Through the Glass - Part I

A study on feature films and popular culture

1. Perspectives
Feature films are one of the most studied objects within popular culture. There is an almost endless catalogue of publications and texts that analyse this particular kind of cultural product: film critique, aesthetic, semiotics, sociology, cultural studies are only some of the disciplines interested in this field.
The flourishing of all these different approaches may be explained with the importance that the object of analysis has had and still has in both the Western and the Eastern societies and cultures. In fact, its potentialities as a mass communication medium were understood very soon and widely exploited for the most different aims, from political propaganda to scientific divulgation to the construction of a new form of art: it is enough to remind of the use of cinematography to film phases of the First World War, or the use of this instrument by scientists like Thomas Edison and avant-garde movements like Surrealism1 . So the question seems to be why this particular medium has been and still is considered (and actually is) so powerful.
To answer this question it is necessary to look at the different levels through which cinema acts. Its influence can be investigated only once it has been recognised that the experience we face when we “go to the movies” is a multiple-faceted one: it affects sight and hearing, reason and sensitivity, consciousness and instinct at the same time. Of course, the power of images has a huge impact, but images alone wouldn’t have as much capacity of involving the audience as the full set of films’ techniques. It is the combination of images, sound, narrative structure, use of camera and lighting, music, editing, mise-en-scène, acting that builds the “power” of a film: every element finds its significance in the relationship with the others, and the final product is something more than the mere addiction of the single parts. To focus this point it is possible to think about a change of one or more elements in a film sequence and imagine how it would work: i.e., in the film Reservoir Dogs by Quentin Tarantino (1992) there is a famous (and often censored) scene of torture where a psychopathic cuts a cop’s ear, while he’s listening a very frisky folk-rock song on the radio, Stuck in the Middle with You. The combination of the two elements (a very strong image of violence and a good-humoured music) gives a sense of grotesque to the entire sequence, and possibly can make the audience uncomfortable about how to decode (and thus interpret) it. Had the music been of a dark and scaring kind there wouldn’t be decoding problems, it would be a “normal” scene of violence, reminding of a precise genre and atmosphere. Without music, the interpretation of the same image would be still different: all the attention would be only on what can be seen, with the result of a more intense participation and perhaps a deeper sense of anguish.
The combination of elements in a feature film is usually very accurate as the author (or the authors) wants its product to signify something for the audience, and this meaning can change from a simple entertainment pleasure to social, cultural or political critique to psychological analysis. But a film is not an isolated object, as its author is not an isolated man/woman, and actually a feature film is always the product of a collectivity: this means that this particular object is inserted in a social and cultural background as well as in a defined historical period, and given the social nature of its production it can’t help being influenced by the wider context in which it is created and in which, afterwards, it “lives”. The influences a film can receive are within a wide range and often conflicting one another: there may be different “sub-cultures” trying to make their ways to the final text, different visions arguing on the framing that should be given to the events, and on the events themselves (i.e. industrial-producing point of view vs. artistic-authorial one), a conflict of ideologies that can emerge in some parts of the film (i.e. an unexpected conclusion, a situation that doesn’t fit with the rest of the story).
The aim of this study is to look at feature films through the glass of the culture, or rather the cultures, produced by and influencing the social world, and try to discover the reflections of that glass on these modern means of communication and art.
To achieve this goal instruments from different disciplines are necessary: sociology, semiotics, structuralism, discourse analysis are the fields of study where these means can be found, and only an approach that try to keep the different perspectives together, using one to fulfil the lacks of another or to go deeper into the analysis, can succeed in “putting the text into its context” and therefore studying the links between what is on the screen and what is behind.

