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A Critique of Judgment: Movies and Morality

Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier, 2014)


Chapter 1. Showing what kind of history this is; what it is like, and what it is not like

‘I’m just a bad human being,’ Charlotte Gainsbourg’s self-confessed nymphomaniac Joe tells the only true friend she ever had, her stand-in therapist and Socratic interlocutor, Seligman. She sounds so matter of fact, so clinically sure of herself. Isn’t this kind of self-awareness and more or less objective self-observation the outcome of a usually lengthy process of analysis? Here it’s offered at the very start of Nymph()maniac and, based on the facts of the case, there can be little doubt that her assessment is right. But, as in psychoanalysis, there are, in fact, no facts on which to base ourselves: Joe’s actions are presented entirely through self-narration, inspired, Usual Suspects style, by cues, objets trouvés or Rorschach blots spread around Seligman’s monk’s cell of an apartment, triggering memories or inspiring fabulation taking the form of Von Trier’s by now familiar 18th Century auctorial narratives (drawing inspiration from Fielding, Richardson, and, especially, the latter’s evil twin, the Sade of Justine and Juliette). So make no mistake: this movie is less shagfest than mindfuck. When, in Chapter 3 of Volume 2, ‘The Gun’ is announced, we expect it will go off at the climax, but when it happens, it’s not when we think it will. After Joe has failed to kill Jerôme, Seligman explains that, subconsciously, she had never wanted to fire the gun and had therefore forgotten to rack it (just like James Bond forgot to rack his Beretta). When it finally does go off, and we’re once again left in the dark, left to ponder what’s true and what’s false, it seems Von Trier has taken off his safety, racked the gun and killed the true villain of the piece. Why have critics been so coy about stating the obvious? That Seligman – an allegorical Everyman name, for sure, but also echoing famous self-help guru Marty Seligman, who has placed the roots of depression in what he calls ‘learned helplessness’ – is a Jew, the only man in the story who tries to rape Joe, and the only one who gets killed at the end, or so it appears. This ‘selig man’, saintly man or pitiful man, was on Von Trier’s mind from the start. Stellan Skarsgård has repeatedly told the anecdote of how Lars phoned to tell him they were going to do a porno together, but that he wouldn’t be doing any fucking: ‘your dick will be flaccid.’ In the aftermath of the stunt at Cannes [Von Trier told the press he was ‘a Nazi’ in response to a question about his German roots; read more here – ed.], Seligman’s elaboration in the movie of the fallacy of confusing anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism was laughed off as yet another prank from Lars the provocateur, aimed at Thierry Frémaux and his team (‘despite what certain political powers say’). But does this kind of play remediate the movie’s anti-Semitism?

Let’s backtrack from that infamous press conference to the gestation of the ‘Trilogy of Depression.’ It’s unclear when Von Trier was first diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder, but it is quite clear that all of the female protagonists in the three films – AntichristMelancholia and Nymph()maniac – at least partly mirror his own symptomatology. In his Sight and Sound essay on the film, Nick James quotes Linda Bradley quoting Von Trier in her book on the director: ‘Women are better at embodying and expressing that part of me… if I expressed the same thing through a man, you would only see the brutality and cruelty of depression, social phobia, panic disorder, compulsive behavior.’ The Nazi crack seems the result of the latter affliction, but it also symptomatically refers back to the medically established link between bipolarity and creativity. Despite being diagnosed as clinically depressed Von Trier is at a manic creative peak, producing with Nymph()maniac a career-summarizing work that in its full director’s cut runs over five and half hours. On the other hand, amongst the associated symptoms of the disease are changes in cognitive processes and abilities, including reduced attentional and executive capabilities. Although Von Trier has managed to put a spin on the unfocused discursive construction of Nymph()maniac by coining a new genre he calls ‘digressionism,’ this cannot change the fact that the film is an unholy mess. Nick James lauds the ‘dazzling changes of tone, pace and perspective… the game of mazes and mirrors… the myriad loose threads’ as proof of Von Triers mastery, and you could argue that this highly literary film shares its meandering structure with the serialized novels that inspired it, or that it is ‘formless’ because it wants to approach what Schopenhauer described as the intuitive appeal of music (despite its professed interest in the fugue and the cantus firmus). In the end, though, Nymph()maniac is just confused. So steady is the aim of earlier Von Trier films like Breaking the Waves, introducing Justine to Dreyer and Griffithian melodrama, or Dogville, mediating Our Town through Brecht, so uncertain is the objective of Nymph()maniac. Most of all this highly didactic film is confused in its moral perspective. And the reason for this, I will argue, is the reading that Von Trier was doing when embarking upon the ‘Depression Trilogy’.

