When entertainment trumps morality
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I consider myself a mature, ethical member of society. I am opposed to violence, thoughtless verbiage, and of course, pedophilia. Why? Simple: I believe that a minor (anyone up to 24, in my book) is emotionally underdeveloped, and that any adult who is turned on by such underdevelopment should be considered dangerously askew. And yet my favorite movie of all time is Manhattan, in which Woody Allen has a comfortable (if somewhat smirking) relationship with an 18-year-old Muriel Hemingway. Now, here’s the problem: it’s not that I am able to overlook my serious qualms when I watch the movie, but that I literally stop caring. Have you had a similar experience of entertainment so completely trumping morality? —Chris
I have this experience pretty much every time I watch a rousing action film in which a guy (and it’s almost always a guy) kills his way through a bunch of underdeveloped, faceless baddies in order to get to one or two specific face-and-name-having baddies, and kill them as well. I’m a bleeding-heart liberal against the death penalty; for the most part, I don’t think it’s up to individual human judgment (much less our flawed legal system) to decide whether someone has become irredeemable and worthless and is ready to be discarded from the planet. And yet I get the same thrill as any other action fan when the hero finally manages to bump off the villain and end the threat. Real life is complicated, people are nuanced, and choices are difficult; it’s cathartic to see a simple, black-and-white situation resolved in a simple, black-and-white way. What’s more interesting to me, though, is movies where the formula doesn’t entirely work—where there are so few deaths that I wind up feeling them as human tragedies even though I’m not supposed to because it’s an action film, or the hero is so unappealing that I don’t accept his right to kill his problems. Jumper leaps to mind as a film where I couldn’t suspend my morals enough to enjoy the protagonist’s wish-fulfilling theft, general dickery, and eventual casual killing of an innocent bystander. That dude’s just a garden-variety murderin’ asshole.
This answer will probably end up pretty similar to whatever Sam writes about 24, but here goes: I really enjoyed The Unit, the mildly popular CBS show that ran from 2006-2009. It’s a bit like a kiddie version of a special-forces show, even though it was created by Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and David Mamet (a whole bunch of badass shit). The show is actually based on a book about Delta Force—the super-secret, elite U.S. Army unit that (maybe) acts as the roughneck cop of the world. But it’s pretty outlandish in every way. A small subset of The Unit, led by Dennis Haysbert of 24 (a.k.a. America’s second black president, after Bill Clinton), travels the world uninstalling governments, assassinating baddies, and generally working in opposition to all sorts of international laws and treaties, because hey, America! It’s fun as hell, though, and perhaps more so if you pretend these guys just work for a fictional government. Oh, and A.V. Club slobberers: Summer Glau is in a bunch of episodes!
I guess that’s my cue. As a righteous lefty, I ought to have been outraged by 24’s enthusiastic embrace of what the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” (To be fair, while Army interrogators may have beaten an innocent Afghan to death under Bush’s watch, I’m not aware of any accusations of postmortem decapitation.) Perhaps more to the point, as someone who’s pretty exacting about the stuff to which I give my few shreds of free time, I should have objected more keenly to the show’s flagrantly arbitrary plotting, the wildly uneven quality of its acting, and its bizarre fascination with deceitful, stick-thin blonde women. But the truth is, I loved the show from the end of the first season, when I went from wondering how they were going to manage to get Jack’s wife out of the fix she was in to yelling, “Oh my God, they killed Terri!” Say what you like about the show and its politics, which for my money were too opportunistic to demonstrate any coherent ideology, but 24 had balls, and it wasn’t afraid to scorch the earth and start over when things started getting stale. (So long, C.T.U.) Of course, I wouldn’t have loved it nearly so much if I hadn’t watched every episode from season two on with the woman who is now my wife by my side; I savored her palpable excitement as much as I did the show itself. It took a while to explain why I was freaking out over that first-season finale, but it was worth it.
If punk rock has such a thing as a bogeyman, it’s Ian Stuart Donaldson of the neo-Nazi skinhead band Skrewdriver. But in spite of the infamy the band gained in the ’80s with white-power rallying cries like the chillingly titled (yet catchy!) Hail The New Dawn, Donaldson’s original ’70s lineup of the band was pretty much apolitical—that is, other than espousing the type of anti-religious, vaguely pro-working-class angst that was rampant in the original British punk era. Skrewdriver’s 1977 album, All Skrewed Up, is a batch of typical—though especially aggressive—proto-Oi! street-punk songs in the vein of the rest of Chiswick Records’ output at the time. Simply put, the shit is awesome. Still, I’ve always felt a little creeped out having Skrewdriver records of any era in my collection. Then again, I’ve also bought plenty of music over the years featuring the vocals of the equally reviled (and equally deceased) El Duce of so-called “rape-rock” inventor The Mentors, and the equal-opportunity offender GG Allin. What does this say about me, a far-left liberal who only grows more intolerant of even the mildest racism or misogyny the older I get? Maybe it’s a strictly academic awe. Or maybe there’s still a puerile little part of me that gets a cheap kick out of sick shit.
