Blind Shaft and moral ambiguity

I enjoy the discussions at filmjourney as much as I do writing my blog entries, and we’re fortunate to enjoy the participation of Strictly Film School‘s Acquarello, who pops in from time to time. In one thread regarding current French cinema, for example, Acquarello writes about Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003):

“It’s a tough film to sit through because there are no truly sympathetic characters…What I do like in the film is that Haneke doesn’t present convenient “innocents” in the film for the audience to gravitate to; there is a flaw and a culpability to each one of them.”

This really intrigues me given my very lackluster reaction to seeing the Hong Kong film Blind Shaft (2003) last night. It’s basically 90 minutes of the highly amoral antics of two antiheros followed by two minutes of their comeuppance, with a “convenient innocent” thrown in to anchor the audience’s empathy. I just found myself wondering, what’s the point of all this? (I also don’t understand the claims that the film criticizes the Chinese government, because all of the anti-communist rhetoric in the fim is propagated by social undesirables while the convenient innocent is a straight-laced, hard-working proletarian.)

After the screening, I was excited to learn that an upcoming James Wong Howe retrospective in L.A. will include one of my favorite Hollywood films, Sweet Smell of Success (1957), which, I suddenly realized with some degree of consternation, is also a movie about two corruptable opportunists who receive their comeuppance resulting from a convenient innocent or two. Why would I hate the one film and love the other?

Part of the answer is that Sweet Smell of Success has one of the wittiest and acerbic screenplays ever written, but that suggests I’m merely prone to accept a film’s basic thrust so long as it’s done in a charming manner.

Additionally, the opportunists in Sweet Smell of Success are arguably less depraved than the opportunists of Blind Shaft–the latter are murderers from the first scene on. But I hesitate to order moral compromises into some sort of ultimate hierarchy; these offenses are tolerable and these offenses are not. I’d like to think all people are human and compromise is compromise.

I appreciate moral ambiguity in art and a desire to show people as multi-faceted and complex rather than absolutely good or absolutely evil. Films that establish empathy toward flawed characters (or critical distance from endearing ones) often earn my respect, but I find that there is definitely some sort of line I draw that determines whether or not the film works for me. I find Sweet Smell of Success an acidic but important statement on media corruption and personal integrity, and Blind Shaft a simplistic and heavy-handed narrative idea with moral placards instead of characters.