Friday, October 24, 2008

"Gratuitous Morality"

We have a cable package, which includes maybe, sixty movie channels. You know the complaint. There’s nothing to watch. I mean, there’s Snake Eater 4, but having missed the previous three Snake Eaters, I’m reluctant to jump in, for fear that I’d be confused. Since confusion tends to diminish one’s enjoyment of the movie, I give Snake Eater 4 a pass.

I’m looking for something to watch. I’m paying for the “movie package”, and I want to get my money’s worth. Or at least something. If I’m lucky, every so often, I’ll find an “almost went” movie, a movie that was of some interest to me when it was playing in the theaters, and I “almost went.” The picture offered some intriguing element, but it didn’t rise to the “went” level. Close, but…I think I’ll stay home.

Flipping through the channels, I discover Rendition (2007). A movie ripped from the headlines: Suspected terrorist shipped off to another country for torture but it’s a mix-up; the guy’s innocent.

This situation happened in Canada. When it eventually came out, the Mounties went “Oops.” Not “We’re sorry, eh?”, but better than nothing. Here, you wouldn’t get close to “Oops.” It would never reach the public.

Except in a movie.

Okay. So. Should I watch Rendition or not?

Let’s see: An intriguing storyline that’s believably possible. Starring Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal – an interesting actress and an actor I always enjoy. It’s free, because I already paid for the “movie package.” And it’s either Rendition or Snake Eater 4.

I decide watch it. But not Dr. M. She, as usual, is ahead of me. No “torture movies” for her.

Big mistake. Not her. Me. Why? Because of that thing they do in movies. Call it “Gratuitous Morality.” (As I did, above.) I’m talking about “issue” movies. The moviemakers are passionately committed to making a point. In Rendition it’s “Torturing is bad.” And to demonstrate that point, the moviemakers feel obligated to show an alarming amount of torturing.

I can’t tell you how much torturing they depicted – every time they went near the guy, I grabbed the remote and switched to something else – but I know there was a lot of it. I could hear screaming from the other channel.

They didn’t need to do that. If they’d taken the prisoner into a room that had a sign above the door reading, “Torture Area” and left it at that, I would just as easily have gotten the message.

What message? “Torturing damages the victims, it destroys the perpetrators, and it confronts us with the question, “Who are we, if we allow these atrocities to be perpetrated in our names?’”

All legitimate issues. Definitely worthy of a movie.

But do they really need to show all that torturing? Where’s the subtlety? Where’s the art? Okay, forget “Torture Area.” That’s too 1942. Try this. You’re in the room, the torturer reaches for the electrodes, and you cut away, leaving the rest to our imaginations. Or you show some of the torturing, but indirectly, through shadows on the Torture Room wall.

No, huh?

Well I don’t agree.

There are classier and more powerful ways to make the point. Consider the 1982 Jack Lemmon movie, Missing. Costa Gavras directing. The storyline there was: A father goes to a South American country to find out what happened to his son, who’s disappeared. It turns out the son has been tortured and killed. The difference is in Missing, everything is hinted at. Nothing is on the screen.

“That’s a copout! If you don’t show the torturing, you’re leaving out the most gut-wrenching element of the story.”

Wrong, Italics Man. You’re just leaving out the torturing. Missing is emotionally devastating. You’re completely engrossed, watching a desperate father battling a stonewalling bureaucracy. The man wants to know what happened to his son. Not what they did to him. Is he alive?

I’ll bet Missing made more money than Rendition. It also won a number of awards, including an Oscar for best screenplay adapted from another medium. The torturing in Rendition can’t be justified on either artistic or “commercial” grounds. Which leaves us the question:

“What is it in there for?”

The Moviemakers’ Response

“We, the moviemakers, deplore torture, and we want it to stop. In our opinion, the best way to gain public support for our position is to depict this immorality as graphically as possible, so the audience, appalled by what they’ve witnessed, will be motivated to oppose it.


Yeah, yeah.

Slightly More Intelligent Rebuttal

Moviegoers have been there before.


Cecil B. DeMille.

Big-time movie director in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Specialized in “bible pictures.” King of Kings. The Ten Commandments. Samson and Delilah.

Leaning heavily in a conservative direction, DeMille was fundamentally opposed to sin. Especially licentiousness, which my dictionary defines as acting “sexually unrestrained.”

DeMille’s message: “Licentiousness damages the victims, destroys the souls of the participants, and brings strongly into question who we are as a people. To make sure you understand what I mean by ‘licentiousness’, so if licentiousness crosses your path, you will refrain from joining in, I will show exactly what it looks like.”

He makes his “bible pictures.” Licentiousness everywhere. Dancing girls in diaphanous attire. Provocative glares and leering responses. Kissing. Fondling. Whatever the movie Code of Decency will allow, and before the Code, more.

Is it gratuitous? Not at all.

It’s educational.


Any difference, do you think, between “educational licentiousness” and “educational torturing”? For me, only one. With the licentiousness, you don’t find me reaching quite as urgently for the remote.

I must not be entirely certain of what it is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I admire your courage in attempting to watch it, for the sake of letting the unsettling thought into your consciousness that such torture does occur, without all the rented lighting and fake blood, of course. Now, rent TRADE, on human trafficking. It's less graphic, but still horrifyingly real...Kevin Kline makes it a smooth ride all the way through.