Film and Ideology

Ideology is sometimes identified as a body of ideas reflecting the social needs of an individual, group, class, and culture. In other words, ideology refers to a systematic "world view" which defines our concepts of self and the relations of the self to the state or any form of the collectivism. Ideology means belief systems and the principles inside these systems, even if these "ideas" are unrecognized and thereby perhaps unquestioned. Or we may know we are being controlled, but we accept the idea that the "good" of the system overrides the "bad," or we accept the notion that the system serves our needs well enough, even thought the ones we are working for make all the money. We go along with it, in effect consenting to the controls imposed on us by the State and Civilization.

Virtually every movie presents us with ways of behaving--negative and positive-- and therefore offers us an implied or explicit morality or ideology. Every film has a slant based on the director's sense of right and wrong--an ideological perspective that privileges certain characters, institutions, and cultures. Recognize that films are products marketed to the American public and that film-making may include a predisposition that many, if not most, Americans will respond in roughly parallel or identical ways to the material. Films are market derived art. As our national character changes, the western (for instance, as a film genre) must also change, reinvent itself or perish. (For a more complete discussion of this idea see: The Cowboy Hero and Its Audience by Alf H. Walle, published in 2000.). Although not a western (with the exception of the final shootout) one film in particular immortalizes prewar versions of love, masculinity, and individualism--the mythic, sacrificial, solo, and heroic quest of Rick Blaine in "Casablanca" (1942) procures nationalism a sacred place above the notion of family and love. This is logical propaganda given the demands of the world war. The basic question, however, is ancient for we have looked at this same tension between nation or city-state and family in Sophocles' Antigone. Yet as Aristotle suggests, reversal plays a key role in dramatic success and Bogart takes on the challenge. The Postwar criticism of the antisocial comes later, apparent in Bogart's gone-mad individualism in what I regard as a western, "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" (1948). Bogart is our cultural centaur that helps us observe shifting cultural values in a prewar and postwar era of American film-making; his character is a roughed and rebellious savior during WW II and then, after the war is over, he becomes something different, a psycho-misfit for soldiers to suspect (when they come marching home) as a flawed man. Post WW II films portray characters adjusting themselves to domestic circumstances if they are to prosper or even survive. The film "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" asserts that the family is all. Domestic images recast males in a peaceful reentry into a post war society of marriage and fatherhood. The hero is measured by his capacity to live a domestic life. The criminal is measured by his inability to love anyone besides himself. The kind of women the hero meets in his life has everything to do with this story. Of course we see the exact same drama in the two texts written by Homer in 750 B. C.

In the 1960s, Americans were ready for fatal and antihero cowboy stories. These heroes may be noble but they are ill-equipped to survive in the modern world. "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) epitomizes the cowboy's failed metamorphosis, his failure to adjust to changing times. In "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973), Billy (played by Kris Kristofferson) says to his former friend Pat Garrett: "Times have changed, but not me." This fatalistic hero, as a marketable product, would perhaps have been unacceptable from the 1920s through the 1950s. Yet in the era of Vietnam, such antiheroes reflect the cynicism of the times and become viable products.

When women arrive on the scene, this mythic drama between individuals and authority plays out again in a film that I also consider to be a western, "Thelma and Louise" (1991).This film is basically a remake of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," but now we have two women attempting to navigate the landscape of "organized men" who are out to destroy them. While the death of Thelma and Louise is depicted as the inevitable result of their rebellion against masculine rule, they defy conscription and exalt freedom, even in death. Such a story (with female protagonists) obviously is a product of the '90s. The film suggests to men that women are fed up with the scripts of the past. Once again such a story would have been unacceptable during earlier and different times of American film marketing.

Categories of ideology:

Neutral: escapist films and light entertainment with emphasis on action, pleasure, and entertainment values for their own sake. Superficial treatment of right and wrong: Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989). These films in themselves reflect a value system where fun and entertainment are forms of consumerism.

Implicit: the protagonist and the antagonist represent conflicting values, but these are not dwelled upon. Obviously the director slants the message in a particular direction, but consent maybe transparent in that we accept the system--particular world views--as normal or the way the world works. That is, various ideologies get played up without question (without audiences seeing the whole picture); thus the film subtly serves the interests of the dominant classes and transmits dominant moral and intellectual codes: Pretty Woman(1990).

Explicit: movies obviously constructed to teach or persuade: Patriotic films such as Casablanca or John Wayne's The Green Berets(1968)and antiwar films like Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957).

Most films fall into the Implicit category (although over time some films like Casablanca will begin in the implicit category and end up in the explicit category) with the understanding that implicit presentations of ideas and values has increased potency, achieved in part by mass repetition or "Culture Incorporated" suggesting the mass media replays the same message, over and over, in many different forms.