It was the late Ingmar Bergman, arguably one of the world’s most accomplished Hollywood directors in history, who once suggested that “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”
He was right.
Film is an incredible medium that shapes us individually, and as such, shapes culture. This Sunday’s Academy Awards celebrated this power and, in doing so, highlighted priorities and passions of a world-famous industry for both good and bad.
Last night’s Best Picture winner, “12 Years a Slave,” for example, reminds us just how evil slavery was (and is). Since labor and sex slavery remain problems today, a film like “12 Years” promotes the truth that every human being is of inestimable value. Thanks to the film “Captain Phillips,” the violent crimes of Somali pirates have greatly diminished. That movie played a significant role in convincing shipping companies to hire private armed escorts.
The emotional films “Nebraska” and “Philomena” have inevitably encouraged and inspired countless movie goers to reconnect with estranged family members, as well as children for whom they previously made adoption plans.
Make no mistake about it: motion pictures (and media in general) are teachers. Where else can you simultaneously influence and entertain so many on such a large and dramatic scale?
I have a brother-in-law who’s a commercial airline pilot today all because he saw the movie “Top Gun” in the mid-80s. There are numerous other examples of children inspired to enter medicine because of “Lorenzo’s Oil” or pursue a career as an astronaut because of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” franchise.
But although we can readily grasp film’s ability to teach us positively, we’re unusually reluctant to blame film for any negative impact.
Yet if it’s logical to deduce that if entertainment can influence positively, cannot it not also sway negatively?
Affable game show host Pat Sajak, not known for inflammatory rhetoric, once lamented Hollywood’s reluctance to acknowledge this reality when he observed that “Television people have put blinders on and they absolutely refuse—and movie people too—to admit that they can have any influence for ill in our society.” He went on to stress the illogical reasoning: “The argument is you can only influence for good, you can’t influence for ill. That makes no sense at all. “
Sajak hit the nail on the head. And his thoughts force me to ask the question: How did Hollywood influence for ill this past year? Unfortunately, in a number of ways, but I’ll zero in on just one.
While not new, Tinseltown again peddled raunchy sexuality in movies such as “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Internship,” “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” “Spring Breakers” and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.” But it wasn’t just the usual fare found in NC-17-rated (or unrated) pornography. It wasn’t just the act of sex that was depicted. Sadly, these films all took it up another notch, providing “lessons” on explicit sensuality, graphic nudity and/or suggestive dialogue—often carrying just a PG-13 rating.
Let’s consider the facts. Two RAND Corporation studies found that teens exposed to sexually explicit television and music were twice as likely to become sexually active compared to their peers who had limited exposure. A similar finding regarding the power of sexualized motion pictures was discovered by researchers at the Dartmouth College of New Hampshire.
Simply put, teens that see sex on the screen are more likely to be sexually promiscuous. And sex outside the parameters of marriage inevitably leads to a long litany of social ills.
Cultural commentators often hail the stars of Hollywood for their social responsibility and in many cases, rightly so. I join in the applause. It’s a good thing to exploit the power of film to call attention to sex trafficking, to name just one important cause. But as we honor the actors, actresses, directors and the like this weekend with awards for artistic excellence, let’s not forget a central fact:
“To whom much is given, much is expected” is an adage that rings true in every industry, but especially in Hollywood. And so in the best interests of social responsibility, the makers of today’s movies would do well to remember the overwhelming power of their influence. In the words of bestselling author Stephen King, “Movies are the highest art of our times, and art has the ability to change lives.”
I hope Hollywood might accept this fact and work doubly hard to change lives for the better.
Bob Waliszewski is the director of Focus on the Family’s Plugged In department, which features the Plugged In Online website, PluggedIn.com. The site provides up-to-date reviews of new movie releases and information on the hottest music, television, DVDs and video games impacting popular youth culture. He is the author of “Plugged-In Parenting: How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids with Love, Not War.”