A NOTE ON THE ECONOMICS 103 FILM SERIES (1996)
By Charles Sackrey

To begin with, books alone cannot adequately introduce students to the U.S. economic system, or to the world economy into which it is integrated. Beyond information on a flat page in an open book is a world of sounds, smells, colors, pains and joys, the full expressions of which simply are lost to the printed word. When one talks about the "economy," one is discussing nothing less than the basic fact of human culture: people trying to make a living, usually with no small amount of sound and fury. Thus, we add to the books, and to our discussion in Economics 103, a series of films that reminds us that economics is about human beings.

Students who take Economics 103 often consider some of these films as "one-sided," or "propagandistic," and we need to address this matter at the outset. Propaganda means, generally, the dissemination of ideas on behalf of a particular point of view about how the world is, and should be. Part of the reason for this student attitude about 103 films is that most of them are documentaries, where, unlike the case of almost all commercial films, the film maker's central ideas about the subject are easily identified by the viewer. Yet, the truth is that all films, from commercial comedies to sophisticated documentaries, inevitably manipulate the ideas and feelings of viewers, even those made by people who believe their films have no point of view whatsoever. Why? Because film makers typically shoot many, many more hours of film than they end up using in the final cut of their movie. Thus, each frame that makes it into a film is selected only if it helps to tell a unique and specific story, rather than the virtually infinite number of other stories that might have been told with the same footage.

Concerning documentaries, consider hypothetically a film about John F. Kennedy that claims Kennedy was never elected U.S. president. This claim is obviously a blatant falsehood. However, consider (still hypothetically) a second documentary confirming that Kennedy was president but also suggesting that he was more driven personally to make sexual conquests than he was (say) to improve the lot of poor people--an idea for which there is conflicting evidence. This second film does not blatantly lie, but it does interpret the known facts from a particular point of view. And, that is the main point: any documentary or historical film that is not blatantly false necessarily mixes together undisputed facts and disputable interpretations. Again, this is simply intrinsic to story telling of any kind, and particularly film making.

Contrasting documentaries with strictly commercial films, the latter typically do not call attention to their makers' point of view. When we watch such films, unless they directly challenge our view of the world, we tend to concentrate our attention on their surface details (plot, acting, action, etc.) With our attention focused on such details, we ignore at a conscious level the values and beliefs commercial films inevitably encourage and can mistakenly consider them as a works of pure entertainment devoid of a point of view. Take, for instance, most Hollywood films about the American West, where the land, the Indians, the cattle, and the women are props to be used by one-dimensional, tough white guys. Obviously, there is a strong message buried beneath the dust and the blood of these films about who is, and should be, in control. However, most people watching westerns likely consider them as harmless, more or less enjoyable, experiences; they are not likely to spend time worrying that they are being influenced to think a particular way about how men should treat the planet, its women and its native populations. Yet, such films typically disseminate a manipulative, one-sided view of how the world is and how it should be; that is, they are powerfully propagandistic.

As further examples that relate more closely to the themes of Economics 103, since the 1970s Hollywood has made countless fictional movies, with such stars as Clint Eastwood depicting hard boiled detectives shooting, pounding, and corralling urban bad guys. These films, with their many counterparts on television, have responded to the public's demand for more law and order in every facet of American life. Yet, it is rare that the public complains that such films typically champion the perspective of the police and, as problematic, focus attention on individual bad guys--most typically bad guys of color--rather than on the nexus of corporate decision making and government policy that has left most of our cities with too few jobs and public services for everyone there. That is, such films are powerful agents of propaganda: Hollywood creates a simplistic world in which urban crime is solved by heroic cops, rather than by other, greatly more complicated and costly solutions. Think of how often such films make the bad guys out to be young males, compared to those pointing the finger at older males--such as the managers of major corporations who have eliminated or exported abroad hundreds of thousands of urban jobs, or at politicians who don't attend to the needs of people in central cities simply because most people don't live there.

To exemplify the comments above, the first film we will see, "Battle of the Titan," is a documentary that focuses on U.S. workers, whose average wage rates have been falling for two decades, and on their increasingly prominent competitors for jobs, low wage workers from all over the globe. The makers of this film clearly think that the declining circumstances of these workers are direct consequences of globe-hopping multinational firms that now dominate the global economy. Thus, in a way, the film is a negative critique of those companies. No doubt, a film maker who addressed this topic from a "laissez-faire" point of view would not have placed the blame on "freely mobil corporations," but on misguided government policies. We will see an example of a film made from this point of view later in the semester ("Power of the Market").

Last, if you conclude that some of the 103 films are one sided, you may only be saying that they are, in fact, films. Beyond that, try to use the films, and especially those that sharply disagree with your own view, as a way to ask why you and the film maker see things so very differently.


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