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Ethics at the CinemaReview - Ethics at the Cinema
by Ward E. Jones and Samantha Vice (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2011
Review by Shara Knight
Aug 9th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 32)

Ethics at the Cinema is an exceptional collection of essays which offers extensive focus on ethics in both classic and modern movies.  Topics range from concerns of philosophers (e.g. virtue, justice, and ideals) to concerns of filmmakers (e.g. sexuality, social belonging, and cultural identity).  The editors of this volume asked a diverse group of philosophers and philosophers of film to engage with ethical issues raised within a single film of each contributor's choice.  The authors "excavate and illuminate the meanings" that represent the shared culture that mass entertainments presuppose and that help form individuals.  The structure that organizes these essays is built on theorizing the kind of interaction that films and other narratives provoke viewers to have with them, especially in the context of aesthetics and ethics.  This book illustrates the potentially complex, persuasive, and profound role of film in ethical life.  The editors assert that film is situated in this particular cultural locale because of the importance of narrative-spectatorship in ethical aspects of life. 

Spectatorship of a film differs centrally from a direct perception of the world.  The view of the film's world is controlled by another person's choice, extending a certain "take" on the world within the film.  The disposition or attitude of an individual usually entails being attentive to certain features of a particular kind of object, property, person, or event.  Examples of attitudes include forgiveness, resentment, compassion, wariness, suspicion, trust, and admiration -- sometimes manifested as emotions, beliefs, and actions.  Racism, sexism, and xenophobia are also reasonably understood as attitudes.  As the above examples suggest, attitudes have an evaluative component; one's attitude toward something can be said to embody, in part, one's evaluation of it.  Philosopher Ward E. Jones contends in the text that the central component in the evaluative feature of attitudes is the tendency of the attitude holder to feel certain emotions toward the object of his attitude.  A film narrative leads its spectators to respond with certain emotions -- and the desires and evaluations that go along with them -- toward its characters and events.  The film narrative's attitude is revealed by an "invitation to emotion" and calls upon the spectator to share that attitude.

The essays contain individual arguments for how viewers ethically risk or expose themselves as spectators of fictional stories in film.  At specific junctures an individual can resist the enticement that the film story extends to him and better understand the attitudes invited by certain films.  Imaginative resistance is not only of interest to philosophers, but may also illuminate psychologically differentiated feeling toward other humans with dissimilar value systems.  Psychologist C. G. Jung felt that ethics are based on the phenomena of conscience, which derives from a relationship between man and god, or psychologically, with the archetype of Self.  He felt that ethics cannot exist without differentiated feeling -- for without feeling, moral principles become an inflexible code of behavior and a mechanical enactment of the collective.  Highly charged emotional reactions marked by disturbances in thinking, as Jung pointed out, are the hallmarks of undifferentiated feeling.  Additionally, cinematic images carry the emotional energies which are core elements of the powerful medium of film.  Film viewers are asked not just to join in a predetermined imagining of an alternative world, but to expose themselves evaluatively to that world, and this exposure matters in how meaning is recognized and engaged on deeper psychological levels.

 Some questions posed within this collection of essays that illuminate the ethical dimensions of cinema include: How do people enjoy, laugh at, and form bias toward characters that morally transgress? (Tony Soprano, The Sopranos; Walter Burns, His Girl Friday); how does the world of film depict an illustrative relationship to the world? (La Grande Illusion); how does film depict philosophical and or theoretical claims about the world? (Meet John Doe; The Third Man).  Universal themes presented in the essay selections are germane: the meaning of life (The Believer); stereotyping and prejudice (Crash); love and friendship (Jules et Jim); ethical dilemmas (Sophie's Choice); love and sexual ethics (Dangerous Liaisons); moral intelligence and perspective (The Third Man); justice and mercy (The Third Man); and irony (The Third Man).

Significant and enjoyable aspects of this collection of essays emerge from each author's concentrated effort on only one film.  The rich, detailed discussions in the essays explore questions in ethics, film, and also open the conversation to psychology.  The collection as a whole offers a glimpse of human relatedness and empathy reflected in screen image and script.  Ethics at the Cinema might serve as a book/film club selection; and as an excellent resource for filmmakers, moviegoers, psychologists, philosophers, artists, educators, religious/spiritual communities, and others with interest in the human condition.

 

© 2011 Shara Knight

 

Shara Knight, Ph.D. Candidate, Depth Psychology, Concentration: Jungian and Archetypal Studies, Pacifica Graduate Institute


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