By Mícheál Ó hAodha
Review: Dara Waldron – Cinema and Evil: Moral Complexities and the Dangerous Film (UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing – 2013)
Evil and its counterpart, malevolent behaviour has been a source of philosophical enquiry and debate since the beginning of time. The causes of evil, the nature of evil and the responsibility for it are questions that have exercised many of the great philosophers throughout the centuries. The fascination with evil shows no sign of weakening. Walk into any bookshop today and check out the genres that inhabit the shelves in the greatest numbers. Witness the myriad of tv programmes that explore such gruesome subjects as serial killers, mass murder and the evils of the Holocaust. There is a undoubtedly a contemporary fascination with crime, death, murder and horror. The dichotomy that is good and evil exercised many of the medieval philosophers and has a lineage that stretches right back to Greek and Roman culture. From Socrates’ era onwards the question of the virtues and whether good, as the opposite of evil could be learned or taught preoccupied many scholars. Within Western tradition, the conflict that is good and evil has been acknowledged by the earliest Christian and Jewish thinkers. From its very beginnings Christianity drew on concepts of good and evil as delineated within both the Hellenistic and Judaic traditions.
The ancient good/evil distinction assumed a definite form when Moses received God’s covenant on Mount Sinai. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi and perhaps the leading Jewish theologian and philosopher of the twentieth century saw the evil’s arrival into the world as based on an act against God – Evil “entered history as a result of man’s disobedience to God”. And what of the post-Enlightenment era? The post-modern society of today scans a range of different religious traditions and philosophies in an effort to understand what constitutes evil. Contemporary society, particularly the psychological realm, has tended to shy away from directly studying concepts such as good and evil. Moral reasoning, empathy, altruism and the development of values have predominated the latter subject area more recently. While the dichotomy that is good versus evil may not dominate the cinematic sphere to the same degree, particularly when in its Hollywood and Bollywood guises, it has nevertheless been a seminal aspect of the film genre from its very beginnings As this fascinating book
Cinema and Evil: Moral Complexities and the Dangerous Film makes clear, films which explore the problem of evil are far less common in the modern era. Rarer still are films which explore evil and its many manifestations from a philosophical or theological perspective and through the cinematic lens. Dara Waldron who is a Lecturer in Critical and Contextual Studies at the Limerick School of Art and Design, LIT, has written a book that is unique in terms of Anglophone literature in this regard. He explores and assesses the contributions of a range of philosophers, theologians and writers with respect to the legacy of evil and from the perspective of cinematic culture. how filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michael Haneke, Gus Van Sant, and Lynne Ramsay have responded to the problem of evil in their films but all within the rich discourse elucidated by thinkers as diverse, Kant, Heidegger, Bataille, Arendt, Lacan and Levinas. The insights of experts in the field of film theory including Colin McCabe and the pioneers of the Slovenian school, Zizek and Copjec are all brought to bear on the cinematic response to events and human behaviour deemed “evil” beyond belief. What is most “dangerous films” of the title is a reference to this volume’s particular focus on films that seek to engage the spectator with the problem of evil and which question present-day responses to evil and the ethical responses to same. Recent mass shootings in public places such as Norway and the US and the advent of largescale bombing campaigns targeting innocent civilians ensure that the questions elucidated in this book, and in particular relating to the responsibility for and human responses to such horrific events are all the more relevant in the present-day.
As Waldron points out, the word “Evil” is used very frequently in public discourse today but, not with the same ideological boundaries and referents as it once had. The fact that Evil has a referent that encompasses institutions, corporations, political systems, terrorism and other forms of societal violence has rendered an eloquent discussion of the problem of evil extremely difficult if not impossible.
While experiences of pain, guilt, loss, disappointment, disharmony and senselessness are surely among those experiences all religions help people face, seeing these as constituting a single “problem of evil” is the historical exception. Even in the West, engagement with a single “problem of evil” is intermittent at best. Understanding the “problem of evil” as primarily philosophical – a problem for thought – is rarer yet (Larrimore: 2001; xviii).
