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Media Construction and Augmentation of Reality Essay

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Updated: Jun 26th, 2020

In his essay The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today, Jim Hoberman portrays Hollywood as “the main repository of cultural memory and authority” (Hoberman 80). As an element of mass media, film transcends the simplistic definition of entertainment; the role film plays in the collective unconscious of a society remains decidedly more convoluted and multifaceted.

Film represents no less than a cultural reflection of a society; the verisimilitude of film, then, is not a mere likeness at all, but a mirror. As a result, the power of film to influence how members of its societal audience see themselves, and are in turn seen by others, cannot be overestimated. Insensitive and racist cultural depictions, as maintained and disseminated by mainstream Hollywood films, will by definition play themselves out in society.

The global reach of Hollywood films, in Hoberman’s view, creates “an international mass culture based in the United States but drawing capital, talent and audiences from all over the world” (Hoberman 85). For many cultures across the planet, “the movies have merged with the spectacle of daily life” (Hoberman 83). Even though film presents itself somewhat innocuously as mere fiction, this same “[f]iction seeps quietly and continuously into reality” (Hoberman 81).

The “problem” of film, as suggested by Hoberman, remains an economic one. (Hoberman 82). Film epitomizes the backward looking industry. Given the massive budgets for Hollywood films and the volatile, wildly unpredictable nature of film as an investment, the major studios tend to only produce that which has previously sold. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the average Hollywood film premiered in 2005 cost $60 million to produce, 50 percent more than in the previous year; the 25 movies featured on the 2006 Forbes list of Hollywood’s Most Expensive Films averaged $197.1 million. Film costs increased again in 2007, bumping the cost of a Hollywood feature up to a staggering $106.6 million per film (Rose n.p.)

Risk and astronomical production budgets translate to general conservatism in the industry. Major studios take few chances with fledging directors, and more importantly, with ideas that may disturb the thought status quo. As Hoberman outlines, “[f]amiliarity may breed contempt, but commercial cinema trades on previous acquaintance…In no medium is the stigma of the “difficult” – which ranges from the absence of stars to the presence of subtitles – more damning…Stars are a form of living trademark, scripts a kind of organized cliché. Genres rule.

Movies are made in cycles and recycled as remakes. Anything sold once can be sold again…and again. Moreover, the movies are the nexus for an endless series of cross references and synergistic couplings” (Hoberman 73). What this creates resembles an endless pastiche; constant rehashing of the past, and the perpetuation of former cultures and states of minds, replete with stereotypes, racism, and insensitive, static cultural depictions that resist forward growth. “A movie is almost by definition a record of that which once was,” claims Hoberman, “and how we long for that which no longer exists!” (Hoberman 74).

The seduction of film, according to Hoberman, lies in the cult of celebrity. In his mind, “stars are our supreme public servants. The mild gossip that doings and vehicles inspire promotes the socially cohesive illusion of an intimate America where everyone knows (and even cares) about each other. The stars – and the entertainment media that showcase them – create what the theorist of nationalism Benedict Anderson has called an Imaginary Community (Hoberman 74-75).

Said Imaginary Community maintains its mass appeal, says Hoberman, it is “predicated on the existence of shared tastes, feelings, desires” (Hoberman 74-75) Celebrity also represents “an economic necessity. For if the prerequisite of mass production is mass consumption, that mass consumption is itself predicated on the production of mass desire – for movies, among other things” (Hoberman 75). The danger of celebrity exists in the legitimization of culturally inappropriate depiction or hurtful stereotypes which would otherwise be verboten, or at least sniffed out, were they not endorsed by a celebrity. As Hoberman details, celebrity represents “the coin of the realm – the ultimate in surplus value which, through the magic of endorsement transforms, as Marx wrote in Capital, “every product of labor into a social hieroglyph” (Hoberman 76-77).

The main dilemma to address then remains how to successfully update the cultural viewpoints of major Hollywood films, when the nature of “film as an economic product and as an expression of political and moral viewpoints” means that it may not be economically sound to change anything (Hoberman 74). What is the harm, really, filmmakers and film producers argue, to simply ride market forces, watching a copy of a copy of a copy, as long as the industry thrives? “In addition to bankrolling remakes” Hoberman articulates, Hollywood studios seek transmedia opportunities wherever possible, in order to fully realize their investment, “recycling movies as theme park rides, interactive video games, CD-ROMs, and computer screensavers” (Hoberman 77). The harm here of course speaks to cultural stagnation, not to mention continued the continued denial of human rights and access to opportunities. Filmmakers and film producers must understand the power of their medium to shape society, and in this case, hold it back.

