Social mores as seen in film: once acceptable, now quaint--and film as propanganda.

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Jack Briggs, Jan 24, 2002.

  1. Jack Briggs

    Jack Briggs Executive Producer

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    It's interesting to watch films from bygone eras and to observe characters indulging in social behavior that was once deemed acceptable but has now fallen out of fashion here in the West. Some examples:
    * Racism--In any of the old Tarzan films with Johnny Weismuller, the portrayals of Africans (and, by extent, African Americans) are nothing short of racist. The same goes with many of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "The Road To..." films. And, of course, there is the inherent racism in that most overrated of all "classics," Gone With the Wind. What garnered laughs and cheers in the 1930s and '40s engenders hostility today (and, in this case, rightfully so). But it's interesting to observe this behavior in a detached sort of way.
    * Smoking is America's favorite social behavior to hate these days, to the point of unreason. But even for a smoker, some films from previous decades raise an eyebrow. To wit: 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still. As Klaatu convalesces in Washington's Walter Reed Hospital, his team of physicians gathers in an adjoining office to discuss the spaceman's remarkable physique and healing abilities. As they do so, all three of them light up, right there in the office--while discussing a patient's "health."
    More recently, 1981's Body Heat portrays several of its characters smoking profusely--especially during a multi-party legal briefing in a law office called to discuss a botched will. As all but one of the people seated at the table light up, the abstaining party says, "I'll just breathe the air, thank you." Even though smoking was well on its way to becoming a social taboo by then, it was interesting to see so many people in an office lighting up with no apparent concern.
    * Domestic violence was almost shockingly acceptable until very recently. Remember Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore? When Kristofferson strikes Burstyn's son, audience reactions at the time were almost casual. Even the film's characters were, by inaction, a bit dismissive.
    And when Al Pacino struck his wife in The Godfather, the act did not seem to arouse strong reactions onscreen or off.
    By the time of the cautionary satire, Man Bites Dog, however, the filmmaker set out to prove a point about us during the brutal, near-unwatchable rape/murder scene. What was truly disturbing, though, was the audience in the commercial cinema where I first saw this film. Many of these nimrods didn't know when to stop laughing.
    These films serve as laboratory specimens for students of sociology as much as they do for students of film. But. ...
    The dark side of all this is that Hollywood Incorporated and the federal government still seem to think that film should serve as a means of social control. This is nothing new, of course. There have been propaganda films for as long as there have been films.
    But now, certain watchdog groups are complaining that too many characters in Hollywood's films still smoke. In their complaints, they point to how so relatively few people in the United States at large still smoke. They, in turn, are advocating that filmmakers revise their "product" so as to portray smoking in a less-kind light. (This information comes from a recent report on MSNBC's The News With Brian Williams.)
    Is this really the purpose of any film that strives to be taken seriously? People are the way they are, and good art should show them as they are.
    A fine line here. Film should reflect and inform the society, not instruct it. We should look at older films and reflect more on how we have changed as a society. No film, though, should be used to instruct us how to behave.
     
  2. Ike

    Ike Screenwriter

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    Great post!

     
  3. Richard Kim

    Richard Kim Producer

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  4. Jack Briggs

    Jack Briggs Executive Producer

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    Brainfade on my part, Richard. Thanks for correcting the oversight.
     
  5. Tom Ryan

    Tom Ryan Screenwriter

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    Yes, I agree that the scene between Carlo and Connie was especially gut-wrenching, at least to me as a modern viewer. Its stark realism shocks much more than the bloody shooting deaths we see in the rest of the film. Just another reason The Godfather is so great.

    -Tom
     
  6. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    The flip side of the watchdog groups' critiques of smoking in films is, of course, the tobacco companies wanting it in there for promotional purposes (especially in a post-coital scene with a big star if they can get it [​IMG]). Both sides are willing to veer into the realm of the ludricous in pursuit of their agenda, and, as avowed advocates, neither is living in what you or I would recognize as "the real world".
    The anti-smoking advocates currently appear to be the more ludricous simply because they are the currently prevailing single item agenda advocates.
    I would recommend a read of Christopher Buckley's "Thank You for Smoking" for an amusing lampoon of both sides of this issue. It is more insightful than a book that funny has a right to be.
    I am not offering my view one way or the other on the subject of smoking since this is not the forum, let alone the thread, for that. But the dynamic of how this and other "taboo" behaviors are or are not perceived and portrayed on film is an interesting one, not least of all because of what goes on behind the scenes to make it happen or to prevent it from appearing.
    Regards,
     
  7. Jason Seaver

    Jason Seaver Lead Actor

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  8. Paul Richardson

    Paul Richardson Second Unit

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    I once saw a "quaint" movie made in the "backward" 1900's that had Asian villains and a white hero. Nothing bad about that in my mind, but what was odd was that the hero kept making stereotypical jabs at the Asians of the "So solly" variety. The public ate the film up with a spoon.

