Picture, if you will, the following scenario: you find yourself at a movie theater, watching a film you know very little about. Everything is going well, the plucky hero or heroine is off on the quest, when suddenly… tragedy strikes! To say that the film gets to you is an understatement; this thing rocks to your very core, and by the time the lights come up you are little more than a gooey pile of feelings. You must share this experience with someone else, so you find a friend, significant other, or family member and drag him or her to the next day’s showing. But when they lights come up on that screening, you find your loved one oddly composed and with a “mixed feelings” look on their face. “It was okay,” they say with a shrug, “but I didn’t like how emotionally manipulative it got.”
That little phrase is one of the most recurring elements in film criticism and discussion. Along with, “It was boring,” and, “It didn’t make sense,” emotional manipulation is one of the most often cited reasons for why a film doesn’t quite connect with an audience member. Which kind of begs the question… why? Why is emotional manipulation such a problem? With boredom or lack of understanding, okay, sure – it’s easy to see how those would get in the way of an entertainment experience. But films being manipulative? That’s a thornier set of issues to unpack.
Now, let’s be clear: by and by we’re talking about the way that a fiction film is manipulative, not a documentary, reality television, or another form of non-fiction narrative. We’re not going to be going into the implications of, say, a documentarian shooting an interview and then rearranging the footage in the editing bay to create the impression that the interviewee is supporting a cause that he or she is actually opposed to. That’s definitely a form of manipulation, but because those films are setting up parameters that claim to be representing the real world with at least a passing degree of fidelity, that’s problematic in a more readily understandable fashion. There’s definitely an argument to be had there, but that kind of duplicity is a beast in its own right and a topic to tackle on another day.
No, what we’re talking about is the charges of manipulation that are levied against tearjerkers. We’re talking about the way Terms of Endearment is manipulative, or Slumdog Millionaire, or The Fault in Our Stars, or almost anything in the Steven Spielberg catalogue. These are all films that have been by some person or another faulted for the way in which they gerrymander our feelings, relying on various ploys that strong-arm us into a specific reaction. And that, so many seem to be arguing, is something that these films ought not to be doing.There’s an almost intelligent argument to be had in this line of thinking. It goes something along the lines of this: Film isn’t here to tell us what we should think or what we should feel about anything. Its purpose is merely to present characters and events in a compelling fashion, to make them available and accessible to the public at large. Once that’s been done, each person in the viewing audience can then have their own emotional, intellectual, and personal reaction to what they just saw. There’s a respectful, give-and-take relationship between maker, medium, and watcher.
Which sounds really nice and mature… but isn’t quite right, really. Film is an art form built around the concept of control, constructed around brutally rigorous specificities. Camera angles force us to see components of a scene from, literally, a certain point of view. Lighting and mise en scène make some elements of the visual canvas stand out, while obscuring others. Editing determines how much time – to the millisecond – we’ll be able to watch something, and does away with everything else. Other art mediums have this to a degree, but film is especially restrictive. You can’t continue looking at a corner of the canvas for hours, walking away only when you feel like you’ve absorbed all the relevant details, like you can with a painting. You can’t flip back to a previous chapter to scrutinize a particular phrase or description, like you can with a novel.
A movie only offers a very particular window through which to view events and characters, and it only allows you to look through it for a very narrow timeframe. The medium is reductive – it’s made to give thousands of viewers a single, unified experience of a narrative, not to allow individual exploration and discovery. And filmmakers – good ones at least – use this. They rely on the fact that the filmic experience is so tightly demarcated to guide their audience to a specific understanding of the situation, a certain set of allegiances towards the characters and the events, and – yes – a fairly exact emotional reaction. And yes, Stan Brakhage fans, there are certain filmmakers that try to buck this trend, but there’s only so much that you can reverse this. Film is made to boil down thousands of individual experiences to a single, mass reaction, regardless of whether the audience is interested in taking part in that or not.
And if you are dead set on calling it by that word, yes, that is manipulative.