Europa (Lars von Trier, 1991)

The vow of chastity that was Dogme 95, lampooned in Nymph()maniac’s version of the libertine Hellfire Club devoted to ‘Mea maxima vulva’ and in Joe’s final unexpected promise of abstinence, came about after Von Trier had expressed dissatisfaction at the empty aestheticism of Europa and his earlier work in general. It was while he was preparing Europa, a film about Nazi Germany, that his mother died, revealing on her deathbed that Lars was born from an extramarital union with her former boss at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Frits Michael Hartmann, a German. In an à clef moment from Europa, Von Trier shows up in a minor part as a Jew who appears at the office of a railway boss called Hartmann and tries to embrace him, thanking him for providing him with food and shelter. Despite the autobiographical background of Von Trier’s change of heart, a revealing parallel can be drawn between his rupture with the aestheticism of Europa and Thomas Mann’s 1947 essay “Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Contemporary Events”, in which the writer renounced the aestheticism of the Parnassian poets and the avant-garde, a position of art for art’s sake that was simply untenable in light of the contemporary barbarism. Instead, Mann proposed to escape the aesthetic age and penetrate the moral and social age. In light of this comparison, you could say that personal circumstance, ethics and the idea of Germany constituted a heady and volatile mix that produced the second leg of Von Trier’s career, in thrall to the Nietzschean principle of ‘tragic optimism,’ the idea that art, and art alone, is capable of transforming the pessimism that life inspires. If The Idiots, the first film under the Dogme manifesto, a movie alluded to in Nymph()maniac’s prankish restaurant scene, is far from a straightforward morality piece, it does introduce the central motif of the Dostoyevskian idiot, the innocent Prince Myshkin, a figure central also to Mann’s The Magic Mountain, who is scorned by society for his naïveté and trusting nature. The Myshkin figure becomes the Golden Heart character in the eponymous trilogy [Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000) – ed.], incarnated in the female protagonists. The figure, still appearing in female guise, then changes character in the Depression Trilogy, becoming subjected to clinical psychology. This is where the connection appears between Dostoyevski’s conception of moral innocence and Martin Seligman’s ‘learned helplessness’. Seligman staged behaviorist experiments in which animals were repeatedly exposed to ‘aversive stimuli’, which they could not escape. After a while, Seligman observed, the animals started to accept the situation and behave as though they were helpless to change it. Applied to humans, Seligman discovered that ‘learned helplessness’ is at the heart of depression and can be remedied through cognitive behavioral therapy stressing the alternatives to such ‘conditioned defeat.’ (In Antichrist, Willem Dafoe’s psychiatrist tries another kind of cognitive behavioral correction, exposure therapy, in an attempt to cure his wife’s anxiety disorder.) ‘Conditioned defeat’ is what the nameless ‘She’ in Antichrist, the Sadean Justine in Melancholia, and Joe in Nymph()maniac seem to be suffering from, although other diagnoses are made available (post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar depression and, of course, sex addiction).

Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

But something else has changed. From Antichrist onwards, Von Trier confesses that he ‘desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German Romanticism’. And, indeed, the Depression Trilogy is rife with German Romantic tropes, from the prevalence of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Melancholia, to the rapprochement between the Myshkin figure and Parsifal, to the fairytales that provide both narrative inspiration and pictorial motifs (notably the anthropomorphized tree). It was a question about the influence of the German Romantic tradition that prompted the Nazi rant during the Melancholia press conference. In the end, Von Trier was more apologetic about that film’s polished Romantic aeshetic than he was about his rhetorical faux pas, in which you can once again detect a return to the concerns instigated by Europa. Revealingly, the story about his parentage reappeared, this time explicitly coupled to a professed inquiry into German high culture:

When my mother was on her deathbed, I found out that I wasn’t a Trier after all but came from a German family. I always found Nietzsche interesting and now I’m reading Thomas Mann. The Germans have always influenced me. At one point, I was tapped to direct Wagner’s Ringcycle in Bayreuth, but it turned out that they didn’t have the money for it anyway, because I was far too ambitious. I have always flirted a bit with the good Herr Wagner, and in Antichrist we inched towards a kind of German Romantic painting. Indeed, Sturm und Drang and everything that followed.

That he was reading Thomas Mann is also pretty apparent from Nymph()maniac: Mann’s final diagnosis of the ‘German scene’, Doctor Faustus, the novel he finished before writing the Nietzsche essay, is a Nietzschean allegory obsessed with apocalypse and last judgment (in the film, Seligman cites Mann’s description of the birth of Noah’s son, Ham, as a satanic omen), and pitching the Dyonisian forces of passion and tragedy against Apollonian reason. The novel also draws inspiration from Dürer’s Melencolia and its numerological ‘magic square’ and features allegorical characters named Wohlgemut and Zeitblum. Serenus Zeitblum is the protagonist’s best friend and the novel’s narrator, a humanist and a friend of reason who tries to ward off Leverkühn’s demonic spell. But despite all surface similarities, Seligman is no Zeitblum. The influence of Doctor Faustus on Nymph()maniac mainly comes down to the Nietzschean metatext. Leverkühn is a Nietzschean figure who shares with his model not only a passion for music but a condition of mental illness: like Nietzsche, Leverkühn goes mad because he contracts tertiary syphilis. In fact, Nietzsche’s diagnosis has recently been revised as bipolar disorder.

Now, let’s suppose that Joe is not the villain of the piece, but Seligman is. What, then, is his crime, other than that he betrays his friendship with Joe when he tries to have sex with her just as she has foresworn all lovemaking? In the polemical summary work of Nietzsche’s career, On The Genealogy of Morals, the philosopher with the hammer once again, as in Beyond Good and EvilHuman, All Too Human and The Antichrist, challenges the Christian idea of Good and Evil, arguing that the value of moral values must be called into question. He does this by providing a genealogy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ that reveals these concepts to be historically contingent and far from absolute or a priori. ‘Goodness’, Nietzsche proposes, is a category devised by the powerful, and it is only when the priestly caste rebelled against the warrior caste through its ‘ressentiment’ that the polarities of good and bad were reversed between power and aggression on the one hand and slavish passivity on the other. The slave morality is that of Christianity but, primarily, that of Judaism. What began with Judea was the triumph of ‘ressentiment’. Ascetism, the subject of the Genealogy’s third treatise, Nietzsche sees as the main symptom of ‘ressentiment’, and isn’t ascetism what Seligman practices? I repeat, if Joe, the ‘moral monster’ as Nick James calls her, must be seen as the piece’s vitalistic, Byronic or Sadean heroine – ‘My name is Joe,’ she tells her sex addict group, ‘and I am a nymphomaniac… and I love myself being one’ – then Seligman, according to the unmistakable anti-Semitism of Nietzsche’s text, is its villain. But Nietzsche’s superman, the one to rise above conventional morality, is a ‘blonde beast,’ as he describes him in the Genealogy, a worldly, amoral aristocrat, a Germanic warrior definitely not a woman. In The Will to Power, he writes: ‘Woman! One-half of mankind is weak, typically sick, changeable, inconstant… she needs a religion of weakness that glorifies being weak, loving, and being humble as divine: or better, she makes the strong weak – she rules when she succeeds in overcoming the strong… Woman has always conspired with the types of decadence, the priests, against the “powerful”, the “strong”, the men.’ If you take Nietzsche’s misogyny – straight out of the film Antichrist’s thesis on ‘Gynocide’ – to be a rhetorical strategy aimed at dismantling chauvinist sentimental clichés, then you end up in the same murky waters as Angela Carter’s problematic defense of Sade as a ‘moral pornographer’ (‘The moral pornographer would be an artist who uses pornographic material as part of the acceptance of the logic of a world of absolute sexual license for all genders, and projects a model of the way such a world might work. A moral pornographer might use pornography as a critique of the current relation between the sexes’), or Seligman arguing that Joe’s pathological behavior is feminist, or Lars Von Trier’s own unlikely recuperation by feminist critics. On the other hand, a feminist like Catherine Breillat has criticized Von Trier for his practice of adapting a female perspective to disguise his misogyny. In her own practice, unwilling to hide the misogynistic violence that she sees as part of the erotic scenarios she is interested in, she does the opposite, projecting a male point of view:

