Rhetoric and Writing in the Public Sphere: An Introduction/Chapter 11: Film and the Public Sphere

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Although many of us are guilty of watching films for the simple pleasure of escaping reality and relaxing in front of the TV screen, sometimes we are surprised to acquire something more substantial out of our time spent on the couch. As the obsession with Hollywood’s latest and greatest productions continues to grow, it should come as no surprise that films can have the power to send relevant messages out to large groups of viewers at a time. After devoting typically 90 or so minutes to a film, one usually becomes wrapped up in its plot or message, and if this message involves a relevant issue, it could surely act as a catalyst for individual or social change.

One example of an issue that has recently been addressed in films is that of climate change. Some of the more popular films that have addressed this problem include The Lorax, Wall-E and An Inconvenient Truth. Reaching a range of audiences, from young parents to concerned academics, films like such have a way of bringing the idea to life for any interested viewer. For many, watching a film could be the first time they are exposed to a topic, making it that much more compelling and influential.

The release of films like such has had a very large impact on the public sphere, as numerous blogs, journal articles, webpages and books have been created to offer criticism or support on their influential messages. If the controversy continues to spread on the issue of environmental hazards, it is likely that more films will be produced as a way to deliver the message to a greater audience and get more people talking.

According to Habermas, the public sphere is “the domain of our social life where such a thing as public opinion can be formed [where] citizens… deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion… [to] express or publicize their views” (Habermas, 1997: 105). [1]With the controversy that has spewed over these films, it is clear that they’ve been effective contributors to the public sphere and have got people to participate in stimulating conversation.

  1. McKee, A. (2005). [Introduction]. In The public sphere: An introduction (pp. 4-19). Cambridge University Press.

History[edit | edit source]

Films have acted as major contributors to the public sphere since as far back as the 1910s. “Movies offered radicals, reformers, capitalists, and state authorities a new kind of public sphere, a cinematic public sphere, that could be used to communicate ideas and shape public opinion” [1] At the beginning of the century, films were able to reach a much larger and diverse audience than was possible by newspapers, spreading across “class, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, age, language, geography, and political affiliation” [2]

Similar to how they are often used today, films in the past seemed to have had an enormous impact on the public sphere and also acted as a means to get people talking. Serious matters of concern such as child labor laws, birth control, woman suffrage, tuberculosis, and the suffering of the urban poor were brought to life in the cinema, helping raise public awareness and contributing to the public sphere [3].

As expected, the “cinematic public sphere” has declined over the past few decades due to the increase in big Hollywood productions, whose main purpose is to entertain viewers and make money. Fortunately, there are still some films that have been able to contribute the kinds of powerful messages that generate valuable discussion.

  1. Ross, S. J. (2011, April 28). The visual politics of class: Silent film and the public sphere[Editorial]. Retrieved December 7, 2012, from Film international:Thinking film since 1973 website: http://filmint.nu/?p=1735
  2. Ross, S. J. (2011, April 28). The visual politics of class: Silent film and the public sphere[Editorial]. Retrieved December 7, 2012, from Film international:Thinking film since 1973 website: http://filmint.nu/?p=1735
  3. Ross, S. J. (2011, April 28). The visual politics of class: Silent film and the public sphere[Editorial]. Retrieved December 7, 2012, from Film international: Thinking film since 1973 website: http://filmint.nu/?p=1735

Example: The Lorax[edit | edit source]

One example of a modern day film that has had a major impact on the public sphere is The Lorax based off of Dr. Seuss’ popular children’s book. The Lorax is an animated feature that is intended for a young audience, however, those who are actually being targeted are the parents who can understand the implications behind the film. With the use of metaphor and a kid-friendly storyline, the message of the film is blatantly obvious and directly confronts the environmental issues associated consumerism and capitalism. Already a hot topic in politics, the film has only added to the controversy over environmental hazards. [1]

According to posts made by a variety of opinionated bloggers, the message delivered by the story of The Lorax has become an extremely controversial issue amongst parents who have seen the film. With an undeniable amount of criticism on the harms of capitalism and consumerism throughout the film, many were displeased with the message that contradicted their own political stance on the topic. [2]

Though controversial, the overall outcome of the film has been impressive, in that it has contributed more ideas into to the public sphere, ultimately getting people to debate and strengthen the state of democracy.

