Hollywood and Societal Problems: Inflated, Created or Unrelated?

societal problems family lifeOne day, film critic of tomorrow, you will be able to say you were there at the dawn of the #WOMTAY. But you will have to read until the final paragraph to know what that means.

Ann Hornaday caused a bit of an internet stir with her column in Sunday’s Washington Post in which, among other things, she wrote that Isla Vista murder suspect Elliot Rodger suffered from delusions which “were inflated, if not created, by the entertainment industry he grew up in.” Hornaday writes for my hometown paper and is prominent on several local and national media outlets, so I have more knowledge about her than I have about most film critics. I find that I disagree with her opinions fairly often, but that she is generally smart and articulate.

Therefore, I assume she knows full well that there is a world of difference between “inflated” and “created,” and that she chose the latter verb carefully. I agree that movies can inflate and influence. I have a much harder time believing they create actions that were not already largely formed by myriad other personal and societal factors. Seth Rogen, singled out by Hornaday as a representative of the type of actor who appears in such dangerously influential movies, took great offence at her conclusion. His responsive tweets will most likely keep this issue alive for a few days and keep both their names in the blogosphere, a reality to which I am currently contributing. So I will do my best to refrain from mentioning either again.

It seems to me that Hollywood has gone through great convolutions to make us believe that it bears no responsibility for anything beyond providing hard working Americans with some good old fun – clean or filthy depending on a well-regulated ratings system. It’s as if Oscar Wilde – who once said “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book” – were running the PR Department of AMPAS. Twenty years ago, in what would appear to be a direct admission that movies can in fact influence behaviour, Disney deleted a scene from The Program when a young man copied the scene’s action (lying down in the middle of a busy road) and was killed. I don’t recall anyone arguing back in 1993 that among the tens of thousands of other young men who saw The Program prior to the excision, none were reported to have died from lying down in the middle of a busy road.

societal impact revolution #9Here’s one problem with blaming Hollywood for societal tragedy: we have no reliable control group. As much as we may try to look at other time periods or other cultures for guidance, there are too many variables to adequately predict how our behaviour would be different if Hollywood were churning out positive, life-affirming messages. Our memories of simpler and more innocent times are almost always contaminated by the vagaries of imperfect memory. After all, the ‘50s in America – before all the sex and violence and foul language – were indeed a wonderful time. Provided you were white, Christian, and male. And not handicapped or gay or mentally disturbed or drug-addicted. Is it possible that for every tragedy that has been inspired to some degree by modern film culture there are other potential tragedies that have been averted by the cathartic experience of watching Hostel (2005)? We will never know the answer to that.

The one thing I will agree with Hornaday on, even though she didn’t really say it, is that Hollywood does a terrible job of displaying the aftermath of dangerous behaviour. Precious few movies detail the horrors that follow a gun death or the potential destructiveness of unsafe sex. In a recent comedy by a previously-referenced actor (who I have promised not to name anymore), a good-looking, utterly irresponsible young man makes numerous disastrous choices and ends up with a pretty cool job at the end. I found that little plot development far more objectionable than the easy access to sex which this young man had (upon which the critic who I will not be naming anymore, seemed to base more of her argument).

Here’s another problem: who gets to decide which films “create” this dangerous behaviour? AMC’s Tim Dirks put up a list of 100 controversial movies and asked readers to vote on the ones that were “most shocking.” In the top 20 alone, there were movies by Pasolini, Aronofsky, Stone, Hitchcock and two from Stanley Kubrick. There were also examples of pornography and cheap exploitation (Cannibal Holocaust currently holds the second position). I might agree that the world would be a better place without Faces of Death (at number 15) but I certainly would not wipe it from existence at the expense of Freaks (currently number 17.) We take for granted that we live in a society where we can see a wide range of movies. Hollywood is largely correct in arguing that we determine what gets made by supporting or failing to support certain films. The solution to the problem – if indeed, you believe there is a problem – is the same as the solution to every other problem we currently face. Education. An educated populace is the only thing that will move us in a more positive direction. A populace that is trained in nuanced thinking, that is taught how to respect but question, that is exposed to a variety of political philosophies and artistic styles. That is how we end up demanding a higher caliber of film.

societal problemsI suspect Hornaday (all right, I named her – sue me) would argue that this is all she set out to do in her essay. To educate her readers about a problematic by-product of Hollywood films circa 2014. Nowhere in her article does she call for any form of censorship. She is merely pointing out what she sees as a dangerous trend. I’m afraid her decision to use the phrase “created by” will result in the opposite of her intention (unless you are one of those cynical types who believe her entire intention was to raise her Q rating). I think she overreached and has allowed for reasonable backlash.