Je peux être feministe dans ma vie, politiquement, mais dans mes films, jamais! Au contraire, ils sont remplis de violence misogyne. Simplement parce qu’en tant qu’auteure, j’adore écrire des choses misogynes. C’est un plaisir, et plus c’est violent, plus ça me plait – alors que dans la vie, ça ne me plait pas du tout. Quand j’écris, je me mets à la place de l’homme…

Chapter 2. Containing a few common matters, with a very uncommon observation upon them

I hadn’t really planned on writing so extensively about Von Trier and Nymph()maniac, but now that I have, I will hold him up as an example of a skewed or at best confused moral perspective, to offset the complex discussion of art and morality, ethics and aesthetics, I now want to engage with. The reason is that I was struck by the centrality of moral response and the consideration of moral perspective to many of the films critics agreed were the best of the year: Nymph()maniacThe Wolf of Wall Street12 Years a Slave, Zero Dark Thirty, Spring BreakersThe Act of KillingA Touch of Sin,Norte, the End of History and, those with fewer partisans, Only God ForgivesThe Bling Ring, Claire Denis’s Bastards, and The Counselor. In future blogs I will come back to some of these films that were all either praised or taken to task for lacking a clear moral position. For now, I will explore the response to two of them, Spring Breakers and The Wolf of Wall Street. To start things off, here’s Manohla Dargis on the former:

At once blunt and oblique, Spring Breakers looks different depending on how you hold it up to the light. From one angle it comes across as a savage social commentary that skitters from one idea to another – white faces, black masks, celebrity, the American dream, the limits of self-interest, the search for an authentic self – without stitching those ideas together. From another it comes off as the apotheosis of the excesses it so spectacularly displays.

Her colleague at the New York Times, A.O. Scott, similarly leaves the moral position of The Wolf of Wall Street open to question: ‘Does it offer a sustained and compelling diagnosis of the terminal pathology that affects us, or is it an especially florid symptom of the disease?’ And here’s Simon Reynolds’ assessment of Spring Breakers in Sight and Sound: ‘You can take Spring Breakers as an indictment of youth today, a comment on how pop culture’s anti-social fantasies contaminate real life. Or you can enjoy it as a (pretty soft-core) wank-fantasy.’ I want to propose that to leave the film’s true intention open to the viewer/reader’s conjecture and preference is a rhetorical ploy (the Rorschach trick) that reveals a commitment on the critic’s part to sidestep any discussion of the work’s ethics.

