We finally got a chance on Monday to check out Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s homage (again) to Red Sox Land. I have to admit, after seeing little brother Casey in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and now in Gone Baby Gone, I’m taken by his talent. The guy can act. I suspect that this film was a lot more subtle in the initial cut, then the marketing people got their hands on it and screamed that the dumb viewers would not understand the connections, so Affleck (Ben, that is) was forced to insert all kinds of reminders to help the audience follow the thread. It kind of ruins the film. You’re constantly asked to remember some event that you witnessed 25 minutes prior, the suggestion being that you’re too fucking stupid to put it together yourself. If you had been paying attention, you would know that… It’s so heavy-handed – particularly as the final sequence of the film unfolds – that you want to scream at the screen “I know! I know!” It’s like when they remind you every friggin’ time that the guacamole is extra at Qdoba. Or, you know, it’s like something.
It’s hard to discuss the movie without giving away the ending, so I’ll keep my points here at a very general level. And at the very very general level, you get the ethical “choice” – the moment of decision. In this way, Gone Baby Gone is very much in the same vein as some of the other films I’ve discussed here, particularly those in the revenge genre, which constantly ask the viewers to revisit their ethical commitments and compare them to the Law. One could throw in the spate of other films that ask characters (and, by extension, the audience) to review their ethical inventory, and especially those that take a liberal stance on the War, like the painfully predictable torture film Rendition. It’s no mistake that such matters would arise alongside the War on Terror, or that cultural production would be so imbued with the whole thing. In Gone Baby Gone the choice is stark and clear, and constitutes the whole rationale for the film. The film doesn’t ask the audience to feel so much as to choose. It may even be that the audience is asked to disagree vehemently with the choice made by Affleck’s character. As I said, I’ll stay out of the details of this choice, but it does seem like an awful lot of labor we’re doing now at the movies, turning over these ethical conundrums that follow one another like catechism drills.
And it put me in the mind of Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous essay on the culture industry, which I read from time to time when I’m feeling particularly cynical and need a good laugh (it’s an hilarious essay, and I think deliberately so, despite what people may tell you). In the culture industry A&H were analyzing during the 1940′s, we still had the censors and a fairly uniform studio system that ran on monotonous formulas. Whether things are different today is a subject for debate, of course. At the very least, the official censorship of film has been distributed to some kind of market function. But I wonder whether the ethical labor we’re asked to perform isn’t just as tedious as the moral dictums churned out by the culture industry of 1940′s Hollywood. Moreover, at a formal level, I wonder whether these films don’t demonstrate more strongly than ever some of the observations A&H made then. It seems to me that Gone Baby Gone, The Brave One, and Rendition, for all their seeming differences, are actually very similar both in their formal structure and in terms of what they ask the audience to contemplate. In effect, they imply and invoke an audience that is capable of the ethical choice; they create and bank on precisely that version of subjectivity. So one may be the darling of the liberal left and one the rallying cry of the conservative right, but these turn out to be slight differences.
This is a tough situation. What should I do? What is right?
What’s more important than how you answer the question, for these films, is the form of the question itself, your capacity to ask it. Which is good, right? We like the ethical question, right? I’m not so sure. At a minimum, the rapid and widespread emergence of what I’ll call the ethical culture industry should make us all a bit suspicious.