Watching this unfold has led me to my own decision. Harold Rosenberg, in his essay Pop Culture, Kitsch Criticism, suggests that those who would write seriously about mass culture phenomena, even if they are largely critical of it, are doing a disservice to real artistic endeavour by sucking up precious oxygen that the more serious arts desperately need. Rosenberg could be quite the snob. But I am finally coming around to his point of view on this. If Hornaday genuinely thought that Neighbors was representative of films dangerous enough to create the tragic lunacy of Elliot Rodger, perhaps she should have denied it oxygen. Perhaps ignoring it, and writing extra pieces about Ken Loach’s Family Life (1971) or Tim McCann’s Revolution #9 (2001) would be a better way to educate her readers about mental illness and movies. I realise that Hornaday’s job is to review movies and her bosses at the Post might take issue with her failing to write reviews for the latest big-name release. Besides, one of the only joys a film critic actually gets in life is to write a really bad review. So maybe if you can be as funny as Dorothy Parker describing Katharine Hepburn as running the gamut of emotions from A to B or Roger Ebert saying that watching his own colonoscopy on TV was more entertaining than watching The Brown Bunny (2003), you get a pass. Otherwise, I suggest a new acronym – WOMTAY – so that all critics can technically submit a review to their employers. “Waste of my time and yours.” We may still have to watch them, but at least this will save us the trouble of dissection, allowing for more productive pursuits. As in: Need for Speed: #WOMTAY. Now I can fix that leaking toilet.

I will try to refrain from reviewing WOMTAY movies in the future. I suggest you all jump on the bandwagon.



Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

21 thoughts on “Hollywood and Societal Problems: Inflated, Created or Unrelated?

  1. Thank you for at least an attempt to treat this mess with level-headedness, which it seems no one else is doing.

    [House of Good and Evil: #WOMTAY]

    Only one nit to pick: “Hostel (2011)” should be “Hostel (2005)”. Hostel III was 2011. I was very surprised by how much it didn’t suck compared to the second, despite the extra cheese on the final slice of that pie.

    • Thanks Robert. I appreciate it. And thank you, James for taking the bullet on Hostel. Truth be told, I approved all edits, so I’ll take blame as well. It would be rather boorish of me to write a piece complaining about Ann Hornaday’s choice of words while allowing myself to be absolved like that. And I am on an anti-boorish campaign.

  2. Jon, this is an important piece you’ve written, in part because it touches upon responsibility. Should Hollywood be held accountable for movies with loads of “irresponsible” sex and violence? It’s a tough decision, one that I pondered some time ago after watching Lindsay Anderson’s “If….,” which superficially seemed to advocate armed revolution against tyrannical authority, though there also was more to it. My personal opinion about Rodger was that he was severely mentally disturbed and that outside influences — such as the movie-oriented environment in which he grew up — couldn’t have affected him more than his innate warped psychological demons. Is a film like “The Hunger Games” to be held accountable? If it is, then we need to look at other films the same way: “The Wild Bunch,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Pulp Fiction,” et al. And also “Alexander Nevsky” and Olivier’s “Henry V,” which exhorted people to war (albeit on the right side). You bring up strong examples in “Faces of Death” and “Freaks”–why are they watched by viewers? Most, I think, don’t feel the need to duplicate the onscreen activities, but is there a pleasure that they get from watching them … and is that filmmaking irresponsibility? There was a time when many people looked at popular music in America the same way–the whole controversy over heavy metal music. It’s a heady debate.

    • And the effect of an evolving cultural impact of music forms continues. whether heavy metal or gangsta rap, or sexually explicit dancing. Again, whenever we try to exonerate the entertainment industry (which, I realize, you are not really trying to do), we fall back on arguments like “millions of people watch, participate in, or listen to vulgar forms of entertainment and do NOT go out and rape, pillage, and kill, so entertainment forms can’t be the problem”. Unfortunately, we need fear only the fringe who are close enough to the edge of full sanity — the folks on the edge who may be nudged over that edge by the “encouragement” of one or two more unwholesome exposures to crudeness. On the whole, though, I would bet that the impossible experiment that measures the effect of such entertainment on the masses of participants would reveal that certain moral responses are dulled over time, certain perceptions of right and wrong are blurred, etc. I do not see how it can be otherwise. We cannot be only influenced by the “good” things we absorb — the “bad” things have to influence us, too.

