How All of Us Are Changed by the Movies That Entertain Us

by Sam Cavitt | | June 15, 2022

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In the early part of the 20th century, Italian film theoretician Ricciotto Canudo argued that cinema was “the Seventh Art,” following the five originally defined by the philosopher Hegel (architecture, sculpture, painting, music and poetry) as well as a sixth Canudo named — dance.

The late film critic Roger Ebert said that of all the arts, cinema is able to conjure the most empathy in people. “When I go to a great movie, I can live somebody else’s life for a while,” observed Ebert. “I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.

Quite simply, movies influence us to an immeasurable degree, just as much as they are themselves influenced by our society and its culture.

Movies Change Society

Undoubtedly, movies can have a powerful effect on society; sometimes this effect is temporary, as it was when director Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 briefly reignited interest in America’s space program. In other instances, the effects can be longer-lasting, as classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner continue to teach timeless lessons about empathy.

While the great majority of movies can be put in the categories of relatively inconsequential fun or innocent entertainment, every so often, a film like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb comes along that stirs people up, provokes them to ponder deeper questions and inspires them to take a closer look at the world.

These effects are often intended by film writers and producers — intentionally  — to influence change. Think of the powerful rebuke of intolerance and prejudice offered by Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The profits (more than $100 million in total) from Schindler’s List and from Spielberg’s earnings from the film were used to establish the Righteous Persons Foundation, dedicated to preserving Jewish communities and history. This nonprofit Foundation continues to fund numerous services today, such as foster care, meal services and art programs for Jewish youth.

In other instances, filmmakers’ intentions may be unintentional. Disney’s Bambi has been called “the most effective piece of anti-hunting propaganda ever produced” by the Wildlife Society Bulletin. And memorably, the film Top Gun was produced in association with the U.S. Navy, which had the right of final approval of the script and editing (in the wake of the movie’s release, there was a 500 percent increase in applications to military aviation training programs, despite the film never being used as an official recruitment tool). The producers of the blockbuster Jaws possibly had never foreseen that their movie would triple the tourist population to the island where the movie was filmed — Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts — yet, that’s just what it did.

Sometimes, while certain movies can be thought of as having a positive impact on society, others can have an effect that’s decidedly less so. Following the release of 1999’s Fight Club, for example, real-life “fight clubs” sprang up across the U.S. and beyond. In Moscow and in Thailand, there continue to be informal underground fight circuits that have taken more than a bit of inspiration from David Fincher’s underrated cinematic masterpiece (not to mention the book it’s based on by novelist Chuck Palahniuk).

In fact, it’s not uncommon for certain films to kick off or amplify trends (think of the disco dancing in Saturday Night Fever or the hilarious gymnastics in the simultaneous releases of Lambada and Lambada: The Forbidden Dance in 1990), for better or for worse. In this way, film can be just as much a reflection of current culture as an influence upon it.

Public opinion about a topic or person depicted in movies can be shifted as a particular subject is either lionized or demonized (consider Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Howard Hughes in The Aviator), creating either exaltation that may or may not be deserved (think of Kevin Costner’s character Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s JFK, for example) or stereotypes that produce negative real-world mischaracterization and prejudice (like those of the killer hillbillies in John Boorman’s Deliverance).

In some cases, this fallout can be controversial, as it has been for certain kids’ cartoon movies (Pixar’s Finding Dory, Onward and Turning Red, or Disney’s Zootopia, for example) have been thought to have possibly had effects on children’s perceptions, behaviors and roles in society. Certainly, the influence movies can have on children in their formative years is a valid concern, and it’s one that’s only been partially addressed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), with its crude film grading system of G, PG, PG-13 and R ratings.

Religious or Spiritual Influences

Sometimes the influence a film has is religious or spiritual in nature. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the release of The Last Temptation of Christ, director Martin Scorcese said that he was “driven to make [the film] because I wanted to look at questions of faith and penance and redemption within the context of the world right now, with all the formalities stripped away. I’m constantly exploring this question in my pictures and in my life.”

Scorcese says that with Last Temptation, “I was trying to start a dialogue. I didn’t want to just make a picture for people who were secure in their faith. Christ’s teachings are about all of us — the secure and the insecure, the powerful and the powerless, the down and out, the addicts, the people in real pain, the people caught in states of delusion, the ones who feel absolutely hopeless and see no possibility of grace or redemption.”

“The afflictions of ‘the least among us,’ as Jesus said — [meaning] the inner circumstances that lead to their fall — are in everyone,” explained Scorcese. “I wanted to make a picture about a historical figure named Jesus, a spiritual guide, but also… a human being, surrounded by other recognizable human beings, as opposed to wax figures.”

