The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday December 9th

Molding the Minds of Our Youths

I have always been amazed by the schizophrenic attitude of some liberals toward media issues.

On the one hand, liberals insist that advertisements for cigarettes are responsible for coercing millions of children and adults into tobacco abuse each year. Advocates of this view are so sure that cigarette advertisements "cause" underage smoking that they file lawsuits against tobacco companies.

Meanwhile, these same folks insist that the media has little or nothing to do with the rising tide of youth violence in America.

Remember the Columbine shooting? Liberals continue to insist that the real problem was - you guessed it - not the teenage murderers, but the guns.

Never mind that most kids have witnessed thousands of murders on television by the time they turn six. Or that the Columbine shooters listened constantly to music that glorified violence and misogyny. Or that the most popular video games among today's teenagers are saturated with graphic violence.

According to most of those who use Columbine as an anti-gun prop piece, none of these media influences have had anything to do with the recently rising tide of youth violence. Teens are "sophisticated and cynical media viewers." They "know the difference between fantasy and reality," and are "unaffected" by graphic media depictions of violence.

In other words, liberals think teens are so mentally and emotionally vulnerable that viewing a cartoon like Joe Camel can make them chain smokers. Similarly, they think that a 30-second television advertisement for Budweiser will very likely turn innocent teens into alcoholics.

But according to these same people, the hourlong violent program that runs with the beer commercial doesn't influence teenagers one way or the other.

Of course, this sort of distinction is patently artificial. People of all ages are affected by everything that they see and hear - both in advertisements and in actual programming. The ability of television, movies, magazines and radio to alter the opinions and behavior of individuals is firmly established - otherwise, advertising would be a waste of time and politicians would stop appearing on talk shows.

The simple truth is that people are sheep. We are easily led and influenced by images and sound bites. Cigarette companies know it (of course), but filmmakers know it too. Film is perhaps the most vivid and most effective means of propagandizing young people with violence or ideology, simply because it seems so real and can reach our emotions in so many different ways.

For this reason, filmmaking is a powerful opportunity to inspire and enlighten - but it can also be a way to glorify bad ideas and dangerous actions.

Let's look at a few recent films and see what messages we find.

1) "American Beauty." This is an extremely well-directed and well-acted film, and it probably deserved its best-picture Oscar one year ago.

Despite this, the message of "American Beauty" is rather skewed. The "hero" of the picture is Lester, a middle-aged suburbanite who becomes disillusioned with his empty materialist life and reacts against it by quitting his job, blackmailing his boss, lusting after his daughter's teenage friend and reacquiring his taste for weed.

While "American Beauty" is right to point out the ultimate emptiness of materialism, some of its underlying ideology is rather disturbing.

Lester is treated as a tragic hero for his "brave" rejection of middle-class values. When he tells off his corrupt boss, trashes his expensive china and seduces his daughter's 17-year-old friend, we are supposed to admire him for his "honesty."

Lester's rejection of worldly concerns leads him to abandon his responsibilities and focus entirely on his own pleasure - and we are intended to applaud him for striving to overcome his personal unhappiness.

Perhaps in Hollywood such behavior is laudable. But a lot of bad things would happen if people in the real world were to start behaving like Lester.

If my father were to abandon his responsibilities and focus all his energy on his own happiness, I would very quickly find my time at UNC finished. My father's willingness to stick to his responsibilities even when they don't bring him pleasure means that I have opportunities for happiness and achievement that would otherwise be out of my reach.

In "American Beauty," however, the only character who acknowledges that "there are rules to life . you can't just go around doing everything you want" turns out to be an abusive, murdering, gay-bashing repressed homosexual.

And so, despite beautiful direction and stellar acting, "American Beauty" is essentially an ode to a dangerous philosophy - a philosophy that urges you to do whatever you want, all the time - so long as it makes you feel good.

2) "The Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile" and "The Cell."

Eddie Hatcher activists must love these films. All of them imply that criminals are really pretty good guys - and that incarcerated felons are typically victims of mental illness, an "unfair justice system" and evil police and prison guards.

In all three films, the audience leaves the theater wondering if maybe all our poor inmates shouldn't just be given counseling and set free.

3) "American Pie," "Pleasantville." Message: Sex is good. And cheap and meaningless. Have lots of it with anyone you can find.

4) "The Contender." Message: Republicans are evil hatemongers. Also: Personal morality and behavior are irrelevant to public service.

See how it works? We embrace the style of a cool-looking film, and we wind up accepting its ideology too.

Maybe I'd be more successful in filmmaking than in editorial writing. You think?

Craig Warner is really busy with law applications, but he'll write back to everyone soon. Reach him at cmwarner@email.unc.edu.


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