On Torture and Abortion and Art and Moral Responsibility

Over Christmas break, a friend of mine in town from Los Angeles (he works in “the industry,” and he said that without any irony whatsoever) was discussing with me the slate of then-upcoming theatrical releases we were both excited to see. One of us mentioned Zero Dark Thirty and I said that I’d read somewhere that some members of congress and the CIA were none too pleased with the ways in which Katheryn Bigelow’s film allegedly connected the torture of detainees and the death of Osama Bin Laden. I noted that if what these people were saying about ZDT were true, and she’d fudged the “facts” (insofar as we can assume the information the CIA has given Bigelow and the general public about the raid on Bin Laden’s compound) to indicate that torture had led to Bin Laden’s death, then I thought that would count as a betrayal of her moral responsibility as someone purporting to tell a true story, especially if she was openly misleading her audience to (A) propagate a false and dangerous belief that torture is even a slightly consistent method of information retrieval or good policy in general and/or (B) court controversy in the interest of box office sales.

The look on my friend’s face was incredulous. “Doesn’t the trailer say ‘Based on a True Story’?” He asked.

“Yeah, I guess. But that’s a legal copout. It doesn’t -”

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

“… But that’s -”

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

This is an old Hollywood maxim, apparently. The ideology behind it may not be news, exactly – we’ve always known the ‘Based on a True Story’ line was a license for all manner of liberty-taking and (let’s be honest) flat-out lying in the interest of entertaining – but it explains a lot.

Over the next couple of weeks I read everything I could get my hands on regarding ZDT and what it may or may not be advocating. The reviews were almost universally positive, although there were a few critics who dinged Bigelow for not offering a clear moral stance on the acts of torture the film depicts. Bigelow responded to the criticism herself in the LA Times, using language very similar to that I have used to defend the choice to teach certain books in my AP English  class:

“… I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.” (Bolding mine.)

It may seem that doing all of this digging was only going to ruin the film for me by turning into an intellectual exercise that would dwarf whatever ended up on the screen. Maybe so, but in the weeks leading up to actually seeing the movie, I was so intrigued by the discussion about art’s influence on culture and the resultant responsibilities that artists may or may not have to their audience and to the truth (or the Truth, if you prefer) that I couldn’t keep away.

I finally saw ZDT last weekend, and I was simultaneously impressed and confused. Bigelow is a great filmmaker, and every aspect of ZDT feels achingly crafted. What confused me wasn’t the complexity of the narrative or all the location switches or the dozens of characters or the vast amount of time the film covers. No, what perplexed me was how anyone could watch the movie and come away thinking that Bigelow is using this film to advocate for torture or even imply that it had much to do with Bin Laden’s death. If anything, she does the opposite. Maybe the CIA just saw what they wanted to see (wouldn’t be the first time – ba-dum-cha!). Maybe the reviewers weren’t paying attention or just wanted to be contrarian. On the one hand, I’m glad I was able to walk away from the movie feeling that its makers had acted responsibly toward the material. On the other, I’ve wondered more and more if I’ve even got a right to expect that kind of moral responsibility (at least as I would define it) from the people creating films, TV shows, music, and novels.

Which leads me to another friend and another comment that got me thinking (My friends routinely say, tweet, or text things that keep me up at night; I’m not sure if this says more about me or my friends.). This particular friend reacted to a recent episode of the NBC quasi-drama Parenthood (If you’ve not seen the last few episodes of this season, which ended last Tuesday, then: SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t even started watching the series, even if you know you want to, I’d ask you to soldier on.) in which the girlfriend of one of the show’s main-ish characters had an abortion. What “disgusted” him (his word) was not the abortion happening, but the manner in which it was dealt with on the show. He pointed out (validly) that Parenthood is a show that seems to pride itself on dealing with a wide variety of often controversial or little-discussed issues (autism, pre-marital sex, drug addiction and familial responsibility therein, relational age differences, PTSD, paternal abandonment, cancer, racial tension, and marital tension of all stripes) in an honest, sometimes uncomfortable way. It has a lot in common with All in the Family in that way.

Anyway, my friend felt that Parenthood had betrayed itself – not to mention its audience – in the scene where the girlfriend and boyfriend sit in the Planned Parenthood offices receiving information about services for young mothers and adoption. The viewer hears the Planned Parenthood representative clearly outline the services they offer unrelated to abortion. Then, just as she begins what we can reasonably assume to be what my friend called “the abortion spiel,” the music swells and we see the woman’s mouth moving. She finishes, the music dies down, and we hear the end of their meeting before the scene changes.

