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The Hunted – Essay: aesthetics and morality in film

the Director's cut

the Director's cut

The Hunted – William Friedkin

The Hunted is a nasty little film. Brutal and brutalising. Because it displays considerable mastery of many aesthetic techniques of film-making, the way in which is it bad raises interesting philosophical and aesthetic questions. It is what one might call an aesthetically immoral movie.

The attribution of moral concepts (logically) requires the concept of ‘intentionality’. This concept in turn requires the notion of agency. We have to have someone who does something for the ascription of moral concepts to make sense. The way in which moral concepts are applied in this context may well be open to dispute but clearly it is a necessary but not sufficient condition of such ascription, that we must have a work of art, and someone who has created it.

The essentially collaborative nature of film-making complicates this. Judging by the tedious and tiresome length of almost every movie’s end credits nowadays, it appears that one needs enough people to fill a medium sized town to make a modern movie. However, it is a widely accepted view that aesthetically at least, the finished film is the creation, vision if we must, of the Director. This is an interesting issue but outside my present scope. There are perhaps ambiguous cases where for financial, marketing or other reasons, studios, producers – the money men – may intervene and change the final version of the film released for public exhibition. This is part of Hollywood folklore, embracing for example Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, hacked and re-hacked so much by the studio that Welles eventually disowned it. Apocalypse Now, The Blade Runner are just two of many examples by prominent Directors in recent years re-released as ‘Director’s cut’ versions.

I doubt whether anyone will seek to wrest ‘credit’ for The Hunted from William Friedkin. Although one might feel that an actor of Tommy Lee Jones’ ability should feel ashamed to have leant his name and talent to such cynical, exploitative, worthless trash, in the end the Director calls the shots on how the ideas in the script shall be performed and expressed in cinematic form.

First an important distinction: movies can be criticised on aesthetic or, arguably, moral grounds. On purely aesthetic grounds, there are many competent, effective, even powerful skills and qualities to be seen in The Hunted. The combination of camera-work, slick, breathless editing, supported by a driving, insistent soundtrack, means that the film has a terrific pace and urgency with an effective atmosphere of edge-of-the-seat, visceral tension. And the top and tailing narration and song from the wonderfully sonorous Johnny Cash, hints at a much more interesting film that might have come from the subject matter.

So we must say this is not simply an inept, incompetent film. That excuse, if one I sneeded does not play. Friedkin knows his stuff as The French Connection and the celebrated The Exorcist amply demonstrated many years ago. This is key to the way I want to approach the ‘morality’ of the film. This is a sin of intentional commission, not unintentional omission. And this is where the argument about morality becomes complex.

The debate about morality in the cinema is usually, it seems to me, quite trivial: for cynical financial and defensive reasons, film-makers like to defend their products against the straw man charge of having had a one-to-one causally damaging effect on the sensibilities of their audience. Thus, did seeing this film cause someone to go out and commit an immoral act, usually imitative of something portrayed in the film – murder, rape, social rebellion etc? Such arguments have raged endlessly over the years: everything from the Manson killings to the death of Jamie Bulger. Although this makes a great defence, it strikes me as an irreducibly pointless and inconclusive line of argument. After all philosophers and scientists have disagreed for millennia, and still do, about how one can account for a conclusive causal connection between a mental experience: seeing, understanding, being persuaded by, the ideas, narrative, characterisation in a film and a subsequent physical act of say murder or rape.

There are richer, perhaps more plausible variations on this argument but for my purposes I wish to draw attention to one logical feature of this approach: the causal connection asserted here whether, trivially, direct, or more plausibly, indirect, is what one might describe as external to the film in question. Thus the act in the real world is the (causal) consequence of the film having been seen. Seldom, though not never, is a film Director accused of intentionally making his film with the explicit intention of corrupting his audience or of seriously wanting to drive them to immoral acts. Even in our publicity-obsessed world where setting out to shock or disgust audiences thereby creating an aura of notoriety, generates business for a film, one would still tend to see this as motivated by a desire to sell tickets, make money, rather than corrupt people per se.

