A narrative will work on us in different ways. Primarily we are entertained, and many books and films aim to do no more than that; the thrill of a crime story or an action film is good fun. But there are also many books and films that seek to provide us with more than just an entertaining pastime.
These words appear in the article, check that you understand them all.
trait, symbiosis, deliberately, to perceive, to embrace, ruthless, squalor, vexed, misrule, enlightened, scuffle, to ruffle, intrusive, patronising, adequate
Basically all reactions are emotions, or emotionally controlled. Some people are more easily moved than others, depending on individual circumstances and personal traits. But everybody will at some point be emotionally influenced by what they see or read. So when we watch a sentimental scene or some tragic event in a film, we most certainly feel something. Film will of course be a stronger impulse and have more emotional potential than a book, because it is a symbiosis of techniques used deliberately to manipulate us. But a book can definitely be both moving and emotionally stirring as well. It may be interesting to reflect a bit on this – for example, will our emotions stand in the way for other elements that we are supposed to perceive?
Feelings or Intellect?
Note that the authors’ and film makers’ first aim is to entertain, which is a clearly legitimate intention. However, many directors and writers want their works to be embraced as more than pure entertainment, and they will have to be quite conscious of how to achieve that. Charles Dickens has been called a sentimentalist, perhaps quite rightly so, when we for example see how he uses child protagonists in many of his works. But Dickens also had a different agenda with his writing; he wanted to display the squalor of industrial England during the mid-19th century and raise criticism against greedy mill owners and a ruthless ruling class. So the question is – will the readers’ sympathy for poor Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit simply stand in the way for an understanding of Dickens’s political agenda? It is hard to say; many people at the time were both moved and vexed by Dickens's writing, whereas we today probably react a bit differently to his social criticism as we see it in a more historical perspective. But nonetheless, the question is both general and intriguing: Can we have a distanced intellectual understanding of a film or a book and at the same time be emotionally moved by what we see or read? The answer is probably yes, but there are film makers and playwrights who don’t think so, and go to quite some lengths to stop us from being carried away by our emotions.
Many writers and theatre and film directors want to influence the audience politically, and they are quite clear about it. Their work is not direct propaganda for some left wing or right wing direction, but the aim is to inform their audience about some sort of political misrule or abuse or power, so that the audience will leave the theatre or put the book down enlightened and ready to take action to put things right. To achieve that they need to remind the audience of the fact that this is just a play or a film – reality is out there. Political writers in the 1930s developed certain techniques to sort of “wake up” the audience and remind them. One way was to use singing, not like a musical or an opera where the actors sing their lines instead of saying them, but more like an outside comment on what was going on in the film or the play. There would for example be a choir or a band with a singer off stage that would break into the action and explicitly tell the audience what this really was about, and what should be done about it. Political playwrights like Berthold Brecht and the Norwegian Nordahl Grieg were both using this sort of theatrical effect. Grieg would even go so far as to place an actor or two in the audience who would break into the play by shouting loud comments about what was going on on the stage, and perhaps even initiate a scuffle among the audience. Another technique was to break into the action with suggestive comments on big posters that either were carried across the stage at a play, or popped up during the film. British film director Lindsay Anderson used both musical comments and posters in his films. Most viewers would see such effects as intrusive elements which would ruffle the entertainment and spoil the fun. Besides, most of the audience probably would find it a bit patronising to be taught and openly instructed like this. Such techniques are not common today; perhaps because writers with an agenda trust their audiance to get the message without these instructions.
To conclude – to write a book or make a film for entertainment is a completely adequate ambition, we love to be entertained. But authors and film makers who want to address an audience with more than entertainment must be aware of the possible conflict between an emotional reaction to and an intellectual understanding of their work, and they will have to consider carefully how to get across their message without being too intrusive and patronising.
Comprehension and Discussion
How can there be a possible conflict between an emotional reaction and an intellectual understanding of a literary text or a film?
Do you think it is all right for a writer or a film maker to put his or her political views into their work? Is it freedom of speech or is it abuse of power?
There are many examples of regimes that have used film or literature to instruct the people and teach them the "correct" political view. (Can you mention some?) What will be a natural consequence of such an ambition?
Find out more
Below are listed four names of artists with a political agenda. Choose one of them and do some research on the net and present your findings for the class.
- British film director Ken Loach openly has a political message with his films. His approach is a close-to-life presentation of the conditions for working class people struggling to get by in a tough reality defined by the people in power. His films are a good example of how an emotional reaction may clash with an intellectual understanding of his work. Sugggested titles: "Ladybird, Ladybird", "Raining Stones", "Riff Raff".
- The American playwright Arhur Miller was accused of "un-American activity" during the "McCarthyism" in the 1950s, mainly because of his play "Death of a Salesman". The play clearly puts The American Dream into a critical perspective. Watch the film (directed by Volker Schlöndorff, starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkowich) or seach the net for information about Miller's political agenda and his clash with the American establishment.
- British George Orwell is another central figure in literature whose writing clearly has a political tendency. He wants to alarm people about oppressive and undemocratic political systems, e.g. in his famous fable "Animal Farm", which is a sharp satirical comment on the communist regime in The Soviet Union. Another standard example of literature with a political message is his "1984", which is a science fiction presentation of a totalitarian society where surveillance and brainwashing are ways to control the population, not unlike some communist regimes we know. Do some net reseach and find out about Orwell's writing in a politcal context.
- The British film director Lindsay Anderson is mentioned in the article. His approach is mostly interesting because of the way he uses music and other effects to comment on the plot and to clarify his political message. Suggested titles: "Oh, Lucky Man" and "If".
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