2. Context matters
Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, has put the discipline he studied and systematised inside a wider intellectual container, semiotics. According to what he stated, linguistics, and thus the paradigm he chose as a mean of analysis – structuralism, should be considered both a province of and a model for the whole science of signs2 . Therefore, independently from the nature of the object of study, structuralism offers for Saussure a valid way to penetrate deep in the essence of everything that can be considered a “sign” and undercover its hidden anatomy and its elemental framework, in one word its core. This operation allows us to discover a main structure lying under different surfaces (that is to say the external aspect of the objects we can see at a first sight) and to understand the unifying elements that build the basis and give sense to the entire edifice of a sign. Through this work it is also possible to analyse how the same fundamental conceptual frame is declined in different circumstances, that is to say how an abstract idea (or ideology) embodies itself in concrete objects (words and languages in the case of linguistics). To use Saussure’s expression, how langue, a set of rule, becomes parole, the effective use (or misuse) of these rules in everyday life.
What lacks in this approach is the answer to the question “why”: why does the same structure take different shapes? What are the causes of the shifts in the way it becomes real, tangible, a concrete object we can watch, use, hear? To try and give answers to these questions it is necessary to move from a straight structuralist perspective to a more comprehensive approach which recovers the “background” element, the context. Historical, social, cultural, political, economical factors must be taken into account through a sociological oriented analysis, but before it is useful to see how even within the field of semiotics itself this problem has been faced.
Starting with a denying of Saussure’s statement regarding the status of linguistics as a specialised branch of semiotics and insisting that it is rather the latter that is part of the former because no system of signs can be explained and understood if not through human language, Roland Barthes at the same time re-enforces saussurian view that natural languages are not the only semiological systems: “anything is a sign to the extent that is endowed with signification” 3 . It is in the very notion of “signification”, which is a dynamic process, that Barthes provides a role for the context: in fact, through this process a “signifier” (the external manifestation of a sign) unites with a “signified” (the concept, the idea which the signifier reminds to) and together they build a sign. The terminology used comes straight from Saussure’s work, but the way in which Barthes conceptualises the relationship between signifier and signified goes further: this link becomes problematic, multi-levelled and context-influenced. Indeed, if “denotation” points to a simple, straight relationship between signifier and signified (i.e. the word T-R-E-E and the image of a tree), it is in “connotation” where the background circumstances play an important and sometimes crucial role. Let’s take a very popular feature film as an example: Top Gun (1986). It is a movie about the training of a specialised team of US aviation jet-pilots and it launched an absolute superstar of the following years, Tom Cruise. In the film we can see also sequences of real (that is to say, intended to be real) fights between US jets and Soviet “migs”, with a final epic battle in which the Americans push back a Russian offensive. The movie was made in 1986, that is to say when Gorbacev, the Soviet Union leader, and Reagan, the US president, had already started their dialogues about disarmament and “pacific cohabitation” (the famous Reykjavík summit was held the year before). The film can be seen, of course, just as a pure form of entertainment: spectacular aerial sequences, special effects, sex scenes, plus all the typical elements of a popular drama such as love and friendship stories, are all devices that can point in this direction, and probably in the US a large part of the audience watched the movie in this very way. But if we try and analyse its inner structure, we can discover other messages. What is shown is, of course, a classic struggle between good, the US, and evil, the USSR. The enemy is presented as completely de-humanized: we never see Russian pilots’ faces and never hear them talk, we can just observe these huge and scaring masks they wear and watch them hit or (more often) be hit. Then we can ask ourselves a question: why in a moment in which US-USSR relationships seemed to get better Hollywood came out with this violent anti-Russian parabola? We can think to an ideological function of this text: while news report hand-shakes and smiles between the two world leaders, the movie industry takes over the duty to show that anyway attention and preparation for an attack must not be lowered, because Russians remain enemies, and you can never trust an enemy.
Similarly, the film can also be seen as an attempt by the military-industrial complex (with propagations in the “fabric of dreams”) to keep public opinion pro-armament through the showing of the powerful Soviet migs and weapons. Moreover, the insistence on the representation of the migs and the pronunciation of the word itself might have another hidden aim: to show the relationship between the Soviets and another arch-enemy of those times, Libyan leader Gaddafi, whose migs had been accused by the States of targeting US objectives (in 1986 Tripoli will be bombed). Finally, if we think about the global nature of this product, we can accept its ideological function more confidently: in fact, its propagandistic messages were probably thought and aimed to convince Western European audiences more than American ones, since the latter, in their majority, didn’t need to be convinced of the persistent “Red Threat” because they were already sure about that (and were also exposed to a massive dose of propaganda through all the other media of their country), while Western European audiences had to be re-assured about what was the good field to be in during these confused times.

