Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. ~ Raymond Chandler
So let’s talk about…morality.
That might seem like an odd, even inappropriate, topic for a website about movies and TV. But it’s not straying too far a field, as it relates to the nature of storytelling, the developing of themes and the defining of characters and their motivation, and in the “reading” (ie: the viewer’s/critic’s interpretation) of those elements.
It also seems like a good time to jump into the topic, given that both Canada and the United States are in the middle of federal elections, when politicians of all stripes stand up and say, “vote for me, ‘cause I’m the one you can trust!”
It’s also worth talking about because, well -- dagnabit! -- somebody’s got to.
Now, I’ll be up front. I kind of like the idea of a moral protagonist in a story. It isn’t that I can’t enjoy a story featuring a morally ambiguous anti-hero -- I can and I do. But I also like the idea of the protagonist-as-paragon. But increasingly that seems to make me the odd man out, at least when I read others comments in reviews, articles, blogs and message boards. Stories with “moral” heroes are seen as childish, simple-minded, and unchallenging.
Why I have a fondness for the moral hero, I dunno. I grew up reading super hero comics, and grooving to TV series like the original Star Trek and Kung Fu. Stories that tended to be rife with moral undercurrents. But did that shape my thinking…or did my thinking lead me to gravitate to those stories? But the notion of characters having to grapple with moral choices and, yes, defining moral in a somewhat liberal way, intrigued me. As a kid, I was never entirely comfortable with the scene in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves where the dwarves (and I believe the forest critters) run the evil Queen off a cliff. I couldn’t help thinking, in my little half-formed juvenile brain, “y’know, I don’t think Spider-Man woulda run her off the cliff. I don’t think Captain Kirk woulda, or Kwai Chang Caine. Where was compassion in that stampede? Where was the possibility of redemption?”
But generation after generation of children have been dutifully sat down to watch Snow White with its implicit message about vigilante justice and the warm, satisfying feeling you get when you send your enemy plunging to her death.
But putting aside morality for a minute -- yes, a discussion of morality where we put aside moral considerations -- I think there’s another reason I like the moral hero.
It makes for better drama.
Howzzat? you ask. After all…everyone knows “morality” is childish, simple-minded, and unchallenging.
But I would counter that morality, and the moral hero -- the hero of principals, of integrity, of unstinting adherence to values -- makes for a far more intriguing character, and a far more challenging story.
Why? Because we live in an amoral world, in many respects. You and I make little compromises each and every day -- that’s how we get by. ‘Cause it’s easier. It’s a lot harder to try and live by rigid values than to do otherwise. I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who once wrote: “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
We all know what generally happens to people of principal: they usually end up getting nailed to something.
And such characters can be just as intriguing and colourful as any other. Consider TV’s House, the series about the bitingly caustic, self-obsessed, misanthropic heel -- the anti-hero who has proven such a ratings hit with audiences who love his “bad boy” antics. Yet when you think about it, House bears a marked similarity to another TV medicine man…Wojeck. In fact, given that House was created by Canadian David Shore, one can’t help but wonder if the 1960s Canadian TV coroner, Steve Wojeck, was the unacknowledged template on which Shore based House. The difference is, Wojeck was an idealist and a moralist…but, like House, he was no dimpled nice guy, but a difficult man, his very adherence to principals often putting him at odds with those around him (like with House, he had a long suffering friend who tried to act as a compromising buffer between him and those around him).
In other words, though a moral character, Wojeck was every bit as dynamic, as difficult, as quirky, as colourful, as House. And was also a ratings hit.
I’ve also always been intrigued by the original Star Trek series and its triumvirate protagonists who formed an ideological triangle -- Spock (logic), McCoy (emotion), Kirk (the middle ground). Now what made it interesting is that because of their different ideologies these guys could bicker and argue (particularly McCoy and Spock)…yet they were all heroes. They were all noble, admirable men capable of outstanding acts of courage and self-sacrifice. They were all men of high moral standards and integrity…even as they disagreed and, in different episodes, one or the other might be in the wrong. See what I’m saying? The fact that they were idealists added to, not subtracted from, the drama and the moral complexity of the issues.
