Extra Cinematic Code
An extra cinematic code is a device used in media to cause audiences to draw subtle, often unconscious conclusions about people, places and things. As an avid film fan I digest a daily dose of media, often films and television shows on Netflix. The now popular Gotham is a series I have been enjoying, and yet I cannot see past the many extra cinematic codes. Some are quite obvious and clearly not subtle, for instance the corruption of city officials in Gotham. This behavior is prevalent throughout the series, and as an audience we realize that the producers are saying something larger about our society as a whole. I illustrate this use of extra cinematic code first in order to further elucidate one that is perhaps not so readily perceived.
Once Arkham is introduced and we begin to see inside its dark depths, we are immediately surrounded by extreme and aberrant criminals. We find no sympathetic characters here, rather a motley crew of trumped up stereotypes. Now this is not to say that I disapprove of the series, or that I am shaming them. I am merely pointing out how regularly we as a society reiterate some very negative, and often untrue stereotypes about the mentally ill. While it is popular and certainly tantalizing to portray the mentally ill as disheveled and violent deviants, who scream at illusory “friends” and worry their hands frantically, this image is quite outlandish and most often fabricated. Perhaps as a society it is easier to accept the idea of our mentally ill counterparts, if we are able to tell ourselves that we could easily spot a “crazy” person. Or maybe it brings some solace knowing that the “lunatics” are locked up, regardless of the circumstances, and cannot infect the rest of us. It is curious though, given that most people have at least one person in their family who suffers from some form of mental illness.
This dual use of extra cinematic code creates a climate in which the audience becomes complicit in the latter by agreeing to the terms of the former. In the case of Gotham it is likely that this climate is unintentional, but such has not always been the case. D.W. Griffith‘s Birth of a Nation is the most likely subject for discussion, and is used to teach extra cinematic code in film history courses. In the case of Griffith the intention of making the film was to portray blacks as evil and white KKK clan members as heroes. What we typically experience in contemporary film is slightly more subtle, yet it exists.
I enjoy a good film or television series, including Gotham, yet I feel that as co-creators in society we need to make an effort to portray the mentally ill as humans struggling with disease. Mental illness doesn’t happen somewhere else, to someone else; it happens right at home. I encourage you to turn on the extra cinematic code filter next time you sit down to watch a film or television series, and simply pay attention to what is happening between the notes, and between the words. Become a slightly more critical viewer and perhaps you will see the many ways in which our perceptions of the world are shaped for us. For more information on extra-cinematic code: White Screens, Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side
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