THE ACT OF SEEING: CINEMA, ETHICS AND RESPONSIBILITY

We live in abundant times. The digital age has transformed moving-picture consumption into an all-you-can-eat banquet, one that is only restricted by our own availability, tastes and inclinations. Where our opportunity to watch movies was once dictated by censorship bodies and other ‘social guardians’ (such as religious organisations or even the studios themselves[i]), we now have few limitations on our ability to stream or access films electronically, whether through legitimate or less-than-legitimate means. We are not starved of content; instead, we’re gorging on it.

With this confluence of content – of the moving-picture variety or otherwise – we are being concurrently bombarded with supporting information of any kind we may seek. Who is the director of this film? What did they make previously? What does their Wikipedia entry say about them? No longer is it viable to not know something when a couple of finger taps on a smartphone can bring the ‘truth’ to light.

The role of educators in screen media has also changed. Only twenty or so years ago, educators acted as curators of generally unavailable content, uncovering and exposing students to works they were less likely to discover through their own cinematic curiosity. We could argue that the teachings of critical discourse on cinema as art haven’t fundamentally changed, but educators now have a further consideration to take into account when enlightening their students: namely, given we are now arbiters of our own viewing habits, where do our ethical responsibilities lie?

What we mean by ethics

Australian philosopher and ethicist Matthew Beard defines ethics as ‘an opinion about the way that the world should be, and the way we should operate in the world’. He breaks this down into three distinct types of ethical approaches that will influence a decision that a person makes:

‘Some people will be more interested in a simple matter of principle – what is right and what is wrong – regardless of whether [their] involvement is going to make any change one way or another,’ he says.

These people don’t like to be complicit in any kind of wrongdoing, regardless of whether anyone is personally affected by their involvement in it or not. Then there are people who will think – what do these choices say about me or who I am as a person? And, as a broader consideration, what kind of person do I want to be?

But the primary or dominant approach to ethics is to consider the consequences our actions are going to have, and how these actions are going to affect the world around us. As a viewer of cinema, that means evaluating how our decisions to watch or consume certain content – or to not do so – are going to change the state of things. In this context, can our decisions even potentially right a wrong?

The power and limitations of knowledge

Our access to information is making us all citizen journalists who are consuming everything around us in a far broader, more enriched context than ever before. Many of us want to know about the provenance of our food and whether it’s been sustainably produced; we want to wear clothes that are supporting local industry and not exploiting vulnerable overseas labourers; we want to make sure that our cosmetics are not tested on animals or stripping orangutans of their natural habitat. Such heightened consumer awareness, by extension, has turned to heavy scrutiny of our visual entertainment, especially in light of the widespread allegations of sexual harassment and assault against producer Harvey Weinstein[ii] and other claims of endemic unconscionable behaviour in Hollywood.[iii]

At a time when the choice to eat caged eggs over free-range eggs (or to simply not care either way) casts a shadow over our ethical integrity, should we be allowing filmmakers to similarly exploit cast and crew members? Does the desire to watch – or even the perceived artistic importance of – a certain film matter more than the means by which it has been made? Are we morally obliged to use our viewing habits as a way to stamp out questionable practices in the industry? 

Cinema is a business and, accordingly, responds to its audience – the public – in the same way as other businesses. This was exemplified in the wake of the sexual abuse accusations against Kevin Spacey, in which the actor was subsequently expunged from Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017) a matter of weeks before its release and his scenes reshot with Christopher Plummer as his replacement.[iv] Such a move could be seen as taking a moral stance – even though Spacey had only been ‘tried by media’ as opposed to in a court – but it was, in reality, far more commercially motivated. Producer/director Ridley Scott openly admitted that removing Spacey from the film was a ‘business’ decision, having feared that the negative publicity might prevent the film’s release.[v] In other words, replacing Spacey was not punishment or retribution against the actor per se, but, rather, a desperate move to distance the production from scandal.

Taking All the Money in the World as an example, it could be argued that ‘people power’ is, indeed, the best advocacy when it comes to stamping out abuse and exploitation in any industry, even Hollywood – whether that be unfair labour practices, questionably sourced materials, pirated content, distorted facts or any other ethical concern. Money talks, and, if punters are unwilling to fork out cash for films that feature sexual predators, exploited labour or cruelty to animals, then it might be hoped that the movie industry may see fit to self-regulate, if only as a precautionary measure to protect its own box-office receipts. Conversely, however, such public pressure could also impel the movie industry to bury information, further reducing the transparency of its practices and processes.

In reality, we must question whether our decision not to watch a piece of filmed entertainment, with the intent of righting a wrong, will have the impact we intend. For Beard, the likelihood of affecting such change through a choice not to view is relatively low, which he sees as lessening the burden on viewers. If we realise that our decision to watch or not watch a film will have little impact on the state of things, now or in the future, then some viewers will just be able to watch for entertainment’s sake. Of course, it will be a different choice for those who don’t want to be complicit in any wrongdoing regardless of their impact, or who are questioning what their decisions say about them personally.

