From its conception, the main point of capturing something on film was to grab that real-life moment in time so that you can revisit it whenever you would like. Beginning with the Lumière Brothers to now, filmmakers have made sure to portray a sense of reality in the films they create, whether that be through showcasing daily struggles, emotional turmoils or through documentaries. These so-called “realistic films”, provide audiences with a mirror image of society and of issues that they may not be fully aware of. However, the overall purpose of creating films has changed throughout the years, becoming more of a source of entertainment as opposed to acting as a mirror. This then begets the question of if films, and more so the way of filmmaking that we have become so attuned to in popular culture, still needs to be a reflection of society or if they should simply serve as frivolous entertainment. As a forewarning, this article will only be discussing conventional Hollywood films.
Before getting into the discussion and subsequently answering that question, it is important to understand how to go about addressing the need of films within popular culture and what popular culture actually refers to. In her article, “Film as a medium for meaning making: A theological perspective” (2017), Anita L. Cloete provides an apt distinction between mass culture and popular culture and how films fit into each and the purpose that it serves. She notes that “mass culture is a cultural system of producing products that will be available to mass populations. Popular culture, on the other hand, is what people do with these entertainments and commodities in real life which has little to do with the meanings that the producers have in mind.” Cloete mentions that while films are a part of the mass culture in that they are typically produced to be consumed by the general public, films also serve another purpose as an art form that is within the popular culture, whereby films cause audiences to interpret and make sense out of the film in their own individualistic way, sometimes extracting meanings that the filmmakers might not have even thought of.
Furthermore, when you look at films produced within any given period, the overall story, character behaviors and inherent purpose and/or meaning of the film is usually associated with the prevailing ideals and perceptions of the general public. When talking about racial and cultural representation within Hollywood films, Jason Smith posits in his article, “Between Colorblind and Colorconsciousness: Contemporary Hollywood Films and Struggles Over Racial Representation” (2013), that “Hollywood films are reflections of the times in which they are made, whereby the racial representations that audiences see will adhere to the racial order of the given moment.” Hence, throughout its years, Hollywood films have continuously inhabited the universal consensus of its audiences, with a strong bias towards its more affluent market. However, even though some films might provide a more realistic setting or storyline than others (e.g., a biopic vs a superhero film), should cinema, and in particular, Hollywood films, be a true reflection of society and equip the audience with a lens into certain realities?
The answer: yes, it must. An audience, irrespective of what film it is, cannot psychologically connect with the storyline or its characters if it does not possess a certain amount of realism. Superhero movies may, at first glance, seem like a hodgepodge of CGI and hyper-masculine men, but when observed closely, it becomes apparent that the messages and the character development throughout each film is something that an audience can relate to, even if they do not find these films enjoyable. They notice and attach to the internal turmoils of these characters and attribute it either to themselves, or to others they know. Most popular Hollywood films are deemed as “escapism” or fantastical representations of real-life, however even those films need to contain a certain amount of “relatableness” for an audience to pay attention. Film critic Parker Tyler argued about popular Hollywood films that, “movies, similar to much else in life, are seldom what they seem. In this sense…movies are dreamlike and fantastic, their fantasy and “dreamfulness” having actually come to the fore at the moment of writing as consciously embodying certain assumptions: the existence of the unconscious mind as a dynamic factor in human action and the tendency of screen stories to emphasize – unintentionally – neuroses and psychopathic traits discovered and formulated by psychoanalysis.” The audience must be able to find affirmations that provide them with the ability to make sense of the film and connect back to their outside world in order to enjoy the film or sustain a certain level of attention while watching it.
“There is an element of psychological realism to any film narrative in the sense that audiences understand characters’ actions and reactions as meaningful, as long as they are psychologically motivated”, states Birger Langkjær in his article “Realism as a third film practice” (2011). He further goes on to mention that as an audience, “we understand fictional characters because we relate their actions to our knowledge of action and reaction patterns in the ordinary world.” Therefore, regardless of the type or genre of film you are watching, whether is be a documentary, a period film, or a sci-fi movie, all variations of film must embody some sense of realism.
Anderson, Katie. (2010). Film as a reflection of society: interracial marriage and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in late 1960s America. SURG Journal. 4. 23-29. 10.21083/surg.v4i1.1105.
Cloete, A.L., 2017, ‘Film as medium for meaning making: A practical theological reflection’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73(4), a4753. https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v73i4.4753
Fearing, F. (1947). Influence of the Movies on Attitudes and Behavior. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 254(1), 70–79. https://doi.org/10.1177/000271624725400112
Langkjær, B. (2011). Realism as a third film practice. MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research, 27(51), 15 p. https://doi.org/10.7146/mediekultur.v27i51.4078
Smith, J. (2013). Between Colorblind and Colorconscious: Contemporary Hollywood Films and Struggles Over Racial Representation. Journal of Black Studies,44(8), 779-797. Retrieved March 11, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/24572892
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.