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.

20 Responses to The Academy Awards and Deception

  • I don’t buy it. Deception requires, at a minimum, deception, i.e., expressing a falsehood with the intent that it be understood as truth. Fictional stories aren’t intended to be understood as factually true. Lila Rose’s statements to PP were intended to be understood as factually true. It doesn’t help to say that it reveals an underlying truth. We aren’t consequentialists.

  • BTW, I think the best movie of the year was Inception but it’s not the kind of movie that wins best picture. King’s Speech was okay. I really think it won because Hollywood is a sucker for British accents. Seriously, how does the King’s Speech beat Inception for best original screenplay? True Grit was my second favorite movie of the year. Hailee Steinfeld should’ve won best supporting actress. I think the Academy just thought she was too young. I hear the book is even more full of religious dialog. It’s on my reading list. Social Network and Winter’s Bone were okay. I don’t understand the hype. The Fighter was mediocre but Christian Bale’s jaw-dropping performance makes it worth watching. Most of the nominees for best documentary were left-leaning trash as usual. Waiting for Superman didn’t even get nominated.

  • My point was not that fiction (or movies) are examples of deception but that in great literature (and opera and movies) the use of an effective disguise (a kind of deception) is often portrayed as virtuous and treated as virtuous by everyone who reflects on the work at hand, whether their name be Kreeft, Shea or Eden. If using an effective duisguise to ferret out the truth is “intrinsically evil” there would not be such a universally positive response to it when it is portrayed fictionally. It is the universality of that response that I find informative. It reveals a bit of what we know in our human hearts to be true (natural law).

    I do not offer this as my main proof, but as supporting evidence for the virtue of Lila Rose’s stings.

  • Yeah, the case for deception here is pretty weak. People might refer to Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy because they know that he played that role, but they don’t actually think that he *is* Mr. Darcy.

  • As an aside, if you want a coherent argument for why what Live Action did was sinful, it isn’t really hard to come by. The Catechism says that lying by its nature is to be condemned. It further defines a lie as speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving. What Live Action did meets this definition. Therefore it was sinful.

    I can understand how someone could find this argument unpersuasive. But incoherent? I don’t think so.

  • BA:

    The argument becomes incoherent when they try to distinguish what Liveaction did from what police do. Mark Shea argues that “it’s ok b/c it’s the government and they have that authority” which makes no sense at all.

    As far as Mr. Darcy, on a subconscious level I think they do. Furthermore, the historical inaccuracies are believed on a conscious level. So I think there is deception here.

    RR:

    You’ve assumed the conclusion. Liveaction arguably did not intend their statements to be factually true, as they planned to reveal their true identity at the conclusion of the sting. This to me is part of what distinguishes Liveaction, undercover videos, practical jokes (like Candid Camera), and acting: at the end, the truth is revealed and reality set forth. Why that matters is something I can’t philosophically elaborate on other than it would to me affect the intention. That is, the intention ultimately is not to mislead but to truthfully inform (this is also why I think the hiding the Nazis example is a different animal, b/c the intention there really is to lie and mislead the Nazis permanently).

  • The argument becomes incoherent when they try to distinguish what Liveaction did from what police do. Mark Shea argues that “it’s ok b/c it’s the government and they have that authority” which makes no sense at all.

    I haven’t followed what Shea has said on the subject, but it sounds like your problem is not with his argument that what Live Action did is sinful, but with an argument that what the police do isn’t.

    As far as Mr. Darcy, on a subconscious level I think they do.

    Not sure if I disagree with this, as I don’t entirely understand the claim. I’m pretty sure, though, that the Live Action folks were trying to deceive people on more than just a subconscious level.

    Furthermore, the historical inaccuracies are believed on a conscious level. So I think there is deception here.

    If a person were to intentionally make a work of fiction with the purpose of misleading viewers about various historical facts, then that would count as lying. You could make the case, for example, that some of the stuff in the Da Vinci Code falls into this category. To do that, though, there would have to be some specific claim made that the statements in the film were historically accurate. Otherwise, the general presumption is that statements made in a work of fiction are, well, fiction.

  • 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).

    If there is “deception” in fiction, it is deception that the audience is in on, so it doesn’t really work as an analogy for understanding the deception of Live Action. As for intent, the Live Action actors did intend to mislead the employees of Planned Parenthood. That their misleading was a means to an end (revealing the ills of PP) doesn’t make the misleading any less intentional.

