During my undergraduate studies in video production, a textbook contained a story about a lawsuit. Two parties were arguing about whether either of them could put up a shop sign on a busy thoroughfare, as there were already too many shop signs there.
Both parties hired their own photographer to prove their claims. Both photographers photographed the same property. One used a narrow-angle lens to compress the images so the existing signs look as cluttered and close together as possible. The other used a wide-angle lens to make the existing signs appear as far apart as possible. Confused by the differing results of the photos, the judge dismissed the evidence outright.
Similarly, in our current highly politicized culture, the lens of partisan assumptions can distort the cinematic experience. This lens, often operating unconsciously, can lead to misinterpretations and inappropriate reactions to a film’s story. If we don’t cultivate careful judgment, our political prejudices can carry us away, leading to confusion, anger, and perhaps even rejection of what we see and hear.
There are at least three ways these distorted lenses work. Recognizing them can help us better interpret, enjoy, and discuss the movies we watch.
The first distorted lens is a derogatory mark. Even if “propaganda” is supposed to be a value-free term, it doesn’t have a positive connotation for us. As such, the word is often used in a derogatory way: if we want to judge a film, it helps if we can call it an “agenda” with an “obvious message.”
The thing is, movies with intentions and obvious messages aren’t inherently wrong, nor inherently bad. As I have written elsewhere, propaganda “involves the dissemination of ideas or information that furthers a particular cause or movement. It can be positive (like Harriet Beecher Stowe) and it can be negative (like Adolf Hitler).
movies like Gosnel and Unplanned are explicitly pro-life. movies like Risen and The case for Christ are explicitly Christian. These films can and should be judged holistically, not just by the presence or absence of an “agenda”.
Now, one could argue that the strongest movies are like that without a dogmatic commitment to a specific message. Themes that flow out of a story—rather than a story that emerges from a fabricated theme—tend to resonate more honestly, powerfully, and sustainably. For example movies like arrival and In the quiet place convey life-affirming messages more organically than some films built around a pro-life message.
In any case, too many people regard films as mere tools to promote morality; hence the tendency to reduce a film to its intended message (whether or not it actually has one). If we like the story lesson, we give it high marks. If we don’t like it, we assign the stigma of “propaganda” to it and dismiss it outright.
The first problem leads directly to the second: double standards. Because it’s easy to overlook the flaws of a movie you agree with and exaggerate the flaws of a movie you disagree with, it’s possible to apply different standards to different stories based on our political beliefs.
A personal example: when I saw an extended demonstration of pretty (a pro-life film) in 2007, I initially tried too hard to put the film in a positive light. As a pro-lifer, I almost felt compelled to scale up prettyits few strengths and minimizes its many weaknesses (something I certainly wouldn’t have done for a pro-choice film). Since I posted my review on my personal blog, it was easy enough to revise it afterwards.
On a larger scale, there has been massive push in the pro-life community for support pretty. Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi observed a “mind-numbing move” that almost seemed to threaten the denomination to “get behind Bella if you love Jesus and care for the babies!” In fact, she says,
A producer of the film then left a message on my voicemail stating that my refusal to support the film was “demonic” in origin. For real? “Demonic”? Can’t it be that I found the film clumsy, light, sloppy and uneven?
Of course, progressives are also guilty of inconsistent standards. A recent case is when film critic Jeffrey Overstreet lamented the “objectification of women as trophies”. Top Gun: Maverick– A strikingly odd attitude, considering that he extolled virtues The Wolf of Wall Street without even mentioning his tendency to objectify women as toys.
That’s no secret Top Gun: Maverick has proved particularly popular in conservative circles, while Martin Scorsese’s films have resonated with the American left. And over the years, Overstreet has not kept its left-leaning politics private. In addition, Overstreet finds some political elements objectionable lonerincluding his glorification of the “rising ageless white man”.
