Over the holidays, I came across a curious piece called “Can Tear-Jerkers Turn You to Liberal?” on a UK website. The article focused on a Notre Dame professor whose research, based on a study of 268 students, suggests that “Hollywood movies are better able to change attitudes — in a left-wing direction — than advertising or news reports.”
Braced for yet another enervating homily on the corrupting power of the liberal media, I read on. Professor Todd Adkins showed his test subjects two films, which (I can only conclude) he and his fellow researchers deemed “liberal.” Prior to the screenings, the students were queried about their political views. The results of that question identified half of them as “politically conservative.” But then the movies began to roll, and behold! The “researchers noted a leftward shift in attitudes after the participants saw a film with a liberal message.”
After identifying the two “test” films as “The Rainmaker” and “As Good as It Gets,” the article drolly noted, “It emerged this week that the FBI considered ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ to be sympathetic to communism when it came out in 1946.”
I howled with delight after reading that. Then I realized that J. Edgar and his cronies were not entirely deluded in their paranoia about the influence of the movies. Millennia earlier, Plato considered poets and artists real dangers to his Republic. One can imagine him nearly apoplectic about moviemakers. The same goes for Dante who, some 1,600 years later, had one of his condemned sinners in hell blame her plight on a naughty book.
Movies can indeed move us, though not necessarily to the left. One need go no further than the very beginnings of film for what is perhaps the single best cautionary example of the influential power of the then-new entertainment (and artistic) phenomenon. “Birth of a Nation” (1915), directed by D.W. Griffith (often called the “Father of Film”) and screened at Woodrow Wilson’s White House (the first motion picture to be shown there), was directly responsible for the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization not exactly on the vanguard of liberalism.
Back to the Notre Dame study — I can’t help but wonder about the choice of “liberal” movies foisted upon the unsuspecting subjects. It would be interesting to have gauged their reactions to films like “Boys Don’t Cry” or “Brokeback Mountain,” or this year’s cause célèbre, the French lesbian drama, “Blue Is the Warmest Colour.” Would the “politically conservative” viewers have gone all fuzzy-wuzzy after the lights came up?
I don’t think so — certainly not most ordinary viewers. Most people want “to escape to the movies” and enjoy themselves without thinking about whatever realities might lie beyond the silver screen. They want the movies to make them safe and comfortable in their own particular fantasies, public or private. That’s not to say that sometimes those fantasies won’t be shattered, for better or worse.
Plato and Dante were no fools. Neither was D.W. Griffith.