Wednesday 14 March 2012

Movie Morality Debate Topics

Here I bring the week of pieces on the morals of film to an end with a few thoughts for debate.

Playing Tricks 

What are the issues surrounding a film which pretends to be fiction and isn't or pretends to be real and is fictional or fake. Think of the ambiguous natures of Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin, of Catfish or Exit through the Gift Shop. Do we need to know whether a work of art is 'real' or 'unreal'? Is it our right? Are we being betrayed?

Do we need to be more aware of how documentary film-making skews reality in conscious and unconscious ways?

Special Editions, 3D, Directors Cuts....

The rapid advancement of technology has facilitated the creation of many variations of the same work. Does greed play a part? Is our sense that only watching all the versions would represent a proper knowledge of the work being exploited?

Altering Films

To what extent do we own or have a stake in films that we have seen? Think of E.T. and of Star Wars.

  Back from the Dead

What are the moral implications of revivifying the image of dead actors and actresses?


What should be censored? Should we allow the worst things imaginable be screened, as long as what is filmed remains fictional/simulated? When, if ever, can the unchecked exercise of freedom be damaging?


Are the lines blurred, in a world of easier and easier access to media, between right and wrong? Do rights holders exert too much control?

Inspiration vs Theft

Where does homage become plagiarism?

Moral Messages for Children

Are films in general perpetuating the tyranny of groups and cliques? How are friendships, parental relationships, love stories and sexual relationships presented, coded and resolved? Are they imprinting the right things in children's minds? Are children's films coarser than they were? Do we need to be more careful in children's films where the audience may be more impressionable and the conscious filtering of fictional from real less sophisticated?

How do we navigate the need of art to reflect the real and explore the unreal, to remember the world as we forget it? Should artists be encouraged to offer enlightenment?

Most importantly, how much of an impact do films really make on us? How much (if we take modern film as one entity) of us as we are is on the screen? How much of us as we will be?

I may pick up on a couple of these questions in the future.

Friday 9 March 2012

Dear Zachary [Morality Blogathon]

As part of the Movie Morality Blogathon Jeff Pike over at the blog PKCan'tExplain has posted a review of Dear Zachary, a film he says "roots itself with ease and confidence inside the true-crime subgenre of documentary filmmaking, where all talk sooner or later focuses inevitably, and naturally enough, on 'evil' and 'justice'.":

Dear Zachary at Can't Explain

"Because there's no justice here. Morality gets no purchase, and is revealed for what it is: merely good ideas, not mandatory. One person managed to successfully trample the system at large for a few years—separate criminal justice systems in Canada and Pennsylvania—for no more reason than that she wanted to, and along the way she irrevocably destroyed multiple lives and sent many dozen more sprawling in one way or another."

Jeff's Martial Arts Centre is always open for writing and discussion on film and music.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

On Torture Porn [Morality Blogathon]

A story is a story is a story. 

Fiction doesn't have to shed light on anything real or espouse any message yet we can fall into the trap of thinking that it is. We think that what a film shows it condones because the director has the power of Gods to intervene and make right. We think of a film as presenting an enclosed view of a subject, a last word that relies on no context.

The majority of films are first and foremost stories, visions of things that just...happen and then... disappear. They are fantasies, inspired by but parallel to our world.

How can we hold a fiction, and one example of fiction at that, responsible for something that it was never intended to address and how can we blame it for what we, in society as a whole, think and do?

There are always trends in art, be they stylistic or thematic. There have always been films featuring physical and psychological torture (Wes Craven's 1972 The Last House On The Left is one ) but over the last few years the numbers have swelled into a loose movement/ sub-genre. They are more common, more insistent, more explicit. In Saw, Hostel, Martyrs, Cube, The Human Centipede, A Serbian Film the human body and mind is subjected to prolonged pain and degradation. 
The umbrella term “Torture Porn”, meant generally as a pejorative, was coined a few years ago. The “porn” of “torture porn” does not necessarily have anything to do with sex or sexuality but rather the explicitness of the material, referring to titillation and quick arousal of one kind of another – here, through violence.

A Serbian Film

A section of these films do, however (by the very nature of their rawness and their will to strip back niceties), have a sexual connotation, be it direct, through nudity, the choice of nubile young women and handsome studs for the main roles, or a pervasively teasing tone.

A film doesn't have to have sex in it for it to touch upon sex. A scantily clad woman. Sweat. Beauty lusted after, made dirty, ugly and destroyed. The name “Torture Porn” puts violence and sex side by side and in these films, violence and sex do go hand in hand; violently sexual, sexually violent. They are presented as natural bedfellows.

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Where did this new wave come from? As with all art it came directly from the success of the first films of this kind to touch shore. Artists and their patrons have to follow the money.

Why is there money in it? Why do people enjoy these films?

We are offered the opportunity to visit hell and to come back into the light alive, to be chopped up into little pieces and surface intact. They are an adrenalising endurance test that pushes you to a psychological and physical limit. They have a shuddering and breathtaking intensity, a morbid sense of exaltation. We are reminded of our carnal selves, infinitely vulnerable to infinite kinds of wound.

There is a shivering buzz in seeing a film with the balls to show outrageous things. 'Woah! Did they really do that?'

We like to be shocked. 

