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Film and Ideology: Theories, Perspectives and Discussions


The film industry is the most profitable and massively consumed form of entertainment in the contemporary world. The current popular culture is deeply engaged in the discussions on ideology in narrative visual media like movies and TV shows. The availability of social media has democratized the conversation, diversifying the voices and identifying various political stances when it comes to the audience’s reception of the products. However, the story of film and ideology is as old as film as an art form itself and is by no means a side effect of recent trends in movie-making. This article will examine the history between film and ideology and present the different theories and concerns that have followed the development of the artistic form of film throughout the 20th century. 


Riefenstahl, L. (1935). A scene from the film Triumph of the Will. 
Figure 1: Riefenstahl, L. (1935). A scene from the film Triumph of the Will. 

Film and Mass Culture: The Double-edged Power of Cinema

In their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer characterized films as a form of the culture industry and a product of mass culture, which they considered to be primarily a negative category (Adorno, Horkheimer, 1989/1944). The members of the Frankfurt School believed mass culture to be a substitute for the previous folk culture of the pre-industrial era, but with less authenticity due to being produced on a massive, homogenous scale. (Adorno, Horkheimer, 1989/1944). For Adorno, the movies presented a flattened version of reality and encouraged passivity in the audience. He “feared the advent of the Hollywood Studio film as akin to Nazi propaganda” (Adorno, as cited by D’Olimpio, 2014, p. 3). This criticism was pointed particularly toward Hollywood blockbusters accusing them of following formulas and depicting stereotypes (Collingwood, 1969, p. 57, as cited by D’Olimpio, 2014, p. 4).


Walter Benjamin, however, provided a more optimistic view of the art form, highlighting its emancipatory potential (D’Olimpio, 2014). Contemporary discussions have distanced themselves from the binary modes of the mid-20th century film theory and recognize the crucial role of the viewer as a critical receiver who actively engages in the consumption process. 


The real turning point for the cinema theories occurred with Deleuze, who focused on the films’ potential to explore philosophical ideas through its combination of “sensory input with a story to convey social, political and emotional truths” (D’Olimpio, 2014, p.4). Despite the many different opinions by both theorists and the members of the audience, the film industry is recognized as being both capable of manipulation and ideology propagation, as well as a medium that pushes the boundaries of the art form and advocates ideological change. 



Masses in front of a movie theatre. (n.d.)
Figure 2: Masses in front of a movie theatre. (n.d.)

The Study of Film: Different Perspectives

When studying film, theorists subscribe to three major focal points or perspectives: aesthetics, ideology, and reception (Ye, 2012, p. 1). The first approach deals with the artistic expression of cinematic beauty, relying on settings, colours, sounds, and the artistic composition of the shots, in a similar vein as the study of painting or other visual arts. The last one examines the audience reception, the reading, emotional response and interpretation of the visual text, as well as the engagement activities. The ideological aspect is intertwined with other elements. For instance, a stylized beauty can be used ideologically, a famous example being The Triumph of Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film. The director’s techniques include aerial photography, the use of long-focus lenses and the masterful utilization of music to provide a unique, awe-inspiring experience. The overall perspective serves to glorify and romanticize Nazism and is a supreme example of how movies and propaganda fit perfectly together. But, ideology is hardly only in the eye of the creator. The audience reactions can be analysed to uncover biases, double standards, and other cultural and ideological features. 


Capitalism in Movies

The study of ideology in film is often associated with politics. The book Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film (Kellner and Ryan, 1988, as cited by Ye, 2012, p.8) examines Hollywood films that are closely connected with the political upheavals of the second part of the 20th century. Even though early Hollywood offered ideological endorsements of the dominant discourse, during the 1960s, an emergence of the socially critical Hollywood film took place, covering state rebellion, feminism, counter-cultures, racial radicalism, etc. (Kelner, Ryan, 1988, as cited by Ye, 2012, p. 8). The cinema as a simultaneous endorsement of the status quo as well as a medium with potential for social criticism was well established by the 60s and the 70s, mirroring social upheavals of the time.


Another popular theme of media studies is the depiction of capitalism and class identity. Many Hollywood movies promoted the system by feeding the ideal of meritocracy, hard work and the ability to achieve anything, often glossing over the matters of privilege, structural inequality and cultural capital. According to Myke, A Love Story by Michael Moore is a movie that seeks to represent the relationship between capitalism and ideology during the financial crisis of 2008-2009. It defines the system as the demon that is going to destroy America (Myke, 2010, as cited by Ye, 2012, p. 4). Another movie that tackles hyper-consumerism critically is Fight Club. Despite the movie’s intentions, there is sometimes a discrepancy between the interpretation of the audience and the intention of the author. In the case of Fight Club, some audiences read the movie as didactic, idolizing the main protagonist and believing his example should be followed, failing to recognize the critical aspects of the story. This illustrates the complexity of the conversation between the text and the consumers, particularly concerning the ideological intention and background (Renner, 2019). 



