Manipulation in films

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Zane Charron, Jan 16, 2003.

  1. Zane Charron

    Zane Charron Second Unit

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    I just finished watching 'Amistad' for the first time when this HTF topic came to mind.
    Much has been said about manipulation in films. Steven Spielberg is perhaps the most notorious in using it in his films. A discussion concerning this topic would be interesting.
    How do you describe manipulation in films and how do you identify it? Do you feel it's a legitimate 'technique' to use in storytelling or just a cheap tactic to provoke an emotional response?
    Please provide film examples to go along with your arguments.
    As for me, I started this thead, so I'll stay out of it for now. [​IMG]
     
  2. Seth Paxton

    Seth Paxton Lead Actor

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    Character branding is a form of manipulation, yet it's also a very valid way to quickly establish a character if the film requires the screen time to be saved for other aspects.
    Manipulation in general (ie, scenes that appear strongly biased in a certain direction to force the audience to feel a certain emotion at that moment) can also be good under similar circumstances.
    Many supporting roles rely upon character branding. Give a character a certain schtick and they become instantly good, bad, lovable, etc, and this is why character actors become so critical to many films. Buscemi has had quite a run as being the "weird" guy, even carrying it over to more important roles such as in Ghost World or Fargo.
    So it's not inherently a bad thing to use social norms or to fall onto audience's moral codes (and the images/ideas that go with those). Kick a dog and a character is "bad", help a child and a character is "good". Yet it's also true that a good character would help a child and a bad character might kick a dog, so in showing such actions it's not necessarily against character type, nor "false".
    HOWEVER, when the majority of the story relies on such outside information, if you will, such predetermined feelings/emotions, then it becomes cheap and manipulative in the negative sense. It stops being a device of necessity for time constraints and starts being a device of lazy writing.
    The writing within the picture should be able to establish MOST of the emotions and main characters on it's own, sometimes even flying in the face of standard social conventions that make the audience feel a certain way seeing intial scenes.
    So Spielberg is manipulative in the sense that everyone sympathizes with a sick little boy (ET) or sees the faceless government as evil (also ET early on, CE3K as well). But through most of those films Spielberg is creating his own characters, or expanding upon them, or even exploring the very nature of such stereotypes.
    So in Jaws SS gives us Quint as the hard-nosed shark-hunter, Hooper as the young, spoiled scientist, and Cooper as a practical cop afraid of water. All quick and manipulative in the sense that he gives you a scene or two, or a line of dialog, and you have a basic character established.
    BUT, from that point on the film spends most of its time exploring those "simple" characters, and many of the scenes begin to contradict the basic branding with which they were established. When Quint gives the story of the USS Indy, the audience turns on a dime from seeing him as the hard nosed jerk to seeing a lifetime of pain and anguish behind that basic outer shell. The same becomes true for the other 2 characters (like Hooper's bravery in going in the shark cage and Cooper even getting on the boat).
    And that's why SS can get away with it. Much like Capra could too (hey, he was the master of it). If you have something more to say beyond the basic manipulation, if most of the plot drives itself rather than requiring manipulation to force it in a new direction, then it's okay.
    After all, by most definitions ALL films are manipulative to some extent. It's much more about whether they go on to offer anything beyond that.
    An outstanding example of a manipulative film with a strongly negative context is the recent John Q which I just watched. The film is nothing but manipulation at every turn. Cliched characters even contradict their own cliches with new ones by taking sudden turns of character that the film itself is not able to establish naturally.
    Anne Heche is evil beyond natural evil (at least that would be tolerated enough for her to keep her job), yet the film has her make a sudden change based on some emotional speech despite the fact that she already had coldly faced, in person, everything the speech is describing and practically enjoyed pushing it aside.
    Oddly enough the film also features one very realistic expansion of character, James Woods heart surgeon is established (apparently) to be a typical ruthless, big money doctor, but beyond the introduction the film does seem to smartly avoid having him really take any actios or say any dialog that actually backs our prejudice against the idea of his character. Therefore his "change" ends up not being a change for him at all, but instead a change in our perception of him.
    But this is a very isolated case within the film. The rest of it is exactly the opposite of that sort of effort.
     
  3. Glenn Overholt

    Glenn Overholt Producer

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    Zane, you are a truly smart person to just sit back and laugh at us. - nice going!

    I think that a vast majority of the people don't really know what SS has done in his films. I can't really comment much on Jaws because I don't like those types of movies, but with ET I had it all figured out even before I saw it for the first time, and I laid the whole thing out on my friend, who thought I was crazy, but ended up agreeing with me when we walked out.

    I didn't think ET was 'light' in any way, shape or form. As a matter of fact, for me it marked SS as the heart-string tugger, and I haven't liked him since then.

    I have gone out of my to avoid his movies, as I don't take his manipulation lightly, and for those that I have seen, I end up looking for it right from the start and it comes up every time.

    What about other filmmakers though? I think SS is the worst by far, but could we generalize and say that Disney flicks do that too? FFT

    Gleen
     
  4. Stephen_L

    Stephen_L Supporting Actor

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    Zane, we need some definition of "manipulation". The entire film language is one of manipulation, guiding the viewer into empathy with the hero, or hatred of the villain. Whole genres are predicated on manipulation, especially horror films which use music, setting, pause, silence to set up the viewer for shocks. Manipulation may also mean preaching a message with a film; creating characters and situations for the purpose of advancing a political or personal agenda.

