We’re stuck for a while, and although there are many, many difficulties for those whose life has been upended, a few silver linings have shown through the tattered fabric of our days now spent at home. Today’s silver lining has to do with the quantum jump in awareness of … everything.
My thoughts today turn back to the course I taught for several decades. It had many names but was always directed toward ethics on the ground, practical ethics, ethical decision making. My pitch was that life was going to be happening all around us whether we had thought about our ethical convictions or not. In essence, the course provided practice in taking a stand. I screened a series of films, both narratives and documentaries, each of which was intended to press as many buttons as I could identify. In our discussions, we pushed each other to find our bottom line. It often took heated conversation to reach the “Here I stand” conviction.
My suggestion is that instead of “Family Game Night”, you might enjoy “Family Ethical Hard Decision Night”. I can almost certainly guarantee that there will be differences of opinion or conviction, even in families which have experienced similar circumstance of living. Here are five films that invite discussion without any preparation on your part. I won’t say you’ll enjoy these films; several are disquieting. They are well crafted and worth viewing.
Return to Paradise 1998
Vince Vaughn, Anne Hesch, and Joaquin Phoenix portray the central figures in a drama which presents an ethical dilemma played out over the course of several years and two continents.
The heart of the matter is that Vaughn, a hedonistic opportunist, has spent a debauched holiday in Malaysia. He is one of three men of roughly the same age sharing a beach cabana, a number of women, and pounds of hashish. Vaughn is a clever jaded limousine driver. His hammock sharing companions are a slick architect and a younger and idealistic naturalist on his way to Borneo to save orangutans. Phoenix plays the naturalist as a good hearted and naive soul with whom Vaughn forms a passing friendship. As the holiday ends, Vaughn and the architect leave behind Phoenix, a stolen bicycle, and a block of hashish. They return to New York, vaguely promising to stay in touch, but sink back into their urban lives.
After some time, Vaughn is approached by a lawyer played by Anne Hesch. Phoenix has been arrested by those seeking the stolen bicycle, the hashish has been discovered, and the Malaysian court has decreed that Phoenix will be executed for the crimes unless the other two men return to Malaysia, accept responsibility, and join Phoenix in a prison for several years.
If the two men return, Phoenix lives.
There are subsequent and bedeviling complications that add to the ethical distress Vaughn experiences, all of which make for lively discussion around the dinner table, or TV trays. I found the film valuable; Kenneth Turan of the LA Times found it to be, “a lively piece of pulp not a profound exploration of of the vagaries of the human soul.” You decide which of us has it right. Take a stand, people!
The Life of David Gale
The next nomination has become even more problematic in the years since I last screened it. Kevin Spacey plays a professor of Philosophy on Death Row. The film presents his imprisonment and impending death through a series of flashbacks documenting the attempts by a journalist played by Kate Winslet to find the truth behind the sentence. The film’s ostensible purpose is in questioning the death penalty, and there are a number of questionable circumstances worth discussing as the film plays out. It is at the film’s ending, however, that my students found themselves at sea. The director, Alan Parker, had an excellent reputation after his work with Fame, The Commitments, Midnight Express, and Mississippi Burning, but some believe that The Life of David Gale finished his career. The reviews were not good. Roger Ebert noted, “I am sure the filmmakers believe their film is against the death penalty. I believe it supports it and hopes to discredit the opponents of the penalty as unprincipled fraudsters.”
That perplex is enough to keep conversation moving, but the subsequent revelations of Spacey’s sexual harassment of at least fifteen men and boys in the United States and another six in the UK essentially made Spacey entertainment poison. He has several youtube videos in which in the character of Frank Underwood, his role on House of Cards, Spacey defends himself against the allegations.
So,what ethical issues arise in choosing to view a film that features Spacey? Or Roman Polanski, or Woody Allen for that matter? Does criminality matter in one’s experience of the arts? Does the specific sort of criminality matter? Is the author/director/actor the work? Does the work exist outside of the process by which it was produced? Oh, and then the death penalty?
