Film Imitates Life Imitating Film


Cynicism runs rampant in “Dialectic of Enlightenment.” Horkheimer and Adorno present us, once again, with a theory that embraces “death?of the individual. ” I felt compelled to draft an obituary in honor of the loss (–>).

H&A set up the?tragedy by saying: ?

The culture industry as a whole has molded men as a type unfailingly reproduced in every product. … The explicit and implicit, exoteric and esoteric catalog of the forbidden and tolerated is so extensive that that it not only defines the area of freedom but is all-powerful inside it. (1227, emphasis mine)

In other words, film not only imitates life, it reproduces the?cyclical effect?where?life then?imitates film.??This may seem innocent enough, until we realize that “whenever the culture industry still issues an invitation naively to identify, it is immediately withdrawn” (1233). Breaking its promise to offer escape, entertainment never allows us?anything but reinforcement of?conformity in a late capitalist?society.?It offers what we cannot have (sexual freedom), then punishes those characters who indulge as?tragic examples of how not to operate within the collective.?Delight is cheapened and we are reduced to laughter at another’s expense. (Does anyone remember laughter?) We are allowed nothing more than this freedom to laugh.

Julian?BeeverThis picture from Julian Beever, the sidewalk chalk artist, reminds me of this theory in action. (I realize that this is not an example of?film. Bear with me.) H&A say that:

The lucky actors on the screen are copies of the same category as every member of the public. … [Movie-goers] are assured that they are all right as they are, that they could do just as well and that nothing beyond their powers will be asked of them. But at the same time they are given a hint that any effort would be useless because even bourgeois luck no longer has any connection with the calculable effect of their own work. They take the hint.(1233)

In essence, film offers us a self portrait like?Beever’s above, but with an awful?message attached. You are who you are and that’s all you’ll ever be: a consumer, an employee, another?cog in the machine. In Beever’s?self portrait?he is?working, the reflection of one more cog in the collective. He isn’t an individual in his own art as there are now two of him, one a copy and different only by a matter of degree. We see ourselves in film, we think, but?those characters we identify with are mere copies as well, figments of society?stifling our imagination, keeping in?check our ability to escape. Sadly, as consumers, we are complicit in this process of repression.

In late capitalism, H&A believe that?use value in art is replaced by exchange value. To create art strictly as?expression?was once revered, yet to exchange that art strictly for monetary reasons dilutes personal expression down to a marketable style. We continue to be victims of capitalism and cooerced into such consumerism because nothing better is offered. So, again, we must ask,?is our individual existence?controlled by the culture industry into?a social collective? Must I post yet another picture of Star Trek’s Borg? (I refuse.)

?YOUHope exists! What about TIME‘s 2006 Person of the Year? YOU!

As the article says:

Look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story … It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes … The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web …?And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME’s Person of the Year for 2006 is you.

Take that, Horkheimer and Adorno!
Thank you, Time Magazine.
Who says technology is oppression now?!?

Ryan and I are having an interesting conversation about this theory. It would be awesome for others to join in. Does anybody know of a film that doesn’t fall into the culture industry trap? Die Hard surely does.


  1. Kim

    I appreciate your comments, and I absolutely love the fact that we are able to tie a discussion about theory around Die Hard. It’s even better than making Seinfeld references. I can see your point about Die Hard not being an escape for John McLain, even in at innocent attempt to get away from work, he is caught up in something that makes him go above and beyond his normal duty. I guess the point I was trying to make in my blog was that movies are still an escape for the public, or the victims as Horkheimer and Adorno like to say. Sticking with Die Hard, I can’t remember the last time I had to take on 12 terrorists by myself. And maybe my “pure view” as you said, is a bit nieve. I’m sure there are certain movies which have the intent to keeping the people as cogs, or to bring Althusser back into the equation, the reproduction of the conditions of production.

  2. Hey Ryan,

    Yes, applying theory to Die Hard does in fact “rule.” Thanks for the theory op! Also, please know that I certainly don’t think your point of view nor your value of pure entertainment is naive. I’m with you on not wanting H&A to win this fight, particularly since I find their stance utterly depressing.

    To be able to comment on your preview of Die Hard was great because I had two blind spots going on. One: I couldn’t see how we could be so duped by the impress of this capitalist system upon on our gullible brains. Two: What kind of example disproves the point? I thank you, actually for posting Die Hard because, although it wasn’t your intent, I finally had my “Ahah!” moment. The fact that McLain was “just doing his job” was finally that moment where I saw theory in action. My husband and I had been using the series 24 prior to that. It wasn’t really gelling for us as we tried to build the argument for social morality into the mix. Now that I think of it in terms of prolonging the work day, Jack Bauer must make a killing (pun intended) on overtime.

    As for blind spot two, I’ll be keeping my eye open for something that doesn’t fit the bill. I still can’t come up with an example off the top of my head.

    PS: So, you’ve never taken on twelve terrorists, huh? I’m surprised. Doesn’t everybody do that in their spare time?

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