My friend’s problem – and maybe mine, though as you can tell I’m kind of in the middle of working this stuff out – is that Parenthood pulled its punches. For a lot of shows, this would be fine. Other shows skirt frank discussions about complex or taboo topics. But Parenthood doesn’t. That it’s thing. So for them to suddenly duck at the moment where they’ve got an opportunity to lay out for millions of viewers what a seventeen year-old girl would be hearing from a Planned Parenthood rep right before what is almost certainly the most important decision she will have made in her young life smacks of self-service and more, importantly, irresponsibility.

The makers of this show clearly feel that some issues demand more open, mature discourse, and they use their art to open the doors to those conversations, so why dodge an obvious opportunity to do exactly that? Could be that they shot the scene, complete with a frank discussion of abortion, and the network pushed them to glaze over it because they feared heightened controversy (possible, considering abortion is probably the most powerfully divisive issue in the U.S.). Could be that the show’s creators have some sort of hyper-liberal agenda that a full, honest discussion about abortion does not serve (Again, it’s possible, although I doubt it. It’s obvious that the show has a liberal bent,but then the characters all live near Berkley and probably look a lot like a contemporary Californian family from the San Francisco area. I think this is just honestly how they see things.) So the question, if it’s not already clear, is whether or not Parenthood actually owes their viewers a more well-rounded look at abortion than they gave.

The answer, I think, largely depends upon what you feel art is for. Is it (or should it be) prescriptive or descriptive? Should it tell us how to think and act and see the world, or should it simply reflect the world as it is, offering commentary only sparingly if at all? This latter is what Bigelow seems to be advocating in her Times piece. She’s not making a movie to rub our noses in the brutality of U.S. policies and actions over the last ten years, nor is she elevating the U.S. government in general or Seal Team Six in particular to any kind of heroic pantheon. She’s telling the story of the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, warts-and-all. If you take issue with the way that hunt is presented, then, as Bigelow points out, you’re problem is much more likely the result of the people and institutions and actions depicted rather than the people depicting them.

That’s not to say that artists’ hands are entirely clean.

We know that movies and TV and video games and even music have largely normalized a lot problematic attitudes and behaviors. Media has a role to play in our concerns about violence and easy, consequence-less sex and attitudes about relationships, it just isn’t the role a lot of its most vocal critics claim.

To illustrate, let’s look at a couple of movies – one a little older and one still at the multiplex – that enjoy very different reputations: Jason Reitman’s Juno and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. 

When it was released a few years ago, Juno enjoyed a kind of playing-with-house-money existence. It exceeded critical and financial expectations and won a freaking Oscar for Diablo Cody’s screenplay. Juno was one of those word-of-mouth movies that actually got more successful in the weeks after its initial release. People used words like “precious,” “darling,” “cute,” and “quirky” to describe it. Some people didn’t like the quirk. Those people were dismissed as bitter, soulless cynics.

Django Unchained has fared a little differently. In the wake of Newtown, its hyper-stylized violence has been held up as an example of exactly the kind of thing that breeds real-world acts of death. It’s liberal use of the word “nigger” has drawn fire from all sides. Sure, it’s still up for some awards, but for your average moviegoer, Django‘s actual artistic value has been totally submerged under its reputation as the “slave revenge movie.”

Tarantino’s film is damaging, dangerous, and irresponsible. Reitman’s is uplifting, humorous, and warm. So says the wide world.

Except that Reitman’s movie sells us a lie. I’ve seen a fair amount of how your average pregnant sixteen year-old is treated by her peers, and it doesn’t look anything like what Ellen Page’s character goes through in that movie. Pregnancy for her is an occasionally annoying  but always comical inconvenience that ends with a kind of no-harm-no-foul, all-you’ve-got-to-do-is-try-hard-and-believe-in-the-goodness-of-humanity bailout. It’s a happy ending, just not a particularly truthful one. This might be a good time to note that a happy ending will paper over a lot of cracks.

Meanwhile, Tarantino’s “fantasy” presents slavery as a moral trainwreck in which an entire nation complied with the systematic dehumanization of an entire wreck. Yes, much of the violence is “over-the-top” and even cartoonish, but never the violence perpetrated against slaves. Those scenes are brutal, yes, but they’re noticeably more realistic in their execution than the scenes accurately characterized as “revenge fantasy.” Tarantino seems to be challenging his audience to reconcile their potential disgust toward the movie-violence with the reality that acts much more violent and degrading than those in Django Unchained occurred regularly during the days of slavery. He uses the immersive potential of film to push viewers into uncomfortable territory.

These movies aren’t brainwashing us, as some more extreme commentators might suggest, but we do have to exercise no small degree of discernment and thoughtfulness when approaching them.