Based upon such an external conception of the link between film and audience, I am not sure I know what it would be to call a film ‘immoral’. A film does not in itself, have an intention, a purpose. It is not an agent. And even if external consequences could be definitively proved e.g widespread rioting at most performances of the film Rock Around the Clock in the 1950’s, this is still a contingent consequence of the film being shown not a pre-conceived intention it the making of it. Of course Directors inevitably do have intentions or purposes external to their films: making money; becoming famous or even infamous perhaps. But most Directors do have, and all would claim to have, aesthetic or artistic intentions in making their film: expressing truths about human beings and relationships; re-expressing a work of language, say a novel or a history, in visual terms; moving, shocking, informing, alerting their audience to all kinds of insights about themselves and events in the world around them etc. Or even just making them laugh or shiver with fright.

It may be that The Hunted will strike a deep chord with weapons freaks, people who occupy a twilight world of combat gear, guns and in this case especially, the esoteric minutiae of different knives and methods of killing using them. So be it: these are social, political and yes on an individual level, even moral issues. Important, disturbing no doubt, but still only contingently and externally connected with this film and others that might have a resonance with what I would call disturbed minds.

The point I want to address is the internal connection between Friedkin as Director and therefore ‘creator’ of The Hunted as a work of art, and his subject matter. What if you will, were his discernible artistic, aesthetic, intentions in making the film, evidenced solely by reference to the film itself? This of course cannot be definitively proven as nothing would count as proof – least of all of course, Friedkin’s own stated intentions. After all no artist can hope to know, predict, still less control, the reaction of people to his work, however much money studios spend in trying to do so. This is another essentially external relationship between work and viewer. But insofar as the creation of a work of art is intentional behaviour, the artist must make decisions about subject matter, materials, application of technique, method of presentation and display etc etc. Thus, however questionable as it may seem, I am interested in what kind of values one finds exemplified within The Hunted: not from the point of view of what we may think it reveals to us about Friedkin, which does not really interest me very much; but more, what kind of possible view of the world one can see shown by, but not stated within, the possible world the film depicts.

A famous, even infamous, example may be of interest to us here. Not because I think it is the same kind of film but because of the light it sheds on possible ways of looking at this question. Stanley Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange in 1971 from Anthony Burgess’s book of the same name. It created a storm of controversy wherever in the world it was released including notably in the UK where Kubrick had by that time taken up residence. Reaction in the UK was extreme, both for and against, but it was claimed that many young people were influenced for the worse by the film and imitatively ‘acted out’ some of the violent and anti-social behaviour portrayed in the film. Apparently Kubrick and his family were also subjected to death threats as a result of his making and releasing the movie. For reasons which have never been definitively clear, Kubrick withdrew the film from release, just in the UK. This ban was upheld until after his death and the film only re-released in the UK in 2001.

Kubrick never personally explained this action and after all, the ban was only applied in the UK, where he was living over the period. There is of course a pretty simple and straightforward explanation: the film was generating a disturbing reaction in the UK, where importantly it was set, and possibly creating a real risk and threat to Kubrick and his family. For the purposes of this essay, the real reason for the ban is less interesting than the sense we can make of a possible element in Kubrick’s reaction to his work of art. One wonders for example whether, alongside his concerns for his family’s safety and even standards of social behaviour in the UK from some viewers of the film, he came to review, even reconsider his attitude to the work itself and its artistic intentions. If this sounds implausible, imagine perhaps Steven Spielberg’s possible reaction had ‘Schindler’s List’ aroused hostility and criticism in Israel.

My interest is: can the external response to a work of art, reveal to its creator, a way of seeing, reading, the work that the artist recognises but did not anticipate or intend. This is not perhaps an especially uncommon phenomenon and the most common response, perhaps the correct one we might say, on the part of the artist is to say that this reading of his work is not what he intended and therefore nothing to do with him. However, is it not possible that responses to a work of art might so to speak reveal to the artist something that he now can see as actually present within the work, but which he had not intended? Insofar as this unforeseen element is considered to be significantly unsatisfactory or regrettable, the artist might well consider this to represent a failure or deficiency in his original artistic endeavour. We might put it thus: the artist, on reviewing his work in the light of actual responses to it, might agree that it does (appear) to ‘say’ something which not only did he not intend, but also which he would not (morally) have wanted to say. I rather doubt that this applies to Kubrick with A Clockwork Orange – I just use that as a possible example of what might be involved.

