The Moral Universe

I’ve got to go yammer on about movies in a few days, movies 1960 to present. I’m thinking about discussing the notion that interesting modern movies often involve the discovery of the moral universe, where the olde-timey ones simply existed within that universe. Thoughts from all you smart folks out there?


  1. Anonymous says

    Where do you think “Chinatown” and “The Godfather” fit in this dichotomy? I don’t think it’s an easy fit.

    Maybe there’s a third category here: a new moral norm created to combat the corruption of the traditional norm. Jake and Michael (and the Don) are moral w/in the confines of the movie, although their morality vis-a-vis traditional morality is pretty off-kilter.

    Maybe I’m assuming too much by considering these films interesting (or at least morally interesting).


  2. Matthew Lickona says

    I do say “often.” I wouldn’t dream of a blanket dichotomy.

    The Godfather is about Michael’s corruption, no? He’s out, he’s fulfilling his father’s dream of entering the moral order of society, free from criminal, murderous taint. By the end, he’s firmly within his father’s world, to the point where he breaks (personally if not formally) with the wife he found in the outside world. I think it’s almost Greek tragedy – Michael’s devotion to his father, to his family, is at once a strength and a fatal flaw, the one that renders him willing to murder, and ultimately drags him into the muck. The machinations of fate conspire to destroy him.

    Chinatown, I confess, I would need to see again to discuss.

  3. Anonymous says

    Argggh….My post has disappeared. Short version: Magnolia – older vs. younger generation as a nice illustration of what you propose.


  4. Matthew Lickona says

    I’m right with you. Magnolia, About Schmidt, and (yes, yes, I know) Kill Bill Vol. 2 are a few examples…

  5. Anonymous says

    Kill Bill Vol. 2…interesting. Someone at work suggested I see that. After Kill Bill Vol 1, I’m not so sure I’m up for it. My impression of Kill Bill Vol 1 was that it was Quentin Tarentino doing Quentin Tarentino. Just too much gimmick. Personally, I thought his best was Reservoir Dogs. I think I’m in the minority there. But one could argue it is a morality play, albeit he is seeking a morality among theives. A grappling, if you will….

    This is a fascinating topic. Do you ever check out I’m intrigued with there idea of film as the “church of the masses.”

  6. where would you place films such as wild strawberries or andrei rubelev. maybe andrei rublev is a difficult example, but wild strawberries seems to have that quality modern films have in so far as the main character comes to some sort of moral realization by films end. i guess you might consider it different from a modern film in the sense that the main character is operating inside a known moral universe, one imposed by the director and one in which the director clearly guides him to a desired end.
    or maybe you would consider both these movies modern. what movies strike you as simply existing in the moral universe?

  7. antiaphrodite says

    kill bill vol2? haven’t watched it. and the first one was spoled by someone behind me who wouldn’t stop talking.

    (i did notice, however, that the blood works in that movie were a little silly.)

    anyway, interesting notion. do yammer on. 🙂

  8. antiaphrodite says

    eek what in the world?! i meant spoiled!

  9. Anonymous says

    ML, Royal Tennebaums fits the bill well.

  10. Anonymous says


    Sorry to drag the discussion back to things literary, but you could do worse than consider Brideshead – the reason it works is you have a family that “pretends” that the moral universe is still in tact (which it is, but they don’t necessarily know that) and an outsider sees the pretension and is drawn into it…

    I’d say, as a matter of fact, that all great works of literature (and OK, film) present some sort of theogony to the reader(/viewer).

    So in your comments on Greek Tragedy, I don’t think you’re far from the mark – although we always mention the “serious” films – how ’bout some comedy in there, too?

    At any rate, something to think about from the people at Getty.



  11. You’ve probably already left town, but just in case…

    I’d say that many, many of the movies of the studio days were ostensibly in support of “the establishment” while pushing the envelope (yes, “justice” was usually done, but it was the bad guys who were sexier–think noir), while the post-studio movies shucked off the pretense (i.e., were wholly and openly post-modern, while the old movies were covertly so).

    Yet in the desert–i.e., in the wasteland of post-modernity
    –you’re actually freer to discover the truth in its purest form…

    So yes to the first part of your “dichotomy,” while I would distinguish the second.

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