In the summer of 1983, I had just graduated from high school. One summer day, I went to a little league baseball game to support the kid brother of one of my friends. It was one of those days where it wasn’t too hot or too cold, the kids were playing ball (as best as they could) and after a few innings, my eyes started to wander away from the game and toward another favorite American pastime: people watching. As I scanned those who showed up on that sunny Saturday, I saw this girl (probably about 16-years-old) sitting with her friends talking and generally being a teen. I took note of her clothes — more specifically the top she was wearing. “Now, where have I seen that fashion?” I asked myself. It took me a moment, but then I got it. I turned to one of my friends and asked:
“See that girl over there? “
“Yeah. What about her,” my friend wondered.
“Flashdance,” I said.
He chuckled as he immediately understood what her exposed shoulder signified.
That girl was clearly a fan of the movie Flashdance and wanted the world to know that she, like Jennifer Beals’ character in the film, was…what? A steel town girl on a Saturday night? Taking her passion and making it happen? Going on a manhunt? Hard to know, but clearly for her, and millions of other teenage girls at the time, Flashdance changed their lives. It may seem simple and even silly to think that films can change a person’s life, but that exactly what Tony Kashani argues in his compact, but intellectually rich book Movies Change Lives. The subtitle — Pedagogy of Constructive Humanistic Transformation Through Cinema — is pretty loaded with terms that indicates this is no lightweight tome. Kashani, a Professor of the Humanities, clearly “reads” movies like a literary critic analyzes novels and short stories. However, Kashani’s book is more than lit crit. Rather, Movies Change Lives makes the case that “Cinema is a teaching machine — plain and simple.” What do films teach us? Many things like upward mobility, social norms, fashion, love…the list goes on. But movies are also artistic expressions that convey more than “they lived happily ever after” stories. For filmmakers who create more narratively complex movies, the messages they covey (i.e., what they teach us) vary, but often they ask the audience to think about moral choices, about aspects capitalism that can oppress us, the about uncertainty of life (i.e., turning the “happily ever after” narrative on its head), and even about changing society to make it more just for all.
The flip side to critically engaging the narrative substance of movies is something more ominous: they can be used to narrow our minds by reinforcing prejudices, advocating war, rewriting history, and conditioning audiences to embrace proto-fascist tendencies. Kashani goes into an extended analysis of the film 300 to illustrate it as a not-so-thinly-veiled piece of post- 9-11 propaganda designed to reinforce Persians (i.e., Iranians) as barbarous homosexual darkies “thirsty for Western blood.” While “…[o]n the other hand, the 300 Spartans [in the film] are masculine, muscular, courageous, sexy…intelligent, freedom-fighting white men, who will defend democracy by sacrificing their lives.” When you paint in stark colors — like film director Frank Miller does in 300 — the majority of the audience will, of course, side with the “good guys.” In 300, this is all done by design — a design that folds in fears of people with brown skin, fears of Islam (Miller deliberately confuses audiences about the history of the region), and fears of losing cultural identity. The box office success of 300, Kashani says, is an example of a film whose message is clear: It glorifies war, militarism, and death as the only way to protect democracy and freedom from the barbarians at the gate. When the conflation of war with freedom and death with democracy occurs with greater frequency in the stories we tell ourselves, the more we’re apt slide away from the better angels of our nature and toward a kind of proto-fascism where complexity, diversity, ambiguity are seen as something to be abolished in favor of a sledgehammer ideology — where the “good guys” are the ones smashing the heads of “the other” with impunity.
Like I wrote at the outset, Kashani’s book may be compact in size, but it has a lot of intellectual heft. There’s quite a bit of theoretical exposition some may have difficulty keeping up with, but Kashani strives for clarity and wants his readers to understand some of the jargon used, so he almost always breaks down high-minded concepts into easy to understand language to connect the theoretical underpinnings of his argument to the film examples in later chapters. Does Kashani have a political and social agenda? You bet. He’s an advocate for a more just world that transcends jingoism and proto-fascist tendencies, and argues that movies can do just that if given the space to do so.