Noted film critic, author, educator and lecturer William Wolf presented a most interesting discourse, complete with movie clips, on the subject "Movies as Social Commentary."
The Wolf lecture was the culminating event in the Friends of the Library's (FOL) third annual Friends and Family Weekend. The weekend drew more than 400 patrons to a variety of events, including a performance by silent clown Chip Bryant for small children, a film showing of The Jungle Book with free popcorn and beverages, and a paperback swap where hundreds of books changed hands. The FOL also raffled a bookbag of children's books (the winner was 9-year-old Sophie Germain) and conducted a children's art contest in which young patrons were encouraged to illustrate a scene from their favorite book. The illustrations were put on view in the Children's Room.
Wolf pointed out that the use of movies as social commentary dates back almost to the beginning of the technology. He cited films made at the beginning of the 20th century like The Great Train Robbery and the Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith. The many social issues that have been addressed in film over the years include: racism, war, nuclear power, labor rights, the environment, health care, the dehumanization of workers, political satire, and many others. He said, "Film has been a major vehicle for social commentary." This, he said was in spite of the studios' reluctance to "make waves." Wolf alluded to movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who famously said, "Pictures are for entertainment; messages should be delivered by Western Union."
Wolf showed a very powerful scene from Metropolis, a 1927 Fritz Lang film that depicted the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. The audience viewed a shift change with the gates opening and workers who looked like automatons filing out against the New York skyline. Wolf said, "When it [the movie] was first shown in the United States, it inspired filmmakers here and elsewhere." He added, "The effects were amazing for the time." Other famous films that showed how men and women were dehumanized, said Wolf, included The Grapes of Wrath and Modern Times with Charlie Chaplin.
Wolf spoke a bit about Chaplin, who appeared in many classic satires about society. He screened a portion of Chaplin's A King in New York, which was made overseas because Chaplin had been told he was not welcome in the United States. A King in New York was a satire of McCarthy's Un-American Activities Committee. Chaplin returned to the United States in 1972 to accept an Oscar at Lincoln Center. Wolf said that he had the privilege of interviewing Chaplin at that time, commenting, "That was one of my two most cherished interviews. The other was Ingmar Bergman."
To illustrate films that deal with war, Wolf showed a powerful anti-war clip from The Great Dictator, a 1940 Chaplin film whose plot revolved around a barber who was mistaken for the führer. Wolf commented, "Chaplin was way ahead of his time. According to Wolf, some of the strongest films have dealt with the effects of war. He mentioned All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and a plethora of 1950s and 1960s films about the possibility of nuclear annihilation. He showed a clip from one of the latter: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964). As an example of the anti-Vietnam war films, Wolf screened a portion of Apocalypse Now (1979), commenting, "When it comes to unpopular wars like Vietnam, it takes a while for anti-war films to emerge. Wolf contrasted the anti-war films with the "cheerleading" war films of the 1940s.
Among the films that deal with contemporary issues, Wolf mentioned the movies of Al Gore and Michael Moore. He showed the wonderful scene from Moore's Sicko (2007) that depicts Moore transporting a group of Americans who can't get health care in the United States to Guantánamo in an attempt to get for them the excellent health care that our government brags that it gives the prisoners. (The group did not succeed in their mission; they were driven away by the guards.) Wolf commented, "I am not sure that you can call his [Moore's] films 'documentaries.' He always takes a point of view. I think of them as 'Op Ed' pages, but on film. It is a category all its own." Wolf added, "And he does it while he entertains."
Other outstanding films making social commentary that were mentioned included: Gentleman's Agreement (1948), which addressed anti-Semitism; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) about a couple whose "liberal" attitudes are challenged when their daughter brings home a black fiancé. More recent ones were Oliver Stone's W, about which Wolf commented, "It is unusual to have an activist film about a sitting president,"' Bill Maher's Religulous, and Burn After Reading, written and directed by the Coen brothers.
During the question-and-answer period, Wolf was asked about sex, obscenity and violence in today's movies. Wolf responded that he does not object to violence if it serves a purpose, but does object if it is gratuitous-"just for kicks." As for obscenity, he said, "Language doesn't mean the same as it did when we were growing up." He pointed out that youth can be inspired by film. He said, "For example, Sugar Cane Alley was inspiring for kids and they used profanity all over the place. I don't really object to that." As for explicit sex, he referenced the "code" of the 1930s and said, "Everything is different today. I don't think you are going to stop it [the explicit sex.]." He added, "We have a free society; you can turn it off."
Other issues that were raised included the impact of YouTube, ("I think there is something about going to the theater as a social event"), the Academy Awards ("a showpiece...they are decided by insiders who are connected in some way with the studios"), and a film critic's responsibility ("The critic does have a responsibility to the people he/she is critiquing"). Wolf added that, regrettably, many newspapers are getting rid of their film critics as an economy move.
In summary, Wolf asked rhetorically, "Can movies bring about social change?" His answer: "No single film can bring about social change, but they can put the issue on the agenda and get people worked up about it, as with Sicko." He added, "As a critic, I have always believed that critics should pay attention to the content as well as the artistic merits of a film. I try to get my students aware of the issues around them."
William Wolf writes extensively about film and stage and teaches film courses at New York University. He was formerly a film critic for the Gannett newspaper chain, a critic and contributing editor for New York magazine, and the film critic of Cue magazine. He has served as president of the New York Film Critics Circle and is active in many other professional associations. Mr. Wolf is the author of two books, Landmark Films: The Cinema and Our Century, written in collaboration with Lillian Kramer Wolf, and The Marx Brothers.