Monday, September 14, 2015
Get the Facts: Movies and Pop Culture
Movies are very popular. Americans spent over $10 billion going to the movies in each of the past 6 years. Most of the movies shown are fiction, made-up stories to try to capture our attention and imagination. Even those movies that play to the popular sentiment, making big businesses and Wall Street the villains, are made by big business and promoted in a way to get us to part with our money for a couple of hours of entertainment.
As we sit in the theater mesmerized by the celebrities, special effects and other flickering lights on the screen, we tend to lose the perspective that it’s just a story – often pushing a viewpoint. Some problems begin when we take the information and situations shown on the screen as fact, or as reflecting real life. Documentary movies compound this problem by presenting only the facts that support a preconceived position, not giving the balanced viewpoint, apparently afraid to investigate too deeply for fear of being forced to give up their dearly held image of how the world works. It would deprive them of the opportunity to make money and influence us to side with them by scaring us with these slanted views.
Back in 2004 Morgan Spurlock, an independent filmmaker, released his documentary movie, Super Size Me, which followed him on a 30-day exploration of the fast food industry to show how they use wily advertising to profit from encouraging poor nutrition and unhealthy habits. A couple of years ago I posted a link to a video showing how a high school science teacher challenged his students to develop a healthy diet for him based purely on the menu from McDonald’s with varied meals and an eye toward total calories and fats. After eating three meals everyday from MacDonald’s and beginning an exercise program where he walked for 45 minutes a day, he lost 37 pounds and his cholesterol dropped from 249 to 170. Although it was rightly categorized as a documentary, this Super Size Me filmmaker clearly had an agenda and was appealing to an audience with similar feelings.
In 2014 comes another documentary. This one, called Fed Up, has the objective of telling us how sugar is responsible for the worldwide obesity epidemic and how it is endangering our children. Notice the common thread of blaming big business for tricking us while the government sits idly by. Both try to scare us with a danger that is out of our control, giving us only facts and expert opinions that conform to their strongly held position in what is referred to as the health movement.
A long essay on the Science Based Medicine website specifically disputes many of the facts presented in this movie and points out the prejudices of the selected experts that appear in it. The article concludes: “The film’s thesis, that sugar has caused the obesity epidemic, is not well supported by evidence. It is a partial truth that the filmmakers have dogmatically represented as the whole truth, with nary a hint of nuance.” They praise it for raising awareness of childhood obesity, but that it unfortunately does so through misrepresentation, hype and biased opinions “in support of the filmmakers’ political agenda of increasing food regulation.”
Don’t totally blame documentary films. Network news does the same thing by deciding what to show and what to omit. They show over and over a picture of a toddler drowned in the sea off Turkey and then days later marvel at the shift in public opinion on the refugee issue in Europe sparked by that single image. When we stop thinking and start reacting, they rejoice.
Americans are outraged by the dentist who killed a lion in Africa and sneer at a Kentucky County Clerk as a narrow-minded hater, but proudly wear t-shirts celebrating Che Guevara as a counter-culture hero and anti-establishment icon, apparently unaware of his history as a mass murderer and inventor of Cuban slave labor camps. They probably saw him as the hero of a 2008 movie that, according to the New York Times, “cagily evades Che's ugly side, notably his increasing commitment to violence and seemingly endless war, but the movie is without question political—even if it emphasizes romantic adventure over realpolitik—because, like all films, it is predicated on getting, spending and making money.”
When a woman disagrees with the politics of others and refuses to issue wedding licenses, she ends up in jail. When a man disagrees with the politics of others and has them summarily executed, he ends up as the hero of a movie and on a t-shirt. Interesting.