      • This is a strong argument, illero, and I hear what you’re saying. But I still wonder how we can possibly determine what can lead “the fringe who are close enough to the edge of full sanity” to “be nudged over that edge.” Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon, was, obsessed with The Catcher in the Rye. Should author J.D. Salinger be held accountable, then, for writing that book? Compared to much contemporary literature, it’s rather tame in language and sexual content. But Chapman was deeply disturbed. At one point, I thought “If….” should hold some responsibility for supposedly encouraging violent revolution, but nowadays, I see it differently, as something of a thinkpiece rather than a directive. Similarly, I don’t think The Hunger Games or the entertainment industry should be considered the determining factor in Rodger’s case. We may never know if he experienced childhood trauma that led to his extreme psychosis or if there were other contributing factors, but I don’t feel movies should be blamed for setting him “over the edge”–I feel he was already past that.

    • Thanks Simon. I wish I was more certain about how these complicated forces all interact with each and with a society as a whole. I both admire and mistrust people who seem to know for sure how it all works. I suspect that popular culture has an outsized impact in cases where personal culture is weak. I don’t absolve movies from responsibility, but I tend to place them at the tail end of a list that includes parenting, government, schools, churches and the other institutions that we have erected to provide a set of moral criteria by which to live. Ann Hornaday is a good film critic so I don’t necessarily expect her to write about things other than film. I do wish she had placed her argument in a broader context because I think we all are sensitive to the specter of censorship when these conversations begin. And as obvious as some connections may appear to be in a static analysis, that’s very dangerous territory.

  3. Hey Jon – really interesting piece!

    This is, of course, a debate as old as cinema itself. I think most of us would agree that cinema is, like all cultural artefacts, both symptomatic of and a contributor to societal attitudes. And you’re certainly right that popular media (consciously or unconsciously) takes the debates around these ideas and boils them down to sensationalistic headlines and reductive arguments, and ultimately these arguments are diffused in the process.

    I also totally agree that we’re not really in a position to understand just how audiences at a sociological level process what’s on the screen – and the reality is that different audiences process images differently depending on cultural context, education etc. Violent and potentially regressive cinema is most certainly not the sole reserve of the United States, there are many countries with a more disturbing cinematic output – but many of those same countries don’t necessarily draw the same connections to violent result (the reverse is also true, of course).

    So the question I suppose, is where a nation’s cinematic output sits within it’s broader cultural environment. Or, for many countries outside the US, the question becomes around how both local and American cinema sits within its broader cultural context. I say this because in my own country, Hollywood is more popular than local product, but in many ways it is viewed with a certain kind of distance and a very slight irony that allows audiences to see it as something in another a place – a movie land with different rules. I mention this only because I wonder if this different mode of viewing changes the way Hollywood product is processed by audiences both domestically and abroad.

    One question on my mind is this: If those films that might explicitly or implicitly endorse regressive ideas (around issues of violence, gender etc.) go ignored by critics – will the effect be that they are more or less likely to be endorsed by popular culture? Who knows, I suppose.

    This is all a wandering rant, really… just thought I’d add to the debate.

    • “. . . in my own country, Hollywood is more popular than local product, but in many ways it is viewed with a certain kind of distance and a very slight irony that allows audiences to see it as something in another a place – a movie land with different rules. I mention this only because I wonder if this different mode of viewing changes the way Hollywood product is processed by audiences both domestically and abroad.”

      Very thought-provoking observation.

    • If Rosenberg had lived long enough to see the internet, it would have killed him. I change my mind on this all the time, but right now, I see the criticism of low (or kitsch) culture akin to battling weeds in my garden. Just yanking them out and replanting the things I like doesn’t kill off the weeds for all time. But blitzing them with the latest chemical weed killer doesn’t do that either. It knocks them out for a while and then they come back stronger. OK — strained metaphor. But I’m wondering if writing negative things in an internet age actually does more to promote the thing you are writing against than simply yanking the weed up and moving on. I grant you, such a strategy may backfire, leaving the blogosphere to those who just adore Need For Speed.

      Great observation about how Hollywood is viewed outside the USA. Refusing to even acknowledge the opinions of the rest of the world is something we’re pretty good at. (See Health Care, Gun Control, Welfare…)

      I believe Dirty Harry was pretty high in that controversial films list.

