Films and Their Role in Society


Films are part of the mass media and impact society in a big way through various genres. Some genres of American films are Action/Adventure, Western, Gangster, Film Noir, Combat, Screwball comedy, Romance, Drama, Children, Parody, Black Humor, Clown Comedy, Horror, Science Fiction, Musicals, and Melodrama (Gehring 1). Films are part of an industry traditionally devoted to providing “pure entertainment”.

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However, more recently, there is a focus on the impact of films on society. While some argue that movies should let viewers “escape” their worlds for two hours in a darkened theater there are others who feel that audiences can be more genuinely and deeply engaged by watching “hard-hitting” and “relevant” stories about contemporary life. These films of the latter type, apart from pleasing the audience also inform or instruct them.

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In 1981, John Huston’s almost legendary World War II documentary about psychologically crippled veterans “Let There Be Light” (1945), was launched, thirty-five years after it was produced (Quart and Auster 1). The film had originally been suppressed by the U.S. Defense Department, which feared its possible pacifistic influence. However, the film was found to be ingenuous and naive to the point of simplemindedness by the critics.

The film revolves around the magical faith in the healing power of psychiatrists and Freudianism. It thus helps the viewers to understand the intellectual assumptions of the postwar period. Films thus have the ability to evoke the mood and tone of a society in a particular era. Even mainstream Hollywood commercial films portray the details of everyday life; – the way people talk, dress, and consume and thereby help in informing the viewers. More importantly, fictional films reveal something of the dreams, desires, displacements, and, in some cases, social and political issues confronting American society.

Films are a powerful and significant art form. Art historian and critic Erwin Panofsky wrote: “If all the serious lyric poets, composers, painters and sculptors were forced by law to stop their activities, a rather small fraction of the general public would seriously regret it. If the same thing were to happen with the movies the social consequences would be catastrophic.” That sentiment obviously overstates the case, but films shown in theaters, on television, and on video cassettes are clearly one of the prime forms of entertainment for the general public, and one of the most democratic elements in the cultural fabric.

Films acquire social, cultural, and historical significance not just by the fact that they entertain people. It is because they can reach a mass audience and connect with some part of the conscious or unconscious experience of the general public. The relationship that a Hollywood film has on social consciousness is a difficult one to define. When there are some movies that do not any direct social relevance. In fact, there is no marked connection between the film industry and society. The industry is not a mirror of public feelings and habits, nor is it one that conspires to shape the social values and political opinions of a supine public (Quart and Auster 2).

But films impact society in other ways. Hollywood has a talent for manufacturing and publicizing seductive images like John Wayne’s World War II heroes and these images have had a profound effect on the lives of countless young Vietnam enlistees.

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In a matter of four or five years, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the movie audience shifted from sympathy to social outlawry in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to law-and-order vigilantism in Dirty Harry (1971). These are two different responses to crime. American directors, like Altman or Coppola, gave films that expressed powerful personal visions and styles, sharing some of the same dreams and cultural tensions and influences that other Americans do (Quart and Auster 3).

Consequently, films like Nashville (1975) and The Godfather, parts I and II (1972 and 1974) conveyed some of the cultural and social strains of the period. In 1989, there were films like Field of Dreams, which constructed a mythic American past by nostalgically conjuring up the Chicago Black Sox of 1919 playing on a pristine and bucolic baseball diamond. These films helped create nostalgia for an earlier America.

During the last twenty years, a number of historians and cultural critics have begun to give films their due as important social and cultural evidence. Noteworthy works in this vein include American History/American Film, edited by Martin A. Jackson and John E. O’Connor, Movie Made America by Robert Sklar, We’re in the Money by Andrew Bergman, Film: The Democratic Art by Garth Jowett, America in the Movies by Michael Wood, From Reverence to Rape by Molly Haskell, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 by Robert B. Ray, and Camera Politica by Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner.

In fact, historical films are being considered an important source of understanding American society. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has said: “The fact that film has been the most potent vehicle for the American imagination suggests all the more strongly that movies have something to tell us not just about the surfaces but the mysteries of American life” (O’Connor and Jackson x). There are also explicitly political films ranging from Abraham Polonsky Marxist film noir Force of Evil ( 1948) through Stanley Kubrick’s sardonic and apocalyptic Dr. Strangelove ( 1964) to Oliver Stone’s mixture of social realism and Manichean melodrama in Platoon ( 1986).

