Liberation Through Sensuality: Cinematic Moral Vision in an Age of Feeling
Published in Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen, edited by R. Douglas Geivett & James S. Spiegel, InterVarsity Press, 2007.
The aim of this paper is to cast light upon the moral vision—the vision of what is good and what is obligatory—that governs many if not most of the motion pictures produced in the United States in recent years. I especially have in mind productions such as Pleasantville, Cider House Rules, and American Beauty, and will give special attention to these three movies in what follows. But the phenomenon in question extends far beyond these cases. The basic idea governing these films is now a wide-spread and deep-lying conviction in the contemporary American soul. It is that moral rules and rigorous moral order in life, as traditionally understood, are meaningless or pointless at best, and really are repressive of the best aspects of human relationships, individuality and creativity. What would have traditionally been thought of as moral propriety and human goodness is now generally thought of as arbitrary and as harmful to life, if not downright vicious (at least in its effects), largely because they eliminate or repress feelings, the true elixir of life.
We want to make a detailed examination of the movies just mentioned, to see how they embody the moral outlook described. But before doing that we need to make a number of distinctions and clarifications.
To understand what the makers of movies generally aspire to, we need to distinguish between amusement, entertainment, and art (or aesthetic expression and enjoyment/appreciation).
It is typical of amusement that we do it to “pass the time,” and possibly use such a passing of the time for relaxation, relief, or recreation. Games and play, in their pure form, as seen in small children, exemplify amusement most clearly. Amusement is, typically, and as the term indicates, a kind of thoughtless activity, which is mildly pleasant, at least, and could be “fun.” It does not require, though it may to some degree admit of, talent, training or exertion. Amusement can be “idle,” and is at its best when it is so. One person can be amusing to another, but that is not a compliment to them—unless they are amusing to a baby or small child—and is generally felt to be at least mildly degrading. To be an object of amusement is not an enviable position for a person to be in.
Entertainment is not, typically, something done to “pass the time,” though it may incidentally serve that purpose. Still, there is more to it than that, which is why entertaining standardly occurs in special circumstances and places, and at higher prices, than amusement. (Think only of “entertaining guests.”) There are people who are entertainers, but none who are ‘amusers’ by trade. (One might be in the amusement business, of course.) Being an entertainer requires special talents, training and exertions, but no activity other than attention is required of the one entertained. One person can entertain others without automatic prejudice to their human standing. However, some roles and some degrees of human dignity seem incompatible with being entertaining. A teacher, for example, might be entertaining on occasion; but to be an entertainer would diminish one’s status as a teacher, and for one in that role to be called an entertainer would be insulting. To be amusing in that role would of course be far worse. Similar points could be made for officials of various kinds.
The effects of the entertainer are humanly shallow. It would be surprising to learn that someone was deeply impacted by a Wayne Newton performance or by viewing Caddyshack. (As an interesting aside, ‘popular’ music at Dylan and the Beetles clearly aspired to go beyond entertainment, to convey a moral vision, and one with vast cultural implications. Elvis Presley, on the other hand, remained simple entertainment. Thus he could regularly play Las Vegas.) One does not receive orientation from amusement or from entertainment. One can like them, of course, and will do so in the degree to which they are ‘successful’ in their way. But they are not “appreciated.” They do not draw viewers in deeply enough for that. Any evaluation of their success as amusement or entertainment is not deep in terms of human life. There is something essentially trivial about both. The fact that people can make a great deal of money by providing them does not change this.
Art, or Aesthetic Expression and Enjoyment, strongly contrasts with both amusement and entertainment on most of these points. Art—real art—is both serious (important) and deep, in ways that simply do not come into consideration for amusement or entertainment. All three are subject to failure, but the conditions of failure in art are radically different from those of the other two. Art requires a significant degree of talent, training and exertion on the part of both the artist and the appreciator, and both can fail in their engagement with art. Both are intensely active, though more so for the artist than the appreciator, whose activity is solely in the domain of thought and emotion.
The artist who is successful as an artist is thought to be “great” in terms of their humanity, and the successful appreciator somehow, if mildly, seems to share in that greatness. Not so for the entertainer or for the creator of amusements. W. C. Fields was an incredible entertainer, but not, for that, outstanding as a human being. The essential shallowness of comedy, and the degree of passivity of its audience, edges it out of the domain of art. How the audience is “drawn into” it is radically different from the “intake” into art. Again, “success” as an artist is independent of recognition and financial reward, but this is not true of those who amuse or entertain. Artistic greatness also seems largely independent of moral character in the artist (Wagner, Wilde, Picasso, etc.), but not of their moral vision—their vision of human goods, of well-being and of what morally ought to be done. Amusement and entertainment need not involve character or vision in any way.
These few remarks may suffice to call attention to an important point about movies. Generally speaking, they strive toward the status of Art, not that of amusement or entertainment. Anything less than that would be regarded by those in the “profession” as “hack work”—the equivalent of a “pot boiler” in literature. It is difficult for me to imagine a movie that would fall squarely into the category of amusement—though it may be that the old “B” Westerns or certain “horror” movies fall into that category for some—perhaps “Rocky Horror Show” or “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” These are hard to think of as entertaining, and certainly they would not qualify as artistic expressions, would not be appreciated as such. In production they, arguably, do require some talent, training and exertion—though not for the viewer. The “B” Westerns have a moral content—black hats/white hats, “Happy Trails to You,” the good guys win, etc.—but it is abstract and trite, to the point of a formality, thus lacking in the concreteness of all successful artistic vision and expression.
