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The Paradoxical Position of Film: Morality in 4 Classics

by Amar Bakshi

Amar Bakshi is a senior at Harvard University and the first joint concentrator in Social Theory and Visual & Environmental Studies.? He is a Truman Scholar, the founder of Aina Arts (www.AinaArts.org), and the author of several arts education publications.? He is currently in Zimbabwe researching media propaganda in TV/film.? He can be reached via email at bakshi@fas.harvard.edu.

Francois Truffaut The Young Savage (1969), Carroll Reed’s The Third Man (1949), Orson Welles Citizen Kane (1941), and Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), while rotating on different moral planes, all connect in one grave concern: that through the institutions of science, law and mass media, a powerful and arbitrary authority has taken hold of the hearts and minds of men. These films create an awareness of the modern “invisible hand”, one not of mutual exchange for mutual benefit, but one of ideas and images that dull and dent individuality away into normal, productive man, as we know him. All the filmmakers have a different conception of what this power is, the mechanism by which it infects the human soul, and the means of surmounting it. By first looking at each film on its own, one notice a series of parallels that support the broader claim that they are concerned with unjustified power and point to an interesting paradox in their solution: though the movies of these directors seek to liberate the minds of men from the unseen institutions exercising power over the men, the new medium of film is poised to occupy an equally hidden and controlling force. But these filmmakers are well aware of the hazard of their attempt – to replace one power mechanism with another – and therefore they strive to show to the viewer the very mechanism which they utilize in order to affect the viewer and manipulate him against manipulation. But it seemed to most of these filmmakers, that the very means of overcoming subjugation to institutions of power is embedded in a new mechanism of power – the film.

In The Young Savage, Truffaut is chiefly concerned with the exercise of arbitrary authority of science and education over the natural free spirit of the human. He examines the “normalizing” force of civilization that justifies itself in a tautological loop using science as its chief agent. As Michel Foucault was to describe the process years later, this “power-knowledge circle”, continually and unquestioningly justifies itself. Through constant surveillance and continual “education”, a natural human boy is brought from the wild into the bosom of society. To its credit, Truffaut’s film is relatively ambivalent to this process of civilization. On the one hand, society has given the wild child the love of other human beings, the ability to cry out of heartbreak, a constant source of food, and of course, better hygiene. But on the other hand, it has robbed him of his independence; it has bound him in shoes that decrease his natural speed, customs that diminish his natural strength (he develops “weaker” dispositions of sneezing, crying, and nose-bleeding), and processes whereby, as Madame Gúerin laments, his pleasures are “turned into exercises”. In a brilliant graphic edit, Truffaut links the image of civilizer Dr. Itard (played by Truffaut himself) gazing at a burning candle in the black night to the image of the savage boy Victor swaying in awe of the moon. The brightness of both sources of light, of truth, capture the gaze of the similar-looking males. While the doctor’s seizure of nature is clearly symbolized in the containment of the natural forces of the candle, Victor’s motivation for swaying is less clear. Is this swaying a physical pleasure for him, a kind of primordial masturbation with no understanding of its sex-object? Or is it a kind of prayer, a communion with nature and God? Or is it just swaying, free from these power-exerting categories of human thought? Truffaut, by unclearly defining the motivations of Victor, implies the latter. This call for human emancipation from systems of education and science is a potent one, but the voice calling for this emancipation is mired in the very system he objects to.

The fact that it is Truffaut who plays the doctor carries great significance on a variety of levels. Film, as the new medium of mass image-making, exercises the same force of normalizing judgment that science is capable of. To witness a director and critic, embed himself in the problematic framework of filmmaking in order to call for extrication from it, poses an irreconcilable conflict that the next few films help to flesh out. Truffaut, by starring in his film, doubly exerts his agency in the creation of the film and in the creation of the anti-indoctrination message of the film. He makes himself, in the fictional world as the doctor, in the role as actor, and in the role as director, the indoctrinating agent just as he consistently objects to the very method he employs to bring about the anti-indoctrination indoctrination.

Carroll Reed’s world in The Third Man is laden with an equally bleak view of prevailing power structures. In a decaying post-war Vienna, the bureaucracies of the local and state police prevent any true human compassion from infiltrating the hierarchies which dictate orders. As Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) summarized nicely when speaking to the immigration patrolman, “I don’t even know what orders mean anymore,” to which the patrolman replies, “Neither do I.” But this is not to say the bureaucracy is the only force which is stifling meaningful human action and interaction. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) is the embodiment of the living ghost. This American writer is utterly ineffectual in his attempts to resurrect his dead friend, or more accurately to raise the veil of mystery surrounding his death. He is driven by other’s actions, whether they are that of the ferocious cab driver leading him to speak at a radio book review where his academic legitimacy will be torn apart or whether he is wavering under the advice of Anna Schmidt and Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) as to whether or not to capture Harry Lime (Orson Welles). He is only able to pull the trigger on Lime after getting a veritable nod of approval from the crippled man. Lime, the only character who seems to exert supreme agency uses it purely for his own good and literally utilizes the fruits of science to wield power over the bodies of men. In this way writer Graham Greene, unlike Truffaut, maintains a disconcerting view of unbridled human nature. Welles, a free spirit, free of bureaucratic workings, commits great atrocities, while all the “black dots” in the bureaucracy have to content themselves with committing smaller one. The hero, if there is one, must then be Major Calloway, who works within an impotence-ridden system to the best of his ability to do what he believes, and what writer Graham Green believes, is just and good. But ultimately, this act of justice leads to just another death in the ferris-wheel of life where all actions travel from start back to start with no real positive advance. The final image of the movie encapsulates this bleak view of human institutions and human nature. Holly Martins stands at the start of a long roadway extending interminably into the distance lined with castrated trees shedding leaves from some indeterminate source. Holly stands smoking a cigarette and watches helpless as his love Anna walks right by him and out of the frame, down the vaginal expanse and away from him. Indeed, Reed’s film demonstrates the inescapable impotence of humanity and its irrevocable movement towards fruitlessness and death. This ending, one should add, is not that of Greene, who wanted Anna to turn to Holly in the final scene and go off with him, in an act of regeneration and hope. David Thomson quotes Greene saying that film is “Too light an affair to carry the weight of an unhappy ending”. Reed exerted force to get his melancholy ending through and unlike Truffaut who maintained a romantic hope for the state of nature, posited a tragic fundamentally disconnected position of individuals alone and in greater human society.

Fury similarly distrusts the individual capacity to create a fruitful and just society, but for very different reasons. Though the happy ending of the film was due to Hollywood executives push rather than Fritz Lang’s directorial vision, the overall character of the film presents mass human society with not too little, but rather too much agency and control. Lang grossly distrusts systems of policing and governance as well for the very opposite reason as Reed. Lang elucidates the frightful unity of the human whim, or the whim of the masses with the power mechanisms at its disposal. It is not rational law, but the passions of an uneducated swarm that dictate the life and death of an individual man. Law and power offer a pretense under which base emotions of vengeance and intolerance are able to seize power. Lang warns every individual in American society that the power of law can capture you but that it is the hopeless forces of an ignorant democracy that will surround and destroy you. In a world of new technologies (mass-media, telephones, movie-making) and new civil associations (political clubs, barber shops, women’s groups), the will of the majority is all the more consolidated and formidable. Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracey), an innocent man, can be caught and for all intents and purposes burned alive by the masses with no retribution. The only reason his “murderers” were brought to any form of justice is because he lied in order to manipulate the system of laws and governance to his advantage. Moreover, the evidence brought in to convict the accused murderers was a planted ring that was entered as proof into the court room. Lang demonstrates the inefficiency, inaccuracy, and in fact, arbitrariness of the legal system with great force. In addition to the testimony of “upright” citizens, lawyers in the courtroom turn to science (attempting to explain the ability of a body to totally disappear) and the word of law in order to decide the fate of twenty-two civilians. By making the viewer aware that the death of Joe Wilson is in fact a lie, and that the evidence is false, Lang calls into question the indisputable truth of knowledge – both scientific and legal. But then, into this courtroom setting, the final piece of evidence emerges – film. The film reel of murderers dancing about on screen as Joe burns alive is entered as indisputable proof of the guilt of the convicts, and indeed begets most of their convictions. This film enters the courtroom setting after Lang has discounted all other forms of knowledge proper. It would be to undercut the intelligence of a great filmmaker to assume that Lang believed film to be the one truth in the world, above science and the law. Because of the comical introduction of film into the courtroom and the hysterical behavior of the murderers in the film, Lang is inviting the same type of criticism and introspection about the role of film in its position of power. Moreover, Lang is bringing the viewer into an awareness of his/her position in the audience as a “believer” in film, or in the unquestioned structures of knowledge and truth of science and law. Lang demonstrates to the viewer the way in which he/she both judges those who commit crime through film (which is literally the vehicle of portraying fiction in the case of this movie), and potentially fall under it as a method of surveillance. In this way, we are linked directly with the both the jury and the judged – one and the same, from the same community, of the same stock. We are begged the question of whether we can trust ourselves, and whether we can trust structures of knowledge like science, law and, paradoxically, film itself. Again, the question of the capacity of film to convey a knowledge that must debunk the myth of film comes to the fore. Perhaps the film that dealt best with this problem was the one that preceded all the others mentioned above.

Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane tells the story of the media-mogul William Randolph Hearst, the ultimate manipulator of mass-consciousness – he who said, “You give me the pictures, I’ll make the war.” Hearst personified the power of the media over the minds of men. And in many ways, the egomania of director, producer, star Orson Welles, reflected and embodied the frightful control of Hearst. Both consciously and unconsciously perhaps, Welles crafts a film that boldly demonstrates the power of the hand behind the camera, without falling into the pitfall of trying to excise that hand from other spheres of influence or to justify it. He creates a complex situation that weaves between fiction and reality in order to awaken the consciousness of his viewers. The opening sequence of the film is fashioned with loving care to play just like a news real (which would be shown at the time in a similar dark hall). Immediately, Welles draws into question the vehicle of portraying news “truth” by incorporating it stylistically into a larger fiction. Furthermore, the scaffolding holding up the film is often included in the frame of an image. For example, in the Kane rally speech, Welles is not ashamed to display the rows of cardboard-box spectators. He intends his film to be a glimpse into the workings of the creation of the media edifice. But it takes little to realize, especially with his excessive theatricality and playing to the camera for the audience’s love and affection, that Orson Welles is himself a kind of Hearst. It is no coincidence that the one is playing the other. Whether or not Welles realizes or intends the connection of the his literal personality with that of Hearst’s is another question. But even beyond the fictional world of the film, real-life events again brought to light the control over image making exercised by the likes of Hearst. Hearst tried to use his incredible bargaining powers to shelve the film so that it would never be released theatrically. He succeeded in reducing audience turnout dramatically for the time being. However, as years passed, the intricate interweaving of fictional space and real media space became more and more apparent to the consciousness of citizens. It made us realize that the glass-ball world in which Rosebud lived was really not so different from the world of Kane, and the world of Kane not so different from our world of Hearst.

Is there an escape then from this overwhelming system of unquestioned controls? Can the use of a new medium such as film be effectively used to critique other carriers of truth such as law or science? Can fiction film succeed in undermining, or at least calling into question, undisputed systems of power? Or is its position in the discourse of power one that precludes such rebellious activity? Or more practically is such “moralizing intent” valid in film at all? Should film be a place of escape, fantasy and entertainment? Should Anna reconnect with Holly and walk together at the end of The Third Man? It seems to me that the stakes are too high to simply give up the question of the agency of film in creating social change. But similarly, one must be wary of over-moralizing and preaching instead of discovering.

At times in all of the films above, the directors fall prey to the easy, iconic copouts. The most classic example is the ending of Fury (admittedly altered by studio executives, but nonetheless lazy), where Katherine Grant coaxes her once-lover Joe Wilson out of allowing those who tried to kill him to die. In The Third Man, the severely haunting, almost comical, nursery scene which motivates Holly to wreak vengeance on Harry, puts too clear a face on evil, and lessens the crimes of the petty bureaucrats who tried to deport Anna or off Holly. In Truffaut’s work, the unexamined sympathy for the child’s “natural religion” of moon-swaying inserts moments of unexamined wistfulness in an otherwise taut examination of civilization. In short, gross attempts to moralize through film indelibly fail and jeopardize the greater implications of the film. Those films that work best lose themselves to the process itself, forget its “purpose”, but in so doing exercise a greater sense of purpose than any other.

Citizen Kane attains this stature quite accidentally: the megalomania of Welles, coupled with the real-life reception of the film, added layers of complexity which subverted the potentially-moralizing script (in which excessive love of love itself, and greed reduce a man to little more than a thing). Citizen Kane became great because of the near hagiography surrounding its genesis and reception, and provides a striking example for future filmmakers who wish to overcome the paradoxical position of film in affecting social and political change, especially in the realm of image-making and power exertions. The problematic moral: forget yourself as a filmmaker, and hope to be reborn as something more.

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