[This essay discusses several films of recent date (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno, and Gone, Baby, Gone) and discloses details that might spoil a viewer’s enjoyment of the story.]
After Lars Von Trier surprised the world with his bizarre film Dogville (2001), many anti-Von Trier critics thought the off-beat Danish filmmaker had really lost his focus. Chalk drawn streets, imaginary buildings, an authorial narrator introducing each chapter of the play. What was this retreat to hokey Thornton Wilder’s Our Town staging and theatrics all about? Was this a return to a Brechtian theatre of ideas, a new theatre of cruelty in order to shock the audience into thinking about morality? The degradation which Grace (Nicole Kidman) suffered at the hands of ordinary townsfolk in the Depression Era backwoods village of Dogville seemed to have no purpose for many viewers. In Flannery O’Conner’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the Misfit, a philosophical criminal, and his mobsters come upon a vacationing dysfunctional family who have run off the road and rolled their car. The Misfit has his men assassinate one by one the already injured family. Is this justice? Or is it sensational violence? Similar questions arose from the resolution of Dogville with its assassination of the wayward villagers by Grace’s mobster father (James Caan). This seemed like disgusting, excessive violence.
The Dogvillians had acted cruelly, exploiting Grace, who had been a grateful refugee among them, employing her for odd jobs at pennies’ wages. She felt she was repaying the simple villagers for the security they provided her. Then, after scape-goating her, they began to enslave her, chaining her to a millstone. Finally, even the kindest folk who had favored her mistreated the subjugated woman to a base level: children making demands on her, upbraiding her and telling on her; the men raping her or wishing to. Upon rescue, after Grace gave in to her mobster father, deciding it was just punishment to shoot the villagers who had shown their cruel nature, the mass execution of the dumb people still seemed to many a mistake, a barmy filmmaker’s pathetic overkill. Surely, when the “good man” is a mobster don playing God, a remorseless criminal, the justice and morality of a story have descended to abysmal cynicism? To justify this harsh Brechtian satire in a modern movie, I suggested that Lars Von Trier was showing us the upside-down world our society presently endured. He had not presented the viewers with an emotionally satisfying solution. But what he had intended, I thought, was to raise consciousness about the 21st century “Our Town” and ask “What do you think we must do to change this disgusting state of affairs?” It is not the artist’s job to give us strategies for saving the world, but for the audience themselves to consider just solutions, where solutions are possible. The problem of morality is laid at the feet of each of the viewers. But how do we fairly improve society’s morals? Is it even possible?
The terms moral and morality, when applied to literature and films, can be very tricky to explain. In normal parlance, they are both very subjective words. Many people might react with alarm at them, expecting someone’s pet philosophy or religious dogma to be used to judge or comment about a work of art. Of course one might also react with a shoulder shrug. The latter gesture arises perhaps from frustration because the relativism of the word moral cannot stand for much with any certainty or truth. Not to say that moral principles don’t ring fine and true – e.g. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – but where in life and art do such actions show themselves at work? Our lives are a mixed bag of behaviors and thoughts. Morality cannot be deliberately taught to another, but there may be some who know what it is when it is felt or recognize it when it is seen. From childhood, especially after the mind clicks on and speech develops, each person makes his or her moral choices to act or speak, or to do neither. Parents, from my perspective, might think they can control or teach a child moral behavior, but the delusion of the moral instructor shows up sooner or later. A procession of life’s experiences guides our sense of what is moral and it is hard to find any two people alike in this regard. Generally, one might think of actions and thoughts as moral when a person seeks some sort of meaningful truth; immoral as those whereby one gives up the search for dignity and what is decent because of some fascination with temptations and vices.
Lately I’ve heard people use the word amoral to describe the greedy, hateful nature of Daniel Day Lewis’s role in There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007). Likewise, amoral is used to describe the aleatory principle of life and death of the maniacally clever killer Anton Chigurh, whom Javier Bardem plays in No Country for Old Men (dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007). Using “amoral” the critics are perhaps let off the hook, showing no partiality, as though morality doesn’t apply to behaviors in those films because these nasty characters are not playing in life’s moral drama. Or else it implies these characters are so far off the values map, thinking about morals in regard to them is meaningless. At any rate, a philosophical edge accompanies usage of the terms in question, and to avoid arguments, one might easily get cold feet for fear of offending. Why should we bother with morality or amorality? Movies are entertainments after all.
