The Cinema as a Social Influence
When I talk of the cinema being taken seriously, I mean, of course, taken seriously as a social influence: we are not at this time concerned with the status of the motion-picture either as art or entertainment, though I would assert that it deserves careful attention in those spheres also. (Incidentally, without wishing to start an argument about definitions, I prefer to speak of the social, rather than the sociological, influence of the cinema.)
Again, when I say it is important that the cinema should now be taken seriously, I mean, of course, taken seriously by such people as yourselves. There has never been much question about its being taken seriously by those who make money from it, or in another way by the ordinary rank-and-file of filmgoers. Yet until fairly recently those who are interested in the social sciences have, in general, tended to neglect the motion-picture as a subject for careful study. For example, I would think it highly unlikely that 15 years ago, or even 12, a conference of the Royal Society in New Zealand—or perhaps anywhere else—would have deigned to notice the subject to the extent that you are doing.
So this very fact that you have invited me to present a paper on the influence of the cinema upon society is, in a sense, the core of the paper which I wish to present to you. Here, one might well argue, is proof that the cinema has a social, or if you like, a sociological influence, since it has clearly influenced even the sociologists. Yet you are, of course, not alone in this. Probably because it is my special territory, I am more aware of the development than the average person, but surely nobody can have failed to notice that the film is now receiving widespread attention as something more than just a cheap and easy, and often pleasant, form of entertainment. Even in New Zealand a few of our daily papers are at last beginning to permit fairly frank reviews of current shows; and it is, in these days, difficult to keep pace with all the books, pamphlets and pronouncements which are being issued on the film-on its technical aspects, its commercial importance, its artistic possibilities, its use and misuse in education, its social influence, and so on. In the same week last month as I found Kingsley Martin reviewing, to the extent of a full page in The New Statesman, three new books on the film, the Bishop of London was reported in our daily papers as attacking the Hollywood film for being a potent factor in the increase of the divorce-rate; and county councils and education authorities in Britain were demanding a full investigation of Mr. Rank's Saturday cinema clubs for children. In this same week also I managed to get hold of the first issue of the new quarterly which Penguin Books are bringing out devoted to the film—the Penguin Film Review—as well as a new book on the factual film published by the Oxford Press, and a book called Sociology of Film, by J. P. Mayer. It was in this week also that I came across an editorial in the trade paper, Motion Picture Herald, in which occurred the significant admission—significant because made by an important member of the film trade—that the motion picture has, within the memory of many of us, grown from a cheap-jack side-show “attraction” into a complex of intellectual, cultural, social (and maybe anti-social) values. And finally, it was during these same busy seven days, I think, that I heard the first of a series of talks
about the film and society being given from one of our National radio stations; that I studied UNESCO's ambitious programme for the film in the field of mass-communication; that I was beginning to remind myself that I had accepted this invitation from the Royal Society and had better start writing something; and that my attention was drawn to a special advertising campaign now being conducted by the film trade in our daily papers and periodicals—what they call institutional advertising, I believe—designed to boost not any particular film but the film-going habit in general.
Now in every one of the cases I have just mentioned there was recognition of, and emphasis on, the film as a medium for mass-influence. What the Bishop of London said was, of course, nothing new; we are used to these pronouncements by prelates, education boards, judges, and magistrates on the evil effects of film-going. As for the advertising campaign by the film people, it is a special case but an interesting one, its purpose being in part, I imagine, to counteract the unfavourable criticism which the movies are more and more receiving from various quarters. That the film trade considers it necessary in New Zealand to spend money like this suggests that it feels its position to be threatened in some way.
What we are seeing now, in fact, is an attempt—not necessarily a wholly conscious or deliberate one—on the part of the intellectuals who once despised it and the scientists, educators, and social reformers who once ignored it, to rescue the cinema from the rank commercialism of the men who created it, who have reared it, and who now dominate it. And I believe there is a chance that the attempt may, to some slight extent, succeed. For whereas the intellectuals, the educators, the social reformers and the rest are now fairly united in the conviction that the community can no longer afford to allow this powerful medium of mass-influence to remain almost entirely in the hands of a comparatively few private exploiters, with the State exercising no control over it other than is permitted by a few purely technical regulations regarding safety in theatres, censorship, and so on—whereas this is the situation on the one hand, the controllers of the industry are by no means as single-minded or as arrogant as they once were in resisting the demand for higher standards and greater variety, for more public control and for a more critical approach by the community.
