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.

28 thoughts on “Morality Bites Blog-a-thon: Do filmmakers have a moral responsibility?

  1. I would just like to point out, i do think if someone is already on the edge of committing real life violence then violent media may aggravate the problem, but i don’t think it can create that urge by itself in most people. And i think the columbine killers had other issues tat contributed to what they did

    And i personally think that with good parenting/education most children will grow up to to realize the difference between fantasy and reality. Or at least, that worked out for me

    Glad you finally got your post up 🙂

    1. Yes, you’re right, someone who’s already predisposed to violent behavior is more at risk to being influenced by violent movies. But I don’t know that the media doesn’t have the potential of creating such disposition.

      Good parenting certainly plays a huge role in shaping the kids’ life, so I’m not gonna disagree w/ you on that front.

      1. I myself have a hard time believing that media by itself can change a person from rational to violent, but that’s just my opinion. And yeah, my dad had a policy when i was younger was that he would be pretty liberal with what i could watch, but he insisted on watching it with me(or at least with regards to the more extreme stuff). He doesn’t easily insist on that anymore, as he knows he doesn’t have to worry about me being influenced by them. I still tend to watch most movies with him, including the R-rated stuff.

        I realize for most people that would be awkward but with my dad i never get that feeling(I actually watched a movie that is aw on my own with him just to get his opinion on it). I actually wrote a testimonial speech on hm for a pubic speaking class i had. We’re extremely close.

        1. I’m happy to hear that you and your dad have a healthy relationship, Julian. That’s why I argue that parental responsibility is just as important in this matter and clearly even he had a concern that the extreme stuff might do you harm if you watch them on your own when you are younger and that he is only more comfortable about you watching those without him now that you’re almost 20. However, not all kids have the same privilege of having such parental connection and they’re more vulnerable/susceptible to being influenced by the extreme stuff they’re exposed to. As for how people could become violent when they seem ‘rational’ at first, well the shift doesn’t change overnight but likely over a certain period of time but yeah, I do think it is very much possible.

  2. Well written and insightful post Ruth. I don’t disagree with you but let me ask you this: Did Picasso, William Shakespeare, or Mozart had a moral responsibilities to their audiences? If we distance ourselves from the entertainment spectrum toward the artistic value of film, do those filmmakers have to “play by the rules”?

    1. This.

      Speaking as an artist, if all artists worried about audience sensitivity to their work, some of the greatest works in history would never have been made. The role of an artist is to look at life from a different angle. Sometimes that means being provocative – but sometimes being provocative is necessary.

      1. @Rich – I work in the design business though I don’t consider myself an ‘artist’ in the sense of Picasso, etc. So I see your point and yes being provocative is necessary and I’d even argue it has its purpose. But thinking about the well-being of society has a merit, too, no? We’re not simply talking about ‘audience sensitivity’ but more about the harmful influence of certain piece, and I’m mostly talking about films here.

        I’d also like to point out that though other art form are not exempt from this accountability, I believe movies & video games have the most ‘addictive’ power to get people influenced/hooked on them, and they’re so accessible to minor more than ever these days.

        1. “Don’t blame the movies, Sid! Movies don’t create psychos – movies make psychos MORE CREATIVE!” – Scream (1996)

          If someone’s dumb enough to let a movie talk him into going on a killing spree, they’ve already got a few screws loose to begin with. And no, the well-being of society has no merit when it comes to the creative process of a filmmaker or any other artist. Ask imprisoned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi if worrying about a ‘harmful influence’ was a factor when he made his movies:

    2. @ Castor – Thanks! Hmmm, I think my answer applies to all forms of art so yeah, I suppose those artists are included. However, I think I place a higher responsibility to filmmakers (Hollywood’s especially) because of the mass appeal and how their products are often marketed to kids for the sake of the bottom line. I think the main difference is those artists you mention create something whether it’s painting, music, screenplay as artistic expression, but a lot of filmmakers I speak of here are mostly driven by money. I can’t imagine the makers of SAW 3D honestly think that people would benefit from their what’s-so-called artform. I’m all for artistic value as much as the next guy, but to an extent. If there is a harmful effect to society, is that worth the cost?