Another usage option is to think of moral as the noun form, meaning “theme.” To state a theme or to explain the moral of the story is to offer a summing up about what a drama, film, or story means to an audience. This pertains to works of art that may be entertainments or serious interpretive fictions. Often the summing up can be a lesson about human nature. Take, for example, Lars and the Real Girl (2007, dir. Nancy Oliver), a wonderfully sensitive film about a somewhat autistic young man, Lars (Ryan Gosling). One might conclude it shows how a number of townspeople, whether family, professionals, or neighbors, by concerted efforts help a troubled man adjust to more satisfactory social life. By their patience and compassion for Lars, struggling to break out of neurosis of fear and detachment from others, they illustrate that, no matter how crazy the therapy might appear, it’s possible through cooperation for life-affirming change to come about, ever so gradually. In short: compassion and community feeling can work wonders to help transform isolated troubled souls into more sensibly, socially integrated beings. Something on that order, a general statement about life, gives one a sense of a work of art with a life-affirming change. Different kinds of morality, people behaving in a believable range of manners, imply the film might be a moral fiction. The realism of the story is supported by the slow and painful rate of improvement, and by the partial success of Lars’ change, for he has not wholly recovered from his social disabilities.
Of all the kinds of films viewers enjoy watching, the majority of them are entertainments, films of a day, Lest the reader thinks I’m without humor in proposing my criticism about moral film fictions, I heartily encourage the viewing of comedies, thrillers, action-adventure, and all the ephemeral types that fill the spectrum. In avoiding discussing the films of ephemeral enjoyment, I am looking particularly at those in which dilemmas and life changes of highly developed characters are difficult and serious. Lessons people might learn from but which one does not wish to experience in life. Living vicariously through troubling experiences of round characters, film viewers can depart from cinemas feeling fortunate and yet understanding something greater about the human condition. Such is not usually the case with ephemeral films. In most blockbuster film entertainments it’s not likely anyone would trouble him/herself to consider degrees of morality, for the conflict of stereotypes will usually terminate in superiority of the good over the evil. Sometimes if evil triumphs, the story will terminate with stasis or a partial resolution, and therefore a sequel can be expected down the line. The films or books I would seek for moral fictions are those of a complex, interpretive type.
In 1978, John Gardner (author of Grendel, In the Suicide Mountains, Sunlight Dialogues) published a treatise On Moral Fiction,i in which he lambasted many contemporary authors (Updike, Barthelme, Mailer, Heller, Bellow, Barth, Coover, Pynchon, etc) for empty storytelling. Though their stylistic verbal wizardry showed off sophisticated intellectual talents, the stories were specious, empty of human experiences through which readers could find significant, universal meaning. Gardner did not mean to say stories had to be peopled with good moral characters and always have an uplifting, happy ending. His idea was that stories should depict characters being tested in life experiences, not for sermonizing or teaching some ideal way to live life, but to show the human condition, whether through successes or failures, such that the writer and the reader gain understanding of, sympathy and love for human existence.
Gardner felt that the process of writing itself was a test of strength and values by which the artist him/herself comes through with greater understanding how human beings become fully integrated and why they sometimes fail to. Likewise, the audience endures a process of recognition, discovery, or reconsideration, perhaps a change of heart and mind; one is asked to evaluate characters and actions and through analytical processes comes to realize how various and complex human nature can be and how dilemmas get solved for good or ill. A strong example of a film story Gardner would consider moral is the German film The Lives of Others (Academy Award Winner, Best Foreign Film (2006), dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck). In this story a hardened surveillance Stasi agent in East Berlin resigns from his miserable, narrow existence, won over by an actress’s beauty and a dramatist’s art to realize the ugliness of his spying service. The change of the protagonist—from secret police spying to that of delivery mailman—is a decent life-affirming transformation from depressing underground activities, undermining peoples’ bases of reality, to a regular above-board working life. Though not a grand existence, postal service is work that benefits society. His transformation may appear to be a demotion in terms of payment and position, but his humanity and sense of well-being are significantly enhanced.