While we may all be positioned as ‘citizen journalists’, such a term is a paradox given that most people are equipped with neither the skills, the time nor the facility to fully explore every consumer decision they make on a daily basis. Even in this so-called information age, Beard argues that we still have very limited access to the kind of evidence that matters in making properly informed ethical decisions: ‘Unless there is a journalist who blows [a] story open and it becomes very widely known, it can be extremely hard for us to know for certain and, therefore, act on it,’ he explains.

Let’s say someone really enjoyed watching a film and then they find out some personal allegations against the actor in that film, and they think, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I watched his film – I can’t believe I supported that person” and they feel incredibly guilty about that. If you weren’t aware of the allegations, then it would be an unreasonably high standard to be expected to take responsibility for that. It’s why I think people get so upset when they learn about such things. When they do, suddenly, the purely joyful – and what should be a very ethically innocent – act of just enjoying a film or being challenged by art suddenly becomes morally loaded. And it really shouldn’t be that way.

Similarly, to ask people to undertake robust research – to fact check every single thing they hear or come across – for a decision that is not hugely significant is a very high standard. If people want to hold themselves to that standard, it is ultimately their prerogative. But to put that forward as an ultimatum for any person who’s ever watched a film – to do that kind of research on every person you’ve heard a rumour about – that would be really unrealistic.

Quoted in The Guardian, psychology professor Peggy Drexler supports Beard’s viewpoint by acknowledging that, in an effort to be good citizens, we could be tying ourselves in knots. Her argument is compelling:

Art and morality are distinct activities. And it’s essential to separate the art from the artist. Chances are good that if we delved into the private lives of every single artist whose work we admired, surely we’d find plenty not to like, and even to be disgusted by.[vi]

While we may all strive to spend our hard-earned cash in an ethical manner, often we fall prey to the loudest voices on social media, the most disturbing imagery or the most quote-worthy rebuttal. Bite-sized grabs of information that appear truthful at a glance – or that, at the very least, strike a sensitive emotional chord – can easily trigger split-second decisions with ongoing ramifications. While this affects everything in our lives, our education in viewing needs to centre on what is meaningful to us, as well as the sources of our information – being able to recognise good sources as well as those that are questionable, and avoiding reliance on just one.

Educating about information

We are all guardians of our own ethical assertions and, ultimately, we make our own decisions as to why – or why not – we will watch something. For educators, the key is to empower students to have their own agency, to base their decisions on credible sources and to understand where their ethical responsibilities lie.

When asked about the role of an educator of media in this changing ethical landscape, film critic and academic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas says,

I firmly believe it’s less a case of didactically informing students about ethics on a “do x” / “don’t do y” front but rather expanding their skill-sets so students can make, trust and understand the thinking behind their own choices. People often hold positions different to ours but productive, functional discourse stems from knowing everyone is in tune with their own decision-making processes. 

When presenting Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004) as part of a discussion on postmodernism and open texts for a screen studies class at the University of Melbourne, film lecturer Stuart Richards recalls how Uma Thurman’s revelations about her compromised safety on the set of the film[vii] took the critical debate in different directions.

‘The discussion was a very interesting one,’ says Richards.

Students generally still had a significant appreciation for the films and the sheer volume of intertextual references that are drawn upon. Many were very hesitant about Tarantino himself, though. Personally, I don’t feel he comes across in interviews as someone who fully grasps the conversation that is happening right now.

            ‘A significant point that came up during the discussion was that the Kill Bill films [Tarantino, 2003–2004] are still important films to watch and appreciate because they are so important in Uma Thurman’s career,’ continues Richards. ‘Counting out the film as “problematic” is perhaps too naive and would ignore Thurman’s significant contribution to action cinema. Many seem to agree upon this point.’

            Given the Kill Bill films, produced by Weinstein, have collected over US$330 million,[viii] even if there was a worldwide people movement to ban watching them, we could argue that the metaphorical horse has already bolted. Cinema heavily relies on opening weekend receipts to recoup big budgets so, unless disclosure is made early in a film’s life cycle, refusing to further watch a film will have minuscule impact. Ridley Scott’s aforementioned reaction to the Kevin Spacey allegations is an example of a filmmaker protecting their box office receipts, given the scandal erupted only weeks before its release date.

