In Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, a son escapes his intolerable household--crazy mother, crippled sister--for an evening at a time. When he returns and is asked where he has been, he invariably replies "At the movies."
The audience is left wondering whether this was true, especially when he waves a woman's scarf he claims he won as a prize "at the movies", but his figurative answer was literally true for me. I escaped my life at the movies. In high school, when I had argued with my only two friends, I spent one spring break at the movies. Later, I cut school and went to the Thalia or the Elgin (two famous New York revival houses, both later killed by video) to watch Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra or James Cagney in White Heat ("Top of the world, ma!") In college, when I had a free day and nothing to do, I went to the first show, twelve noon, of Truffaut's Missisippi Mermaid, and was the sole spectator in the house. My bible was Pauline Kael's I Lost It At the Movies; I didn't always like what Kael did, but I could always tell from the way she wrote about it, whether I would like a movie or not. Her listing of the best movies of all time introduced me to Truffaut, Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini.
In my family, you could be a lawyer or a doctor, and that was about it. If I hadn't lived under the burden of those expectations, perhaps I would have gone into films; I'll never know. I do know that a few films have been made which weave light, symbol and emotion together into a totality entirely unlike anything that can be achieved on the page or in a play. Each of these films has an author, and is not a committee effort; none of these films was created to serve the presumed tastes of an audience, rather than to express the ideas of the author; each of these authors knew that dialog is not the most important thing; each of these films, like an impressionistic painting, is greater than the sum of its parts.
These films--my personal favorites--are La Strada, The Seventh Seal, Jules and Jim, The Spirit of the Beehive.
Film is visual first, rational--if at all--second. In The Last Tycoon, not itself a great movie, there is a wonderful scene where Robert DeNiro teaches a novelist, a would-be screenwriter, how film differs from the novel. DeNiro improvises a senseless, but completely gripping, bit of business with a letter, a nickel, and a pair of gloves-- a woman sneaking in to a room, burning the gloves, etc. At the end, he flips the nickel to the screenwriter, who asks what its for. "Its for the movies," DeNiro replies.
We communicate our values via our behavior, our teachings and our stories. Probably the stories are the most influential carriers of values in our lives, for several reasons. Most of us, especially in adolescence, have a strong resistance to anything we know to be a lesson. We may consciously desire to be the opposite of our parents or the other authority figures around us; we may shut out what our teachers try to tell us. But we turn to our stories, like the young man in Glass Menagerie, for escape from our lives, for diversion; our guard is down; rather than attempting to deflect the influence of the stories, we drink it in eagerly. Movies were not thought to be protected by the First Amendment for the first fifty years of their existence, and when the Supreme Court finally reversed this result, one of the arguments it had to overcome was that movies are too profoundly influential on youth not to be censored.
Our movies are our stories. We swim in a sea of them; the ideas they communicate are the plankton on which we live. They are potent precisely because we do not always recognize that they are communicating ideas. "It's only a fantasy", is a common protest as to the harmlessness of movies. But there is no movie so hackneyed that it doesn't communicate an idea, even if the idea is simply that "it is good to kill your enemies, and hear the lamentation of their women."
Similarly, every idea comes laden with a value, with ethical baggage of some kind. Even pure information, which we regard as being value-neutral, is not really so, because information, even when it does nothing else, advocates its own use. "Every idea," said Justice Holmes, "is an incitement." The Physician's Desk Reference, in which you can look up every existing pill, communicates values about the use of drugs, about medical technology as a cure for pain, about the human body as an organism that can be adjusted or forcibly changed by external inffluences. A dictionary communicates values about the use and importance of language, makes implicit judgments about how language can be taken apart and analyzed. So every movie has a lot to say about the ethics both of its makers and its audience--even those movies that seem unaware that they are doing so, and even those movies which must only communicate an idea, or an ethic, accidentally on the way to tell a story. For "it is good to kill your enemies, and hear the lamentations of their women," not only communicates an idea--it is also a moral statement, and suggests a world view in itself.
We should take the ethics of movies seriously precisely because the people who make them don't want their ethics to be taken seriously. Because movies are pervasive, because they reach us when our guard is down, because we unconsciously relate so many choices in our lives to the stories they tell, their influence is like that of folk tales three hundred years ago.
In the following essays, I consider the ethical implications of how movies are constructed; the feedback loop between movie and audience; and the values movies communicate.