The hero who’s willing to bend the rules, who’s willing to compromise, has the much smoother path through the story than the hero who sets for himself lines he won’t cross. The idealistic hero forces the writer to work a little bit harder to figure out how his hero can navigate that week’s dilemma.
And the whole question of which “challenges” us more -- the moral or the pragmatic hero -- is completely up for debate. After all, we are told the pragmatic hero challenges our old, simple, black & white views…but conversely, the fact that so many critics, writers, and viewers seem to reject the moral hero kind of makes you wonder if they reject him because he makes them feel, well, uncomfortable. Because he’s challenging their world view.
Of course, I tend to have suspicions that the whole “moral ambiguity” defence, or “anti-hero” label is a bit disingenuous. It’s a way of presenting -- of promulgating -- an ideological viewpoint and then, if someone calls you on it, the writer throws up his hands and innocently says, “Me? No, I’m not necessarily advocating this, I’m just saying this is how it is.” But, as noted, the “is”, the supposedly objectively “realistic” viewpoint presented, tends to be rather conservative. I was thinking about this a while back (if you’ll permit a brief digression) when I pondered the notion of vegetarianism. There are enough vegetarians out there that cook books are marketed to them, restaurants offer veggie meals, and even whole restaurants are exclusively devoted to vegetarian cuisines.
Yet in TV and movies, vegetarians are usually pilloried or lampooned. In the entire history of North American TV drama, how many vegetarian heroes have their been? Well, okay, I can’t say for sure, ‘cause obviously, I haven’t watched everything ever made. But the only ones that come to mind are Spock from Star Trek and the Buddhist Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu…and only Caine was a lead character (Spock was a supporting character).
While currently, there is a critically acclaimed US TV series called Dexter where the hero (or anti-hero) is a…serial killer.
Think about it: in the history of North American TV, the number of dramas starring a vegetarian hero is roughly the same as those featuring a serial killer hero…despite the fact that, in real life, vegetarians out number serial killers by about, I dunno, a zillion to one.
In a sense, as I alluded to earlier, the world is a grey and ambiguous place. By placing a moral hero in juxtaposition with that world, we create dramatic tension. Particularly because, just because we have a moral hero…doesn’t mean that he, or we, the viewer, knows what the moral path is in a given situation. So right there we have interesting character drama, as the hero must struggle to not just be true to his moral convictions…but to know what those convictions are.
But to get back to morality as morality, there’s another reason I like the idea of a moral hero. And that’s contained in the definition of the word “hero”. When we create fictional heroes we are, to some extent, creating role models…characters who are just a little bit better, smarter, sexier, wittier and, yes, moral than we are. How many times have we seen characters described as: “He’s the guy men want to be, and women want to be with”? TV heroes allow us, vicariously, to walk in shoes bigger than our own. So as we are presented with “heroes” of greyer and greyer moral values, we are demanding less of ourselves, as well.
There’s a line in the movie Broadcast News that goes something like (I‘m paraphrasing): Do you think the Devil will appear with horns and a tail? No, he’ll look attractive and be nice and helpful…and he’ll bit by bit lower our standards.
Consider: prior to the administration of US president George W. Bush, people would’ve debated whether torture and sexual abuse had a place in the justice system of a moral, democratic nation. Now…we debate how much torture and sexual abuse is justified, and what, precisely, constitutes torture and sexual abuse. And we take our standards down another notch. ‘Cause it’s easier. Unchallenging. It gives us a warm, satisfying feeling like running an evil Queen off a cliff.
Which brings us, somewhat roundabout, to the espionage-crime series, The Border. Even before it aired, The Border was receiving negative flak from conservative commentators for a presumed left-wing bias. A series about Canadian immigration and security agents, often butting heads with bullish American allies, and which one of its producer described as “24 (the US spy TV series), but with a conscience”, it was assumed it would be a forum for -- to use such detractors’ pet phraseology -- bleeding heart liberal propaganda. But the actual series is a little less prone to liberal bleeding than conservatives feared -- sometimes yes, but sometimes, no.
