Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino are all filmmakers who have been credited for their devotion to visually engaging symbolism and subtexts in their films, possibly even rivaling their passion for making crowd-pleasing movies. That reputation has turned these directors into the favorites of film analysts, some of whom have produced their own elaborate interpretations of entire movies, such as The Shining or Mulholland Drive. These film analysis are typically endearing to the filmmakers, however that doesn’t automatically apply to all types of film analysis, in general. There is, in fact, a tradition of analyzing movies that focuses less on something like a director’s playful use of foreshadowing and more on a film’s subtext serving as hidden propaganda. That kind of emphasis can be said to be characteristic of sociological film analysis.
Examples of such analysis can be found in Douglas Kellner’s Media Culture from 1995, where Kellner dissects film and television for signs of the ongoing culture war between progressive and conservative ideologies and values. Referencing critical social theory, Kellner assumes that media culture shapes society “through its influence on individuals and groups.” Kellner makes the case that viewers of all ages can be manipulated by film and television. He refers to the case of MTV’s Beavis and Butthead encouraging pyromania in its viewers as an example of how TV can have profound effects on the behavior of the younger viewers, and then later he mentions the case of how Top Gun led to a large number of audience members, of both genders, signing up to join the army after watching the film, as an example of how the movie industry can have equally powerful effects on adults.
Kellner identifies conservative themes in movies that were coming out of Hollywood in the Reagan-era of the 1980’s, in support of the thesis that political powers were actively intervening with the movie industry to influence the audience. Kellner assumes that the pro-war propaganda of such films as Rambo and Top Gun were a tactical move by the authorities against anti-war social movements, of the type that had pressured the United States to get out of Vietnam in the 1960’s. Rambo in particular overtly deals with the theme of a return to Vietnam, “to overcome the Vietnam syndrome (i.e. shame concerning the loss of the war and overcoming the reluctance to again use U.S. military power)” in Kellner’s own words.
What Kellner only briefly touches on in his whole book is the evidence for his rather extraordinary claim that TV and film can in fact have the kind of extreme, behavior-altering effects on its viewers that he assumes, even while he’s making these claims to readers who presumably have their own experiences of being exposed to the medium without changing their behavior, or way of thinking, as the result of it. Taking a closer look at Kellner’s examples, mentioned above, he references a backlash against pyromania in Beavis and Butthead and the effects of Top Gun on audience members who flocked to enroll in the Navy, as examples of how the medium can in fact have powerful effect on viewers of all ages. On closer inspection, the factual basis for the “evidence” here is so thin that the whole presentation of the argument comes off as downright dishonest. Firstly, the Beavis and Butthead backlash appears to have been based on a single incident where a five-year-old set fire to his family’s motor home in 1993 and then his mother blamed the cartoon for it. Secondly, the claim about men and women signing up for the Navy because of Top Gun is presented explicitly as being based on hearsay from the people working in the cinemas, who claimed that there should have been a list for signing up for the Navy, positioned in the lobby, so that people could sign up as soon as they came out of the movie. However, given the absence of that, it’s safe to assume that these cinema employees didn’t have any overview of whether the audience members ended up actually signing up for the Navy or not.
Kellner’s personal position comes out in statement like these: “One wonders how many pilots and soldiers who joined the military and fought in the Panama invasion, the Gulf War, and other military escapades of the era were influenced by such cinematic propaganda. Hollywood films, like the Hollywood president [Reagan], are not innocent entertainment but lethal weapons in the service of dominant socio-economic forces.” This comes following numerous quotes by other theorists, like Kellner, who may or may not have presented empirical evidence for their claims, but Kellner seems to be of the opinion that theories are perfectly valid substitutes for evidence. The fact that so little importance is given to empirical evidence for how media culture can have such powerful, behavior-modifying effects on its viewers, may be the strongest indication that no such evidence really exists.
The idea of entertainment having corrupting effects on the people who get exposed to it, or partake in it, was nothing new in the 1990’s (previous campaigns with focus on comic books and role-playing games come to mind), but what was perhaps innovative about Kellner’s thesis was the narrative that he tied his claims to: of how the authorities had become aware of the power of the entertainment industry through the social movements of the 1960’s, which served to rile people up against the authorities, getting John F. Kennedy elected and effectively ending the Vietnam War, making it evident that the entertainment industry needed to be tamed. The counter-culture movements of the 1960’s were, in fact, led by pop-culture icons, but it should perhaps be perceived as a weakness in Kellner’s reasoning that, while these figureheads of the protests were primarily musicians, the political counter-attack that Kellner imagines taking place in the 1980’s was solely focused on the film industry. Arguably the most influential celebrity of the anti-war movement was the late John Lennon, who explicitly protested wars in his song lyrics (“war is over, if you want it”). The death of John Lennon is even seen as marking the end the hippie era (which had started with the invention of the contraceptive pill). Interestingly enough, Lennon’s murder occurred in December of 1980, after Ronald Reagan had been elected, but before he took office. Kellner associates Reagan’s presidency with a conservative counter movement against the counter-culture, with the intention to make the public more positive towards warfare.
In 1990, Fenton Bresler’s Who Killed John Lennon? came out, where the author analyses the possibility that Lennon’s convicted killer, Mark David Chapman, was in fact working for the CIA, however without Chapman realizing as much himself. The book makes the claim that Chapman may have been brainwashed, or programmed, by the CIA, so that he could be triggered with a single phone call, or by exposure to J. D. Salilnger’s The Catcher in the Rye, to then go on to kill “the dangerous” Beatle, and after that the killer calmly went on reading The Catcher in the Rye, carelessly in the street. Bresler makes the claim that CIA could have gotten to Chapman through the YMCA. In fact, the author maps out Chapman’s journey in the months leading up to his encounter with the musician, demonstrating how the CIA’s involvement could have fitted into what was going on in Chapman’s life.
Though there is no official connection between the two authors, Fenton Bresler and Douglas Kellner, they seem to be operating much from the same premise in their writings, by assuming that the entertainment industry could have such powerful effects on people’s behavior that the authorities had started acting against it, with their own propaganda and even political assassinations. Media Culture and Who Killed John Lennon? seem to be pretty much telling the same story. In the 2010’s the effects of the entertainment industry on consumers is still ongoing topic, presently with special attention being given to video games and comic books. Whether or not the current proponents of censorship in the name of countering the harmful influences of entertainment have been influenced by the writings of Kellner, or other like-minded authors, these writings are still highly relevant to the discourse, as they present an academic attempt at making the case for that side, and the strength of that argument on the whole can be assessed from how it is presented in such writings – or these thesis could even be seen as source material for the current culture wars.
Ironically, Kellner’s own position on pop-culture and its harmful effects on the consumers turns the Marxist scholar into the kind of figure that he assumes the Reagan-era authorities to be. Perhaps the analytical narrative needs to include Douglas Kellner himself, and other like-minded scholars, as examples of individuals who have no understanding of escapism, feel intimidated by it and feel an insatiable need to act against it.