It is still true, of course, that the dominating urge of the film industry is to make money—as much money as possible, as easily and quickly as possible. So it still seeks to reduce popular taste to its lowest common denominator, and to cater for it on that level; it desires uniformity and so discourages minority differences and preferences. It does this for the simple reason that if you have a community of, say, three million people in which two million want one type of picture and one million want another, a film producer has to make two different films to satisfy them, whereas it is much more profitable for him if he can persuade the whole three million to accept the same kind of film. And this process of levelling down taste for the sake of profits is one which extends beyond sectional likes and dislikes to national preferences; so that we find Mr. Rank trying to make British films which will appeal equally to American audiences—and incidentally running the risk of ruining British films as a result—while everyone knows that Hollywood, as its world market has opened up, has sought constantly to produce films which will appeal simultaneously to typists in London and New York, shop-girls in Paris, artisans in Norway, waterside-workers in New Zealand, and cowboys in the Argentine. As Kingsley Martin has put it, “We are all much alike between our knees and our navels; there is more profit in the appeal to universal appetites than to the artistic, social, or intellectual interests of smaller groups.”
This desire on the part of film magnates to appeal to everybody at the same time is the real explanation why there is as yet virtually no separate production of special films for children outside of Russia.
At the same time, as I may have rather allowed myself to be diverted from saying, the situation is now not wholly unfavourable for an attempt on the part of the more intelligent and responsible people in the community to tone down, at least in some small degree, the worst effects of the film industry's commercial set-up and cultural poverty—illustrated at its very lowest level by the atrocious taste displayed in a Wellington theatre advertisement a few weeks ago which directly linked a local murder with some coming film. On the
one hand we have those who are alive to the situation as never before, on the other hand the industry—facing a growing public awareness of what the film can and should do—is becoming a little unsure of itself. If the industry were utterly ruthless and united, the situation might well be hopeless; but the industry, if it cannot be moved by an appeal to reason may at least be touched by an appeal to its vanity—or even to its better nature. For the industry, after all, is not exactly an entity in itself, it consists of individuals, and as individuals the men in it—or at least some of them—have yearnings to be thought worthy citizens. They are troubled by the jibes at their sordid commercialism; they like to emphasise every now and then that the film is not merely an industry, but also an art, as much as the stage is an art; and therefore they are at some pains to assure the public that they are interested in minds as well as bodies (that remark of Kingsley Martin's which I have just quoted about the appeal of the cinema to a restricted portion of the human anatomy would, I imagine, annoy the average film magnate greatly).
In brief, while the film industry continues to want to make all the money at can, it is increasingly anxious to justify itself and to be thought well of by all sections of the community, including the better-educated sections. These two objectives are, in my view, not compatible; and it is through the fact that the industry is developing an inferiority complex about its commercialism that I believe the most effective opportunity exists for challenging that commercialism.
There is an additional factor which makes Hollywood uneasy about its future—and more particularly about the future of its world-wide empire. And that is the growth, or in some cases the revival, of vigorous national film industries in many parts of the world—in South America, in Czechoslovakia, in Denmark, in Italy, of course in Britain, and even to some extent in Greece and Egypt. Except in the case of Czechoslovakia, where films are now wholly a State venture, these national industries are, of course, frankly commercial in their motives; but I think it would be true to say, even of Britain and Mr. Rank, that they are on the whole not so blatantly commercial as Hollywood. To the extent anyway that they are indigenous manifestations of national culture, they are to be welcomed as a healthy reaction against the present general mediocrity of the American film.