“Did I think [the film] would be accepted by everyone? Not necessarily. But I hoped it would. I knew that everyone wouldn’t embrace it, but I thought [some] just might. And what happened was that the picture was vilified by people who made a cultural show of their vilification, many of whom not only hadn’t seen it but vowed to never see it. And that saddened me.”

By comparison, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ arguably has a more substantial endorsement from ecclesiastical authorities. Gibson himself has said that he “hopes [the movie] inspires introspection, and I think it does. I want to inspire and make people feel.” Gibson claims that he had “a deep need to tell this story…The Gospels tell you what basically happened, [but] I wanted to know what really went down.”

Gibson journeyed to Italy to scout locations for the film personally, and he had the script translated from English into Aramaic (thought to be Jesus’ first language) and Latin by a Jesuit scholar. Gibson originally intended to show the film without subtitles, in an attempt to “transcend the language barriers with visual storytelling,” as he explained later. (Given that its entire dialog is in Hebrew, Latin and Aramaic, the film was eventually released in a subtitled version.)

Biblical scholar Mark Goodacre declared that he couldn’t find one documented example of Gibson explicitly claiming the film is historically accurate. But Gibson has been quoted as saying, “I think that my first duty is to be as faithful as possible in telling the story so that it doesn’t contradict the Scriptures. Now, so long as it didn’t do that, I felt that I had a pretty wide berth for artistic interpretation and to fill in some of the spaces with logic, with imagination, with various other readings.” One example of this is the scene in which Judas Iscariot, played by Luca Lionello, is shown being tormented by demons in the form of children.

When asked if the film is a faithful account of the New Testament, Father Augustine Di Noia of the Vatican’s Doctrinal Congregation stated that “Mel Gibson’s film is not a documentary… but [it] remains faithful to the fundamental structure common to all four accounts of the Gospels” and that “Mel Gibson’s film is entirely faithful to the New Testament.”

The Science Behind Movies’ Influence

Good storytelling is based on “the brain[’s being] more hardwired for sociability, for engaging with others and for empathy than we had realized,” noted Harvard Kennedy School Professor of Public Policy Rod Kramer at a university panel discussion on film and social change.

Going deeper than this, Talma Hendler, a neuroscientist at Tel Aviv University, says that there are two types of empathy that movies activate that are each tied to different networks of brain regions. The first is what she calls mental empathy, which requires a person to “step outside themselves” and think about what another person is thinking or experiencing. The other type she refers to as embodied empathy, which is more of an in-the-moment feeling you might have when you see a character get punched in the gut, for instance. Hendler has done brain activity studies of subjects in labs who watched particular movie scenes and has observed how one type of empathy activated one area of the brain versus another. But both types can have powerful influences on how people respond to films.

Oscar-winning writer/producer Bill Guttentag (who directed the 2003 documentary short Twin Towers about 9/11) claims that a film is successful to the degree that it can connect to an audience emotionally — and that story and character are the two most critical ways to do that.

Expanding on this idea, Caroline Libresco, the senior programmer of the Sundance Film Festival, believes the elements of a good film are “great characters, each of whose lives has an arc; the layering of multiple stories; beautiful cinematography; and the ability to make audiences cry and laugh.”

Taking a more technical approach, Darren Aronofsky, the director of movies such as Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan and The Wrestler, has used different cameras, lenses and editing techniques to convey increasingly subjective senses of what the characters in his films are experiencing. “We’re always thinking about how to get into an emotional state, moment by moment, and how to bring as much of the audience along with us [as possible],” he says. In nearly all of Aronofsky’s films, the celebrated director has used a variety of motion picture tools and effects to tap into a panoply of human emotions (although it seems apparent that Aronofsky’s tendencies slant toward the emotions of anxiety, fear and paranoia). 

Motion picture music and sound effects are also proven ways that movies can provoke emotional responses in the brain, triggering feelings and moods just as music and sound effects without visuals do. So evocative are film scores and scenes set to songs that movie soundtracks are a not-insignificant category of music unto themselves. When sonic content is combined with intense visuals and a memorable, relatable narrative, a powerful message delivery system is created.

The Power of Influence Needs to Be Wielded Responsibly

To sum up, movies have had and continue to have a great effect on society. At the same time, films are often a product of their time and the cultural phenomena that are extant when they get made. Sometimes both of these cases are true at once of the same movie, and the question then arises whether art is simply imitating life or vice versa. Certainly, audiences (society) and filmmakers should be equally aware of the power of film to influence hearts and minds, and it’s up to filmmakers especially to wield that influence responsibly.

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