The Dogma of Ambiguity

This New Yorker review by Richard Brody of Zero Dark Thirty, a film which, like most people in the real world, I have not yet seen, is fascinating in what it inadvertently reveals. Brody suggests that the film’s realist aesthetic participates in a “dogma” shared by many art films, that artistic success is a function of showing reality as it is without judging, and that such showing will presumably reveal moral ambiguity. It is not quite clear whether Brody wants to challenge this more generally, or simply complain that Bigelow is not doing it right, or well enough. The issue, of course, is that getting Bin Laden is good, torture is bad, torture is a part of getting Bin Laden – I use the hopelessly vague words “is a part of” advisedly – and therefore the entire enterprise is morally ambiguous. If you respond favorably to the film, then you become complicit, and thus receive an education in moral ambiguity. Brody tries valiantly then to show why it is bad when we do this with the war on terror, though good when we do it about countlessly many other things, in other art films.

Now the simpler reaction to have here is the partisan one. How interesting for a community to relentlessly accuse another community of being obtuse, unsophisticated, emotionally shallow, etc. etc. for demanding moral clarity, and then suddenly turn on a dime when an artist presents the war on terror, which for a time was a partisan litmus test, in a morally ambiguous way. No! Now we want moral clarity! Cut President Bush (or was it President Obama? Well, one of those) no slack! Consistency then would seem to require that one of these communities cut back on the whole condescension towards those who engage in simplistic moral judgments. One might even acknowledge that sometimes the problem is not a conflict between the morally sophisticated and the morally simplistic, but just moral disagreement simpliciter.

But something more interesting, I think, is going on in Brody’s review, when he begins to push the view that what Bigelow gives us is fake realism, because we see nothing but professionals doing professional stuff (and at the risk of paining anyone, let me remind: successfully). Where is Maya’s love-life? Her personal weaknesses? Etc. A commenter in the attached thread complains that “by far the most disconcertingly manipulative strand of propaganda for me was the ‘feminist’ aspect.” In other words, Maya is strong, feminism wants women to be empowered, now I’m rooting for the CIA, something has obviously gone terribly terribly wrong.

Now this reminded me of another reviewer, I don’t recall who, who, remarkably, called Bigelow a “sadist” pure and simple, which to my mind outdoes anything I’ve seen from conservatives in the moral hysteria department lately.

So is this the problem? That moral ambiguity doing service for, not to say as a shield for, weakness is desirable, but moral ambiguity in the service of strength is a “dogma”? So much so that even if the strength is female, this renders the feminism fake? How interesting. Perhaps Nietzsche was on to something with that whole “master morality/slave morality” contrast after all; Bigelow and her critics seem to be on opposite sides of it.

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