Movies, Movies, Movies... and, erm, Wrestling.

"The cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now done by laundry detergent commercials and comic-strip characters."

Roland Barthes, "Mythologies".

The other day, watching a film entitled "The Take", an action thriller starring Idris Elba, I was reminded of some of the work I'd done as an MA student of literary theory. The film was concerned with a plot hatched by an elite team within the police force (who were disgruntled at their apparent lack of financial reward for their dangerous work), which was designed to create havoc within the city of Paris in order to distract the public from the fact that they were, in truth, carrying out an audacious heist. It wasn't the plot which grabbed my attention, though, but rather the way in which, at the end of the film, all the bad guys were either killed or brought to book and justice was seen to be served. It struck me that lots of movies, certainly of the mainstream variety anyway, obey this kind of structure, where justice and fairness invariably win out over evil and all, in the end, is well.
Of course, many of us know that life itself simply doesn't obey such rigorous rules, and it was, perhaps, the philosophy of Structuralism, coming to the fore in intellectual thought in the late '50s, that sought to elucidate the underlying rules or structures that can often be found in literature or similar narrative art forms. Its tenets were also applied to subjects such as anthropology and sociology. In the instance of literature, however, the Structuralist movement sought to outline the way in which plots unfolded, often using things such as fairy tales or even James Bond films to show how such works used a structure, I suppose what would now be called a formula, in their creation. The movement was controversial as such notions brought into question the belief that such works of so-called art had a certain human truth to them, or that those who made them were possessed of some kind of genius.
Indeed, Roland Barthes (the philosopher and literary theorist who was sometimes associated with Structuralism), in his book, "Mythologies", seemed to go further, suggesting that the whole of bourgeois society was infused with signs and meanings which were not naturally occurring, but somehow created in a way as to reassert dominant ways of thinking. I found particular parallels with what I'm trying to say about movies in his essay on wrestling. In it Barthes argues that the protagonists in any wrestling match are not strict embodiments of good and evil (as we all know, there is always a good guy and a bad guy in such competitions), but rather that they simply have the appearance of good and evil. Their demeanour, dress and actions all build to create the impression that this is a match of right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, and of course, invariably good wins. Barthes goes on to suggest that the reason such entertainments are so popular with the lower classes of society is precisely the fact that, in such jousts, justice is seen at last to be done, whereas in reality the truth is far different.
So, my question is, do mainstream movies operate in the same way? Do they simply operate to a set of formulaic rules, and by doing so, give us cosy affirmations of how we think the world ought to be, perhaps keeping us in a complacent frame of mind? Indeed, it would seem to me that many act in a way as to inculcate current ways of thinking or ideology.
However, it's clear that not all movies are like this, and perhaps a measure of those which have reason to be called art is the fact that they don't always obey a structure or formula. Indeed, in his 1975 work, "The Pleasure of the Text", Barthes sought to get away from the idea that such cultural produce was always such a conveyor of ideas, rather saying that at the point one loses oneself in a text, one experiences a hedonistic rush, or what he called joissance. At such times, argued Barthes, one transcends any purely ideological form of communication, and experiences a sort of freedom from meaning.
There are any number of films that spring to my mind where one can simply get lost in the sheer pleasure of them. Even then, though, are we ever really free of a sort of imposed meaning, as Barthes argues? Are we ever really free from a certain partiality? Just something to ponder as you watch your next movie, or perhaps even your next wrestling match.                     


bazza said…
When I saw the name of Roland Barthes, an involuntary shiver went through me! I studied lots of Structuralism and Semiotics as part of my degree. All of the main protagonists seemed to be French. Shortly after getting my degree in 1990 I read that most of those ideas were now being rejected. Ho hum!
The formulaic structures that you describe is mainly to do with risk-averse Hollywood film-making. I think European and Asian movie makers are far more adventurous.
I found much of what Barthes wrote to be impenetrable and don't get me started on Derrida or Foucault!
bazza said…
.....and further, I don't think the Mexican wrestling films were about Hegemony but have a place of their own in the Pantheon!
David said…
Hi bazza,
Thanks for your comment, in which your aversion to Barthes shines through! While I've also learnt that some of Barthes and his cohorts' ideas have been disregarded (I think that Richard Dawkins even called them "The Francophonies"), for me at least, he still has some sort of appeal, particularly his work in "Mythologies". I may be wrong about this, but I think maybe it's the way he politicised what at first may seem purely aesthetic or value-free that I find so striking.
Also, I know that what I say is mainly to do with risk-averse Hollywood product, but I thought I'd sort of made it clear that I was talking about mainstream movies rather than Mexican wrestling films! I'm also aware that the whole Structuralist project, at least in terms of its literary theorizing, is flawed in the same way, as while it's easy to apply a structure or formula to a fairy tale, it's not so easy to apply it to, say, a Luis Bunuel film. So I am aware of the flaws, but unlike you, I think some of this stuff kind of needed to be said and still has value. Mind you, when it comes to Derrida, I'm kind of with you!
All the best, bazza, and thanks for visiting once again.
bazza said…
Hi David. I probably over-stated my case a bit. My meandering thoughts led me on to the Mexican films - thinking out loud really!
David said…
Hi bazza,
No worries (to use an Ausie phrase), although I did think your response was, how can I put it, a little spikey. I did also wonder about where Mexican wrestling films came into it! Anyway, as I say, not to worry, old chap, we're all free to disagree as much as we like here, I suppose, and compared with some of the downright abuse some people get on the internet, I think I'm rather lucky to have an erudite commentator who only goes as far as over-stating his case!
All the best, bazza,

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