The impact of these films on society is political in nature (Quart and Auster 4). On the Town (1949) and Batman (1989) convey a point of view, an implicit ideological perspective, on the nature of American reality. But there are films like Michael Curtiz Mildred Pierce (1945) and Steven Spielberg E.T (1982) which aim at providing glamor, escape, thrills, or a sense of emotional security to a mass audience and have no other meaning beyond that.

Hollywood created many movies with a great deal of insight into American culture through mythic landscapes and urbanscapes- the transcendental West of John Ford’s Monument Valley and the magical, neon-lit Broadway of countless musicals, and through archetypal figures like the gangster, private eye, and femme fatale. Frank Capra’s humane, harmonious small towns and the New York apartments and nightclubs of screwball comedies of the thirties like Holiday (1938) and The Awful Truth (1937) reinforced public fantasies and feelings.

The classic Hollywood film was built around either individual heroism or at least the centrality of the individual and most American political films, from Home of the Brave (1949) to Platoon (1986), define political events in terms of an individual’s fate and consciousness. Platoon does not discuss the ideological and institutional context of Vietnam but focuses on the drama that one individual soldier experiences (Quart and Auster 5).

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Hollywood films have also been firm believers in the American success ethic and films have usually promoted the notion, in a wide variety of genres, that most white males have the ability and opportunity to succeed in America (Gehring 20). In recent years, in films like Working Girl (1988), some women have been added to the host of Hollywood characters who easily overcome the obstacles of class, ethnicity, gender, and even race and are able to achieve the American Dream (Quart and Auster 5).

Socially subversive and anarchic elements existed in popular American films-like the psychopathic gangster and the detective who breaks all the police department’s rules. However, despite their deviant behavior, characters like James Cagney’s psycho gangster in White Heat (1949) or Clint Eastwood’s vigilante cop, Harry Callahan, in Dirty Harry don’t ultimately disrupt the social status quo. Still, despite the fact that classical Hollywood sticks to the traditional pattern of conclusions, a great many of its films contain revolutionary elements that call the conventional world and its values into question.

In the thirties, King Vidor low-budget Our Daily Bread ( 1934) envisioned a collective farm, where unemployed people would work communally, as an alternative to the harshness of Depression poverty, and capitalism (Quart and Auster 6). American films such as these proffering alternative political and social visions are very rare.

Any cultural and social analysis of Hollywood films would have to take into account a variety of theoretical and critical approaches. The auteur critics’ origins go back to French critics-cum-directors like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol, who wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma about neglected commercial directors. They promoted the notion that the basic starting point of the film is the personal sensibility, style, and especially the motifs of the director, which give him a “signature” — a coherent world view, and that the best films are those that most clearly bear the signature of their creator.

More interested in glorifying the aesthetic value of the Hollywood studio films than in exploring their social and political meaning, American auteur critics like Andrew Sarris (writing in Film Culture and The Village Voice), charted how John Ford’s vision of family and community had remained constant through such diverse films as The Grapes of Wrath (1940), They Were Expendable (1945), and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) (Quart and Auster 7).

Auteur critics often tended to overrate mediocre work and focused more on the visual aspect of the film. They loved to demonstrate just how the mise-en-scène of a Budd Boetticher B western had much greater aesthetic and even intellectual value than the liberal pieties pervading a Stanley Kramer or Richards Brooks social problem film. As a result, these critics built up the reputations of directors such as Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and Douglas Sirk. In doing that, the auteur critics granted added luster and cultural importance to commercial Hollywood genres like the western, the thriller, the screwball comedy, and the woman’s picture.

There were genre critics who explored the themes, structures, and iconography of commercial Hollywood genres. Most genre critics were more interested in analyzing the films as self-contained forms, in dissecting the iconography of the musical, than in evoking its cultural and social significance. However, there were critics such as Robert Warshow and Leo Braudy who sought to analyze the relationship between a genre’s popularity and the attitudes of the audiences. For example, Warshow’s essay on the gangster film asserted that the vicious, avaricious behavior of the protagonist in films like Little Caesar (1930) appealed to the part of the American psyche that rejects official American culture (Warshow 53).

