In a discussion with my friend, Bondo, about a recent indie film I have not yet seen, Bellflower, a question came up. Do we need to agree with a film’s morals for it to be good? It’s a question that will inevitably come up when one delves far enough into films thematically. This, of course, leads to an even larger question: does art need to be moral at all? These are questions that get at the heart of how we approach films and film criticism. Pondering the questions for a little while, I think I’ve settled on an answer. Yes, good film must be moral and morally justifiable, otherwise it cannot truly be called ‘good’.
There are some caveats. First of all, I think it’s important to separate morality and world-view. For example, when considering Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, I had to come to terms with the fact that I fundamentally disagree with what I consider to be the film’s very nihilistic world-view. I’m still struggling with that. How can I say that I’ve enjoyed a film when I didn’t enjoy what the film was saying? Where I landed was that my enjoyment was slightly impeded, but it that was made up for by the amount that the film got me thinking about its themes. All that said, the film’s world-view may be disagreeable, but there is nothing immoral about it.
Meanwhile, take a look at another film from this year: 50/50. It’s a film whose world-view I found completely agreeable, but the way the film treats its female characters is essentially immoral to me. They aren’t just reduced to rote archetypes. The women in 50/50 are drawn so broadly that it actually paints a terrible portrait of modern womanhood, and the way the film sets up its love interest and its “villain” makes it downright misogynistic. That’s a failure of morality, at least in the construction of the film. The only reason I give it a slight pass is that the rest of the film is so good, and the film isn’t outright supporting misogyny. It’s just a miscalculation, but it’s a miscalculation that cost the film a spot in my Top 25 of 2011.
The next caveat is that morality is very much an issue of perspective. I could argue that it shouldn’t be, but I cannot deny that different people find different things objectionable, and over time those things change even more. For example, I might make a film which supports a woman’s right to an abortion, which someone else might consider an immoral act. The film might be incredibly well-made, but that person will likely find the morality of the film too objectionable and so to them it would be a bad film. I would disagree with them, but I would fully understand their position. Judgement of art is ultimately a personal and very subjective thing.
Similarly, I think it’s important to understand historical cultural context when considering a film’s morality. Gone With the Wind is often cited as having very problematic morality. First of all, it completely whitewashes the experience of black slaves in the American South before the Civil War. It’s also a really misogynistic film; much more so than 50/50 ever is. I know numerous people who find it impossible to call the film good in light of these things. This is a completely valid reaction, and it definitely impedes my enjoyment of the film to a certain degree. At the same time, though, I recognize that what the film shows was simply not understood to be immoral by the culture of the time. In this respect I find myself forgiving the film. I acknowledge the problematic morality, but I also see past it to the quality story in other areas. What’s more, I forgive it in a way that I could not with 50/50 because that film was made today, when everyone involved really should know better.
Finally, we must consider propaganda films. There’s even a question as to whether these films even count as art. I would say that they do, but that a lot of them are bad art and unjustified even by the passage of time. I can admire the craft of a film like Triumph of the Will, but I can’t for a second say it’s a good film. In fact, it’s a terrible film, and a vile one. It’s a film whose immorality is not even an unfortunate aspect of its overall construction; it actually advocates and attempts to spread its immorality. Meanwhile, I can look at many of the wartime propaganda cartoons that Disney made and call them great. Their morality is largely good and just and so I have no qualms about just judging their artistic or creative merit.
Getting back to modern films, though, I think we need to be extremely mindful of the morality of the films we watch. Transformers 2 is a terrible film for many reasons, but probably the worst thing about it is its racism and sexism. There’s nothing satirical about it either. It’s simply a stupid film with a terrible sense of morality. This should not be acceptable. It simply isn’t justified.
Or how about the Twilight films? These are films that, in my opinion, do not have any moral regard for the place of women in modern society. They are films that actually manage to make a normal thing like a girl wanting to have sex into something shameful. They are films that contain thinly veiled allusions to abuse against women, but then justifies those moments by having the hot male actor take his shirt off. They are films that I think are not only immoral, but, because they are directed at young girls who are still discovering their self-identities, they are also potentially damaging. Forget the quality of the films’ productions or acting or writing or any of that. Even if those elements were top notch I’d consider them bad films simply on moral grounds.
Art doesn’t need to justify itself as art, but saying something is good art should be justified. The way I see it, a film whose sense of morality is debased can’t be justified. Problematic morality can in some ways be overcome, as it is to a certain extent in 50/50, but films like The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Sex and the City 2, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and A Serbian Film are bad films first and foremost because of their terrible immorality. There is nothing wrong with expecting a film to be moral. In fact, a film should be moral. A film that justifies immorality really is on its way to being a bad film through and through. If we are to grant a film artistic merit, it should also be reflective of good morals. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.