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“In the darkness of the cinema…lies the very fascination of the film (any film),” writes French literary critic Roland Barthes (as cited in Lopate, 1994, p.419) in his essay ‘Leaving the Movie Theater’. He was referring to the way darkness in a cinema hall gives off a hypnotic effect, encapsulating a viewer and giving him/her freedom. Barthes writes further:
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….the movie spectator could easily appropriate the silkworm’s motto: Inclusum labor illustrat; it is because I am enclosed that I work and glow with all my desire. (as cited in Lopate, 1994, p.419)
Barthes also mentioned in the essay that even the reasons for going to a movie theater sets the stage for this mesmerizing effects of the cinema: the movie viewer is bored and in need of something to do in his/her leisure time (as cited in Lopate, 1994, p.419).
All of these observations were made in 1975. Now, 32 years later, do Barthes’ observations still hold water? The answer is both yes and no. Generally speaking, people still go to cinemas because they have some free time and want something to fill this idle moment. But some things have changed. Let us take a contemporary movie – Starship Troopers – to try and examine how Barthes’ theories have changed and how they have stayed the same.
Starship Troopers is a science-fiction movie loosely-based on Robert A. Henlein’s novel of the same title. Set in the twenty-third century, it depicts a story of a future Earth engaged in an interplanetary battle with the Arachnids, ‘large insect-like aliens’. It revolves around the story of Juan “Johnny” Rico (portrayed by Casper Van Dien), who was disowned by his family for his want of going to military service and fighting off the said aliens. He initially experiences failure in his chosen field and was about to quit when he heard news of his parents’ death due to the aliens’ use of an asteroid as weapon. With this, Johnny’s determination to keep on battling the Arachnids strengthens. The movie goes on to show Johnny triumphing over a “brain bug” and being declared a hero of the military. (“Starship Troopers (film)”, 2007)
Starship Troopers was a technologically-advanced film, making use of special effects to paint a futuristic Earth. Made in 1997, it is a perfect example of what Douglas Kellner (2003) describes in his ‘Media Culture and the Triumph of the Spectacle’ as media’s proliferation of “technologically sophisticated spectacles to seize audiences and increase their power and profit.” In the creation of these spectacles, the movie industry stays true to Barthes’ words that films are made to ‘hypnotize’ people. But the trance-inducing factor no longer stays with a viewer’s enclosure in a dark movie theater; it is now dependent with what the movie itself – the amalgamation of images, script, music, and its underlying message – presents. To completely capture the viewers’ attention, a movie has to present “a social relation between people that mediated by images” (Debord, 1992). Movies are now consumed not only because of boredom but also because of curiosity, of people starting to view films as a ‘commodity’ (Debord, 1992).
True enough, people nowadays go to movies simply because they feel that a particular film has something to offer them. They are no longer in fulfillment of the “classic conditions of hypnosis”, as described by Barthes. They willingly submit themselves to the hours it takes to watch a movie because they are in “a specific cultural quest” (Barthes as cited in Lopate, 1994, p.418).
Indeed, movies right now just have so much to offer because of the creation of ‘spectacles’ – gimmicks that make a media product so much more enticing. Going back to our example, Starship Troopers, the movie alone gives audience a lot of reasons to spend their good money in theaters. As Kellner (2003) noted, “most critically acclaimed and popular films” recently are “high-tech”, which Starship Troopers successfully abides to. But aside from having amazing special effects, Starship Troopers also feature popular and good-looking actors Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and Denise Richards. Also, the film contained images that appeal largely to viewers’ human instincts – it had a lot of violence and sexual connotations. Also present was that seeming controversy that the director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier built around the movie. Verhoeven and Neumeier sculpted the film to be a satire on fascism, promoting human superiority and promoting human survival over that of unknown, seemingly harmful species (“Starship Troopers (film)”, 2007).
The fact that Starship Troopers – and a great deal of movies recently (like Star Wars, Austin Powers, and Three Kings) – sketches a world that we have yet to see, it is pretty hard to conclude that its lure is in line with the movie lure that Barthes outlines in his essay:
The film image is what? A lure. I am confined with the image as if I were held in that famous dual relation which establishes the image repertoire. The image is there…; I fling myself upon it like an animal upon the scrap of “lifelike” rag held out to him; and of course, it sustains in me the misreading attached to Ego and to image-repertoire. (as cited in Lopate, 1994, p.420)
For Barthes, people are glued to a movie because they see in it a representation of themselves. This, although possible, can be hard in today’s slew of advanced movies. As Hinton (2000) mentions in his analysis of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, films really do not present reality, but only a stylized version of it. Even if there is still that one character in Starship Troopers with whom moviegoers can possibly relate to, the carefully-structured spectacle of the movie (or other highly-stylized movies, for that matter) can be distracting and can easily move the viewers away from mirroring themselves in the film.
Also, if we do get to relate to the characters in a movie, more often than not, what we see is not an image of ourselves but an image of who media wants us to be. While it may be true that, contrary to popular belief, we are no longer just puppets saying yes to what the media dictates and that we are now able to formulate our own opinions and do not give in to media coercion (Garnham, 1986), it is also true that what crosses our minds are still highly-influenced by media. True to Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw’s Agenda-Setting Function, the media has become really instrumental not in telling us what to think but what to think about (Littlejohn, 1998).