In many of our coffee gatherings and discussion groups, members of Tacoma Film Club are familiar with such ways of assessing a film’s worth. In discussion we assert how we make critical connections and what we like or learn about character studies and serious plots. Through different approaches, we seem able to find layers of meaning in most of the films we view together. It’s not unusual that sad and depressing stories are highly valued because they represent solutions to terrible difficulties in life, which show human beings’ resilience to make headway and not fall to pieces. Perhaps we remember the portrait of the dignified dwarf Fin (Peter Dinklage) in The Station Agent (Tom McCarthy, 2002), who, as a newly arrived stranger in town, adjusts to life in a rural community; or the artistry of The Battle of Algiers (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) revealing the virtue and vice of holy-war strategies that win out against cruel, corrupt colonial oppressors; or the suburban hell of American Beauty (dir. Sam Mendes, 1999) in which young and old must change their perspectives to glimpse moments of sheer beauty and, however briefly, recognize the possibility of redemption from lives of torpor in a consumerist culture. Quite a diversity of styles and stories exists in those films, and yet I would say there is a mixture of success and failure, comic and tragic, the good and the bad that made those films revelatory about character, society, history. They contained solutions — good for some, bad for others — that showed change in people and how life goes onward. One might say they struck a moral chord, putting a positive spin on life’s turmoil.
In Gardner’s vein, a recent publication by Alan A. Stone more or less confirms the notion of morality or “moralities” at play in artistic films: Movies and the Moral Adventure of Life.ii Stone explores what it means to be human in the midst of life’s complexity. From the humanist perspective of one who was formerly a professor of law and medicine, a medical trainer, an adviser in the Department of Justice and a psychoanalyst, Stone chooses to discuss the artistry, narrative and character of films with an eye towards those works that enlarge people’s sense of human possibilities. Several of the films we have chosen for our film club discussion are included in his short volume of commentaries. It is worth reading if you enjoy the sociological or humanistic approach to criticism. To interpret or explain a film does not have to be a moral consideration or have a larger purpose, but criticism of film does have to connect the art with traditions and show relationships to social, cultural or political events. “The purpose of analysis and criticism, as far as I’m concerned,” writes Arthur Asa Berger “is to understand–in the most profound sense of the term–a film and to be able to relate it to the society its reflects—and sometimes affects.”iii By all means, we can enjoy the action-adventure films, outrageous comedies, violent horror films, and so forth, but chances are they are not as nuanced in their content or story, and one’s criticism might then concentrate more on the artistry, not a deep understanding of character.
Films at the end of 2007, pouring forth as a cornucopia, allow one to judge many highly acclaimed works of art. Many of these late releases are already heavily nominated for film awards, in international competition and in various American ceremonies such as Academy Awards, Golden Globes, etc. This year they have piled up as a contest of the giants. Although fine films with sensitive treatment of ordinary life, like Away from Her (dir. Sarah Polley) and Lars and the Real Girl (mentioned above), were high in viewers’ and critics’ estimations earlier in the year, the plethora of end-of-the-year heavyweights has nudged them into the shadows. Some of those film released earlier are in the running for 2007 top honors in major categories. Julie Christie, for example, has already received a Best Actress in the Golden Globes Awards. For whatever reason, though I have seen dozens of movies throughout this year, my memory blurs when I try to think of other films that have stood tall. I recall The Namesake (dir. Mira Nair), The Hoax (dir. Lasse Hallström), Molière (dir. Laurent Tirade), Sunshine (dir. Danny Boyle), and La Vie en Rose (dir. Olivier Dahan); however, for me, none of these works, in their creative and production elements, loom large as noteworthy films. The last film in that list had a superb performance by Marion Cotillard, but the film’s artistic style and narrative told the biography of Edith Piaf in an annoying and messy way. Cotillard won Best Actress in the 2007 British Film Awards and Academy Awards recently (Feb. 2008). However great one element of a film shows itself, there’s more to a superior film than one stand-out structural element.
