Saturday, May 10, 2008

The difference between good and evil

I've been spending a great deal of time on a post on Chaplin's The Great Dictator ever since we were on the temple trip last week with the Polish members, but I have so much to say that isn't quite coming out as I'd like, so I've moved on to a few other posts to allow some distance.

One thing that seems to be at the center of my thoughts for an 'LDS cinema' is the construction of 'right' and 'wrong,' as has been manifest by many previous posts. Do we follow a Star Wars/Joseph Campbell archetypal definition of the two or a Miyazakian/Iranian model with a an absolute refusal to demonize or polarize in any direction? (Might I add, again, that the second model is for children primarily.)

I've also decided to re-read Jonathan Rosenbaum's work for the Chicago Reader starting at the beginning, and currently I'm in the January 1990 section on his new website. This, of course, contains his top ten for the year. In that list are two passages that triggered something in me on the topic and present one important side of my dilemma—I cite them for you here.

The first, is under A Short Film About Love—a lengthened version of my least favorite of the ten parts of (arguably) Kieslowski's greatest achievement, The Decalogue. Though his writing on the film is worth reading, this passage says nothing of it, but discusses morality of representation:

Like the other self-sufficient installments in the Decalogue that I’ve seen, A Short Film About Love is in fact centrally concerned with a highly sophisticated moral ambiguity–a distinguishing trait of the contemporary Polish cinema that could also be noted this year in Agnieszka Holland’s flawed but powerful To Kill a Priest as well as Andrzej Kotkowski’s Citizen P. Unlike the first-grade ethics of a Crimes and Misdemeanors, which can’t see beyond either the notion of good guys versus bad guys or the self- absorption of the three characters it is ostensibly attacking, Kieslowski and Holland are interested in the complex intricacies–the paradoxes, contradictions, and cross-purposes–that figure in ethical choices.

Now, I don't think Crimes and Misdemeanors is aiming at morality, and to view it only in these terms is short-sighted, but the distinction is well-worth noting. In this light I am more inclined to the "complex intricacies–the paradoxes, contradictions, and cross-purposes–that figure in ethical choices" which factor into Kieslowski's Decalogue (which doesn't factor into all of his films, in my opinion), because those complexities are the things that my moral, ethical, and spiritual life are riddled with.

The second citation comes from his description of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (maybe the greatest film about race in America ever made, in fact I can't even think of a runner-up):

Practically the only American movie this year that stimulated extended, in-depth discussion about anything other than just movies, Spike Lee’s energetic portrait of a day in the life of the inhabitants of a Bedford-Stuyvesant block breaks with the Hollywood mainstream by doing away with the moral certainties represented by heroes and villains. In addition to representing a quantum leap over Lee’s previous features, this highly entertaining and provocative feature addresses contemporary racial issues in a manner that startlingly respects the ability of viewers to think for themselves.

In contrast to the stacked decks that generally accompany most Hollywood “problem” pictures, which typically divvy up the antagonists in racial conflicts into separate piles labeled “us” and “them,” Do the Right Thing discovers a way of addressing a varied audience in such a way that no single viewpoint provides a skeleton key for comprehending the action in all its implications. The motto of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, “Everyone has his reasons,” applies here not only to the separate perspectives of the pizzeria owner (Danny Aiello), his delivery boy (Lee), his two sons (Richard Edson, John Turturro), three alienated malcontents (Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith), two elderly outsiders (Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis), and three comic kibitzers (Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, Paul Benjamin), among others, but also to the separate legacies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X that are evoked at the movie’s end. Theoretical pluralism has often played a substantial role in American movies, but genuine pluralism pushed so far that it actively determines narrative structure is a rarity, and Lee’s comedy-drama provides a bracing model for how this can be done.

This 'stock piling' tradition, from my point of view, might have the advantage of clarity and comprehension (perhaps appropriation), but I don't remember clarity ever being the issue in any of Spike Lee's pictures, and this one is no exception. The fact that it "discovers a way of addressing a varied audience in such a way that no single viewpoint provides a skeleton key for comprehending the action in all its implications" seems integral to what is missing from modern commercial cinema (which many 'Mormon movies' take most of their cues from). It seems to me that Renoir's view is the pinnacle of Christianity in practice.

However, after such a conversation with my father-in-law this week, a man whom I respect and have respected much longer that it was my obligation to do so, he reminded me that there is a great need to define and teach what evil is, and how to distinguish it. I am committed to this, though I don't know how to do so in a Christian manner. For the most part, demonization (as discussed in the post about Rambo) is the only way movies seem to be doing this. I am also convinced it is the very thing we need to avoid. But what else is there? How do we define this? What movies are doing this without condemning unjustly?

I have included a link to my father-in-law's blog on the side because those bits of wisdom are integral to what we should be doing in film in my opinion. Leading Families


Bryan said...

Define good and evil by portraying the natural consequences of righteousness and sin, respectively. It may not be a perfect solution, but I think it's a good place to start.

While it's sometimes true that cheaters prosper and good guys finish last, too many mainstream movies have made this the rule rather than the exception. Just my take on it.

Trevor said...

That might well be the best option. But I can't say that its ever affected me when the definition has relied on narrative tools. Stillness (rather than movement) of story seems most well equipped to contain definition. (like when Mormon or Nephi stop and say "this was a great evil because..." or something like that). In those instances the clarity comes outside of the story. The doctrine is spoken.

