On Friday, Motion Picture Association of America president and CEO Christopher Dodd took the stage at the National Press Club to talk about his first several years on the job. It was an interesting talk less because of policy issues that Dodd focused on, or that he discussed during the question-and-answer period, but because of the way he talked about movies, and what they’ve come to mean to him as art during his almost two years at the association. In arguing for movies’ unifying role in a politically divided country, and movies and television as key tools of cultural diplomacy, Dodd’s talk raised some fascinating questions for me about how we approach and analyze movies, and what levels of responsibility we want to assign an art form that claims that potential impact.
Dodd admitted that before coming to the MPAA, “As a father of two very young children, 7, now almost 8, and 11, my movie selections were limited.” But as he’s reconnected with the product that his member companies produce, Dodd made an argument that both serves to burnish the reputation of those companies, and potentially exposes them to higher standards than your average producer of widgets.
“They tell stories, stories that help us make sense of our world and ourselves…Consider the focus on racism in To Kill A Mockingbird or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Dodd said. “The best movies ground us in common values and ideals. America’s a big place, as we all know, with red states and blue states…But gathered together in a darkened theater, regardless of our differences, we become, in spite of our differences, one place.”
The ability of movies to achieve that unity or provoke that kind of thought doesn’t mean that all movies have to meet that aspirational standard. But it does suggest that movies that do aim to tackle big ideas deserve to be taken seriously, which means being examined critically. Often, debates over accuracy get dismissed as nit-picking, which if the only question at stake is whether a movie is a literal translation of historical events or not, is potentially fair. But the questions of why and when movies choose to diverge from the historical record is can be rich ones, particularly when those questions happen in the realm of character interpretation, as in the presentation of President Lincoln’s attitudes toward black Americans in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. As a critic who writes about the politics of entertainment, it’s been exciting to see academics, policy reporters, and political commentators enter the debates around Lincoln, Argo, Django Unchained, and Zero Dark Thirty because their desire to play on this turf is a reaffirmation of the idea that gives life to my career, even if I’m not always thrilled about how these arguments have functioned. The battles over how to interpret Zero Dark Thirty , for example, seem to me to have narrowed down to debates about whether the film is an accurate transcription of a murky historical record, rather than exploring the more revealing questions of how the script and directing choices shape the movie’s message about the immorality of torture, and why Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow felt compelled to portray the movie as an unbiased piece of reportage in the first place. That latter choice in particular says as much about the state of our debate about the use of torture as the movie itself.
If we’re going to take film seriously on the grounds that it has a unique power to influence audiences, we need to examine how well it does at getting audiences to do interpretive work—and leaving them space in which to do it—to open themselves up to new ideas, and to inhabit new perspectives. The blunt statements of opinion writing or cable news appearances, or the clear conclusion-drawing of long-form journalism aren’t necessarily the things that serve those goals well in film, where an indirect approach may lead otherwise-resistant audiences to a point they might not have accepted when presented bluntly, and manifestos can make characters seem like strawmen, rather than flesh-and-blood humans.
The prospect of using those tools abroad also invites consideration not just of movies’ content when they’re initially written and shot, but what sort of adjustments might be necessary and acceptable in order to get American movies distributed abroad. Asked about China, both a major emerging market for American movies—10 new movie screens come on line every day there—and a place with an extremely restrictive state-run approval board for film, Dodd emphasized the importance of getting American films there even if it means filmmakers have to participate in a less than democratic process that the voluntary ratings system in the United States was designed to avoid. “The idea that we can show and demonstrate who we are in a place like China, I think should be welcomed,” he said. “They deserve to see what we’re making.” The issue then becomes what they’re seeing, whether it’s a depiction of the democratic process in Lincoln, or simply what emerges as viable product in a capitalist market for movies. And while I don’t expect the basic project of seeking expanded access to the Chinese market will go away, I do imagine that the debate over the terms on which that access seems acceptable will only become sharper and more public as different versions of films show up in different markets, and streaming, licit or otherwise, makes it easier for audiences to see how what they’re getting varies from what’s available to other audiences.
And in discussing Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s Academy Award-nominated adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel, Dodd made what I think is an interesting point about the use of special effects, with potentially further-reaching implications than he intended. “Creating scenes of a boy and a live, man-eating Bengal tiger on a lifeboat would be awkward, to say the least,” Dodd said. “Twelve years ago, technology had not yet caught up with his vision. Last year, it did.” Now, it’s true that special effects have always been used to conjure to life scenarios that couldn’t possibly come to pass, whether it’s an army of Orcs or spaceships running a blockade. But often, those special effects have been used to take us away from our own world, to galaxies a long time ago and far, far away, rather than to create situations using ingredients from our own world in improbable juxtaposition. Special effects work doesn’t always have to be about something grand. They can be turned to intimate purposes, too—something Lee in particular has always been quite good at—and it’s worth remembering the small things you can do with any particular artistic tool, not just the biggest, most baroque applications.
Dodd, and other advocates for the industry, are trying to convince audiences in an age of streaming that movies must be seen on the big screen precisely because they’re spectacular. But based on his remarks at the Press Club, I wonder if Dodd might have an even better pitch in the call for communal experience. As television starts to behave more like the movies, with viewers watching shows entirely at their own pace, whether they’re streaming a show the day after it airs on Hulu, watching an episode in the week that follows off their DVR, or marathoning a program after it’s off the air on Netflix—or all at once when it’s released as an entire season—the movies could pitch themselves as the thing you have to see, if not all together, at least on their opening weekend, to be able to participate in the debate that follows. And if movies are among the most powerful pop-cultural tools that allow us to debate who we are and what we stand for, here and abroad, Dodd and his counterparts should be able to sell a particular urgency, at least to some viewers. Whether you’re off to see Daniel Day-Lewis conjure Abraham Lincoln from the grave, or gape at the spectacle of American capitalism that The Avengers represents, that vision of being together in a darkened room is just as important as the size of the screen or the scale of the spectacle projected on it.