Shock can be good. If it is uncomfortable and gruesome it does not mean that it is morally 'wrong'. There can be an imperative to shock. Shocking practices are best shown straight i.e. shockingly. Extremes can bring hidden truths home by making them big and visible. Where are we headed? What, in these awful, horrifying, situations do we already recognise as dormant or active within us?

Perhaps Torture Porn reflects something in us, and in the young people at whom these films are primarily aimed. Do we see people as less than we did? Why are we less disgusted than we were? Do young men and women exploit and use each other more and more? Are we objects to be captured? Are we not companions to be cherished? This poster for Captivity was quickly taken down after complaints:

Why was it ever put up? It's odd and worrying. Is the mirror of film showing us what we look like? Whether it's only fiction, a throwaway slice of entertainment, or not is irrelevant; the point is that we would not have been entertained by these films in such numbers let alone welcome them into the mainstream with open arms.

*               *               *

As I have said, one film may do little or nothing but put together, as a group of films, they resonate louder.

What effect does Torture Porn have? Effect trumps whatever the intention of the film-maker - whatever satirical bent, whatever redemptive escape or emotional switcheroo. We can always say “it's just a story”, and it is, but stories can still change us. Illusions with good intentions can be problematic and damaging in the real world. We can always say “they are adults” (and yes, the other part of the audience may already think in demeaning ways) but a steady stream of fiction presented in a 'realistic' fashion reinforces and normalises attitudes and behaviours. That goes for anything, not just horror like this.

The most extreme behaviours won't be normalised but their repetition in films meant to represent a good night out could help to shift one's moral fulcrum. They could aggravate a disregard or buttress it with a sort of validation. Film has the cachet of a cool art form. The worst, over-the-top actions we see in “torture porn” have at their root basic thoughts and feelings that emerge more commonly.

Do we practise on our dolls?

What is worse is that torture in a few of these films is treated like a game. The torturer is the self-appointed master and rule-maker. Games of death. He does it with relish. In Final Destination fate runs the game and delivers inventive death to squirming laughter. It's just play-acting but these atrocities are framed in the same way we frame our visits to the cinema and the same way we interact with film. It's just a game, it's only play, it's a moral pass.

Final Destination and the puzzle-like torture chamber of Cube

The victims are cut off, tied up, isolated in stone rooms, abandoned barns or dark motels. They are alienated from everything they know and given what amounts to a taste of reality. Their complacencies and their habits are played with and rudely disabused. They are made to feel more human. They are alive with raw nerves. Intriguingly, there is oftentimes a complex, sneaky morality at work in the minds of the torturers (or at least one used as an excuse for barbarity) – you need to be woken up. You deserve it. You need it. We the audience only fantasise about giving someone we don't like, someone whose personality we can't stand, a slap. And here we have it and guilt-free. What do we do with it now?

We place a lot of stock on the idea of which characters we identify with, or are meant to identify with. Are we encouraged to identify with a torturer or the victim? Do we like the charismatic killer who dances as he slays? Do we care if a self-centred upstart teenage twit is taught a lesson? The fact is we identify with everybody. People are empathetic and therefore will always place themselves in the shoes of others no matter how little sympathy they have for them and no matter how the story is skewed in favour of one character.

Whatever we see can enter into us and alter how we relate to the real world. It can pass beyond the nightmares of typical horror (checking under the bed for maniac clowns after watching Poltergeist) and take on a real form “out there”. Even those who abhor films like these, who would love to see them censored, can be affected for the worse which is precisely why they fight so strongly against it. Powerful images stay. They are hard to shake.

I exaggerate, perhaps. I scaremonger, but it would surprise me if this constant mortification of flesh and Monsters Inc.-esque scream-catching did not deaden us a bit.

A film cannot make us suspend our humanity. It can't make you enjoy violence or be 'complicit' in it. But it can guide our humanity or shut parts of it off for a couple of hours. As soon as we enter a screening we are using different rules of engagement. Different moral standards apply. We're perfectly behind a smart assassin like 'The Bride' in Kill Bill in a way we wouldn't dream of being in real life. She'd be a mass murderer. The issue is when that special receptiveness unconsciously absorbs radical things which are then, washed in that fictional varnish that hides immorality, taken out and released in the real world.

The intensity of the suffering on show in Torture Porn is being gradually dialled up as we become harder to shock. Shock turns into desensitisation. Desensitisation, in films like these, would mean boredom. Bored, we are unmoved by the agony. Furthermore, with our reactions changing, Torture Porn, or elements of it, will find their way into “children's” films i.e. certificate 15 and under. They have already.

 Hostel II : Images of War and Torture

On the other hand, for those not desensitised, the torture and indignity that they witness will become so unbearable that they will have to switch off entirely, no longer able to place themselves in the victim's shoes. Paradoxically, this means that the character is objectified and any positive message about the evil we do, or any political allegory, will be neutered. It's a Catch 22. The dilemma is about what you show and how much of it you show.

These films can have a serious point, but any point in this genre could cut both ways.

These films are not point blank morally wrong but I do wonder why they are made. Why do they think people want to watch? Why, if it is a woman “tortured” is she always young and always pretty? Why is it so relentless?

So, what does this all say about where we are now? Where will we take this art? Where will this art take us? Maybe none of it really matters and maybe stories are all they'll ever be.