Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Reel Facts & Opinions: Messaging in the Movies

This past weekend, director Neill Blomkamp’s second feature film, ELYSIUM, was released in theaters. Despite mixed reviews, the film was good enough to win the weekend Box Office. Through all the film’s goodness, badness, and ugliness, audiences seemed to zero in on the themes that Blomkamp used as a backdrop for his film. Similar to his Oscar-nominated DISTRICT 9 (2009), the South African director used themes of social divide and apartheid to help tell his story. The usage of these themes was what people seemed to focus on; not so much the side Blomkamp took, but the fact that the themes were there to push a message.

Using movies to push a message goes back decades. Industry pioneer Samuel Goldwyn once remarked, “When I want to deliver a message, I’ll send for a Western Union boy”. His famous quote came not long after legendary director Frank Capra’s LADY FOR A DAY (1933) took a strong look at the still-fresh Great Depression. Goldwyn however, perhaps realizing the power the relatively-new medium of film held, would seemingly come around to a different way of thinking; his 1946 film THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES was set in the framework of the important issue of WWII veterans returning home… thus kicking-off decades upon decades of films created not only to entertain, but to educate in some way about an idea, theme, propaganda, point-of-view, or social significance. Anti-Semitism was the centerpiece of GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT in 1947. In 1948 ALL MY SONS looked at war profiteering, and in that same year STATE OF THE UNION tackled political corruption. In 1962, the adaptation of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD looked at race relations, and the film went on to become one of the best of all time.

Despite all the precedent and success, audiences still seem to get polarized over themes and messages in their films. This Blogger would argue that every movie is centered on at least one theme or message, controversial or not. Consider THE GODFATHER (loyalty), STAR WARS (accepting destiny), TOY STORY (friendship), JAWS (fear), WALL STREET (greed), THERE WILL BE BLOOD (power)…it doesn’t matter if these themes are political or at the forefront of the news headlines, because they are still very human elements that every film needs.

Of course, some filmmakers set out with the strict intention of pushing agendas. Directors like Spike Lee and Michael Moore sacrifice a lot to get messages across. Whether or not they have been successful in their agenda-pushing is debatable, but they have certainly stirred up people’s emotions nearly every time out, and that is something every filmmaker should be striving to do.

The backlash against ELYSIUM, and messages-in-movies seems to get back to the original question Goldwyn seemed to wrestle with all those years ago; is the purpose of film to entertain, or educate? The question is the exact same issue TV broadcast pioneer Edward R. Murrow was entrenched in for years. When Murrow’s bosses at CBS wanted entertainment programming, he responded by giving hard-hitting, truth-telling shows with the intention to educate, inspire, and do some good. Television, like the movies, are powerful tools because of their usage of sights and sound. Both mediums can entertain and educate at the same time. It really isn’t too much to ask for, or to be accepting of both…just as long as the messaging doesn’t overshadow or derail the storytelling.

What say you?


  1. I haven't seen Elysium, but the trailers seem to paint the two sides in archetypes/stereotypes. The rich get everything and the poor live off scraps. Fantastic picture to paint if you're trying to get the poor to vote for you, but a bit heavyhanded for 'entertainment.'

    I'm ok with a film taking a position, as long as it gives equal time to the opposing views and fairly states its contention that the films position is the correct one.

    Zero Dark Thirty did this very well; showing both sides of 'enhanced interrogation' and left it up to us to decide, though making it clear that it was a dirty, dirty business. It handled it so well, that talking heads on both sides were able to use it for or against their own positions...depending on who was listening.

    THAT is how you handle your message. District 9 used immigration and Apartheid to tell an engaging sci-fi tale, but had the luxury of history on its side. Yeah, we all knew Apartheid was bad, and we know that immigrants are treated pretty terribly sometimes..and they're just people too. There wasn't a whole heckuva lot to stir up there.

    If you have a message, tell it eloquently, using the language of your medium. I don't have to agree with you, but I don't need to feel insulted because I disagree with the straw man you so carefully built. A few of the directors you mention are quite guilty of this.


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