But what is of special interest to today’s topic is its nominal lead hero, Major Mike Kessler (well played by James McGowan) -- a stony-faced, humourless, no-nonsense hero, Kessler would seem to embody the notion of the pillar of moral integrity. Columnist Robert Fulford snidely dismissed the character as someone who “(probably has) the Charter of Rights…engraved on his brain pan”. Precisely a character that could be so fascinating plunged into the morally ambiguous world of espionage and anti-terrorism. A Wojeck for the 21st Century.
Yet the reason Kessler, and by extension, The Border itself, fails to be quite as interesting, as provocative as it could be, is because Kessler, ultimately, isn’t really that moral rock in a sea of pragmatism.
In the series’ first season of thirteen episodes, Kessler has: advised his American counterpart on how to undercut Canada’s extradition laws so that a criminal can be shipped to the U.S. for execution; assaulted and throttled a suspect for information…while a colleague prevented others from intervening; plotted to assassinate a man (the only reason he didn’t was because another of his team pulled the trigger instead); and used a baby as a human shield and, though there was much gnashing of teeth, the rest of the squad followed orders (because, y’know, no one there ever heard of The Nuremberg Trials). And those are only the most egregious examples of questionable, pragmatic, and, um, completely illegal, behaviour on Kessler’s part.
Now the series’ makers might argue, that’s the point. They set up this moral pillar, then challenge us and him by putting him in scenarios that test those principals. Fine…except, once you’re talking at least 4 out of 13 episodes (and those are only the most extreme examples), these are hardly the dramatic exception to the rule -- are they?
And this might not be a problem…except Kessler’s character is largely being defined by his moral up-rightness! He’s not being defined as wacky, or witty, or suave, or super-intelligent, or the Lothario or even the “everyman”. No -- the character niche that he fills in the ensemble cast is that of the guy with the “strict moral centre” as one article put it.
The fact that articles about the character happily repeat this truism, that Kessler is the moral centre of the show, raises the interesting point about the objectivity and independence of critics. They are told he is the moral rock by the press releases, and by the stone-faced certainty with which McGowan plays the part, and so they accept it without question, unable, or unwilling, to filter it through their own thinking processes. To say, uh, hey…wait a minute…
And then there’s the other side of the coin, the one maybe I’m too myopic to see.
Maybe the fact that Kessler doesn’t have the Charter “engraved on his brain pan” (as Robert Fulford so feared), and is so quick to violate the laws he is supposed to be defending, the fact that he is willing to beat up suspects, and use babies as human shields…maybe that in the minds of the show’s makers and the pundits writing about the show is what makes him a moral rock. Not ham strung by “politically correct” woolly headed liberal thinking, no sirree -- this is a 21st Century morality as established by George W. Bush. After all, when Kessler engages in these antics, it’s generally successful, so it’s not like the show’s makers are asking us to question the practicality of his actions.
The question is, if Major Kessler represents their idea of the moral, righteous hero…then what on earth is their vision of the pragmatic anti-hero?
Personally, going back to Star Trek, I’d have been more intrigued if the series had set up a conflict of heroic idealists -- perhaps Kessler could’ve been the unbending, by-the-book hero, to whom the law and the Charter is his bible, while another character could’ve been equally moral and righteous…but feeling the system itself is unjust and so believes in bending the rules. And the episodes could then challenge us by presenting characters who are both right…and both, perhaps, wrong. In the episode involving the “baby shield”, for instance, other than a few wet eyes, no one on the team actually refused to follow the orders. It might’ve made the episode more interesting if someone had. WHAT? I hear you gasp. A character disobey a commanding officer’s order? As if that’s the greatest sin we can imagine. But…yeah. Someone should’ve. ‘Cause though I’m no legal expert, I’m pretty sure obeying an illegal order is not actually an obligation of anyone in a chain-of-command structure (and make no mistake, the “baby shield” idea wasn’t simply an ethical question…but completely illegal no matter how you spin it, starting from the very idea that the heroes even had possession of the baby who should’ve been turned over to Child Services).
If Kessler is the new heroic paragon to which we must aspire…well, gosh, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for you and me, does it?
And our standards get lowered bit by bit.
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
Oct. 2, 2008
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