So when one looks at the over-all situation; when one takes into account the aims of UNESCO in the international sphere of the cinema; when one notices the vigorous development of the non-commercial documentary movement, the rise of national film industries, the spread of the 16mm. film and the Film Society movement; when one notices also the expansion, even in this country, of genuine film criticism in the press, the acknowledgment in many quarters that film appreciation deserves a place in the school syllabus, the growing public awareness and distrust of monopoly practices in the film business, and the increasing concern which is felt by sociologists, educationists, politicians, and the Church regarding the influence of the cinema; and when one adds to this the fact that Hollywood is internally troubled by its own inferiority-complex—and it may even be by some stirrings of conscience—when all these factors are taken into account, it surely becomes clear that Hollywood's structure is being subjected to fairly considerable stresses and strains. Indeed, I think it is not going too far to suggest that we are at last beginning to see the first real signs of the breaking up of the absolute sovereignty of Hollywood. And I do not disguise the fact that I welcome this, just as I welcome the indications that, although at its lowest level public taste in films remains very bad, there is nevertheless a greater stratification of taste than before, with a consequent demand that films should show a wider variation in quality as well as type to satisfy picture goers at different cultural levels.
It would, however, greatly help all those who are concerned to encourage and hasten this process if there were more concrete evidence than is at present available to show just how real, how widespread and diversified, and how serious is the influence of the film upon society. There is no lack of voices, some of them authoritative, to assert that such an influence exists, and I would not for one moment want to deny tht general validity of their conclusions. For example, I am thinking of the statement by Samuel Lowry in Man and His Fellowmen (London, 1944) that “I know of hardly any other device or cultural institution of the present day that plays so important a part in the mental
processes governing the masses as the cinema.” This writer goes on to assert that the vicarious satisfaction of sexual and aggressive tendencies constitutes the main gift which the movies are able to present to audiences, on a scale apparently not approached by anything else yet known in social history. But while it may be acknowledged that such vicarious satisfaction has its usefulness, there is a poisonous factor implicit in it, for the reason that screen-plays mostly present solutions which are far from being real possibilities. “They may satisfy the psyche for a few hours, operating in the manner of alcohol or a sedative drug, but they may also drop into the mind of the beholder the additional seed of the desire for the unattainable, instead of solving the difficulty.”
Then there is the corroborative evidence of J. P. Mayer, whose new book, Sociology of Film, I have already mentioned. Though not in my opinion wholly satisfactory, for reasons on which I need not now dwell, this is a very important work in its field. According to Mayer, the modern cinema has a mass appeal which can be compared only with the classic theatre of Athens and the Roman circus. “The modern cinema,” he says, “alone has a universal audience. Yet where are the social philosophers to-day who reflect on the norms which guide and underlie the contemporary film? We leave it to the financial holders of this most powerful Art-industry to decide what the public wants… The spiritual dictatorship of the modern cinema is more powerful than the dictatorship of Hitler because it is less obvious, hidden in the vast machinery of the modern large-scale industry.”
I could go on quoting other equally challenging statements by other writers, but there is surely no need. From the time of Lenin, with his dictum in 1918 that the cinema is “for us the most important of all the arts,” right up to the present day, the power of the film medium to mould men's thoughts and behaviour has been widely enough acknowledged. My point is, however, that these statements about the social influence of the cinema are, for the most part, generalisations. They may be, and probably are, true; but the background of genuine, scientific research on which they should be based is, on the whole, lacking, or where it exists is out-of-date or inadequate or does not necessarily apply to local conditions. Even Mayer, whose forthright and gloomy conclusions are, in fact, founded on a considerable amount of documentary evidence and close personal inquiry, is very conscious of this lack. It is, indeed, almost the main theme of his book. The Psychologists, he says, have offered some answer to the question “Why do millions of people go to the movies?” (that is, in order to seek escape, vicarious satisfaction, and so on), but the sociologists have so far done little to answer the allied question, “What is the effect of films on people's minds and behaviour?”
Mayer's two chief conclusions in this direction, which may be worth noting here, are that (1) Wherever he lives the personality of the average individual is shaped by the films he sees, and (2) The majority of the films we see are pernicious to our nervous systems. With regard to the first, Mayer points out that although the average picture goer may pretend to himself that seeing a film helps him to discover his own personality, by a process of self-realisation, in fact his personality conforms to a type of film star; the world, as a result, is full of poor imitations of Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Laurence Olivier or whoever is the popular idol of the moment. “This process (according to Mayer) must ultimately lead, and has already led, to a pauperisation of the human race which is terrifying.” My own comments on this are that the cinema, if properly handled, could be a most potent force for good in the international sphere, since it could do much to produce a world outlook; but that this end is to be achieved by preserving and encouraging whatever is healthy and characteristic in the culture of different nations, and not by the film industry's method of trying to make all films conform to the same standard pattern, and so iron out the individual differences of human beings.
