MA Film Research Seminar: Film Ethics

Instructor: dr. Wim Staat

In this course, some of my research on ethics in film is developed in line with Stanley Cavell’s work on Hollywood melodrama and comedy. During my recent lectures in our BA-program on Mediaculture in Transformation, I have presented Film Ethics as a way to do research within the Humanities as an alternative to communications research and sociology concerned with ethics and media. My MA Film research seminar on Film Ethics attempts to further develop this idea.

Media Ethics often is related to professional codes of conduct. Journalists in the Netherlands, for example, have established an explicit code of conduct, whereas filmmakers have not – this does not imply, of course that filmmakers are immoral. Yet, this is not what interests me most. In my MA research seminar, film ethics is understood differently. In my opinion, film should be presented as a medium “for and of” morality. For me, this means that I’m less interested in the filmmaker’s morality and more in the way in which a protagonist’s moral behavior is being researched by the film itself. To be sure, a filmmaker may have explicit ethical objectives. However, morality and ethics can also be presented, and more interestingly so, when they are not explicitly thematized. Cavell calls this an alternative to research into front-page moral dilemma’s.

In our course, front-page moral dilemma’s will be an issue. But then again, and in line with Cavell’s understanding of morality, for our course the most pertinent moral issue of, for example, 9 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Mungiu, 2007) is not Romania’s anti-abortion legislation of the Eighties, but rather the effect such an anti-abortion policy has had on everyday life. For Cavell, the film medium is apt to present us with what he calls a “weave of cares and commitments” (Cities of Words). In our course, we will explore the ways in which film captures this texture of daily life, not only in films about front-page moral dilemma’s like 4 Months, but also in Hollywood “comedies of remarriage” like The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940).