moral and immoral art

Oscar Wilde famously said that, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” He was of course wrong. Wilde said many clever things but the fact that a statement is clever does not make it true. And of course Wilde was a degenerate so he had an axe to grind.

Books take a moral stance. That may be an explicitly moral or immoral stance, or they may pretend to be neutral. But if you’re neutral on the subject of morality then you’re taking a stance on the issue – you’re coming down on the side of scepticism on the issue of morality.

It’s the same with movies and television, and even the visual arts. Even landscape painting is not immune – pure landscape painting became popular with the rise of the Romantic movement and it was implicitly nature-worship and implicitly pagan.

Everyone has a position on moral issues. If you claim to be indifferent to morality then you’re taking the stance that morality doesn’t matter so effectively you’re casting your vote for amorality at the very least.

Of course there’s a world of difference between an artist or writer (or film-maker or musician) who tolerates or ignores immorality and one who actively promotes. The former can be accused of cynicism or even cowardice, but the latter is actively evil.

It also has to be remembered that today more than ever art and literature are seen as political acts. It’s very hard to be neutral. Art and literature are energetically used to undermine what is left of traditional morality. The question of the morality of art and literature matters very much.

Can a work of art or a book be great and still be immoral? Wilde was certainly partially correct – books are either well written, or badly written. An immoral book can be superbly well written. Perhaps it can even achieve greatness. But it’s still an immoral book. It’s still evil.

Can we afford to tolerate great art and literature that is actively evil? My view is that the history of the past century is pretty strong evidence that we cannot.

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film review: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Speaking of naval fiction and screen adaptations of naval fiction, like so many youthful fans of this genre I eventually ran out of Hornblower novels to read and moved on to other writers. Writers like Patrick O’Brian. I think most people would concede that C.S. Forester and O’Brian are the two giants of this genre. My admiration for O’Brian’s novels has caused me to avoid seeing the 2003 movie adaptation  of his work, on the assumption that a 21st century movie version would almost certainly be riddled with political correctness and would almost certainly miss the subtleties of the novels.

Now that I’ve finally seen Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World I have to confess that my fears were not really justified. It’s actually pretty good.

The problem with historical fiction, and historical movies, is that they almost always say more about the era in which they are produced than about the era in which they are set. This problem has always existed but has become steadily worse. Contemporary historical fiction and movies are populated entirely by 21st century characters wearing period costume. The beliefs, values, attitudes, opinions and prejudices of the characters reflect today’s world and appear so hopelessly anachronistic in historical films that such books and films become merely absurd. It is very difficult to avoid this trap.

Watching Master and Commander it’s obvious that screenwriters John Collee and Peter Weir have at least tried to avoid this pitfall. The characters do to a certain extent reflect the very different outlook and the very different values of the early 19th century. Captain Jack Aubrey is motivated by a sense of duty that would seem absurd in a character in a modern movie but it feels reasonably right for the period. His views are roughly what you expect from a British frigate captain in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars.

He is even allowed to give a little speech on the subject, and (even more surprisingly) on the subject of patriotism. Most surprising of all is that he is permitted to deliver the speech in a refreshingly non-ironic manner.

The great temptation would have been to make his friend naturalist/physician friend  Stephen Maturin into a proto-SJW. Mercifully this does not happen. Jack and Stephen disagree strongly on countless subjects but both men remain fairly plausible as men of their time. Stephen might be a religious sceptic but he deplores the egalitarianism of the French Revolution. He believes in social hierarchies.  Stephen likes to give the impression that he sees the Navy mostly as a way to pursue his interest in natural history but when push comes to shove and the survival of the ship is at stake he is more than willing to grab pistol and cutlass and indulge (with considerable enthusiasm) in hand-to-hand fighting.

This is certainly a magnificent looking film. It’s grungy enough to be convincing without overdoing it. The action scenes are great. As far as entertainment is concerned it scores very highly.

The biggest plus is Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey. I’ve never had much time for Crowe as an actor but he’s superb here. Most crucially he plays Aubrey as a genuine hero. He’s not an anti-hero. He’s not a flawed and tortured hero. He’s the real deal.

There’s also a welcome lack of political correctness. It’s not that the film is politically incorrect – it simply ignores the existence of PC and gets on with the story. Of course you have to remember that it was made fifteen years ago and you probably wouldn’t get away with such a film today.

All in all Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is much much better than I’d expected.

It’s also interesting to compare it to the roughly contemporary Hornblower TV series.

Dr Strangelove, then and now

The first time I saw Stankey Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove I wasn’t overly impressed by it. Today I find I can enjoy it a lot more. The most disturbing thing about it is that this Cold War thriller has more punch today than it had in 1964.

