When Movies Go Beyond Good and Evil


Movies are complicated. I know how obvious this is as a statement, but while it may be painfully obvious when stated in the abstract, it seems less obvious or less apparent when we witness or sometimes engage in discussions surrounding the reception of controversial films. This is particularly true, and especially troublesome, whenever we want to scrutinize the moral qualities of specific movies. It’s an issue that was batted around for a while during awards season a few months ago, centering most acutely on Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture, but it really comes up quite often even though it doesn’t always attract attention. The tendency to explicitly or implicitly evaluate a film on moral grounds is problematic on a couple of grounds: one, the fact that interpreting and identifying a movie’s moral argument or disposition can be a tall task on its own, especially when the movie in question is exceptionally dense, or not strictly literal, or deliberately opaque; and two, it presupposes that art’s primary and perhaps sole concern ought to be the quest for moral clarity, a kind of ethics teacher for the masses, an advocate for The Truth.

Anyone who takes great pleasure in talking about movies, and especially those who like to read and write stuff about movies, must have some appreciation for opinions that differ from their own. Critics love to remind folks that the best critics are the ones you disagree with but still enjoy reading. This is seen as a badge of honor, a true token of a writer’s merit, that their perspective is seen as so interesting and their writing so engaging that it captures the reader’s fascination despite or even because of this divergence. There is joy in the experience of seeing your own thoughts and perspective reflected back at you, often in a manner more eloquent than many of us may be capable of, but there is also an appreciation of the experience of the opposite: hearing someone’s take on a subject that is entirely different from your own, and feeling like your horizons have been expanded even by just a little bit. Dismissing all critical opinions that differ from one’s own is generally seen as narrow-minded, and rightly so.

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Is the same attitude extended toward movies? I’m not sure. In many cases, it seems as though two critical errors get made when we turn from prose to cinema. The first is that too often folks treat movies as though they’re as clear to understand as an essay, that the storytelling is usually making an argument or a statement or laying out a “theme” that’s relatively easy to capture in a few sentences. There can be artistry to exposition of course, but approaching moral questions as they’re explored cinematically in the same way you’d explore them on paper is missing the point—that certain ideas can be explored differently in images and story than they can in mere words. So films often have opinions attributed to them the same way that film reviews do, but this is hugely problematic, often simplistic. And then the second big problem with judging movies from a moral standpoint is that the courtesy that is extended to writers, that they can be interesting even when the reader disagrees with their conclusions, is rarely applied to movies. The result that I’ve noticed all too often, one that irks me in the worst way, is critics who wrongly identify a movie’s moral viewpoint and then declare it a bad movie because of that perceived viewpoint.

It would have been nice to see this topic get explored a bit more deeply when Zero Dark Thirty came out, because some of the first people to see it, before it was released more widely, were making Leni Riefenstahl comparisons and claiming the movie unequivocally advocates the use of torture. This claim, at the very least the “unequivocally” part, was soon disproven. There’s a far stronger case to be made that the movie is indeed sharply critical of the interrogation methods used in the search for Bin Laden. The rebuttal then became well, if the filmmakers really are against the use of torture they should have portrayed all the torturers clearly as villains so that it was obvious how evil they were for doing what they did. Then Ben Affleck got his Oscar and we all lost interest.

I, for one, was still left wondering, if Kathryn Bigelow had really made a pro-torture picture, even if every other aspect of it remained just as strong, could it be justifiably considered an equally masterful film? Is the way in which it complicates how people understand the use and effects of torture its defining quality? In this case, I think the answer is…a little complicated. That is, the stance of this movie is one that seeks to unpack dense layers of moral challenges rather than applying a sweeping general ethic. And it’s precisely this exploration of layers upon layers of moral decisions that provides a fascinating look at the way the CIA operates and the subtle yet complex character of Maya, and by extension the country as a whole. It’s meant to reject the binary thinking that would dictate she must either be a hero or a villain, the most brilliant analyst or a despicable torturer. That’s far too simple, too reductive. But I would maintain that the moral component of this story is not the (sole) cause of its excellence; there is too much to be said of the masterful beauty of the filmmaking and the richness of the characters. Instead, I would say that the profound moral challenges and the other aforementioned cinematic elements arise independently from the same source: the collaborative mind of Bigelow and Mark Boal, whose instincts for sound and visual and tonal and rhythmic details are unspeakably savvy. So the question I posed is a tad moot.

