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Hollywood Liturgy: Media’s Mission Creep

by / 0 Comments / 17/02/2017

Plato once wrote that ‘those who tell the stories, rule society’, and in these senile years, western society is in a dangerous position. We have paid communion to celebrities, whose job it is to act as moral arbiters and maintain hold of their monopoly on influence. We have signed away, with a TV license, any power we used to have to decide for ourselves which values are good or bad, to a group of select individuals, not chosen for their talent anymore but for their reach. Celebrities are chosen like dictators are chosen, on charisma and unwavering assurance, and the blame will always rest on the shoulders these giants stand on.

 

Around the twelfth century, the most dominant forms of theatre, and for a time the only forms of scripted theatre, were liturgical, and performed by the Church (referred to as ‘miracle plays’). They were used to preach, to a largely illiterate population, a set of religious morals. And even moving to as late as the seventeenth century, the Church used dramatic theatre and storytelling to communicate what should and should not be practised or held in popular belief. So the basic surrender of responsibility from the self onto an unknown but well-revered institution is nothing new, nor is the use of dramatic theatre to manipulate thought. And yet because we moved away from this tradition, towards a view of cinema as product and entertainment, not guardian, we seem to have forgotten the power it can hold.

According to Atkin, as outlined by Xiaowen Xu, and Jordan B. Peterson: ‘selective exposure to media can stem from the need for guidance or reinforcement. People are also motivated to select media congruent with their own attitudes and beliefs’. And so in the modern day, exposed to competing perspectives, we go out of our way to ignore those which conflict with  our own. According to the same paper, as studied by Sonya Dal Cin: ‘an exposure to film can influence people’s decision-making toward health related behaviours such as smoking’, as well as sexual behaviours. Peterson also noted that participants are: ‘more likely to believe conspiratorial accounts of the John F. Kennedy assassination […] after viewing Oliver Stone’s film JFK‘.

If we know the influence of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and we know that people use this to convey personal opinions about what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ values, two questions can be raised from this. First, what values are being portrayed and is there a fair environment for alternative values to be expressed? (In other words, can people choose?) And second, what exactly happened that led us back to this convergence of power?

When answering the first of these questions, it is at this point that conservatives are clenching their teeth and waiting for the inevitable conclusion that Hollywood has a deep liberal, or left-wing bias. And indeed, an analysis by Todd Kendall, in the Journal of Cultural Economics (2009), sampled 865 actors and 131 directors, measuring the total sum of contribution money during the 2008 election campaign to Democratic candidates, Republican candidates, and third party. He found that the sum contribution to Republican and third-party candidates was 22,250 dollars and 7,750 dollars respectively. To Democratic candidates, the sum was 2,558,346 dollars, or 115 times greater.

The sheer volume of this however, shows to me that this could not have been entirely a result of corruption or corroboration with filming permit policies etc., but rather a legitimate difference in political leaning from a vast majority of the film industry. This is unsurprising, but is there an equal opportunity for more right-wing or conservative movies to be released? (Assuming there is as much demand for them, which there might not be.) Well, according to Ben Shapiro’s book Primetime Propaganda, which collects different statements from various producers and directors, it would appear not. In one conversation with producer Leonard Goldberg (Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch), he confirmed that left-wing values are: ‘100 percent dominant, and anyone who denies it is kidding, or not telling the truth’, stating definitively that there was indeed a barrier to entry for non left-wing creatives.

I personally hold the position that two things are attributable to this resurgent propaganda. First, the move away from entertainment as luxury, to being the everyday. Instead of the occasional night outing to the cinema or a time-slot on TV, we have 24-hour access to anything we want to watch as well as a means to mine through the back catalogue of any actor or director we enjoy. This level of proximity to the media and the control we feel we have over our own media can create a sense of ‘closeness’ and personality towards it. We feel a connection to the YouTube star or the current Oscar-nominated actress, literally putting them in charge of our imagination; they are the elected dictators of the world we escape to. Not only does this embolden our affective loyalties, it also dismantles the notion of ‘product’ in favour of ‘author’. In that vein I guess we’re living in an authored world, where any concept of Barthian disconnect is thrown out of the window. We want to know everything about the people we enjoy watching, regardless of any relevance to what we’re watching.

The second is that this influence changes our perspective on reality. Movies serve messages because they use characters not as people, but as metaphors. And so too is our political climate, where each of us sees every election as a metaphor for x over y or good over evil rather than a rational competition of values and policy.

Let me know in the comments what you think about this issue, whether it is an issue, and what may be done about it. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

A graduate in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester, I run a personal research blog, TakeIssue.co.uk, and am interested in all things regarding politics, sociology, psychology and culture.