Fincher, D. (1999). A scene from Fight Club.
Figure 3: Fincher, D. (1999). A scene from Fight Club

Spectacle and Simulacrum

Societies have always valued spectacles. However, the modern digital and media revolution has radically transformed the concept. The second half of the 20th century brought telephones, TVs, cinema, and, finally, the Internet, social media, and smartphones. Communication became rapid, enabling information to travel at the speed of light and be instantly discussed by the spectators. These changes fuelled shifts in the media studies’ orientation, highlighting the power of the media to construct social, political and cultural reality. When describing postmodern societies, Debord used the term society of spectacle. He defined it as an economy that exists for its own sake, characterized by kitsch, glamour and special effects (Debord 1999/1967). Spectacles represent an inversion of the world, a false consciousness. Witnessing life through modern devices, be it the news, video games, movies or events, has become a norm. People in postmodern societies spend more time observing spectacularization of events than ever before. 


Debord’s perspective is intertwined with Baudrillard’s idea of a simulacrum. The term refers to reality being replaced with its representation. The reality of production has morphed into propaganda and seduction, with pictures and visual stimuli replacing immediate experience (Baudrillard, 2001/1981). These theories represent a grimmer view of the visual media and trends of today, which include the film industry but can be found in other types of content. 


The Cinema and the Production of Desire

Stories have often served as guides to social realities. Myths have explained cultures, nature and the overall human experience. People have learnt behaviours, expectations, norms, and ideals via storytelling. Film as an art and entertainment form, however, plays a more prominent role in the adaption of behaviours and desires by representing a less distanced, more immediate form of storytelling, the one whose resemblance to reality is so close that it’s uncanny. The potential of the film to serve as a particularly successful vehicle for propaganda was recognized during the Second World War. Afterwards, the film industry turned more towards entertainment and storytelling, however, still retained its ability to promote ideas and concepts. 



An illustration of Jean Baudrillard (n.d.)
Figure 4: An illustration of Jean Baudrillard (n.d.)

According to Slavoj Žižek, the cinema produces desires and constructs the forms of what people should want from life. Expectations in love, the famous “American Dream”, wealth and physical appearance. Žižek claims cinema does not only present to people what they should desire but instead teaches them how to desire (Žižek, as cited by Zeiher, 2014). The idea that film can affect the inner self’s most intimate reality is an eerie but interesting aspect of studying ideology on film. 


The Gaze

Another prominent way in which movies serve as an ideology is the infamous “gaze.” To put it simply, the objectivity of the camera movement is illusional, for the eye of the camera is always following someone, choosing its perspective and position. Laura Mulvey focused on the male gaze, which is the tendency to depict women from a masculine, heteronormative perspective, as objects that serve as pleasure for the male viewer (Mulvey, 1975). The man of the cinema is a triple god, manifesting its focus through the camera, the main protagonist and framing the spectator’s attention. This subtle positioning builds expectations and enforces perspective on the audience without necessarily being noticed, serving as a perfect vehicle for the transmission of values and attitudes, and mirroring the power dynamics imported from society. 


The Philosophy of Cinema

The more sublime potential of cinema was explored by Deleuze, who emphasized the unique position of the cinema to be simultaneously a temporal and a mass art form, thus providing a new philosophy of the object and the subject, accompanied by the time that moves between them. Deleuze does not speak of any “gaze”, but identifies the image as its own subject of study, with an “eye” already incorporated (Deleuze, 2000/1986).



Hitchcock, A. (1960). A scene from Psycho.
Figure 5: Hitchcock, A. (1960). A scene from Psycho

His interesting work showcased the way towards the studies of the cinema’s philosophical potential and the revolutionary position in the explorations of both depicting reality as well as exploring and describing human consciousness.  


The Audience in the Cultural Wars: Ideology and Reception

Contemporary media and communication channels have enabled a louder and more prominent response from the audience. It is not that people were less critical before, but fewer platforms allowed them to be as vocal about their opinions. This created a novel situation between artists, art and audiences, providing more direct contact, even surveillance. Today’s artists cannot escape the eye of the audiences since every art product is immediately analyzed and criticized in the online realm. 

