Morals, Ethics, Movies and Writing

Well, since its the Christmas break I have been doing some thinking – more than the usual amount of thinking and also there is a new movie channel Cinemoi available to me which just shows French movies, so encouraging even more philosophical thought.

I came across this quotation in a French Movie of the 50s or early 60s called ‘Le Petit Soldat’ (The Little Soldier) starring Anna Karina: ‘Ethics is the aesthetic of the Future’ from Hegel. I thought, ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting’ and have been pondering its veracity. Of course the sentence seems a little ambiguous at first: does he mean that the aesthetic of the Future informs Ethics or the other way around? But of course if the process is two-way and simultaneous then it holds true and I would guess that is what he meant. So then I wondered if my new book (unpublished yet) Iron, (also working title Too Bright the Sun), set in the future, has an aesthetic and if it does, is that informed by my Ethics. I realised that yes, it does have an aesthetic but so far, whether this is informed by my ethics or not eludes me.

1) I then wondered if it was possible to write a book without one’s ethics forming part of its ‘context’. One would think that allegory might manage it and simple tales of adventure. 2) I also wondered if War Movies, many of which I think great movies in their own right, have an ethical framework or if they avoid it.

On point 1) I think perhaps disaster movies and in particular post-apocalyptic movies can be virtually ethics free and perhaps this is why they are predominant and popular during times of ethical flux and instability in society (mid 70s, 90s and now, in the West). Good examples are Independence Day and the TV series The Survivors: in both cases the premise is one of extreme survival and basically from then on the characters have few, if any ethical choices to make. From a moral, and self-preservation point of view, they only have one option.

Many War Movies probably also fall into this category: one thinks of The Dambusters and many 40s and 50s films which simply assume that right is on the side of the main protagonists (seemingly usually John Mills or Richard Todd). Its only much later, in 1958, that Ice Cold in Alex takes a more sophisticated look at war, and includes a dash of alcoholism as Mills attempts to deal with the ethical complexity of a traitor among a group trying to survive against the elements.

Another interesting variation in 1964 is 633 Squadron: the main protagonist are all Commonwealth aircrew, and as such must have volunteered and gone out of their way to fight so early in the war (since they are all experience pilots by the time evoked in the film – 1942?) for the British. Thus Roy Grant becomes a figure who is grappling with many ethical issues before the film has really even got going. This is then further complicated by his decision to kill the brother of his girlfriend, partly out of mercy it seems.

Of course the great movie for Moral and Ethics is Bridge of the River Kwai (1957).
As far as I can tell the enduringly fascinating aspect of this movie is the contrast between the two main characters: Shears (William Holden) and Nicholson (Alec Guiness). Shears is a fraud, and trying to get out of risking his neck, by impersonating a superior office, while Nicholson seems the exact opposite, a man driven by stiff principles to do the right thing in all situations. In the end though, Shears does start to see the big picture, whereas Nicholson loses sight of it and becomes a prisoner of his own misguided ethics. Sticking only to his principles he misapplies his ethics: to go on building the bridge to a high standard rather than to destroy it. It seems that he has lost sight of the moral that demands he must do what is right in the wider sense, but at the last minute he regains his moral compass.

Later films like The Battle of Britain, pretty much revert to the old formula, whereby bravery and survival are really the main topics. Of course there are variations like a Bridge Too Far which covers incompetence on a grand scheme but its only later that war movies generally branch out into the more complex issues: films like Apocalyse Now and Platoon being good examples.

So in general, I think many war movies do avoid the ethical issue and thats probably why they can be easy to watch. You can let your brain just concentrate on the action.

On the subject of Hegel’s proposal? I am not sure yet. I am still thinking about it.

I would be interested in any other movies/TV series/books which illustrate either my point, or contradict it.

The Big Knife

Has anybody seen this 1955 film? Its a classic – about Hollywood corruption and very nearly didn’t get released. If you haven’t seen it, try and get hold of a copy.

