-oriented stories not available on television. The first of several periodic crazes for 3-D (which seems to revive briefly about every 30 years, although the latest trend has survived longer than previous spurts of 3-D movies) was an attempt to draw viewers away from their TV sets and into the the- aters for something they could not get at home. The introduction of color TV, uncensored cable, widescreen stereo HDTV, and lately even 3-D televisions has neutralized those aspects as strictly theatrical attractions, however.

Methods of distribution have changed over the history of filmmaking, as we’ll discuss soon (see Table 1.3 for current distribution and viewing options). Ease of access to movies at home, too, would threaten the popularity of going to a theater to see movies. Yet despite the fact that a simple click on a computer keyboard will deliver a movie to your laptop instantaneously—and the fact that home-theater systems can rival and sometimes outclass what’s available at the local multiplex—people still go to movies. Going to the movies always has been and still is an act of sharing a moment that simply can’t be replicated anywhere else.

Table 1.3 Movie distribution and viewing options

Movie theater (traditional 35mm film and HD digital cinema)

Most desirable by filmmakers for dramatic impact of presentation but often least convenient for some viewers.

Cable and satellite/broadcast TV Broadcast and some cable showings. Interrupted by advertisements and/or edited for time or content.

Home video (DVD and Blu-ray) Home theater systems can now rival many multiplex theaters.

Internet/computer monitor Quick and easy video rentals, sometimes streaming direct to TV sets.

Phone and portable media Most convenient for some, but least desired by filmmakers.

Lewis Wickes Hine/courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Early silent films played to large audi- ences of immigrants. Escaping from crowded tenements, they could enjoy the stories for a nickel, even if some couldn’t read the intertitles.

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The Home Video Revolution

By the late 1940s and 1950s, television allowed people to see events live as they were happening as well as to watch movies from the comfort of their own homes, albeit on very small screens with a low-resolution image. Movies survived the advent of television, as we noted above. Next came videocassette recorders, what Vincent Canby of the New York Times called the “VCR revolu- tion.” When the VCR (short for videocassette recorder, a once-popular machine for recording or watching films at home using reels of magnetic tape inside plastic cassettes) appeared in the late 1970s and 1980s, it became a device that would change the game in two important ways. First, it allowed film fans to stay at home and watch the film of their choice whenever they wanted (assuming the title was available). Second, audiences were no longer limited to current releases, or the films playing in theaters at the moment. Instead, the only limits were availability and your memory. Remember how much you liked Bonnie and Clyde but hadn’t seen it since it came out? No problem. A quick trip to the video store and you could be watching Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway robbing banks before dinner. In 1985, Canby likened the popularity of VCRs to the arrival of television decades prior. He notes that this jump in cinematic technology “eventually swept away the huge, grandly ornate movie palaces of the 1920s and left in their place small, utterly functional, faceless theaters” (Canby, 1985).

Canby predicted a dire future not only for movie theaters but also for the film industry itself, envisioning and encouraging a VCR-inspired rethinking of the way movies are made. “There must follow not only an alteration in the kinds of movies produced but…an alteration in the way we perceive them…In reality, these alterations are well along—the VCR revolution is simply accelerating the process” (Canby, 1985).

Canby was wrong about VCRs ruining the movie theater industry (they ultimately helped revive and broaden it), but his call to action is still relevant today. Even though VCRs and, later, DVD players, online streaming services, and on-demand cable choices have affected the film business, it clearly remains a thriving industry. If multiplexes are no longer springing up like weeds in every city and town, few are closing their doors. Videotapes, DVDs, and Blu-rays often supplement trips to the theater, instead of replace them, and at the same time increase demand for more movies.


Theaters long ago stopped being the only place to go to watch a movie. It’s been a long time since anyone thought watching a film at home was anything approaching revolutionary; it is, in fact, a preferred way for many people. This has been especially true since the advanced features, greater convenience, and higher quality of DVDs (digital versatile discs) made VHS tapes obsolete by the early 2000s. Indeed, theatrical releases might even be considered high-profile advance advertis- ing for the studios’ home video releases. More recent developments, however, may become some- what more game changing.