Sure, there’s a lot more going on wolf and loner than their treatment (improper or otherwise) of women. However, when one film is called out for including a minor component of female objectification while another is praised for its rampant female objectification, it reveals a double standard. While the reason for this inequality is probably more than just politics, it obviously involves nothing less.
Definitely critics and audiences of all stripes should be able to recognize a film’s strengths and point out its weaknesses, regardless of its political ideology. we should to be able to criticize a flawed film even if we agree with its good intentions. Whose “side” a film is on isn’t necessarily a debatable one, but it’s not the only factor either. In many cases it is not even the most important factor.
The third distorted lens is the reactionary interpretation. In a bipartisan climate, it’s easy to become hypersensitive to harmful beliefs and ideologies in the culture around us. Sometimes this can lead to paranoia: seeing messages in places where they don’t actually exist.
For example, while it may seem bizarre to us today, there was a time when it was It’s a beautiful life was investigated by Ayn Rand, the FBI and the US House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities. Why? For promoting a subversive communist ideology. Frank Capra’s now-classic film has been accused of being “premeditated [maligning] the upper class”, “tries to show [that] People who had money were mean and despicable characters, “and showing” a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers… [which] is a common communist ploy.”
It’s one thing to view Communism as opposed to Christianity (as evangelical Christians still believe today); it is quite another to call a pro-individual, anti-atheist film communist.
A more recent example is the Pixar film WALL Ewhich some denounced as anti-capitalist propaganda for its “save the earth” themes. National Review called it “a 90-minute lecture on the dangers of overconsumption, big business and environmental degradation.” but The American Conservative pointed out the problem in WALL E is no big deal; it is “great business married to great government.” Or as city hallPaul Edwards put it this way:
If capitalism’s purpose is to please the lowest instincts of the human heart, requiring us to indulge our every whim and desire, resulting in dependence on government, then I guess I’m an anti-capitalist too. However, capitalism can only achieve this goal if all limitations on personal responsibility are removed. In this sense, WALL-E is a brilliant display of the weaknesses of liberalism.
WALL-E is the story of what results when a liberal vision of the future is realized: government marrying corporations to provide not just “the pursuit of happiness” but happiness itself, creating voracious citizens who depend on the government to sustain their lives. The result is a humanity made up of selfish, isolated individuals who have no affection for others, thereby defying what it means to be a true human being.
One could argue that WALL E was not intended to be an indictment of either conservatism or Liberalism. It definitely functions as a critique of consumerism – a critique justified and welcomed by all reasonable individuals, capitalists and socialists alike. In any case, it’s a brilliant piece of visual storytelling, well worth watching and discussing.
Rather than labeling films pejoratively and making them look worse than they appear, let’s honestly criticize them – just like we would any other film. It should enough to address legitimate issues rather than fabricating issues to make our position appear stronger. And even if we have to oppose a film’s ideology, we can still defend our position “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Rather than applying double standards, we should be fair to movies we agree with (which sometimes require constructive criticism) and movies we don’t agree with (which sometimes require praise). The Lord loves just – not unequal – weights and measures (Prov. 11:1; 20:10).
Rather than refraining from critical judgement, we should judge thoughtfully and not rush to accept or interpret a film’s message. It is foolish to be hasty in our words and accusations (Proverbs 29:20). Whenever possible, we can embrace a filmmaker’s most charitable motives, even when his end product is problematic—or ultimately reprehensible.
In the light of the biblical commandments, may we avoid “foolish, ignorant controversies” and “be not quarrelsome but kind to all” and “[correct our] opponents with meekness” (2 Tim. 2:23-25). May our speech “always be gracious, seasoned with salt, with it [we] maybe know how [we] should answer every person” (Col. 4:6). And may our words not be “destructive…but only those good for building, according to the occasion, that they may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
In a tribal culture, disagreements are inevitable. but being is not unpleasant—especially not for those of us who submit to the meek and humble rulership of Christ.