Many movies, and quite certainly most of them, would actually fall into the category of entertainment—intentionally or not. Many aim“higher.” They aim at artistic expression in the intentions of their directors, writers and actors. But most of them simply do not make it. (This is, very likely, the case in all genres of artistic effort. Success in art is rare indeed.) The Merchant and Ivy movies, for example, may be among the better efforts of this sort which turn out in the end to be just “entertainments.” One should not try to draw too fine a line here. No doubt there are many degrees between entertainment and art, but there also are clear cases that fall on one side of the line or the other. But before we can carry on with our line of thought about movies, we need to look more closely at what goes on in “Art.” I shall not aim, now, at completeness or precision, but to be suggestive in a way that may assist our objective of articulating the moral vision that underlies much contemporary cinema.
A number of ‘dimensions’ or elements show up in the “realm of art.” The art object or art ‘work’ is the most obvious, and it is the focal center in this realm. It and its effects exist in the public domain. It is an objective reality embedded in history before and after. The medium is the ‘stuff’ out of which the art object is made. The medium, with its possibilities and limitations of expression, is what determines the fundamental genres of art—painting, music, dance, etc. The natural characteristics of the medium equip it with naturally expressive powers and are receptive of conventional overlays. Those characteristics and their overlays all interact with the artist in the process of creativity to yield an art object with its own specific nature and expressive powers. The medium of an art is always physical, with ordinary physical properties, but the art object is more than physical. Bronze, to take a simple case, is a physical stuff, but being a statue (made of bronze or other suitable materials) is something more than physical. What the “more” is, and exactly how it is to be described, is a primary problem for the theory of art, which we will not attempt to explore here.
The subject or content in art, its third “dimension,” is what the at art object or art work is about. This is a vague way of speaking, as discourse about art now stands, but here we need not go into the quite important distinction between what is called “representational” and “non-representational” (or “abstract”) in art, or into the topic of reflexivity in the art object. What comes before the mind in artistic creativity and appreciation is never just the art object. The subject of the art work is the ‘object” at 2nd remove. It is what the art object (“object” in the first instance) brings before the mind. Blake’s poem, “The Tiger”:
Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
and so on, is obviously about “the tiger” (not any particular one, of course), just as his “The Lamb” is about “the lamb” as such. But, as is characteristic of successful art objects, there is a further level of “subject” brought before consciousness as the appreciative reader interacts with the art object (the poem) and its primary“subject” (the tiger). Having two or more levels of “subject” (“content” ) is one of the essential characteristics of art, and is one type of the richness and depth that characterizes the successful art work. The higher levels of “subject” always involve a larger “vision of things,” laden with emotion and value. In the “Tiger” case, the higher subject is something like terror and awe at a universe or a Creator who could bring forth such a “fearful symmetry” as is seen in the tiger. (Compare that “vision” with the ones in Blake’s “The Lamb” or “The Fly.”)
The “greatness” of the artist is a function of his or her mastery of their medium in expressing a vision of great human significance for life. Thus the upper levels of “subject” must be inherently “great” and must be under the control of the artist through the medium. The “subject” is never just whatever thought or image or emotion can be imposed upon the art work, as with a Rorschach splotch. It is, instead, “under control” of the successful artist, and is something the “viewer” must attain to upon the basis of their experience of the art work and its actual properties—including, in many cases, historical properties of its genre.
This helps us to understand the various ways in which an artist or appreciator can fail. And it is a necessary condition of art that such failures are possible. Also, we see another fundamental difference between appreciation, on the one hand, and amusement and entertainment on the other. In a certain obvious sense these latter do not have a secondary (or higher) subject or content. Consciousness stops at the “art” object (“It would go nicely on that wall.”) or at the primary level of subject. (“Aren’t lambs cute,” or “Tigers are really scary.”) Or, if consciousness does proceed further, it does so in an entirely “Rorschach” manner, not under the “control” of the “artist.” By contrast the entertainer and the entertained do not come together in a shared vision of deep significance for life as a result of the artist’s mastery of the medium and the appreciator’s insightful engagement.
After this brief but necessary side trip in “what goes on in art,” we can return to our primary aim of casting light upon the moral vision that is expressed, taught and reinforced by many contemporary movies that enjoy some degree of success as art works.
We start with Pleasantville as a fairly simple case. This movie is a phantasy. The opening frame of the movie contains the written line: “Once upon a time.” No claim to realism for its primary subject or content is made. The claim to truth (which it certainly does make) emerges at a higher level of “content.” But the events recorded, around which the story line develops, are to a great extent not the kind of events which occur in real life.
The story line is this: David and Jennifer, two typically cool and contemporary high school students, get into a fight in their home over the remote for the TV. A station is broadcasting a “Pleasantville Marathon” of re-runs of the black and white Fifties sitcom, Pleasantville, which presents us with a perfect suburbia of perfect people. David (later, “Bud”) is someone who knows the Pleasantville scenes and events forward and backward, and he is set to watch it for hours. Jennifer, however, wants him out of the house for a tryst with her boyfriend while their mother is away. They struggle for the remote, it flies out of their hands and shatters against the furniture. What to do now? The doorbell rings and a TV repairman (Don Knotts) appears, asking if they need repairs. (They hadn’t called!) He gives them a new remote, and, when they use it David and Jennifer are transported into“Pleasantville.” They become a part of the story, as Bud and Mary Sue, children of George and Betty. They are stranded there, and the TV repairman won’t let them go back—for now. Life there is all so dreadfully perfect and boring, especially for “Mary Sue.” The High School basketball team always wins, nothing burns (the Firemen only rescue stranded cats and have never seen a fire). It never rains. The pages in all the books are blank. No one knows there is anywhere else but Pleasantville. Nothing ever changes, but just repeats over and over day after day, as might well appear from a Fifties sit-com.