Ash Corea wrote of the languishing effect of film’s cultural stereotypes in her 1995 essay Racism and the American Way of Media, and also extended her analysis to television. Ash delineated the “the virtual apartheid that exists in most television situation comedies” on air in her time, wherein “African Americans and white Americans are not portrayed as living or interacting harmoniously,” and the segregation of television sitcoms, which were either “African American or white American” (Corea 353). In the years since Ash’s essay, television has definitely changed.

We now see award winning television dramas and comedy which feature blacks and whites living and working together. Some of the best examples include The Wire, which portrays blacks on their own in the projects and blacks and whites together on the police force. Popular sitcom The King of Queens featured a black man as Kevin Smith’s best friend for the duration of the series. Multiple Emmy award winning comedy 30 Rock also contains a black main character. However, to Corea’s point, segregation in television still exists, as evidenced by The Game and Let’s Talk About Pep, shows which portray black women more or less exclusively to an audience of black women.

Where film was concerned, Ash wrote, “in cinema the years 1989-1993 saw a sudden explosion of Black-directed movies focused on the other end of the social scale. Some of the best known, and most insightful on certain levels, were Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood. Many of the creative teams producing these films were also largely African American, which was definitely a forward move” (Corea 360). At the time, these films were viewed as culturally important because they were produced by members of the culture in question, yet, as Corea aptly notes

[T]heir almost uniform stress on crime, extreme violence, marauding youth gangs, drug dependency, and the impossibility of escape from or constructive action in poor African American neighborhoods represents yet again only a single dimension of everyday Black existence in the United States….considered together, these movies have down nothing to dislodge white stereotypes about the threat represented by African Americans. More reflective films that came out during the same period, such as Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, and Neil Jimenez’s The Waterdance, had minimal advertising budgets, short runs, and as a result, very poor exposure” (Corea 360).

More recently, despite numerous films that show blacks and white interacting normally together – meaning, as humans, and not as cultural statues – including Platoon, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby, Traffic and Pulp Fiction, the films that receive recognition uphold negative cultural stereotypes about blacks. The most telling example of this is the 2009 Academy Award nomination of director Lee Daniels. Yes, it was historic, and a great honour, however, Daniels nonetheless received a nomination for a film depicting horrific rape and vicious black on black violence, which harkens to both Hoberman’s and Corea’s points: if the stereotypes sell, they persist.

When reading the cultural relevance of media, specifically in regards to how it constructs and augments our reality, we are best served when we recall the vital teachings of semiotics, the system of language and symbolic analysis “concerned…with the social aspect of signification, its practical, aesthetic, or ideological use in interpersonal communication” (Chandler 7). Film constructs our reality because the codes, symbols, cultural depictions, and stereotypes it depicts endure in our minds, and in the mind of our society, for eons. The economic propensity of film producers to repeat and remake old cultural stereotypes only exacerbates the tenaciousness of their hold on our psyches.

In Chandler’s words, semiotics maintains its relevance as it “help[s] us not to take ‘reality’ for granted as something having a purely objective existence which is independent of human interpretation” (Chandler 8). Semiotics reminds its students that “reality is a system of signs…information or meaning is not ‘contained’ in the world or in books, computers or audio-visual media. Meaning is not ‘transmitted’ to us – we actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes or conventions of which we are normally unaware” (Chandler 8).

Herein lies the hope of the film industry. Signifiers, like all language, consist of socially agreed upon meanings and codes. Since they represent socially constructed entities, they are always subject to the influence of social change. “In defining realities,” Chandler explains, “signs serve ideological functions. Deconstructing and contesting the realities of signs can reveal whose realities are privileged and whose are suppressed” (Chandler 8).

In film, and mass media in general, economic concerns cannot trump the social evolution of a society. Human growth and a fully realized potential, after all, is priceless.

Works Cited

Chandler, Daniel. “Semiotics for Beginners.” Prisfysgol Aberystwyth University 2005. Web.

Corea, Ash. “Racism and the American Way of Media.” Questioning the Media: A Critical Introduction. John Downing, Ali Mohammadi, and Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi, eds. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication, 1995. 345-361. Print.

Hoberman, Jim. “The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today.” The Crisis of Criticism. Maurice Berger, ed. New York: The New Press, 1998. 71-. Print.

Rose, Lacey. Web.

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