  3. You know I agree with you! and I’m glad you included a mention about responsibility to parents and teachers.

    I’d like to say that I really liked your use of the photos you included! and the use of a quote from someone very near and dear to me! 🙂 “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility!”

    This has been a very interesting meme to follow!

    1. Ha..ha.. I knew you’re going to enjoy that quote, friendly neighborhood Spiderman! 😀

      Btw, ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ is said to have a Comic-Con presence but not sure what day yet! Since I can’t see Henry Cavill :(, I’m hoping to catch Andrew Garfield… that’d be a nice consolation prize!

  4. Ted S.

    Well written post Ruth and I don’t disagree with you either. To me I see films as a form of entertainment and filmmakers are entertainers. I respect their work but I don’t take them seriously, they’re not trying to save the world or cure cancer. I love films as much as the next person, but again I only see them as entertainment, plain and simple. Which is why I can’t stand the Oscars award show, my god it’s like those actors and filmmakers acted like they saved the world from chaos or something, they’re so serious. Lighten up for once. Of course that’s just my opinion and I’m one of the few film fanatics who hates the Oscars. 🙂

    1. Ha..ha.. yes I know how you feel about the Oscars and you do have a point, they’re not saviors of the world or anything of the sort, though I don’t see anything wrong with rewarding quality work. But the self-congratulatory stuff tend to go overboard in that industry so I hear ya.

  5. You have a point, and I never really realized how desensitized I and others have become to violence. I wasn’t strictly brought up in terms of censorship, but there were certain films I was never allowed to watch (the first time I ever saw a Tarantino movie was shortly after I turned 17… I wasn’t allowed before then, and I didn’t turn 17 until 2004, just in time for Kill Bill!). But if directors like Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg are now making movies directed towards kids, then hell yeah they have a morality responsibility. But if the movies are like Scorsese or Tarantino movies, I see let ’em do what they want. We trust those guys.

    1. Oh hi Tyler! I didn’t realize you’re the Mr. Magnolia Forever, he..he..

      It’s funny but even though I grew up in a country w/ heavy censorship, my mother was actually quite ‘liberal’ if you will in letting me watch some stuff that most parents in my home country probably would balk at. But then again we didn’t have Tarantino movies back then 🙂

      Yes, I think filmmakers making movies for kids are the ones w/ the higher accountability factor… I don’t think anyone should be exempt from that just because they’re talented.

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  7. Beautiful my friend, simply beautiful!!

    And thank you for linking me up!!

    You are so right when you say we all have a joint responsibility in this. Both the viewer and the maker. Brilliantly put.

    So much better than I could have written it!!

    Thanks for sharing!!

    1. Thank you Custie, you’re always so sweet. I like your post too, hence the link love 😀 I love that your posts are always from the heart, I try to draw some personal experience too but it’s easy to get off on a tangent when talking about this sort of topic. Thanks for reading, matey.

  8. As I have said on other moral responsibility posts, this is one tough question. And I’m not even sure of my own position.

    But I do wonder: did William Friedkin have a moral responsibility to children who might see The Exorcist. Should he have cut the violence, the sex references, the foul language because it wasn’t a wholesome image for children. I think the answer is no. Like you say, parents have a responsibility to control, as best they can, what their children watch. But this, I’m sure, can be a very difficult task. But you can only shield them from life for so long – sex, violence, foul language will creep into their lives at some point. So where does the line regarding moral responsibility stop? Whose morals are they?

    In Nazi Germany the Nazis believed they had a moral responsibility to ‘educate’ the German people that the Jewish community was bad for them. If filmmakers have a moral responsibility today, what morals are they preaching?

    1. It is a toughie indeed, Dan, took me a while to write this and I don’t think I cover everything I wanted to say.

      The Exorcist is one of the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen, but the whole movie’s point is to show the gruesome effect of someone being possessed by the devil and I don’t think Friedkin was marketing the film for kids. I certainly hope that parents are wise enough NOT to take their young kids to see this one.