After a while Mary Sue breaks away from the routine and takes her clueless boyfriend to “lover’s lane,” where, to his surprise about everything, they have sex. He comes back in a daze and tells all the basketball team members what it’s like. They then take their girls there and do that, and pretty soon things start to take on color. Here a bubblegum bubble is pink. There some girl’s tongue and mouth is pink. (She consults a puzzled doctor.) Color begins to show up in odd places. The basketball team begins to lose.
Mr. Johnson, who operates the soda and hamburger place where Bud works, just keeps wiping the counter when Bud is late to fit into the routine as seen on TV. He doesn’t know he can break the routine of what he is shown doing in the TV series. Bud tells him what to do next time, and, later, he finds he can break it. He rushes to Bud’s house to tell him. There he sees Bud’s mom, Betty, and is captivated, while she in turn gazes back at him. An emotional connection is sparked.
Mary Sue wants to liberate the people of Pleasantville. Bud says not to do it. They are happy as they are. But Mary Sue says they aren’t happy. (“How could anyone be happy wearing tight sweaters and poodle skirts?”) They just don’t know any better. (She and Bud, by the way, remain black and white all this time.) Anyway, something has been started. A double bed, where a man and a woman can sleep together, shows up in a furniture store window and a crowd comes to stare at it. (There were only twin beds in old movies and TV.) Rock music floods in and the young people jive. Kissing in public begins. Mr. Johnson tells bud he wants to stop making hamburgers. “It’s all the same,” he says, “never gets any better or worse.” He wants to paint. Bud brings from the library an art book with nudes and colors to show Mr. Johnson. He starts to paint his whole shop in daring colors and images, including nudes. (Later, a nude Betty!)
Betty’s cards and fingernails at a card game become red. She later asks Mary Sue what goes on at lover’s lane. The answer is sex, in detail! Shocked, Betty says “Father would never do anything like that!” Mary Sue replies: “You know mom, there are other ways to enjoy yourself.” Which Betty does that night in the bathtub. The wall-paper takes on color, to celestial music, and a tree outside the house bursts into flame! Bud has to yell “cat” to get the Firemen moving, and then has to show them how to use the hoses to douse the flame.
The mayor and town council are now alarmed. Someone has quit their job at the grocery store just because they didn’t want to do it any more. Now Bud takes his girl to lover’s lane. But Mary Sue has discovered the novels of D. H. Lawrence and is thinking: “Maybe it’s not just the sex.” (She and Bud are still black and white.) Bud’s girl brings him a red apple and he bites it. Meanwhile, George comes home from work to no Betty, no supper. Betty has gone to be with Mr. Johnson. A storm breaks over lover’s lane and the young lovers, over George, the town council, and Betty and Mr. Johnson. It pours rain.
Betty lies to George about where she was and refuses to do what he asks any longer. Some boys on the street harass her because she is now in full color, and Bud hits one and blood flows and he becomes colored. Anger did it this time. It’s not“just sex,” after all. It’s what you feel deep inside. Mobs gather. They stone Mr. Johnson’s shop and break up his window and wall paintings. They riot and burn books. The town council writes rules about what can be done with color and music and writing. Bud and Mr. Johnson paint an exterior wall with all the forbidden colors and images. They are brought before the town council. “What went wrong?” George asks Bud, as Bud sits in Jail. “Nothing went wrong,” Bud replies. “People change.” (Of course not in the old sit-com, nor in life that is really no more than a sit-com, or runs like one.)
The town gathers at the council meeting, and the mayor charges Mr. Johnson and Bud. Mr. Johnson tries to plead, but Bud stands up and says: “You don’t have a right to do this!” What brings out color is what is inside you: silly, sexy, dangerous—but all better than merely pleasant. To demonstrate, he gets George to look at Betty and feel deeply his longing for her and love for her as she now is in color. George gets colored! The mayor then tells Bud to stop it. But Bud says “You can’t stop what is inside of you.” He will prove it is in the Mayor too. He asks him what he would like to do to Bud right now. He taunts the Mayor by telling him that if this keeps up everything will change. Men may even start staying home to take care of the house while women go to work. The Mayor explodes in exasperation and disgust and—color!
The whole town is now in permanent color. Bud takes the magical remote and travels back to his real life. He finds his mom weeping over the mess her life is in as she grows older. She’s forty. She says: “It’s not supposed to be this way.” Bud says: “It’s not supposed to be any way. There is no right house, no right car, and so forth.” In his new-found wisdom, any way is fine.
Back in Pleasantville, all in full color, George and Betty are sitting on a bench together. George says: “What’s going to happen now?” Betty says: “I don’t know. Do you know?”“No,” he replies; and Mr. Johnson, sitting with them, it now appears, says: “I don’t know either.“Pleasantville no longer has a script nor a routine of “over and over” as in the sit-com life. And they all laugh.