In Starship Troopers, very few viewers realized Verhoeven and Neumeier’s message of fascism and mostly saw the film “as a simple action film” (“Starship Troopers (film)”, 2007). Only a handful of really critical minds may have interpreted the movie’s ‘propagandist’ motives but the very implication of fascism in the film somehow made people think about what Earth’s situation will be when aliens start to reign the rest of the galaxy supreme – they may have probably thought that the characters in the film did well in defending the planet and that they’d want the same thing to happen if aliens are to invade Earth.
The reverse can also be true: viewers see something in a movie that the movie creators did not intend. Let’s look at Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia for a moment. The German director intended for the two-part film to just be a beautiful depiction of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was, as Hinton (2000) puts it, “a poem, a hymn, an ode to beauty”. Riefenstahl’s sole purpose in doing the film was to show the beauty of the Olympic Games. Yet critics – Americans, most specifically – saw the movie as more than what was intended. Some movie reviewers accused Riefenstahl to being a “Nazi Pinup Girl” and pointed Olympia as a propaganda film for the Nazis. Even with this popular American sentiment on the documentary film, some Hollywood names (like Walt Disney) still gave Olympia a chance and saw it for what it’s really about. United Press correspondent Henry McLemore even called Riefenstahl’s masterpiece as “the finest motion picture” he has ever seen and that it “is not propaganda, but a magnificent filming of the greatest athletes in the history of the world” (as cited in Hinton, 2000, p.59). His statements were seconded by an editorial in the Los Angeles Times:
It is regrettable that political issues should intrude to prevent the general distribution of the feature in America, because contrary to rumor, it is in no way a propaganda production but simply a superfine camera analysis of great athletic events accomplished with art and imagination which are truly international in scope. (Hinton, 2000)
This only goes to show that even though movies are open for misinterpretations, there are people out there who are bound to read it the way the filmmakers wanted them to read it.
The people’s reception towards Starship Troopers and Olympia prove that while people still relate to the characters in the movie, there is a high probability of their thoughts being directed by the filmmakers’ intentions.
The fact that the director and screenwriter of Starship Troopers both admit that they had a specific message they wanted to impart in the creation of the film proves Kellner’s observation that media has turned into one big infotainment – a marriage of information and entertainment (2003).
This creation is apparent in the way we now have sensationalized news and in the way politics have become a ballgame where politicians can create plays with which to amaze the people. Aside from the underlying message of totalitarianism, Starship Troopers also makes its way into the infotainment society by the way its narrative is formed. Veering away from the traditional movie narrative, Starship Troopers inject some ‘advertisements’ that relate to the military being portrayed in the film. These advertisements tell of messages intensifying the need for more ‘Citizens’ (people in the Federal Service/military), praising the works done by the current Citizens, and picturing the aliens as bad guys. This narrative form is said to have been put in the movie to intentionally depict the way news has come to be ‘propagandistic’, fulfilling not only the information purpose of media but its entertainment function as well (“Starship Troopers (film)”, 2007). This proof of Kellner’s perception of an infotainment society intensifies the fact that Barthes’ previous assumptions about the cinema situation are becoming obsolete.
Another way by which Barthes’ ideas are being contested is the way by which media is being culturally homogenized. Barthes descries cinema as being mostly an individual experience:
For such is the narrow range – at least for me – in which can function the fascination of film, the cinematographic hypnosis: I must be in the story (there must be verisimilitude), but I must also be elsewhere…. (as cited in Lopate, 1994, p.420)
Cinema nowadays, however, is no longer one person-oriented. Because of the fact that filmmakers can now inject their own personal message into the films and that movie-watchers are able to interpret movies based on their own knowledge and experiences, movies can now be used to proliferate a preferred way of thinking. Arjun Appadurai (2002) expounds on the concept of cultural homogenization in his essay ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’. Appadurai (2002) explains that with homogenization, media is most likely to be ‘Americanized’ or ‘commoditized’ (as the concept of spectacle outlines). And it is true that with homogenization – or globalization – media can now reach different parts of the globe, making American films available to those living outside the United States. With this, we can now admit that to media experience is no longer based on one’s personal experience but also on his/her knowledge of the culture from where the content came from and on the way his/her own culture is related to the source of the content.
Today’s cinema situation is hypnotic to some extent – it still lures the people in with promises of freedom and orgasmic experiences and tries to lead the people into thinking within the same frame of mind as the filmmakers. But Barthes’ theory of a hypnotic cinema has been rendered obsolete with the creation of media spectacles, the structuring of infotainment, and the introduction of cultural homogenization – all of which leads viewers into the cinema armed with a specific purpose for watching. Also, the realization that the viewing public has become smarter, being able to construct interpretations of films on their own, proves that films – and media, in general – can only extend its influence as much. The cinema situation has indeed changed. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, that depends on the critic and how s/he views the changes made. One thing is certain, though: the cinema situation will keep on evolving as technology advances and as new spectacles are being created. These future changes, hopefully, will lead media analysts to consensually say that the media landscape has indeed changed for the better.
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