Friday, 23 February 2007

On Mugs, Cuts and Moral Dilemmas

Perhaps this should also come under “comments” to your previous post, but as it contains a key decision and begins a new conversation on a particular moral dilemma, I have decided to create a new post.

First, let me address some grievous errors in your post. Given our recent time together, during which I drank a cup of coffee every morning, and given my statement to you at the time that I have started almost every day of the past six months with a cup of java, and given that I have loved coffee since I was a teen (despite my sensitivity to caffeine), I was surprised to read that I didn’t like the black brew. So “mugs” it is! I think it’s a great idea - you can be much more creative with mugs than with thumbs (compare “two big thumbs up” with “two mugs of Colombia’s finest straight up”).

The second error, much more grievous than the first, was suggesting that Altman’s Short Cuts is not a masterpiece. I can see how some people, put off by Altman’s unique style, might think that a number of classic Altman films, like M*A*S*H, Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, are overrated. I like all three of those films but don’t think they come close to Short Cuts. This is Altman’s best work and it is anything but cold. It is a dark film, yes, with lots of nastiness, depressing situations and unsympathetic characters, but it is wonderfully humanizing in its own way. In fact, three of my ten favourite films of the past ten years (Magnolia, Crash and American Beauty), which are all about humanization, owe a great deal to Altman’s masterpiece. The story of the boy hit by a car is alone worth the price of admission (and I am not an Andie McDowell fan). Jack Lemmon (one of my five all-time favourite actors) has a wonderfully moving role and even Lyle Lovett’s non-acting is spot-on for this little story of family, rage and forgiveness. And then there’s the way the songs in the film relate to the stories, many of them about love. Short Cuts is all about how our lives connect and intersect with others and how we usually give no thought to what has been happening in the lives of those we encounter during any given day (and yes, even in the lives of those near to us). If we only knew, we would be much more inclined to greet everyone we meet with a smile and a knowing nod (“We’re all in it together” as Robert De Niro says in the great Brazil) and maybe even drop some of the masks we wear each day to hide our true selves; in other words, we need to recognize the broken imperfect humanity that lies within each of us and longs for true community. Short Cuts is what great cinema is all about!

Regarding my four-star rating system: Any film that I give at least three stars to is a film that I thought worth watching (as opposed to a film which gets less than three stars). To get 3.5 stars, a film has to have something special that makes me eager to see it again. A 3.5 star film is one I thoroughly enjoyed, whether it be for the writing, the acting, the cinematography, the score or any combination of these. Four stars are reserved for the chosen few films which approach perfection in all the categories or which seriously wowed me. I am very stingy on handing out four stars (only four or five films a year). Short Cuts, and the three related films mentioned in the previous paragraph, all got four stars. The other three Altman films mentioned above only got 3.5 stars. Regarding my previous post, Jindabyne was not a snorefest for me and was intriguing enough (and had enough good acting) to come close to that 3.5 mark (and were it not for Short Cuts, it might have made it).

As for the moral dilemma: Okay, you and the boys travel many miles from civilization for a weekend fishing trip. You discover the body of a young woman in a remote river. What do you do? Do you rush back to civilization (or at least to cell phone reception range) to report the body? Or do you keep fishing for another 24 hours, knowing the woman has been dead for quite awhile and cannot be saved by anything you do or don’t do? Do you touch the body or move the body, knowing it might drift downstream if you leave it where it is? Does it make a difference if it is the body of an Aboriginal woman? Well, you know what the guys do. And while they may not have broken any laws, wow, do they ever live to regret their decision. The difference in how the men and women react to this dilemma is key here, and needs to be discussed in a mixed group of people who trust each other. I’m not sure I’m willing to discuss my own reaction in a public setting, except to say that I don’t fully sympathize with the actions and reactions of any of those involved in either film, but I can understand some better than others.

Readers: Stay tuned for my review of Perfume, my favourite film of 2006, coming up during the weekend.


  1. Apologies on the coffee oversight - it just shows the different impression that gets sown when one doesn't seem discriminating enough in their coffee choices. No apologies forthcoming on my impressions of Altman, however. I grant that I might have appreciated Short Cuts more if I'd seen it with some thoughtful company (no I'm not insulting anyone - I was alone), but "masterpiece"? Not in my book.

    I think we're going to have to clarify this "humanizing" theme you love so much. Am I understanding this right? Is it the process of reminding us that even the nastiest, idiotic people are still human? Cause here's the thing - some movies (like Crash) make me feel that is true and I feel closer to people I might otherwise distance myself from and I gain hope. My memory (and I stress that memory is playing a huge factor because not having discussed it with anyone months ago, I might have even liked the movie but then forgotten the good parts) suggests that a movie like Short Cuts might do this humanizing thing but somehow makes me feel depressed and distant from the people. What's up with that. I'm getting the impression that some humanizing works on me and other attempts leave me cold. (Magnolia left me cool too by the way) Is it me? (Analyze away...)

    Now - about the dilemma. I do recall that plotline from Short Cuts. It does seem true that stealing the idea is a bit cheap.
    But I don't remember what happened. Here's the only thought I'll add on this one. My first thought is noticing in myself that I wondered why it was a moral dilemma as opposed to simply a dilemma. What is the moral duty in question? To inform the next of kin as soon as possible? Are we talking about days or weeks that the body has been there?

  2. Humanizing - is it the process of reminding us that even the nastiest, idiotic people are still human? No! It is the process of reminding us that EVERYONE, including our lowly selves, is still human. It is the process of recognizing ourselves in others and seeing all others as in some way like ourselves. It is ultimately the process of acknowledging that every person on the planet is our brother or our sister and that reaching out to those in need (whatever the need), to "the least of these", is our highest calling.

    At some level I can understand how Short Cuts and Magnolia can leave you cool. It is not easy to feel sympathetic toward many of the characters. I do not say I feel warm toward them. What I claim is that I come away from these films feeling like I understand people a little better - I see my own brokenness and the brokenness of those around me in their brokenness. In wanting to reach out and offer hope and community to the broken people in those films, I learn to reach out to the broken people around me and to be open about my own brokenness. The scene in Short Cuts where a mother who has just lost her son finds comfort in the arms of a man who has been abusing her, who himself finds some healing for his own brokenness by reaching out to the woman he has been abusing, and the scene in Magnolia where a broken police officer and a broken drug addict find comfort and promise in each other's company, happen when the people involved take off their masks and open up to each other and reveal their brokenness to each other - this is LIFE! We are all imperfect humans and we are each as worthy as the other and we are all holy and if everyone understood this, there would be no war and no poverty and no oppression. Movies like these CAN help people to understand this, though I make no claim that they always do so.

    I won't try to analyze you, but I wonder if some people are just less broken, or find it harder to recognize their own brokenness, and therefore find it harder to relate to the brokenness in others.

    As to the dilemma, I don't think the body has been there more than a few days (maybe only a day or two) and the "moral" question is indeed part of the issue.

  3. OK - that's the problem with mixing tongue-in-cheek (meaning my 'nasty, idiotic' comment)with serious . But it allowed you a nice speech. While it's true that I've known less notable brokenness than most - I think you missed the point at which I was inviting analysis. Characters in a movie like Crash may be just as unlikeable (such as the molesting police officer) but I still felt like the humanizing "worked" for me there. In other movies, I can see the humanizing attempt but something keeps me out. Maybe a tone of despair that I perceive from the author/director?? I have no use for mutual shoulder crying in a world of despair (though, of course, I believe it can be crucial to empathize with someone who temporarily feels like they're in that place).