How Art Alters Our Reality

Life imitates art far more than art imitates life. - Oscar Wilde

The idea that a film, radio program or TV episode can influence a generation of people seems like a scary thought. Yet, time and again, we’ve seen that the events in a fictional world can have consequences in our real world. Some far more sinister than others. The 2004 indie smash hit Sideways follows two men - Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, and Jack played by Thomas Hayden Church - who take a trip to wine country together, pursuing very different goals. The banter, honesty and undeniable tragedy of Giamatti’s Miles charmed audiences at the time of the film’s release. In particular, his infamous monologue in which he curses at the prospect of drinking Merlot at a dinner seems to have struck a nerve with the moviegoers of the time and so, the popular red wine’s sales experienced a significant dip.

Thus, the Sideways Effect was born. A concept that encompasses the idea that film and other narrative mediums can elicit such a visceral audience response that it has an effect on the outside world, leaving the confines of the screen and manifesting itself in reality. To find the first true example of this, we have to go back to the early 20th century.

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation is an epic set just after the Civil War. Though a work of fiction, the film explores the U.S. during the era of Reconstruction as the country attempted to contend with the aftershocks of a brutal and divisive war. The film’s calling card is its racist and vulgar depiction of Black people and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. At the time of the film’s release, the KKK had basically died out as an organization. By the end of the 19th century, it was more a group of disparate gangs operating on their own rather than the organized criminal syndicate we think of today. Sadly, the premiere of the film and its subsequent screening at the White House, as requested by President Woodrow Wilson, led to a resurgence of the Klan throughout the 1910s and beyond. The film was essentially propaganda, and its success was scary. Membership of the KKK exploded and race relations in the United States were plunged back into conflict and despair. It’s impossible to quantify how much the film itself played into the overall sentiments white people had toward Black people, but it had an undeniable effect. 

This dark side of the Sideways Effect isn’t unique to The Birth of a Nation. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster Jaws had such an infamous impact on shark populations that it was also given its own “effect”. Before the film’s release, humans had little context to support an opinion of sharks one way or the other. Sure, they have always been a bit scary, but was anyone actually worried about them? When the film was released, its music, cinematography and, of course, the dreaded image of a fin slicing through water, all combined to create the ultimate vision of terror, one that was seared into audiences' brains. Even after the film ended, the associations remained. And so following the release of the movie in 1975, shark populations decreased by the thousands thanks to fishermen and sailors hunting them as trophies. 

The truth is that sharks are not cold-blooded killers who thirst for human flesh. In fact, only about a dozen of the more than 400 known species of sharks have ever been involved in an attack on humans. But Jaws had changed that perception in the minds of an entire generation. As a result, to this day, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year. The effect of this fictional story was so disastrous that the writer of the book that the movie was based on, Peter Benchley, wishes he had never written about the villainous great white.

It’s important to make a distinction between the way Jaws and The Birth of a Nation affected moviegoers and the way Sideways influenced a generation of wine drinkers. The increase in shark hunting was as a result of the fear Jaws created around sharks, great whites in particular. On the other hand, Sideways had a more subtle impact. Its ideas were buried deep in characters, similar to Tom Cruise in Top Gun. The original Top Gun is known as one of the greatest action movies ever made, and was the  perfect vehicle for an actor like Tom Cruise to dazzle and inspire us. The film glorified the U.S. Navy, going as far as to invent the idea that it uses pilot rankings and trophies to help the organization look and feel more like a sports team. There was a brotherhood depicted that invariably made the U.S Navy look, well, fun. It seemed like the Navy itself was aware of the potential appeal of the film as they famously set up recruiting sites outside theaters all over the country during the film’s initial release. This led to an incredible 500% increase in recruitment in the year after the film premiered. Does that mean Top Gun was produced and financed by the U.S. government? Well, we may never know for sure. But the timing of the film’s release - when the US was in the middle of a cold war - and the decision of the Navy to stage recruitment sites outside of theaters certainly raised some eyebrows.  

The history of storytelling is long and complex. Humans have been telling stories since we had language, maybe even earlier than that. And since the beginning, these tales were designed not just to entertain, but also to inform and shape our thoughts, beliefs and actions. So what does this say about our nature as humans? Are we naturally easily influenced, or is there something innately persuasive about the media we consume? I think the answer lies somewhere in between the two. 

The outward, aggressive nature of The Birth of a Nation and Jaws represent a base, simplistic manipulation of the human psyche. These stories want us to feel something specific: fear, hate, anger. They play on simple emotions, things we have all experienced or felt, things we see every day around us. They are political because they are obvious. We know what they want us to feel and think. But films like Sideways and even Top Gun are different. They present us with a set of ideas hidden away inside of a character and that gives them authority. Maverick is an authority because he’s great at what he does. He’s likable, a little flawed, so he’s relatable. The same can be applied to Miles - who is presented in the film as an “expert” on wine - and so naturally, we believe these characters. Even when that’s all they are, characters. 

It’s unlikely that the writers of Top Gun or Sideways were trying to accomplish anything by having Miles rant about Merlot or with Maverick doing cool tricks in his fighter jet. In film terms, these actions are expository, they are meant to tell us about the characters so we build empathy, a relationship. We formed such a strong relationship with these fictional characters, in fact, that we started to subconsciously act like them. We stopped drinking Merlot. We started joining the Navy.

Today, social media apps like TikTok and Instagram encourage us to tell stories about our lives and personal experiences. It’s normal to talk to our phones about something that went on in our day and post it online. We scroll past dozens of videos every day featuring different people telling various stories. We watch vlogs, beauty tips, mukbangs, cooking videos, all day, every day. We are affected with stories and imagery exponentially more than we were when The Birth of a Nation was released, or even when Jaws or Sideways came out. This made me wonder; has the increase in the volume of stories we consume affected the potency of the Sideways Effect? 

Are films still able to affect us today in the same way they did at the turn of the last century? The short answer is maybe not. While more recent films such as Blackfish have likely increased our awareness of issues and created a shift on a political or conscious level, I can’t think of a clear-cut example of a recent film that spontaneously changed the trajectory of something like Merlot sales or the number of sharks hunted each year. Perhaps this might also be due to everyone having access to information now more than ever, and as a result, we can easily fact check things. Maybe, maybe not. 

In the end, the Sideways Effect is just another way of saying that, as people, we will always see ourselves in the images and stories we consume. We will always interpret how we see them,we will always make assumptions and draw our own conclusions. Or maybe it says something about the movies we watch, about their intention, their desire to change and affect us. Either way, we are in a constant state of change, and stories - movies, TV, radio, podcasts- will affect that change whether we want them to or not.