Typically there is lag time between when a film is released in theaters and when it appears for purchase and rental on DVD or Blu-ray (which uses a narrower blue laser beam to read data instead of the wider red laser of DVDs, thus allowing more data to be stored in a smaller space). With hugely profitable films, the time between can stretch to months or sometimes years. (By the same token, some cheaply made films, or films that are expected to perform poorly at the box office, are released directly to video, if at all.)

There have been experiments with eliminating the gap in time between when a film is released in theaters and when it is released on video altogether. In 2006, Oscar-winning director Steven

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Soderbergh released Bubble, a 73-minute film, in a few theaters, on cable television, and, four days later, on DVD. However, the box-office returns on Bubble were poor, as were DVD sales. While studios continue to discuss the possibilities of shortening the time between a movie’s theatrical release and its appearance in home video formats, the concept remains very much a work in progress, with no major studios repeating the experiment. One explanation for this is that a theatrical release always gives a cer- tain legitimacy to any video release; it tends to increase sales and rentals over titles that go directly to video, so major studios have been justifiably wary.

Bringing It All Back Home: How Netflix, iTunes, and Mobile Devices Affect Movies

There are other changes, however, that have taken hold more quickly. At the beginning of the 21st century, technology has improved to the point that it is now possible to watch a block- buster film on a hand-held electronic device—Transformers on an iPod, for example. (Ironically, this trend toward individual viewing of smaller images harkens back to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscopes of 1894, before the days of movie projectors, when people stuck a penny into an arcade machine that let them watch a movie through a peephole magnifying glass focused on the film itself.)

Through its iTunes platform, Apple offers movies for sale and rent. Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the popular Internet site that lists casts, release dates, and more for movies, also makes movies available for rental. Netflix, which allows customers to rent films by mail, thus avoiding trips to the video store, has moved increasingly toward its streaming service, which makes films and television series available for rental online. Like Netflix, Hulu also offers a streaming service; many episodes of television shows are available the day after they air, making the need to watch them when they are shown (as well as the need to record them) obsolete. Amazon rents movies online and sometimes includes free instant access to a streaming copy for customers who don’t want to wait until the higher-quality DVD or Blu-ray they’ve purchased arrives.

Increasingly, producers and directors are taking distribution matters into their own hands. At the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Michael Mohan, who wrote and directed the independent film One Too Many Mornings, made his movie available for download for $10 before he’d sold the rights; for $35, he included a poster and a piece of the couch used in the film. He also offered the rights to the film on his website for $100,000. “Forget a bidding war,” he told the New York Times. “Whoever gets to their laptop the fastest gets it.” Mohan believed that having the film available online wouldn’t kill its chances to be seen in theaters. “There’s no reason it can’t go to theaters after it’s already available online,” he told the Times. “I know a lot of theater owners aren’t into it, but maybe somebody out there is that progressive.”

What Mohan discusses is an intriguing possibility, but one that so far has not been put into prac- tice in any meaningful way for audiences.

©Magnolia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Scene from the movie Bubble. Steven Soderbergh is an art- ist whose first hit, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, was a distinctly low-budget personal film. Even as he has gone on to make blockbusters such as the Ocean’s series, he continues to experi- ment with low-budget idiosyncratic films such as Bubble.

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An interesting question in the filmmaking industry today is whether the availability of films on smaller and smaller screens will affect the way mainstream movies are made. In a theatrical release, a great part of the enjoyment is in the attention to detail on the screen. Skilled directors make use not only of the central images in each frame, but of the surrounding elements as well. When a screen is the size of a matchbox, many of the smaller details are lost. Does this loss of detail decrease the enjoyment of the person watching it? Does the smaller image viewed in an uncontrolled environment increase the potential for distraction by outside sources, thus making the content harder to follow? Some filmmakers, like director David Lynch, whose credits include Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, believe so. In one of the DVD bonus features for his film Inland Empire, Lynch explains:

If you’re playing the movie on a telephone you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it. But you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness, that you think you’ve seen a film on your . . . telephone. Get real. (Lynch, 2006)

But other filmmakers embrace the technique and the possibility of expanding their audience to less traditional platforms. Some television producers for popular shows such as The Office create “webisodes,” or episodes of the show that appear online only. Web sites like FunnyOrDie.com cre- ate original short films that can be seen only online (and often include big-name actors as well).

