Movie Morals for the Political Soul

I owe at least two important aspects of my character to my father, the first of which is my profound love of film. From an early age I had near constant exposure to cinema, given that a film was never far from the TV box at our house. My dad being who he is, the main focus was cheesy sci-fi and loud action, which today is rather far from my own interests. He still gave me a massive proliferation of films to devour, and is the main reason I don’t hate Michael Bay with as vivid a passion as others on the site understandably do.

The second aspect I owe to dad, and far less fortunately, is my extreme hatred for political conversations. Today, I can’t start up a conversation with my father without it eventually turning political, either for better understanding or for worst. In theory, I should be rather riveted by politics, specifically how they collaborate specifically to create a better country and world. Given the reality of today, you can see why that’s not the case. Many conversations about politics often lead to cynical ramblings, and I don’t consider myself a huge fan of hating humanity. It’s my primary reason for hating the box office success of 2016 Obama’s America, because I don’t feel a piece of political propaganda deserves to have more success than an honestly constructed film.

Tacking on political conceits to films is no less gag-worthy a practice. Remember last year when Fox News harassed The Muppets of all films for holding an anti-corporate liberal agenda? Yes, it was quite hilarious, but no less a bitter move against an innocent family film. However, it did get me thinking about the film’s true message, stripped from liberal or conservative bias. “We tried, and if we failed, we failed together, and to me, that’s not failing at all.” That’s the start to Kermit’s rousing speech at the end of the film, a powerfully emotional statement that gets an emotional reaction from me, even out of context.

Messages such as this are the kind that I consider in relation not to politics, but to America as a group body. If the country were on the edge of unavoidable apocalypse, Kermit would inspire us to work together to at least try to create a brighter future. These messages aren’t explicitly political, but would it be a terrible thing if they were? I’d like to think of films as a way of bringing a scattered majority together in appreciation, or even simple consumption. That’s the overwhelming feeling I’ve received at every visit to Telluride by the Sea, the Portsmouth, NH set mini-festival I caught both Rust and Bone and No at this past weekend.

I particularly speak of the latter, No, a film which non-manipulatively inspired an optimistic political mindset. That the simple idea that creating a happy song can rouse a nation against an oppressive dictator smites any depressing argument that there’s no way out of this rut we’re in. But you don’t even have to opt for something overtly political to find moral compassing towards a brighter goal for the future. One of my favorite political messages of all time comes from something as innocent as Bambi. To quote Thumper, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.” Such poetry.

Sports dramas are a particular lightning rod for such deep meanings, with the protagonists either going with or against “the rules of the game”. A particularly heartening example was last year’s Moneyball, which spoke for individuality and different thinking. In other words, it was the perfect film to advocate for future generations over the past, not only for how Billy Beane and Peter Brandt tried to reinvent the rules of the game. The final scene of the film, showing Beane’s expression as he listens to a tape of his daughter playing guitar for him, is one that cares for deep personal roots. His decision to stay in Oakland is for the sake of family over fame.

As for Trouble with the Curve, this year’s baseball film, I could really care less about lambasting it as “the anti-Moneyball“. That seems like a rather reductive thought process to have towards a father-daughter story. And I can’t say anything against it, for no other reason than that I haven’t seen it, and probably won’t for quite some time, thanks to Justin’s insightful review. There’s a difference between an overblown bias and one based on credible opinions.

While it is quite an ease for the soul to draw these morals onto the context of an entire country’s decisions, they come as often from less optimistic films as they do from crowd-pleasing fare. Take for example Martha Marcy May Marlene, the story of a girl who is adjusting to life in “the real world” after spending a long period as member of a commune. That film says particular things about men in powerful positions twisting their rank to their own purposes, offering romanticized concepts to support the horrendous things they do. It’s no stretch to apply that to many famous rulers of history, depending on your own political bias.

Truth is, few of these opinions are radically left or right. They go off of very righteous, optimistic, or cautious notions, none of which truly cuts off a massive congregation of the opposing team. As said before, they’re never strictly political, but can be expanded to indulge thoughts on the workings of the world. What’s more, they can be applied to films from any particular year, though my examples have dominated the recent. That tends to be where the mind goes immediately.

To pick out a few particular films from history that stick with me in such a way, White Material very interestingly plays up the conflict between injustices of a civil uprising and those perpetrated by the host government. It makes the subject of which group to side with in this conflict a somewhat knotty ordeal. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory elicits a deep and recurring disgust at the ease of horrible decisions made upon fearful soldiers by ignorant military commanders. To finish up kindly, City Lights pushes perhaps one of the simplest, sweetest messages one must consider on a recurring basis: Don’t judge internal moral properties based on what you see on the outside. The tramps might just surprise you.

What are some films whose morals you feel would be good to be taken seriously in a political context? What is your reaction to political biases being placed presumptively onto certain films? The floor is yours!

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