This it seems to me is a more interesting possible way of understanding an internal relation of an artist to his work and the values expressed within it. Additionally, we might say that indifference on the part of the artist, not to criticism of his work as such, but to a genuinely revealing, indeed in some sense correct response to the work, which once it has been pointed out to him, he has to accept, reveals something important morally and aesthetically about him and his artistic values. After all, this merely parallels our everyday experience in life where our attitude to ourselves, our character, can be profoundly affected by the reaction of others to our behaviour. This is part of what we mean by the development and growth in one’s moral beliefs and sensibilities.

Middlemarch: (George Eliot)

1st Gentleman: “Methinks our chains are fetters that we forge ourselves.”
2nd Gentleman: “Aye but methinks ‘tis the world that brings the iron.”

To summarise: can we see an internal relation between aesthetic representation within ‘The Hunter’ and the possible world and characters it invites us to understand? Well it is clear throughout the movie that great pains have been taken to ensure that the characters’ and therefore the actors’, understanding of the combat use of knives and the lethal skills of hand to hand combat, looks convincing and has an air of genuine professionalism. The combat scenes were choreographed by professional technical advisers to the film and it shows. Tommy Lee Jones’ L T Bonham is supposed to be the ultimate trainer of combatants in the skills of survival, tracking, evasion and ultimately killing without compunction on command. We feel that his greatest respect is reserved for men who can recover their atavistic, natural, animal predatory skills and ally them with human intelligence and fearlessness to be impossible to find, elude or defeat.

If Friedkin had not made a commercial movie but put on the internet, still using Tommy Lee Jones, a straightforward ‘training manual’ in all the skills of combat use of a knife – then few would defend it. Yet in his representation of the Bonham character in the dramatic, aesthetic context he has set his behaviour, through both the characterization and all the other cinematic skills he possesses, not only is insider, professional knowledge of these killing skills imparted, but the visual tone betrays fascination, even a kind of approval not merely of the man who posses them but also the skills themselves – for in this instance the two are internally linked.

I feel the same disquiet about some of Martin Scorcese’s films many of which have at their centre a bullying figure. Many people who don’t like violent films would agree that some of his films are hard to watch, unpleasant; even reprehensible from the ‘violent films corrupt’ lobby. I disassociate myself entirely from that perspective for it leads inexorably to a censorship I would implacably oppose. However Scorcese’s, if I may put it this way, directorial, cinematic tone in films like The Goodfellas and Gangs of New York has strong echoes for me of not just accurately portraying the might is right philosophy of the real bully (because it is a convenient fiction that all bullies are cowards at heart – there were and are some very ‘courageous’ fascists around) but hints at a kind of fascination with the power of such figures that hints not at a desire to bring the bully down, but rather to have a share in his power.

I guess the point about attempting the critique of a work of art is itself a question of intention which has moral as well as aesthetic undertones: there is no such thing as being right – for is right defined by intention or result? One is morally and aesthetically open to criticism if prejudice or unfairness or personal agenda’s infect the critique. But my dilemma, discussed here but of course not resolved, is if one’s duty as a critic is to understand as fully as possible the possible meaning and value of a work of art, is not one possible outcome of this process that if one can legitimately praise the inspirational, life-enhancing, qualities of many films; does it not follow that there will be some where moral criticism instead of praise is a justifiable, even necessary response of the truthful critic? It is after all not the road to heaven that is paved with good intentions.

On this basis, I can say no other than that The Hunted seems to me to be an immoral film in intention and execution and that part of the justification for this judgement is precisely putting careful application of genuine cinematic art and talent to the purpose of creatiing something the Director knows is immoral.

(Zettel – June 2003)

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