So what is the moral vision that forms the content of this movie as an art work? It is that following one’s strong feelings is what makes life unpredictable and good. Rules—including moral rules—and regularity (especially for the sake of being pleasant) make life stale, dead, boring, not worth living. If you need to break rules of morality, which here are depicted entirely as rules of propriety or niceness, then it is totally worth it to have intense feelings and the joy and unpredictability that comes with them. Not to have the feelings—and the implication is that everyone really does have deep and intense feelings, but that many repress them—is to make life not worth living. Specifically, it is to wind up doing what you have no real interest in doing: doing things just because they are supposed to be done. The good life is a life lived for deep and strong feelings, and what one ought to do—what the good person does—is to live for their feelings and help others to do the same. Some idea of authentic human existence (non-hypocrisy) no doubt lies in the background, but the movie is not a serious defense of anything. It simply presents a vision of good and evil.
With American Beauty we are back in the suburbs, but this time a very contemporary one, where Lester Burnham and his wife Carolyn live with their daughter Jane. They are a very “dysfunctional” family, where Carolyn is desperately trying to keep things looking nice, Lester is on the verge of disintegration, and Jane is totally disgusted with her father for his lascivious obsession with her sexy friend Angela. The story is narrated by Lester, who has been dead for a year when he begins to narrate. It begins and ends with sky views of the town and neighborhood: the view, presumably, of the deceased Lester who is commenting. Lester, who writes for a monthly media magazine but is about to be “let go,” starts out by saying: “In a year I’ll be dead. In a way I’m already dead. The high point of my day is masturbating in my morning shower.” He talks about Carolyn, who “used to be happy,” but now just tries to make everything in the yard and house pretty (“everything matches”) and is (unsuccessfully) in the real estate business. Jane thinks her dad is a gigantic loser. And, he agrees: “I have lost something and I can’t find it.” Lester and Carolyn have long since ceased having sex and constantly fight, even over the nice dinners which Carolyn tries to keep going, with what Jane calls “elevator music” in the background.
A schoolmate of Jane and Angela lives next door. Ricky has had some sort mental episode that got him hospitalized, and Angela fears and dislikes him—as does Jane initially, because he is always video taping things, including her as she comes and goes, and her and Lester through the windows of their home next door. He is also on marijuana and makes a lot of money selling it. Soon Lester is one of his customers. Ricky’s father, “The Colonel,” is a retired officer who is verbally and physically brutal on Ricky, trying to teach him to follow rules of behavior and to be “responsible,” but leaving him no real privacy. The Colonel is sure society is going to hell, and he despises the homosexual couple, Jim and Jim, who have moved in close by and try to be friendly. Ricky’s mom walks about in a quasi-catatonic state, obsessively keeping things neat.
Lester’s reawakening to life begins when he and Carolyn attend a basketball game where Jane and Angela are among the cheerleaders. Lester stares lasciviously and begins undressing Angela in imagination, and as he opens her blouse a flood of lush, red rose petals spill out. (“American beauty” rose petals, of course.) Later, when he kisses her (in imagination) a rose petal is on his tongue. Floods of rose petals show up in other (imaginary) settings with Angela. They symbolize the lush, sensual beauty that is associated with sexual enjoyment or desire and pervades the entire movie. Lester is “inspired” to get into physical shape, and to return to the rock music and cars that he loved as a youth. (“I fell into a coma for twenty years and am just now waking up.”) The “efficiency expert” at work has arranged to let him go from the magazine job, and he has managed to blackmail the expert into “a year’s pay with benefits.” He is now flipping burgers at a fast food place, which he also did when young (to buy an eight-track). He says he wants a job “that involves the least amount of responsibility.” This leaves him free to work on his physical and other revitalizations—and inch toward Angela, who is now (really) coming on to him. Angela talks to Jane as if she has had a lot of sex with a lot of people (She has had none.) and is really turned on by Lester. Jane is disgusted, but still thinks Angela has really got it (whatever “it” is), while she herself is a nothing.
Usually Jane rides home from school in Angela’s car, but one day Ricky asks for a ride and Angela scornfully rejects him. Jane, sympathetically, walks home with him and they become close. A funeral procession passes them, and Ricky goes into his obsession with death. He says he once came upon a homeless man frozen to death and video taped him. “Why?” Jane asks. “Because it’s like God is looking right at you for a second, and if you are careful you can look back.”“What do you see?” Jane asks. “Beauty,” he replies.
They go to his house and he enters his dad’s locked gun collection to show her a collectors item: a fine china platter with a swastika on the back. They are filled with loathing. Ricky shows her some video tape of a piece of paper blowing about on a concrete area against a wall for fifteen minutes. It is, he says, “the most beautiful thing I have ever filmed.” A benevolent force, no reason to be, ever. “Sometimes,” he says, “there is so much beauty in the world, like, I can’t take it. My heart is going to cave in.” Jane looks deeply at him, takes his hand, kisses him.
Jane rushes home, late for the “nice dinner.” An unprecedented fight breaks out and Lester throws his plate against the wall. Jane leaves and Carolyn follows her to her room to apologize, saying: “The most important lesson in life is, you cannot count on anyone but yourself.” Jane rejects her approach, calling her and dad both freaks. She says she “doesn’t feel like having ‘a Kodak moment’.” Carolyn slaps her and says: “Look at all you have. When I was your age we lived in a duplex. We didn’t even have our own house.”
