Moral Imagination @ the Movies

I have skateboarded for my entire adult life, and for years the physical activity provided a small measure of relief from the mental and moral toll war demands. In between duties as a paratrooper at Ft. Bragg, NC, I would spend several hours each afternoon at the local skate park. I didn’t do drugs or chase women, so the favorite past time of most of my fellow soldiers was not something we shared in common. I started learning as a way to get to high school, but I soon started learning how to jump in motion and do things with the board. Somehow, I could never land a trick until it could be played out in my mind. If I could imagine it, it meant I could do it.

Visualizing complex or very simple processes is essential to the arts, especially cinema. Film and story helped give birth to profound philosophical debates, like concerns over artificial intelligence, for example. Movies have even shaped our expectations of the future (I am still eagerly awaiting the first hover board). At their best, movies are imaginatively constructive.

Movie producers can contribute to our mental maturity; we can be guided to our best selves by being inspired by the moral architecture of the stories they tell. But if that is true, then the opposite should cause us consternation. If movies can inspire, then they can do so to our loftiest ideals as quickly as they can to our basest impulses. At their worst, movies can be profoundly destructive.

In early February, 2004, I had never had to truly imagine what it would be like to kill another human being. Basic Training began the process, but my imagination could only do so much with an eviscerated rubber tire. At the end of every day of training, trainnees like me only went to sleep with the belief that we had acquired the moral architecture required to “kill, kill, kill.”

As Stanley Hauerwas told me when I interviewed him four years ago;

Having to envision the possibility that the youngster [in Iraq], who doesn’t look more than 12 or 13, is walking down the street and they may try to kill you, so you must be ready to kill them, I think that’s a moral injury. I think most of us are not prepared to think about what it means to kill.

War films, at their best, can warn society of the dangers of resorting to violence too readily. Their raw obscenity, which Tim O’Brien insists is inherent to any true war story, is a cautionary tale. At their worst, the depictions of martial violence glorify those whose tragic participation in war will mark them like Cain for the rest of their lives.

Make no mistake, those who have seen war do not come home the same.

They do not come home necessarily broken, but they carry with them a terrible wisdom which does not translate easily to the silver screen. It’s not much of a leap between seeing violence on the screen to enacting it in our communities. Psychologist and former Army Ranger David Grossman often referred to video games, a highly participatory media form, quite candidly as “murder simulators.” As a veteran, I watch each and every American horror story about shooting sprees and guns with a keen awareness that its perpetrators are all too often products of military training.

Making matters worse, an American populace has habituated their movie-going instincts around entertainment instead of education. This might help explain why documentaries are categorically excluded from the Academy’s highest honor. It reflects a very troubling development in film toward entertainment for its own sake, of our unwillingness or inability to exercise our imaginations in theaters.

In a paper about his methods and reasons for writing fantasy (PDF), World War I veteran JRR Tolkien was not enthusiastic about to cinema required “suspension of disbelief,” which he felt was to the detriment of imagination. In other words, fantasy made your mind work; it forced readers to create images in their head “with the inner consistency of reality.” The effect of good fantasy was to make your brain stronger.

Movies, however, insofar as they do all the heavy imaginative lifting for you, act as nothing more (and often much less) than entertainment.

Movies too often only feed our most primal instincts, such as fear or pleasure. But for movies to be constructive, they would have to force you to think creatively and critically. For example, in contrast to American Sniper, nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line actually seems to me to be precisely the kind of film that challenges our binary assumptions about war. Too many so called “war films” seem to spoon feed audiences primitive assumptions about The Other (whether Vietnamese or Iraqi), thereby undermining the profound potential of the cinematic craft.

It is worth considering if Chris Kyle’s story, for example, might be helpful to see as a cautionary tale about the effects of a polarizing and binary culture at war with itself, reducing complex issues and human beings to props. Movies can and should help us visualize one another as complex, well-intentioned fellow members of a global community because that is precisely what we all are. Suspending our disbelief has helped shape a world driven by prejudice and misunderstanding. If movies are to help better this world of ours, we need to stop pretending it operates in black and white, that some characters are flat and predictable. It is not easy to look down the scope of a rifle and remember that one’s “target” is in fact a member of the same human family as you, who has every claim to dignity and sympathy as one hopes they themselves are. We need to insist cinema include dynamic characters driven by the complex motivation to love one another like we love ourselves, the golden rule that all the major religions prescribe. We must demand movies that assume mutual love and respect in order to build a world in which pre-emptive love is not just a pipe dream but a reality.

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