In 1964 the world seemed like a crazy place. A dangerously crazy place. In 2017 that insane world seems positively reassuring. The nuclear balance might have threatened total destruction but at least the Cold War was vaguely comprehensible. We could see how it had happened and why it was going to be difficult to sort out. Can anyone explain the bizarre foreign policy machinations of 2017? Can anyone explain why we still live under the threat of nuclear Armageddon? 
In Dr Stangelove Kubrick had to come up with an extraordinary circumstance to make his nuclear crisis convincing, because he knew that even though the nuclear standoff was dangerous in normal circumstances no sane person was going to push that button. He could make the President of the United States in the film a muddle-headed buffoon but even in fiction, even in black comedy, it would have stretched credibility too far to have the President deliberately and intentionally launching a nuclear war out of the blue. Even the crazy general played by George C. Scott only comes around to the idea of war when it seems like it’s going to happen anyway. To spark the crisis Kubrick had to imagine a middle-ranking officer becoming clinically insane and by a series of accidents being in a position to light the fuse. 
Today we have political leaders in the West who really seem to think that nuclear confrontations are a pretty good idea, and who think it’s an extremely good idea to provoke nuclear powers. And having provoked them, to go on provoking them.
Luckily non-western political leaders are on the whole a good deal more sensible so disaster has been averted so far.
And that’s just the foreign policy madness of today. Domestic policy is even crazier.
Kubrick’s bold decision to treat the subject of nuclear war as comedy paid off because that’s really the best way to treat such objects – pointing out the lunacy of the situation. You couldn’t do such a movie as a comedy today because today’s reality is more outrageously insane than fiction could ever be. Our world is beyond mockery.

revisiting Forty Thousand Horsemen

I recently watched one of the greats of Australian cinema, Charles Chauvel’s 1940 wartime adventure Forty Thousand Horsemen. Of course like every Australian I’d seen it before (it used to get screened every Anzac Day on Australian television). It was interesting to look at it today from a slightly different political perspective.

The movie tells the story of the exploits of the Australian Light Horse Brigades in the campaigns against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and Mesopotamia in the First World War.

It’s a wartime propaganda movie and the propaganda isn’t exactly subtle. The propaganda is however quite interesting. The intention was clearly to drum up support for Australia’s involvement in the Second World War. As you would expect there’s a hysterically anti-German tone. What’s more surprising is that the Ottoman Turks (the people we were actually fighting in these campaigns) are portrayed very sympathetically indeed – they are shown as brave and honourable men doing their duty. The Arabs are portrayed sympathetically as well.

Which of course is fair enough – I doubt if even the most jingoistic Australians had actually hated the Turks in the First World War. My grandfather fought them and he certainly didn’t hate them. In fact most Australians must have been somewhat bewildered to find that we were at war with the Ottoman Empire, a state that would not have ranked very high on a list of potential threats to Australia’s security. In fact it’s difficult to think of any major power that would have been less of a threat to us.

The French come out of it well also. Oddly enough the British are largely ignored, apart from one scene in which Australian soldiers cheerfully loot the baggage of a senior British officer! It’s interesting that the movie makes no attempt to whip up pro-British fervour. That might not be so surprising. Again I can cite my grandfather’s views – he felt no bitterness towards the Germans and Turks against whom he fought but he sure did hate our British allies. The makers of the movie may have felt it to be a safer choice to concentrate on the dastardliness of the Germans and to ignore the British altogether. It’s easy to assume that Australians in 1940 were intensely pro-British but perhaps this is not quite so true after all. There are times when the past turns out to be not quite the way we always thought it was.

Apart from all this and whatever one thinks of war movies Forty Thousand Horsemen is still an exciting and fairly well-made example of the breed.

A fuller review of this movie can be found on my movie blog here.

1950s Hollywood anti-communist movies

I’ve been getting into 1950s anti-communist movies recently. These movies have for years been dismissed by liberal film critics as paranoia movies. In fact they depict the activities, the methods and the mindset of communists pretty accurately. And at least a couple of these movies can be regarded as pretty good examples of film noir.
I’ve reviewed two these films recently on my classic movies blog – RKO’s 1949 production The Woman on Pier 13 (originally released as I Married a Communist) and Warner Brothers’ 1950 offering I Was a Communist for the FBI. The latter was based on a true story. Both movies deal with communist infiltration of labour unions, which was in fact one of the favoured methods of the Communist Party at that time, both in the United States and in other countries.
If these movies have a fault it’s perhaps that they let the unions off the hook too easily, but Hollywood has always been a union so it was unlikely that a movie critical of the union movement was ever going to get made. In fact given the large-scale real-life communist infiltration of Hollywood and the domination of Hollywood by liberals it’s surprising that these anti-communist movies got made. The only problem with the movie industry’s response to communist infiltration, the blacklist, is that it didn’t go far enough.
Both of these movies are worth a look, both for their historical interest and as worthy examples of the film noir of the period. They’re a reminder of a time when Americans were still willing to fight back against leftist tyranny.