Meanwhile, Carolyn has “hooked up” with the most successful real estate man in the area, “the King.” She wants his secrets of success, and he tells her: “In order to be successful one must project an image of success at all times.” They hit the motel for riotous sex. She says “This was just what I needed. I was so stressed out.”“What do you do for stress?” she asks the King. “I fire a gun,” he replies. This leads to Carolyn taking up practice with firing a pistol at a shooting gallery, with the pistol’s obvious associations with power and sex. She, too, is “coming alive” now and exercising power.
In one of their times together, Carolyn and the King stop by the fast food place and she orders. Lester recognizes her voice and moves to the window to serve them. They realize they are now found out. They drive back to the motel and he gets out of the car and leaves. To be involved in a divorce would not be “to project an image of success at all times.” He leaves her and she weeps uncontrollably with rage at Lester and at her situation. She sits in the car in the rain and listens to a tape about taking charge and not being a victim. She takes her pistol out of the car pocket and puts it in her purse and then drives toward home to the music of “Ain’t no one gonna rain on my parade.”
The Colonel has been looking at Ricky’s videos of Lester exercising, and, watching Ricky and Lester do drug deals, he decides that they are homosexually engaged. (Lester has also been running with Jim and Jim on their daily runs.) The Colonel throws Ricky out of the house, and Ricky goes over to see if Jane will go with him to New York and live together and do drug business. (He has forty thousand dollars saved up.) She agrees, and Angela, who is in Jane’s room talking about having sex with Lester, ridicules them. Ricky tells her she is unattractive, boring and totally ordinary—the very worst thing to, be in Angela’s mind. She goes out of the room and sits on the stairs weeping.
Lester has been in the garage exercising, and the Colonel has walked over, robot-like, in the rain. Lester lets him in and he, assuming Lester is homosexual, kisses him on the mouth. Lester says: “Sorry, you got the wrong idea.” He turns and woodenly walks off into the rain. Lester goes into the house and finds Angela weeping. She says “There’s nothing worse than being ordinary.” He: “You couldn’t be ordinary if you tried.” He begins to undress her on the couch when she, obviously experiencing some uncertainty, reveals that “It’s my first time.” Lester stops. She urges him to go on with it, but now he won’t. He tries to comfort her by saying she’s okay. Says he would be a very lucky man. They talk for a while, and she goes to the bathroom. He is feeling great and sits at the table and looks at a happy picture of him and Carolyn and Jane when Jane was small. A pistol appears at the back of his head, fires, and his blood splatters on the kitchen wall.
The screen returns to the white piece of paper floating about. Lester is now speaking from the sky view over the city. He says one just has to relax and stop trying to hold onto things. Now he has wisdom and says: “I feel only gratitude for every moment of my stupid little life.”
The moral vision (of what is good and what people ought to do) has some striking similarities to that of Pleasantville. In both cases it is sex—of course illicit sex—and sexual desire and imagination that starts the emotional thaw or breakthrough to a “better life.” Homosexual or heterosexual, it is presented as a source, if not the source, of genuine goodness in life, and its repression by rules and a framework of propriety is wrong and death-dealing. Its repression fills you full of pain and meanness. The relationships in the movie are pervaded with sex, and—with the possible exception of Jim and Jim, who we don’t really get to know much about—it is bleak and hopeless.
The lush beauty of the American Beauty rose is a bitter illusion, and requires supplementation with the “beauty” of the aimless piece of paper and death, as seen by Ricky, and the goodness of “My stupid little life” seen by Lester after his death. But a life of stifled desire or passion under the suppression of rules that dictate “ordinary” life—a respectable life where people play “Bali High” as background music for hellacious family dinners—is worse than anything. Angela, the “American Beauty,” can’t stand the thought of being “ordinary,” and makes up a life of riotous sexual action which is only imaginary. Lester, in discussing his “job description” with the efficiency expert, says he just “wants a life that doesn’t resemble hell.” The two most rigidly “moral” and “proper” people wind up doing the worst things. Carolyn desperately tries to keep things “nice,” though dead and starving inside, but she murders her husband. The Colonel, the most wooden and repressively “respectable” of all, is a closet homosexual and totally brutal to his son and, very likely, his wife. Morality in any traditional sense of rules and virtues for living well simply doesn’t show up, for the most part, and certainly does not present itself as something hopeful in American Beauty. Death is more beautiful than life.
Now The Cider House Rules differs significantly from the two previous movies. In the first place, the location is not in suburbia, past or present, but in rural Maine in the Forties. The story takes place, first in an orphanage outside a little whistle-stop town, St. Cloud, and then on an apple farm by the ocean. They produce cider there, and hence have a “cider house.” Secondly, the feelings which moral rules confront in this story are, mainly, feelings of compassion and sympathy for suffering human beings. (Of course sex is the background: issuing in unwanted babies, who become orphans by rejection, and in abortions, and violated relationship including violence and murder. But sex itself is not really glorified in this story. Homer, the central figure, is ceaselessly taunted by the doctor for his “idealism,” and has been thoroughly compromised by the end. Moral rules, virtues and ideals are seen as unsustainable or irrelevant in the face of the crying needs of human beings. Life requires action to help people in ways that simply cannot conform to moral rules and abstract moral ideals. They cannot stand in the face of the feeling of compassion. A higher ‘sensuality’ must rule.
Dr. Walter Larch came to the orphanage to be a hero, and now is trapped there. He soon found there are no heroes in the world of lost children, only people struggling to do the best they can for women and children ensnared in their circumstances of life. He helps women have unwanted babies, to be left at the orphanage for possible adoption, or to have abortions, which are illegal and, arguably, immoral. But he has to act to help, cannot not stand back and let things take their course, hoping for the best. He loves the babies left at the orphanage, and he and the two nurses who live and work there with the children treat them like their own children or better. Many of them are never adopted and grow up there. Together they all make a beautiful but sad setting of life.
Homer is one who grew up there. The doctor makes him his assistant as he grows up and trains him in all the medical procedures. He becomes as good a doctor as Larch himself. But he will not perform abortions. It is wrong, he thinks, and he will not compromise. He cites himself and the other living orphans as reasons against it. Larch keeps after him about it, however, especially after a young woman comes to them after a botched abortion attempt and dies. Homer is unrelenting, however—to this point.
Dr. Larch leads a hard life, but cares faithfully and sympathetically for the orphans. At night one of the nurses puts the girls to bed with a touching prayer, and Larch reads to the boys, after which he says every night: “Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” He does not sleep well, and uses drops of ether on an open mask to put himself to sleep.
One day Candy and Wally drive up in his car to obtain an abortion. They are not married. Wally is in the Air Force, flying the B24 Liberator. He expects to be called to overseas duty soon and asks Homer if he is going into the services. Homer tells him he has a heart defect and can’t enroll. He asks Wally if he can ride out with them when they leave. Larch does not want Homer to leave. Homer is “still a boy,” and “No one is taking care of anyone out there.” But Homer leaves with Candy and Wally and takes a job working apples on the farm belonging to Wally’s parents. Candy’s father is a Lobsterman on the nearby ocean. Wally is off to war, and soon Candy and Homer are romantically and sexually involved—Homer’s first moral lapse or departure from “the rules.”
A crew of five or six black migrant workers live on the farm in the summer and bunk in the “cider house,” where Homer also lives. Mr. Rose bosses the operation and his daughter, Rose Rose, is one of the workers. Posted on the wall is a set of rules, “the cider house rules” of course. The workers can’t read, don’t know what they say, and totally disregard them. They actually say things like: “Don’t smoke in bed,”“Don’t operate the cider press while drinking,”“Don’t go up on the roof to eat lunch,” and similar profundities. The summer goes well, Wally is off to the war, Candy and Homer are carrying on happily, not dealing with where they are going, and the migrant workers leave to go back South until next summer.
Dr. Larch continues to try to get Homer to come back to practice medicine at the orphanage and even works up a convincing set of Medical credentials for him as a fully qualified doctor. Then, by clever lies and manipulations, he arranges for the board of the orphanage to give him a job there. Larch dances with the nurses in celebration, but Homer still won’t come back. The sad but beautiful life at the orphanage goes on. Larch sends Homer a gift package containing a fully equipped medical bag, but Homer won’t open it—at least for a time. Larch writes to Homer: “I don’t play God. I just give the women in need what they want: an abortion or another orphan.”“I can’t replace you. I’m not even sorry I love you,” he writes. He tells the nurses, “I think we may have lost him.”
Candy and Homer start fighting because they don’t know what to do about their situation and Wally. They seem suspended in time and space. They can’t act to resolve the situation, and they wind up just waiting for something to happen.
It’s apple harvest time again and the migrant crew comes back. But Rose is in trouble. “Morning sickness,” indicates pregnancy. Candy presses Rose to tell who the father is, and finally Rose indicates it is her own father, Mr. Rose. Homer confronts him with it and he denies everything. Rose says she “will take care of it,” and Homer pleads with her not to do an abortion on herself. But will he do it instead? Now he has to act and can’t just stand by and hope for the best.
News comes that Wally is wounded in action and paralyzed from the waist down. Candy wants him to come home for her to care for. Sitting together on the beach Candy and Homer realize now that someone is going to get hurt. Homer acknowledges that he has been thinking, “Maybe something will happen and I won’t have to do anything.” Now Candy has made a choice and has acted. Life will go on.
Homer comes toward the cider house where Mr. Rose is restraining his daughter. Homer says he can help. He gets his medical bag and sets Rose up for the abortion procedure. Mr. Rose won’t leave, so Homer tells him to make himself useful by administering the ether. He starts out with it, but eventually can’t take it and staggers out of the building into a crying fit in the rain. A little later Candy is caring for Rose and talking to her, and Mr. Rose is sitting in deep misery. Homer has broken the rules.
Rose is lying on her bunk recovering and she asks Homer to read the rules posted on the wall. He does, and the workers all are astonished at their irrelevance and stupidity. Mr. Rose comments: “Someone who don’t live here made those rules. They ain’t for us. We make our own rules and we do it every single day. Ain’t that right Homer.” Homer now agrees. Mr. Rose tells Homer to take those rules and burn them in the stove, and he does. He now accepts the wisdom of Dr. Larch. Rose muses on the rules: “Why, that don’t mean nothing at all. And all this time I’ve been wondering about them.”
Sitting in the car with Candy, Homer acknowledges that in life one can’t just do nothing. “Nothing is nothing, right? You needed me, and now Wally needs you. At least there’s no more waiting.” Compassion made Homer take Candy (Really!?) and compassion made Candy take the now invalid Wally.