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There are plenty of examples of films that present certain political, moral, or religious worldviews that we may find disagreeable or even repugnant, but are terrifically made pieces of work. The example I always return to, because unlike something like Birth of a Nation I was able to consume and process it contemporaneously, is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. This is kind of a despicable movie. Critics and scholars have done a noble job specifying the film’s offensive depiction of Jewish characters and problematic extremist theology. It’s a difficult film to defend in terms of its ideas. That’s probably the reason that the beauty of the movie is so often overlooked. I don’t know of many other instances where a movie’s ideas were slightly nauseating while its imagery and visual storytelling so compelling and effective. The scenes between Jesus and Mary in particular are deeply felt and expertly assembled, set up in the opening act of the film with an unexpected emotional payoff coming near the conclusion. I’d go so far as to call it something of a bastardized masterpiece. It is a sublime rendering of Mel Gibson’s deep religious convictions; it’s just that his beliefs are absolutely appalling. Achieving this kind of dissonance seems rare, but is apparently possible.

Questions of morality tend to appeal to a matter of judgment, and this can become a hindrance to the appreciation of certain movies if it veers toward outright judgmentalism. In my early years as a young sheltered Christian, I inherited the habit of assessing movies based on how I judged the morality of the protagonists, and missed out on so many great, rich, fascinating stories that I’m still trying to catch up on, from Scorsese to the Coens—essentially any story featuring the anti-hero type. Characters and environments have only become more complex and challenging in recent years, with filmmakers seeking to represent new stories for a world becoming more and more in tune with its degrees of diversity. But this reflects one of film’s greatest assets: the ability to transport audiences into worlds they wouldn’t otherwise experience, even if it’s a less authentic, less permanent, less fully developed version of the reality on which it’s meant to be based. It’s closer than many of us would get on our own.

A movie like Spring Breakers suffers if we enter this world—which is as much the world of the mind and sensibilities of Harmony Korine as it is the world of Alien and Faith and Candy and the others—and insert the bias of our own moral dispositions into it and impress our narrow experiences and views upon the characters. There’s a temptation as we watch movies to expect characters to act the way we want them to, or rather, the way we think we would if we were in their position. It’s an emotional transference that movies depend upon for that deep connection we make with so many beloved characters and stories, but it can have a dark side, where we judge characters more harshly when they behave in ways we find distasteful. In the case of Spring Breakers, I think it’s more conducive to both digging the movie’s aesthetic as well as grappling with its muddy but maybe poignant themes to try to set these impulses aside. Their actions are more of a mechanism to draw out ideas regarding escapism and the falseness of the American dream and everything.

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A better example, or at least one I may be able to describe my thoughts on more clearly, might be Beasts of the Southern Wild. The response to this film was overwhelmingly positive, but some took issue with what was perceived as a romanticization of the poverty depicted in the Bathtub community. While I can sympathize with any impulse to beware possible nefarious motivations behind the poverty tourism genre, I think it’s a type of story that’s explored with the intention of answering the question of how certain groups of people can reach certain decisions, and reach certain levels of satisfaction with the environment they come from or belong to. Beasts offers some answers to the questions surrounding Hurricane Katrina, and how a person can decide against evacuating their home in the event of an emergency like a natural disaster. I, too, would like more than anything to see Hushpuppy move to the city and go to college. But the movie, I think, demonstrates what can lead a person to devote themselves to the lifestyle they come from, and evokes a certain justifiable shame on us for wishing any different based on values that, if we’re honest, are fundamentally dictated by where we come from. Beasts indicts us for these thoughts in that devastating shot of Hushpuppy in the nursery, painfully uncomfortable in her borrowed dress.

Still, these moral considerations aren’t harmful in and of themselves, but rather the key issue, in my view, is finding when precisely they ought to be applied, or when they are best employed. It’s a difficult thing, determining when our moral biases are interfering with a beautiful story and ideas more abstract than the specific values we’re trying to impose on them, or alternatively, when we may be too relativistic, too morally lenient. One film I can’t figure out for myself is Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. I am over the moon for the way he’s telling stories these days, with this impressionistic editing and abstract narrative poetry. But the gender stereotyping in this one vexed me and the religious attitude toward marriage is one I have deep moral issues with—the whole two-becoming-one thing. That’s my stuff keeping me from appreciating his storytelling, though. Or maybe it was just Ben Affleck’s face.

Morality is one evaluative criterion that gets really thorny when it comes to any art form. Since movies are the art form that seems to represent reality most realistically, complacency toward a movie’s morals almost feels like complacency toward morality in general. It’s sifting the implicitly expressed morality from the deliberate expressions of morality that poses the challenge at hand. And it’s as difficult to do as it is to describe.

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I am an aspiring film writer in Ottawa and a former student of the York University Cinema Studies graduate program. When I'm not watching movies I'm usually stressing about not watching enough movies.

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