  1. Renaud, C., & Balda, K. (Directors). (2012). The Lorax [Motion picture]. USA: Universal Studios.
  2. Bradley-Hole, A. (2012, March 12). Do the politics of "The Lorax" bother you? [Blog post]. Retrieved from BabyCenter blog: Mom stories website: http://blogs.babycenter.com/mom_stories/do-the-politics-of-the-lorax-bother-you/

Example: Wall-E[edit | edit source]

Similar to The Lorax, Wall-E is also an animated children’s featured that has had a large impact on the public sphere. Wall-E, though intended for a young audience, also targets parents who are more apt to understand the implied message behind the film.

The film is set in the future and tells the story of a trash-collecting robot who hopes to save mankind. With the help of a female robot, named EVE, Wall-E is hopeful about saving the planet from its devastating state. With a blatantly obvious message, the film tries to show what will happen to society if we continue to be so engrossed in technology and act as wasteful as we are today. [1]

Similarly to The Lorax the film has generated a lot of discussion due to its environmental message. Many disagree with the content of the film because it goes against their political beliefs. Others support the film for bringing up such a relevant and important message. One particular critic of the film really enjoyed the message but made a valid point in saying that it never really specified “how or where people can learn to cut carbon emissions, save water, reduce their trash production, etc.” [2]

Overall, the film has brought up very relevant issues associated with technology and waste that we have been seeing on the forefront of politics today. Simplifying the message for a younger audience to understand is something that remains controversial amongst parents.

  1. Stanton, A. (Director). (2008). Wall-E [Motion picture]. USA: Disney Pixar.
  2. Hodkinson, J. (2008, June 2). Low impact living: Wall-e — robotic ode to environmental protection [Blog post]. Retrieved from sustainablog website: http://sustainablog.org/2008/07/wall-e-robotic-ode-to-environmental-protection/

Example: An Inconvenient Truth[edit | edit source]

“What we take for granted might not be here for our children.”

Another modern film that has had an impact on the public sphere is An Inconvenient Truth, which also confronts certain environmental hazards. The film targets an older, more sophisticated audience, as it is a documentary and presents its information in a less amusing fashion than films like The Lorax or Wall-E.

The main contributor to the film is Al Gore, who who spends his time tackling the many issues associated with global warming. According to the film’s director Davis Guggenheim, the film is a “passionate and inspirational look at former Vice President Al Gore's fervent crusade to halt global warming's deadly progress by exposing the myths and misconceptions that surround it” [1]. The film addresses the problems with speeches made by a charismatic Gore who employs graphs and scientific data to aid him in establishing his credibility. [2]

When “googling” the title of the film, an extremely large number of personal webpages, blogs, and articles pop up. These different mediums for discussion all act as contributions to the growing public sphere on the subject. Many different viewers have become devoted to either supporting or criticizing the message of the film, indicating just how much of an impact it has had on the public sphere. Although many have found fault in the film, it surely encourages people to start talking, debating and writing about the issue at hand. In order to support or disprove the theories presented by Gore, viewers also have done their research and, as a result, have strengthened the overall state of the public sphere.

According to the film’s website “Climate Crisis,” its impact is evident, having “helped to galvanize governments, leaders, organizations and individuals worldwide to take action on global warming. More than a billion people are now aware of the issue and have been motivated to act.” This film has clearly had the largest impact of the three, effectively generating an enormous amount of debate and discussion.

  1. An inconvenient truth: About the film. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2012, from Climatecrisis.net website: http://www.climatecrisis.net/
  2. Guggenheim, D. (Director). (2006). An inconvenient truth [Motion picture]. USA: Lawrence Bender Productions.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Films such as The Lorax, Wall-E, and An Inconvenient Truth have acted as very effective tools in encouraging ordinary citizens to exercise their rights to democracy and to make insightful contributions to the public sphere. Though one might not typically think to consider movies as useful devices for social change, it is clear that they can actually have a very large impact on society. As long as Americans continue to enjoy cinematic productions, they will continue to be successful in delivering relevant messages to large audiences of people.