Full-length movies created solely for the Internet are more difficult to come by, but it seems inevi- table that they, too, will follow. Making full-length movies available online could be a good thing because it is another creative outlet. If these movies are to be effective, though, not just com- mercially but artistically, the people making them will have to accommodate the smaller screen size and different viewing experiences of the audience that is downloading to mobile devices with small screens. This will be important in the same way that it was important for filmmakers when planning the structure, camera composition, and pacing of movies made for television instead of for theatrical exhibition.

Trends Toward Home Theater Systems and Larger Theater Screens

Just as new technology has allowed people to watch movies piecemeal and at their leisure on hand-held devices such as telephones, iPads, and laptop computers, it has also more or less leveled the playing field between commercial theaters and affordable home theater displays. Television has always had a smaller, lower-quality image than film projected in a theater. High-definition television narrowed that difference in the early 2000s, and the conversion of most American theaters to digital projectors in 2013 meant that owners of medium to high-end home video monitors or projectors could now experience nearly identical picture quality to what their local multiplexes were able to provide. More and more average consumers are installing larger and better home video and audio systems (including high-definition 3-D displays and multi-channel stereo surround sound) in dedicated home theater rooms. This removes presentation quality as a major reason for seeing a movie in a commercial theater, especially when high-quality Blu-ray editions are released for sale within several months of a film’s theatrical premiere at roughly the price of a couple of theater tickets. Not only that, but at home the movie can be paused for bath- room or snack breaks, and scenes played over again to clarify confusing sections before continu- ing, perhaps with optional subtitles turned on to make clear what the actors really said.

Theaters still offer the socialization and large group experience that adds so much to the impact of comedies and action-adventure films, but that may not be enough for all viewers. To draw audiences away from their homes, just as in the 1950s with the competition from television, some

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theaters are installing ever-larger screens and providing special-format presentations such as the extra-large IMAX film, whose image is about eight to sixteen times sharper than standard 35mm film or the best digital projection systems.

Viewers have more options than ever to see movies. Yet it is essential to remember that, no matter the format in which we watch a movie, the most important thing is the content. However cool it might be to watch Up in the Air on an iPod while actually flying in an airplane, the experience would mean nothing after five minutes if the film wasn’t any good, as verified by our truth test.

1.5 The Current Film Landscape Almost since films have been made, there have been big-budget blockbusters as well as indepen- dently made low-budget films. But the majority of films come from a middle ground as far as cost goes. The development of cheaper equipment, coupled with a discovery of non-mainstream niche audiences and self-distribution, has combined to put even more emphasis on the distinc- tion between very expensive movies and those with tiny budgets. Meanwhile, improved technol- ogy has given audiences more places to see the films, both large and small.

Blockbuster vs. Do-It-Yourself

With the improvement of technology, which has put better equipment in the hands of more people, it has never been easier to physically make a movie than it is today. Distributing the movie—that is, getting a studio to buy it so that it can be put into theaters—on the other hand, is often more difficult. Financial difficulties have forced the closing of smaller studios that had been the best option for filmmak- ers with a lot of ideas but little money. This does not mean that smaller films aren’t still being made. Woody Allen, for example, continues to make a film each year, but he keeps his production costs low enough that limited releases can satisfy his small niche of devoted fans and still gross enough after foreign and video sales that he can make another film. As a film like (500) Days of Summer proves, by both critical acclaim and a decent showing at the box office (the place where tickets are sold), it is still possible for low-budget films to make an impact.