3. Operation “Police rescue”
Connotation, thus, works through allusion and establish a link between a visible signifier and a deep signified: this relationship gives shape and sense to a sign. If denotation was regarding a first, straight level, connotation is implying a second, more complex level, when a sign itself (i.e. a war movie) becomes a signifier for another signified (i.e. anti-communism) and together they create a second-order semiological system: this is the level of the myth. This term does not point to a specific category of abstract ideas, nor to specific concrete objects, since it stands for, in Barthes’ own words, a mode of signification, a form, and consequently “everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse” 4 . An important aspect of myths is their hypocritical nature: a modern myth, such as many of the advertising ones, often works by preserving, propagating and taking advantage of an idea that exists in many people’s minds, in prejudicial forms, pretending to challenge it5 . This is what Barthes calls “Operation Margarine”, from the name of the product advertised in the commercials where he recognized this technique. In practice, we can see first an emphasis on the product faults, then the introduction of an element of doubt or debate and finally the emerging of the discovered excellence of the object in question. The initial portrait of dislike is just a trick to make the product excel, by contrast, in the end.
It is possible to apply this kind of analysis to examples taken from an old and evergreen films genre: detective stories. The myth we are dealing with is thus the police (and more generally all “law and order” institutions) as it is depicted in popular imaginary.
In the recent Training Day (2001) Denzel Washington is a detective of the Los Angeles Police Department who has to train a young policeman (Ethan Hawke) who wants to become a detective too. The film shows the couple going around Los Angeles streets and facing different hard situations: a rape, a drug dealing, a gang-shooting. The older officer uses very non-orthodox methods, such as stealing money from the suspects and letting them go home instead of arresting them, and tries to push the young guy to act in the same way. But the rookie refuses to follow these “teaching”, explaining in one sequence that this is not what he has joined the police for. In the end we discover the detective to be a corrupted cop who has to pay a debt he has with the Russian mafia: he doesn’t hesitate to kill in order to collect the money he needs. When the young guy understands the situation, he fights his instructor and succeeds in taking back the money he stole to make an evidence out of them against the corrupted cop, who finally is killed by the Russians.
The structure of this film matches the “Operation Margarine” paradigm: an initial denounce of the dark aspects of a “product” (in this case, the police, put in a bad light by the detective’s deeds, which he presents as natural and “part of the game”); then a doubt comes out, embodied in the critics made by the young policeman to his older fellow’s methods, which in his opinion go against what the police’s function should be; finally, the “salvation” of the formerly demonised product, through the finding that dirty actions and out-of-law behaviours were carried on by a corrupted element, and the sane element manages to stop him: the bad guy gets the punishment he deserves. Significantly, the corrupted cop is black: in an important sequence he makes a speech (just after having committed a crime) to his doubtful young fellow in which he states that “you have to change the system from the inside”. An African-american, whose people historically has been always kept “outside” of the system and has suffered from the exploitation that it causes, tells a white guy to get into that very system, that is to say to accept its values. This “insider” perspective is an expression of the black bourgeoisie model, that is based on the acceptance of the main ideological imperatives of the white-dominated US capitalist society: individualism, social climbing, competition, all of which are embodied by this figure of cop who is disposed to everything for profit. Once you have accepted all of these, then you can “change” the system, but of course this is an hypocritical statement with an ideological function, since a person who has learned to believe in these values won’t ever work for social change. Moreover, the detective’s deeds display a racist position as they portray corruption and dishonesty as the only ways for black people to achieve a high social position.