Not central to any discussion but fascinating/distracting is Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of a Goth slacker giving tours of a murder house.
The Fog of War
Directed by Errol Morris with score by Philip Glass The Fog of War won the Academy Award as Best Documentary in 2003. Subtitled Eleven Lessons from Robert S. McNamara, the film is an extended conversation with the brainiac who served the longest term as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, during the escalation of the war in Vietnam. The experience of entering into the fog in the company of McNamara, Morris, and Glass is an extraordinary complex of image, sound, and ideas.
Any one of the eleven lessons is worth contention:
1.)Empathize with your enemy,2.) Rationality alone will not save us, 3.)There’s something beyond one’s self, 4.)Maximize efficiency, 5.)Proportionality should be a guideline in war, 6.)Get the data, 7.)Belief and seeing are both often wrong, 8.)Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning, 9.)In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil, 10.)Never say never, 11.)You can’t change human nature.
There are many moments during McNamara’s recollection of his role on the great stage in which an awakening viewer might scream “What the ….!” Some remarkable observations are made with flat affect. The segment carrying the observations made about maximizing efficiency resounds as the Glass soundtrack and Morris’ found footage document the extent of damage done during WWII to the civilian population of Japan, strikes that McNamara engineered for commander Curtis LeMay. McNamara himself wonders if he would have been executed as a war criminal had the outcome of the war been different, leading into his discussion of the cost/benefit calculation of dropping atomic bombs on civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Not the jolliest of dinnertime entertainments, but once seen never forgotten.
The Baby Dance
It isn’t easy to find this film which originally aired as a Showtime film about adoption, produced by Jodie Foster, written and directed by Jane Anderson, starring Stockard Channing and Peter Riegert as a childless Jewish couple in Beverly Hills and Laura Dern and Richard Lineback as parents of four children living in squalor in a trailer outside of Shreveport, Louisiana. The performances of Dern and Channing in this drama will forever change your estimation of them as actresses, and the quality of the script is devastating. Yes, the film is about adoption, and surrogacy, but also about class and caste. Virtually every aspect of this brokered “adoption at birth” is heartbreaking.
Anderson wrote the film after experiencing meeting the Paraguayan mother of the child she would adopt. “The Baby Dance,” she said, “is the dance that these couples are doing to get a child and to give a child. It’s one of the most complex, delicate, dangerous negotiations. People are afraid of adopting because they feel there are no guarantees. You have this unknown being from people you don’t know and maybe don’t want to know. It is an act of faith to say, I will love this child.’” It is a dance of a different sort in that it takes on the dirty little secret of poverty and wealth in America.
“We’re still a country with enormous poverty and enormous wealth, which is half of what Baby Dance’ is about,” she said. “I was fascinated by the husband who has to give up his child because he can’t earn enough to take care of his family. The humiliation is so extreme and so awful. I have such sympathy for him. These people are all flawed and human, doing the best they can.”
The review of the film when first shown carried the title, “No Happy Ending Here”. Lots to talk about. The Baby Dance is available on VHS tape from Amazon. I still have a copy.
OT: Our Town
The final film to be included in the series is a documentary directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy chronicling the production of Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, by students at Dominguez High School in Compton, California. Dominguez High School is an athletic powerhouse in Southern California, known for its football and basketball teams and for its marching band. It’s a tough school in a very tough neighborhood. An odd group of ill prepared but ambitious students show up to put on the school’s first dramatic production, Our Town as adapted by the teacher/directors Catherine Borek and Karen Green to reflect the immediacy of the life lived in their students’ town, Compton. Gunshots ring out on the streets outside the high school during tech rehearsals, but they are met with calm acceptance by teachers and students working in conditions that do not promise much in the way of theatrical sophistication.
And the production is not sophisticated. But it is powerful. Wilder’s play asked some big questions and the staging of the play was unorthodox in its time. This version presents all those questions and many more as we witness a production that should keep conversation going for a few more housebound hours.