However, in passing I think it should be pointed out that although the effect of the cinema may be to destroy individuality in the way just mentioned, its own stress is all on the virtues of individual enterprise, particularly in the fields of money-making and love-making. And while it is always rash for the critic to turn prophet, especially in such company as that in which I now find myself, I am willing to predict that this stress on rugged individualism is going to become even greater. The present swing to the Right politically in the United States, the present heresy-hunt directed against anyone suspected of
so-called un-American activities or sympathies, is bound to be reflected by Hollywood, we shall be seeing the effects, I am sure, in the form of more and more films extolling the American way of life even more blatantly than is the case at present and, either explicitly or by implication, decrying the opposing philosophies and standards of value of socialism and public ownership. America, will not, I think, hesitate to use her films as an instrument of her foreign policy.
You may choose to regard that, and almost everything else I have been saying and quoting for the past five to ten minutes as nothing but surmise or, at best, as theory inadequately supported by facts. Yet while, as I have said, I am fully aware that it is risky to generalise and theorise in this way in the presence of social scientists, how in point of fact can I do otherwise? How, for that matter, can anybody do otherwise at this moment, especially in this country? We may, I think, safely accept it as an established fact that the cinema has a social influence; but I cannot tell you satisfactorily, and I very much doubt if anybody else can either, just what is the extent of that influence or how powerfully it operates in various departments of human activity. Just how much, for example, does the cinema mould our standards of value and our behaviour patterns; what precisely is its effect on the emotional life of its audiences, and on their political attitudes; how much are their tastes in reading and music based on what they see and hear at the movies; to what degree is their international outlook, coloured by Hollywood? And so on. Those, I think it will be agreed, are all of them important questions. But we can, at the moment, do little more than guess at the answers to most of them. It would seem that the influence of the screen upon speech and vocabulary is fairly obvious, and also upon fashions in dress and in courtship. Yet even here there may be a need for care. Do many New Zealand women wear funny hats because they see them worn by their favourite film stars, or would they wear them anyway? Do some persons become crooners because they can't help themselves; or are they encouraged by Bing Crosby? Is it true, as is so often asserted, that boys and girls learn to kiss from seeing it done on the screen? After all, kissing is an old-established custom, of much greater antiquity than the cinema. In other words, to what extent do the films mould social conduct, and to what extent do they merely reflect it?
Those are, I hasten to admit, rather flippant and superficial observations. I make them to emphasise my point that nobody can be absolutely sure about almost any aspect of the cinema's influence upon us until a great deal of field, work has been done in the way of genuinely scientific social research—much more, that is, than has been done already. And some of it needs to be done here in New Zealand. Attendance statistics, which are available, indicate that we New Zealanders go to the films more frequently than anybody except the Americans; but there is virtually no equivalent information as to the effect which this national habit (or, if you like, vice) of picture-going has upon us.
You may perhaps be prepared to accept as basically true the conclusion reached by Dr. Leo Calvin Rosten, following an intensive inquiry into the internal structure of Hollywood, that it is the Film and not the School, Church, or Family that educates the masses; but it has to be remembered, as somebody has very properly pointed out, that this was an American inquiry and that it is by no means exactly certain that what the movies do to the U.S. they also do to Us. Some day, and I hope it will be fairly soon, the precise information necessary to pronounce judgment on this point may be made available to us by the social scientists—and they are the only persons who can properly do it; at the moment, however, anything said on the subject of the present influence of the cinema on us in New Zealand must remain largely in the realm of speculation.
And so long as this is the situation, those who wish to improve the cinema in various ways and to challenge the existing crude commercialism of the film industry must be considerably hampered in their efforts. The circumstances, as indicated earlier, may now be ripe for launching an offensive, but without this factual ammunition, its chances of success must be weakened from the start. For the film industry—if it ever got around to thinking of this—might well counter the offensive by saying “It is all very well to blame the movies for this and for that, but where is your actual evidence?” And it would not; be enough to reply that research carried out overseas indicates certain tendencies; for not only are most of those overseas surveys out of date and insufficiently
extensive, but it could also with justice be pointed out that conditions vary from country to country, and that findings for Great Britain and America cannot necessarily be assumed to apply to New Zealand. This is a weakness of which the film industry here might not be slow to take advantage.