    I go to films wanting to be manipulated in one sense; I want to feel empathy, fear, joy, anger as I watch the story. I do not want to be politically manipulated or preached to.

    For me the key to a successful film is for the filmmaker to successfully evoke the desired response in me without making the machinery of manipulation too obvious. This is subjective. What works for me, may be lame for someone else. For example, in a romance or romantic comedy I want to fall in love with the lead actress just like the lead actor does. I don't want to watch romance, I want to feel it. The same for an action movie. I want to feel the hero's peril just as he might. That is the key to successful manipulation.
     
  5. Dome Vongvises

    Dome Vongvises Lead Actor

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    Maybe we're all just cruel, cruel bastards. :p)

    Seriously though, audience manipulation does occur in films. However, it's getting to the point now where our cynicism gets in the way of evaluating something that's true and honest at heart.

    I don't have a problem with Spielberg, because when he makes "happy" films, he does so because he can create something of joy for the audience. Not to say he was a miserable guy or anything, but he wanted to create worlds which he could control and give something of a happy ending to them. IIRC, Spielberg's father was never there for him most of the time, and this plays into some creation of characters that have buddies and whatnot (ie. E.T. and Elliot).

    Personally, I get the feeling the only genuine (read: nonmanipulative) films that film elitists will accept are ones that do not possess a musical score (don't want those notes getting in the way of thinking for ourselves) and characters in varying shades of gray.
     
  6. Rich Malloy

    Rich Malloy Producer

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  7. Chad R

    Chad R Cinematographer

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    All filmmaking is manipulative. Every cut, every camera angle manipulates you in some way. Some more than others. This is true even for documentaries. So long as you are allowing another person to present information to you, and make choices as to what to leave out--they are manipulating you. Same goes for print.

    Spielberg is mostly guilty of sentimentalizing. That he's guilty of, but he's no more guilty of manipulating his audiences than any other director out there.
     
  8. Jun-Dai Bates

    Jun-Dai Bates Stunt Coordinator

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    Manipulation is not inherently bad. It's a natural way of communicating, and in filmmaking there is so much opportunity for it that it is impossible not to employ manipulation in some form or another. If there can be a simple definition of manipulation, it is using technique to make your victim respond to a situation emotionally in a manner, or to a degree that the victim would not otherwise respond.

    With this definition, you can be manipulated by any art form (or by any means of articulation), but films are especially powerful. With film, you have the soundtrack, the camera (and a toolkit of post-production effects), the acting, the dialogue, the mise-en-scene, and the editing at your disposal.

    One example of manipulation that I particularly disliked was Jerry Maguire. Following the roller coaster of events in Jerry's life, I found myself empathizing with Jerry during his more difficult times. When at some point I distanced myself from the film, I realized that Jerry was not a character that I could have much sympathy for, and that his situation, while perhaps something of a downfall for him, was still incredibly priveliged. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had been manipulated by Mr. Crowe's technique.

    On the other hand, I don't find James Stewart's character in Vertigo much more sympathetic than Mr. Maguire, but when watching the film I do. I feel his obsession pulling at him. I feel his despair when he thinks that he has lost the woman for whom he has a very strange love. I feel all sorts of emotions that I wouldn't without Hitchcock's storytelling, Herrmann's score, etc. For some reason, however, I don't mind it in Vertigo.

    The manipulation I dislike the most, however, is the Spielberg sort. I hated Amistad. Probably what I dislike most about Spielberg's methods of manipulating me is that they are largely ineffective. The drama is dispelled for me when it becomes too overt, such as when the prisoners become entranced by the pictures from the bible that a proselytizer gives them. When Spielberg's methods are effective, such as in the opening scenes in A.I., up to the point where the robot boy's mother abandons him, they are awe-inspiring. When they fall flat (which is much of the time), they fall really flat.

    I think I can summarize what makes manipulation good or bad: manipulation is powerful when it works, and it seems repulsive or disgusting when it doesn't. In Jerry Maguire, it worked for a few moments, but it didn't last, and when I came out from under the spell during some dull scene five minutes later, I was turned off. Perhaps this explanation works for you as well.

    What doesn't fit neatly into this delineation is the sort of manipulation employed by Douglas Sirk. I go into the film expecting the manipulation (one of the main reasons I go, in fact). Half of the film doesn't work for me, and I end up laughing at the histrionics, but still somehow I am entranced by Sirk's skill with the camera and the performances that he gets out of his actors. The other half of the film does move me, but only for the moment. So perhaps the other time manipulation is good is when it's campy, and/or executed with such skill, even though I could never really bring myself to sympathize with the characters (it's really hard to manipulate me into sympathizing with rich white men with emotional problems, such as Kyle in Written on the Wind).
     
  9. Zane Charron

    Zane Charron Second Unit

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    OK, I guess I'll chime in here.

    I think, for me, that Stephen hit the nail on the head when he said:

     

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