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Media Studies – Happy, Texas (Mark Illsley, 1996) Essay

Often in popular film, an important function is to reassure audiences and confirm their beliefs and values. I believe this statement to be true, as illustrated by the film ‘Happy, Texas’ which focuses heavily upon the key concept of ideology, which is all about values and beliefs. The film contains a variety of realistic issues that will reassure audiences through the narrative structure as the story is told. It is through the equilibrium, disequilibrium and re or new equilibrium that our expectations are satisfied and our beliefs and values are confirmed.

Such issues are the fact that truth and honesty is always the best policy and that lies and deceit are always eventually found out. ‘Happy, Texas’ is a story built around strong well-developed comic characters that mix well with each other in a complimentary way. It is their influence with each other that relationships stem from and the issues that each must face arise from. In particular, the two main characters Harry and Wayne. For example, Harry’s relationship with Jo, whilst maintaining a homosexual image, and keeping a friendship with chappy.

At first as an attempt to deceive the people of Happy, which then develops as Harry’s own personal growth as he realises he is doing wrong. The small town people and lifestyle appeal to both of them, the effect of the two in Happy brings a change in the people they encounter, aswell as a change in themselves. This kind of character development and motivation to see a task through to the end, gives satisfaction to an audience. A change in a character means something has been achieved. The characters in ‘Happy, Texas’ are ideologically based with men playing more dominant, violent active roles.

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However female roles in this movie seem quite typical of ’90’s women’ as Jo is a female running the bank and Miss Schaefer is a bright bubbly free spirit. The women stereotypically play caring, sensitive roles and act as pillars of the community. Whereas the males, as in most films of this genre, change over time from the cheating liars that are a threat to the community at the beginning of the film, to become sensitive and trustworthy characters. The message portrayed to the audience is that alone people may seem stable, but inside they are battling with their own personal issues.

When characters like Harry and Wayne come along their problems, worries and anxieties are revealed. For instance sheriff Chappy, who is inspired by the presence of Stephen and David, tries to sort out the issues in his life, including his own sexual identity crisis. Jo, a relationship-phobic confides in Stephen, whom she thinks is gay. These strong characters help confirm the audiences beliefs and values by their own actions. The narrative structure is important in film; the audiences’ values and beliefs will not be confirmed unless there are certain turning points and development during the film.

There needs to be a progression through the narrative, an introduction, problem, solution, concluded with a happy ending. Narrative structure works by organising and presenting the story information in an understandable way. It is the values that are shown in the stages of the narrative journey that are important to both the filmmakers and the audience. This film make the reassurance of the audience easier as the linear narrative is in a fairly straightforward style, therefore is pleasing to the audience as the main values and beliefs can be confirmed.

The basic narrative shape of the film ‘Happy, Texas’ is the beginning equilibrium, where the town of Happy is calm and people are going about their day-to-day lives, whilst the prisoners are in jail. This scene setting allows the audience to identify particular values that certain types of characters have, for example, Wayne who is ‘the brawn’ rather than ‘the brain’ that doesn’t really care for anyone but himself. Then the diseuilibrium comes, as the prisoners break free, pose as the gay pageant directors, plan to rob the bank and begin to fall in love.

This is where the audience begin to see a change in characters and certain values begin to vary. For example, Harry and Wayne becoming part of the community and beginning to understand that ‘right is always better than wrong’. Finally the re-equilibrium occurs when the decision is made not to rob the bank, telling the truth, successfully entering the pageant and getting the girl. The audience have then seen the full progression through the film of the characters and their values as well as their own.

It is pleasing to the audience when the truth is out and yet the film ends on a happy note. Such narrative devices as also aid the structure of this film, for example, enigma and action codes, dramatic use of binary oppositions and a complete resolution at the end. The values raised surrounding the story are to do with imprisonment and freedom, honesty and trust, lies and deceit and, greed and love. The types of themes raised are all ones that people have strong moral values and beliefs about.

The genre of ‘Happy, Texas’ being a romantic comedy reassures the audience that there is the possibility of love for everyone and that in the end the characters have the ability to laugh about truth, lies and love. The genre of this film is greatly influenced by the media institution by which it was produced. Disney, Miramax, which is known for following the simple linear narrative structure with the resolution of a happy ending. The romantic comedy genre means that for audience’s beliefs and values to be confirmed they need to relate to the audience.

The audience of ‘Happy, Texas’ would be around 16 to 40 year olds. The storyline must be relevant to the audience so that they become emotionally involved with the film. There needs to be the possibility of love and happiness shown through the development of characters truth and honesty. Also there needs to be a thorough conclusion to all the major questions the film raises and the audience should come away from the film feeling that no matter what sexuality, intelligence or person you are, love and happiness is possible.

This is the type of genre that reaches out to the audience because they are so often in similar positions to the characters. The dominant values and ideologies shown in films of this genre by this particular institution are that the characters that are upright, honest citizens will gain relationships and be successful. Audience satisfaction is very important, without it no film would be a success. So that the audience are satisfied, life questions including moral and social values have to be explored during the story. These are often part of the problem that leads to the disequilibrium.

In ‘Happy, Texas’ instead of the usual ‘boy meets girl’, ‘boy loses girl’, and ‘boy gets girl’ scenario, there is an element of extra confusion because Harry and Wayne have to pretend to be another sexuality. In the film their maleness is threatened, they are the outsiders trying to get into the community. Therefore they have to adopt the beliefs and values that the community and audience has. The audience will relate to certain feelings and emotions created in the film, and this makes it easier for their beliefs and values to be confirmed.

From theorist’s studies, it was noticed that by the end of the 1970’s, film emphasis moved more towards what the audience actually does with the media it consumes, rather than the possible effects it has on the audience. The various responses of audiences show how media functions affect people in different ways. This type of film may be seen as an excuse for a diversion from everyday life or for the audience to compare themselves to the characters in the film. Therefore if these are the reasons people go to see film, then audiences will take pleasure when their wants and needs are met, either on a conscious or sub-conscious level.

This, the ‘uses and gratifications’ theory is important because it shows how audiences go about extracting certain information from a film. People will remember a good film because it touched them in some way. In order to gain this kind of connection between audience and film, the audience has to be reassured. The filmmakers must tell the story so that he values and beliefs are confirmed. For example, when Harry in ‘Happy, Texas’ decides that he cant go through with the bank robbery, the audience will feel glad that he has made the right decision and changed, therefore the value of trust and honesty is fulfilled,

In light of my study of ‘Happy, Texas’ I do think that the argument suggesting that audiences need to be reassured by confirming their beliefs and values is particularly true, in some cases. After all films are modelled on life and people and if the audience expects to see a representation of this, then they need to be satisfied. Obviously it depends on the film, which determines the audience and their expectations, but generally in popular film it is a very important primary function.

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