But Richards also pinpoints an unexpected positive by-product of revelations of unconscionable behaviour: ‘The #metoo movement has given new appreciation for great films such as Julie Taymor’s Frida [2002] that were made under such awful circumstances.’[ix]

With people now speaking out retroactively against unlawful and unacceptable practices in the film industry, we can only hope that the global movie industry – like other professional associations or bodies – will feel compelled to establish an approved set of standards to which each production must comply. If a film has some form of certification for meeting approved standards, then this could go some way in helping audiences feel reassured about production methods, as well as helping protect the rights of the cast and crew. A similar process is used for animal welfare on film sets, as evidenced by the humane-association stamps that appear at the end credits of films. Surely something similar can be extended to the welfare of people, too?

Separating fact from fiction

Not only do we trust our filmmakers to treat cast and crew with respect, but we also expect ourselves – as the audience – to be treated with respect too. What is blatantly apparent to any student of art, including cinema, is that art is designed to provoke and challenge, a fact that can often place its audience in an uncomfortable position and force them to evaluate the world in an altered light. By presenting confronting subject matter, a filmmaker is not necessarily condoning it, but may instead be pushing us to consider difficult information that lies beyond our usual sphere of influence.

One area in which filmmakers have a responsibility is in the transparency of their storytelling. If we buy a ticket to a fictional film, we expect to enter a world of make-believe, or one in which real life is filtered through the imagination of its makers. Conversely, if we buy a ticket to a documentary, we expect to see a presentation of facts or, at the very least, to be made aware of how this information has been processed so that we can make an educated call on its validity.

The emergence of reality television has only further muddied the waters of ‘factual entertainment’, demonstrating that many people will take as fact that which has been liberally distorted for the sake of creating drama in storytelling. The biopic is another genre that presents its drama as factual  – as though it’s a documentary – but almost all biopics distort truth in some way, either by seeking to enhance it in order to increase entertainment value, or by looking at a subject’s life through the prejudices of another.

Steve Thomas, documentarian and senior documentary lecturer at the Victorian College of the Arts points out that

the ethics of a film can’t always be discerned from looking at the final product because viewers generally are not told how the film was made, or even much about who the person was who made it, unless they happen to read some interview with the director or you look at the credits very closely.

He goes on to use Sarah Polley’s documentary Stories We Tell (2012) as an example of that blurring of fact and fiction through re-creation – albeit, in this case, in an openly non-deceptive manner.

             ‘That’s part of what Sarah Polley is trying to explore with the film,’ Thomas says. ‘The whole notion of memory and how different people have different memories, and how do we know what’s right and what’s not.’

In her film, you actually see some of the filmmaking process. You see her setting up to do an interview. You see the person being interviewed saying, “How do I look? Shall I sit pointing this way or that way?” So you get some sense that this is something that’s being constructed and the re-creation is a part of that. It’s like, you know, how different is the re-creation to the process of sitting someone down and saying, “Okay, look in this direction because I’m going to ask you some questions”.  

It could be argued that artistic licence – through the manipulation of content, both aural and visual, and, in some ways, even factual – should be within a documentarian’s dominion. By manipulating the presentation of ‘truth’, though, Polley compels us to consider facts, memories and recollections from our own personal lives in a different way: not just in the way we experience them, but how the same experiences are filtered through someone else’s perspective. Is a documentarian being ethically dubious by employing such tactics? Hardly.

Similarly, in representing fact, documentary makers have a competing objective: to entertain. There’s no use trying to tell a story – to teach or enlighten – if the information falls on deaf ears because it has been presented in a boring way. Some documentarians may use dramatic music at opportune moments, employ authoritative/voice-of-God narration or intercut footage in particular ways to hit an emotional high note and, consequently, bring the audience around to their message. Michael Moore, the director of Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), is one such documentarian who has been accused of liberally employing manipulative tactics in his films.[x] But other filmmakers may be using such flourishes to just make the film more engaging.

‘Unless you’re a historian or you’ve read the biography that the film’s based on or whatever, you have no idea really as a viewer [as to what is true and what isn’t],’ admits Thomas.

One question you have to ask yourself when you’re watching a film is – do I feel manipulated? And, if I’m feeling manipulated, what is it that’s causing that feeling of manipulation? Is there a sense of voyeurism? Is it in the useless music? Is it in the kind of scene design, the juxtaposition of the editing? The way people are treated?

Understanding the ethics of others

Most of us will assume an ethical stance because that viewpoint is important to us. It’s the way we want to see the world, or the way we envisage changing the world for the better. So no wonder we react strongly when we encounter opposition to our viewpoint – whether that opposition comes through artwork (in the making of the art or the subject matter itself) or during a dinner-party discussion with friends.

As Beard remarks,

One person loves a film and the other doesn’t, for whatever reason. What do we do when that transpires? We could have a really aggressive and horrible argument with one another. Or we could get curious and say, “Okay, so tell me about what it was about this film that you didn’t like. Where was that coming from? What are some of the things that you value in film and literature that have [led] you to make a judgement that is different to me?”

