Merriam-Webster defines sociology as “the systematic study of the development, structure, interaction, and collective behavior of organized groups of human beings”. Whether we know it or not, the cinematic medium is in a constant state of flux, providing future cultures a glimpse into our lives. In short, film history provides a constantly growing archive for future sociologists to study the way human beings organize, interact, develop, and structure their lives at a specific moment in time. It lets them know everything about us. Here are some examples of what sociologists can deduce from film.
This has cropped up a great deal recently with a spate of films possessing a not-so-subtle subtext about the downturn in the economy. This has happened throughout movie history. A film like Wall Street, for instance, fit perfectly in an era of affluence. The Great Depression was fertile territory for an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which came to life on the silver screen in 1940. One year later, Citizen Kane thumbed the nose of the wealthy through the implication that wealth had led Charles Foster Kane to forget his roots, to miss out on true happiness. In 2007, There Will be Blood worked on two levels, both damning the robber barons of the late 19th century as well as the current state of greed. Even going as far back as classic silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton holds economic weight, sociologically. Both played with the idea of the very wealthy and the very poor. More often than not, Chaplin was The Tramp whose fortunes could turn on a dime. Contrarily, Keaton often served as the oblivious, but good-hearted, wealthy citizen. Both represented economic values key to a free market economy–the notion of the noble upper class, and that the impoverished would always have the opportunity to reverse their fortunes.
Crime and Deviance
Two films from American history serve as perfect examples for the way in which attitudes about deviance and the counter-culture changed. The first is the 1931 classic, Public Enemy, which begins with the prologue “apprising the audience that the hoodlums and terrorists of the underworld must be exposed and the glamour ripped from them”. James Cagney’s Tom Powers is menacing, ruthless, a terrorist, a social menace in every sense of the word. There is nothing glamorous about him, a reflection of a culture growing weary of real-life criminals like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and others. Fast forward to 1972. The counter-culture had bloomed in the late 1960s. Experimentation and shaking up the so-called square culture was “in”. Using the exact same general film concept–a gangster film–Francis Ford Coppola created The Godfather, a film about a family of law-breakers, eventually led by their youngest son. In four decades, the mobster criminal had shifted from a terrorist who receives their come-uppance to a glamorous, all-powerful anti-hero.
Some of the most valuable lessons that sociologists can learn from film lies in the power of language. Which words are used? What type of slang is used? What are the meanings? Which words are avoided? The malleability of language in films can tell people so much about a specific society. One of the more obvious example here is the Production, or “Hays” Code era of Hollywood, named after Hollywood censor Will H. Hays. It was enforced from 1934 to 1968, and established several boundaries for what was considered acceptable in film. It ran the gamut, and most definitely included language. As such, coarse language in this era was almost completely unacceptable in film. And that’s a tremendous reflection on what Americans valued at the time.
Of course, language in film also can tell viewers a tremendous amount about the specific group on the big screen. Donnie Brasco from 1997 illustrates this point. Undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone must first understand and then use proper mafia lingo to successfully integrate himself into the mob world. As such, simple expressions like “fugazi” and “fugedaboutit” become part of his daily lexicon. Viewers were given a specific view of how 1970’s New York mafiosos spoke. The same tenets could easily be applied to the American Western genre, with expressions like “ol’ coot”. Given that many of these films fell under the Hays Code, “dad gummit” and the like were used in place of the present vulgarities.
The fact that Doubt was released in 2008 speaks volumes about just how much the Catholic sex abuse scandals had become prevalent in the American consciousness. More importantly, it speaks to the growing secularity of American society. Previous generations held religion in reverence in such a way that it would have prevented a movie like Doubt. In contrast, previous eras provided massive sweeping Christian epics. Notable examples include Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927); The Ten Commandments (1956); and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Lots of money, talent, and resources were poured into these films, and American audiences flocked to them. As American society has grown more secular, religion has been presented less and less through a faith-based viewpoint. By 1973, the American public was starting to flock to The Exorcist, a movie in which all characters have their beliefs shaken. By the end of the 70s, Monty Python’s Life of Brian satirized religion. A decade later, Martin Scorsese released The Last Temptation of Christ. And of course, there’s Doubt. All of these films reflect the organic nature of religion in America (and the western world), and each provides a sociological snapshot of what society deemed acceptable and unacceptable pertaining to religion.
Film can also provide a peek into what a society finds acceptable and unacceptable regarding specific religions. Look no further than the anti-semitic cinematic bile put forth by Nazi propagandists during the rise of Nazi Germany.
Societal Concerns and Fears
If you’d like to know what a society’s primary fears are, take a gander at the horror genre from your decade of interest. Both Frankenstein (1931) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) represent the fear of scientific knowledge run amok, first manifesting itself in medical/corporeal science and later in 1954 as the fear of Darwinism and evolution. As space travel was becoming a possibility, the 1950’s and early 1960’s were littered with science fiction/horror, ripe with evil creatures from outer space hell-bent on world destruction. It’s no coincidence that Toho Studios’ radioactive monster movies in the 1950s came on the heels of the use of the atomic bomb in Japan.
The shift in sexuality in American cinema has been dramatic. Just as the counter-culture shook up views on crime and deviance in the late 1960s, so did the sexual revolution during the same time period. The Hays Code dictated that sex out of wedlock never be presented in a positive manner. LGBT characters were kept to a minimum at best, or presented in outlandish ways at worst. Early American cinema had its moments, had its sexual icons like Mae West and Joan Blondell, but their impact was lessened because it was deemed socially inappropriate. As time progressed, so did attitudes. By the 1950s, filmgoers were treated to upskirt views of the stunning Marilyn Monroe. Nudity became more prevalent in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For examples, check out a Sam Peckinpah film from the period. Female characters have gradually become more sexually empowered. The LGBT community–once seen as persona non grata on the silver screen–is still catching up, but significant strides are being made. These are clear signs of a society that has learned, and is continuing to learn, to embrace sexuality rather than hide it.
Cinema has come a long way since D.W. Griffith presented the Ku Klux Klan as conquering heroes in 1915’s horribly misguided The Birth of a Nation. Much of the American attitude about race has been reflected in cinema. As civil rights leaders grew to prominence, and as American lawmakers gradually eliminated institutional racism throughout the 20th century, ugly stereotypes began to die off. With Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, civil rights organizations like SNCC and the NAACP entering the public consciousness, America gradually began to accept African-American heroes on the silver screen. Rather than using cinema as a tool to spread racist attitudes, filmmakers began producing films that spoke to the struggle for freedom and spoke out against institutional racism. The African-American community eventually grew to have their own unique imprint on cinema, with directors like Henry Hampton, Spike Lee, and John Singleton contributing greatly to the canon.