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)

Before we explore this further, let’s note an additional diversionary tactic, namely to consciously confuse the moral with the political. Anthony Kaufman at Indiewire, for instance, is pretty straightforward in his political condemnation of Spring Breakers, which he aligns with The Great Gatsby as ‘hypocritical treatises on the American dream…clouded, confused and contradictory in class, social and racial politics.’ The relationship between the moral and the political has been a topic of debate since antiquity and Plato’s De re publica, but I think it’s fair to say that in current discussions the dyad comes out as either conservative moralist politics or political correctness. Philosopher Jeffrey Dean, for one, has pointed out that the political is a different category of value that does not necessarily overlap with the moral. But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the movie’s presumed political agenda tells us something about its moral position. I really don’t see what’s confused or contradictory about the racial politics of Spring Breakers, a movie that starts with a lecture hall full of bored kids listening to their professor drone on about Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights and the African-American experience while two of our lead characters draw big dicks and mimic giving blowjobs. At the New Yorker, Richard Brody argues that Spring Breakers is Korine’s version of Mailer’s “The White Negro”, pitching ‘”white hipsters” that seek to put themselves in the psychological and even practical position of American blacks by means of transgressive behavior (including crimes) that force them to confront the daily perils of the sort faced by blacks.’ I think he hits the nail on the head, but then he goes on to conclude that ‘the very mainspring of the movie is (Korine’s) stereotypical and reductive view of black life as one of drug dealing and gang violence,’ forgetting his own insight that this is not a movie about black life at all but about white kids mimicking blacks. Gender politics has been as central to the reception of Spring Breakers and The Wolf of Wall Street as to that of Nymph()maniac. The difference is that, in its “pornographic” challenge, Nymph()maniac constitutionally pushes both political and moral buttons, its misogyny directly deriving from its moral philosophy, whereas in the case of Wolf and Spring Breakers identity politics are clearly made subservient to moral inquiry. In any case, Scorsese’s and screenwriter Terence Winter’s treatment of gender in The Wolf of Wall Street proves a sore point for A.O. Scott:

Is this movie satire or propaganda? Its treatment of women is the strongest evidence for the second option. The movie’s misogyny is not the sole property of its characters, nor is the humiliation and objectification of women – an insistent, almost compulsive motif – something it merely depicts. Mr. Scorsese, never an especially objective sociologist, is at least a participant-observer.

We’ll get to the part about the ‘participant-observer’ in a minute, but let me first point out that recuperation has become the strategy of choice to treat what at first glance might appear to be problematic content. Slant’s Calum Marsh, for instance, writes that Korine turned his teen idol leads into ‘much fiercer and more powerful figures than their daytime iconography could have accounted for.’ He goes on in full Angela Carter vein:

What’s going on here, in effect, is reverse slut-shaming: Spring Breakers makes a point of exaggerating the vivacious sexuality of these women in order to dispel the myth that assertive or even aggressively sexual women can’t be strong, deep, and generally well-rounded people… The very fact that it avoids stereotypical victimization or any other condescending bullshit is reason enough to laud its core ideology.

‘Reverse slut-shaming’ belongs to the same semantic field as ‘reading against the grain’ as a challenge to conventional interpretive strategies. But all this oppositional reading and protestation of open-endedness and multifariousness (Nick James’ review treats the ‘vulvic’ open brackets in Nymph()maniac’s title with almost Lacanian zeal) seems to me just more maneuvering around the unmistakable moral challenge laid down by these movies. So it is with great reluctance that these critics come to something resembling a judgment of the film’s morality. Simon Reynolds will only admit that he has a problem with Spring Breakers ‘morally unsatisfactory (in)conclusion’ after first having piggybacked on Marcuse’s conception of ‘repressive desublimation’ – the idea that the system itself encourages excess and insatiable consumption – finally calling for a director who ‘actually dared to pass judgment, who was unafraid to risk being didactic.’ A.O. Scott doesn’t go that far and admits to a culture-wide moral defeat: ‘It may be unfair to demand from the director a clarity of judgment that virtually nobody else – in business, politics, journalism or art – seems able or willing to articulate.’ It might seem unfair to Scott, but their lack of judgment is precisely what Scorsese and Korine, and Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow amongst others, were taken to task for. (In her subtle piece on the lack of judging in The Bling Ring, Anke Brouwers still concludes that ‘it would have been interesting to find Coppola taking a stance – not providing a learning lesson but claiming a position.’) We don’t like didacticism, not from our critics and not from our filmmakers – it’s uncool – but at the same time a movie’s perceived immorality or amorality cannot simply be passed over, especially when it was made by a revered or at least respected filmmaker. The result is of course that these critics end up sounding like the same moral relativists they are criticizing.

