Some media/cultural critics talk about
sentimentality as a by-product of an industrial society unable to feel
without “emotional guideposts.” Like we have to be told where to take
pictures at Disneyland!
we live in a consumer culture. Americans are consumers. Trained from
birth to buy, buy, buy to fill their spiritual void – like the little
girl I saw in the supermarket the other day pushing a tiny cart with
a flag on it that read “shopper in training.” It’s kind of cute when
they’re two, but it gets spooky when they turn twenty-two and define
themselves in terms of the shoes and jeans and jackets they buy.
Our culture trains people in consumption, with objects just
being the tip of the iceberg. The trivial part is buying things –
cars, clothing, computers; the important part is buying values and
emotions. We are trained from birth to mimic, to imitate, to take
our feelings, ideas, beliefs, and meanings from outside ourselves. When
you do that long enough you forget what you really need and want and
If Americans can buy invading a country, toppling its government,
and unleashing civil war as being a noble, heroic act, it’s clear that
they’ll buy just about anything as long as it is marketed in the right
way – with a designer label, a sentimental story, or, in the case of
Iraq and a lot else, an appeal to their ideals.
Ideals and sentimental stories are terrific marketing devices.
Benneton and Nike showed that years ago in terms of objects, but TV
shows and movies and the evening news have been doing it decades longer
with values. Hollywood is the greatest marketer of ideals
in the history of the world. They’re selling and Americans by the millions
are buying. Look at the popularity of Titanic and The Matrix
and Shrek and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
Why do you think those films were
America is the most idealistic culture that
ever existed in the history of the world. It was founded on dreams of
democratic decision-making, individual rights, personal fulfillment,
and free expression. And these films present ideal, idealized visions
of life and personal expression. Totally American and totally phony,
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with the ideals
themselves. I believe in them myself. What I object to is the fact that
they have been hijacked by marketers, corporations, government leaders,
and filmmakers to sell us things – and have been dumbed down in the
process. They have been co-opted by corporations and government officials
to serve unidealistic ends. They have been turned into slogans and marketing
strategies to pursue cynical, manipulative, selfish purposes. That’s
the story of Hollywood filmmaking. But that’s trivial of
course. It’s also why we are in Iraq. It’s why such stupid people get
elected year after year. It’s why Americans don’t see what their culture
is really doing abroad. In being turned into marketing ploys, complex
ideals have been translated into children’s bedtime stories. They have
been disconnected from reality. American foreign policy becomes a series
of emotions unrelated to facts, feelings without knowledge. As I said
before, that’s my definition of sentimentality. The sentimentality of
our movies is the least of our worries. The sentimentality of our culture
is absolutely terrifying.
Why don’t people see what is being
America is a naïve, innocent, childlike culture.
That little girl with the shopping cart is us. We are being manipulated.
And we love it. We want to be turned into shoppers. We want to be told
what to think and how to feel. We want the easy version of experience.
I don’t follow.
ideals America was founded on, and is, at least
in theory, still devoted to, represent complex contracts with experience.
They put challenges to us. They make demands on us. They ask us to do
difficult things. When they are turned into marketing slogans and bedtime
stories – in the movies, on the evening news, in American politics –
they suddenly become simple and easy and painless. Even a war can be
painless if someone else is sent to fight it. Because of the immaturity
of our culture – the shallowness of our educational system, the demagoguery
of our politics, the cravenness of our media – people accept the fairy-tale
version of the ideal.
Consider freedom. It can’t simply be given to someone. We are
not born free. We have to achieve it. We have to struggle for it – against
a thousand alien entanglements. We are up to our eyeballs in clichés,
conventions, received ideas, provincialisms, bumper-sticker substitutes
for thought. It’s hard to break free of all that. And it takes more
than effort and will-power. It takes intelligence, knowledge, sensitivity,
awareness. You can’t just will yourself free. That’s what most Americans
don’t seem to understand and the political and corporate marketers have
no intention of telling them. Americans want the easy, know-nothing
path to emotional and intellectual freedom. “Tell me who to be. Tell
me what to think. Tell me how to feel. Tell me what to buy.” That’s
the context within which the Hollywood selling of meanings and emotions and the public’s willingness
to buy them has to be understood.
The mistake is to look to movies for any answers at all. All
movies can really do is point out problems, pose questions, set us tasks
to do. They can remind us that we need to work on our lives. They can
ask us to open our consciousnesses to new ways of knowing and feeling.
They can inspire us to try harder. But they can’t give us answers. They
can’t do the work for us. We have to do it all. Nothing can lift that
burden from our shoulders. And that takes time and work and thought.
It’s not quick and painless. People don’t want that kind of movie. That’s
an art film! [Laughs].They want to pay their ten dollars and get ten
conventional, predictable emotions in exchange, and if possible an answer
or two about how to live their lives.
Anyone who wants anything else to give him or her values
is in big trouble. You can’t buy them or buy into them or you become
just another consumer. You are just asking to be sold a bill of goods.
