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Excerpts from
The Difference between Fake and Real Emotions in Life and Art

Innocence and Idealism

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!

Look, 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 feel.

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 so popular?

Because 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, superficial, stupid.

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 done?

Because 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.

The 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.

Manufactured Emotions

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?

You 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 movies 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.

For a related discussion, click here to access another page that talks about what Prof. Carney calls America's culture of unreality.

© Copyright 2002 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission from the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.