Back at the cider house Homer finds Mr. Rose stabbed and bleeding in his bunk. Rose was leaving and he “just wanted to touch her hand,” but she stabbed him in the guts with a knife. She’s gone. He, to protect her from criminal charges, stabbed himself in the same place and makes Homer and the group promise to tell the police he committed suicide in grief over her leaving. Mr. Rose says: “I’m just trying to set things straight. Sometimes you got to break some rules to make things straight. Ain’t that right Homer?” Homer agrees. Mr. Rose dies. Larch and compassion win again. Moral idealism and its rules are to much to bear in life. Compassion for others will not allow it.
As Homer is loading apple boxes on a truck, Candy hands him a letter from one of the nurses at the orphanage. It says Dr. Larch has accidentally overdosed on the ether he used for sleeping and is dead. Now Homer heads back to the orphanage, and the kids and nurses lovingly mob him as he approaches. The nurse shows him the x-ray of, supposedly, his heart defect, and tells him it wasn’t an x-ray of his heart after all, which is perfectly good, but of another child. She tells him that the Dr.’s “heart” would not stand up to Homer’s going off to war, so he substituted one of the other children’s X-ray for Homer’s. The defective heart no doubt symbolizes Larch’s life of compassion. Homer becomes the orphanage doctor under false credentials and carries on Larch’s compassionate work with women and children. He reads to the boys at night and says at the end: “Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”
Now there are obvious differences between the three movies discussed above. Pleasantville is light, bright and frivolous. American Beauty is brutal and sardonic, The Cider House Rules is compassionate, and is profoundly moving in its portrayal of life at the orphanage. But they and many other contemporary movies—Chocolat is an especially silly version of this type—have in common the view that it is sensuality or feeling that is foundational to goodness in life. It certainly is not conformity to well-known moral rules that really matter, and to “stand on principle” and not follow your feelings makes you less good as a person and your life less worth living.
Of course not every noteworthy contemporary movie takes that position. A different perspective—a different vision of goodness in life—is here and there represented by excellent movies such as Driving Miss Daisy, Places In The Heart, and Changing Lanes. And not very long ago people still generally assumed that traditional moral rules and order were a good thing: that the “Pleasantville” type of life, where people did not routinely do what they felt like doing, but what they were supposed to do, was the moral ideal. The relative recency of the shift of moral mood is indicated by the fact that fifty years or so ago the “Pleasantville” type of sit-coms were taken, at the time, to be realistic to life in suburbia, which itself was thought to be a good place to be and a good way to live. The bringing out of the presumably dirty underside of such an “ideal” suburban existence is a major and constantly reiterated concept only in quite recent movie making. It almost seems that we, today, have to defend ourselves against a past we can no longer sustain and to which we are now morally superior. Far From Heaven, for example, is nothing but Pleasantville in the bitter and sardonic spirit of American Beauty. It is an artistic expression of the superior moral insight, if not practice, which we now presumably possess viz-á-viz the moral superficiality, blindness and hypocrisy of those “Happy Days” not so long ago.
Of course there is an important point to be made, and movies of the type in question do make it. Mere outward conformity to moral rules and ‘propriety’ does not mean a good life, a good person, or outstanding moral character. This has been understood by thinkers since ancient times. Moreover, if that is indeed all one has to make a life of, it is a crushing burden to bear and will lead to hypocrisy in one’s self and to the manipulation or brutalization of others. The rigid, implacable and mean moralizer (nearly always fanatically religious—thanks to the makers of these movies for sparing us that!) is by now a long-standing figure in Western literature (Molière, Dickens, Dreiser, etc. etc.) and now has a justifiable, standard place in TV and Cinema. We are not disputing validity of this. It is the alternative vision of goodness presented that we would call into question.
And what is that alternative? Precisely the one presented by the three movies here discussed in some detail. It is a life dominated by feeling or sentiment as the ultimate basis of choice and action. Even in what is perhaps the most worthy case here viewed, Dr. Larch’s service to unwillingly pregnant women and their babies (“I don’t play God. I just give them what they want.”), what someone wants is the ultimate point of reference. There is no good, no issue of responsibility or character, raised beyond that. No distinction between wants and needs, or between needs in a moment of crisis and needs in the larger contexts of life. Thus, Homer’s concerns about the rightness of abortion are never addressed and the voice of the unborn child is never heard. Because of all this it is no wonder that by the end Homer is so morally compromised by his own feeling-dominated choices, and by pressures to act, that he is willing to live and practice under false credentials, as a doctor simply doing whatever needy women want. Today that is called supporting “choice,” and choice is presented as an unqualifiedly good, if sometimes sad, thing. But what is really in view here is choice and life ruled simply by individual desire. When Candy decides to care for the now life-long invalid, Wally, it is simply her choice, based on what she (for the moment, at least) wants to do, her feelings. Not a word is said about duty, honor or obligation. That would have spoiled the aesthetic framework of the movie. There is no question of character and objective values underlying her choice, and similarly for Homer’s return to a life of falsehood and service at the orphanage.
So we have one vision of life as outward conformity governed by rules that make no sense: “Cider House Rules.” That vision is, of course, not adequate to human needs. It is not a life of courage, nobility, compassion or, in general, of admirable human character. It is Pleasantville before color, Lester before his “reawakening,” Homer paralyzed by his “Idealism.” The great moralists from antiquity have understood all this. Such conformity is what Jesus of Nazareth called “the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees,” and marked as disastrously harmful and wrong. The alternative vision artistically championed today is of a life liberated from the oppression of moral rules and conformity by following and indulging feelings of various kinds—usually sexual. Can this alternative vision be an accurate portrayal of life and of what it is good to be and do?