While again the denotative meaning of this text resides in a simple “good vs. evil” story, in which good as usual wins, at a deeper, connotative level we can find a strong re-affirmation of the inner “goodness” of a whole institution, the police, and of the indispensable role that it plays. In fact, it is another policeman who discovers and stops the bad detective, not an external element, and the film aims to make clear that only a cop could have done this, because only in this position you have the authority, the means and finally the right to do this. So the underlining message is that police, in its complex, is a sane institution that succeeds in arresting crime even when it comes from one of its members: corruption is not something structural and unavoidable, but it affects only isolated elements who in the end are discovered and stopped. Police is something citizens can trust.
We can find the same structure in The Recruit (2002), with the CIA replacing LAPD. Again, a rookie gets a hard training, full of double-games, friends who turn out to be enemies or the opposite, traps and life-risking situations. “Nothing is what is seems” is his instructor’s motto, and in fact the instructor himself (Al Pacino) is discovered to be a traitor, not for another intelligence but just for money. The recruit (Colin Farrell) succeeds in exposing him and getting him caught and finally killed, and is granted a top position by a higher officer. The institution proves to be sane again: plots are revealed, the internal enemies are defeated by young and fresh forces who represent the bright future of the organization itself, and the unavoidable need for the existence of the agency is demonstrated. The ideological strength of the story is even stronger here: we are dealing with a fascinating world of mysteries and we have the impression of being introduced into the deep of this secret world. Probably one of the aim of this production is presenting the CIA as an attractive career, a way to get into something which normal people won’t ever know but which is indispensable for their own safety, the place where the war against the new and powerful threat, terrorism, is fought at the highest level. Moreover, the repeated representation of cameras spying everywhere and everyone like a modern “Big Brother”6 provides a justification for breaking people’s privacy and increasing control over everyone’s life in the name of security and prevention of terrorist attempts. All of these themes are quite evidently linked to the political and social situation created in the United States (and then in the rest of the world) by the September 11th attacks and the consequent launch of the “war on terror”: putting CIA (whose reputation outside the US is everything but respectable) in a good light and justifying restrictions of privacy and civil liberties in order to ensure “security” seem to be the aims of the ruling class supported by Hollywood industry through films like this.
One last example of a similar “hypocritical” structure can be found in the 1997 film L.A. Confidential, a modern noir focused on the investigations of three LAPD detectives on a shooting at an all night-diner. Two are honest cops: when one gets too close to the truth (the involvement of the Department Captain) is killed, so the other one has to convince the third to join him in the investigation. This third cop, who trusts the Captain and uses very violent methods to please him, is “converted” by his colleague and finds out what the truth is: after a violent gunshot they achieve a final victory over their superior and his bad fellows and get promoted. It is easy to see how Barthesian analytical tool helps us once again and how police is “rescued” by condemnation and presented as capable of a self-purification. Here we find a stronger focus on the “conversion” element: if in the previous two movies the honest agents get to know the truth and recognize the enemies on their own, in this one we are in front of a formerly-not present “fellowship” component. An ingenuous man is taught to see what he didn’t want to see by his colleague, and together they manage to defeat a more powerful enemy. There is an implicated moral lesson (good always wins, even if evil seems to be stronger, and gets a prize) together with the rhetoric of the “preaching”, portrayed as necessary to help other people understand. Also, individualism is left behind and substituted by team-work, perhaps a value more suitable for those times, when Democrats haven’t devolved power to Neo-Conservatives yet.