At this point 1 would like to sound one note of warning. There is a danger that the cinema could be taken so seriously that its primary purpose as entertainment would be overlooked. Speaking as one who is unashamedly fond of films because of the enjoyment they can give, I think I would prefer the cinema to remain in its present state of retarded development rather than that, by going to the other extreme, we should destroy its liveliness and make it merely dull and solemn. I am all for scientific examination and even dissection, but not if it kills the patient.
Returning to the main line of argument, consider now the special problem of the cinema's influence on children. Nobody that I have heard of in this country—and I think I would have heard of it—has yet done the scientific groundwork of research which would enable it to be said with certainty that the vandalism and other forms of delinquency for which our children and youths are so frequently blamed to-day are the direct outcome of too frequent attendance at the wrong type of films. This may be the cause—and it has in some quarters become fashionable to say that it is—but the case is not proved one way or the other.
Obviously, however, any research worker who sets out to collect the necessary proof faces an enormous task. In the first place, it seems to me essential that all lines of inquiry into the influence of the cinema, irrespective of whether one is specially concerned with children or with adults, should stem from a searching and comprehensive analysis of the content of films. One hears much criticism of the “average film”—its unsuitability in this direction, its undesirability in that, its false emotionalism, and so on. But what, in fact, is the “average film,” what does it consist of, what actually are its salient characteristics? As Mayer puts it, “What is really important to the sociologist is the discovery and isolation of the implicit attitudes of a motion picture, the general assumptions on which are based the conduct of the characters, and the treatment of the situations of the plot.”
The only adequate analysis of the content of films which I know to exist was that carried out by Edgar Dale, of Ohio State University, as part of the Payne Fund studies on motion pictures and youth. Unfortunately, Mr. Dale's survey was published in 1935, and it was concerned with the films of the period between 1920 and 1931. Therefore his findings, valuable though they may still be in some respects, must on the whole be regarded now as very much out of date; for it is by no means likely—indeed, it is highly improbable—that the content of motion-pictures is the same now as it was 20 years ago. What is vitally needed, then, is an analysis of films of the present decade; and I can see no good reason why such a survey should not be carried out as effectively in New Zealand as in any other country. We are, after all, a particularly movie-minded community; a very wide selection of the films produced in the U.S.A. and Great Britain are shown here, so that there would be no lack of raw material; and the technique which Mr Dale evolved for his own analysis is probably still valid and could be applied to this new material. I therefore put forward the suggestion with some earnestness that this would be a very proper and very valuable field of research for some social scientist or group of social scientists in New Zealand, providing an indispensable foundation for subsequent inquiries into special aspects of the cinema, not only here but overseas as well, since the results of such an analysis would be applicable wherever American and British films are shown.
But to get back to the problem of the cinema in relation to the child, as distinct from the adult, and with particular reference to the cinema's alleged influence on child delinquency. Assuming that a basic survey along the lines suggested had taken place; that a wide range of films had been examined to see what the plots consisted of, what ideas about conduct and standards of value were put forward in them; how many films among the samples being dissected gave prominence to violence, or contained incitements to vandalism, or tips on how to commit other forms of law-breaking; and how many films on the other hand positively discouraged that sort of thing—assuming this basic knowledge, it would then be necessary to discover the
extent of the picture-going habit in children at certain ages—the number of nights or afternoons per week or per month the average child attends the movies, and what type of movies he prefers to see. Some valuable research along these lines has, in fact, been carried out already in New Zealand by Mr. W. J. Scott, and his findings should be appearing in book form almost immediately; but I understand that he was concerned only with the film-going habits and taste of secondary school-children. So far as I know, the picture-going habits and preferences of younger children in New Zealand still remain to be comprehensively investigated.
Yet having established what sort of films children like to see and do, in fact, see most frequently, one would then have to make some attempt to gauge what the children really thought about them, and to what extent they were, in fact, influenced—which would almost certainly be the most difficult part of the whole inquiry. And finally, the research workers would have to relate all this information to the actual incidence of child dilenquency in the community, and offset any possible influence which films may have against other possible influences in the same direction—such as neglect in the home, reading habits, radio-listening habits, and so on.