There have also been filming critics who have directly sought to unravel, by using a psychoanalytic interpretation, the hidden social and psychological meaning of a film. A theorist like Siegfried Kracauer believed that films are never merely the product of an individual artist, but a collaborative expression of mass feelings (Bywater and Sobchack 121). In recent years a number of theoretical approaches to film, like structuralism and semiology (Quart and Auster 8), have held that film is “a system of conventions and codes, a set of structures dictating and circumscribing the ultimate possibilities of any individual film” (Bywater and Sobchack 175).

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According to these theoretical perspectives, it is the underlying cultural patterns, not the individual artist, that create meaning in a film. The emphasis in semiology is on sign systems and in structuralism on broader organizing principles rather than on the individual artist’s vision or the work’s aesthetic virtues or weaknesses. These methods of critically viewing films enlarge the perception. For example, the idea of the camera’s gaze in classical Hollywood film as a male one-which sees women as objects of voyeuristic pleasure, alters one’s way of thinking about familiar films.

Recently, films have acquired technological power allowing them to express new visions with an unlimited expressive vocabulary without holding on to traditional patterns through animation. Computer technology is providing animators with tools to use both traditional and creative approaches to the cinema (Nelmes 231). Science, art, and the moving image are conjoining to create a new digital camera that would enhance the animation film and special effects in mainstream movies.

The works of Stand Vanderbeek (Poemfields, 1967-69), Lillian Schwartz (Pictures from a Gallery, 1976), and Peter Folds (Hunger, 1973) and the output of PIXAR are all examples of the continuously developing field of animation. Ex-Disney animator John Lasseter created highly effective animated movies such as Luxo Jnr (1986)m Tin Toy (1990) and Knick Knack (1991) by emulating the character animation of Disney and the gag-structures of Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons. Toy Story 1 (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999) were hugely successful.

The Land Before Time (1988) and Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” tested the limits of animation. However, today, abstract and experimental works are being produced in the realm of animation such as those by Yoichiro Kawaguchi – Eggy (1990), Festival (1991), and Mutation (1992) (Nelmes 232).

With the advent of globalization, the creative industries are being increasingly recognized as vehicles of economic growth and exports. The film industry is the creative industry with the biggest cultural and economic impact. It is interesting to note that the organization of the film industry is undergoing a significant transformation towards globalization. Globalization has made an impact both on the production and marketing of films. Hollywood increasingly outsources labor-intensive production activities to Canada, India, and other film nations (Lorenzen and Vang, 2007).

Furthermore, new film production clusters have emerged in Asia and elsewhere, with institutional foundations different from those of Hollywood or Europe. These changes are accompanied by new digital distribution and production technologies. Consider Ang Lee’s recent blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was produced by Ang Lee who lives in New York but comes from a Chinese family that fled to Taiwan.

The film is financed by Hollywood-based Columbia which is owned by Japanese Sony but also involved the privately-owned Asia Union Film and Entertainment and the state-run China Film Co-Production Corporation. The actors and creative staff come from all over East Asia while the film is shot in Mainland China. Hence, studied as a global phenomenon, “the film industry is a laboratory of different and emerging strategies in building and sustaining competitiveness, at firm, regional and national level” – (Lorenzen and Vang, 2007).


The role of the film in society is one that is kaleidoscopic in nature. It has impacted society in different ways through different movies, different genres, and different technologies. It has been viewed and interpreted through different kinds of the critical framework. With globalization and advancing technology, the role of film in society is getting wider in scope – both as a product in a competitive market and as a work of art in a technically advancing age.

Works Cited

Bywater, Tim and Sobchack, Thomas (1989). Film Criticism: Major Critical Approaches to Narrative Film. Longman Publishers. White Plains, N.Y. p.121.

Gehring, D. Wes (1988). Handbook of American Film Genres. Greenwood Press. New York.

Lorenzen, Mark and Vang, Jan (2007). Hollywood and Beyond: The Emerging Globalization of the Film Industry. Industry and Innovation. Web.

Nelmes, Jill (2003). An Introduction to Film Studies. Routledge Publishers. New York. 2003.

O’Connor, E. John and Jackson, A. Martin (1979). American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image. Frederick Ungar Publishers. New York. p. x.

Quart, Leonard and Auster, Albert (1991). American Film and Society since 1945. Praeger Publishers. Westport, CT.

Warshow, Robert (1964). The Immediate Experience. Anchor Publishing. Garden City, N.Y.

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