Form and Ideology

Films have a deep sensory appeal and have often been compared with dreams. It is this unconscious aspect of the film experience which has provoked much suspicion and criticism of classical narrative film form - and which has also inspired the use of film as propaganda. In this section we shall look at some of the criticisms levelled at mainstream narrative entertainment films and at some examples of alternative film forms: films which demonstrate a refusal of the kind of narrative described thus far in this chapter.

The appeal to the unconscious was an important part, for example, of the Surrealist project, in film and in other art forms. Here we shall be concerned mostly with the attacks on mainstream narrative coming from a more political critique which was first mounted in the 1970s; we shall also briefly consider the contributions made by 'art cinema'.

Since Brecht and Eisenstein, it has been argued that film, theatre and indeed written narratives in western cultures have been constructed in such a way as to seduce the reader/spectator into accepting the dominant ideologies of the age. Among these have been assumptions about heterosexual, monogamous relationships within 'nuclear' family units which, so the argument goes, are designed to reproduce the class, gender and race relations suitable for capitalist exploitation. If poor, downtrodden spectators 'buy into' a social system which actually oppresses them and keeps them poor and enslaved, it is in large part because they unconsciously absorb messages about 'how society has to be' which are disguised as innocent entertainment. Millions of words have been printed arguing about how exactly this happens (and a few more are printed in Chapter 12, in which we shall consider ideology in slightly more detail), but there is a persistent belief, shared here, that this is indeed the job that ideology does through the media representations which surround us.

The very form of narrative as exemplified by Hollywood came under attack in a 1970s argument between Guy Hennebelle and James Monaco over whether it was possible to make responsible films about political subjects within a conventional narrative format. While Hennebelle argued that films such as those of Constantin Costa-Gavras (Z, 1969; State of Siege, 1973; Missing, 1982) would be consumed principally as thrillers and that their political 'message' would therefore be lost, Monaco argued that the narrative 'hook' was essential to get audiences to see the films in the first place: as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, if there is a pill to be swallowed, it is best that it be sugar-coated. The debate was not so much about the 'obviously' progressive/antiestablishment values and beliefs promoted in films such as The China Syndrome (Bridges, 1978) and Hidden Agenda (Loach, 1990), but rather about whether the use of mainstream narrative techniques somehow neutralized the political effectiveness of such films.

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