Chapter 3. Containing much matter to exercise the judgment and reflection of the reader

Let’s try to clear up some of this confusion by pointing to the exiting work that has been done on the relationship between art and morality, ethics and aesthetics, by philosophers like Noël Carroll and Berys Gaut. The first question they address is whether it is at all necessary to speak about art, about movies, in moral terms. Carroll gives us the different positions in the philosophy of art on moral assessment: there is the autonomist position, positing a clear separation between the artistic and moral realms (based on the logic that moral judgments are directed at persons and actions and artworks are inanimate); the utopian position, arguing that, by its very nature, art is morally uplifting because of the possibility it offers of another world; and, inversely, the Platonist position, regarding all art as morally suspect. One of the reasons Plato chides art is for proposing characters who are bad moral role models. A further problem lies with the way mimetic art is consumed, through identification, which in itself is morally suspicious. Obviously, each of these traditions have their flaws, particularly in their generalizing tendencies. In his defense of an ‘ethicist’ stance, that starts from the assumption that the ethical assessment of attitudes manifested by works of art is a legitimate aspect of the aesthetic evaluation of those works, Berys Gaut resists generalization by presenting his argument pro tanto: it is not so that a work must be ethically good to be aesthetically good, only that ethically admirable attitudes count toward the work’s aesthetic merit. In other words, there is a plurality of aesthetic values of which ethical value is but a single kind. It comes down to balancing merits and demerits of different kinds to be able to argue whether a work, in the end, is aesthetically good or bad. How then can we ascertain a work’s moral attitude? For Gaut only the attitudes really possessed by a work count, not those attributed to it or those it merely claims to possess. Carroll talks about this in terms of a work’s perspective, prompting evaluative attitudes towards diegetic elements like characters, situations etc. The conception of a work’s moral perspective is clearly to be preferred to the psychologism of a movie’s moral position being attributed solely to the director or ‘auteur’. But I would hasten to add that in a case like that of Von Trier, who blatantly projects himself and his own neuroses onto his characters, the psychologizing approach becomes inevitable.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