Some of you may know I am a big fan of Jack Palance, who is the star of this modestly-budgeted film. Here he is at the pinnacle of his acting powers and there is some really stunning dialogue – sparkling like stardust in the ordure of Hollywood.

At times it is sluggish – overburdened with dialogue and lack of scene changes but at times it is almost Shakespearean in its witty sweep of ideas and perspectives. Tonight I will re-watch and pick out a few phrases to quote here. Okay I watched it again and here are some quotes:

Castle to Hoff: “Were you ever told that the embroidery of you speech was completely out of proportion to anything you ever had to say?”

Later in same argument:
Hoff (trying to persuade Castle that he should keep quiet about something bad which Hoff and Smiley are planning): “I built this studio! I, I with my bear hands! I rippped it out of the Earth! I built it up!”
Castle: “One more line of your phoney senatorial eloquence and I will cut you down – like firewood.”

Hoff: “I can’t go into battle with my hands tied. I have always been a simple man and I still make my breakfast on a roll, butter and a cup of coffee.”
Marion: “Mr Hoff. Can’t you stop speaking about yourself.”
Hoff (sneering): “Why does the woman have to be here?”
Castle: “The lady stays.”

Later in same argument:

Castle: “I am deliberately tampering with your modest ego Stanley because today I see what Stanley will do to protect the interests of Stanley Shriner Hoff Investments. Murder.”
Hoff: “This man buries himself with his mouth.”

Rod Steiger is great too as the domineering but cowardly ‘Hoff’.

The plot is waffer-thin because the ‘stage’ only once or twice briefly moves from the lounge of the Star’s plush modern house, but here it is: Charles Castle (Palance) is an established film-star and, as his wife (Ida Lupino, living apart and about to divorce him, he has to decide whether to renew his contract with studio Boss Stanley Shriner Hoff (Steiger). Bit-part players nudge him towards signing but he is torn. His wife doesn’t want him to resign a contract that basically ‘buys him’ and leaves no space for a wife, and anyway he doesn’t like Hoff and mistrusts him. On top of all this, one of his post-separation girlfriends (Shelley Winters) knows something about an accident he had years before – possibly involving the presence of another mistress in the car although this is never made clear) and unless he pays her more attention she will ruin his career. All this sends Castle careening towards a moment of possible self-destruction.

I was impressed too with Ida Lupino, not having really seen her before – she plays a sensitive and loyal wife who doesn’t want to lose her man but needs a life. Shelley Winters gets on her glad-rags to play the downtrodden ‘floozy-with-a-big-heart’ Dixie – a type of role she would later become famous for but a far cry from the psychotic mother in A Patch of Blue of ten years later, showing her acting range.

Steiger as the greedy Hoff, often crying aligator-tears to get his way, bullying Castle into signing the new contract, is great, but it’s Palance who totally steals the show. His breathy voice lends itself suprisingly well to the often intimate dialogue and his bulk (in the film Castle has starred in films about boxing) allows him to suggest threat, when with his wife without doing anything really other than leaning close to her. He cajoles, and mopes, attempting to win her back because he really deeply loves her. You quickly find yourself liking Castle’s character very much, even though he is lost, because he really only wants his wife back and to do good art. But the forces of Hollywood are against him.

In many ways the film is strangely contemporary – still: Castle and his wife collect art that he doesn’t understand but he knows that he likes it and as he stands in front of a modern painting of a clown he feels like he is staring in a mirror. The dialogue at times slumps into the fashion of the time with phrases like ‘cool-cat’ and ‘really gone’ cropping up, something I could do without, but it rises above this and what plot there is is passed about in the dialogue of the lead actors like a shuttlecock in a world championship final. Blink and you will miss it. In fact you really do need to watch this twice to catch all the gems.

Its a great parable about Hollywood corruption and a wonder it was ever made, let alone distributed. Watch it if you can.