But the beautiful irony of it all is that kind of manipulation is exactly what a lot of us are looking for when we go to see a movie. Don’t we want to get a rush of excitement and adrenaline when we go to see an Indiana Jones or a James Bond film? Or a sense of whimsy and glee in a Harry Potter film? Don’t we want to be comforted by Tom Hanks, charmed by Anne Hathaway, and unnerved by John Malkovich? At its most oversimplified, don’t we want to laugh at comedies and cry at tragedies? This is what we pay good money for. Sure, films will push you into a specific headspace when you watch them, but there’s a degree of consent to that manipulation. Where is the problem, exactly?
Well, near as I can tell, it stems from two major points. First, sometimes a film will manipulate you into a position that you’re not completely comfortable being put in. Take this year’s early box-office darling, American Sniper, for example. That’s a film that positions you into a very specific emotional reaction about the protagonist, his family, and the various trials and tribulations he undergoes. Nothing wrong with that… until you remember that the emotional tract that movie presents is closely fused together with a very particular perspective on the Iraq War, American military life, and U.S. foreign policy. The worry with these types of movies is that they are relying on their fast track access to the audience’s emotional system to influence their leanings on matters of political or societal policy that should be ruled by cool-headed intellect. See also: Milk, V for Vendetta, Selma, et cetera.
Now all of that is worth paying attention to, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that a film is lacking in quality. It may well mean that you morally opposed to the film, or that you find it to be completely unappealing or bankrupt in meaning that is applicable to your life, but that doesn’t make it a bad work of art. If it still sets itself a clear goal within a well-defined set of parameters and accomplishes its intended aim, it is still an effective piece of filmmaking. You may disagree with what American Sniper says about the Iraq War while still remaining receptive to the tension and verve it uses to articulate those statements. Or you might disagree with the ultimate stance that Whiplash takes on the brand of aggressive, abusive tutelage it depicts, even as you are in awe of the way its climax uses musical and visual rhythms to cement that stance. Heck, I would even go so far as to say that something like Triumph of the Will is not a bad film, at least in terms of its craftsmanship. It’s a film that exists solely to serve and further the causes of one of the ultimate forms of evil that we’ve ever seen on this planet, and this needs to be recognized and acknowledged, but that doesn’t discount the skill that went into making the film.
The other problem with films’ emotional manipulation, and the more prevalent one, is that manipulation only really works if it’s invisible. The moment that we begin to feel a film’s hand pushing us towards a specific place we begin to struggle and wriggle. Think about it: usually when someone complains about how a film manipulated them, they were not successfully placed wherever it was that the work wanted to take them. When a movie has you completely under its spell, that’s rarely called manipulative – more often it gets labeled as an emotional tour-de-force. No one, for example, complained about how The Sixth Sense had manipulated them. The fact that the film was so adept at controlling audience perception was exactly what people praised it for.
But what happens when the process breaks down? It’s the third act of a film. The adorable dog sidekick has been mortally wounded, the protagonists misting eyes are getting their close-up, and the musical score is breaking out the melodramatic piano tune. And, for whatever reason, you’re just not feeling it. You can tell how badly the film wants you to cry, to be torn up about this character’s death, but you’re just not having any of it. That’s when it becomes a problem, when you can tell what the film’s aim is but its machinery isn’t getting you there. (The inverse, when you have no clear idea of how the film wants you to be feeling, usually leads to the aforementioned boredom and/or confusion.) Sometimes it’s simply a matter of subtlety – if a film goes too overboard with its signposting, it’s impossible to not notice the architecture. And once the audience is paying attention to the process of creating emotions rather than feeling them, the film’s in hot water. That’s when things begin to feel manipulative, but the manipulation itself isn’t the problem. The real issue is that the film is not successfully manipulating the audience.
There’s an old concept in comedy that goes something along the lines of, “You can give your audience four, and that’s fine. If you can give them two and two and have them come up with four, that’s even better. But the moment they realize you’re having them do math, you’ve lost them forever.” That’s pretty much how it goes with film and the issue of emotional manipulation. All films are manipulative to some extent, and great ones are devious to a Machiavellian degree. It’s in the very nature of the medium. But there’s something about this that must remain invisible for it to be effective. Maybe that’s the final part of the contract of the consensual manipulation that we have with the movies: they’re going to manipulate us and we’re gonna like it, but it’s only okay so long as we can all pretend it never really happened.