The Ideology of MacroCinema

To say that the relationship between narrative and reality always involves violence is not to say that narrative is wrong.

It is more accurate to say that narrative is never neutral – it never “just is” – in a closed system, there is no creation without destruction, no translation without interpretation, one cannot act in the world without leaving a mark.

As such, it should not be taken lightly – which is not to say that all filmmaking should be heavy and serious and self important. Merely that the costs are many, both in literal resources and in symbolic and intangible resources, and that these costs should not be ignored.

We are still learning, as a civilization, about the consequences of our industrial actions on the global ecosystem – consequences that will play out over the coming thousands of years. I believe, based on reading Benjamin, Baudrillard, Macluhan, and the contemporary theorist Timothy Morton, that this conversation can and should extend to our cultural ecosystem as well.

If MacroCinema can’t claim to be neutral, just harmless fun and games, for the entertainment of the masses, what could be its core ideology? One could begin with the Hero’s Journey itself, the Monomyth as described by Joseph Campbell – he probably would have said that he was just recognizing cultural patterns and extending them to cinema, but perhaps he was going beyond that and articulating the Ideology of MacroCinema.

Here are a few points that spring to mind, but feel free to add your own.

  • Everything is comprehensible. In a theoretically complex world, all of the necessary pieces of narrative information will be shared with the audience so that the thread can be followed from start to finish.
  • The outcome offers some kind of verdict on what has come before, almost always in the form of success or failure. Protagonists live Happily Ever After, or they die tragically in service to a greater good, or, occasionally they are left in a kind of art-movie Purgatory in punishment for their sins.
  • There is a sympathetic main character, around whose journey other events and characters are organized. Even if they are a “bad person” by moral or ethical standards, they will still be charismatic and appealing.
  • Screen time is a gauge of human value, and increases with proximity to the protagonist. Many human characters may die in the course of a film, but only characters with significant screen time will be mourned.
  • Screen time will be spent as efficiently as possible; if something or someone appears on screen, it or they will demonstrate utility before the end of the film. If there is no obvious and immediate utility to a scene, it is likely setting up something that will play out later on.
  • A film experience is linear, even when the timeline within the film is not. We can only experience one thing at a time. It begins somewhere and ends somewhere, and is experienced in the same order every time it is watched by everyone who watches it.

If our experience of watching films and television impacts the way we experience the world, then all of these factors influence our perception and understanding of our own lives, and our societal and ecological context.

Who is the main character? I am. Of course! We spend far more time with ourselves than with anyone else. Our lives unfold in a linear fashion – we experience one moment at a time, from one point of view, we are sympathetic (of course!), we can make sense of all of it as a story, and at the end, it should all make sense, and it should all ultimately prove to have been worthwhile!

And how is this violent or destructive? Well, the desire to achieve our destiny (=fame, fortune, success) by the end of our story is not ideologically neutral, not in a closed system where everything has a cost. There is no creation without destruction, whether you’re talking about the manufacture of an iPhone or the “liberation” of Iraq.

Which, again, is not to say that either an iPhone or a war is bad, evil in itself; but determining the value of the object without considering the (global) cost of the object is at best shortsighted or disingenuous. An iPhone, like a narrative, could not exist without violence. To ignore that violence is to be ignorant of the ideology underpinning much of our daily lives.

Narrative allows me to focus my attention on myself and those near me at the exclusion of everybody else. It compels me to adapt my experience into a narrative in which I am the main character, I am sympathetic, and my goals are worth striving for.

We have been coached in all of this by MacroCinema, to the point where we’re not even aware of it. Christianity influenced the evolution of MacroCinema, but much of modern Christianity (the evangelical church, for instance) is at least as influenced by MacroCinema – of course Jesus is on a Hero’s Journey! And if I am too, then I must be like him!

But I don’t want to pick on the Christians exclusively – MacroCinema provides the lens through which most Self Help, New Age and Twelve Step programs view human experience as well. Buddha’s story is a Hero’s Journey too! Why not? And a modern atheist, while scoffing at these silly ideas about the way the world works, will turn right around and talk about how human destiny will be fulfilled by scientific progress, artificial intelligence, and an (eventually) perfected understanding of how the universe functions.

I’m not saying that movies are the cause of all of this, just that they fit into western human culture perfectly at a specific moment (specifically, the second half of the 20th Century), and that for the most part, we’re not even conscious of how deeply MacroCinema is enmeshed and entangled with our collective understanding of our lives and our world.

This is true for me, as I would imagine it is for Americans going back at least as far as the Boomers, maybe all the way back to their parents. And though things are changing I think this worldview will persist at least through the Millenials, based on what I have seen – though of course, the future is anybody’s guess.

The question is not whether it’s good or bad. The question is whether it’s ideologically significant or trivial, and to me it (obviously) seems pretty significant. MacroCinema has changed the world, for good and for ill – and each new blockbuster subtly reinforces the ideology of the Hero’s Journey on many levels – technological, aesthetic, dramatic, economic, on and on.

I’m not on some puritanical quest to purge the world of superhero movies, I assure you. But even if I’m only reiterating things that Marshall McLuhan said thirty years ago, it seems important to me to keep thinking about it and talking about it, working to see clearly the shape of this world and how it got that way.

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