18 December 2006

Contradict Me

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

We live in a media-besotted age. Indeed, the fact that you are even reading this suggests the degree to which our culture is dominated by the idea, the importance, of media as tools and mechanisms for everything from conveying basic information to influencing opinion to “gathering,” virtually, in media-filled “spaces.” However, for all the media saturation of our culture, we are no less conflicted about its influence than we were a decade ago, a generation ago, or even longer; the lines between areas of influence are not as clean as they once were, but the essential camps remain, and they are no less confused than ever.

Drilling down even further, in an era of media-hyped celebrity, we manage both to yearn for popular people who stand for something – and to criticize those who do. Thus some people admire the “Brangelina”- or Bono-style decisions to engage with the challenges presented by Third World issues of poverty and economic development; others despise it, considering it heaps more grandiosity on the celebrity than it may benefit any single person in need. And thus some people admire actor / director / producer Mel Gibson for using his fame and wealth to create movies that address (and promote) his passionate form of Roman Catholicism, while others find him, his views, and his use of popular media problematic, if not simply repugnant. Famous performers like Barbra Streisand or Charlton Heston inspire devotion or hatred, and the criticism is often one that suggests actors should stay out of politics – but of course, how we feel about this often depends more on whether we support the particular movements (e.g., the Democrats, or the National Rifle Association) with which these people are aligned. The people who decry Hollywood’s leftist tendencies (as embodied in Barbra) may be the same ones who cheer Heston’s ardent defense of the right to bear arms. And so it goes.

But this a surface-level approach to the issue, a very easy and apparent human contradiction. We need to see past this, to the deeper and more pervasive irony within – like the fact that a movie about the terror and war caused by “conflict diamonds” is portrayed by recreating the violence, Hollywood-style. I have not yet seen “Blood Diamond,” but the advertisements for the movie make clear (in an explicit, if failed, effort to lure me into the theater) that this will be a film of spectacle, what Hollywood calls “action,” otherwise known as violence. Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was about the death of a character who was all about the enduring righteousness of love, yet Gibson chose to focus his film on the (gruesome) violence surrounding that character’s death, rather than on the value and meaning of Jesus’ message of love on its own. That definitely says a lot about Gibson and his view of Christianity, but it also speaks volumes about both Hollywood and human interests.

We, as a society, don’t seem to notice the contradictions. There are people – characters, really – within both the American liberal and conservative movements who complain about on-screen violence or sex, and the impact that this may have on the viewer, especially the long-term psychological development of young audiences. Except that the complaints themselves are politically and socially divided. One traditional defense says people are capable of distinguishing between entertainment – from movies to music to video games, media that is made to engage the senses – and the violence of the “real” world; the argument goes that people are not encouraged to be violent merely because they see violence on TV. A different perspective, believes that seeing such things can be dangerous to audiences and are, at any rate, somehow immoral.

But in the case of a movie like “Blood Diamond” (or even movies like “Hotel Rwanda” or “Schindler’s List”), there is an underlying message that seems in conflict with the approach taken to reveal it:the filmmakers expect audiences to learn the underlying message – about “conflict diamonds,” or genocide, let’s say – while overlooking the brutality depicted in order to get us there. Similarly, while there was condemnation of “The Passion of the Christ” from some audiences, the movie was extremely popular among Evangelical Christians – presumably comprised of the same (generally conservative) folk who typically complain about the pervasive nature of violence (and sex) within Hollywood movies.

And all of this is to say nothing about sex, or the role and depiction of women on screen, from the sexy-heroines of a “Lara Croft” to the sexy-villains from every James Bond movie, to the sexy hip-shaking of the Madonna, Britney, or Shakira types. The skin, and sense of sexiness it is supposed to convey, has also seeped through our culture, but we are still no closer to understanding its impact on women or society as a whole. Many want to believe there is liberation to be found in such “freedom,” while others argue that real freedom can only be found by going, of all places, backwards.

Back to where I started: in a media besotted age, consumers have many, many different choices. In theory, technology is useful for helping us to figure things out – to determine what to watch, or read, and why. We should not always give technology the benefit of the doubt, however; sorting through the underlying contradictions requires the kind of analysis at which machines are not yet proficient. Nor could they be, when the humans who make them can barely sort things out for themselves.


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