What’s Ethical At The Cinema?

David Gushee has some thoughts. He analyzes several recent movies for their virtuous elements. Here’s his view of True Grit

True Grit is certainly the only movie in living memory that starts with a biblical quotation and has a musical score drawn from old Baptist hymns like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” This Western of fierce retribution and family honor is indeed one of the most explicitly religious major films in a long time. (If you leave out the Left Behind movies, or anything with Kirk Cameron in it.)

But this is a religiosity of law and retribution, of wrath and justice. This is eye-for-eye religion; it’s about the price in blood and sweat and risk one is obligated to pay to avenge the unjust death of a loved one. True Grit teaches the virtues of, well, true grit, courage and toughness and unflinching justice. And yet the score hits grace notes in the margins, perhaps a reminder that frontier religion mixed justice in the street with grace in the sanctuary, a paradigm that is still with us.

I have a passion for movies. Last night, my wife and I watched I Hate Valentine’s Day, a romantic comedy. The film carried no great moral weight. It was sweet and funny. I can work with that. Not to mention the fact, that while I am watching a Korean film like Cyborg She, my wife is dozing in the background. So, fnding common film ground is important if she is to remain conscious or not flee the room.

I Hate Valentine’s Day

Cyborg She

I try to watch at least one film a night. I don’t manage it as often as I like.

Many films are just entertainment. But the great films like Ikiru, The Seven Samurai, The Apartment, Lawrence of Arabia, etc. often carry a great deal of moral weight.

Movies tend to bypass our analytical abilities and go straight to our emotions and unconscious. Sending moral and ethical messages more or less unconsciously has serious ethical implications. Nevertheless, since it is already a common practice, using this unconscious loading factor we can manipulate our own morality and the morality of others through film choices.

James Pilant

“The Apartment” And Business Ethics

In 1959, the Apartment, was filmed. It starred Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine. It was nominated for ten academy awards and won five.

They filmed some scenes in New York and intended to make much of the film there but Jack Lemon became very ill after at all night shoot in Central Park. So, they filmed most of it on the lot in Hollywood.

It’s beautifully filmed (I like black and white) and there is a great deal of subtlety in the details of the background that add to the message of the film

Why do I use it in class? First, it’s a view of an America that has ceased to be. An America whose history has tremendous resonance for our own.

Lessons from the film. (Not in order of importance.)

1. There is no normal in America. Every year we think this is normal, that everyone should do this. It’s how it is and you can’t change it. Well, it’s changing anyway. The only normal is constant motion in the direction of a new normal. It’s an important lesson because some of my students feel like they can have no effect in this world and thus should retreat to a private world of friends kept at a distance and media individualized to kill time and give a brief, fraudulent feeling of fulfillment.

2. I want my students to see the changes in how women are treated and how they adapted. Women were relegated to certain jobs and they realized their only avenue to improving their lot in life was to marry well. Many of the women in the film are just temporary forms of entertainment for all intents and purposes.

3. One of the strangest qualities of the film, and the director himself pointed this out, the Jack Lemon character, for the most part, is the architect of his problems and yet we feel sympathy for him and identify with him. And again, the Shirley MacLaine character largely chooses her own fate and we feel sorry for her.

There’s a big lesson here – we often feel sympathy, often a sense of identification and sometimes, even envy, with the unethical. I tell my students about the time one of my students came to me with this story of woe that virtually demanded sympathy. And I felt that way, until I noticed a sentence in this long story of suffering. So, I stopped him and said, “You did what?” There then followed a not very effective explanation. You see, he was a criminal. He broke the law. He was in the mess because of his own decision making. He did not deserve my sympathy. Yet, I was confident that every student he regaled with his tale of suffering felt bad for him.

If we are going to practice ethics, we are going to have to be tougher than that. People who do bad things, who treat other people cruelly, who act without honor or scruples, deserve moral condemnation. That will not change because you’re related to them, because they are friends, really attractive or you like their story. Practicing ethics is tough and it means being tough on other people who do wrong.

If you know what should be done and let it have no effect on your actions, you are acting unethically. You have failed to act ethically.

4. The role of minorities in the film is important. I believe that if film goers in 1960 believed that the film was inaccurate in its portrayal of women and minorities, it would not have been a success. Blacks in the film appear twice in the film, once a shoeshine boy and then, a group waiting to clean the offices at the end of the business day. My eagle eye students found a black man working among the mistreated proles in the huge office background and, once again, at the Christmas party (same guy). It just goes to proves that when lecturing it’s safer not to let them talk!