But that's not even the bulk, I guess, of my question. Rather, how do we define evil in a complex way? My father-in-law mentioned as I was eavesdropping that good unites us with God, and evil fragments us—among ourselves, within ourselves and from God.

These are the kind of definitions I'm searching for. And then, how do we show that on screen? What do we show before it is spoken? is it spoken? By whom? to whom? when?

Schmetterling said...

I'm sure that this is just about the least helpful thing anyone could say, but I think that the only really accurate response to your last string of questions ("And then, how do we show that on screen? What do we show before it is spoken? is it spoken? By whom? to whom? when?") is that those sorts of things REALLY depend on the movie. Some stories have a wizened old sage who can reveal truths, but other stories have no room for such a character. Sometimes you can have a narrator who really knows what's up (like Nephi or Mormon), but sometimes that would be totally inappropriate. I'm just not sure that you'll find a rule for the disclosure of morals that'll work in every film every time.

On the other hand, I do think that there ought to be several distinctions between good and evil that ARE absolute. Like this idea that good unifies while evil fragments: that ought to be true in EVERY circumstance. (At least ultimately. Sure, the Gadianton Robbers were fiercely united for a while, but they always fell apart in the end.)

The distinctions between good and evil are really difficult to nail down. I don't subscribe to moral relativism, but it's so hard to get down to fundamental absolutes (things like "Thou shalt not kill" vs "It is better that one man should perish..." for example).

Good luck to you.

Trevor said...


I think those are some of the most helpful things anyone could have said:

a. that the construction of good and evil are dependent on the form and context of the movie

b. that we should be striving for absolutes in these discussions


c. that those absolutes are really hard to come by.

in regards to c. I think its fascinating that you gave as an example the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" since the Book of Mormon essentially begins with God giving a commandment to Nephi to kill Laban (not to mention the last 20 chapters of Alma). In that sense the Book of Mormon could be viewed as a document placing personal revelation and the Spirit of the Law above the Letter of the Law, even before Christ's birth. Further, of course, complicating how hoard it is to come across absolutes.

But the most helpful thing that you wrote, to me, was the specific reference to the Gadianton robbers. That's something concrete we can discuss. Though I don't think that the fact that they eventually broke up is necessarily proof of their evil. Just like the notion that baptism often separates individuals from their non-member families is not proof of the evil of Baptism.

The other thing I think we can discuss in further detail is what films have already done what is discussed in point a.? What stories and what contexts are most conducive to what definitions of good and evil. These are all determined by the filmmakers. Are there concretes anyone is thinking of?

Bringhurst Family said...

When you speak of specific techniques for portraying good and evil on film, I believe you are drifting too much to the technician/craftsman side and away from the artist side. To me a key difference between a technician and an artist is a technician thinks he has to do everything perfectly so the audience can't get it wrong. The artist trust his audience and trusts the Spirit to teach much more than he could ever teach.

However, I recognize the need to find specific tools and techniques to enhance the artistry. With that in mind, let's look at the scriptures. At times we have a person narrating and they clearly expound doctrine. They are speaking from the 3rd person and are able to make clear distinctions and are often not directly part of the action. Example have been cited in other comments. Doctrine is clear and distinct.

At other times we see more first person accounts of good people struggling to do what is right. Think 2 Ne 4 and Enos 1. These are very powerful as well. They may not teach doctrine as clearly as the 3rd person narratives. However, they more readily lend themselves to film. Do people relate more to a near perfect person expounding doctrine or a basically good person trying to do what is right? Both have their place but which is best suited to film? The play/film "The Crucible" is a good example. Basic doctrinal points about honesty and integrity are clear while the story is complex enough to allow for exploration of other issues such as redemption, trust, power, perceptions, etc.

Trevor said...

There is a great difference between descriptive criticism and prescriptive criticism, and I agree that the later is almost always flawed and less helpful, being founded most often on misinterpretation and hasty judgments. However in this case, namely speculative prescription, I find, adds a dialogue and a call for more thought and meditation on the implications form can have.

I would say that my goals here are not unity or consensus as much as determination and passion for a more refined 'LDS cinema.' I discussed it a bit more here:

As to art vs. craftsmanship, all of the filmmakers I consider 'artists,' consider themselves craftsmen. I guess there are figures like David Lynch who are less conscientious about their form while still having a distinctive voice. True, his notion of narrative is rooted in his gut and 'instinct.' But in my opinion, only the two anomalies Inland Empire and Straight Story are masterpieces.

Bresson, Renoir, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, and the entire French New Wave were concerned with craftsmanship and technique before 'art.' Not to mention Ozu.

Your comment about perspective is right on and really insightful. I do wonder about the translation to film. Are the Dardennes' films what Enos would be, if it were a thriller? I think that's a powerful idea and you've given me a lot to chew on.

whitney said...

That's interesting that you say that miyazaki and iranian film is primarily for children. I have a professor here at SFSU who is very upset with Pixar for including irredeemable child characters in their films. (for example, that terrible kid in Toy Story who basically just terrorizes innocent things). She says that it is not okay to show children stories where other children can be depicted as completely evil. I think I agree with her.