Concerning ideology, a term that immediately comes to mind is “culture wars,” which denotes passionate disputes over identities and symbols. People have engaged in such conflicts and discussions in the past as well as today, an example being the 17th-century disputes over the wording of prayer books (Sandbrook, as cited by Anthony, 2021). The modern culture wars started during the 60s with rising social and justice issues. The closer study of the fan reactions provides useful information on ideology by establishing what the audience does or does not perceive as ideological. Some discussions state ideology was absent from cinema in the past, which reveals the naturalization of the ideological stances that were present in older movies.  Generally, people are more likely to recognize something as ideological if it clashes with their personal values and challenges their worldview. What audiences recognize as ideological and what escapes their notice is an interesting subject of future media studies.


Conclusion

Seo, M. (1945). A scene from Momotaro: Sacred Sailors.
Figure 6: Seo, M. (1945). A scene from Momotaro: Sacred Sailors

Although ideology has always been a part of art and film, the modern world’s unique communication modes enable an almost direct conversation between the producer, the product and the consumer. The availability of social media provides a fascinating insight into the ideological studies of the consumer’s reception in a way that was hardly possible before. It highlights what people see as ideological and what is naturalized, reveals biases and describes multiple ways in which the audience engages with the text, as well as the plethora of interpretations. The contemporary platforms enable theorists to treat online communities and content as an ethnographic source and a deeper insight into the art reception. The relationship between film and ideology is multifaceted and nuanced, therefore, the tendency to portray it as fully positive, harmless entertainment, or absolutely negative and akin to propaganda is an oversimplification. Instead, the focus should shift toward more intriguing elements like the discourse around ideology in film, the social analysis of the communities who engage in such discussions and the methods the creators use to construct and naturalize their view of reality. Ideology has always been a part of art and the contemporary social media discussions are sometimes overzealous to make it sound as if that has never been the case until the recent changes in the mainstream movie industry. Approaching those perspectives on a more sociological and ethnographic level opens a fascinating field for further explorations on how the audiences receive, interpret and reject stories, creating social and cultural values in the process.



Bibliographic References

Adorno, T.W., Horkheimer, M. (1989). Dijalektika prosvjetiteljstva. Biblioteka Logos. Sarajevo. (Work originally published in 1944, as Philosophische Fragmente). 


Anthony, A. (2021). Everything you wanted to know about the culture wars but were afraid to ask. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/13/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-the-culture-wars-but-were-afraid-to-ask


Baudrillard. J. (2001). Simulakrumi i simulacija. Biblioteka Psefizma. Karlovac. (Work originally published in 1981, Éditions Galilée).


D’Olimpio, L. (2014). Thoughts on film: Critically engaging with both Adorno and Benjamin. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-16. https://doi:10.1080/00131857.2014.964161


Debord, G. (1999). Društvo spektakla i komentari društvu spektakla. Arkzin, Zagreb. (Work originally published in 1967, Buchet-Chastel). 


Deleuze, G. (2000). The Brain is the Screen. Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema. University of Minnesota Press. (Work originally published in 1986, Editions de Minuit). 


Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, 16/3, 6–18, https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/16.3.6


Renner, R. (2019). Everybody misunderstands the point of Fight Club. Literary Hub. https://lithub.com/everyone-misunderstands-the-point-of-fight-club/


Zeiher, C.L. (2014). The Fantasy Itself is the most Real Thing. Exploring Desire in the 21st Century: Žižek and Ideology. (A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirement for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology, University of Canterbury). UC Repository, https://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/items/61ff4fc4-dc17-43a9-855b-fcc058358adf


Ye, Q. (2012). The Conversation between Film and Ideology. How Wall Street and Wall Street. Money Never Sleeps promote and/or criticize financial capitalism. (Bachelor’s thesis, University West). Digitala Vetenskapliga Arkivet, https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A534657&dswid=-5979


Visual Sources

Figure 1: Riefenstahl, L. (1935). A scene from the film Triumph of the Will.  Facing History and Ourselves. https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/triumph-will-propaganda-film


Figure 2: Masses in front of a movie theatre. (n.d.).

Consulta Universitaria Cinema, https://www.consultacinema.org/2018/04/13/mass-culture-new-approaches-new-issues-19th-and-20th-centuries/


Figure 3: Fincher, D. (1999). A scene from Fight Club.

The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-men-who-still-love-fight-club


Figure 4: An illustration of Jean Baudrillard (n.d.).

The Collector, https://www.thecollector.com/baudrillard-philosophy-21st-century/


Figure 5: Hitchcock, A. (1960). A scene from Psycho.

Entertainment Weekly, https://ew.com/article/2009/08/04/psycho-the-horror-movie-that-changed-the-genre/


Figure 6: Seo, M. (1945). A scene from Momotaro: Sacred Sailors. Los Angeles Times.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-ca-mn-japanese-animation-momotaro-20170530-story.html




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