      True, parents can only shield kids for so long but if they instill good values from such a young age, they would (hopefully) know right from wrong when they are presented with a choice later in life. Of course it doesn’t always turn out the way we want them to be, but it doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

      The Nazis obviously twisted the notion of morality and abused their power to advance their own purpose. I think most filmmakers today agree they’re wicked and immoral, hence they’re always the ‘villains’ in movies, not portrayed as heroic or good. So to me, I see that it’s understood that killing/torturing a mass of people just because they’re different has no excuse in society. So I do think filmmakers have a certain set of values/ethics within themselves to what scenes will uphold or abandon human dignity, whether or not they choose to exercise that is a different story.

  9. I loved reading your post, Ruth. It’s refreshing to see that you have strong ideas and perception of what is good/moral but at the same time you are by no means close minded.

    It’s great that you acknowledge that censorship is not all that positive and that sometimes it’s healthy to push the boundaries to achieve a better good. Love the comparison with the food. It does surprise me too that people worry about what they eat ‘physically’ but are ok with all that trash movies they are fed with on a constant basis.

    I am glad you mention the argument some other blogger seem to use a lot: ‘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.’ It’s true to an extent, because as you rightly pointed out ‘whilst it’s impossible to measure the conventional standards of each person… there is a certain barometer if you will that MOST people will regard as good or evil’. It’s very true. No matter how different our cultures, upbringing and circumstances are, I believe, that we agree on what is good and what is bad when it comes to fundamental things.

    Just read that article you mentioned on the computer games: ‘Abusing and killing cats. Killing people who cut ahead of you in line at the bank. Urinating on the corpses of victims’..’ Players could kill police officers, hire (and subsequently kill) prostitutes and perform any number of other unsavoury acts’.. ‘the player can slam a woman in the face with a shovel until she’s decapitated’ ….OMG! I myself not that innocent.. I loved playing mortal Combat when I was a kid, but I always imagined it as a magical world, surreal and far from the reality (I know it’s not a good argument but still) but making these games look and feel so much like real life is just messed up.

    Another good example of a powerful and moving film getting the point of the story across without resorting to unnecessary violence, dirtiness and profanity is The Shawshank Redemption.

    1. Thank you Irina… I appreciate your support and kind words.

      Yeah, that video game article is quite shocking to me as I don’t play games anymore but my brother still is an avid gamer. My hubby also used to play Mortal Kombat also but though I’m not saying the gruesome violence there is all fine and good, at least it’s set in a surreal world (at least a decade ago or so). But recently my hubby shows me that the game is becoming more realistic as they’re set in a real life setting which is even more disturbing. I can’t imagine kids playing these kinds of games day in and day out are not affected in any way, shape or form… I mean to a degree, we are what we eat/watch/absorb isn’t it? Even if the instances are 1 out of 10, I still think it’s something to be mindful of.

      Oh yeah, Shawshank Redemption is a good one indeed, it’s one of Hollywood’s most redeeming films.

  10. Great piece Ruth! Your argument is very insightful and well thought out 🙂

    You were brave enough to approach the topic of kids. In an earlier draft I mentioned something about the responsibility artists have when they target kids but decided to drop it – felt like I was going on a tangent.

    As an adult rapidly approaching middle-age, I can only look upon my personal experience with issues of “morality” and my experience in film. Much to my parents’ credit, they were pretty aware of my entertainment choices and because we talked to one another as equals, I was able to glean from them a sense of balance between what I saw on screen and how to operate in society as a responsible citizen.

    So your point in your concluding paragraph is spot on – it is a shared responsibility.

    1. Hi Luv, oh thank you… glad you didn’t think I was just rambling about 😀

      Yeah, the topic of kids have always been in my mind when I heard about this topic because they’re the most vulnerable yet they’re the ones targeted the most by filmmakers precisely BECAUSE their susceptibility.