Make no mistake about it: there are thousands of emotional
snake-oil salesmen just waiting to sell you cheap, shoddy, knock-offs
of American ideals and values. [Like a carnival barker:] “Step right
up, ladies and gentlemen. The line forms on the left. In the front we
have William Kristol, Richard Perle, and Carl Rove, leaning against
each. On the right there’s Jack Welch and Rupert Murdoch and Bill O’Reilly
and the McLaughlin group shouting at each other. Charlie Rose is next
to them, smiling at how entertaining it is. And for the ladies, in the
row right behind them, we have Steven Spielberg, Diane Sawyer, Barbara
Walters, Oprah Winfrey, Oliver Stone, Dr. Phil, Ron Howard, and Tom
Hanks holding hands and speaking quietly and sincerely.”
But, listen, I can’t talk about this any more. It’s too sad,
too depressing. America could be so great and the world could
be such a different place if we lived up to the ideals that we profess
to believe in. We could be doing really wonderful things to end poverty
and hunger and slaughter and demagoguery and we’re not. We’re only making
things worse. It hurts to think about all the missed opportunities year
after year, decade after decade. I believe in Emerson, but I’m afraid
Tocqueville may have been closer to the truth.
Anyway, I’ve already written so much about this desire to look
to movies and television as sources of value that anyone interested
should just read my Capra or my Dreyer or my Leigh or my What’s Wrong…
and How to Do it Right book or something else I’ve written.
What to you distinguishes genuine
emotion in art from fake emotion, i.e., genuine human empathy from manipulated
sentimentality? How do we get back to the genuine in film – free from
guideposts? Isn’t all film a manipulation? Isn’t any emotion real?
want me to tell you how to tell a fake emotion from real one? You should
be asking Charlotte Beck, not me. She’s a Zen Master who’s written books
about the subject. Beautiful books. I’m not as smart as she is, but
I’ll take a stab at an answer by saying something that may sound weird.
As far as I am concerned, ninety-nine percent of all of the emotions
we experience both in life and in Hollywood
are what you are calling – and what I am calling – “fake.” Our culture
is a machine for creating plastic feelings – a panoply of petty, personal,
egoistic conflicts, needs, and demands: our obsession with possessions
and appearances – from houses to cars to clothing; our need to keep
up with the latest gadgets, trends, news, and events; our concerns about
glamour and charm and what other people think of us; our feeling that
we need to fight, struggle, and compete to get ahead – and a million
other self-destructive fears and insecurities. They are everywhere.
And they are all unreal. Made up. Crazy. Cuckoo. Destructive
of what we really are and need and feel.
We put ourselves on an emotional hamster track we can never
get to the end of. And we love the whole insane rat-race! The push and
pull of the bustling, grabbing, self-centered ego has become our substitute
for the soul, which we let peek out a few times a year at church or
synagogue or when we listen to classical music. Our desire to be “entertained”
by a movie or that it have high drama or a thrilling plot is part of
the same shallow, meaningless, endless quest for synthetic excitement,
glamour, stimulation. Bad art is organized around the same titillating,
animalistic emotions as bad living. There are valuable, good,
real emotions – truer, deeper, more authentic ways of being and feeling
and knowing – but the problem with Hollywood and television and newspapers and
the rest of the media is that they are devoted to presenting, manipulating,
and exalting the self-destructive, self-centered, artificial, trivial
feelings. In fact, as far as I can tell, movies and experiences organized
around ego-centered emotions are the ones people love the most. Just
like they love football games more than they love ballet. It’s because
the fake emotions plug into our reptilian brain stems and are reinforced
by a whole cultural system of programming. -Bad art is a vast emotional
recycling operation. It recycles pre-existing, mass-produced, artificial
feelings already out there in the culture. Good art creates entirely
new and different feelings – original, unexpected, surprising ones.
If that is hard to understand, all I can say is that my Leigh book has
more than you want to know about this subject. It’s also what I was
trying to explain in my Cassavetes books when I argued that his work
– like all great art – asks us to think and feel in fresh ways. Nothing
is prefabricated or plastic.
But I’ve discovered it is a hard concept to get across. When
I call the feelings in other films fake, my students get confused.
They say people really feel these emotions. Their pulses really
beat faster during the ending of The Matrix. They really
cry at the end of Titanic. They really care who wins
in Erin Brockovich. They really feel elated when a villain
gets blown up in the Star Wars movies. In life, people really
get choked up when they put an American flag in front of their house
or a yellow ribbon on their car. And my students are right. To the people
who experience these feelings, they are real. But that doesn’t
mean they aren’t fake. Maybe it would be better to call them mental
emotions, since they are created by our thoughts. They are in our
heads. That’s what’s wrong with them. They represent postures, stances,
and attitudes that make us feel good about ourselves. Even as we torture
ourselves by casting ourselves in this endless, draining struggle, these
emotions flatter us because they inflate our importance. We struggle
so we can feel we are getting ahead. We keep up with the Joneses so
we can feel superior to them. Even as it hurts them, people love to
create self-justifying emotional dramas this way.
Bad movies play on our emotional weaknesses, but great ones
can move us beyond these clichés or show us their limitations. But you
can’t look to Hollywood for that kind of movie. Look at Bresson’s
Lancelot or Femme Douce. Look at Dreyer’s Day of Wrath
or Gertrud. Or look at Cassavetes’ Faces, Leigh’s
Abigail’s Party, Rappaport’s Local Color, or Noonan’s
The Wife – four absolutely brilliant, extended dissections of
the emotional unreality we imprison ourselves within. These films reveal
how pervasive and self-destructive fake feelings are.