well, i’ve had this sitting in my draft folder for almost a year now… =P finally dug it out:
a film about the capture of bin laden is bound to be controversial. however, i found the torture-glorification protests that erupted around the film to be particularly disturbing, mainly because of their simplistic assumptions and their implications about what art *should* do.
glenn greenwald, a prominent voice on the matter, attacks the film for being “factually false”, that it “uncritically presents as fact the highly self-serving, and factually false.” so basically, he dislikes the film because it is “false”. well, that is fiction, my friend. since when does a work of fiction “uncritically presents as fact”? if you want a factual presentation, then go to the non-fiction section. just because it is based on a true story, doesn’t make it the true story. sure, bigelow uses a documentary style, but that doesn’t make the film any more of a real documentary; it’s an artistic technique and greenwald’s criticism is insulting to the viewer’s intelligence. only an idiot would be fooled into thinking it is a real documentary. cloverfield and troll hunter both used the found footage technique; yet at no point during either of those films did i ever think the films were actual found footage. similarly, just because a director uses a documentary technique doesn’t make the film a documentary. furthermore, despite these “documentary” claims, i thought the film played out more like a james bond flick, or an episode of 24, than a documentary. if you want to level charges against ZDT for being factually false, then you might as well bring these same charges against bond films, and 24, and many others. what a silly accusation: of course fiction films are factually false – that’s what makes them fiction.
equally ridiculous are the complaints that an american film made by americans is biased towards…. america. really?? seriously, what did you expect? moreover, ZDT stars an american CIA agent, so why does it come as a shock that the film is biased towards her perspective? you could argue that an american film should at least try to tell the other side of the story, but i think any such attempt to show the other point-of-view from born-and-bred americans is bound to be limited: if i wanted a film from a non-american point-of-view, then hollywood and its host of american directors would be the last place i would look. nor should there be any imperative that a film must be impartial. if a director wants to make a film from the perspective of an american CIA agent, then so what?
greenwald’s reply is that doing so is pure evil, for it “propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods” which “is inevitably going to cause large numbers of americans to view those techniques more favorably”. such criticisms that the film is propaganda and glorifies torture contain disturbingly simplistic assumptions: 1) there is only one clear and correct interpretation of a work of art (ie. ZDT is torture-glorifying propaganda); 2) this interpretation and its effects are easy to predict (ie. viewers will buy into the propaganda); 3) this interpretation is either morally Good or Bad (ie. torture-glorifying propaganda is morally Bad); 4) the film is either artistically Good or Bad based on this one interpretation (ie. therefore, ZDT is a Bad film).
unfortunately for greenwald et al., the real world of art interpretation is not this simplistic nor linear. first of all, not everyone who views the same work of art will have the same reaction/interpretation; in fact, there will likely be as many different interpretations as there are viewers. the bottom line is, unless you can predict the future, you cannot know how viewers will react to the work of art. these charges of propaganda are further demeaning of viewers’ intelligence, assuming that they will mindlessly agree with whatever is presented to them. these moralizers, like greenwald, fly into a paranoia about the predicted effect that such “propaganda” will have on the dull, impressionable minds of the masses, expecting the general public to just swallow the harmful message; the moralizers, however, consider themselves to be special, above such passive absorption, immune to the brainwashing effects of “propaganda” and thus fit to condemn it and warn the rest of us sheeple about its damaging effects. how condescending.
what is most disturbing about these ZDT protests is the implication that ZDT, and all works of art by extension, must be morally Good. further, only morally Good art can be considered to be artistically Good. this idea that everything is either Good or Evil is a childishly simplistic way of looking at the world and of looking at art. can ALL things really be classified into only two categories: Good or Bad? the idea is ridiculous. to label one thing morally Good and another morally Bad is reductive and fails to truly understand the complex nature of the thing.
so ZDT has been interpreted as torture-glorifying propaganda. does that automatically make it a Bad film? what if someone condemns 1984/animal farm as an anti-communist capitalistic piece of propaganda? or american psycho as a glorification of serial killers? or wuthering heights as glorifying its central immoral characters? or lawrence of arabia as glorifying the british militaristic agenda? or the godfather to be a glorification of gangsters? do such accusations (many of which have been made) rob any of these classics of their artistic merit? of course not. artistic merit should not be judged purely on the basis of “moral” merit. many of the best artistic works are the ones that have been banned because they’ve stepped on someone’s moral toes. the idea that art must be tied to a sort of superior morality is absurb at best and creatively suffocating at worst.
i have to confess, when it comes to ethics, i am not a believer in absolute morality. i don’t believe morality is a real cosmic force floating around in outer space, or heaven, or wherever. i believe that morality evolved as a concept in human society to help us function better as a social species. actions that are deemed “immoral” are usually the ones that cause harm to another human (ex. murder, rape, theft); conversely, “moral” actions assist others (ex. charity, giving, donations). this helps us to get along better with other people, defines boundaries, structures society, and generally allows us to function more efficiently as a social species (because, let’s face it, a society that condones random “immoral” acts, such as murder, would descend into chaos and not last very long). thus, morality isn’t “real”; as in, there is no absolute Right or Wrong answer to a question of morality. morality is mere opinion.
so if art must be morally Good and morality is opinion, then whose opinion is correct when it comes to art? the question makes no sense. to say that all art must be morally Good is like saying that all food must taste Good. it’s a ludicrous requirement that does not take into account personal tastes and opinions.
artists shouldn’t be burdened with a duty to fulfill the moral expectations of others; instead, artists should be left free to create irrespective of other people’s moral opinions. ultimately, art mustn’t be constrained by moral obligation, because there is more to art than mere morality.