As the Traverse City Film Festival approaches, anyone going to downtown Traverse City will inevitably see one or twenty posters with this year’s slogan: “One Great Movie Can Change You.” I completely agree. This is not a new insight, of course. People have recognized the power of entertainment for thousands of years. However, the slogan has encouraged me to revisit how the arts and entertainment both reflect and shape us.
Obviously, the arts reflect us as they respond constantly to the environment in which they occur. Read any Western Civilization textbook and you will see the ebb and flow over thousands of years. If a good story, song or image doesn’t resonate with something in a person’s life, no one is going to care, and the out-of-touch artist, author, musician, or filmmaker will lose his or her audience.
But entertainment shapes our culture as well. This was clearly the case even before ubiquitous media has burrowed into our 21st century psyche. Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish writer and politician, wrote of a wise friend who believed that “if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nationmost of the ancient legislators thought that they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet.”
Plato, though not a legislator, certainly qualifies as an important ancient voice. He wrote of the power of music in The Republic, Book 4 (the Fowler translation):
“For the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions, as Damon affirms and as I am convinced.”
“Set me too down in the number of the convinced,” said Adeimantus.
“It is here, then,” I said, “in music, as it seems, that our guardians must build their guard-house and post of watch.”
“It is certain,” he said, “that this is the kind of lawlessness that easily insinuates itself unobserved.”
“Yes,” said I, “because it is supposed to be only a form of play and to work no harm.”
“Nor does it work any,” he said, “except that by gradual infiltration it softly overflows upon the characters and pursuits of men and from these issues forth grown greater to attack their business dealings, and from these relations it proceeds against the laws and the constitution with wanton license, Socrates, till finally it overthrows all things public and private.”
Plato’s insights were not flawless, but he was prescient about the role music would play in the world. Thousands of years later, folk singer Peter Seeger would note that “the right song at the right time can change history.” In 2013, the BBC published an article entitled “20 Of Your Songs That Changed The World.” Their list showed how music has mended international relationships, confronted apartheid, bolstered civil rights, and fought injustice around the world. It is a timelessly powerful form or entertainment.
But with the rise of the camera and then the technology to make those picture move, entertainment of which Plato and Fletcher could not have dreamed began to take the world by storm. Now our culture is saturated with screens – television, film, computer, portable devices and the stories they tell add already powerful music to mesmerizing images. The stories will still reflect culture, but perhaps more than ever they change it in increasingly subtle and significant ways.
Walt Disney claimed that “movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.” Marshal McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory, noted, “Television is teaching all the time. It does more educating than the schools and all the institutions of higher learning.”
TV and film changes how we experience and process our emotional responses to such a degree that we become susceptible to ideas we had not considered before. Martin Scorsese claims that””movies touch our hearts, and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They open doors and minds.”
In an article called “Movies May Cause Special Effects On The Body,” the Chicago Tribune noted:” ‘Because many films transmit ideas through emotion rather than intellect, they can neutralize the instinct to suppress feelings and trigger emotional release,’ said Birgit Wolz, a psychologist focusing on movies as therapy, and author of E-motion Picture Magic. ‘By eliciting emotions, watching movies can open doors that otherwise might stay closed.'”
There are numerous practical examples of how this influence plays out in the real world.
- “The Birth of a Nation” helped resurrect the KKK.
- Sharks were hunted mercilessly after Jaws.
- Navy aviator recruitment jumped 500% for a time thanks to Top Gun.
- The sale of bacon was impacted by the movie Babe.
- The popularity of the CSI has increased interest in forensic science and impacted juror expectations in courtrooms.
- An article in Truth About Nursing noted: “The idea that fictional media can influence public views and conduct is not controversial in the field of public health What has become increasingly clear in recent years is that fictional television can also play a significant role in shaping public images about the state of our health care system and policy options for improving the delivery of care.”
- People who watch comedies and dramas think the world is more just than those who watch news and documentaries.
- Food Inc. shaped public policy, specifically the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization and Food Safety Act.
- The New York Times quotes expert Amy B. Zegart, an analyst of American attitudes on torture, concerning her conclusion about the influence of television is striking:”I think the evidence is that television is shifting views. Entertainment has an alarming impact”
- People who regularly view spy-themed entertainment were significantly more likely than their counterparts to accept actions like assassinating (84% to 70%) or waterboarding (38% to 28%) terrorists.
Matt Baume, a writer, storyteller and videomaker who focuses on LGBT issues (among other topics) was recently a guest on the podcast Shadow of A Thought. In an episode entitled “A Brief History of Marriage,” he noted the power of story in furthering the cause he champions. “It’s visibility that changed [perceptions of homosexuals]. Seeing gay couples on Will and Grace, or Queer as Folk, or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, even seeing Ricky on My So Called Life a lot of gay men who lived through the 90’s cite that visibility as not just changing for them what it meant for them to be gay but ultimately changing how other people saw them: their family, co-workers, how other gay people related to each other…”
The late Neil Postman, one of the greatest technological prophets of our time, once wrote:
“Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore — and this is the critical point — how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.”
A well-told story packs a tremendous punch. We step away from the screen, but the images and the messages linger. That kind of power must be balanced with great responsibility – and the fact that many of you know that line comes from Peter Parker’s uncle says something about how the messages in entertainment permeate our lives.
I find myself increasingly annoyed with the comment, “It’s just entertainment. You’re over thinking it!” No – it’s not, and I’m not. I enjoy it don’t get me wrong but every song is a sermon. Every movie has a message. Every screen is both a mirror and a molder. It’s well worth asking if we should applaud or cringe at what we see reflected, and if we like what our stories are making of us.