Friday, October 12, 2012


Note: In honor of the ReelAbilities Film Fest coming up the first week in November, I thought I’d post some thoughts on film theory and Communication. If I had to write another thesis, it would probably be on using film and pop culture to promote strong images of disability. This one though is about film and conflict resolution, which was another idea I toyed with, but decided not to develop at the time. So, maybe now’s the time, and I hope it makes you think about your favorite movies!


“The movie is not only a supreme expression of mechanism, but paradoxically it offers as product the most magical of consumer commodities, namely dreams. It is, therefore, not accidental that the movie has excelled as a medium that offers poor people roles of riches and power beyond the dreams of avarice.”1
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
(McLuhan, 1964 pg. 290)

People all have their favorite movies, and with those movies come strong dreams. Audiences identify with their favorite characters, experience their favorite scenes, and even sometimes recite the dialogue over their favorite film as it occurs, such as: “Luke, I am your father.” What is it about film that is relevant to negotiation? Dreams represent goals, desires, or in the language of Ury et al., interests presented in a psychologically entertaining and mythical story: As Joseph Campbell says in The Power of Myth: “When Ben Kenobi says, "May the Force be with you," he's speaking of the power and energy of life, not of programmed political intentions.”2 (Campbell 1988, pg. 145)

That is to say, movies have mythological and metaphysical structures that fulfill interests. (Security, belonging, sense of control.) Hence, egos can now be invested in the movies as the viewers watch and form positions on movies. A decision so simple as what movie to watch can become a contest of wills, as Ury et al. say: "I'm not going to give in. If you want to go to the movies with me, it's The Maltese Falcon or nothing."3 (Ury et al., 1981 pg. 6) But, the wonder of the film is that it brings people together to discuss what they dislike or like about the plot, in an entertaining atmosphere where interests are revealed. In the above example, dialogue is still possible based on the fact that we know that the viewer likes The Maltese Falcon. The key is to ask why.

In that way, because it asks why, many of the steps in Timothy Corrigan’s A Short Guide To Writing About Film mirror Ury et al.’s “Principled Negotiation”. Ury et al. called interests and positions what Corrigan called opinion and evaluation. In evaluation, aim is: “not pronouncing a film good or bad, but explaining why.”4(Corrigan 2004, pg. 15) Compared to Ury et al., both have similar methods for determining interests behind positions: “Examine each position they take, and ask yourself "Why?"” the advantage of film analysis in negotiation is that films represent desires, “hot buttons”, provide a context for discourse, which enables both parties to analyze their own feelings corresponding the film’s visual lexicon of characters, scenes, and film technique. (i.e. camera use or identifying themes.)

II. Films as Desires:

“The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (Campbell, 1988 pg. 48)
Paraphrasing Campbell, a hero is a person who has looked inside himself or herself and undertaken a quest for something greater than the individual self. Because of the reflective nature of the hero, he or she ultimately returns to realizing that the power that transformed himself or herself. “...if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.” (Campbell, 1988 pg. 113) The power to look inside your bliss and discover your inner power through mythical transformation is the power that film gives to the viewer. This is why viewers identify with characters in movies. Through the experiences of the characters in movies, dreams are presented. For McLuhan, this was a transformation of the “world of display” once privileged only to the rich, as was Greek drama. This world was previously taken from the rich by photography. It has only been transferred to a dramatic medium, which is now widely available to popular culture. The advantage of the use of film in negotiation is this widespread appeal coupled with the drama’s ability to create myth, and the power of the visual media to create dreams. Speaking of Greek drama (which McLuhan transferred to film drama) Nietzsche reminds us in The Birth of Tragedy that art is a“ saving sorceress ”, and that “she alone may transform these horrible reflections on the nausea and absurdity of existence into representations with which humankind may live.”5 (Nietzsche trans. Kaufmann, 1872/1967 pg. 60) In just this way, movies arouse emotions by mise-en-scène and take forms with which we can live, such as Luke Skywalker, Scarface, or even Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the point in negotiation being to explain why we identify with the characters or mise-en-scène.

That media create dreams is not a new idea. Freud’s classic example is a glass of water. If I desire a glass of water, but cannot reach it, there is a good chance that the water will show up in a dream as a medium to express thirst: “If I succeed in appeasing my thirst by means of the dream that I am drinking I need not wake in order to satisfy that thirst. It is thus a dream of convience. The dream takes the place of action, as elsewhere in life.”6 (Freud trans. Wadsworth 1900/1997, pg. 35) Now, that I’ve established how dreams are transferred through films to the viewer, through mythic structure, visual imagery, and Freudian wish-fulfillment, I can demonstrate the usefulness of negotiating through film. Firstly, film provides the method outlined by Ury et al., namely:

“1. Separate the People from the Problem
2. Focus on Interests, Not Positions
3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain
4. Insist on Objective Criteria”
(Ury et al., 1981 pg. 15)

The first two steps are equivalent to using Timothy Corrigan’s evaluation vs. opinion. That is: What elements of the film do we find agreeable and why? Of course, in separating the person from the problem, film has the advantage of expressing desires in a form which is only a movie, so we cannot blame the person (using evaluation) for identifying with particular happenings in a movie. Films are emotional configurations that mirror the metaphorically-based dreamworld. Emotions are necessarily far-fetched, and include our deepest fantasies.

Another advantage of films in explicating emotions during conflict is the ability of film to invent options for mutual gain. First, the film sets up a soft negotiation “context”, in which the parties have come together for entertainment, but still leaves room for principled negotiation because the options for mutual gain are presented in the film itself. For example, we might say that one party identifies with the conflict of Luke Skywalker, and the other with Darth Vader. Why? From here, the options present themselves through narrative. Perhaps one side feels downtrodden and so gives itself power through Luke. What wish does he fulfill? At the very least, the parties have come together to watch Star Wars, and that will build trust. In believing film debate to be a source of cohesion, I am also supported by S.I. Hayakawa’s notion that the function of chit-chat reveals social cohesion. “It is the togetherness of the talking, then, is the most important element on social conversation; the subject matter is only secondary.”7 (Hiyakawa, 1992 pg. 58) The subject matter of conflict is enhanced by the cohesion of viewing films together. Finally, the objective criteria are given by the film, its history, and its narrative. (Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how films, according to me, both create and resolve conflict! See if your favorite characters are mentioned!)

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