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English 104: Introduction to Film 
Professor Matthew Hurt
Ideology: The Cultural Work of Film

Write a 4-5 page essay in which you attempt to uncover some of the ideological values and assumptions underlying the film you've chosen to analyze. Try not to focus exclusively on the film's narrative (i.e., the story and characters) but also include some discussion of the film's stylistic system. For instance, you might explore how the cinematography in Meet Me In St. Louis reinforces the film's message about appropriate female gender roles. Or, you might explore how mise-en-scene and editing techniques in Lolita contribute to the film's construction of female sexuality and male homosexuality as dangerous threats to masculinity. In other words, draw on the entire body of skills we've been acquiring this semester as you analyze the film's ideological basis.

For the purposes of this assignment, it may help you to substitute the phrase "social and political beliefs and values" for "ideological values and assumptions." Keep in mind, however, that "social/political values" and "ideological assumptions" are NOT synonymous. "Social values" are typically consciously held opinions about one's society, whereas ideological assumptions operate more-or-less unconsciously. They are assumptions, rarely recognized as socially produced beliefs ("obvious" facts that are beyond question). However, as I said above, I will not quibble about this distinction for the purposes of the assignment. Your main goal should be to analyze the film in relation to its social context.

Below I've appended some notes I've compiled as a basic introduction to the concept of ideology. Not everyone agrees about what, exactly, ideology is, but I hope these various attempts at definitions and examples of ideological assumptions will help get your intellectual juices flowing as you prepare to write your analysis.

Ideology: An Introduction to the Term and the Concept.

Ideology: 1. The body or doctrine of thought that guides an individual, social movement, institution, or group. 2. such a body of doctrine or thought forming a political or social program, along with the devices for putting it into operation. 3. theorizing of a visionary or impractical nature. 4. the study of the nature of ideas. 5. a philosophical system that derives ideas exclusively from sensation.

From: Random House Webster's College Dictionary. McGraw Hill Edition, 1991.

Ideology: A system of social or political beliefs characteristic of a society or social community. Ideological film theory examines the ways in which films represent and express various ideologies.

From: Prince, Stephen. Movies and Meaning. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997. p. 378.

Ideology is usually defined as a body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture. The term is generally associated with politics and party platforms, but it can also mean a given set of values that are implicit in any human enterprise--including filmmaking.

From: Gianetti, Louis. Understanding Movies (7th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996. p. 392.

Ideology: A relatively coherent system of values, beliefs, or ideas shared by some social group and often taken [by members of that group] as natural or inherently true.

From: Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. (5th ed.) New York: McGraw Hill, 1997. p. 479.

Ideology is a social process that works on and through every social subject [every individual; every member of a social group] that, like every social process, everyone is "in," whether or not they "know" or understand it. It has the function of producing an obvious reality that social subjects can assume and accept, precisely as if it had not been socially produced [through systems of representation] and did not need to be "known" at all.

From: Kavanagh, James H. "Ideology." In Lentriccia, Frank and Thomas McLaughlin. Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. p. 311.

Ideology is the intricate web of values and beliefs about the world, the way it works, and how we fit in in relation to it. It is often described as a "filter" through which we see, think about, and interact with the outside world, providing us with a way of making sense of the world. Our ideologies incorporate both our basest prejudices (racism, sexism, nationalism, ethnic hatred, greed, abuse of power, etc.) and our highest and noblest ideals (justice, progress, liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness, democracy, the pursue of wealth, etc.) Ideological beliefs are often referred to as "assumptions." This is so because ideological beliefs and values are so fundamental to our self-image (both as individuals and as cultures), that they are taken as "natural," as "inevitable," as "common-sense"; we simply assume that the beliefs we hold are true, natural, and universal.

Some Examples of ideological assumptions:

A woman's natural role, the role for which she best equipped biologically and psychologically, is wife and mother, and therefore, there is something abnormal and unnatural about women who choose not to marry and not to have children.

Native Americans are "close to nature."

It's a free country.

The white race is biologically superior to other races.

If we work hard, we will be rewarded, and therefore, poor people are poor because they are lazy and don't work hard enough, and rich people deserve what they have because they work diligently and have the entrepreneurial spirit.

Anyone can grow up to become President of the United States.

The police are here to protect the innocent.

Individuals are solely responsible for their actions.

People cannot be held absolutely responsible for their actions (neither good ones nor bad ones) because they are at the mercy of environmental factors that determine their behavior.

Capitalism is the brightest hope for the world, and it will save us all.

A family consists of a man, a woman, and one or more children.

Heterosexuality is normal and natural; homosexuality is abnormal and unnatural.

White people don't "have" race or ethnicity; blacks, Hispanics, Latino/as/as, and Asians do. In other words, to talk about race is to talk about races other than Caucasian--whites are race-free.

Males don't "have" gender; women do. In other words, to talk about gender is to talk about females--males are gender-free.

Ideological assumptions operate, for the most part, on an unconscious level, and are therefore rarely questioned or closely examined. It's often difficult, but always rewarding, to become aware of your own ideological filter, to seek to understand your own positioning, your own received ways of thinking, your own limited perspective and point-of-view, by exploring alternatives to your own ideological beliefs and values, the other ways of looking, of other people.

What does this frame-still from Meet Me in St. Louis mean? We can begin to answer this question by talking about the characters and events depicted in it at various levels of specificity and abstraction. On the most concrete and specific level it means that Harry Davenport is hugging Judy Garland. Getting a little more abstract (after all, there's a big difference between Judy Garland and "Esther Smith"), we can say it means that Grandpa Smith is comforting Esther who has just learned that Tom can't take her to the Christmas dance. Continuing on, we can say it means that the Smith family is very close-knit and supportive of one another. We can also interpret it as a celebration of the chivalrous and gentlemanly Grandpa Smith, who fills in for the frequently absent Alonzo Smith, whose work forces him to neglect his family. We can also read the image as meaning that things can be set right if the younger generation embraces the values of the older generation. This reading certainly fits well with film's highly nostalgic tone, and its immediate social context as well. Anxiety about the future, concern about absent fathers and husbands, and a nostalgic yearning for a return to a more stable, more traditional, and more "civilized" golden-age--all of these themes would very likely have struck responsive emotional chords for wartime audiences in 1944.

It's important to keep in mind that ideology is a continuing process. Because ideological assumptions are socially produced and maintained, they are, in a manner of speaking, up for grabs. Moreover, ideology is not monolithic; competing ideologies can co-exist within a particular culture or society. One of the most important functions of the process of ideology is to provide the illusion that such contradictions don't exist, that competing values and beliefs can be reconciled within larger ideological structures. To the left is a famous poster produced and distributed by the War Production Co-Ordinating Committee of the United States Government circa 1943. It depicts a character who became known as "Rosie the Riveter," and was designed to bolster confidence in the increasing numbers of women entering the workforce in connection with homefront war industries, and to encourage more women to join the work force.

Here is a frame-still of Judy Garland from Meet Me in St. Louis. The images are contemporaneous, and they both represent highly idealized visions of the feminine; but notice how different these images are. The two images are competing and contradictory.

Below, I've taken some images of female characters from the film, and placed them inside the "We Can Do It!" poster. Does juxtaposing these contradictory images help us begin to understand how Meet Me in St. Louis seeks to reconcile the idealized vision of women at the turn of the century and the changing roles of women in the mid-1940s?

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