Fanatic Cinematic: Understanding problematic propaganda

Movie columnist Alex Leininger on when idea-promoting films become over-the-top

Propaganda films are my favorite.

From the graphic, vomit-inducing sequences of “Super Size Me” to the long-forgotten educational Disney movies of the 1940s, rhetoric in film is often understated and misunderstood. The 1936 cult classic “Reefer Madness” is no exception.

Right from the get-go, there’s no messing around. A scrolling message at the beginning of the film reads: “The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers.”

The opening credits throw newspaper headlines right at your face: “Police Wage War on Narcotic Ring!” “Dope Peddlers Caught in High School!” “Federals Aid Police in Drug War!”

And it’s like: really? Five minutes in, it’s easy to see that you’re in for a treat of a movie.

I’m wondering — and I’m not trying to be political — but what kind of wars are said “dope peddlers” waging? To me, it’s hard to picture a group of teenagers sitting around in a circle, gazing up at the stars and singing “Kumbaya” facilitating any sort of violent exchange. I mean, badly-tuned acoustic guitar is terribly irritating, but it’s not killing anybody.

Of course, it’s hard to argue with this hour-long spectacle of ‘30s realness. One puff of the deadly devil’s lettuce and you’re hell bound.

One would be fair to point out an issue with this column so far. Fighting propaganda film with a propaganda-laced column isn’t very logical. But, hey, hold your horses! Let me explain myself. I’m not trying to take a stance on marijuana right now. I’m writing a movie column. Honestly, I’m just attempting to point out some radical flaws and exaggerations associated with this particular style of film.

Take the aforementioned “Super Size Me,” for example. Yes, health and obesity are necessary problems to address, and McDonalds is probably more to blame for our nation’s stomach expansion epidemic than anyone. But when I witnessed Morgan Spurlock upchuck his super-sized cancer burger all over the McDonalds premises, I felt like maybe the movie industry underestimated my general intelligence.

Like, I just want a couple dozen chicken nuggets here or there. I have no intention of eating fast food on the regular, and frankly don’t plan to orally spew my greasy gourmet for the whole world to see. But thanks, Morgan, because now we all know that eating 750 tons of McDonalds every week is a poor life choice. Who the heck knew?

My point here isn’t that “Super Size Me,” or other idea-promoting films, are all terrible and shouldn’t be made. It’s just that, typically, they’re rather over-the-top.

I’ve heard so many people say “I’m never eating fast food ever again,” or “Ronald McDonald is Satan and must be stopped,” and I’d just like to point out that there’s usually a happy medium to most solutions. It’s not realistic to ignore the very real obesity issue of our country, but it’s also not necessary to boycott unhealthy foods for the rest of your natural-born life.

So, going back to “Reefer Madness,” the same idea applies. The plot of the film follows a group of teenagers hanging out, partying and ignoring their responsibilities. Sounds about right. Of course, as the movie’s name implies, quite a few joints are involved, and before you know it, murder, rape and corruption plague the city in a span of 20 minutes.

It’s sad, really, but the film is so melodramatic and appropriates so many serious issues that the whole point — don’t do drugs — is lost. As it goes, the overuse of emotional appeal outweighs any logic the film may have had to offer.

I really do think that everyone should watch “Reefer Madness,” but solely for entertainment purposes. Stick with the drug policies taught in grade school, and try not to take this failed propaganda to heart.

The McDonalds hype, however, is totally real. One Big Mac and you’re hooked for life. There’s no hope for any of us.

At least we’re all stuck in the drive-thru of life together.

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