If my students ability to find a minority in the background when I couldn’t was bad enough, they really got me on the Eastern Europeans. I missed the fact that his neighbors and landlady were of the same ethnicity His landlady and his neighbors are all immigrants and recent ones. (The film is only fifteen years after the close of the Second World War.) They were warm and kind to the Jack Lemon character although judgmental about his ethical failings. (I did not realize the importance of this until it was pointed to out to me. Now, in my defense, I did realize the importance of his neighbor, the doctor, but I didn’t get the big picture.)

I was never able to figure out whether the restaurant hideaway was Chinese or Japanese. It seemed like one of those ethnic groups running a restaurant with some kind of Tahitian background. But basically we can conclude from the film that orientals are okay as long as they are serving food.

Generally, how did the film portray the different groups. The white corporate types were greedy, licentious, petty, and lacked any self perception whatever. Blacks are in the background, soulless workers who pretty things up. Chinese (possibly Japanese) are allowed certain profession but corporate life isn’t one of them. The Eastern Europeans are authentic human beings. They are tolerant and kind but willing not just to make moral pronouncements but willing to call attention to them. They openly criticize the Jack Lemon character for his (not real) sexual adventures. They have a moral center. Aside from our two main characters, they are the only real human beings in the film. And to be blunt, our two major characters only arrive at human hood in the last few minutes of the film.

If there is no other reason to show the film, the movement of the main characters from caricature to humanity makes it all worthwhile.

The doctor is the moral center of the film. He issues the call to personhood to the sinner in the next apartment.

As in instructor, it’s a good choice because there is no difficulty in getting students to watch and remember the film. They enjoy it and it leaves its mark on them. That makes it more useful than many more “on point” films.

If you are going to teach, misdirection, implification and appeals to unconscious motivations are legitimate tools.

James Pilant

Using Film To Teach Business Ethics

I use three films in teaching business ethics, The Apartment, Cinema Paradiso, and Sabrina (the original with Bogart) (What! You think I’m crazy enough to use the Harrison Ford version?).

A thoroughly excellent question might be raised by this. “Why, Mr. Pilant, do you use commercial films instead of documentaries or teaching films from your school’s underused library?”

My response, “They don’t work, that’s why.”

Watch the reaction of your class when you announce the title of the latest exciting documentary you have found. You will note that a proportion of the class have immediately decided that the CIA had found some new interesting way of failing to extract useful information but you’re going to try it out on them anyway. The rest of the class is glad they don’t have to do any work. Strangely enough, watching films is very difficult once you realize it is an active form of study requiring training and experience, but they don’t know that and wouldn’t believe you if you told them.

So, you have lost half the battle right there.

If the film is any way (down to the microscopic) controversial, a good part of your students will ignore or marginalize the message. But what if you have a great success, what if the class cries in unison, demands action and stops after class to tell you how great it all was. You didn’t do to well on that one either. People are embarassed about their shows of emotion, their passion dies away and that letter they were going to write isn’t going to be written. You gave them the same heart tingling experience of good cone of ice cream.

So, it is time for you to argue that if documentaries don’t work, that people tune them out, etc., why can’t they do the same thing with your academy award winning crap? Because they can’t.

They can’t tune them out. The wonderful thing about great films (and when I mean great, I mean the top of the top, the top 100, the absolute best) is you can’t ignore them. They get you down where you live. When your classroom watches a documentary, you can always pick out students who are going through it objecting to this, disregarding that. They are not going to let that film just do its work. They feel obligated by their politics or whatever to make sure that it doesn’t affect them.

A great film captivates. It pulls in the attention. I’ve seen it multiple times. All the students in the class with the same expression watching the same film.

Sometimes, it’s surprising. One of my most difficult decisions was whether or not to use Cinema Paradiso. The film has two choices of spoken language, French or Italian, so I have to use a subtitled film in class. In America, the phrase “foreign film” or the even deadlier phrase “not in English'” are usually enough to stop people from watching the film in the first place.  Because the class is used to my strange ways, when I tell them I am going to use a subtitled film, any objections are quickly murmured in the back of the class. (They have gotten to used to situations in which I explain something they know couldn’t possible be true or make any sense and then I make it work. It disturbs them.)

So, I show the film. At first, there is not the strong attention I get when I show one of my English speaking films but after  the scene where the Catholic Priest is removing all the kissing scenes from the town’s movies, they are caught and they never escape.

