Affective Storytelling: Lectures Are Soon Forgotten

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Has Hollywood Become Our National Conscience? Read other perspectives here.

In today's outrage-driven culture, direct moral chastisement is likely to be met with a bombastic response: "There are two sides! It's not like that!" While hasty, such a comeback is somewhat understandable: introspection, not merely reaction, is essential to a well-ordered conscience, and only a fool uncritically adopts another's moral stance without careful consideration.

That element of careful moral consideration — of shared values and principles that resonate across class and culture — is foundational to effective conversation-shaping cinema. Movies are most transformative when their artistic and thematic messaging is not limited to the causes célèbres of coastal elites (or their critics) but rather strikes chords of universal concern.

For example, Hollywood's messaging is uniquely impactful when the industry turns the heat of its critical spotlight onto itself, interrogating cultural pathologies regarding media, technology, and entertainment (an approach that often leads to assessing trends toward mass surveillance). Pixar's WALL-E mercilessly depicts a world of blobby social media addicts insulated from both interpersonal contact and lived experience. Minority Report portrays a regime of predictive "pre-crime" law enforcement that features psychics onscreen, but with implications that easily translate to current debates over "big data." Truth and Nightcrawler probe the entertainment media's self-destructive hunger for juicy scandals, while Spotlight soberly weighs the cultural ramifications of investigative journalism. These and many other films constitute thoughtful, self-aware critiques of the "media-industrial complex" that has an outsize cultural impact.

By contrast, Hollywood explorations of identity politics have sometimes been less discourse-shaping than sympathizer-bolstering. Its artistic merit aside, Brokeback Mountain was received — and rejected — in many quarters as a deliberate attempt to subvert a traditionally "conservative" genre. By contrast, The Imitation Game provoked no similar backlash, despite exploring similar themes, and Transparent offers a nuanced engagement with complex issues surrounding gender and family.

In short, a thin and often blurry line exists between incisive social critique and blatant moralizing. The best art, however, does not seek to be effective — calculated to elicit a specific action or response — but rather affective: impactful enough to move hearts and minds without slipping into overt didacticism.

Consider, for instance, that whether intentional or not, The Revenant makes a far more compelling case for environmental preservation than does Avatar. Revenant director Alejandro Iñárritu revels in the breathtaking grandeur of his film's arctic landscapes, depicting a world few urbanites will ever encounter. Yet at the same time, no narrative energy must be devoted to criticizing those who exploit the wilderness: the viewer concludes independently that the world is beautiful and ought to be properly stewarded. Conversely, Avatar director James Cameron packs his eco-parable with ham-fisted imagery of apocalyptic devastation, trading contemplation and reflection for direct condemnations of capitalism and colonialism. The former approach appeals to the universal human experience of aesthetic wonder, whereas the second resonates only with those who already share Cameron's worldview.

This year's Straight Outta Compton is another effective example of such affective filmmaking. As a white viewer born and raised in suburban America, I was wholly unaware that the ever-controversial "gangsta rap" genre developed in the shadow of the Rodney King affair. Compton thus helps the viewer understand the undercurrents giving rise to the current state of race relations in America, without needing to make its point overt. The film engages its audiences' faculties beyond mere emotion, compelling serious reflection on its subject matter.

Beginning the movie-making process with the goal of promoting some form of social justice compromises both art and impact: technical merits aside, message movies like An Inconvenient Truth or Facing the Giants preach only to their respective choirs. Such overtness co-opts the viewer into the filmmaker's enterprise, making audience participation (or outrage) an essential element of the artistic project. Accordingly, such a work is fundamentally incomplete in itself: its significance exists not in the values it epitomizes, or in its intrinsic beauty, but only in the short-term response it provokes. Well-made art inspires transformation, but does not consciously work to spark it.

Lectures are soon forgotten. But stories linger.