One small film Juno (dir. Jason Reitman), a rather lightweight contender for awards, has held its own at year’s end in box-office popularity with the big successful films. Juno treats teenage pregnancy through a witty, mildly cynical perspective. Oscar winner (2007) for her original script, screenwriter Diablo Cody’s comic wit completely overlooks the serious aspects of unwanted pregnancy. Certainly, when matched with Waitress (dir. Adrienne Shelly) and Knocked Up (dir. Judd Apatow), the wry, comic mood of Juno may appeal similarly to audiences young and old. Since nothing much goes badly wrong for the teenage girl and her out-of-wedlock baby, it has a fairy tale resolution, with its feel-good virtual reality. Everyone acts with civility and though some un-ethical behavior is confronted, Juno’s pregnancy proceeds as regular days of our life. What might have shown the uplifting changes in a set of serious circumstances merely comes off as a return to romance and happy endings. For many families teenage pregnancy is a horrendous dilemma of life and death decisions and changes in life’s fortunes. Juno fails to tackle the pregnancy problem realistically and misses out on a chance to enlighten audiences. Great style, good acting and flip dialogue do not make film fiction moral in the way I defined it above. Life just isn’t that easy.
Now to address the catalogue of heavies: If one considers Into the Wild (dir. Sean Penn), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (dir. Sidney Lumet), Atonement (dir. Joe Wright), No Country for Old Men (dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen), and There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson), one can detect in them all, their highly competent craftsmanship and art notwithstanding, a cynical treatment of life and no decent resolution for the human dilemmas at their heart. In contrast, The Kite Runner (dir. Marc Forster) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (dir. Julian Schnabel), like most of the others, films from literary successes, do stand apart in their resolutions. They aim to show characters seeking dignity and to inquire about the depth of human character. The latter two could be discussed as moral fictions.
For the most part, we are in a period of films that show a strong sensuality and style in their artistry: realistic dramas whose characters we never get to analyze deeply and which do not offer positive lessons. Many people shied away from In the Valley of Elah (dir. Paul Haggis, 2007), Rendition (dir. Gavin Hood, 2007), Redacted (dir. Brian de Palma, 2007). They were too depressing, perhaps, in showing the fiasco and savagery of absurd modern warfare. Nevertheless, the well-intentioned filmmakers were trying to wake people up. The problem may be that the war policies of the U.S. in 2007 are such that neither the Iraq War nor the Afghanistan Occupation shows itself capable of solutions. When situations have deteriorated to wreck and ruin, and when the populace is fully aware of the impossibility of resolutions, what can one learn from war movies that ameliorates the personal frustration? Such failures imply that our society will suffer the return of soldiers wounded physically and psychologically, distraught families will be burdened by rehabilitation of their loved ones, and much mayhem from actions executed and actions to come will result. How much of realistic horror can one absorb? Nevertheless, some balance is needed to see the way out of hell. This past year has produced films with much damning but not much saving or affirmation of life. I wonder if this thematic trend does not in some way parallel the pessimism many feel in the face of America’s sad state and the planet’s undeniable sickness. Entropy seems to be a major thematic force.
In considering degrees of moral fiction I will draw some comparisons between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, and another film, not mentioned above, by Ben Affleck, Gone, Baby, Gone (2007).