It does mean, however, that it’s harder for worthy movies to be distributed, even at what is known as an art house, a theater that shows low-budget and challenging films (the ones that aren’t advertised in commercials during football games). Many studios are simply not spending the money to buy as many films, and this leaves all of us the poorer. Even theater managers must often fight to obtain copies of small-scale limited-release films they would like to play, including critically lauded films such as Jeff Nichols’s Mud, Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet, and Joss Whedon’s 2013 version of Much Ado About Nothing. Most of these independent films may never be shown

©Fox Searchlight/courtesy of Everett Collection

▲▲ Little Miss Sunshine was made for a modest $8 million. This was a first film for the directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards and won for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor.

The Current Film Landscape Chapter 1

outside of major cities and must find their audiences in their video releases after gaining recog- nition by submission to film festivals and accumulating some reviews in print or online. Some independently made films, such as Clay Eide’s noir thriller Dead Dogs (1999), shot on 35mm film in black and white, may achieve acclaim at a variety of film festivals yet never get either theatrical or video distribution. Others, like Caspian Tredwell-Owen’s police thriller Profile of a Killer (2012) and Sam Fischer’s multi-generational war drama Memorial Day (2011), were shot on HD video and intended to be straight-to-video productions, yet a single successful theatrical screening of each led to additional self-distributed city-by-city playdates that grew into unex- pected theatrical runs the year after each was made (even if extremely limited by Hollywood standards), before their ultimate video releases. Ramaa Mosley’s comic parable The Brass Teapot premiered at a festival in 2012, had additional festival showings and a very limited theatrical release in April of 2013, and by June of 2013 had come out on video, where it would likely receive its greatest audience.

At the same time that small studios are cutting back, the larger studios spend hundreds of mil- lions in the hopes of coming up with a blockbuster (a film that makes a lot of money at the box office). It’s a form of high-stakes gambling: The studios risk a lot of money in movies they believe will be blockbusters, in the hopes of getting a lot back in return. (See Table 1.4 for approximate budgets of different types of movies.) There is nothing new about this; in the 1910s D. W. Griffith, one of the most important early film directors, made films whose budgets were huge at the time. Yet they often made that money back and then some, the controversial The Birth of a Nation (1915) being the foremost example.

The Birth of a Nation was the first truly influential event film, a film promoted as something outside of the ordinary, often shown at higher ticket prices, and a movie that people went out of their way to see so they could discuss the experience with all their friends. This practice contin- ues today, with movies like Avatar and Titanic. Studios now bet hundreds of millions of dollars that a film will be so popular, and make so much money, that it will earn a fortune, despite the cost of making it.

Table 1.4 Scales of feature-length movie productions and approximate budget ranges*

“Do-it-yourself” Independent Small studio Major studio “Blockbuster”


$100,000– $15,000,000

$15,000,000– $50,000,000

$50,000,000– $100,000,000

$100,000,000– $300,000,000

Midget Zombie Takeover ($2,000)

Spring Breakers ($5 million)

Don Jon ($6 million)

Jobs ($12 million)

Nebraska ($12 million)

The Place Beyond the Pines ($15 million)

The Evil Dead ($17 million)

Kick-Ass 2 ($28 million)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler ($30 million)

We’re the Millers ($37 million)

Grudge Match ($40 million)

Captain Phillips ($55 million)

Despicable Me 2 ($76 million)

Grownups 2 ($80 million)

A Good Day to Die Hard ($92 million)

Gravity ($100 million)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ($130 million)

Star Trek Into Darkness ($190 million)

Iron Man 3 ($200 million)

Oz the Great and Powerful ($215 million)

Man of Steel ($225 million)

*Examples of 2013 releases, figures from Boxofficemojo.com

The Current Film Landscape Chapter 1

Big-Budget Films: Avatar and Titanic

A recent example of a big-budget film is Avatar. James Cameron wrote and directed the movie, which is set in a future where humans have gone to the planet Pandora, in hopes of mining a rare mineral that will help solve an energy crisis on Earth. Jake Sully, played by the actor Sam Worthington, is a Marine who has lost the use of his legs. Like others on the planet, with technol- ogy he is able to inhabit the bodies, or avatars, of creatures made from the DNA of humans and the native population of Pandora, the Na’vi.

