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"It's Only a Movie"

“It’s Only a Movie”

By Dennis Loo (2/25/13)

To those who say: “It’s only a movie,” I recommend Joe Giambrone’s excellent article over at the Political Film Blog “You’re Being Attacked”:

The father of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, wrote in the late 1920s:

The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world to-day. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions.  The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation.” (Bernays 1928)

Bernays noted the “unconscious” character of much film propaganda.  It was not necessary to directly state messages, but to let the scenarios and the story world carry the messages in the background.  Once immersed in the foreground story — whatever it was — the “unconscious” background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge. (Emphasis added)

Movies, and art and culture more generally, are not the same thing as politics. But politics and art are not separate from each other either. Every single piece of art has a political character to it, even if the artist is unaware of what that political content is, and even if their subjective intent is different from the impact their work of art has.

Politics doesn’t mean being a Democrat or a Republican. Politics refers to and encompasses a stance about the relative importance of people, animals, and things and the proper relationship between people, animals, and things.

As I wrote in “Zero Dark Thirty and Truthiness:”

[N]o film is ever apolitical, no matter what its topic. Even a film about the search for other planets and the search for the origins of the universe or about polar bears or insects cannot escape politics. Everything we do is political, not political in the sense of “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” but political in the sense that politics has to do with the prioritization of what is important to do and what is less important or not important to do with limited resources. How we see the world and our place and that of others in it is inherently political and ideological.

Furthermore, in making a film, writing a book or article, creating a song or poem, choosing what you are going to read, watch, spend time on, engaging in conversation or not, what you talk about and how, how you spend your money and what you do with what you buy and how you discard it, how you treat other people and those of other genders, nations, and so on – these are all political decisions, whether you think about them as political or not. If you choose to let your engine idle while you are standing still parked in a space, that is a political decision, even if the people doing it are not consciously making a political decision: I am not going to worry about the contributions I’m making to global warming and let my engine run, even though I am not going anywhere.

We cannot, any of us, escape making political choices and making decisions every minute we are awake about what we are going to do. We have to choose because we cannot do everything, pay attention to everything, understand everything in multiple ways constantly. These are all political decisions.

Giambrone goes on to state:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.  We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.” (Bernays 1928)

Bernays considered nearly everything that could be seen, touched or heard to be a propaganda opportunity, that is people pushing their opinions of what society should be onto other people, all of them competing for attention.  This meant goods, services and ideas, all of the basic building blocks of modern life.

Taking this expansive view of propaganda and applying it to films leads to analyses of characters and class, the interpersonal relationships, casting, prejudices and biases expressed, wardrobe, locations, the role of authority figures, the role of money, gender relations, power relations, subservience, levels of education, patterns of speech, the desires and aspirations of the protagonists and the antagonists, even the style of music, etc.  It also requires an investigation into the puppet masters themselves: the studios and the producers who wield the power of the purse.

Because of the high cost of producing mass marketed cinema, film is inherently hierarchical, and in a capitalist regime its on-screen content is steered by the money men.  In Bernays’ view, these men will use their positions whether knowingly or unknowingly to propagandize in their own perceived interests.  Why wouldn’t they?

Bernays’ point about the nature of “democratic society” as one in which authorities manipulate the tastes and opinions of others without those others knowing it has been dramatized by films like The Matrix.

I do not know whether Bernays’ attitude towards “democratic society” as he articulates above was an ironic one, pointing out the inherent deceitfulness of the conventional view that the common person is in charge in “democratic society.” But that is clearly the thrust of his remarks, and he is correct about that.

We can also make a much larger point in relation to this:

If we wish to see a different kind of society and a different kind of world, then people much more broadly, eventually encompassing everyone, must come to see that there is no such thing as “only a movie,” “only a joke,” “only a personal matter,” and “not my affair.” We are all in this together. We are linked to each other and our environment inextricably.


Bernays, Edward, Propaganda, 1928, History is a Weapon, web, November 17, 2011,


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