The first two films are almost flawless artistic presentations, hampered by certain excesses. Both have much in common in their cinematography. Robert Elswit (“Blood”) and the Coens shot their films in part in the same barren area of Southwestern Texas, landscapes that express the resignation of the characters’ lives represented. Both of the works are based on novels: the former a bold exploitation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (1927); the latter, a faithful interpretation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005). Neither of the movies fit in any fixed genre of film: “Blood” is a grim historical epic about the career of an oil discoverer and businessman, with some messy murders and mammoth geysers and explosions. “No Country” is a modern cops-and-gangsters chase thriller, with several murders and maimings from shoot-outs. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), tracking an elusive murderer throughout his county, is a three-dimensional character who makes a transition from devoted service to retirement. He’s low-key about everything in life, exhausted of hope for the betterment of society. Though made with remorse, his retirement comes out of despair to solve or prevent the diabolical crimes of the modern age. Spiritually flat-lined, Bell is resigned to failure—finished. We sadly watch a decent man’s decline. David Denby expresses dismay of being left unsatisfied by the Coens’ enjoyment of despair: “In the end, the movie’s despair is unearned—it’s far too dependent on an arbitrary manipulated plot and some very old junk mechanics. “No Country” is the Coens’ most accomplished achievement in craft, with many stunning sequences, but there are absences in it that hollow out the movie’s attempt at greatness.” (The New Yorker, Feb.25, 2008, p 76.) Great style, but mediocre story-telling.
In “Blood,” a minor character, the oilman’s son H.W., an adopted child from the oil fields, is the most changed individual over the three decades the story recounts. However, “Blood”’s story does not treat fairly this dynamic characterization. We are left to suffer the protagonist, Daniel Plainview (Daniel-Day Lewis), who is not transformed from beginning to end, and at film’s finale we are left agog and disgusted by hateful actions presented through an impressive style of light and settings and an exceptional actor’s performance. In the last act, murderous, detestable Daniel Plainview is finished. Watching the slow degradation of a remorseless, murderous human being is not very enlightening. Both “Blood” and “No Country” exhibit mastery of filmmaking art but both fail in satisfying the viewer because they get caught up in “an unhealthy fascination with ugliness and pain.”iv They both offer negative lessons: evil will prevail if life does not change. Neither film hints at possible solutions.
Ben Affleck’s Gone, Baby, Gone also exhibits the rich texturing of modern filmmaking, complete with a cast of highly accomplished actors (Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris), and, being a thriller, includes a host of despicable inner-city characters. But this is more than just a crime drama about the unethical methods by which cops solve crimes in the big city. The crime in question is a kidnapping of a child whose mother is a hopeless drug addict and unconscionably stupid parent. The protagonist is a young private investigator (Casey Affleck) who knows the mean streets of Dorchester’s working-class brownstones; he and his girlfriend are hired by the dysfunctional family of the mother-addict to find the baby. In spite of cop rivalry and deliberate deceptions, the young investigator solves the crime and we see hard decisions in the resolution: to put the child back into the mother’s custody is to place a helpless infant girl in the same hell-hole she was snatched from. How does one help an incorrigible addict to become a good mother? Someone has to take custodial responsibility of both mother and child. This hard choice falls to the lot of the young detective who recognizes, as a result of his actions, the greater need of his role as surrogate parent and teacher-at-large for making a healthier community. This film has a concern for the possibility of community through empathy and cooperation, through concern with lives of other people. This is moral fiction in that its art challenges and probes; it humanizes by offering positive models of just behavior; it examines rather than conforms and proves.
Thirty years ago, John Gardner, regarding literary artists, stated that in modern society “[T]he careless thinker can slide into the persuasion that the celebration of true [sic] morality has ceased to be the serious [artist’s] function and may even be pernicious, … holding up the mirror to his age but not changing it, simply imitating, as [Ezra] Pound said, “its accelerated grimace.”v This rings a bell today. Ask yourself: Are modern films like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, full of fine artistry and acted with passionate intensity, intended to make one think about dealing with social injustices? These films offer despair and Juno, on a comic level, offers false hope. So where is the conviction that will turn filmmakers away from entertaining society with slick horrific thrillers and facile pseudo-romances? While we are still on the cusp of the new millennium, civilized people everywhere are concerned with social injustices in international politics, not to mention the changing climate and problems of increasing pollution, is it too much to ask filmmakers — all artists really—to stop leading us blindly into dark alleys or barren deserts where everything sucks? For Hollywood and the movie industry worldwide this will mean a value reorientation from the very motivation that drove the actions of Daniel Plainview and Anton Chigurh—making millions of dollars.
i (New York: Basic Books, 1978).
ii (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007).
iii Edited by Arthur Asa Berger, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1980), p 5.
iv Gardner, p 60.
v Gardner, p 77.