Urban Cinefile
"One guy was shaking head looking pissed off. Another guy was quietly chuckling to himself - "  -Mike Figgis recalls pitching Time Code to Sony studio execs
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet  

Search SEARCH FOR A FORUM
Our Review Policy OUR REVIEW POLICY
Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE

Help/Contact

A HUNDRED YEARS, A MILLION MILES: PART 3

Film As Social Model
The final essay on the impact of cinema in its century as an art form.
By Hunter Cordaiy

(Dedicated to Samuel Fuller; 1911-1997)

The social influence of cinema is a major topic and this column is a reflection on some of the ideas this issue generates - how have movies taught us to be men and women, to doubt the justice system, and fight for our country? With hindsight, we insist film-makers be responsible for their images but for much of cinemas' history the consciousness of concern was not present.

"One of the most powerful forms of social modelling"

In the history of our century one of the most powerful forms of social modelling has been the depiction of lives on the screen. These models have been copied, envied, censored - but always have found themselves at the social centre of change.

In film history there is the often quoted statistic to support the notion of film as an essential form of escapism, that the highest number of movie tickets ever sold was during the great depression. That hungry and unemployed people made a choice often between a bowl of soup and a movie ticket. Many of these films had show business as their subject – the Gold-Digger series, and musicals from studios such as RKO which helped create an idealised world, and idealised relationships between men and women, the family and a wider society. Nowhere other than magazine culture, can a series of socially conservative models of relationships be found.

Through the star system the attributes of women and men were managed so that a set of values was repeatedly presented on screen which audiences were encouraged to admire. The life of movie stars was supported by the off-screen publicity machine. No effort was spared to present a portrait of a life worth emulating – yet we now know that the life of stars is often tragic - either cut short by accidents, as in the case of beauties like Jayne Mansfield, or tortured for years by a double life like Rock Hudson.

"Voyeuristically attracted to the darker deaths of Babylon"

The life of stars has been paraded in books like Hollywood At Home, and desecrated in Kenneth Angers’ Babylon series. We, like the audiences for the past century, are voyeuristically attracted to the darker deaths of Babylon, revelling in the opened closet which destroys the hetero-hunk myth of some actors. The manipulation of them and us was complete, and remains so today with no lessening in speculation about Julia Robert's unhappy marriage or Jodie Foster's sexual preferences.

That this seems to matter at all is a sad reflection on the incredible pettiness of general social values which would fit perfectly into the Lilliput politics of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

"The screen has literally altered the way a generation sees its world"

When cinema has been adopted as a medium for truth telling, it is capable of changing consciousness on an individual and collective scale – from Claude Lanzman's Shoa or Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity to D W Griffith's Intolerance, the screen has literally altered the way a generation sees its world.

It is truly remarkable that the same audience which was persuaded that Lauren Bacall could whistle Bogart into submission was also capable of believing in the essential goodness of small town America in It's A Wonderful Life.

Rather than being at the mercy of shysters, honest town folk had Jimmy Stewart to look after their savings, and more importantly share their belief in a socially tolerant humanity. These ideals were echoed in many languages, and the two masterpieces of Jean Renoir -Le Grand Illusion and La Regle de Jour, are testimony to the potential of the moving image to engage with ideas beyond nationality and specific political causes.

"Film is like a battleground"

There are many ways to get the message across, and Sam Fuller's films are indeed battlegrounds with a deceptively conventional appearance. His work is exactly as he described it in Godard's Pierrot le Fou.

"The film is like a battleground - love, hate, action, violence, death; in one word, emotion."

Fuller's films are some of the most brash, energetic, tabloid stories ever presented on screen, yet they undeniably reveal to us the troubled moral core of our social system - why it fights and kills, whom it loves or can't, and what governing rules might (only might) keep it together.

The director of Underworld USA, Pick-up On South Street, Shock Corridor, Verboten and The Naked Kiss, presents a world view that is brutal in its assessment of American society just as was Norman Mailer at his best, a writer with whom Fuller is often compared. Both men belong to a rich period in storytelling, when the film and the novel were seen as capable of shaping social attitudes in fundamental ways.

Whilst some contemporary films might attempt to do this, Dead Man Walking for example, there are few films as compelling and insightful about the jury system as Twelve Angry Men, or even the slightly perverse Wrong Man. In terms of war, I would make the same claim for The Big Red One, Fuller's last great film.

"Soldiers are called to their death by numbers"

The Big Red One details the waste of human life which war wrecks upon a generation. This is savagely shown in the Omaha Beach sequence when the young marines, under the war weary guidance of their Sergeant, played by Lee Marvin, must blow a hole in enemy barbed wire by carrying a long pipe filled with explosives up an exposed beach under enemy fire. The young soldiers are called to their death by numbers. Fuller repeats the sequence 11 times, until the 11th soldier, at last, completes the task.

It was Fuller's style, which so openly depicts the sheer waste of so many lives, which instantly attracted the budding directors of the French New Wave. Fuller made films quickly and cheaply, yet with an impact often greater than more expensive films. He would never have made Dirty Harry films, for example, because the Clint Eastwood character was too certain that he was in the right, too convinced that crime could be wiped out by virtually vigilante action. Fuller's characters were aware of the moral balance they needed to maintain (there are several sequences in The Big Red One when soldiers insist they kill rather than murder the enemy).

Ultimately, Fuller's work uses all of society as an experimental model, dissecting and probing into the entrails of individuals caught up in action and motion far greater than their singular lives. He took on most topics and genres - the western, the asylum, gangsters - and made the same assessment in each about the human condition. The extent of his idealism is that someone might survive - with luck - the dangers of life, relatively unscarred.

"Complexity as a necessary way of life"

The effect of his films on the belief of audiences in their own capacity to control their destiny is immense. We might prefer the cosy, wonderful life depicted by Jimmy Stewart, or the fascist certainty of Rambo, because they give us clear structures of belief - the world is good or not. Fuller's model is more complex, where weakness and strength compete with fear and ambition, for dominance in individual and collective experience. Ultimately the great gift of his films is to project that complexity as a necessary way of life.

Email this article


The Band Wagon



"He would never have made Dirty Harry films, because the Clint Eastwood character was too certain that he was in the right, too convinced that crime could be wiped out by virtually vigilante action."


"We now know that the life of stars is often tragic - either cut short by accidents, as in the case of beauties like Jayne Mansfield, or tortured for years by a double life like Rock Hudson."



"There are many ways to get the message across, and Sam Fuller's films are indeed battlegrounds with a deceptively conventional appearance."



Scar Face Mob



Shock Corridor

"The director of Underworld USA, Pick-up On South Street, Shock Corridor, Verboten and The Naked Kiss, presents a world view that is brutal in its assessment of American society"


Verboten







© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2017