What happens, then, if a work’s characters or situations are morally flawed, as is the case in Spring Breakers and The Wolf of Wall Street? Philosopher A.W. Eaton calls these morally defective characters for which we are nevertheless invited to feel sympathy, ‘rough heroes’: the movie prescribes moral disapproval but at the same time undermines its condemnation by making the character likeable, sympathetic, or even admirable. There are different types of ‘rough hero’, from the ‘admirable devil’ to the ‘congenial murderer,’ but one of the more popular ones is the ‘glorified criminal’, to which Wolf and, to some extent, Spring Breakers appear to belong. Classic instances of the glorified criminal are Bonnie and Clyde, Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers, Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano (like Jordan Belfort, a rough hero given dramatic life by Terence Winter). According to Carroll, a work’s perspective ‘prompts’ evaluative attitudes towards the characters and situations. These prompts, however, can only be relied upon to produce the intended result for the work’s target audience and suitably similar audiences. The question of what different audiences will take away from movies like Spring Breakers and The Wolf of Wall Street is difficult to answer and clearly high on the critic’s agenda, even if not always stated explicitly. This is where the critic’s own moral responsibility starts: what happens when a morally complex film is consumed by less complex audiences? Eaton has a response that is more conceptual than reality-based and has to do with the idea of an audience having to overcome their imaginative resistance to certain characters and situations that are deemed morally flawed or bad. The audience overcoming their imaginative resistance, she argues, is the major artistic achievement of works in which the rough hero appears. An audience that fails to condemn the rough hero would miss out on the work’s real aesthetic achievement because there is no resistance to overcome (Matthew Kieran similarly argues about Goodfellas that it is precisely because of the solicitation of sympathy for immoral characters that ‘our moral judgments, attitudes and responses are mobilized in ways that render the imaginative experience both more ineligible and rewarding than it might otherwise be’). In other words, gangsters, ruthless capitalists, amoral youth or their supporters are not Wolf’s or Spring Breakers’ target audience. And, despite reluctant acclaim for the former by the Academy, neither is a bourgeois audience looking for ‘quality’ and uncomplicated moral uplift in their movies. With her essay (which you can find here), Eaton responds to the moralist perspective she ascribes to Carroll, who holds that a work can be judged as morally flawed when it prescribes responses that we have good moral reason to reject. The only way such works can, as it were, be morally redeemed is to consider them as learning materials. For Eaton, interpreting these works as complex morality tales overlooks what makes them compelling or unsettling, ‘their unrepentant and irredeemable immorality.’ She prefers to call them ‘intrinsically immoral’ and therefore to this extent morally flawed, but still aesthetically good or successful.

Chapter 4. Containing a hint or two containing virtue, and a few more concerning suspicion

What is missing from Eaton’s assessment (and is implied by Carroll’s conception of the film as learning material or morality tale) is that many of the films she lists can be seen as satires. Treating The Wolf of Wall Street and Spring Breakers as satire allows us to differentiate them from the morally and aesthetically flawed Nymph()maniac, which in Eaton’s characterization of an aesthetically successful but morally unsuccessful achievement brings us back to the kind of aestheticism that Von Trier, after Europa and the shadow of both Germany and his mother’s death, wanted to get away from. It is true that in Von Trier’s film the audience is asked to overcome its imaginative resistance to a morally flawed character. The problem is that we assume this character to be Joe, whereas in the end it turns out to be Seligman. You could call the ending of Nymph()manic a cynical one, and cynicism is also what is attributed to Wolf and Spring Breakers. Here’s A.O. Scott again:

Does The Wolf of Wall Street condemn or celebrate? Is it meant to provoke disgust or envy? These may be, in the present phase of American civilization, distinctions without a meaningful difference behind them. If you walk away feeling empty and demoralized, worn down by the tackiness and aggression of the spectacle you have just witnessed, perhaps you truly appreciate the film’s critical ambitions. If on the other hand, you ride out of the theater on a surge of adrenaline, intoxicated by its visual delights and visceral thrills, it’s possible you missed the point. The reverse could also be true. To quote another one of Mr. Scorsese’s magnetic, monstrous heroes, Jake LaMotta, that’s entertainment.

That’s cynicism. In his classic study, Critique of Cynical Reason, Peter Sloterdijk diagnoses a condition of cynicism, what he calls ‘enlightened false consciousness,’ that resulted from the dwindling of the enlightened ideals of the Sixties protest movements and the ‘metamorphosis of hope into realism’. Psychologically Sloterdijk defines the cynic as a borderline melancholic who, despite his depressive symptoms and a nagging doubt about the usefulness of his actions and pursuits, manages to keep functioning in society. Sound familiar? Although, as Andreas Huyssen notes in his introduction to the book, Sloterdijk is strongly indebted here to a Nietzschean kind of Kulturkritik that focuses on the nexus of knowledge and power, he is not ready to forget the affinity between Nietzsche’s subtle ‘cynicism of self-disinhibition’ and the brutal politics of imperialism, later fascism. What Sloterdijk proposes as a remedy to cynicism is the tradition of Kynicism, embodied in Diogenes of Sinope, the great debunker of cultural values, who was derided by the people of Athens for being ‘kynical’ – literally like a dog (or a Wolf? No! Diogenes made a virtue of poverty). Kynicism stands for employing radically bodily gestures to substitute for idealism, for empty theories and conceptions. Kynicism is anti-reason, anti-metaphysical, pleasure-oriented, and fundamentally satirical (the story of Diogenes is told with great gusto in Rabelais’ scatological satire, Gargantua and Pantagruel). What Sloterdijk proposes instead of a disillusioned, alienated and pessimistic postmodernism, the kind that makes A.O. Scott write things like the above, is a critical and adversarial variant that Manohla Dargis seems to have a much better grasp on:

