Morality Bites Blog-a-thon: Do filmmakers have a moral responsibility?

.Thanks to Ronan of Filmplicity and Julian of DirtyWithClass for organizing this thought-provoking blog-a-thon!

I still remember the post that started it all… it was in the comment section of this post on DWC blog when Julian suggested to Ronan to get people to share their opinion on the hot-button issue, and voilà! 😀

Do filmmakers have a moral responsibility?

When I read Ronan’s post on the issue of censorship, somehow I immediately remembered the utterly annoying Indonesian censoring system that basically puts a black tape over areas deemed inappropriate… such as in many of James Bond’s opening sequence where customarily naked girls are dancing about to the Bond theme song. For some reason this one at the end of For Your Eyes Only is the one that’s stuck in my mind!
I grew up in a culture with heavy censorship… it’s sooo strict to the point of absurdity. I’ve mentioned this on Ronan’s blog a while ago, even sitcoms like Growing Pains are censored! They’d even cut off scenes the Seaver parents smooching in the kitchen before one of them went off to work, and I always wonder, what is wrong with a scene of a loving marriage??! I’m not going into what law/ethics the Indo government based such strict codes on as I don’t want to get into political/religious discussion, but to put it mildly, unlike in the US, artistic freedom isn’t exactly upheld in a high regard in my home country.
However, as wonderful as such freedom is, the flip side to such a virtue is that it can easily be abused and/or be used to justify questionable content.

With the issue of morality, as a lot of other bloggers more eloquent than I have pointed out, is that it is nearly impossible to standardize or even define. What one person consider moral is different from person to person, because every person has their own ‘standard’ they go by that is guided by their own unique personal worldview. But whilst it’s impossible to measure the conventional standards of each person, I’d think that there is a certain barometer if you will that MOST people will regard as good or evil. I mean, one might enjoy watching Patrick Bateman in American Psycho whack his colleague’s head off with a chainsaw just because he feels like it, but if we ask that person whether that act is wrong or not, I can’t imagine anyone would say that it is perfectly fine to do so. The same case with the extremely violent behaviors found in films like SAW, Human Centipede and a number of other slasher flicks out there that have become increasingly popular.

Though it’s debatable whether there is a shift in moral code, it’s safe to say that people’s tolerance for certain things depicted in the media surely have changed over the years. What’s considered taboo before has become the norm and constant exposure to ‘shocking’ imagery/language/behavior surely have the power to desensitize our minds. I know that for me, my tolerance for violence and foul language have actually decreased as I get older. I’m becoming more mindful of what things I expose myself to, not only because I feel that is the right thing to do, but simply because I don’t find enjoyment in them any more. Those things don’t serve any purpose whatsoever as it neither inspire nor entertain me. But it seems that I am in the minority as there are perhaps more movies out there that are foul-mouthed than those that aren’t.

Sure there is the argument of presenting certain bad behaviors to illustrate a point or depict what really happened in history. So context definitely matters. But even so, I respect filmmakers who opt to show the violence, sexual act or what have you OFF SCREEN. One film that I thought did a great job in getting the point of the story across without resorting to unnecessary violence is Road to Perdition. It’s a dark story, yes, and there are violent scenes to be sure, but they’re not gratuitous for the sole purpose to shock the viewers.
My main concern about this morality argument is more towards films marketed to kids or young adults as they’re the most vulnerable and susceptible to pop culture. The other day I just read about doctors urging ban for junk food ads during kids shows, and I believe there are some strict order that ban sugary drinks and limiting the fat/sugar content of foods sold in middle and high schools. Now, I’m all about promoting good, nutritious food for kids (or anyone of all ages for that matter), but it strikes me that our society seems to be more concerned by what enters our physical bodies but not so much about what gets into our spiritual bodies, our soul. If there are calls to healthy eating that seem to be embraced by food makers/restaurants as well as average consumers, why is there such resistance to measures taken towards ‘healthy viewing’? If the same ‘restraint’ if you will is applied to what kids watch these days, perhaps raunchy teen shows such as Skins might not even be allowed to air to begin with.

I’ve been reading some arguments of those who don’t think filmmakers have moral responsibility and that such responsibility should be placed on the viewers instead. Sorry to single you out Julian but I just want to speak to your argument that ‘…viewers can, or at least should be able to judge what is appropriate for them, and more importantly know what they can and can’t apply from a movie into there actual lives’ Well, certainly in a perfect utopia, it would be nice if that were the case. It’s true that some people who’ve been exposed to dark/violent/sexual content since they’re a young age might not always turn out to be a disturbed person or serial killer. But that is not to say that there has never been a correlation between media violence and real-life violence. There have indeed been reports of some individuals doing very bad things because they are affected by what they’ve watched/played (in the case of violent video games). As in the case of the Columbine High School massacre over a decade ago, analysts/psychologists found that “…part of the killers’ problem may have been desensitization due to their constant exposure to violent imagery in such video games, as well as music and movies …” (per Wikipedia) Coincidentally, I have just read this article on CNN at lunch today and I couldn’t believe how extremely violent a lot of those video games that are easily accessible to kids, but that is a whole other discussion!

The issue of moral responsibility can be applied to all sorts of media, but since the question specifically pertains to filmmakers, I’m going to just contain my answer to movies.

So my answer to the question is: YES, the filmmaker do have a moral obligation to the audience, especially those geared to kids and teens who may not have the best judgments of right and wrong.

To borrow a quote from a famous Marvel superhero, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ I think that same sentiment can be applied to the powerful organization that is Hollywood (Now of course, there are other filmmakers outside of the US film industry, but Hollywood is by far the most mainstream). However, I don’t think the sole accountability lies ONLY with them. It ought to be a SHARED one with parents and teachers, as well as the moviegoers themselves. I think parents today have a much more challenging task in protecting their kids from all the temptations/distractions that bombard them day in and day out and my friend Scott (Custard) who’s a father of two girls can attest to that. There is a delicate balance between shielding them from harmful content and completely censoring them from anything that would help them to learn what’s right or wrong. I hope that when I become a parent one day I’d be able to know the difference. But as Ronan says in his post, I appeal that the power that be in Hollywood to take the initiative and give us a better quality of movies to choose from.

So that’s my two cents. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts on the matter in the comments.