  • Kyle:

    Does consent to a evil make the evil not an evil? If the audience agrees to be deceived, they’re still being deceived. As I state in my post, the audience is still at some level being deceived, either subconsciously (believer the actor is actually the character) or consciously (believing that some things depicted actually occurred).

    As for applying this to Lilarose, is a temporary misleading the same as a regular misleading? I mean, when someone plays a prank like Candid Camera on a person, they do in fact intend to mislead someone-but only temporarily. At the end, the truth is revealed. That to me makes a difference, but I’d like some thoughts on it.

  • to Kyle

    It isn’t fiction per se in which we find the parallel. It is our reaction to a fictional character using a disguise that I am driving at. We accept it. we condone it, we even admire it. Any normal reader does.

    To Michael: it isn’t the reader who is deceived, it is the other characters in the story. And yes, I to have come to the conclusion that the intent to lead into error is what differentiates a lie from virtuous deception which has the intent to lead into truth (as in a sting operation).

  • Consent to an evil doesn’t make an evil not an evil, but I fail to see how the performances of actors (not including Keanu Reeves) in a movie could be called evil. They’re pretending to be someone they are not, but the audience knows that they are pretending (or at least should know). There’s no false knowledge being given because it’s understood that the performers are acting. Such audience understanding doesn’t exist in a sting operation, so the acting here is different.

    As for harmless deceptions such as pranks (some) or surprise parties, it is precisely the lack of harm that saves these deceptions from being considered evil. We begin to question a prank when it actually causes harm. If it’s harmless, then no one really worries about it. The question, then, is whether the deceptions of Live Action caused harm. Were they of the harmless sort, like a good prank, or did they bring about harmful consequences?

  • As for harmless deceptions such as pranks (some) or surprise parties, it is precisely the lack of harm that saves these deceptions from being considered evil.

    My understanding was that the Liveaction videos did harm b/c they made people more suspicious i.e. that people were less trusting after having been duped. That harm is just as present in pranks, as people are being duped as well. So any prank based on a deception is, as I understand the argument, harmful. But perhaps there is another harm you see?

  • To Michael

    In this instance you are no longer talking about “intrinsically evil.”

    Yours is a completely consequentialist approach, you ask not about the wrongness of the action itself but only try to weigh the effects, counting up the pros and cons.

    tom in ohio

  • Yours is a completely consequentialist approach, you ask not about the wrongness of the action itself but only try to weigh the effects, counting up the pros and cons.

    No. The Catechism is clear. Lying as a sin requires intent to mislead. I am questioning whether one has the intent to mislead if that intent is only to mislead for a period of time and if that intent is affected by the ultimate intent (ie either to have humor and fun in a practical joke or to reveal a greater truth as is used by Liveaction, undercover stings, and artists). This is why I am purposely not using the “hiding Jews” example as I think that is more clearly an example of lying than what I wish to discuss. I am open to being shown to be wrong, but i am trying to comprehend exactly how stringent this requirement is and what affects that should have on Catholic life.

  • Michael,
    I agree with you in that a temporary deception is not the same as a permanent deception. At the very least, the object of the act is not the same as the object of a lie. Hence, it is a mistake to simply assume that temporary deceptions are intrinsically evil “lies”.

  • One can distinguish pranks from Lila-Rose-type deception. A prank really intends no harm. Lila Rose intends to harm (PP and the employee being taped) in order to help the pro-life cause. It’d be different if Lila Rose worked for PP and was taping employees in order to educate them on what not to do.

  • Argh. I shouldn’t have mentioned LilaRose at all. The point of my post (i.e the necessary deceptions in art) has been lost. Alas.

    A prank really intends no harm.

    Not if you take the position that all deception leads to mistrust and therefore damages relationships, which is precisely the position taken by Shea & Co. Otherwise, what is the harm Lila Rose is doing to PP? Encouraging people to not fund PP’s support of sexual abuse of minors is not a harm, even if PP doesn’t like it.

    Furthermore, to an extent Lila Rose is trying to educate them on what not do, though from a different vantage than one who worked for PP. In that sense what Lila Rose is precisely the tactic undertaken by the prophet on 2 Samuel 12:1-12 in order to mislead David into realizing his sinful nature.

  • A prank that damages relationships has crossed the line, no?

  • Of course if one of the parties in the relationship is engaged in killing relationships, does it matter? I throw this out just to be ornery.

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