Cinematic Expression and Cultural Dynamics

by David Cupp
Cinematic Expression and Cultural Dynamics

A subjective analysis of film culture and its relationship to the community

An Orchestration of Expressions

The cinematic form is a unique artistic language in that it is an orchestration of various sub-forms and simultaneously exists in the visual and audible realms; a perfect example of multiple expressions and their inspirational sources in synthesis. The evolutionary path from concept to viewer is paved by the mastery of various artists and technicians. Effective communication between the parts and the visionary elements is critical to the effectiveness of the whole expression.

Film is photography in motion and thus exists on the visual plane. Each frame serves as a singular moment that supports the entire scene. Each scene does the same for the entire film. It requires the viewer to use a broad range of senses and emotional responses. The resulting experience is arguably greater than the sum of its layers.

Film also exists on the sonic plane. Music and sound provide ceilings and floors to the characters and situations in a scene. It gives them relevance to the setting and mood of the film as a whole. This combined with character dialogue lends a sense of rhythm and motion to the narrative. The effect this mechanism has on the audience is affected by the extent of its use.

When considered separately, each element seems to take on new and different characteristics than intended within the whole. Omission of a sonic element may foster unintended interpretations of the scene. Likewise, the soundtrack becomes independently amorphous when the visual elements are omitted.

Film directors may be likened to band leaders in the cinematic sense, fostering meaningful relationships between the parts and the whole. Effective communication of the core vision is crucial to the success of film work. Italian filmmaker Frederico Fellini is a fine example of effective artistic communication and leadership. His ability to communicate ideas and facilitate creativity enabled him to make some of the most inspiring pieces of cinematic work. His manifestations provided a surreal theater through which the audience can relate, in some way, to his complex vision.

In his masterpiece, 8 ½ (1963), Fellini paints a vivid picture of the artist's struggle to externalize the inner voice. In I, Fellini, the director describes the terror of being disconnected from his inspiration. Under the pressure of having a producer, contract and film team ready to go, he decided to invite us into his theater of frustration by making it the subject of his film. The film became about Fellini's "director's block". The art became about itself.

Terry Gilliam is one of many directors who cite Fellini as one of his most essential influences. Gilliam relates to Fellini's ability to project his own warped sense of reality onto the screen. He relates to his open, fantastic and somewhat childlike perceptions of the world. The reality distortions evident in his work are expressions of this wonder and enthusiasm. Their cartoon-like reflections of life can be credited by the fact that both directors also worked in animation. The autobiographical representation of the artist's experience as illustrated by 8 ½ can also be seen in Lost in La Mancha (2003); a documentary about Gilliam's unsuccessful attempt to bring the story of Don Quixote to the big screen.

The Human Experience and Propaganda

Film is also as much about the story as it is about the egos behind them.

Non-fiction films, or documentaries, try to tip the scale toward the story as a snapshot of our culture and away from premeditated expression. The storyteller becomes a conduit, though still biased, of external sources more so than the internal subconscious. The story develops as the camera records it and then is later edited according to the storyteller's agenda. These collections of animated photography capture elements of reality that might be hidden behind geographic divisions and mainstream media shrouds; a 'microtone' between the official, state-supported story. Often the ignored noncommercial stepchild of fiction film, documentary film may be the last remaining witness of our cultures' past and present and one of the last true societal reflections in a controlled global media.

Documentaries have the potential to challenge the status quo and offer an alternative window out of the politically and commercially manufactured box of awareness. Typically, the genre has flourished in environments and periods of social unrest.

Documentary film should stimulate open and free dialogue where all voices are given equal consideration. The dominance of only one vocal paradigm is not an ideal arrangement in a free society. Influences and mechanisms should always be held under high scrutiny by the audience to ensure fair dialogue. One of its primary goals should be to facilitate debate and encourage independent and critical thought. A statement unchallenged can potentially skew our understanding of the issues and ourselves. Due to their low-profile, some run the risk of enshrining apocrypha as fact. Documentary directors should be kept under balanced scrutiny while taking inevitable biases into consideration. Directors with the purest intentions are still slaves to their experience.

Some films are made with the intention to overload the public mind with ruling party rhetoric and create and maintain an overriding paradigm. The U.S. government is known to have fed their influence through media channels in order to build public support for its agenda. The Creel Commission, an agency designed under the Woodrow Wilson administration to bring a docile population into war frenzy, set the stage for media control in the United States. Frank Capra's World War II morale building epic Why We Fight is an example of state influence on the documentary filmmaking process and subsequent manipulation of the democratic process. Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1993) is a documentary that offers rare insight into these mechanisms.

During its various peaks, the "aura of authenticity" of documentary films has had influence on the way narrative films were made. A docudrama like Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers is an example of the presentation of real events in a narrative form. The most recent Hollywood blockbuster, Rules of Engagement was designed to promote Middle Eastern stereotypes and stoke fear and hatred against Arabs partly because their popular resistance to Western superiority. Within its closing narrative, the film attempts to justify the indiscriminant slaughter of Yemenese civilian protestors by revealing them as murderous animals, bent on the destruction of all things American.

Music documentaries like Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970) were employed to record a moments in our cultural development. Through technology and newer methods of distribution the mirror was held up to a wider audience and its influence was spread across cultures. This illustrates the symbiotic relationship between film and culture and its cycle of reflection and creation. The influence of documentary can shape the structure of political discourse as well as be influenced by it. Consequently, most of the political divisions that exist today can be traced back to the voices of the sixties.


In the sixties, a new movement called cinema verite was sparked by film artists who used mobile equipment. The result was rawer imagery and a virtual immersion in the moment. Soon after, France hosted a reaction to cinema verite with Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity. This film took a more somber and reflective look at French culture and its taboos. This illustrated their introspective and somewhat honest understanding of the "soiled pages" of their history and culture.

In the United States, the popularity of reality television can be traced back to a 1973 television documentary called An American Family. Its spotlight on the Loud Family was a brutal reflection of post-sixties tension. The film crew lived with a real family for seven months and recorded every agonizing nuance of their lives. This work tapped into the subject's eagerness for self-exposure thus pushing the boundaries of privacy and exploitation. Creative motivations also began to consider the public's voyeuristic tendencies and their need for mirrors of their own experiences. This is not to disregard the influence of the screen-writers guild strikes in the nineties. At that point, America was primed for reality television.


None of this is to say that documentaries should not have engrossing personality and be artfully presented, but personality should never completely overshadow the real political lessons that can be learned. The personality provides a pathway to the essential message. Without these messages, we risk darkening our history and betraying the hidden victims of lessons unlearned. Effective documentaries help us to stay connected to our history and culture.

Music, film and their various sub-forms are methods by which the art process can facilitate and advance human communication and societal evolution. They can be utilized by the individual as an adopted language for the expression of ambiguous visions. They can serve as a binding force once adopted by the community consciousness. The art process may not be considered complete until the audience receives and builds on its definition. This interactivity is as important to the life of an art work as its creator and subject. To quote Marcel Duchamp, "The viewer finishes the picture."

In a dynamic society, there should be no static, universal definition of art. The way we think about it is as diverse as our individual experiences. To limit art to a singular, unchanging system of rules is to deny its pluralistic and ever-changing nature.

Related Articles