Periodically, people disagree with my analyses of various films and respond that “it’s just a movie.” My post here about Dracula Unbound has gotten a couple comments of that nature, and sometimes my students have said that about my views on Braveheart and 300.
IJAM isn’t really an argument on its own; it’s merely an assertion. But it’s shorthand for an implicit argument that if something is “just” a movie, then it can’t actually have any deeper level of meaning. Put differently, the assumption seems to be that if a movie is entertainment, it must have no other meaning or function.
As a historian, I’m skeptical of IJAM in part because my training makes clear that anything that plays a prominent feature in a society must in some way have meaning for that society. And it’s pretty obvious to us that movies play a major role in American (not to mention Western or world) society. On a basic level, the movie industry is a huge factor in the economy; when a film studio decides to make a major film, it sinks an enormous amount of money into the film and that money goes to pay thousands of people for their contribution to the film as directors, actors, camera-men, caterers, prop-makers, costumers, and so on. Where these films get made is such a big deal economically that states compete with each other to see who can offer the biggest incentives in the form of tax-breaks and other goodies. The film is then marketed in theaters and sold in DVD or streaming form in shops and online through Amazon, Netflix, and so on. Americans shell out an estimated $20 billion on movies each year. That’s a lot of money to spend on Just A Movie.
Beyond the immediate economics, consider how much of our culture revolves around film and television. Our media provides substantial coverage of new films, their making, and how they do at the box office. An enormous portion of our media is devoted to coverage of actors and their sex lives, public appearances, social and political views, and the award shows they attend. The 2015 Oscar Awards ceremony was watched by 36.6 million viewers, down from 2014’s 43.7 million viewers. That means that around 10% of the entire US population watched the Oscars; in an age of fractured media consumption and narrowcasting, very few events can claim that many eyes simultaneously. And that’s not even factoring in the international viewership.
And we argue about our favorite and most hated shows and films. We care when a movie we like does well, and many people will passionately defend shows and movies they like and passionately attack shows and movies they dislike. Sean Hannity tweeted his anger over American Sniper failing to win Best Picture, and many other conservatives agreed with him, taking it as a sign of the Academy’s liberalism and lack of patriotism, while many liberals were angry that Selma failed to earn even a nomination for its director Ava DuVernay, viewing it as a sign of racism and sexism in the Academy. And those are just two of the most recent film controversies; Twitter recently exploded with outrage and counter-outrage over a gay kiss on The Walking Dead.
IJAM is often raised by people who are clearly angry or upset about a critique they disagree with. But the fact that they are angry is itself proof that IJAM is false. If it’s just a movie, then why get upset when someone sees something to criticize in it? If 300 is just a movie, why does a discussion of its hostility toward physically deformed people matter?
If It’s Just a Movie, why do people care enough about these characters that they want to see more of their story? Why would a housewife somewhere want to see Buffy Summers in action one more time badly enough to sit down and write a new story about her? Why do comic book geeks argue about whether Batman could defeat Superman in a fight? Why is there talk about resurrecting Ripley for yet another unnecessary sequel? Why do so many people insist that Han shot first? Why did Star Trek Into Darkness irritate so many fans with its shitty re-imaging of the conflict between the Enterprise crew and Khan Noonien Singh? Why do we debate about which actress can be Wonder Woman the way she’s supposed to be? Because we care about these characters and what happens to them. They may not be real, but they still matter to us, and we want to see their stories told right.
All of this demonstrates that IJAM is simply untrue; people think that movies and tvs are about much more than simple entertainment. We perceive film and tv as moral statements that certain things are ok or not ok; when a film reflects our values we take it as confirmation and when they contradict our values we take it as evidence of moral decay or regressive values.
IJAM asserts, as I said, that if something has entertainment value, it does not have any other meaning. If it’s just a movie, it can’t be a statement about politics or race or women or whatever else it might be seen as. But that’s a rather shallow argument. Just because a film might be a political statement doesn’t mean it can’t also be a thriller or a comedy. One of the things that makes Captain America: the Winter Soldier a cut above many other action films is the way that it examines the political risks of data-mining. Joss Whedon’s films and shows often actively seek to deconstruct cinematic clichés; The Cabin in the Woods is a very smart critique of horror films (and horror film fans) and their interest in mindless violence. And films often unintentionally explore issues because they can be read as metaphors; the various Aliens movies all seem to explore the fear of reproduction in different ways, even though it’s unlikely that there was a conscious choice to make that a theme of the series.
IJAM is a way to reflexively deny the possibility of meaning. Years ago, when I was just starting out as a teacher, I wound up teaching a freshman writing course. One of the assignments was to analyze a film that said something about family or gender. To get the students ready for this, we spent a little time talking about soap operas and what they might say about the women who watch them. Partway through the discussion, one of my students, a typical freshman, suddenly put her hands over her ears and said loudly, “Stop! I don’t want my soap operas to mean anything!” Apparently, the idea that a simple soap opera might have deeper significance was disturbing to this student, perhaps because it implied that the world was a lot more complex than she had assumed; if her soap opera might have meaning, anything could have meaning, and therefore she didn’t understand the world as well as she thought she did. I often think of that moment when someone brings up IJAM. If 300 or Dracula Untold has meaning, maybe that lands the viewer in a far more complicated world than he lived in before.
To me, that world is exciting and fascinating, a playground of ideas that I can romp through. But to some people, that playground of ideas must look more like a dark and menacing circus where terrible things are lurking just around the corner. It’s easier for these people to cover their ears and shout “It’s just a movie! It can’t mean anything!” But to me, the idea that a movie doesn’t mean anything robs it of all interest. I’d rather spend my life watching films and shows that mean something, even if I don’t always like the meaning I find in them. Why would I spent $10 on a film and almost as much on the popcorn if for two hours my life won’t mean anything? When a film has meaning, I leave it chewing over all sorts of issues, fighting with it like a Rubik’s Cube, trying to make sense of what I’ve just seen and figure out the patterns in it. So one movie can give me hours of interest, like a dog gnawing on a bone. That’s a major reason I write this blog; it gives me a chance to watch movies and spend some time trying to understand what I think about what I just saw and then putting those thoughts into words to share and see what other people think. And I think most of my fellow academics are a lot like me. We love to play with ideas and see where they take us.
And perhaps that’s my real objection to IJAM. It’s not just false; it’s boring. I’d rather play in my playground of ideas, because I never run of things to play with. So come on, IJAMers; put down your IJAM and come play with me. I promise you things are way more interesting over here.