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Movies and the Moral Adventure of LifeReview - Movies and the Moral Adventure of Life
by Alan A. Stone
MIT Press, 2007
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
Nov 13th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 46)

In this short book of collected essays Alan Stone brings together a wealth of professional experience and expertise (he is a former president of the American Psychiatric Association and the Touroff-Gueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard), personal insight (he played college football with Bobby Kennedy, one of the subjects of a review) and a love and sensitivity to movies and the way they can hold up a mirror to our concerns, ideals and morals.

There are just 15 essays, on films as far apart as Un Coeur en Hiver, Schindler's List, Pulp Fiction and Lolita (both of them). Some, like Thirteen Days, the story of the Cuba missile crisis, or American Beauty, achieved wide-scale theatrical releases. Others, like The Battle of Algiers or Antonia's Line may seem art-house. However, in every one he not only gives an insightful précis of the plot, he also examines the characters, their development and presentation, and meditates on what the films show us, consciously and unconsciously.

A number of the essays are truly outstanding. Writing about The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo's great anti-imperialist film, he fastens on one of the most problematic issues in art; the poetical representation of politics. In terms of its technical virtues The Battle of Algiers is a masterpiece. It was revolutionary, not just in its subject matter, but in its treatment. But did it, as some would contend, justify terrorism (or the armed resistance if you prefer)? Stone forces us to ask the same question about other films, most clearly Leni Reifenstahl's Olympia and Triumph of the Will. Can there be such a thing as great Fascist (or Marxist, or fundamentalist, or anti-humanitarian) art? What happens when we, as an audience, identify with these ideals, not because they are really what we feel, but because we are persuaded or seduced by the beauty of their presentation? Stone regards this as a great danger and something that anything less than a critical eye and moral vigilance can enable.

Stone is not above defending difficult films or taking an unpopular stance. The essays in which he considers Pulp Fiction, Lolita and The Passion of the Christ are good examples. Often he seems to be saying that the essential point of differentiating between celebration and parody or satire is missed, and perhaps he laments the low level of film literacy in the mass audience and the mainstream critics. He regards Pulp Fiction, for all its excesses, as a satire on popular culture, of the eponymous pulp fiction. Yes, it is a little gruesome to see a young man's brains blown all over the back seat of a car and have the perpetrator react as if he had spilt sauce on a good suit. Yes, it may be unnecessary to see the detail of a kidnap and torture, especially taken so lightly. And it may be true that the film should have been given a reverse R rating, that is it is unsuitable for anyone over the age of 18, so full is it of adolescent gross humour and behaviour. This is clearly a film to which one should not take one's grandmother. However, Stone tries to see beyond and that and examine the craft that made the film the work he thinks it is.

Where Lolita is concerned, he brings a psychiatrist's eye to his evaluation. He juxtaposes the two versions, one by Stanley Kubrick, featuring James Mason, Peter Sellers and the hardly nymphette-like Sue Lyons (with of course the screenplay by Nabokov himself) with the 1997 version directed by Adrian Lyne. Again, Stone argues that the satire that was so important seems to have been missed, and although the over the top acting, particularly by Sellers, may be distracting, it is there precisely to puncture our pomposity and prudishness. You may not agree with Stone that paedophilia of this nature is ripe for satire, but he at least makes you think.

He also makes you think about The Passion of the Christ. He acknowledges that it was a hugely divisive film, but for him the real point is that is a significant cultural event (perhaps the idea that films can be significant cultural events is another point worth pursuing). He defends Mel Gibson, the director, for being true to his own radical view of Catholicism, one that apparently he partly came to from his father and one that "saved him". However, he does not really apply the same criteria to Gibson as he does either to Adrian Lyne or Gillo Pontecorvo. He remarks that there is probably not a scene in The Passion of the Christ that is not in the Gospels, and that makes Gibson justified. However, he also says that there is nothing in Lyne's Lolita that is not in the book, but Lyne misses the point. He says that Pontecorvo runs the danger of being a Marxist poet, but the more radical and fundamental view of Gibson is not judged in the same way.

It is perhaps a virtue that Stone can elicit both passion and intellectual curiosity through his work. He clearly loves and respects movies, and quite rightly, sees them as important cultural artefacts. That in itself is recommendation enough for this short, but entertaining and fascinating collection.

© 2007 Mark Welch

Mark Welch, Ph.D., British Columbia

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