During the course of the movie, Jake falls in love with the Na’vi way of life, as well as with a Na’vi woman. He turns his back on the humans, eventually becoming a Na’vi himself. Although the plot was criticized for not being particularly original—films such as The New World and espe- cially Dances With Wolves have told a similar story (and various elements of these are “borrowed” from numerous other films of the past)—the look of the film was remarkable, and Avatar was promoted as an event film that many expected would revolutionize the industry. Cameron cre- ated new technology to merge live-action footage with scenes created on computers; seen in 3-D, the effect was especially impressive. Critics swooned, and audiences flocked to theaters to see it, again and again, paying ticket surcharges to see it in 3-D.

Avatar cost somewhere between $250 million and $500 million to make, yet weeks after its release, it had already grossed more than $1 billion worldwide for the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation (Gray, 2010). While the risk to create such an expensive movie was indeed huge, the risk was also not taken without consideration of the outcome. Cameron had a proven track record; before Avatar was Titanic, the highest-grossing film of all time. Cameron clearly knew how to make popular movies, so the studio felt confident that Avatar would be a blockbuster.

And, as with Titanic, Cameron spent years developing new technology for Avatar, cre- ating special effects that had never been seen in films before. This gave Twentieth Century-Fox more confidence that Cameron could produce a moneymaking film, no matter how much it cost up front. Yet even then, it took a complex series of negotiations to get such an expensive film made.

Small-Budget Films: Paranormal Activity

At the other end of the financial spectrum are do-it-yourself projects, such as Paranormal Activity. A horror film with a budget of only $15,000—truly an absurdly small amount in modern terms, when much more than that is spent on feeding the cast and crew of larger movies—it became a phenomenon more profitable than Avatar, and with success much more surprising.

Paranormal Activity is set in a San Diego home where a young couple lives. Katie, played by Katie Featherston, has been bothered at various times in her life by what seem to be unhappy spirits.

©Associated Film Distribution/courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ A big-budget film like Titanic requires hundreds of techni- cians and years of work. For this film, a complete studio was built from the ground up in Baja California. The entire film was shot there.

The Current Film Landscape Chapter 1

Her boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), buys a video camera in an attempt to document the distur- bances, which have grown more frequent. Micah taunts both Katie and whatever presence is at work in the home.

The incidents grow increasingly frequent and violent and are captured by Micah’s camera. He sets it up in their bedroom, and during the night Katie is seen getting up and standing by the bed for hours, staring at Micah. In the morning, she has no recollection of doing so.

Eventually the camera will capture the tragic end of the story, without comment from the char- acters. It gives the already scary story an even more frightening conclusion.

In the case of Paranormal Activity, writer and director Oren Peli used his lack of a budget to his advantage. The entire story takes place inside and outside the house in which Micah and Katie live—which was in fact Peli’s real home. Instead of giving the movie a cheap feel, it instead makes it claus- trophobic, adding to the tension the charac- ters, and the audience, feel. The inclusion of few other characters has the same effect; we feel as if we are stuck in the situation with Micah and Katie.

Peli builds the film completely from the “footage” Micah captures on his camera. Thus, Peli doesn’t have to use more expen- sive cameras; the homemade look of what the audience sees fits perfectly with the story. Indeed, Peli constructs the story as if it were footage found by the San Diego police. He even includes a card on screen at

the end of the film detailing what happened to Micah and Katie (and goes so far as to thank their “parents” for allowing them use of the footage).

Despite the film’s tiny budget, it grossed more than $107 million at the box office, making it the most profitable movie in history. The Blair Witch Project, Open Water, 28 Days Later, and other small-scale movies have become popular hits despite being shot on consumer video equipment.

Avatar and Paranormal Activity were both released in the same year, 2009, serving as examples of both the blockbuster film and the do-it-yourself movie surviving, and even thriving, at the same time.

Making Money vs. Making a Statement

Blockbuster movies are designed from the outset to make large profits to justify their large bud- gets, but every commercial movie is put into production with the intent of making money, so its producers can afford to make more movies. As a result, producers, studios, and investors with the greatest financial risk may force filmmakers to make compromises in order to appeal to the largest number of people and avoid offending target audiences or other influential groups. When budgets are kept low enough, however, filmmakers can try riskier material and still hope to earn back their investments with smaller target audiences. Sometimes directors, cast, and crew

©Paramount Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Scene from the movie Paranormal Activity 4. Paranormal Activity is an example of a film that was successful due to a Web-based viral campaign. Electronic word-of-mouth brought in audiences eager to see what all the buzz was about. The film spawned three sequels, including Paranormal Activity 4, shown here.

Summary and Resources Chapter 1

will accept lower salaries when they feel strongly about the social issues tackled by a potentially controversial screenplay, just so the film can be made. And in the case of the personally financed “no-budget” inde- pendent movies that today’s digital technol- ogy has made possible (with out-of-pocket expenses equivalent to perhaps a few weeks’ vacation), filmmakers can treat any subjects they want in any ways they want. Such film- makers neither need nor expect to make large profits, and they consider themselves successful merely to break even. They may even post their movies online for free view- ing, hoping more people will see them that way. While this sort of movie may be on a smaller scale with less polish and rougher edges than Hollywood or more ambitious independent productions, it can afford an out-of-the-mainstream approach in both content and style that larger budgets tend to inhibit. The lower the budget of a film, the more honest a per- sonal statement its story may be by the filmmaker, and the smaller the niche audience needs to be to cover the costs of production. As we’ll see in upcoming chapters, however, larger-budgeted and studio-financed movies can also be made with an intent to influence or comment on society, even while simultaneously attempting to appeal to large audiences.

Summary and Resources Chapter Summary

Movies have been a popular medium since their invention well over a century ago. They remain so today, with audiences spending more money than ever before on tickets. At the same time, film is also a unique art form that demands a specific set of skills for the viewer to fully appreciate its impact.

It is possible simply to watch a film and enjoy it, but the more satisfying experience is to watch it for meaning. One way to judge the quality of a movie is to apply the truth test, which asks whether a movie is true to itself and whether it tells a greater truth about us. Not all films pass this test, but the ones that do are typically the best.

As we begin to think about films in these terms, we enjoy them more. One need not be a profes- sional critic to seek deeper meaning. One needs only to see movies with an open and inquisitive mind, looking for what the players involved in creating a film are trying to impart to us.

Although the story may be what captures our interest, today’s multiple options for viewing films can also affect how well we are able to notice everything the filmmakers are trying to show us. As film has evolved, so have the formats in which we can enjoy this medium. Once a cultural center of a community, the commercial movie theater is now just one option for viewing a movie. Affordable technology has permitted home theater setups that rival or surpass the quality of many theaters. The Internet has made viewing films on personal devices possible. It has also made the evaluation and criticism of them more democratic and widespread.

© 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy Everett Collection

▲▲ Scene from the movie Norma Rae. Films about union struggles are rare. Norma Rae, starring Sally Field, is a fictional account of a struggle for workers’ rights in a textile mill.

Summary and Resources Chapter 1

Technology has also made it easier to make a movie on a minimal budget, allowing more films to be made on a wider variety of subjects, with a wide range of technical resources and competence, designed for a wide range of viewing situations. This in turn requires that we take a film’s ambi- tions and limitations into consideration when deciding how successfully we think it achieved its goals. We must understand that big-budget films can succeed in ways that small-budget films simply cannot compete with, but that small-budget films may succeed in areas that large-budget films often overlook or intentionally avoid.

Questions to Ask Yourself

• Do you more frequently watch films straight through from beginning to end, or do you take pauses from time to time? How does this affect your ability to follow the story and become involved in the characters?