4. Governing the image
The theme of hypocrisy within the structures of texts leads to a connection between Barthesian works and the reflections of an author whose aim was to go beyond structuralism to discover how intellectual practices spring and live (and eventually die) in culture and society: Michel Foucault. He names these practices “discourses” and defines them focusing on the processes of building and keeping (criteria of formation, transformation and correlation) and on the main constituting elements (objects, places, concepts and themes). The rising of a discourse (such as “psychiatry”) can’t be led back to a single individual (i.e. Freud), and not even to a single group, but must be searched in the field of historical contingencies. Only the interaction of historical-determined factors, affecting the spheres of economics, society, culture, politics, can lead to the formation of an organic discourse regarding a specific matter, which afterwards will present itself as “scientific” and “objective”. But this process is not plain and straight: elements that were already present, in a chaotic and non-organised way, in what Foucault calls the “discoursive horizon” come together through conflictive dynamics, expressions of different social groups’ wills to impose their particular views. This is the reason why discourses are not necessarily coherent in all their parts, but on the contrary can show many contradictions, traces of this past (and eventually still going on) struggle, and this is also the reason why the question of discourse is deeply linked to the question of power.
In fact, when an order begins to appear among the different elements and thus certain regularities play to structure and give shape to a new discourse, that is the moment when a view (even if, as we saw, a contradictory one) prevails and start to impose its dominance on the others. So we have an imposition: a discourse whose origins lay in a precise historical moment and which is the product of only one of the many possible thresholds affecting heterogeneous elements presents itself as true, universal and necessary. This is precisely the hypocrisy inherent to all kinds of dominant discourses: just as Barthes’ myths are hypocritical because they pretend to challenge prejudices and conformities while in reality they work to preserve them, and because they play “a deliberate juggling with nature and artifice” which “obscures the role of historical accident as the only real factor that sanctions a myth” 7 (see the police movies formerly analysed: there’s always a struggle between individuals who embody basic values, no socio-historical interpretations of police’s corruption are given, there isn’t any reference to a broader social and cultural context, and the defeat of the bad element in the end seems to belong to a natural order of things), in the same way Foucault’s discourses are hypocritical because they advance claims of absoluteness and deny their historical origins, to give an image of an abstract and evergreen theory.
What is kept hidden is precisely the particular struggle among different forces to push ahead their interests, or, to say it in Gramscian words, the struggle for cultural hegemony fought by opposed social classes, through a process of articulation of elements from different origins into dominant and popular cultural forms8 .
These hegemonic discourses exercise their power by holding knowledge, building “correct” ways to perceive ourselves and the others, manipulating people’s beliefs and most of all by encouraging and justifying non-discoursive, practical strategies, that is to say acts inspired by their concepts and theories. So, the confinement of “mad” people was justified for centuries by the psychiatric discourse which defines what is madness and what is not and affirms that mad people must be kept separated from the “sane” part of society in order not to infect it, just as colonization and crusades were justified by the “higher mission” of Western-Christian world to bring civilization to people who were living in ignorance and sin, or as a potentially endless warfare is justified nowadays by the discourses about “security” and “prevention” of terrorist/dictatorship threats.
Another important characteristic of discourses is the setting of their own borders: in Foucault’s words “the set of rules which at a given period and for a given society define the limits and form of the sayable. What is it possible to speak of? What is the constituted domain of discourses?” 9 .
This is very important for the dominant discourses: in fact, by defining the boundaries of what can be said, all the issues finding themselves outside of this field are unpowered, marginalized and in the end obscured. If a common sense is built which internalise the dominant “definition of the situation” and therefore only the options given within it, it will be very hard for any alternative perspective to make its way towards people’s consciousness. This process is described by Noam Chomsky hereto American mainstream media: “Debate cannot be silenced, nor this would be appropriate, because in a good-working propaganda system it can have an institutional support function if channelled into the adequate limits. What is necessary is that these limits are well defined. Polemics may be even violent until they keep to those presupposed concepts which define elite’s consensus, indeed within these borders they must be encouraged, because they contribute to the affirmation of these doctrines and at the same time they consolidate the impression that freedom is ruling. Shortly, what is necessary is the power to decide the arguments on the agenda. […] as it has been widely proved, newspapers reportages are aimed to guarantee that public opinion do not go out of the allowed limits” 10 .The question is therefore that of the governance of the cultural inputs given to an audience: in the case analysed in this study, it is mainly a matter of image control.


di Michele Lembo [Visita la sua tesi »] [Leggi i suoi articoli »]

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