One way to ‘read’ and analyse films is to situate them into their historical and cultural context, to see how they fit into specific genres and promote certain ideological positions.
Within the Marxian tradition, Marx and Engels initially characterized ideology as the ideas of the ruling class. Alternatively, Althusser (cited in Comolli and Narboni 1969 p. 815) defined ideologies as ‘perceived-accepted-suffered cultural objects which work fundamentally on people by a process they do not understand.’
Comolli and Narboni (1969) argue that because every film is part of the economic system, it is also part of the ideological system ‘for cinema and art are branches of ideology.’ (p. 814)
Every film is political in as much as it is determined by the ideology which produces it. It is argued that cinema ‘reproduces’ reality, however the tools and techniques of filmmaking are part of a ‘reality’ themselves, a reality which is nothing but ‘an expression of the prevailing ideology.’ (Comolli and Narboni 1969 p. 815)
From the early stages of a film’s production, the subject it explores, the style and form it takes,the meanings and narrative traditions it adopts, they all underline the general ideological discourse. ‘The film is ideology presenting itself to itself, talking to itself, learning about itself.’ (Comolli and Narboni 1969 p. 815)
‘Law Abiding Citizen’ (2009) is a film which both critiques and supports the dominant ideology. The storyline reveals a clear argument: individuals against the system, more specifically an average family guy versus the US legal system and its hierarchy.
Throughout the film, Clyde Shelton fights for justice and hence confronts his ‘enemies’, represented firstly by his family’s murderers, and then by district attorney Nick Rice and everyone else standing for the law. Although, Shelton manages to get his revenge, by killing the murderers of his wife and daughter, and also teaches a lesson to the corrupt court ruling his case through killing an attorney, a judge and other officials, in the end, he can’t escape the system.
The message transmitted by the film is that even if you are a former CIA officer, betrayed by the state, you can’t fight your fate; you can’t overrule the law. The dominant ideology takes over no matter what. Ideology is not only explicitly expressed in ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ but the film also invites spectators to self-reflect. The audience is being invited to explore the fate of a rebellious, and the consequences of an aggressive anti-state behaviour. In the end, the American state is above everything, powerful and invincible.
As a film that only expresses ideology implicitly,‘The Big Year’ (2011) seems to focus on how three men pursue the Birder of the Year title. In this case ideology is reflected through the film’s form. Although initially, the plot follows an easy-going storyline, presenting at times fairly dull characters, the symbols that these men stand for are expressing ideological constructs. All three characters feel dissatisfied, unhappy with their lives, they are misunderstood by other people. After a fierce competition, despite getting to live their dreams, the three bird enthusiasts come to realize that winning the contest involves sacrifices and loss. The winner of the title lost his wife, being condemned to live alone,whereas the other two men who lost the contest benefit from the support and love of their family.
‘The Big Year’ discusses how one’s life becomes a social stereotype, where you can not have it all, you can either be successful but single, or you can focus on fulfilling your personal life but you would have to neglect your profession. The film subscribes to the dominant ideology.
Both the production and reception of a film are framed by ideological interests. No matter how insistently this might be denied, Turner (1999 p. 171) concluded that it is impossible to stand outside ideology and talk about it in a language that is itself free of ideology.
COMOLLI, J.L. and Narboni, J., 1969. Cinema/Ideology/Criticism in BRAUDY, L. and COHEN, M., 2004. Film Theory and criticism. 6th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
DE FEDERICIS, G., 2011. Movie Review: The Big Year – Birdwatching Gone. [online]. Blogcritics video. Available from: http://blogcritics.org/video/article/movie-review-the-big-year-birdwatching/#ixzz1rmWBqxdi. Accessed 10 April 2012].
DUJSIK, M., 2009. Law Abiding Citizen. [online]. IMDb. Available from: http://www.markreviewsmovies.com/reviews/L/lawabidingcitizen.htm. [Accessed 11 April 2012].
IMDb, 2012. The Big Year. [online]. IMDb. Available from: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1053810/. [Accessed 10 April 2012].
IMDb, 2012. Law Abiding Citizen. [online]. IMDb. Available from: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1197624/. [Accessed 11 April 2012].
KELLNER, D., 1991. Film, Politics, and Ideology: Reflections on Hollywood. Film in the Age of Reagan. The Velvet Light Trap Archives, pp.1-24.
TURNER, G., 1999. Film as social practice. 3rd ed. London: Routledge.