Premiering this Friday is The Wolfpack, a documentary about six brothers who grew up almost entirely isolated from the world in a Lower East Side apartment in New York City. Most of what the Angulo boys did know of life beyond those walls came from the family’s collection of thousands of VHS tapes and DVDs. Their real lives were strictly circumscribed by a father who feared the city’s crime and corrupting influence, but “as far as movies went,” said one of the boys, “we had all the freedom in the world.”
So movies became their world — or at least, the world as filtered through the lenses of visionaries like Quentin Tarantino, Terrence Malick, Francis Ford Coppola and Christopher Nolan. The brothers, now ages 16 to 23, became passionate movie lovers and even made home movies in which they re-created scenes from favorites like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and The Dark Knight. Now two of the boys are starting their own film production company, Wolfpack Pictures. The documentary explores what happens when our worldview is shaped entirely by the dreamscape, the larger-than-life characters, the self-consciously crafted dialogue, and the soundtrack of film.
But in fact, Americans today aren’t much different from that “wolfpack,” as the Angulo brothers were nicknamed. In the last hundred years, Hollywood has increasingly served as our teacher. Yes, unlike the sheltered Angulo brothers, we all have our own personal experiences of the world beyond the big screen, but most of us aren’t aware of the extent to which movies have become our shared experiences, and have molded our cultural worldview.
We largely get our history through movies, for example: from Birth of a Nation to Selma, from Spartacus to Lincoln, from Lawrence of Arabia to Argo, our understanding of the past resembles less of what we may have read (or more likely haven’t read) than of what we have seen and heard onscreen. Biopics like Ali, Ray, and The Aviator change the way we perceive famous figures – and the way we literally see them. When asked to picture General George Patton, for example, it’s difficult not to see George C. Scott, or to imagine Elizabeth Taylor when we think of Cleopatra.
The problem with this is that movies are more myth than truth. Historical dramas, for example, are rarely accurate except in the broad strokes, and sometimes not even then. This is not to say that filmmakers are purposefully rewriting the past (although many are); it’s just that screenwriters inescapably have to reshape history to fit the structure and dramatic arcs of effective storytelling.
As a result, a decent amount of what we see onscreen is made up or perhaps even contradicts the historical truth. And studies have shown that unless viewers are told specifically which elements of an historical flick are not factual, they tend to absorb the false equally with the true. This is why film makes such successful propaganda – more so than any other art form. “For us,” Lenin once said of his Communist brethren, “cinema is the most important of the arts.” He didn’t mean aesthetically, of course; he was referring to its indoctrinating power.
More than any other art form, movies now bind us together culturally. Hollywood is democratizing all culture into pop culture. The touchstones of Shakespeare, the Bible, and Mark Twain are gradually being replaced by our shared references from Star Wars, The Godfather, and Titanic. Even on a personal level, people will claim that they understand movies are not real life, but in fact, we often internalize scenes from them more deeply than our own memories.
Twenty-five hundred years ago Plato told his allegory of the cave, in which people are like lifelong prisoners chained in a cavern, facing a blank wall. Their reality consists entirely of blurred shadows that dance on the wall, projected by things passing in front of a fire behind the prisoners. Plato argued that only the philosopher understands that these dim shadows are not the true, vivid forms of reality. Not too unlike his prisoners and the Angulo brothers, we have grown up with a fading ability to distinguish the forms dancing on cinema screens from the real world.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/18/15)