Film, Propaganda, and the Human Condition

Almost everyone hated high school. Why? Well, at that age, kids are busy trying, with the limited resources they have, given their youth and inexperience, to separate from their parents and to figure out or to create who they are, as independent creatures. Doing this is really difficult. High-schoolers are, after all, still kids, though in almost-adult bodies, which is confusing enough in itself. The sociologist Erik Erikson called this period in people’s lives the Identity Stage, and what kids go through at that age the Identity Crisis. According to Erikson, this life stage begins at about 12 years (middle school) and continues through about the age of 18 (the end of high school).

So, in middle school and high school, kids are still amorphous, though they want to be greatness chiseled in stone, and they are often mean to one another because this makes them feel better in comparison. The Germans have a name for this. They call it Schadenfreude. The folksinger Arlo Guthrie makes fun of this tendency among people in his Alice’s Restaurant, in which he invites his audience to think about someone who is worse off and then to think of the person who is worse off than that guy and then to think about The Last Guy, the one who has no one for whom he or she might feel schadenfreude, whom he or she might feel better than. Here’s what playwright Oscar Wilde said about Schadenfreude: after the successful opening of one of his plays, there was an after party. When Wilde entered the room, everyone turned and clapped. Wilde told them that he was moved to tears because “Anybody can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend’s success.” In other words, the professional cynic (scratch a cynic and you find a Romantic) Mr. Wilde believed that people would rather see you fail because they can then feel better about themselves in comparison. Humor typically works because it touches on and treats lightly something difficult or disturbing. In our time, an academic industry has sprung up in happiness studies. One thing that these researchers have discovered is that people’s happiness about their own success has very little relation to their absolute success but, rather, their success relative to those whom they know and associate with. Yeah, but my car is nicer than his is.

So, the middle- and high-school kids engage in Schadenfreude. I may not be the prettiest or the smartest or the most talented or the sexist or the most athletic, but that person is worse off. The Stephen King film Carrie, in which the title character takes revenge on her cruel classmates (there is an entire genre of such films) is basically what people would now recognize as being indistinguishable from a film about a high-school shooter, except that the main character is, shockingly, the one the audience is rooting for and approves of. Everyone else, just about, gets slaughtered, but from the audience POV, they had it coming.

Films are excellent propaganda vehicles because the POV and emotions of the audience are so easily manipulable by filmmakers. This is why both Lenin and Hitler, among their first official acts, established film studios. Lenin had Sergei Eisenstein to make propaganda films like The Battleship Potemkin and October. Hitler had Helene Bertha Amalie “Leni” Riefenstahl to make films like Triumph of the Will, with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (recently reincarnated as Stephen Miller, Propaganda Minister of the Don the Con misadministration) to write the script and architect Albert Speer to stage it. An excellent book could be written about why, exactly, audiences are so easily manipulatable by films, but this essay is not that book.

The Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci brilliantly exploited this propagandistic power of film in his movie 1900, which opens with an elderly man and woman being chased by a mob wielding pitchforks and scythes. The audience is aghast at the mob and rooting for the old people to escape. At the end of the film, the exact same scene is repeated, but the audience has seen the old couple being horrible—being collaborators with the Nazis—and this time the audience roots not for the elderly couple but for the mob.

Control of POV is the most powerful tool in the filmmaker’s toolkit. One of the beauties of film (and of first-person or limited third-person narratives generally) is that it can extend human sympathies by enabling us to see through the eyes of a character different from the viewer. That’s why a film like El Norte can powerfully move an audience to care about asylum-seeking refuges and why something like the television program Will and Grace probably did more to advance the cause of LGBTQX rights in the United States than did all the Act Up pride events, as awesome as those were, ever staged. However, this power that the film auteur has to manipulate audiences by controlling their POV has its dark side. The POV presented can be that of a truly horrible person—a Hitler, for example, or a Trump. Consider, for example, the jingoistic nationalistic “patriotism” of the Marvel Comic Universe films, ideal for molding children into the next generation of cannon fodder, or the satire of the same in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. The United States today, under Trump, and yesterday, under Bush, Jr., is so inclined toward fascist ways of thinking that many U.S. viewers of Verhoeven’s film don’t even get that it is a satire.

All of which raises an interesting issue. Our basic ontological situation in this life is that my mind is over here and your mind is over there, and we do not see the world from the Other’s POV. However, all the most beautiful things that people do—teaching, mentoring, nurturing children, conversing, negotiating agreements, making love, creating art (such as writing essays)—is about bridging that ontological gap.

Years ago, I wrote a short story about an alien race, from a water world, called the Oosmoolie. In the story, the Oosmoolie stumble upon another water world that used to be called Earth and slowly piece together the fact that the planet was once inhabited by intelligent land creatures who destroyed their world via climate change. In the story, the Oosmoolie are tentacled, octopus-like creatures who can attach tentacles and thereby join their nervous systems with one another and directly experience the Other’s subjective states or, rather, a melding of those states. I was surprised when I saw the director James Cameron had borrowed this idea for his blue alien creatures in the film Avatar and wondered whether he had read my short story in a textbook when he was younger.

I suspect that we would all be better off if we had the capability of the Oosmoolie, though at first, experiencing what people are ACTUALLY feeling and thinking and experiencing might be pretty frightening. This would be like the ultimate Panopticon.

Years ago, I started dating a woman who told me that she hated actors because they were so phony, which was a problem because, well, I had spent years as an actor. But I thought she had it all wrong. As Stanislavski and Uta Hagen and others of the Method Acting school taught, acting well is all about taking on the person of another, about Being someone else rather than about playing at or pretending to be someone else. So, acting well should extend the range of one’s human sympathies.

Copyright 2020. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd about film, go here:

For more pieces on Don the Con, aka Vlad’s Agent Orange, aka the Moronavirus trumpinski orangii, aka the Don, Cheeto “Little Fingers” Trumpbalone, go here:


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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