    What was the title of that film again? Oh yes:

    Lethal Weapon 4
     
  9. Mike Broadman

    Mike Broadman Producer

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    What racism was there in Gone With the Wind? I remember slaves, but it was during the Civil War on a plantation. Where was the problem?
     
  10. Tom-G

    Tom-G Screenwriter

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  11. TheLongshot

    TheLongshot Producer

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  12. Ike

    Ike Screenwriter

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    Actually,

    the problem with Gone With the Wind was that it showed that the slaves were not really treated that bad-that they were just as accepted by the family as would a biological relative.

    Also, it shows that the black slave (the stereotype that would become Aunt Jammima) cares more for the white family than her own family.

    These are, honestly, birthed out of the racist, or wishufully quaint, thinking of the times.
     
  13. Eric Thrall

    Eric Thrall Stunt Coordinator

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    Another no longer acceptable item I've noticed in films is when a man will force himself on a woman, and she'll struggle briefly before she gives in. I remember seeing this in Goldfinger and being somewhat surprised that it was considered OK.
     
  14. Mike Broadman

    Mike Broadman Producer

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  15. Allen Hirsch

    Allen Hirsch Supporting Actor

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    Good post, Jack.

    I noticed the same thing about the smoking and the drinking, especially, when I viewed a bunch of the 1935-1960 era films from the AFI 100. It was striking, because it seems so excessive now.

    Another good example: I just viewed Ocean's Eleven - the 1960 original. There's a scene where Peter Lawfod is getting a massage. When Sinatra comes in and wants to chat privately with Lawford, Sinatra says "beat it, girls", and one of the men slaps one of the women on the butt on thier way out. Quite normal for the Rat Pack, I suspect, but, boy, does it jump out now as extremely sexist. the women were essentially decoration in most of that movie.

    Times do change - what was "hip" back then is often quaint at best now.
     
  16. Seth Paxton

    Seth Paxton Lead Actor

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    I'm with Seaver on this.
    Artists, not just filmmakers, DO direct society to some extent. Films are part of our environment and we learn from our environment. There is no way that you read 1984 without altering your thinking just a bit.
    I don't believe in the "films are to blame" thing which supposes an immediate impact of the "monkey see, monkey do" variety. But by showing people drinking ridiculous amounts of liquor, for example, has a subliminal effect of saying "drinking = good". It's impossible to avoid.
    And filmmakers/artists have 3 arenas with which to work - displaying how things were, how things are, or how they would like things to be.
    After all, isn't Star Trek the portrayal of some ideal society? Therefore the morals and mores of this society are implied to be good to us.
    I am strongly anti-rascism, but that is my moral code and that is not an absolute but rather something I learned. (avoiding religious concepts here for now)
    We can assume that much of our anti-racism ideals of 2002 were born from growing up with All in the Family or Good Times telling us that racism is wrong. But did those shows accurately depict CURRENT society or a moral code that was strived for. Or since they took the approach of often saying "this is how it is...but this is bad" they were directing our moral code.
    So if racism was shown as acceptable or good in those shows, shouldn't we expect that we would have maintained that same moral code?
    It's very tricky because so many of these new morals seem "good" - equality of races, no smoking, no abuse, etc. But how do we always know that the new morals we've learned are better than what was before, and who really initiated it, society or art?
    After all, isn't art the #1 way in which society interacts with each other? Music, books, films, classic arts, comedy, live acting, etc. tell us what is "really" going on. But if they don't because the artist choses to show their concept of an ideal world, how are we to know? At least if it is done subtlely, I mean.
    These films reflect society, but not as directly as you implied Jack. This isn't Vertov running the streets with his camera doing cinema verite (which was still propaganda proving the worthwhileness of cinema to the new Russian government). Instead films show us what artists THOUGHT should be shown, or how they thought things should be depicted, and that in turn tells us what society was like.
    Besides is it MORAL to not depict smoking or is it IMMORAL to be upset when smoking is shown? IMHO, in the quest to make the public aware of the health risks (and counter subversive tactics by big tobacco) our moral code has swung out of whack so that WE NOTICE the smoking now because filmmakers have intentionally backed off showing it.
    Think of it like this: if film is a mirror of society then what do you do when you look in a mirror and see that you have food on your cheek - you wipe it off. The "mirror" altered your behavior even while being passive in and of itself. It's inherent in the system.
    (help, help, I'm being repressed [​IMG] I had to.)
     
  17. Rob Willey

    Rob Willey Screenwriter

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    It's jarring by today's standards to see actresses from the 30's express a desire to be struck by the man in her life as a sign he cares. "Will you give me a good sock whenever I need it?" "You bet I will." Ohhhh, obviously they love each other! [​IMG]
    But I firmly believe these insights into the morays of a bygone era are priceless historical artifacts no matter how distasteful we may find them today.
    Rob
     
  18. george kaplan

    george kaplan Executive Producer

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