Hollywood’s War on Moralism

by | Mar 26, 2001 | Movies

Is it possible to take a moral inventory of our culture — to see, in a single event, what, if anything, the most influential parts of our culture hold as the good? There is an important forum in which we take such an inventory every year at this time — and broadcast it to the […]

Is it possible to take a moral inventory of our culture — to see, in a single event, what, if anything, the most influential parts of our culture hold as the good?

There is an important forum in which we take such an inventory every year at this time — and broadcast it to the entire world. Our moral inventory is the Academy Awards, when Hollywood names the films it regards as its best, most important, most uplifting products. For the purposes of this inventory, it does not matter which film wins; it is an honor, as they say, just to be nominated.

The films nominated for Best Picture are not didactic lectures on ethics, but something much more powerful. They show us, in concrete terms, what Hollywood regards as valuable and worthy of our attention. They project — in the actions, values and motivations of their characters — a certain moral perspective.

Or, to be more accurate, this year’s films betray the absence of a moral perspective.

“Traffic” is the most agnostic of the bunch, presenting a “slice of life” meant to show us all the aspects of the war on drugs. The film’s implicit message is conveyed by its central story of a newly appointed “drug czar” who discovers that his daughter is an addict, causing him to resign because he “can’t fight a war against my own family.”

The film is not pro-drug-legalization, nor is it pro-drug-war. Instead, it portrays the moral issues as hopelessly complicated. It presents the war on drugs as empty moralistic bluster, but it offers no other solution — with the implication that no solutions are possible.

At first glance, “Erin Brockovich” presents a clear moral black and white: Consumer crusaders are good, and power companies are evil — an ironic theme in a year when the Awards ceremony is in danger of being held by candlelight. But the film’s legal battle is just a backdrop for an odd kind of success story, as the title character struggles to achieve prosperity and respect.

The problem: We are given no reason why we should like or respect Erin Brockovich. She is supposed to be “spunky” — but this is shown mostly through her spouting of obscenities and her reflexive hostility toward anyone who refuses to give her what she wants. The film’s outlook is conveyed most clearly when her employer suggests that she wear something other than miniskirts and breast-baring bustiers to the office. She declares her right to wear whatever she feels like — and her boss, a good liberal, shuts up.

The message is that standards of decency are oppressive. Brockovich asserts her right to be tacky, rude, uneducated — and still to demand the same respect as those who rise above that level. Call it “white trash lib.” A similar perspective adds a sour taste to an otherwise well-intentioned film: “Chocolat.” Many interpret this film — about a free-spirited woman who opens a chocolate shop in a provincial French town — as a benevolent tale about the need to enjoy life rather than suffer under prudish religious restrictions. But the film itself is equivocal. Its target is not so much the villain’s religion as his moralizing — his belief in “self-restraint” and his “campaign against immorality.” The film offers its rebuttal in a final speech praising “tolerance” and “inclusiveness.” It is intended to be taken as a cautionary tale against moralism.

(I will abandon any attempt to analyze “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which combines the elements of a cheesy kung-fu flick with the pretentious style of an art film. The result — especially in a surreal final scene — is ultimately meaningless.)

Only one of the nominated films — an old-fashioned swords-and-sandals epic — embraces old-fashioned moralizing.

The moralizing is very old-fashioned, indeed; the hero of “Gladiator” embodies the ancient Roman philosophy of Stoicism, with its belief in doing one’s duty without regard for personal suffering. Our hero is enslaved and forced into gory gladiatorial combat for the titillation of the Roman mob (and modern American filmgoers). He longs to die and join his murdered family in the afterlife, but he keeps fighting in order to save Rome from a corrupt emperor.

It is a somewhat grim and hopeless moral perspective, but at least this film has a moral perspective.

“Gladiator” is also the only film to honestly project what a world without moral principles looks like: Its Roman Empire is a declining civilization ruled by an amoral mob.

Draw your own conclusions about a society under the sway of Hollywood’s anti-moralist philosophy.

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to TIADaily.com and enter your email address.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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