My aim is to cast light upon the moral vision—the vision of what is good and what is obligatory—that governs many motion pictures produced in the United States these days. I especially have in mind productions such as Pleasantville, Cider House Rules, and American Beauty, and I will give special attention to these three movies in what follows. But the phenomenon I’m identifying extends far beyond these cases. The basic idea governing these films is now a widespread and deep-seated conviction in the contemporary American soul. It is that moral rules and rigorous moral order in life, as traditionally understood, are meaningless or pointless at best and really are repressive of the best aspects of human relationships, individuality and creativity. What would traditionally have been thought of as moral propriety and human goodness is now considered arbitrary and harmful to life—perhaps even vicious (at least in its effects)—largely because moral rectitude eliminates or represses human feelings, the true elixir of life.
Let us start with Pleasantville as a fairly simple case. This film is a fantasy. The opening frame of the film contains the written line: “Once upon a time.” No claim to realism for its primary subject or content is made. The claim to truth (which it certainly does make) emerges at a higher level of “content.” But the events recorded, around which the story line develops, are to a great extent not the kind of events which occur in real life.
The story line is this: David and Jennifer, two typically cool and contemporary high school students, get into a fight in their home over the TV remote control. A station is broadcasting a “Pleasantville marathon”—reruns of a black-and-white 1950’s sitcom, Pleasantville, which presents us with a perfect suburb of perfect people. David knows the Pleasantville scenes and events forward and backward, and he is set to watch it for hours. Jennifer, however, wants him out of the house so she can enjoy a tryst with her boyfriend while their mother is away. Brother and sister struggle for the remote. It flies from their hands and shatters against the furniture. What to do now? The doorbell rings and a TV repairman (Don Knotts) appears, asking if they need repairs. (They hadn’t called!) He gives them a new remote, and when they use it, David and Jennifer are transported into Pleasantville. They become a part of the story, as “Bud” and “Mary Sue,” children of George and Betty. They are stranded there, and the TV repairman won’t let them come back—for now. Life there is all so dreadfully perfect and boring, especially for Mary Sue. The high school basketball team always wins. Nothing burns: the firemen, who only rescue stranded cats, have never seen a fire. It never rains. The pages in all the books are blank. No one knows there is anywhere else but Pleasantville. Nothing ever changes but just repeats over and over. day after day, as might well appear from a fifties sitcom.
After a while Mary Sue breaks away from the routine and takes her clueless boyfriend to lover’s lane, where, to his surprise (about everything), they have sex. He comes back in a daze and tells all the basketball team members what it’s like. They then take their girls there and do that, and pretty soon things start to take on color. Here a bubblegum bubble is pink. There some girl’s tongue and mouth is pink. (She consults a puzzled doctor.) Color begins to show up in odd places. The basketball team begins to lose.
Mr. Johnson, who operates the soda and hamburger place where Bud works, just keeps wiping the counter when Bud is late to fit into the routine as seen on TV. He doesn’t know he can break the routine of what he is shown doing in the TV series. Bud tells Mr. Johnson what to do next time, and, later, he finds he can break it. He rushes to Bud’s house to tell him. There he sees Bud’s mom, Betty, and is captivated, while she in turn gazes back at him. An emotional connection sparks into existence.
Mary Sue wants to liberate the people of Pleasantville. Bud cautions her not to do it. They are happy as they are. But Mary Sue says they aren’t happy. (“How could anyone be happy wearing tight sweaters and poodle skirts?”) They just don’t know any better. (She and Bud, by the way, remain black-and-white all this time.) Anyway, something has been started. A double bed, where a man and a woman can sleep together, shows up in a furniture store window and a crowd comes to stare at it. (There were only twin beds in old films and TV.) Rock music floods in and the young people jive. Kissing in public begins. Mr. Johnson tells Bud he wants to stop making hamburgers. “It never changes,” he says, “never gets any better or worse.” He wants to paint. Bud brings from the library an art book with nudes and colors to show Mr. Johnson. He starts to paint his whole shop in daring colors and images, including nudes—and, later, a nude Betty!
During a card game, Betty’s cards and fingernails become red. She later asks Mary Sue what goes on at lover’s lane. The answer is sex, described in detail! Shocked, Betty says, “Father would never do anything like that!” Mary Sue replies, “Well, you know mom, there are other ways to enjoy yourself . . . without Dad.” Betty discovers what Mary Sue means that night in the bathtub. The bathroom wallpaper takes on color, to celestial music, and a tree outside the house bursts into flame! Bud has to yell “Cat!” to get the firemen moving, and then has to show them how to use the hoses to douse the flame.
The mayor and town council are now alarmed. Someone has quit his job at the grocery store just because he didn’t want to do work there any more. And now Bud takes his girl to lover’s lane. But Mary Sue has discovered the novels of D. H. Lawrence and, pondering the transformations into color, thinks, “Maybe it’s not just the sex.” (She and Bud are still in black-and-white.) Significantly, Bud’s girl brings him a red apple and he bites into it. Meanwhile, George comes home from work to no Betty, no supper. Betty has gone to be with Mr. Johnson. A storm breaks over lover’s lane and the young lovers, over George, the town council, and Betty and Mr. Johnson. It pours rain.
Betty lies to George about where she’s been and refuses to do what he asks any longer. Some boys on the street harass her because she is now in full color, and Bud strikes one of the boys and blood flows. Then he becomes colored. Anger did it this time. It’s not just sex, after all. It’s what you feel deep inside. Mobs gather. They stone Mr. Johnson’s shop and break up his window and wall paintings. They riot and burn books. The town council writes rules governing what can be done with color and music and writing. Bud and Mr. Johnson paint an exterior wall with all the forbidden colors and images. They are brought before the town council. “What went wrong?” George asks Bud, as Bud sits in Jail. “Nothing went wrong,” Bud replies. “People change.” (Of course not in the old sitcom—or in life that is really no more than a sitcom, or in life that runs like one.)
The town gathers at the council meeting, and the mayor charges Mr. Johnson and Bud. Mr. Johnson pleads, but Bud stands up and says: “You don’t have a right to do this!” He explains that what brings out color is what is inside you: silly, sexy, dangerous—but all better than merely pleasant. To demonstrate, he gets George to look at Betty and feel deeply his longing for her and love for her as she now is in color. George gets colored! The mayor then tells Bud to stop it. But Bud says, “You can’t stop something that is inside of you.” He will prove it is in the Mayor too. He asks him what he would like to do to Bud right now. He taunts the Mayor by telling him that if this keeps up everything will change. Men may even start staying home to take care of the house while women go to work. The Mayor explodes in exasperation and disgust and color!
The whole town is now in permanent color. Bud takes the magical remote and travels back to his real life. He finds his mom weeping over the mess of her life as she grows older. She’s forty. She laments, “I had the right house. I had the right car.” Bud says: “There is no right house. There is no right car.” But she continues, “It’s not supposed to be like this.” More persuasively now, Bud says, “It’s not supposed to be anything.” In his newfound wisdom, any way is fine.
So what is the moral vision that forms the content of this film as a work of art? It is that following one’s strong feelings makes life unpredictable and good. Rules, including moral rules, and regularity (especially for the sake of being pleasant) make life stale, dead, boring—in short, not worth living. If you need to break rules of morality, which here are depicted entirely as rules of propriety or niceness, then it is altogether worthwhile to have intense feelings and the joy and unpredictability that comes with them. To subvert the feelings—the implication being that everyone really does have deep and intense feelings but that many repress them—is to make life not worth living. For it is to wind up doing what you have no real interest in doing, to do things just because they are supposed to be done. The good life is a life lived for deep and strong feelings, and what one ought to do—what the good person does—is to live for their feelings and help others to do the same. Some idea of authentic human existence (nonhypocrisy) no doubt lies in the background, but the film is not a serious defense of anything. It simply presents a certain vision of good and evil.
02. American Beauty
With American Beauty we are back in the suburbs, but this time a very contemporary one, where Lester Burnham and his wife, Carolyn, live with their teenage daughter Jane. They are a very dysfunctional family: Carolyn is desperately trying to keep things looking nice, Lester is on the verge of disintegration, and Jane is totally disgusted with her father for his lascivious obsession with her sexy friend, Angela. The story is narrated by Lester, who is already dead when he begins to narrate. He starts by saying, “In less than a year I’ll be dead . . . And in a way, I’m dead already. He talks about Carolyn, who “used to be happy,” but now just tries to make everything in the yard and house pretty (where everything matches) and who is (unsuccessfully) in the real estate business. Jane thinks her dad is a gigantic loser. And he agrees: “I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this . . . sedated.”
Ricky Fitts, a schoolmate of Jane and Angela, lives next door. Ricky has had some sort mental episode that got him hospitalized, and Angela fears and dislikes him. Jane does, too, initially, because he is always videotaping things, including her and Lester through the windows of their home next door. Ricky also smokes marijuana and makes a lot of money selling it. Soon Lester is one of his customers. Ricky’s father, “The Colonel,” is a retired officer who verbally and physically abuses Ricky; he is determined to teach him to follow rules of behavior and to be responsible, but he leaves Ricky with no real privacy. The Colonel is sure society is going to hell, and he despises the homosexual couple, Jim and Jim, who have moved in next door and who try to be friendly. Ricky’s mom walks about in a quasicatatonic state, obsessively keeping things neat.
Lester’s reawakening to life begins when he and Carolyn attend a basketball game where Jane and Angela are among the cheerleaders. Lester stares lasciviously and begins undressing Angela in his mind. As he opens her blouse a flood of lush, red rose petals spill out (“American beauty” rose petals, of course.) Later, when he kisses her (still in his imagination) a rose petal is on his tongue. Floods of rose petals show up in other (imaginary) settings with Angela. They symbolize the lush, sensual beauty that is associated with sexual enjoyment or desire and pervades the entire film. Lester is inspired to get into physical shape and to return to the rock music and cars that he loved as a youth. (“I feel like I’ve been in a coma for twenty years, and I’m just now waking up.”)
Lester writes for a monthly media magazine. Brad, the efficiency expert at Lester’s work, is having Lester laid off from the company, but Lester manages to blackmail him into a severance package of one year’s salary, with benefits. Lester is seen next flipping burgers at a fast-food place, something he did when he was young (in order to buy an eight-track tape player). He says he wants a job that involves “the least amount of responsibility.” This leaves him free to work on his physical and other revitalizations—and to inch toward Angela, who is now (really) coming on to him. Angela talks to Jane as if she has had a lot of sex with a lot of people (although she has had none.) and is really turned on by Lester. Jane is disgusted but still thinks Angela has really got it (whatever “it” is), while she herself is a nothing.
Usually Jane rides home from school in Angela’s car, but one day Ricky asks for a ride and Angela scornfully rejects him. Jane, sympathetically, walks home with him and they become close. They go to his house and Ricky opens his father’s locked cabinet of war memorabilia. He shows Jane a collector’s item: a fine china platter with a swastika on the back. The two are filled with loathing. Ricky shows her some film of a plastic grocery bag lifting and swirling in the wind for fifteen minutes. It is, he says, “the most beautiful thing I have ever filmed.” “Sometimes,” he says, “there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it . . . and my heart is going to cave in.” Jane looks deeply at him, takes his hand and kisses him.
Meanwhile, Carolyn has hooked up with the most successful real-estate man in the area, Buddy “The King” Kane. She wants his secrets of success, and he tells her: “In order to be successful one must project an image of success at all times.” They hit the motel for riotous sex.
Later, Carolyn and Buddy stop by the fast-food place where Lester is working—although Carolyn believes he is still at his previous job—and she orders over the drive-thru speakers. Lester recognizes her voice and moves to the window to serve them. Carolyn and Buddy realize they are now found out. They drive back to the motel and he gets out of the car and leaves. They understand that to be involved in a divorce would be contrary to projecting an image of success at all times. Buddy leaves and Carolyn sobs, then screams with uncontrollable rage at Lester and at her situation.
Meanwhile, the Colonel has been looking at Ricky’s videos of Lester exercising and watching Ricky and Lester do drug deals. He decides that they are homosexually engaged. (Lester has also been running with Jim and Jim on their daily runs.) The Colonel throws Ricky out of the house, and Ricky implores Jane to go with him to New York and live together and run a drug business. (He has saved up forty thousand dollars.) She agrees, and Angela, who is in Jane’s room talking about having sex with Lester, ridicules them. Ricky tells her she is unattractive, boring and totally ordinary—the very worst thing to be, in Angela’s mind. She leaves the room and sits on the stairs weeping.
Meanwhile, Lester has been in the garage exercising, and the Colonel has walked over, robotlike, in the rain. Lester lets him in and the Colonel, assuming Lester is homosexual, kisses him on the mouth. Lester says: “I’m sorry, you got the wrong idea.” The Colonel turns and woodenly walks off into the rain. Lester goes into the house and finds Angela weeping. She says, “You don’t think I’m ordinary?” Lester replies, “You couldn’t be ordinary if you tried.” “Thank you,” she whispers, “I don’t think there’s anything worse than being ordinary.” He begins to undress her on the couch when she, obviously experiencing some uncertainty, explains, “It’s my first time.” Lester stops. She urges him to go on with it, but now he won’t. They talk for a while, and she goes to the bathroom. Lester is feeling great. He sits at the dining table and looks at a happy picture of himself and Carolyn and Jane when Jane was small. A pistol appears at the back of Lester’s head, the murderer fires, and his blood splatters on the kitchen wall.
The screen returns to the white plastic shopping bag floating about. Lester’s voiceover is accompanied by an overhead view of the city. He says one just has to relax and stop trying to hold onto things. In his newfound wisdom, he says: “I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”
The moral vision (of what is good and what people ought to do) conveyed in American Beauty has some striking similarities to the vision communicated in Pleasantville. In both cases it is sex—illicit sex, of course—and sexual desire and imagination that start the emotional thaw or breakthrough to a “better life.” Whether homosexual or heterosexual, sex is presented as a source, if not the source, of genuine goodness in life, and its repression by rules and a framework of propriety is wrong, even deadly. Its repression fills you full of pain and meanness. The relationships in the movie are pervaded with sex, though—except for the relationship between Jim and Jim, whom we don’t really get to know much about—they are all bleak and hopeless.
The lush beauty of the American Beauty rose is a bitter illusion, one that must be supplemented by the “beauty” of the aimless and bland plastic bag and also of death, as seen by Ricky, and the goodness of the “stupid little life” seen by Lester after his death. But a life of stifled desire or passion under the suppression of rules that dictate “ordinary” life—a respectable life where people play “Bali Hai” as background music for hellacious family dinners—is worse than anything. Angela, the “American beauty,” can’t stand the thought of being ordinary and makes up an imaginary life of riotous sexual action. Lester, discussing his job description with Brad, the efficiency expert says he just wants “a life that doesn’t so closely resemble hell.” The two most rigidly “moral” and “proper” people wind up doing the worst things: Carolyn, who desperately tries to keep things nice for those around her even though she is dead and starving inside, cheats on her husband. The Colonel, the most wooden and repressively respectable of all, is a closet homosexual, and totally brutal to his son and, very likely, his wife. Morality in any traditional sense of rules and virtues for living well doesn’t show up, for the most part—and certainly does not present itself as something hopeful—in American Beauty. Death is more beautiful than life.
03. The Cider House Rules
The Cider House Rules differs significantly from the two previous films. In the first place, the location is not in suburbia, past or present, but in rural Maine in the 1940s. The story is set first in an orphanage outside a little whistle-stop town, St. Cloud, and then on an apple farm by the ocean. They family produces cider there, and hence have a “cider house.” Secondly, the feelings which moral rules confront in this story are, mainly, feelings of compassion and sympathy for suffering human beings. Of course sex is the background: implied by unwanted babies, who become orphans by rejection, and by abortions, as are violated relationships, including violence and murder. But sex itself is not really glorified in this story. Homer, the central figure, is ceaselessly taunted for his idealism by the doctor who directs the orphanage, and he has been thoroughly compromised by the end. Moral rules, virtues and ideals are seen as unsustainable or irrelevant in the face of the crying needs of human beings. Circumstances force people to act—in efforts to help others—in ways that simply cannot conform to moral rules and abstract moral ideals. These rules and ideals cannot stand in the face of the feeling of compassion. A higher sensuality must rule.
Dr. Wilbur Larch came to the orphanage to be a hero and now is trapped there. He soon found there are no heroes in the world of lost children, only people struggling to do the best they can for women and children ensnared in their circumstances of life. He helps women have unwanted babies, to be left at the orphanage for possible adoption, or to have abortions, which are illegal and, arguably, immoral. But he must act to help; he cannot stand back and let things take their course, merely hoping for the best. He loves the babies at the orphanage, and he and the two nurses who live and work there treat the children like their own. Many of the children are never adopted, so they grow up there. Together they all make a beautiful but sad setting for life.
Homer is one who grows up there. As he grows up, Larch makes him his assistant and trains him in all the medical procedures. He becomes as good a doctor as Larch himself. But he will not perform abortions. It is wrong, he thinks, and he will not compromise. He cites himself and the other living orphans as reasons against it. Larch keeps after him about it, especially after a young woman comes to them after a botched abortion attempt and dies. Homer is unrelenting, however—to this point.
Dr. Larch leads a hard life, but cares faithfully and sympathetically for the orphans. At night, a nurse puts the girls to bed with a touching prayer. Larch reads to the boys. And every night he says, “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” He does not sleep well, using drops of ether on an open mask to get himself to sleep.
One day Candy and Wally drive up to the orphanage seeking an abortion. They’re not married. Wally is in the Air Force, flying the B24 Liberator. He expects to be called to overseas duty soon and asks Homer if he is going into the services. Homer replies that he has a heart defect (discovered by an x-ray) and he can’t enlist. He asks Wally if he can ride out with them when they leave. But Larch does not want Homer to leave. Homer is “still a boy,” and “there’s no one taking care of anybody, not out there.” Homer leaves anyway, taking a job working in the orchard on the farm belonging to Wally’s parents. Candy’s father is a Lobsterman in the same area. Wally is off to war, and soon Candy and Homer are romantically and sexually involved. This is Homer’s first moral lapse or departure from “the rules.”
Several black migrant workers live on the farm in the summer and bunk in the cider house, where Homer also lives. Mr. Rose bosses the operation. His daughter, Rose Rose, is one of the workers. Posted on the wall is a set of rules—the cider house rules, of course. The workers can’t read, don’t know what they say and totally disregard them. Here’s the complete list of profundities:
1. Please don’t smoke in bed.
2. Please don’t operate the grinder or press if you’ve been drinking.
3. Please don’t go up to the roof to eat your lunch.
4. Please, even if you are very hot, do not go up to the roof to
5. There should be no going up on the roof at night.
With Wally off to the war, the summer progresses. Candy and Homer carry on happily, oblivious to where their relationship is headed. At summer’s end, the migrant workers leave.
Meanwhile, Dr. Larch continues to try to implore Homer to return to practice medicine at the orphanage. He even works up a convincing set of medical credentials that qualify Homer as a doctor. Then, by clever lies and manipulations, Larch arranges for the board of the orphanage to give Homer a job there. Larch dances with the nurses in celebration, but Homer still won’t come back. The sad but beautiful life at the orphanage goes on. Larch sends Homer a gift package containing a fully equipped medical bag, but Homer won’t open it—at least for a time. Larch writes to Homer about playing God: “Do I interfere when absolutely helpless women tell me they simply can’t have an abortion? That they simply must go through with having another orphan?” Larch wants Homer to replace him at the orphanage, but Homer writes back, “I can’t replace you. I’m sorry.” Larch responds, “Sorry? . . . I’m not even sorry that I love you.”
In due course, Candy and Homer start fighting, not knowing what to do about their situation and Wally. They seem suspended in time and space. They can’t act to resolve the situation, and they wind up just waiting for something to happen.
Eventually, it’s apple harvest time again and the migrant crew comes back. But Rose is in trouble. Morning sickness indicates pregnancy. Candy presses Rose to identify the father, and Rose finally indicates that it’s her own father, Mr. Rose. Homer confronts the man, but Mr. Rose denies everything. Rose says she will take care of it, and Homer pleads with her not to do an abortion on herself. But will he do it instead? Now he must act; and can’t just stand by and hope for the best.
News comes that Wally has contracted encephalitis and is paralyzed from the waist down. Candy wants him to come home so she can care for him. Sitting on the beach, Candy and Homer realize now that someone is going to get hurt. Homer acknowledges what he’s has been thinking: “Maybe if I just ‘wait and see’ long enough, then I won’t have to do anything.” Now Candy has made a choice and has acted. Life will go on.
Homer approaches the cider house and sees Mr. Rose is restraining his daughter. Homer says he can help. He retrieves the medical bag he had received from Larch and sets Rose up for the abortion procedure. Mr. Rose won’t leave, so Homer tells him to make himself useful by administering the ether. Mr. Rose agrees to this, but ultimately he can’t take it and staggers in a crying fit out into the rain. A little later, Candy is caring for Rose, and Mr. Rose is lying in his bunk in deep misery. Homer has broken the rules.
While lying in recovery on her bunk, Rose asks Homer to read the rules posted on the wall. He does, and the workers are all astonished at their irrelevance and stupidity. Mr. Rose comments: “Someone who don’t live here made those rules. These rules ain’t for us. We the ones supposed to make our own rules. And we do, every day. Ain’t that right Homer?” Homer now agrees. The orchardmen tell Homer to remove the rules and burn them in the stove. Homer does. He now accepts the wisdom of Dr. Larch. Rose muses about the rules: “That don’t mean nothing at all. And all this time I been wonderin’ about ‘em.”
Alone with Candy, Homer acknowledges that in life one can’t just do nothing. “Nothing is nothing, right?” he says. ”You needed me, and now Wally’s gonna need you . . . At least there’s no more waiting and seeing.” Compassion made Homer take Candy (though this may be hard to believe) and compassion makes Candy take the now-invalid Wally.
Returning to the cider house, Homer finds Mr. Rose bleeding from a knife wound. Rose had been leaving and he “just wanted to touch her hand,” but she stabbed him. She’s gone. To protect her from criminal charges, Mr. Rose has stabbed himself in the same place. He convinces Homer and the others to tell the police he committed suicide in grief over Rose’s departure. Mr. Rose says: “I just trying to put things straight. Sometimes you got to break some rules to put things straight. Ain’t that right Homer?” Homer agrees. Mr. Rose dies. Larch and compassion win again. Moral idealism and its rules are too much to bear in life. Compassion for others will not allow it.
Later, as Homer is loading apple boxes on a truck, Candy hands him a letter from one of the nurses at the orphanage, informing him that Dr. Larch has accidentally overdosed on the ether he used for sleeping and is dead. Homer heads back to the orphanage, and the kids and nurses lovingly mob him as he approaches. The nurse shows Homer an x-ray that is supposed to show his heart defect. She tells him it wasn’t an x-ray of his heart after all, but of another child’s. His own heart is just fine. She explains that Dr. Larch’s heart could not handle Homer’s enlistment in military service, so he replaced Homer’s x-ray with that of another child. The defective heart no doubt symbolizes Larch’s life of compassion.
Homer becomes the orphanage doctor under false credentials and carries on Larch’s compassionate work with women and children. He reads to the boys at night and says at the end: “Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” And so the cycle of compassion continues.
04. * * * * *
Now there are obvious differences between the three films discussed above. Pleasantville is light, bright and frivolous. American Beauty is brutal and sardonic, The Cider House Rules is compassionate and profoundly moving in its portrayal of life at the orphanage. But these and many other contemporary films—Chocolat is an especially silly version of this type—have in common the view that sensuality or feeling is foundational to goodness in life. Goodness certainly does not consist in conformity to well-known moral rules that really matter. Standing on principle in neglect of your own feelings makes you less good as a person and your life less worth living.
Of course not every noteworthy contemporary film takes that position. A different perspective—a alternate vision of goodness in life—is here and there represented by excellent movies such as Driving Miss Daisy, Places In The Heart and Changing Lanes. And not very long ago people still generally assumed that traditional moral rules and order were a good thing: that the Pleasantville type of life—where people did not routinely do what they felt like doing but what they were supposed to do—was the moral ideal. That the shift of moral mood has been relatively recent is indicated by the fact that some fifty years ago the Pleasantville type of sitcoms were taken to be realistic portrayals of life in suburbia, which itself was thought to be a good place to be and life there a good way to live. Exposing the presumably dirty underside of such an “ideal” suburban existence as a major and constantly reiterated theme is only quite recent in filmmaking. It almost seems that we today are compelled to defend ourselves against a past we can no longer sustain and to which we are now morally superior.
There is, of course there is an important point to be made, and movies of the type in question do make it. Mere outward conformity to moral rules and propriety does not make a good life, a good person, or outstanding moral character. This has been understood by thinkers since ancient times. Moreover, if that is indeed all one has to make of a life, it is a crushing burden to bear and will lead to hypocrisy in one’s self and to the manipulation or brutalization of others. The rigid, implacable and mean moralizer (nearly always fanatically religious, though not so in the films discussed here) is a long-standing figure in Western literature (Molière, Charles Dickens, Theodore Dreiser, etc.) and now has a justifiable, standard place in TV and Cinema. There’s no disputing this. It is the alternative vision of goodness presented by so much recent filming that must be questioned.
And what is that alternative? It is precisely the one presented by the three films here discussed in some detail. It is an alternative where life is dominated by feeling or sentiment as the ultimate basis of choice and action. Even in perhaps the most worthy case—Dr. Larch’s service to distraught pregnant women and their babies (“I just give them what they want”)—what someone wants is the ultimate criterion of the good life. There is no good, no issue of responsibility or character, above that. No distinction between wants and needs, or between needs in a moment of crisis and needs in the larger contexts of life. Thus, Homer’s concerns about the rightness of abortion are never addressed, and the voice of the unborn child is never heard. It is no wonder, then, that by the end Homer is so morally compromised by his own feeling-dominated choices, and by pressures to act that he is willing to live and practice under false credentials as a doctor simply doing whatever needy women want. Today that is called supporting women’s “choice,” and choice is presented as an unqualifiedly good, if sometimes sad, thing. But what really is in view here is choice and life ruled simply by individual desire. Candy’s decision to care for Wally, an invalid, is simply her choice, based on nothing more than what she (for the moment, at least) wants to do, her feelings. Not a word is said about duty, honor or obligation. That would have spoiled the aesthetic framework of the film. There is no question of character and objective values underlying her choice. And the same goes for Homer’s return in acquiescence to a life of falsehood and service at the orphanage.
We have, then, one vision of life as outward conformity governed by rules that make no sense: cider house rules. That vision is, of course, is not adequate at all to human needs. It is not a life of courage, nobility, compassion or, in general, admirable human character. It is Pleasantville before color, Lester before his reawakening, Homer paralyzed by his idealism. The great moralists from antiquity have understood all this. Such conformity is what Jesus of Nazareth called the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20) and marked as disastrously harmful and wrong. The alternative vision artistically championed in the films we have considered is of a life liberated from the oppression of moral rules and conformity by following and indulging feelings of various kinds, usually sexual. Can this alternative vision be an accurate portrayal of life and of what it is good to be and do?
Let us acknowledge, again, that Pleasantville is simply a fantasy. It does not try to confront what feelings, left unchecked by what is truly good, actually do to human life. Viewed with any pretense of realism its ending is simply, goofy. The other two movies, by contrast, present us very directly with the ravages of unchecked human desires and feelings. After viewing The Cider House Rules, when it was first released, I could not help but wonder if it was not ironic in intent. Wasn’t it actually depicting the horrors of life without conformity to rules—rules that would prevent people from committing the stupid and disastrous actions they routinely carry out in life? These tragic consequences are, after all, faithfully brought out in that film. But that surely is not what the ordinary viewer will conclude after seeing either it or American Beauty. Instead, the viewer will find the vision of liberated feelings as the basis of whatever goodness is achievable in life, even if life as a whole is admittedly tragic.
