For a while now, I have been trying to put my finger on the moment film crosses the line from thought-provoking art to propaganda. Propaganda, in its historical sense, seems to apply mainly from the 20th century onward, from Nazi propagandists like Leni Riefenstahl, and the use of various kinds of visual art by authoritarian or totalitarian governments. For my limited purpose here, I want to define propaganda as an attempt to manipulate political or religious positions by means of a work of art. The difficulty, of course, is that every artist has something that he or she wants to “say” by means of the art.
So when does that art cross the line into an attempt to exercise power, politically or religiously? It has become a boiled-down truism of post-modern theory that everyone is engaged in some kind of power grab. Every assertion, every discussion, every exercise of any kind of power or authority means that there is less of that power or authority for someone else. Hence the constant struggle to gain, keep, or regain power.
Some people view art, and for my purposes, specifically film, as a means to gain power for a formerly powerless individual or group. In this context, there are two uses of propaganda: one use is to keep power; to emphasize the rationale for the assertion of power by a political state. The other use is to undermine the state’s power and gain power for a marginalized group. But both uses are concerned with power: who has it, and who wants it. And they are both concerned as well with characterizing their opponents in a certain way, as the evil to their good. It is a black-and-white alternative and the observer is called upon to choose between them. On which side will you put yourself?
If this is true of propaganda, that it is a power play either on the part of those who currently have power, or on the part of those who would like to seize that power, then maybe therein is a general, working definition for us to use in considering the artistic benefit of a given film. (I think there is also a necessary discussion about what makes something “good,” which requires a clear sense of the goal at which one is aiming, since the good has to be aiming at the Good—which it cannot do if there is no understanding of what that Good end is.)
If such a film is an attempt to exercise power by flattening out human motives so that “we” are good and “they” are evil, I would say that it is, by definition, bad art. In this sense, nearly every political quarrel (rarely does it rise to the level of actual argument) and every social media post engaged on one side or another is propaganda. “We” already agree with the “right side” against “them,” who—inexplicably and irrationally, or else intentionally malicious—agree with some other, “wrong” side. Perhaps our intractable social polarization (at least on the internet) is connected to our inability to experience art over a period of time. Instead, we want quickly consumable and digestible bites/bytes that we can then use against our opponents.
I am not casting aspersions on people who want to watch black-and-white, good-guys-and-bad-guys movies. Sometimes I don’t want to think too hard or try to figure out who is bad and who is good. I don’t want complicated people (as they are in real life!). I want something like Taken, where Liam Neeson’s character, in spite of character flaws, tells us what he is going to do and then he does it. There are not really any surprises in the plot. He says he is going to rescue his daughter, killing anyone who gets in his way, and then he does it. That’s pretty much it.
But as with the film I wrote about last week, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, sometimes I want a film that refuses to bend to my own experience or expectations. When it comes to meaning, in a deeper sense, film as art is best when it is like life: we recognize what is going on, and it connects with us at some level, but to summarize it is damaging to the experience of actually watching it (or living it). Somewhere Flannery O’Connor mentions requests people have made to her to explain what a story “means.” But to “explain” what a story “means” trivializes it and makes it disposable. If a person can be easily told what the art means, of what use is the actual art? Why have the art at all, because the meaning is, presumably, readily available without it?
Again, it is not that there is no meaning, or even that meaning is difficult to come by, in the movie. It is that to distill any valuable artistic creation down to its “meaning” is to cheapen it. And watching something that resists our attempts at distillation can teach us to think differently about what art is for and what it does (even, yes, how it changes us) when we experience it.