  4. The problem with your critique of Hornaday appears to me to be that you assert that she used the phrase “created by”, when, according to your own quote, she did not use that phrase — she used the phrase “if NOT created, by . . . .” [emphasis is mine, of course] That is a big difference. Her phrasing is like saying, “My love of bicycling was inflated, if not created, by watching the Tour de France”. This does not make ANY solid claim that watching the Tour de France actually created my love of cycling, only that it was influenced (inflated) by that event. Those who try to defend the position that degrading/degraded movies and other entertainment forms can only argue that the nastiness found in these activities does not CREATE a societal problem — and they might be right. However, how can we argue that we are influenced in one direction or another by literally thousands of positive and negative events in our lives, but then try to say that we are NOT influenced by frequent exposure to, and participation in, violent and/or degrading movies and entertainment? To me, it doesn’t seem to pass a simple logic test.

    • I understand your point, Illero, and I admit you make a good case. This is something I debated as I wrote. Here’s what I eventually decided. Had Ann Hornaday wanted to say that certain movies inflate a problem with the perception of women, there was an easy way to do it. She could have written that these problems “were inflated by the entertainment industry he grew up in.” I suspect she chose to include the phrase “if not created by” to raise the exact issue we are discussing. Had she wanted to clarify that she did not in fact believe the movies bear responsibility for creating the problem, I think she would have said “although not created by.” “If” is a tricky word and I kind of feel like I’m looking at one of those optical pictures when I read it in this context. I can look at it once and see one thing, and look at it later and see something totally different. I suspect you are reading “if not” as “although not” and I am reading it as “and possibly,” and I think that may be a problem with what she wrote — though I certainly understand if you decide to chalk it up to my faulty reading. Thanks for weighing in.

    • I’ve been thinking more about your comments, illero, and I’m wondering about the question of whether movies influence us or flatter us. I think it’s the latter–they really confirm what we already know if we like them. For example: Dirty Harry growls, “Well, I’m all broken up over that man’s rights” in reference to his torturing of the maniacal Scorpio … which he does in an effort to get information about a kidnapping. Scorpio is so hateful in the film that although Harry’s methods are flawed, we can’t be angry at him. But it doesn’t influence us to behave in exactly that same way to people in real life.

      I also started thinking about the influence of two of my favorite Kurosawa pictures: The Seven Samurai and Sanjuro. In the former, the leader, Kambei, suggests that doing everything together is the right way to behave–that going about things in an individualistic style leads to problems. But in the later Sanjuro, Kurosawa mocks the Japanese ideal of doing things together, suggesting the individualistic Sanjuro gets things done in a more effective way by behaving solo. What’s one to make of these differing ideas? They conflict with one another–how can one be influenced by them? Instead, I think they point out the good and bad of these concepts … issues that we know but need to see verified onscreen. It may be that The Seven Samurai might be a good teaching tool when proclaiming the merits of working together at, say, a business seminar! But it doesn’t tell us what we don’t already know; it just corroborates it.

      • I do not believe one can either validate or invalidate the basic assertion of overall good or bad influences by pulling out a few, or possibly even a few dozen, individual examples of our choosing. Some entertainment emphasizes good — some entertainment emphasizes evil — most entertainment embodies some of each. Nor do I come down on the side of squelching the communication and consideration of ideas.

        I will assert, though, that a steady diet of forms of entertainment that tend glorify violence, crudeness, theft, and a general degeneration of moral character do influence people, just as uplifting, positive entertainment influences people. Dirty Harry fulfills in us a need to see justice done — possibly in response to seeing so much injustice. In my opinion, the influence toward the good outweighs the influence of the bad. I feel that not to be so true in many popular forms of entertainment. Or good and bad become indistinguishable.

        Do most of us find pornography unacceptable only because we feel that those who produce it are doing a bad thing, or because we feel that it has negative influences on the mindsets and actions of some people who frequently watch it, and possibly on society as a whole? I believe that, within any set of societal bounds, there is such a thing as wholesome entertainment and there is such a thing as unwholesome entertainment (and all sorts of entertainment in the gray area between them). Wholesome entertainment is that which, on balance, tends toward making the society better, or leaving it at least stable — unwholesome entertainment is that which tends toward a certain, often subtle, degrading impact on society.

        Every one of us can point to examples on either end of the spectrum. I still think it must needs be that if we grant “positive” entertainment the power to improve individual lives, we must grant this “degrading” entertainment the power to degrade individual lives, resulting in some folks going that extra step into what I will loosely call “insanity”.

