By Ira Wells
Do movies affect our perceptions of reality? University of Calgary students Ira Wells and Jordan Petty spoke with Dr. Malek Khouri, a Communications and Culture professor and the U of C’s Film Studies Coordinator, about their thoughts on sexuality, war and the profit motive in Hollywood.
Ira Wells: Pierre Trudeau once said that the state has no place in the nation’s bedrooms. Films, though, are definitely in people’s bedrooms–do you think that movies influence sexuality, and sexual practices?
Dr. Malek Khouri: Well I think films do change things in society, particularly in terms of how people think, and how people appreciate certain cultural realities around them. But at the same time I don’t think that film determines what kinds of ideas people have. Film, like other aspects of popular culture and popular artifacts, contribute to the formation of peoples’ thinking and how they react to certain issues. They popularize certain ideas, and they depopularize other ideas. In that context, one could argue that, eventually, ideological perspectives are created with the significant input of cinema–including the ideological perspective of sexual politics.
Jordan Petty: Are you saying that film might take an idea lurking below the surface of the popular consciousness and explode it onto the main stage? Like what The Crying Game did for transgender issues?
Khouri: There are different kinds of films, to begin with. There are films that try to tackle issues head on-including recent political problems, or a sexual preoccupation of the moment. So in that sense, films that deal directly with contemporary issues seem to have more influence in changing minds and attitudes. In more general terms, I think that cinema as we know it tends to work itself out–instead of consciously changing people’s minds–by reflecting currents in social thinking that are most popular among people. The main concern of film in today’s world, under our current economic structures, is making money. And to make money you have to be in sync with the popular trends that exist in society.
Petty: So the artistic merit or political views that a film might possibly espouse are hijacked by capitalist profit motive.
Khouri: Film, as a commodity, is forced to abide by the rules of commodification–among which are the dynamics of making profit. That doesn’t mean that every film is totally motivated by profit, of course. There are many independent filmmakers and even filmmakers in Hollywood who can afford to make films from their own perspective, without the overwhelming preoccupation of making money. One example might be Warren Beatty, whose recent films present a very sharp oppositional political view that is largely disagreeable to corporate Hollywood. Yet, his work continues to be an important component of Hollywood film production based on the recognized and well-established talent and respect Beatty has among the general public.
Wells: Looking at a list of the top-50 grossing films of all time, I noticed that only seven were rated "R." Not to suggest that you can’t make a good film for children–but do you think it’s telling that by far the majority of our films are targeted at children, and made with children in mind… in terms of both content and intelligence?
Khouri: To begin with, that’s not new. Hollywood is conscious of the need to attract the highest number of people to the theatre, and eliminating a large chunk of the population–those under 18–has always been a concern. Hollywood has addressed this by making films that are not "R" rated and by making films of a low intellectual level of sophistication. These are films that might appeal to 13 or 14-year-old kids, rather than a more sophisticated audience.
Wells: Would you say that to make a successful film, you should also make a dumb film?
Khouri: In many ways this is how Hollywood ends up making most of its films. And in many ways, it works that way. R-rated films, for example, limit the number of people who attend them, and Hollywood is more wary of producing such films.
Petty: Is the cultural production coming out of Hollywood right now in any way a reflection of the intelligence and norms of our culture right now?
Khouri: The kind of bastardization of issues that we see in many films reflect the way many people in North America look at certain political issues–without any consideration of their complexities. A film like Black Hawk Down, for example, indicates how Hollywood appeals to the least sophisticated understanding of issues of war and peace, by simply looking at the world in terms of black and white, us and them.
Wells: Would you call Black Hawk Down propaganda?
Khouri: Oh, most certainly. I would have no hesitation calling it propaganda. It’s the kind of propaganda that is appealing today–the topic of war, the topic of "us and them," of "go kick ass," is very popular. Hollywood knows how to use this atmosphere for its own benefit… the dynamics involved with the rise in propaganda are always connected with a certain political moment in history, and whether that political moment requires an intervention by Hollywood to support the establishment’s political agenda of the day. This was done in Hollywood in the 1950s with the Cold War, it was done in films supporting the Vietnam War, and it is being done today in relation to what’s happening in Afghanistan, and by extension, the entire Middle East.
Wells: Are there any films that, in your opinion, just shouldn’t have been made? That they are so ignorant, and detrimental to the popular mind, that they should never have been funded?
Khouri: It would be hard for me to say that any film shouldn’t have been made. Our role should be to help people develop their own critical thinking when looking at popular films. I would be opposed to censoring anybody, including those whose politics I would not agree with, or with the artistic merits of their work.
Petty: On the issue of censorship: consider the case of John Robin Sharpe, the child pornographer whose writings were violent and sexual in nature. A B.C. judge ruled they had artistic merit… say Sharpe wanted to make a film involving these fantasies-how would you respond to that?
Khouri: Well, on principle, I’m against any kind of censorship. I don’t think that any government or any society has the right to tell people how they’re supposed to be thinking, and how they are supposed to be talking about issues, or their own fantasies, for that matter. I would be open to all kinds of self-expression, as long as they don’t harm people, as long as they don’t advocate violence, or hatred of any kind.
Wells: What film would you recommend people see, right now?
Khouri: I think everyone should see No Man’s Land. It’s a film that, instead of glorifying war, reminds us of how ugly war is, and how destructive war can be. The issues raised in the film are very relevant to us today.