Most of us choose to watch quite a lot of movies and TV, typically at least a few hours a month, and some of us tens of hours a week. It would be surprising if that had no effect on our minds and our hearts, wouldn't it? We watch this stuff because it does connect with us! So it would be folly for us never to think about the ways films, movies, videos and other visual media (like adverts, trailers and news broadcasts) are influencing us. Here are some questions you can consider to help with this. They are focussed on films, but most can be applied to any visual communication, and many of them to books, articles and written media, too.
What is the film trying to do/be?
- A work of art – just something beautiful? Educational? Informing people? Changing the way viewers think or feel, and influencing? Putting forward an idea or concept? Entertaining? Brainwashing? Just making money? Making someone (e.g. the director, the cast, the writer or the studio) look good? Winning awards, e.g. Oscars and BAFTAs? Promoting sales of something, e.g. product placement?
Who is it by?
- Source material: books, mythology, folklore, cultural memes, games, videogames and theme-park rides
- The director, the screenplay writer, the author of any source material
- The film studio, and maybe franchise, e.g. Aliens and Prometheus, Star Wars, Marvel comics
- The films production context, e.g. Hollywood, Bollywood, Anime, French cinema etc.
Who is it for?
- Age (consider e.g. kids movies, adult-only, nostalgia for the elderly, mindless stuff for teens)
- Sex, sexuality and gender identity (e.g. rom-coms for women, war and action for men, feminist cinema, LGBTQ-friendly films and propaganda like The Danish Girl and Milk)
- Nationality and ethnicity (some films come from one culture to try and inform/educate another, e.g. old Soviet Union propaganda movies)
- Income, in both global and local terms (e.g. Slumdog Millionaire is for the global rich, but about the global poor)
- Religious/ethnic groups
- Social classes
- Political philosophies
What is the worldview?
- Morality. What is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’? Who or what decides? Does it matter? What is the highest good, the best goal we should aim for? (e.g. German cinema often shows ongoing guilt for war, French cinema often assumes romantic love is highest goal, monogamy is ridiculous and having a wife and mistress is healthy, US cinema assumes wealth and self-realisation are what life is all about).
- The big picture. Is there something more than us? Where does humanity (currently on Earth) fit into the universe? Into history?
- Truth. Is it a meaningful category? A philosophical fiction? Is there absolute truth, or is all truth relative? Does it matter? Does it affect the meaning of our lives? (Consider Rashomon, political and war propaganda and reality-challenging concept films like The Matrix)
- Naturalism and the existence of the supernatural. Is physics the ultimate truth, and the only reality – what you can touch, taste, see, feel, measure in a lab? Or are there other realities, beyond the merely physical? Is there a spiritual reality? Is the film theistic, deistic, pantheistic, panentheistic or atheistic? How do we know about, relate to or experience such beyond-physical realities? (e.g. Japanese anime, like Hayao Miyazake/Studio Ghibli, will often be pantheistic with lots of ‘natural’ spirits, and will express eco-spirituality and ‘saving the planet’. Star Wars is dualistic and essentially Hindu, with the spirituality of ‘The Force’, but we can control it, not the other way around. Hollywood is mostly agnostic, militantly secular and naturalistic/scientistic).
- The future. Is there a purpose toward which reality is moving? Is progress meaningful? Is history going somewhere? Is it just meaningless and random sequences of actions? Did it have a starting point? Is it going to stop? Will it go on forever? Is history linear or circular, real or imagined? (Some eastern/Asian worldviews don’t believe in progress or in history going anywhere, or changing – it just goes round and round. Westerners mostly still think in terms of things getting better and of us evolving/improving/developing, even though postmodernism and naturalism make that a nonsense.)
- Human nature. Are we more than we seem, or less? Are we just animals with some unusual evolved abilities? Are we gods? Are we designed, with a purpose, or accidents of fate? Are we basically good? Basically bad? Capable of both? Are we the measure of all things? Are we essentially about relationship, or about self? Do we find/fulfil ourselves by an outward orientation, or an inward orientation?
- Death. What is it? What does it mean? Is it the end of a person, or does something survive death? Does it make our lives pointless? Is it a good thing? A bad thing? Why do we fight it?
- Justice. Is reality in any sense just, or are we born into a fundamentally unjust world? Is there any hope of justice? When, and how? Do we have to make it happen ourselves? Is there karma? Reincarnation? A judgement day? Heaven and hell?
- Meaning. Is there any meaning to our actions? Do they have significance, or purpose? Is there any meaning to history? To anything? Who makes meaning?
How does it hit you?
- Is there a narrative, a storyline or thread of meaning unfolding through the movie? If so, is it focussed on people, things or events?
- What and who in the film do you really care about? Why? Is it because of attraction, or because of loathing? Do you identify with it/them?
- What strong feelings did the film prompt in you? Why? Are those feelings ones you often have, or are they rare? How did the film cause or expose them? Do you think it was intended to? Does this tell you anything about yourself?
- What dominant or captivating thoughts did the film prompt in you? Did it challenge any of your thinking, or your worldview? How were those thoughts presented? Was their persuasive argument, with logic and evidence? Was there a moving event which suggested them? Were they just assumed? Do you think you there was an intention to make you think this way?
- Does the film challenge or invite you to question the way you think, or the way you feel, about anything? Do you think it wants to manipulate you – to convince you of something, or compel you to believe something? If so, what? Has it worked?
- What would you want other people to notice, and recognise, when they watch the film? What thoughts or feelings would you want other viewers to have? Do you support the message of the film? Would you encourage others to see it?
- How does the film use colour and lighting to shape your mood, emotions and attention? Are they used to evoke beauty? Are they used to distinguish characters, or ‘sides’, or ideas? Are they used playfully, or predictably? Do they help to direct your perception of good and bad, and your response to events or people?
- How has the music and soundtrack of the film affected you? How different would it have been without the music? Did the music help you engage with the film? Did it manipulate your interpretation of the events, or the characters? Was it dishonest or deceitful, trying to stop you thinking or feeling things you otherwise would? Or was it honest, helping you connect with your own responses more fully?
It’s important for us to think about what we’re watching, because it has a powerful effect on the way we see the world, and on our feelings. If we don’t ask questions about it, we’re letting opinionated individuals and money-making movie factories, as well as advertisers, corporations, politicians and lobbying movements hook straight into our brains and our hearts. We’re surrendering to manipulation on a massive scale. But maybe you think this stuff doesn’t affect you? You should know advertisers love you; you’re a very easy target, and it doesn’t concern you how much they control your behaviour, because you’re sure they can’t. Don’t be a pushover. Use your head!
We’re lucky that it’s easy today to get a good idea about the kind of content in a film which may be unhelpful, extremely emotive or offensive and unwelcome to us. One simple option is to go to www.imdb.org, find your movie, and check out the ‘Parental Guide’ section. Do watch out for spoilers!