Poetry and Propaganda
Film is a language that creates meaning through an intricate interaction of its components. The basic elements of the film language – technical parameters such as shot size, framing angles, editing techniques and so on – do not carry a fixed meaning. Filming a character from a low angle certainly can grant that character power (and most often this kind of angle aims to achieve just that) but one can imagine a scene where exactly the opposite effect, or none at all, is accomplished by the same shot (1).
The meaning of a certain filmic technique is never set in stone. It can vary greatly with the context in which it is used.
Consider this example. In Dead Poets Society, a charismatic teacher (Robin Williams) tries to instill a love for poetry into his students. In All Quiet on the Western Front, a charismatic teacher (Arnold Lucy) tries to imbue his students with a love for their fatherland.
Both teachers, and both movies, employ similar tactics. The mise-en-scène, the dialogue and the action are remarkably alike. Both teachers make their case using Latin phrases. They both employ military metaphors to stir up their students. The rows of pupils are gradually goaded into action, until they stand up and loudly and proudly agree with their respective teachers. Pages are torn out and tossed about. Triumphant music rises towards the end of the scenes, underscoring the symbolic victory of the teachers.
And yet, the meaning of both scenes couldn’t be more different. In Dead Poets Society, English teacher John Keating wants his students to think for themselves. He teaches them to appreciate the beauty of poetry, the power of words. In All Quiet on the Western Front, the jingoistic teacher Kantorek wants his students to fall in line with national (war) policy and forget about their private ambitions. He teaches against the arts, praising the power of the nation and the glory to be found in war.
In spite of the similarities in style and narrative strategies, our sympathies (as viewers) differ wildly from film to film. We root for the infectious enthusiasm of John Keating, but we roll our eyes at the manipulative rhetoric of Kantorek. Because we consider the wider context of the movie: John Keating is fighting a noble battle against bureaucracy, while Kantorek is advocating a senseless war.
(1) David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson illustrate this notion with a couple of clear examples. (Bordwell, David, and Thompson, Kristin. Film Art: An Introduction. 10th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2013. 191.)
This video essay includes clips from:
Dead Poets Society [feature film] Dir. Peter Weir. Touchstone Pictures et al., USA, 1989. 128 mins.
All Quiet on the Western Front [feature film] Dir. Lewis Milestone. Universal Pictures, USA, 1930. 128 mins.
The music used is: