Moral Storytelling

Posted by John Truby on

The run-up to Oscar season has produced a surprising development in the ecology of ideas that underlies our popular culture. Hollywood storytelling has long been dominated by a high-speed linear form that packs as many thrills into two hours as possible. The time span of the story is short. The impact on the audience is emotional. And the change in the hero is almost always psychological. When the moral element does show up, it is limited to a simple lesson no deeper than a platitude.

But recently a very different model of storytelling has appeared. These stories often frame a character's lifetime. Instead of going for a single emotional hit, the writers weave a detailed and complex moral accounting. And they're not content to show a single moral event, although that is often the catalyst for the bigger picture. These storytellers depict an entire moral universe that tells us whether human life has meaning or not.

The authors of these films, both screenwriters and novelists, pull from a wide array of strategies and techniques to express their visions. First to present its unique moral universe is 3:10 to Yuma, which is founded on the Western. The Western has always been a highly moral genre, serving as our justification for creating the American nation out of the harsh wilderness. Like the apotheosis of the form, Shane, 3:10 to Yuma equates living morally with being a man, and being a man with using a gun. Because the hero's son thinks he's a coward, he agrees to help take a criminal to prison.

The writers' main strategy is to increase the number of guns arrayed against the hero while at the same time decreasing his allies, until he is a man alone facing certain death. The question becomes: Is living according to your moral code worth dying for? For this man it is, even when his choice is undercut by the near certainty that the criminal will escape anyway. In the end, the man's son has immense respect for him. Unfortunately, he's dead. This kind of moral accounting is one of the main reasons the Western form is dead as well.

Atonement starts with a single immoral event that ripples out to destroy two lives. A girl knowingly accuses the wrong man of rape. The story then plays out by crosscutting how this decision affects the wronged man, the woman he loves, and the girl who made the accusation. The writers use the love story form to heighten the sense of tragedy. It is not just the way the immoral act hurts these individuals, but how it prevents the blossoming of a great love. This hurts the audience where they live.

But the key storytelling technique is the surprise of who is telling this story. Until the end, it has seemed to be primarily about the wronged man. But he didn't act immorally. He didn't make it impossible for two people to have rich, full lives, filled with love. It is the girl who told the lie. She is the one who must somehow fix the tear in the moral order that has lasted for sixty years. So the film concludes with her as an old woman, being interviewed for her novel called "Atonement." Now she will try to tell a story for good, to give the lovers, through fiction, the lives they never had. She will tell the story one more time, to apologize, even though there are some moral accounts in this life that can never be made right.

The Kite Runner is another film whose storytelling strategy is founded on a single immoral act. But this time it's a sin of omission. A boy fails to act to save his best friend, and his act of cowardice so shames him that he compounds his sin with false accusation. By placing the story within the larger world of Afghanistan, the writers expand this single immoral event to a country and its history. An entire nation has been raped, first by the Soviets and then by the Taliban and its own twisted moral system.

Once again the writers use the technique of the storyteller to show the audience that moral decisions extend over a lifetime. After recalling his childhood sins, the hero, now a writer living comfortably in America, returns to Afghanistan to fix what he has done wrong. With some poetic justice, he is able to save his friend's son. But again the ripples of his mistake are too devastating, and the damage left unattended for too long, for him to make things completely right.

Michael Clayton is ostensibly a thriller, one of Hollywood's favorite genres for selling its thrill-a-minute stories worldwide. But writer Tony Gilroy uses the form as a vehicle for much bigger cargo. This is corporate America, the world we all live in, and it has its moral ledger sheet hidden beneath the bottom line. Instead of the good but innocent character under constant assault, as in normal thrillers, hero Michael Clayton is a morally corrupt bagman for the establishment. He's a "janitor" lawyer, but his fix-it jobs only sweep the immorality under the rug. Instead of losing his soul through a single immoral act, he has fallen into the moral red by the slow wearing-down process of daily life. As he tells a fellow lawyer, "I'm not the guy you kill. I'm the guy you buy off."

One of the marks of great writing is Gilroy's technique of fleshing out a complete moral universe through the minor characters. As the main case plays out, it becomes clear that all the characters have some moral flaw at work that is crippling them. Everyone's life is way out of balance. But the mantra they all repeat to themselves is the moral justification found in any organization: "I'm just doing my job."

The depiction of a moral universe in film reaches its apex, or nadir, in No Country for Old Men. The Coen brothers have always given their stories a philosophical underpinning. And Cormac McCarthy is no stranger to a bleak moral landscape. But this is the moral universe of cold interstellar space. The writers ground their story in the crime genre, particularly the criminal-as-hero form that stretches as far back as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. So instead of making the tough but decent sheriff the hero, or even the hapless loser who finds the mob's money, the writers choose the cold avenger to drive their story.

The "Cleaner" is found in countless movies. His job is to bring back the money and kill the guy who took it. Period. But this Cleaner is superclean. Every person in the world, it seems, is in his ledger book, and everyone is to blame. The slightest opposition merits death. In his mind the book has already been written. The flip of a coin decides. The old sheriff has seen killers before, and brought a few of them to justice. But this killer is from another world, beyond Spartan, where the slightest transgression merits the ultimate payment. And it unnerves him. This is no country for old men, or young women either.

I don't know why these stories of grand moral accounting have all appeared in movie theaters at around the same time. It may be nothing more than a fluke of production. Or it may be a reaction to a time when America's position as the prime moral compass in the world has been shaken, if not shattered, by war and torture. Or it may simply be a number of fine storytellers all deciding to make an aesthetic and moral decision of their own. That stories aren't just about jolting and thrilling and then soothing an audience. Stories are the primary way we give meaning to our lives, but only when they show individuals making hard decisions with effects that can last a lifetime.

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