Film is not a logical medium. It goes around the frontal lobes and lodges its message in the emotional parts of our thinking like a cleverly thrown curve ball. So, my use of outrage producing or factual documentary material throws a few facts their way which will quickly be disregarded or forgotten. I have noted in my own life that if I read a book about the Spartans, I retain far more information and make far more observations than I do from the History Channel’s documentary.

Besides I want to change my student’s way of thinking and improve their methods of observation when watching films and television.

What’s more, I want to introduce controversial subject to them without running into the immediate rejection ideas usually get.

So, how to do it? Films. No just any films, but masterpieces, films that have resonated with audiences for many years. Why those? Because these films have demonstrated a staying power which indicates they have connected with our unconscious in some manner. Now generally speaking, we believe we like certain films because of the actors, the kind of film (Western, etc.) and because our friends told us we had to see it. Those are most of the films we see. But the ones we remember, the ones that play with our heads, the ones we think about, often years later, have an appeal to our whole mind, not just the conscious stuff (which for many people isn’t that a big a deal anyway) (Okay, look, if you spend your life slavishly duplicating the actions of your neighbors, doing all the things you are supposed to do and avoiding any difficult decisions especially moral and ethical ones, the only difference between you and a corpse is that your status is not properly defined.) I use those films.

The unconscious is where the action is. Consciousness is nice, don’t get me wrong. I try to spend a lot of time there. Nevertheless, many of my decisions (more than I like to think) and most of my emotions emerge from the depths of the mind, not the top.

So, to change my students way of thinking as painlessly as possible for them and me, I use films. Now don’t think for a moment that we do not discuss the logical, moral implications of the film. We do. There is a cerebral frontal cortex appealing part of the class. But reaching behind that is more important.

Look at the three films. What are the messages? The one message they have in common is that humanity is more important than business success. But in particular –

The Apartment – Love is more important than success.

Cinema Paradiso – Film can fill your life with wonder that morphs into action.

Sabrina – We can change.

Now, take a look at my students. (Obviously, this is a majority of my students, not all, but see how many you think reject all three of these.) 1. I’m going to have a meaningful emotional life just as soon as I have enough money(or I get the right job or after my education or after I move). 2. Films and television are just films and televisions. I am too smart, too clever, too worldly wise for my actions to be influenced. (The unexamined life.) 3. I can totally completely change my life anytime I feel like it. I have total free will. Now, salary wise and where I live, I’m stuck but my point of view and how I live, if I want to change, I can. (And on number 3, let me point out that I get to stand at the top of the classroom and observe them and their bullet and bombproof self concepts day after day.) Continuing point 3, when they watch Sabrina they just can’t understand why Bogart hasn’t already changed or they spend a great deal of time telling themselves that if only they were in his shoes, they’d know what was important, when the fact is that if they were in Bogart’s position you couldn’t blast them out with a tactical nuke.

Now, it’s time for the main question. What do you teach them with these movies?

The Apartment gives examples of the changing status of women, the treatment of minorities and the often petty nature of corporate life.

The unconscious lessons are that authority can be wrong, that individual action is important and that you can live as hero or heroine even in small matters. I could teach these as part of the conscious part of the class but what for? The ideas are now planted. I might water them a little but time and inclination are more important in determining the effect. (There are also thousands of tiny lessons relating to verbal matters, environment, emotional stances and ways of thinking.)

Cinema Paradiso shows how a business can become embedded in the life of a community and how that influence changes over time. I also find it useful for demonstrating small business decision making as opposed to corporate decision making.

The unconscious lessons are the effect of entertainment particularly movies and, most precisely, on children. The film recreates and recaptures the films of our childhood but much, much more important, it captures the emotional content of those films, the emotional content that redirected our lives.

Sabrina shows the upside and downside of self transformation, an American preoccupation. The film’s observations on class differences are delightful not to mention the interrelationship between the personal and the professional.

The unconscious lesson of the film is that we do not live our lives logically or reasonably. Far more interesting is the idea that even if you are short, fairly ugly, depressed and (in the film) unemotional, beautiful young ladies will still find you attractive. (Whoops! Sorry, that’s my lesson from the film.)

The big lesson from the film is this. You are not what you think you are. You never will fully get a grip on the mystery of you. You are a great unknown. You may look for meaning all your life in books, in experience, in profession or normality, and one day, one moment, it will hit you in the form of a child, a friend, an observation, or in the case of this movie, a young female. And if you fail to grab it, to realize the importance of it, to see what it means, you will walk, talk and eat and still be as dead as a stone.

That’s what I want my students to know.

James Pilant