• How often do you watch movies in a theatrical setting, compared with TV, Internet, or portable devices? How does experiencing the same film in a theater, on TV (or computer), or on a small portable device affect how you enjoy it?

• How does the presence of big-name stars and expensive special effects in a film determine your decision to watch it, and your enjoyment of it, compared with a smaller budget film with no major stars or elaborate digital effects?

You Try It

1. Several movies are available for free on online services such as Hulu.com and Movieclips. com. Visit one of these sites and watch at least part of a film that you have also seen in the theater. If you saw Avatar in theaters, you could watch the following brief scene from the film by going to www.movieclips.com and searching “Avatar”:

“When You Are Ready”

Compare the experience of watching the movie on a computer or laptop with watching it in a theater. Which method of viewing do you find more satisfying? Which one is less satisfy- ing? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each method of viewing?

2. Visit boxofficemojo.com and search the titles for a film that you have seen that cost more than $100 million to make (a film’s budget is often listed with the other information avail- able about it). Then find a film that you’ve seen that cost less than $20 million to make. Compare the two movies, not on the basis of plot, direction, or acting, but in terms of the production values—basically, how elaborate the sets are, how professional the film looks. Which film did you enjoy more? Why? Was the more expensive film or the cheaper one more satisfying?

3. See a film with a friend. Or think about a film you and a friend have seen recently. Email each other with a list of five things you liked about the movie and five things that you didn’t like. Compare your lists and see which elements you agree on and which you disagree on. What were your differences? Why?

Key Terms

art house A movie theater that shows “art” films, including independents, foreign films, reviv- als of classics, and non-mainstream movies. Art house movies are typically made on small budgets and tend to be serious, thoughtful fare.



Summary and Resources Chapter 1

benchmarks Certain standards and elements that are criteria for measuring something.

blockbuster Sometimes used to describe a film that costs a lot to make; more often it describes a film that makes a lot of money at the box office.

Blu-ray A more advanced technological improvement of the DVD, using a narrower blue laser beam to read data instead of the wider red laser, thus allowing more data to be stored in a smaller space. Blu-ray discs are almost exclusively associated with a high-definition picture that is about six times sharper than standard DVDs and approaches the quality of 35mm film prints.

box office The booth where movie tickets are sold, or the amount of money a film makes through ticket sales, with the gross being the amount people spent on tickets, and the earnings being the share of the ticket sales paid by theaters back to the film distributor. (Typically the earnings are about half the gross by the end of a film’s theatrical run.)

DVD Digital versatile disc, sometimes known as digital video disc, an optical storage medium most frequently used for storing movies. DVDs store digital information on a disc that is smaller than a videotape, yet has a higher-quality picture and allows for more flexibility in searching for scenes. They also can provide direct random access through menus, alternate audio tracks, and additional data storage.

event film A film promoted as something outside of the ordinary.

film criticism The practice of critiquing and evaluating a film’s quality, usually by writ- ing about it, though some critics use television and radio as well. Serious film criticism deals more with how effectively the filmmakers communicate their ideas (and what those ideas are), whereas a simple film review concentrates on the reviewer’s personal impressions, observations, and opinions. Criticism does not just evaluate the film as a stand-alone work but also places it into the larger context of film as a whole, and of society.

media literacy The study and understanding of various forms of media and how they relate to our lives.

medium A form of communication (plural: media).

multiplex A large theater with several screens, allowing many different movies to be shown at the same time with only one staff of employees and the reduced operating costs of a single building.

truth test A way of measuring a film’s effectiveness, asking whether it is true to itself and reveals larger truths about us.

VCR Short for videocassette recorder, a once-popular machine for recording or watching films at home using reels of magnetic tape inside plastic cassettes. Sometimes misleadingly simplified to “video,” the most popular format was VHS, with Beta, U-matic, and several others also gain- ing some significant use.

wire-service critic A critic who reviews films for a service such as the Associated Press, which then distributes the review to its member newspapers, radio stations, websites, or other media outlets.

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