        • I believe it’s impossible to separate entertainment into categories of “wholesome” and “unwholesome” … and it certainly doesn’t strike me as likely that certain forms of “unwholesome” entertainment have the capacity to “degrade individual lives, resulting in some folks going that extra step into … ‘insanity.'” I pulled out a couple of examples because they represent, to me, films that flatter audiences rather than influence them. But the problem in categorizing entertainment as “wholesome” and “unwholesome” is that it’s entirely subjective. Do we call “Night of the Hunter” unwholesome because it has a beautiful shot of a dead woman’s body underwater? Is “Bonnie and Clyde” unwholesome because its protagonists are criminals? How about “The Godfather” and “Little Caesar”? Or “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” for that matter? Or even “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” whose main character has an unsatisfying love affair while being married? And what, then, constitutes wholesome entertainment–would we have to relegate it to every dreadful rom-com with a happy ending and little conflict? Where do you stop?

          Good movies improve our lives, in my opinion, because they please us. Bad movies do the opposite. I don’t think you can ascribe a moral ethos to a motion picture–or any work of art, for that matter–that justifies its aesthetic quality. And I don’t believe people living on the edge of mental illness can be pushed over it by film, music, paintings, etc. That’s a theory that could lead to arguments in favor of censorship, and I don’t dig that.

          • I’ll add just one thing to the good debate you are having. I haven’t read or heard it myself, but it has been reported that Rush Limbaugh “blamed” Hunger Games for pushing Elliott Rodger to commit his crimes. Assume for a moment that Hunger Games does in fact bear some responsibility, either directly influencing his behavior, or contributing to an overall coarsening of our societal sense of what is moral and just. I suspect, though I can’t prove, that Hunger Games has also influenced many young non-readers to read more. That’s what I worry about when we engage in static analysis of any event. It is so hard, given the tools we currently have, to evaluate the impact of a movie. If what I wrote came off as criticism of Ann Hornaday for calling out negative behavior, I didn’t state my case well enough. That’s just her doing her job. I am concerned that she overstated her case, and given the highly charged atmosphere that rightfully exists in the wake of multiple senseless deaths, I worry that her argument comes dangerously close to a call for censorship.

            • You’re right, Jon–Rush Limbaugh reportedly made the suggestion that The Hunger Games could’ve played a role in the violence. It’s a decidedly unscientific speculation, in my opinion; my feeling about The Hunger Games was that it was a sci-fi fantasy that didn’t advocate killing children but presented a “what if?” scenario of the future. It was more along the lines of Lord of the Flies but without the complexity. I would ask Limbaugh then where this line of argument would end, too: Would we blame Roald Dahl for allowing us to chuckle over bad things happening to his awful children characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Maybe we should blame the story of Hansel and Gretel too, and the original version of Little Red Riding Hood. 😀

              Seriously, though, Limbaugh’s argument strikes me as scary. There’s a difference, in my opinion, in presenting action onscreen that suggests a belief system is OK (such as the scene in Braveheart where the king throws his son’s gay lover out the window) and presenting a credible fiction that incites thought rather than corroborates audience viewpoints. So I completely agree with you, Jon, about concerns over calls for censorship. We already had something like that with the Hays Code, and I can’t say it led to any more morality in the United States than if it hadn’t been instituted.

            • Dodge and weave as we will, certain entertainment is degrading and has a negative influence on people. And like it or not, every society practices censorship — it is based on cultural mores. It is not a matter of whether or not we censor, but what we censor.

              CT81 and I will have to agree to disagree on basic issues. And the fact that a scary theory (or reality, in my book) can lead to arguments in favor of censorship is no reason not to have those arguments. In fact, to squelch such debate would be censorship in itself, would it not?

              We don’t want to get to where debate is not allowed, as it has become so with respect to racism, homosexuality, and climate change. If we favor squelching various opinions in any or all of these areas, then we favor censorship.

              And about Limbaugh? Again, individual examples of someone off the deep end on either side of this issue do not prove, or clarify the underlying effects of entertainment forms upon all of us — or upon the fringe. Such one-off examples are usually used to bolster our own pre-existing views on topics

  5. I don’t know the writer mentioned, or the piece in question, but I enjoyed the (as always) intelligent debate it brought to curnblog via your article Jon.
    If I had to do a list of #WOMTAY films, I fear it would be so long, it would be a full-time job!
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. I suspect this will be a minor dust-up, though given the profiles of the people involved, it might linger in the news for a little while.

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