I once heard a speaker say he much prefers R-rated truths to G-rated lies. He said he wouldn’t let his young children watch Cinderella, because it propagated the idea that if you worked hard and wanted something badly enough, you’d be saved.

I think about that whenever my wife and I have a discussion about the age-appropriateness of viewing material for our son. Obviously, there are some images to which I don’t want my son exposed until I feel he’s developed a mature and critical approach to media of all kinds. More and more though, the most important criteria I have for judging art is the degree to which it offers us an authentic opportunity to engage with the important questions of our pasts, presents, and futures.

By that measure, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained and Parenthood get thumbs up. None of them (and this is true of a lot of our best art) are meant to prescribe behavior. That doesn’t mean they’re above reproach or that they don’t misstep, only that they respect us enough to let us come to the table as equal participants, trusting our intelligences and hoping to offer us something of value. That is responsibility, and the more of it we can get, the better.

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3 Comments on “On Torture and Abortion and Art and Moral Responsibility”

  1. Pat
    February 1, 2013 at 10:40 pm #

    I agree with what you said, I don’t understand how people found it to be pro-torture either. I believe that art is one of the most powerful ways to communicate messages and tell stories. Bigelow has done that extremely well here. I think Zero Dark will be one of the more memorable modern movies because of the reality it portrays and questions it asks.

  2. February 4, 2013 at 12:01 am #

    I am with you almost completely on all of it: Zero Dark, Parenthood, etc.

    One caveat: I’d argue that your question (and answer) about “what art is” might be inadequate for two reasons.

    1) By nature of the question, “What should art be?”, you tip your hand in the direction of prescription. Who is qualified to answer that question with any authority? Perhaps an artist, but that would need to be done in conjunction with his or her audience too. The point is, to ask what something “should” be means you have a particular moral or functional expectation for its existence. It’s a fairly utilitarian (or consequentialist) mode in which to consider art, and far too narrow. Which leads me to…
    2) It’s probably not fair to reduce the question’s answer to an either/or. Art both prescribes and describes by way of imagination. Imagination tells us about the way the world is, was, should be, or COULD be.

    Because of that, art really is responsible to no human. An artist might move us to think about what could be if we only treated others as we would want to be treated. Or she can depict for us the most accurate (and equally subjective) version of reality as she sees it. Or he can choose to frame a princess with a glass slipper in such a way that it idealizes hard work and determination to the point of being heavy-handedly prescriptive. I don’t think art has a responsibility, but its “goodness” depends on whether it rings true. And this is almost always directly related to each person’s individual imagination. If you imagine that you really CAN do anything if you work hard and put your mind to it, Cinderella will ring true for you, and thus be good art. So can Juno. So can Django.

    The responsibility, then, lies with the audience alone. We, as listeners, watchers, and readers, must discern whether art rings true in our own imagination of the world. I don’t mean to come across as relativistic, though maybe I am. But I see in humanity the complexity and diversity capable of such a broad categorization of art’s function.

    Also, just because something is idealized or has a happy ending doesn’t mean it’s irresponsible. I think the reason so many people liked Juno was that it fell into that category of suggesting what the world COULD be like. It imagined a gracious family and community where a young woman could deal with the truly deep struggle of an unwanted pregnancy. Happy endings do happen. Or at least they can.

    • joshacorman
      February 4, 2013 at 9:21 am #

      All fair points. Yes, my use of “should” implies that there is or can be some designated function of art. And yes, art is obviously both prescriptive AND descriptive. I would probably argue that no great piece of art is ENTIRELY one or the other, although the gamut on that can be and has been run. And yes, the issue of responsibility lies with the audience as well as the artist. HUCK FINN’s absurd reputation as a racist novel is evidence enough of that.

      (Stephen A. Smith voice): HOW-EVAH: Artists get the first crack (several cracks, really) at the material. All the shaping and molding they do has an obvious and profound effect on not only WHAT the audience sees, but HOW they see (or hear, etc.). In many ways, they close a great many doors before their work goes out into the wider world. I guess my point is that this sort of communal understanding of a specific piece of art and its artist’s purpose, responsibility, et. al. doesn’t happen until a lot of what I’ve discussed here is, if not decided, then at least generally shaped by the artist(s) themselves. I don’t want to let them off the hook.

      RE: JUNO. Of course a happy ending is automatically irresponsible, but this “deep struggle” you mention is only superficially dealt with in JUNO. In fact, so much of the struggle is trivialized in the interest of the screenwriter showing us just how painfully witty she can be. There is so little authenticity of experience (I understand that authenticity doesn’t mean “realistic”; Wes Anderson is proof enough that one doesn’t interfere with the other) in that movie that the ending doesn’t feel earned, the way that even, say, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION’s (outlandish) ending does.

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