 If we undertook that same curiosity, not just about matters of taste on liking a film or not, but about the moral positions that we take with regard to the kinds of content that we will or will not watch, we could actually use that as an opportunity to have a conversation. I mean, art is meant to challenge us, it’s meant to confront us, it’s meant to force us to engage with things that might not be comfortable or familiar in order to help us arrive at deeper truths that we couldn’t have learned were it not for this artwork. That’s part of what art can do.

I think, primarily, if we undertake ethical decision-making with a desire to understand what drives our own beliefs, and shape our lives accordingly, then we are also going to try to understand the beliefs of others. Now that doesn’t mean that we have to accept them and, sometimes, we may want to be very critical of those beliefs. To criticise before we have understood is to put the cart before the horse.

Heller-Nicholas believes that experiencing art – even extreme art – is one of the few pleasures left in what she describes as ‘the hellish downward spiral that is late capitalism’.

‘We can be provoked by many things that might otherwise not provoke others, and we all have the right to decide what that is,’ she says.

If watching films, or not watching films, made by certain people in certain ways is an act that clarifies your own position, then I say go for it. The only person we really have to answer at the end of the day is the person who stares back from us in the mirror. 

Emma Westwood is author of the 2008 book Monster Movies and a 2018 monograph on David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and weekly co-host of Triple R radio film-criticism program Plato’s Cave. You can hear her speak about the ethics of watching Roman Polanski films in an episode of the Hell Is for Hyphenates podcast: <http://www.hellisforhyphenates.com/blog/2017/11/30/november-2017/&gt;.


[i]As an example, Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils has never been shown in its uncut form because producer Warner Bros. refuses to release it; see Etan Vlessing, ‘Guillermo del Toro Slams Warner Bros. for Censoring Ken Russell’s The Devils’, The Hollywood Reporter, 25 November 2014, <https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/guillermo-del-toro-slams-warner-752240>, accessed 3 July 2018.

[ii]‘Harvey Weinstein Hit with New Charges, Including Predatory Sexual Assault’, ABC News, 3 July 2018, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-07-03/harvey-weinstein-hit-with-new-sexual-assault-charges/9933090>, accessed 3 July 2018.

[iii]Matt Young, ‘Abuse of Young Boys Rife in Hollywood After Cocaine Fuelled Parties Held by Gang of Hollywood Paedophiles’, News.com.au, 20 October 2017, <https://www.news.com.au/entertainment/celebrity-life/abuse-of-young-boys-rife-in-hollywood-after-cocaine-fuelled-parties-held-by-gang-of-hollywood-paedophiles/news-story/d17e1e1b924183cd70e41862e343ae7e>, accessed 3 July 2018.

[iv]Mark Brown, ‘Kevin Spacey Cut Out of Film and Replaced by Christopher Plummer’, The Guardian, 10 November 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/nov/09/kevin-spacey-cut-out-of-film-and-replaced-by-christopher-plummer>, accessed 3 July 2018.

[v]Ridley Scott, quoted in Steve Rose, ‘Removing Kevin Spacey from Movie Was a “Business Decision”, Says Ridley Scott’, The Guardian, 6 January 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jan/05/removing-kevin-spacey-from-movie-was-a-business-decision-says-ridley-scott-all-the-money-in-the-world>, accessed 3 July 2018.

[vi]Peggy Drexler, quoted in Xan Brooks, ‘Reel Dilemma: Are We Condoning the Conduct of Hollywood’s Tyrants by Watching Their Films?’, The Guardian, 11 November 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/nov/10/reel-dilemma-are-we-condoning-the-behaviour-of-hollywoods-tyrants-by-watching-their-films->, accessed 3 July 2018.

[vii]Maureen Dowd, ‘This Is Why Uma Thurman Is Angry’, The New York Times, 3 February 2018, <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/03/opinion/sunday/this-is-why-uma-thurman-is-angry.html>, accessed 3 July 2018.

[viii]Sadaf Ahsan, ‘Quentin Tarantino Reveals Plans for a Possible Kill Bill: Vol. 3’, National Post, 31 December 2015, <https://nationalpost.com/entertainment/movies/quentin-tarantino-reveals-plans-for-a-possible-kill-bill-vol-3>, accessed 3 July 2018.

[ix]In 2017, actor Salma Hayek revealed that Weinstein had threatened to shut down the production of Frida unless she agreed to appear in a sex scene with another woman; see Salma Hayek, ‘Harvey Weinstein Is My Monster Too’, The New York Times, 12 December 2017, <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/13/opinion/contributors/salma-hayek-harvey-weinstein.html>, accessed 3 July 2018.

[x]Christopher Hitchens, ‘Unfairenheit 9/11’, Slate, 21 June 2004, <http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2004/06/unfairenheit_911.html>, accessed 3 July 2018.

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