Sunday, September 24, 2017

"GONE BABY GONE" Commentary

My premise is that our culture doesn’t derive either ethics or morality from religion, but rather from screen-writers.  “Gone Baby Gone” is an excellent illustration.  It’s adapted from a book, so I really should say authors instead of screen-writers.  The point is that we learn how to act by watching stories.

Ethics and morals relate to “right” and “wrong” conduct. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different: ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual's own principles regarding right and wrong.”

The trouble is that morality is always situational and ethics vary from one culture to another.  In a place with a rule of law and trained enforcers (cops) who are allowed violence, justice is always being compromised and even the goal is elusive.  In a slum ghetto life is a mix of danger and sentimentality.  Even the protection of children is conflicted.  Once it was children’s labor that destroyed a child’s well-being and now it is drugs that render parents toxic.  But a lost or endangered child is still emotional enough to cause a media circus, esp. a small blonde girl.

The protagonist, Casey Affleck, is presented as an effective intervenor because he knows all the people and his girl friend is a pure soul, so we follow him through the muck, corruption, and double-crosses.  The rule of law is footnoted by the girl friend’s sincere emotional reactions, in contrast to the shallow performances of people full of guilt and rage.  She dives in.

I don’t know about the book, but the film is schematic, outrageous, unreasonable, sensational, preposterous and possible.  The actors, besides Affleck, are idealistic people who gravitate to this sort of tale.  Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, and even Michael K. Williams, though minus Omar’s cornrows.  If you removed the “f word” from the dialogue, the movie would be half the length, but if you can get over the language, this sort of approach will tell you more than a course in “wisdom” from a fine university, even if the campus IS in the middle of a bad part of town.  

Now that we’ve all seen the photo of the suburban parents passed out in the front of their nice car while their kids patiently wait in the back, we’re over the fantasy that poverty causes addiction.  People who can’t wait to get high don’t make supportive parents: love is irrelevant, owning one’s kids, because you made them, becomes obscene.  There is talk of requiring a license to be a parent, rather than for a marriage.  Yet there is a contingent that wants to force children to be born, no matter the circumstances.  That may have made sense in an Old Testament tribe with extended families.

More than anything else, this plot is ambiguous in order to point out the irresolvability of life itself.  The author, Dennis Lehane, has worked on “The Wire”, which was acclaimed for many of the same reasons that this film attracts praise and admiration.  In spite of being packed with words so stigmatized that one can be hauled into court for using them, the “street slang” is praised.  Meanwhile, respectable people are fired for using the same words, even from high prestige positions.  Do we imagine that bad words are somehow real?  Why is saying “fuck” unforgivable but “duck” merely a bird?

Do we imagine that somehow hard, dirty, dangerous, sex-obsessed lives are more real than those of we couch potatoes?  That they have a license to curse?  And why do we only know four-letter words that rhyme with truck and stunt.

Is it different to address the morality of many people one-by-one in this video series way, although in much greater cumulative numbers than could be gathered in a theatre or a church?  More powerful or less?

Morality is often discussed in terms of “choices” rather than rules, which are the mode of ethics.  We speak of someone in bad trouble, even having done terrible things, as making “bad choices,” like the wrong sized shirt or flavor of ice cream.  Doesn’t that diminish the seriousness of choosing to abuse or “choosing” arson?  And what about "combat choices" -- instant reflex or death?

We often address limits on our choices, like those imposed by a cultural code, by changing the boundaries, sometimes by physically moving to a new place.  But choosing a place that seems more generous and possible than the previous place often means that one must give up cultural “choices” imposed by the previous place, like killing daughters who make the wrong “choice.”  The choice of wearing a veil in a place that forbids them in schools can remove the possibility of an education.  

Our obvious pluralism is curiously excused in moral terms if  “everyone else does it.”  The individual opposition to conformity that was characteristic of the Sixties and Seventies is now dismissed.  If one criticizes a bad politician, the response is “all the others are just as bad.”  So it is hopeless to try to oppose evil, because everyone is evil.  So what does choice mean? 

Once there was considered to be heroism in sticking to an ethical rule, as the protagonist does in this film — insisting that a child should be with her parent regardless of anything else.  Yet the official cops take the law into their own hands, so how can they be trusted?  The girl friend goes farther, operating on the basis of emotion/compassion, arguing that it is a higher command, a sort of New Testament contrast to her Commandment-based boyfriend.  

Films are censored through commerce: funding would not be provided to people who don’t “sell” movies.  Luckily, these specific people have enough money to also have control.  I happen to approve of their outlook, but there are other actors who are pretty seamy and sly.  The main way we have of controlling the morality of major corporations is through boycotts, non-attendance.  And yet such actions are sometimes capricious (Oprah’s suspicion of beef).  Good reviews can only go so far in attracting high quality viewers who will value the message, but the reviews ARE good in terms of choice.  This film was recommended.

“A superior, haunting thriller of abduction, deception and ethical dilemma with a sobering ending - a moral quandary that demands strong debate outside the cinema.”  Full review   Angie Errigo

“Ben Affleck's tumultuous tale of abduction, treachery and murder explores humanity's best and worst intentions—and questions the line that separates them. Full review”  Paul Asay

While the covers are being stripped off of the currrent political beds, revealing far worse things than cut-off horse’s heads or even drowned children (like millions of desperately ill children denied insurance coverage), we’ve got to do something besides screaming in the streets.  Thoughtful films do help.

No comments: