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Movies: Entertainment or Pedagogy? 

Here is a pitch:
“A reporter, already dating another lass, is wrongly suspected of murder when his pregnant fiancée disappears. On the lam, he finds a small Texas town with an end-of-days religious commune, and that leads him to a right wing government plot to re-educate less self-sufficient citizens for the coming purification. But to find his fiancée, he must go through the commune’s ritual initiation, which may involve sexual humiliation, and then “go up” himself to bring his fiancée back. Is he up to the challenge? Well, the planet does face its reckoning.” 

The tagline might be. “She went up. So did he.” 

The logline might go down a different track. “A reporter tracks down a religious commune and government plot to prepare for aliens, who actually still start the Tribulations.”  
You can see the political and religious subtexts. Our “individualistic” society could face a day of reckoning. Aliens could be connected to various entities (like angels) in the Bible. A man might have to run a gauntlet to save himself.  He might even face questions about his sexual identity.
I discussed this at a pitch session in a screenwriting seminar recently, and the teacher suggested the strengthening of the beginning – hitting on the idea of running from the police, as if he hero (Justin) were a potential Scott Peterson. One can imagine a low speed chase, or various ways to talk one’s way out of a highway patrol stop. This fits the idea of an action flick, with high stakes and escapes. If the moviegoer roots for the protagonist, she’ll stay on the edge of her seat; hopefully she had time to buy popcorn before the movie started (often this is a problem in many multiplexes). Yet it’s obvious that my main interest is the political content and its map to some notion of how the whole society can undergo major change because of forces beyond our control – as that challenges our modern sense of individualistic or objective morality.  

One other point: I want my protagonist to be appealing, but movie investors will say that he should not be too perfect. Otherwise he will intimidate and drive away viewers. So the fact that he is carrying on a morally questionable affair while his fiancee has disappeared does mix things up, in a desirable direction for storytelling.
Are movies just to entertain, or can they “teach”? That’s a trick question. Hollywood – the enemy – often has very distinct ideas about what it can sell, and publicly traded companies in Tinseltown are numbers-driven, very conscious of the bottom line every weekend, and of what will play to families in the multiplexes, and especially now what will play to kids and teenagers. Nevertheless, the movie literature is loaded with films that teach a point, bankrolled by major studios as well as by indies.

 Hollywood screenwriting does have its rules, with the three-party story, and projects that don’t break the rules too much are more likely to get funded. One of the best socially conscious films that follows the formula was Erin Brokovich (2000, Universal, dir. Steven Soderbergh). The heroine is an unemployed single mother, played by a charismatic Julia Roberts, and she eventually brings down a utility that has polluted a local water supply.  In The Insider (1999, Touchstone dir. Michael Mann), research biologist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) has to lie to honor a confidentiality agreement with Big Tobacco, as CBS producer Lowell Bergmann has to fight the network’s fears of litigation over “tortuous interference.” In Thank you for Smoking (2006, Fox Searchlight, dir. Jason Reitman) Aaron Eckart wins sympathy as a protagonist despite the fact that he has had to earn a living selling evil, and he will go through his own tribulations. Participant has backed some films in this spirit. North Country (2005, Warner Brothers, dir. Niki Caro) deals with workplace sexual harassment of females in a macho industry (mining) and does use some flashback techniques in the courtroom drama. Good Night, and Good Luck (2005, Warner Independent Pictures, dir. George Clooney) presents the story of Edward R. Murrow fighting McCarthyism in a delicious black-and-white spectacle.  The subject of “don’t ask don’t tell” for homosexuals in the military has generated some relatively low budget narrative films, such as Serving in Silence. This particular topic offers rich material for future films.   I think there is a good case for using layered storytelling techniques in presenting social issues, even though some of the films cited above are rather straightforward in using the three part structure. Adaptation (2002, Columbia, dir. Spike Jonze) is about screenwriting and adapting books about the environment itself, with clever, recursive storytelling devices, finally leading to a climax in the fragile Florida Everglades. In Bad Education (2004, Sony Pictures Classics) Pedro Almodovar layers his tale about the effects of abuse into flashbacks, working their way into a script that one of the adult gay male characters wants made into a movie, with a Hitchockian effect – and keeps attractive and likeable protagonists in front of the moviegoer most of the time, even as these characters go through various roles of their own. 

 This brings us to documentary, which has its own discipline, and actually invokes a three-part structure similar to fiction – where the last part of the documentary presents surprise conclusions to the audience. Among the best known are Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, which was answered by Fahrenhype 9/11. But probably the most important in 2006 is Al Gore’s global warming epistle, An Inconvenient Truth, which works amazingly well as a college lecture with slides. Dream Out Loud films has a project “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” about the issue mentioned above. (Actually, the case history of Army lieutenant and Arizona state representative Steve May is covered in the documentary Gay Republicans). I can envision a documentary “Do Ask Do Tell” about the effect of global personal publishing and search engines on social hierarchies and institutions (especially the family), and I have sketched on out at http://www.doaskdotell.com/photo   Films that teach a “didactic” message need to look real. In that respect, independent films are more likely to me filmed in their actual locations than big budget productions. With many films, it is helpful to have the full 2.3 to 1 anamorphic aspect ratio in order to have a maximum visual effect.