      I grew up w/ my mother and she was quite open about what I watch and read also, but I don’t think she would allow me to watch what is being marketed today. Those movies I mentioned, SAW, Human Centipede, etc. would’ve been banned from my house and rightly so. I don’t need to see the wickedness of what people are capable of from those films, I already know humans are capable of very bad things, all those films do are simply glorifying them.

      1. I personally don’t think either of those movie glorified wickedness, or a least i didn’t feel that way. If someone watched the Human Centipede and/or Saw and thought what the villains in those movies did was at all justified, i would sincerely questioned there sanity. I certainly did not

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  12. This is a really well-written post, Ruth. I wish I had something to add to the discussion but we are completely on the same page. I cannot believe that the Supreme Court basically endorsed such extremely violent behavior, particularly against women, in the name of profit. A steady diet of this might not drive someone to go out and do exactly those acts, but i believe it will lead to contempt towards victims of violence, again particularly women.

  13. Hi Ruth, sorry it’s taken me so long to comment but I have been trying to absorb as much of the ongoing debate as possible by reading everyone’s comments on eachother’s posts. I think yours sums up the difficulty a question like this presents us with but it is aslo shows why it is such a difficult question for us to answer, at least definitively.

    First off I have to say that I agree with you when you say: ‘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’. It’s interesting that you mention ‘inspire’ and ‘entertain’ in the same beath as I get the feeling that some bloggers out there consider the two to be mutually exclusive but I disagree. In my opinion a film is more entertaining the more inspirational it is because it aspires to art and as far as I’m concerned, art should aspire to truth and beauty. I know a lot of people would probably disagree with that that’s just my personal take on it. You can’t really apply an absolute rule or standard to every filmmaker or audience member because, as you say, we all approach the question of good/evil, right/wrong differently.

    Jessica Chastain said recently of her experience playing Mrs O’Brien In The Tree Of Life that the film is ‘an experience that makes you think about your life and the people you love and that changes you.’ Now I don’t know about anyone else or any filmmakers out there but personally, as a loyal patron of the silver screen, that’s what I hope for most in a film. Sure, it doesn’t come along very often in Hollywood, or even in cinema in general, a film which can really claim to transcend the medium as entertainment for entertainment’s sake or art for art’s sake but a film that can actually help you to be a better person, or at least make you want to aspire to be a better person. Maybe that’s a little too much to hope for from the local multi-plex, or maybe it’s just the optimist in me, but I for one wish that every film and every filmmaker shared this aspiration. Sadly though, for me at least, in reality this is very unlikely to happen and, in a way, probably shouldn’t ever happen because then we would live in a perfect world and it wouldn’t be the human one in which we live, which as we all know is far from perfect.

    I heard someone tell a story today about Dorothy Day. Dorothy Day was a social activist who worked tirelessly for the rights of poor and homeless people in America in the 1930s. One of her most popular quotes goes as follows: ‘The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?’. This idea of a ‘revolution of the heart’ speaks about the duality of the human condition and applies to the question of the morality of the filmmaker because each of has within us a conflict, a voice for reason and good which encourages and inspires us to look beyond ourselves to others and to act in their best interests. There is also the small voice within us that encourages us to look exclusively after our own interests, to put ourselves first and it is this conflict which every filmmaker experiences. For filmmakers, the term ‘true to themselves’ often allows them to justify any and all means to serve their own sometimes dark and twisted tastes and ideas, rather than looking to inspire and create wonder, to ask questions of their audience that challenge them to push themselves to grow and develop into better people, they often choose to deliberately shock and disturb, frequently with no other purpose than to provoke a reaction and to push boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries.

    So, when answering a question like ”Does the filmmaker have a moral responsibility?’, the only person who can really answer that is the filmmaker himself, in choosing which little voice to listen to. This might seem like a simplistic treatment of a complex question but as far as I’m concerned, things gets complicated when we serve or our interests instead of trying to serve the interests of others, in this case the audience.

    Thanks for keeping the debate going, you gave me lot to think about.

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