The social influence of cinema is a major topic and this
column is a reflection on some of the ideas this issue generates
- how have movies taught us to be men and women, to doubt the
justice system, and fight for our country? With hindsight, we
insist film-makers be responsible for their images but for much
of cinemas' history the consciousness of concern was not present.
"One of the most
powerful forms of social modelling"
In the history of our century one of the most powerful forms
of social modelling has been the depiction of lives on the
screen. These models have been copied, envied, censored - but
always have found themselves at the social centre of change.
In film history there is the often quoted statistic to support
the notion of film as an essential form of escapism, that the
highest number of movie tickets ever sold was during the great
depression. That hungry and unemployed people made a choice often
between a bowl of soup and a movie ticket. Many of these films
had show business as their subject – the Gold-Digger series,
and musicals from studios such as RKO which helped create an
idealised world, and idealised relationships between men and
women, the family and a wider society. Nowhere other than
magazine culture, can a series of socially conservative models of
relationships be found.
Through the star system the attributes of women and men were
managed so that a set of values was repeatedly presented on
screen which audiences were encouraged to admire. The life of
movie stars was supported by the off-screen publicity machine. No
effort was spared to present a portrait of a life worth emulating
– yet we now know that the life of stars is often tragic -
either cut short by accidents, as in the case of beauties like
Jayne Mansfield, or tortured for years by a double life like Rock
attracted to the darker deaths of Babylon"
The life of stars has been paraded in books like Hollywood At
Home, and desecrated in Kenneth Angers’ Babylon series. We,
like the audiences for the past century, are voyeuristically
attracted to the darker deaths of Babylon, revelling in the
opened closet which destroys the hetero-hunk myth of some actors.
The manipulation of them and us was complete, and remains so
today with no lessening in speculation about Julia Robert's
unhappy marriage or Jodie Foster's sexual preferences.
That this seems to matter at all is a sad reflection on the
incredible pettiness of general social values which would fit
perfectly into the Lilliput politics of Jonathan Swift's
"The screen has
literally altered the way a generation sees its world"
When cinema has been adopted as a medium for truth telling, it
is capable of changing consciousness on an individual and
collective scale – from Claude Lanzman's Shoa or Marcel
Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity to D W Griffith's Intolerance,
the screen has literally altered the way a generation sees its
It is truly remarkable that the same audience which was
persuaded that Lauren Bacall could whistle Bogart into submission
was also capable of believing in the essential goodness of small
town America in It's A Wonderful Life.
Rather than being at the mercy of shysters, honest town folk
had Jimmy Stewart to look after their savings, and more
importantly share their belief in a socially tolerant humanity.
These ideals were echoed in many languages, and the two
masterpieces of Jean Renoir -Le Grand Illusion and La Regle de
Jour, are testimony to the potential of the moving image to
engage with ideas beyond nationality and specific political
"Film is like a
There are many ways to get the message across, and Sam
Fuller's films are indeed battlegrounds with a deceptively
conventional appearance. His work is exactly as he described it
in Godard's Pierrot le Fou.
"The film is like a
battleground - love, hate, action, violence, death; in one
Fuller's films are some of the most brash, energetic, tabloid
stories ever presented on screen, yet they undeniably reveal to
us the troubled moral core of our social system - why it fights
and kills, whom it loves or can't, and what governing rules might
(only might) keep it together.
The director of Underworld USA, Pick-up On South Street, Shock
Corridor, Verboten and The Naked Kiss, presents a world view that
is brutal in its assessment of American society just as was
Norman Mailer at his best, a writer with whom Fuller is often
compared. Both men belong to a rich period in storytelling, when
the film and the novel were seen as capable of shaping social
attitudes in fundamental ways.
Whilst some contemporary films might attempt to do this, Dead
Man Walking for example, there are few films as compelling and
insightful about the jury system as Twelve Angry Men, or even the
slightly perverse Wrong Man. In terms of war, I would make the
same claim for The Big Red One, Fuller's last great film.
"Soldiers are called
to their death by numbers"
The Big Red One details the waste of human life which war
wrecks upon a generation. This is savagely shown in the Omaha
Beach sequence when the young marines, under the war weary
guidance of their Sergeant, played by Lee Marvin, must blow a
hole in enemy barbed wire by carrying a long pipe filled with
explosives up an exposed beach under enemy fire. The young
soldiers are called to their death by numbers. Fuller repeats the
sequence 11 times, until the 11th soldier, at last, completes the
It was Fuller's style, which so openly depicts the sheer waste
of so many lives, which instantly attracted the budding directors
of the French New Wave. Fuller made films quickly and cheaply,
yet with an impact often greater than more expensive films. He
would never have made Dirty Harry films, for example, because the
Clint Eastwood character was too certain that he was in the
right, too convinced that crime could be wiped out by virtually
vigilante action. Fuller's characters were aware of the moral
balance they needed to maintain (there are several sequences in
The Big Red One when soldiers insist they kill rather than murder
Ultimately, Fuller's work uses all of society as an
experimental model, dissecting and probing into the entrails of
individuals caught up in action and motion far greater than their
singular lives. He took on most topics and genres - the western,
the asylum, gangsters - and made the same assessment in each
about the human condition. The extent of his idealism is that
someone might survive - with luck - the dangers of life,
"Complexity as a
necessary way of life"
The effect of his films on the belief of audiences in their
own capacity to control their destiny is immense. We might prefer
the cosy, wonderful life depicted by Jimmy Stewart, or the
fascist certainty of Rambo, because they give us clear structures
of belief - the world is good or not. Fuller's model is more
complex, where weakness and strength compete with fear and
ambition, for dominance in individual and collective experience.
Ultimately the great gift of his films is to project that
complexity as a necessary way of life.