Now Pleasantville is, as we have noted, simply a phantasy. As such it does not try to come to grips with what feelings, unchecked by what is truly good, actually do to human life. Viewed with any pretense of realism its ending is simply, goofy. The other two movies, by contrast, primarily present us with the ravages of unchecked human desires and feelings. After viewing The Cider House Rules, when it was first released, I could not help but wonder if it was not ironic in intent. Wasn’t it actually depicting the horrors of life without conformity to rules—rules that would prevent people from committing the stupid and disastrous actions they routinely carry out in life, as is faithfully brought out in that movie. But that is, at least, not what the ordinary viewer will take away from seeing it or American Beauty. They will, instead, certainly take away the vision of liberated feelings as the basis of whatever goodness is achievable in life, even if life as a whole is acknowledged to be tragic.
Perhaps there is good reason to think that, for most human beings, life within the boundaries of individual human abilities is tragic, or at least quite disappointing. But it need not be anywhere near as tragic as it in fact is precisely because of unchecked feelings and desires and their consequences. Most of the actual tragedies one sees in real life, as in these pictures, is precisely the result of feelings ungoverned by good—from drug addiction, to unwanted pregnancies, to ethnic cleansing, and on and on. The tragedy of living a Pleasantville life or even a Lester Barnham life (before his “reawakening”) is very small indeed compared to the lives of multitudes who are ravaged by unbridled feelings and desires, their own or those of others. For real life there is required a point of reference in what is good for people, and a firm understanding that what we want or how we feel, which of course has some importance, is not the same as what is good for us and for those whose lives we affect. This point of reference is what is missing from the vision of life communicated by cinema productions that represent sensuality as the path to moral liberation.
Actually, the ‘moral’ rigidity rightly condemned in the movies under consideration here is not moral at all, but is immoral, as most people rightly see: in no case should an abortion be performed, in no case should life be taken, in no case should one intentionally deceive another, in no case should there be a divorce, etc. etc. Those who sponsor such things are, in their odd way, enslaved by their feelings, not by genuine moral insight and character. They feel these things to be unqualifiedly right (and their opposites wrong). Their claims are not based upon moral understanding and moral character. They are people who stand under a certain moral fanaticism, usually involving a misplaced sense of moral purity. But the person of good moral character does not stand back and hope for something to happen, so they won’t have to soil their hands. Rather, they act for the greater good in the situation—often, to be sure, “with fear and trembling”—but they do act. They act with genuine love, as a matter of the will and character, not just feeling. This is what it means to be responsible.
But how, today, can one find the confidence to go forward with responsible moral judgments, and perhaps to express them in works of art? I have spoken above of the need to have, as a point of reference in action, what is good for people, as distinct from what is desired or felt. But here, at present, we have a major problem. Ours is a sensual culture, not only in its tastes and practices, but also in its theory of what counts as knowledge. As a result, it is generally assumed that there is no knowledge of what is good as distinct from what is desired and felt. Feeling is everything. In life it is just one feeling against another. David Hume, long ago, taught us that. Reason, he said, could never oppose or support the feelings (“sentiments”) which, on his view, totally govern action. Reason is the slave of the passions. For a long while this theory didn’t catch on in the general culture, but now it is “street smarts.” We have no knowledge, the current ‘wisdom’ is, of what is right and wrong, good and bad. Thus we are caught in practice between the unsustainable alternatives of a dead outward conformity to moral rules and of “liberation” from dead conformity by the indulgence of sensuality, in cruder or in more refined forms. We have nowhere else to stand, and that is the grand vision brought to aesthetic expression in the movies under consideration.
The broader and more basic problem underlying the tendency in contemporary movies I have tried to bring out here is the problem of establishing a certifiable knowledge of human goodness that gives us a third way between the two alternatives noted. Since the dominance of a refined version of Judeo-Christian ethics vanished at the end of the Nineteenth century, we have had nothing that could pass as moral knowledge in Western culture. Nietzsche saw clearly the cataclysmic nature of the historical passage beyond that ethics into Nihilism, but neither he nor anyone else has been able to find a replacement for it in human life. In the vacuum that remains, there is little we can do but vacillate between outward conformity to rules (that’s what “political correctness” is, a secular Phariseeism) and the indulgence of feelings. Neither comes to realistic terms with the human heart and personality. This explains many things about out culture, such as how highly addictive we are, how our essential individual and communal covenants cannot be maintained, the abysmal failure of education, and the incredible percentage of our population that is ensnared in the legal and penal system. Cinema and TV can, of course, only reflect this sad situation. They cannot correct it. But we should at least understand what they are offering to us and not mistake the vision of liberation through sensuality as a vision of reality.
Facts about the three movies:
Pleasantville: USA, 1998, 124 minutes, B & W and Color
Director: Gary Ross
Writer: Gary Ross
Cast: Toby Maguire, Jeff Daniels, William Macy, J. T. Walsh, Reese Witherspoon, Don Knotts.
Rating: PG. 13
American Beauty: USA, 122 minutes, Color
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Alan Ball
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari
Rating: R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content
The Cider House Rules: USA, 126 minutes, Color
Director: Lasse Hallström
Writer: John Irving
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd, Michael Caine, Jane Alexander.
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexuality, nudity, substance abuse and some violence