The Academy Awards and Deception
I had hoped to be able to write a post discussing the merits of most of the movies up for “Best Picture” before this Sunday, but my 3 month old made going to a movie in theaters most difficult. While I saw Inception, Toy Story 3, The Social Network, and even Winter’s Bone, I didn’t think I could write something without seeing King’s Speech or True Grit, both of which I am very eager to see.
Nevertheless, I was amused to see that after Colin Firth won the award for Best Actor that facebook lit up with a few statuses from female friends that were very pleased that “Mr. Darcy” won. If you don’t know, Firth played Mr. Darcy in the epic BBC adaption of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. This ignorance would also require that you are a) male and b) have never been in a relationship with a female.
I thought this was interesting that people immediately associate Firth with his fictional character. I’ve one the same thing myself. For example, when in Saving Private Ryan the (spoiler alert I suppose) fake Saving Private Ryan is revealed, I exclaimed “oh wow! That’s Capt. Reynolds!” referring to Nathan Fillion’s role as Capt. Mal Reynolds in “Firefly.”
I bring this up because while all of us if pressed would acknowledge that Firth is not really Mr. Darcy and that Fillion is not really Capt. Reynolds, I think there is a level at which we truly believe that these people are the characters they play. This is a remarkable accomplishment. Even though we know that they’re not, even though we know the actors are trying to deceive us, we are in some sense deceived. We don’t act out against it; instead we celebrate the accomplishments. Those who fail to deceive us either through unconvincing performances or trite dialogue are regarded as terrible actors.
This is important because when acting was used as a counter-example in the Lila Rose undercover debate, I thought it was mischaracterized. Before you leave, don’t fear-this is not another Lila Rose debate post. When someone writes a coherent argument showing how what she did was sinful and how what she did is distinguishable from the prophet does in 2nd Samuel when he invents a case to confront King David with his murder, I might write a post on that subject. I’m more interested in what Mark Shea wrote about acting in one of his posts while dealing with the subject (a post entitled “Last comments,” a post which turned out unfortunately to be a deception):
Sixth, comparisons of Lila’s sting to acting break down because acting (like fiction writing) is a particular kind of speech act in which both parties agree that the speech being spoken is pretend, not real. If I portray a character on the stage or in a film, I’m not lying to you because the credits say, “Mark Shea as Innocent Smith”. If I come to your house, tell you I’m Innocent Smith, vacuum cleaner salesman, and gain entry so that I can snoop around and photograph your property without your permission, I am lying to you.
Teasing out the arguments here, I think there are two. The first is that both parties agree to the deception, and therefore there is no sin. This is an odd argument for a Catholic to take, as consent is never an excuse for injustice. Consent to a below-living wage does not justify the poor wage. Similarly, if deception is always evil and acting is deception, then consent is not a defense. The second and stronger argument is that everyone knows it is fiction, and therefore no deception actually occurs. Thus there is no sin.
That seems to be a plausible argument, but looking at what we know from above, I question if that’s true. Actors are paid and praised for deceiving us. Even if consciously we know it’s fiction, subconsciously we don’t. People treat characters as real people all the time. Even this weekend, I was in a painting shop in a mall in Albany, New York. In that shop there was a special section reserved for paintings of the characters from “The Godfather.” We call actors “Mr. Darcy” because we’ve been deceived by the talent of their craft.
Deception in movies goes beyond the mere actors which pretend to be people they’re not. Movies routinely portray events which have never happened. Although the audience may know that Frodo really didn’t go to Mount Doom, the audience may not be able to discern as readily the falsities in historical fiction. For example, “The Social Network” depicted Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg as a socially aloft individual who carried a chip on his shoulder and wanted to start facebook to prove that he was smarter than his Harvard classmates who routinely shunned him. Zuckerberg has vigorously denied the movie’s accuracy. The writers presumably didn’t care. Historical accuracy is rarely the goal of a filmmaker (and when it is the movie often sucks-see “historical” adaptions of King Arthur and Robin Hood). Instead, the writers of “The Social Network” cared more about using Zuckerberg as a prism through which to view the phenomena of social media and the delusions of the current generation. That is, the inaccuracies of the film reinforced their presentation of the truth about how “friends” in the social media is a poor substitute for true friendship and human interaction.
However, many people will come from the movie believing that facebook’s founder really is that much of a jerk. They are deceived about what really happened. Is this sinful? It’s hard to say they had no intent, they wrote the story and knew (presumably once facebook talked to them) what the true story was. But they used a false story anyway.
It’s possible that Tolkien’s conception of myth solves the problem, as myth although false and fictional in truth reveals the truth to the audience in a way that the truth could not be revealed otherwise. That is, that people need myth to step out of their own reality and see reality more clearly. While this is readily applicable to fantasy stories, it is also true for stories set in our own reality. However, this would also seem to be consequentialism under Shea’s theory, as deception to lead one towards truth may be a end justifies the mean argument and is exactly the “faustian bargain” that Shea is spending considerable time damning.
My gut is that Tolkien’s approach is wiser in that actors, writers, and such who use “deception” are not truly deceiving, as their goal is not to mislead but to reveal to people a truth. Thus the intent of lying is not there (which is why I think Lila Rose is ok; her intent I think was to reveal to PP the truth of their actions, not to mislead people about her identity as an underage girl. I pass no judgment on whether it was a prudent approach). But this is admittedly not an easy question, which is why I think analysis from all sides has been disjointed. However, the outcome has importance for art in general and the moral limits that story tellers must follow. Art has the power to deceive and to show great truths in a beautiful way. When Tolkien tells his stories, we believe, if just for a time, that we are in Middle Earth. If that is sinful, then much is lost. And if it is not sinful, then what are the limits?
UPDATE: I changed it from 1st Samuel to 2nd Samuel upon looking back at it. The exact cite is 2nd Samuel 12:1-12.