A good story has a way of getting inside our heads. Every time we pick up a book or go to a movie, we're volunteering to be manipulated.
We don't like feeling manipulated in our everyday lives, and yet we're inclined to judge stories by how effectively they control our thoughts and feelings. Propaganda is known for attempting to brainwash its audience, but nearly every story engages in brainwashing, though often with more subtlety. By causing the audience to adopt a specific perspective, a story can become far more compelling.
After a second viewing of last year's sci-fi drama Arrival, I noticed this type of brainwashing in action (yes, spoilers are coming). The film follows Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited to communicate with aliens. The film repeatedly cuts to scenes of Louise and her young daughter, leading the audience to believe she is experiencing flashbacks of her past. However, it eventually becomes clear that, as she learns the alien language, she gains the ability to perceive time as they do. The "flashbacks" are not moments that she is recalling, but rather moments from the future that she is experiencing in the present.
Arrival lends itself to second viewings. That is not to say that it cannot be understood with only one viewing, but rather that a second viewing increases one's appreciation of the twist, rather than diminishing it. Films may not have narration start-to-finish, as novels do, but Arrival is essentially told from Louise's perspective. The film is edited in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, presenting scenes in the order Louise experiences them, rather than the order in which they occur according to linear time.
Everything we see is from her point of view, but we don't understand her perspective until toward the end of the film. In a second viewing, the viewer has already been taught her perspective. In fact, I couldn't even identify a moment in which the twist is revealed on my second viewing, because it seems obvious from the first scene once you have learned her perspective. Just as the aliens gift her with their understanding of time, the film bestows her perspective upon the audience.
The film's use of manipulation is innocent, perhaps even benevolent, but it shows just how powerful art can be in reshaping perspectives. Art cannot force us to accept ideas we disagree with, but it can certainly manipulate our perspective. This power is undeniable, but what responsibilities it places on storytellers and audiences is harder to determine.