Add to this reality that the moral structures that the West once based its inherited traditions and precepts on have come loose or “unhinged” and the issue becomes even more complex than it appears on an initial glance:
Moral structure is very different from what it once was. People are now expected to regulate their own moral lives, which is probably a change for the better. However, with this, people are forced to deal with temptation in a more solitary way since it is something not talked about very much since Biblical times. It is only referred to indirectly in the sense that we chastise the media, which over-stimulates children to think violent thoughts. In leav ing out what inner, as well as outer temptation means, we discount a significant part of human motivation…”(Buchholz and Mandel, 2000: 126)
The same is true of the cinematic sphere where only a few brave souls have broached the gap that unsettles the viewer, and elicits a spectator-response in terms of moral structure and with regard to moral themes frequently deemed reproachable – insanity, murder, physical and sexual transgression and violence, child homicide etc. A notable exception to this is Austrian director Micheal Haneke whose probing of some of the aforementioned “dangerous” themes in works such as Benny’s Video and Das wiesse Band (The White Ribbon) and Caché (Hidden) have the capacity to unsettle the permissive postmodern mindset of the long-established art-film fan, as once untroubled by film – deeming it an almost trivial form of entertainment. Waldron’s erudite exploration of the breakdown in communication between human beings and the society that they inhabit as evidenced in Haneke’s impressive oeuvre is one of the highlights of this book.
Haneke’s style has found favour with other film-makers whose works are explored here also. These include the Dardennes Brothers whose gritty urban realism – read the Cohen Brothers in reverse – take a particularly violent act and explore what happens afterwards as a consequence. In Le Fils (the Son) (2002), partly a response to terrible murder of Liverpool toddler, Jamie Bulger, the Dardennes explore how other human beings respond to someone who has committed a horrible crime. This uncomprising film revolves around the accidental and coincidental meeting of woodwork teacher with the trouble adolescent teenager who has murdered his son.
The moral unsettling of the audience evidenced in this film is what Haneke also brings to his very non-traditional “morality tales”, as if it too bore a responsibility for the crimes or evil committed, is an important counter to the homogeneity formalism of the “cinema of distraction” that Haneke associates withthe hegemonic orthodoxy that defines Hollywood today:
My approach provides an alternative to the hermetically sealed-off illusion which in effect pretends at an intact reality and thereby deprives the spectator of the possibility of participation. In the mainstream scenario spectators are right off herded in mere consumerism (Haneke – 71 Fragments 2000)
Haneke is an utterly modern film-maker, an artist who extends the more traditional auteur work of previous greats, such as Antonioni, Pasolini and Bresson. His films seek an emotional mirror-reaction in their spectators and he forces his audience to judge what often tends to resist judgement in the present era. The ethical tension is shared by the protagonists of his films and the audience. The White Ribbon is a dark film, depicting a small north German village just prior to World War I and, Haneke explores the strains of fascism and impending violent repression that underpin a small community and particularly its children. Here the
aura of evil is manifested in the film’s peculiar and unresolved ending where it is unclear who has committed murder. More ominous and unsettling still for the viewer is the fact that this film’s ending invokes the sense that evil may possibly lie in the eyes of the beholder – i.e. in the gaze of he/she who observes such evil as made manifest. What Haneke is investigating in his films, in my view, is a nuanced extension and practical application of the philosophical explorations undertaken by existential philosopher Martin Heidegger. In his book Being and Time. Heidegger allude to anxiety (and hence, danger and the sense of feeling “unsettled”) as a basic mode of our being. For Heidegger this human anxiety before the world or Dasein was defined by the sense of a unnamed presence (read evil and attendant danger and violence in Haneke’s films) – “the world as world is disclosed first and foremost by anxiety, as a mode or state of mind” (Heidegger, Being and Time; (trans.) New York: Harper and Row, 1962). For Heidegger, this anxiety manifests itself in an unclear fashion; it is an anxiety without an identifiable centre, sometimes invisible, an anxiety that discloses itself in terms of an absence of something disturbing – a lack of permanence or closure, a deep sense of unease and absence.
For Heidegger, the contingency and uncanniness of the ordinary world is revealed or intimated in anxiety. Nothing need be as it is; anything could break apart at any moment. (P. Santilli, 2007: 182)
Haneke’s artistic explorations are Waldron’s explorations. They are a cinematic and philosophical quest to come to terms with this anxiety, a quest undertaken through range of signposts or clues that take the form of questions. Why? What explanation is there for this evil act. How can we define its nature? What should be our response to it in literature, in film and in the visual arts more generally. Why do we shy away from discussions that may lead us to a more productive sense of understanding and forgiveness for that violence that has already taken place. Why do we refuse to confront those discourses of power and injustice that continue to haunt this, the postmodern era. Such questioning is a dangerous form of rumination. These are challenging questions but questions that need to be confronted. There are only the few that will confront them. This book is challenging. It serves as a new departure in the film scholarship and the philosophy of cinema It is essential reading for film and media scholars and will remain so for many years to come