That Mr. Korine appears to be having it both (or many) ways may seem like a cop-out, but only if you believe that the role of the artist is to be a didact or a scold. Mr. Korine, on the other hand, embraces the role of court jester, the fool whose transgressive laughter carries corrosive truth. He laughs, you howl.

But what if, as has been suggested, Sloterdijk’s Kynical resistance is just another pastiche, a return to Norman O. Brown, Dyonisian politics and hippie liberalism, just like Von Trier’s patchwork are nothing more than an empty imitation of great modernist film art (lately primarily Kubrick and Tarkovsky)? Both Simon Reynolds and Richard Brody see Spring Breakers in terms of a ‘terminal postmodernity’ precisely in the sense meant by Fredric Jameson, foregrounding an a-historical ‘NOW!-ism’ (Reynolds’ term) and an affectless stream of mere intensities, moments of artificial elation. Reynolds, in a pretty worn-out metaphor, sees the film as ‘a feedback loop of simulacrum shaping reality shaping simulacrum,’ proof for which he finds in the movie’s MTV look, its gangsta character’s obsession with Scarface and one of the girls telling her friend to go at it ‘as in a video game’ or else as ‘in a movie.’ In The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer has former Indonesian death-squad leaders stage reenactments of their executions and torture sessions as gangster noir or gaudy musical numbers, their genres of choice when they were still working as ushers and movie ticket scalpers. Does this necessarily make The Act of Killing a postmodern film in which, given the present stage of our civilization, it is impossible to discern any trace of moral judgment? Is there no judgment when Oppenheimer, like Scorsese, wants us all to realize our complicity while staring open-mouthed at the grotesque spectacle he presents? The only way to break out of the feedback loop, Reynolds offers, is through straightforward moralizing. But perhaps there is another way. One of the more lucid passages in Reynold’s analysis goes like this:

There’s a smidgeon of a hint of authorial irony in the juxtaposition of squalor (a passed-out girl in a vomit-spattered toilet) with voiceovers from the girls phoning their mothers to reassure them that they’re having a great time, they’ve met so many wonderful people, ‘next year I want to come here with you.’ What’s disquieting about these phone calls… is you’re not sure that the girls are simply spinning a line of bullshit… Could it be that they actually believe what they’re saying, when waxing lyrical about how ‘it’s like paradise here… so magical… I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve been… It’s way more than just having a good time’?

In his book Postmodern Ethics, Zygmunt Bauman argues against the ‘everything goes’ stance, cynically conveyed by A.O. Scott, that a postmodern perspective on moral phenomena ‘does not reveal the relativism of morality… Neither must it call for, or obliquely recommend, a “nothing we can do about it” disarmament.’ Instead of engendering moral relativism or nihilism, the substitution, precisely, of ethics by aesthetics, Bauman sees the postmodern condition as providing the possibility, not more than that, of the recovery of the autonomy of the moral self. I want to say, with Bauman, that the achievement of films like Spring Breakers and The Wolf of Wall Street is that they recover a sense of morality, a moral self, not by moralizing from an a-priori position but by revealing certain moral pretenses to be false: 1) that human beings are either good or bad; 2) that moral phenomena are rational; 3) that moral decisions are simple. To quote Jonathan Romney’s review of Nymp()maniac: ‘Now discuss.’