There may be good reason to think that, for most human beings, life within the boundaries of individual human abilities is tragic or at least quite disappointing. But life need not be anywhere nearly as tragic as it in fact is precisely because of unchecked feelings and desires, together with their consequences. Most of the actual tragedies one sees in real life, as in these pictures, are precisely the result of feelings ungoverned by good—from drug addiction to unwanted pregnancies, ethnic cleansing, and on and on. The tragedy of living a Pleasantville life or even a Lester Burnham life (before his reawakening) is very small indeed compared to the tragic lives of multitudes ravaged by unbridled feelings and desires, whether their own or those of others. For real life requires a point of reference as to what is good for people, and a firm understanding that what we want or how we feel is not the same as what is good for us and for those whose lives we affect—even though what we want and what we feel has some importance. This crucial point of reference is altogether absent from the vision of life communicated by cinematic productions that represent sensuality as the path to moral liberation.
A certain false “moral” rigidity rightly condemned in the films considered here. But this rigidity is not moral at all. It is, rather, immoral, as most people rightly see. Its platitudes include in no case should an abortion be performed, in no case should life be taken, in no case should one intentionally deceive another, in no case should there be a divorce, and so on. Moralists who obsess about rules are, in their own odd way, enslaved by their feelings rather than by genuine moral insight and character. They feel these things to be unqualifiedly right (and their opposites wrong). Their claims are not based upon moral understanding and moral character. Such morally rigid individuals stand under a certain moral fanaticism, usually involving a misplaced sense of moral purity. But persons of good moral character do not stand back and hope for something to happen to avoid soiling their hands. Rather, they act for the greater good in the situation—often, to be sure, with fear and trembling; but they do act. They act with genuine love, as a matter of the will and of character and not just feeling—whether feelings of legalistic reprisal or feelings of unrelenting self-indulgence. This is what it means to be responsible.
But how, today, can one find the confidence to go forward with responsible moral judgments and perhaps to express them in works of art? I have spoken above of the need to have, as a point of reference in action, a conception of what is good for people, as distinct from what is desired or felt. But here, at present, we have a major problem. Ours is a sensual culture, not only in its tastes and practices, but also in its theory of what counts as knowledge. As a result, it is generally assumed that there is no knowledge of what is good as distinct from what is desired and felt. Feeling is everything. In life it is just one feeling against another. Philosopher David Hume (d.1776) taught us that. Reason, he said, could never oppose or support the feelings (“sentiments”) that, on his view, totally govern action. Reason is the slave of the passions. For a long while this theory didn’t catch on in the general culture, but now it passes for street smarts. We have no knowledge, the current “wisdom” holds, of what is right and wrong, good and bad. In practice, then, we are caught between the unsustainable alternatives of a dead outward conformity to moral rules and of “liberation” from dead conformity by the indulgence of sensuality, whether in crude or refined forms. We have nowhere else to stand. This is the grand vision brought to aesthetic expression in the films we have considered.
The broader and more basic problem underlying the tendency in contemporary films is the problem of establishing a certifiable knowledge of human goodness that gives us a third way between the two alternatives noted. Since the dominance of a refined version of Judeo-Christian ethics vanished at the end of the nineteenth century, we have had nothing that could pass as moral knowledge in Western culture. Friedrich Nietzsche saw clearly the cataclysmic nature of the historical passage beyond that ethics into nihilism, but neither he nor anyone else has been able to find a replacement for it in human life. In the vacuum that remains, there is little we can do but vacillate between outward conformity to rules (our political correctness being a kind of secular pharisaism) and the indulgence of feelings. Neither comes to realistic terms with the human heart and personality. This explains many things about our culture, such as how highly addicted we are, how our essential individual and communal covenants cannot be maintained, the abysmal failure of education, and the high percentage of our population that is ensnared in the legal and penal system. Cinema and TV can, of course, only reflect this sad situation. They cannot correct it. But we should at least understand what they are offering to us and not mistake the vision of liberation through sensuality for a vision of reality.