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March 1994


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Sterling <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 13 Mar 1994 21:40:00 EST
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It strikes me that anytime some sort of "socially-conscious" film is
released, a debate similar to the ones surrounding _Schindler's List_
seems to always occur (although more often to a lesser degree).  It's
as if people get tired of typical "escapist" films but when a "social-
ly-conscious" film does come out, it's often criticized for watering
down facts/reality/whatever or for being too much like entertainment.
I find interesting this issue of the particular form something takes.
Why is black and white considered more artsy or even more "real?"  It
often is reminiscent of old newsreels or period documentaries or what
not, granted; but to find Schindler's more convincing because it was
b/w is, for better or worse, no different than finding Schindler's
powerful because of the Speilberg cinematic/storytelling touch.  Why
is one form more valid than another?
   But more importantly, I wanted to raise the broader question: what
happens when "art"/image/film strives for more than mere image?  What
happens when movies start to encroach on reality?  This question under-
lies the news coverage of the Harding-Kerrigan thing, Schindler's List
Orson Welles War of the Worlds, documentaries, MTV's Real World, etc.
   Sometimes reality-encroaching films are criticized for trivializing
ing/entertainment-izing history/reality.  It seems to be okay for a
something to strive to be "art" since we can then vehemently debate it
on a purely aesthetic level, knowing in the back of our heads it doesn't
really "matter."  But when something threatens that distinction between
"art" and reality, it's harder to contain on a purely "fictious" aesthe-
tic level.  Or say for documentaries or newspaper, I find myself often
moved or whatever, but I try to disarm such media by relegating them
to appreciation for craftmanship--thereby avoiding the issue of their
supposed reality.  One may say that even such broad theory is an at-
tempt to disarm such "reality" media to a pure intellectual/theoretical
   The standard postmodern line in response seems to be that when art
begins to encroach on reality, reality also begins to resemble art.
Or according to _Network_ we see reality not as reality but as some sort
or perpetual tv show or entertainment.  History becomes a movie.
   But I don't think it's that simple or is really that "modern"/post-
modern phenomenon.  What we're talking about here is the power of the
image--or any abstraction, be it an idea, philosophy, etc. perhaps.
Important differences between film/tv and other media like books are
perhaps largely based on the fact that film/tv are more immediate, less
abstract, (as well as supposedly mass-oriented) and thus more powerful.
Sounds perhaps like Marshall McLuhan(?).  But not necessarily so-- Uncle
Tom's Cabin was supposed a powerful piece of media.  Religious texts,
etc.  How powerful art is seems to be determined by its ability to
affect reality.
    Orson Welles' War of the Worlds is the classic example where people
mistook art for reality.  All this talk about regulating violence on
tv/film is also related to this media power idea.  Some critics have
complained that Beavis and Butthead caused kids to lie in the middle of
freeways and set cats on fire.  I would argue the postmodern line that
kids probably view reality as some sort of cartoon world in this case.
    So when I think of the Holocaust, do I envision Speilberg's world
of Schindler? or Oliver Stone's JFK, Door, etc.?  What about the Viet-
nam war? Or the Civil War, what with Ken Burn's documentaries,_Glory_,
_Gettysburg_, _Gone with the Wind_, etc.?  Books perhaps are more "real"
or safer because they perhaps can tell more, or more importantly are
more abstract.  I'm beginning to babble here.
    I'm not sure how representative my media-drenched, film-soaked
perspective is, but I guess I sort of keep coming back to Stephen Hart's
and Alison McKee(?)'s postings on being surprised about the horrors of
the Holocaust (what an overused, now-meaningless phrase) while watching
Schindler's.  It just stirs something in me.  Any thoughts?
    Or on another approach (and to feebly try to revive a withering
discussion) does the violence we see on Res Dog, Naked, The Killer,
Apocalypse Now, or even Schindler's List affect us?  Do I become desen
sitized to the image but not to the reality--can I watch a movie no
problem but if I was mugged (or if I was a mugger) would I be just as
violent?  Does it work solely on a voyeuristic level, does it have a
REAL effect on me, or is merely a matter of aesthetics/forcing language
to become more vivid (working on a flat signifier level)?
   One other issue: suppose you have an overwhelming number of powerful
documentaries that make you think, cry, etc.  Would I have a strong
emotional response still; would I be overwhelmed into helplessness or
apathy or indifference; do I focus only on one--how do I make that choic
e?  (Wow, sound like i need religious guidance or something.)
--Sterling Chen