This is not a blue-print for a survey, it is a mere sketch of the territory which I think would have to be explored before we could know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, just what influence, if any, the cinema does have on child delinquency in New Zealand. It is certainly a very wide field for research and possibly a fertile one—and I think a potentially very useful one too, if only perhaps because it might correct a lot of the rather muddled thinking and rash talking which goes on at present on the subject in some quarters.
Before concluding, I think it may be in order if I tell you something about a related type of inquiry which is now being organised by the New Zealand Film Institute. This is a survey of the Children's Cinema Club movement in this country. The Film Institute had thought at first to devote its attention to the general problems of the film and the child, but decided that the field was altogether too wide and that an investigation of too many related problems—such as that of censorship, for example—would be entailed. It has decided, therefore, to focus its attention on this new phenomenon of the Children's Saturday Cinema Clubs which are springing up all over the country and are, apparently, attracting a large membership of young people. This survey can probably be restricted within comparatively narrow and well-defined limits and, if done properly, should yield valuable results. The Film Institute feels that it is a proper body to undertake such a survey, which will require an interest in the cinema, as such, and some special understanding of the film industry, even more importantly than an understanding of the educational factors involved. But the Institute has been promised the full co-operation and technical assistance of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, as well as the support and co-operation of such groups as the Secondary Schools' Association and the Technical Teachers. In each centre the Film Institute will also, of course, recruit the services of qualified research workers, where necessary outside its own membership, to do much of the actual field-work. The Film Institute itself may, indeed, be little more than an organising and co-ordinating body.
This survey will, it is hoped, supply factual information about the number of children's cinema clubs in New Zealand, the number of members in the clubs and their age groups; the aims of the sponsors in founding the clubs, the conditions of membership and methods of organising and running the clubs: the issuing of club magazines, the ritual of club promises, reciting of slogans, and so on; the types of programmes screened and their quality; sources and methods of supplying films (for example, are films which have been specially produced for children available yet in any quantity, or do the clubs rely mainly on old films no longer on circuit in adult theatres?); the extent, if at all, to which club sponsors enlist the co-operation of teachers, psychologists, youth leaders and other specialists and accept their advice in running the clubs; the effects of the programmes on children (e.g., on their play and their health); the extent to which the clubs offer a satisfactory alternative to the ordinary Saturday afternoon and evening screenings, or whether they are merely an additional opportunity for picture going by children. And so on.
If the Film Institute is able to produce a report giving factual information on some at least of these issues, it should be useful to a good many people, and from it may come recommendations concerning the future of the clubs. But there is one point which, as chairman of the New Zealand Film Institute, I should like to make clear; we are starting this survey with an open mind. As chairman of the Institute, and in my personal capacity as a film critic, I have frequently been asked whether these children's cinema clubs are, or are not, deserving of support by parents and teachers and, of course, by children. My reply invariably has been that so far nobody in New Zealand is in a position to pass judgment, because we just haven't got the facts. Anything said now would be purely a matter of opinion. True, clubs like this have been operating for some time in Great Britain, and a certain amount of investigation has been carried out there. But it would not be satisfactory—indeed, it might be positively unfair—to judge the New Zealand clubs purely on English experience. That is why an independent survey is called for in this country; and in making it the Film Institute is looking for the co-operation of the club sponsors, of theatre managers, parents, teachers, the children themselves, and all persons such as yourselves who may be specially interested.
Finally, I think I should emphasise that throughout this paper I have been speaking merely as a film critic and commentator on the films who has tried to make some study of the cinema's wider aspects. But I do not pretend to be a social scientist myself I have not been trained in the technique of research not have I had the time or opportunity to carry out any detailed surveys of the cinema. Therefore, what I have been most concerned to do in coming before you like this has been to confess my inadequacy in this matter and my own ignorance of many of the topics which have been mentioned. Although the title of my paper is “The Cinema as a Sociological Influence,” I have tried not so much to tell you what I know about its influence, but rather what I do not know—and what, I have suggested, nobody else really knows either. I have done this partly in the hope that somebody better qualified than myself may perhaps be stimulated to make good some of the gaps—or, rather, some of the chasms—which exist at present in our understanding of this most powerful medium of the cinema.