I’m a feminist who likes to think of himself as a pretty good human being, all things considered, so a big part of me feels I should revile R. Kelly with every fiber of my being. He is, after all, accused of (allegedly) committing all manner of illegal, immoral and let’s face it, blatantly unhygienic crimes with an assortment of impressionable underage girls throughout the years. It’s not like Kelly’s (alleged) crimes are unrelated to his art, either. It’s not as if his (alleged) crimes were of the political or white-collar variety. No, he was accused (and, it should be noted, found innocent by a jury of fellow freaky R&B superstars) of committing sexual crimes, and his music is relentlessly, overwhelmingly, almost comically sex-obsessed. And yet I love Kelly all the same. Maybe it’s the incongruous “Heaven I Need A Hug” vulnerability lurking just behind the playboy swagger, or the complete lack of self-consciousness. Or maybe it’s simply because he’s such a great songwriter and consummate entertainer that his (alleged) crimes seem infinitely more forgivable than they should.
I’ve had a lot of sentimental affection for Gone With The Wind since my mom first screened it for me when I was a little girl: For me, it’s not only a cinematic classic, it’s an emblem of parent-child bonding. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve found ways that the movie is problematic, and it’s not just the British actors’ attempts at Southern accents, or the fact that the movie is 500 years long. Obviously, it’s the race thing: While we can all feel good about the fact that Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for the picture, it’s uncomfortable to see Tara’s slaves portrayed as content, simple stereotypes, not to mention Prissy getting smacked for not helping with birthing that baby, or the fact that the black actors weren’t even allowed to attend the film’s première.) I could deal with the portrayal of Yankees as creeps and carpetbaggers, and I really wouldn’t mind the scene where Scarlett wakes up and realizes how much she enjoyed being raped by her husband, if it wasn’t for the fact that I could never watch this movie with a black friend without wanting to crawl underneath the ground. But still, every now and then, I catch GWTW on TV and I get totally sucked in. It’s the spectacle, the sweeping epic, and the old memories of watching it with my mom that keep me coming back, even though I should know better.
The issue of entertainment trumping morals is so prevalent in sports, so widespread and often dismissed by fans, that it’s not news when a player breaks the law, or treads on shaky moral ground; it’s news when fans actually care. Take, for example, this year’s Super Bowl: Fans with no rooting interest in either the Packers or the Steelers backed the Packers in overwhelming numbers, based solely on the fact that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been accused of sexual assault twice in the last two years, though charges have never been filed. One can only imagine the media armageddon that would have resulted had the Philadelphia Eagles made it to the Super Bowl, pitting convicted dog-fighter Michael Vick against Big Ben. Yet it seems like sports, more than any other corner of entertainment, is where people make moral exceptions. For every Roethlisberger or athlete-dong photo, there are examples where fans are happy to look the other way as long as the team is winning. Here in Chicago, our own hometown hero Derrick Rose is in the spotlight as he leads a resurgent Bulls team toward the NBA playoffs, in spite of hazy accusations of academic fraud and an infamous photo in which he was caught flashing a gang sign. Even Chicago’s sports royalty—Michael Jordan—has a reputation as a notorious gambler. It seems likely that 95 percent of Major League Baseball players were taking some sort of performance-enhancing drugs up until just a few years ago, when, of all people, Jose Canseco played the role of whistle-blower. In the NHL, Todd Bertuzzi and Marty McSorley are high-profile players who have faced assault charges for on-ice actions, yet both have loads of defenders—because that’s just the rough way the game is played, right? These examples only scratch the surface of a habit that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
I think Mel Gibson is a loathsome human being by nearly every measure, and yet I also think he’s a talented director whose 2006 Mayan adventure-thriller Apocalypto is the kind of daring, bare-knuckle action movie I like. So I hate to say it, but if Gibson ever gets to direct another movie, I’d be looking forward to seeing it. Similarly, I steel myself whenever Roman Polanski makes a movie. I understand all the legal and situational arguments for why Polanski should be a free man, and even agree with some of them, though ultimately I think he’s a creep whose crimes have largely gone unpunished. I also think he’s one of our greatest living filmmakers, and I’ll be honest: I don’t even flinch before watching whatever his latest movie might be. I flinch only before I defend his work publicly.
Can I just single out one moment in the movie Conan The Barbarian that I love and despise in equal measure? You know the part: Conan is asked what is best in life, and he replies: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!” It’s so brutal and direct, and so wrong. In fact, it goes against everything I believe about what is best in life. But it’s also pure in its way, capturing the history-is-written-at-swordpoint worldview of director John Milius (later to direct Red Dawn. Wolveriinneess!). And when I’m feeling cynical, I see that point of view. Not that I would want to crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women. But what if the freedoms we enjoy and the soft things we value are only possible within a protective bubble created by centuries of bloodshed committed by men like Conan and his descendants? What if the morality we guard against is a lot more situational than we’d like to think? How hungry would you have to be before the lamentations of your enemies’ women would start to sound pretty sweet?
Certain far-right apologists aside, most people these days wouldn’t argue for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade and attendant witch hunt. But that’s exactly what 1952’s My Son John—mother discovers son is commie rat, mother wrestles with conscience, mother turns oddly effeminate son in—is all about. Oddly, this doesn’t result in total Reefer Madness camp; the depiction of a clingy mother’s growing separation from her faintly condescending son is so convincing, it hurts. By the time we’re entering the crazy part, it’s easier to see the mom’s descent into do-gooder citizen-informant territory from her point of view. It’s awfully insinuating, probably the only non-science-fiction anti-Communist movie of the ’50s to actually connect with me, for better and worse.