Chapter 16
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Ethics and the Movies

Scholar Sam B. Girgus considers the cinema of redemption

What do Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, and Michaelangelo Antonini’s L’avventura have in common—apart from being uncontestable classics of the cinema? For Sam B. Girgus, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, these films come together under an umbrella he calls the “cinema of redemption,” a “multinational body of films” in which “ethical engagement with the other, rather than the triumph of the self, provides the great challenge of the journey toward redemption.”

In other words, responsibility to others—not to the self—comes first or forms a meaningful focus in these films, albeit in different ways. All portray, Girgus writes, “a quest … for a redeeming ethical experience that centers on the priority of the other.” And in his new work of film criticism, Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine, Girgus explores how the ideas that encompass the cinema of redemption resonate with those of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose work was greatly informed by the time he spent as a prisoner in a Nazi labor camp in World War II.

In particular, Girgus calls upon Levinas’s notions of ethics, which sets him apart from his contemporaries and influences in Continental philosophy. In his introduction, Girgus explains that for Levinas, ethics is “another word for the meaning of love in its promise of commitments greater than the self.” Levinasian philosophy prioritizes ethics “before being and ontology and before the Western hegemony of knowledge as power.”

Girgus applies Levinas’s concepts of ethics and time to such canonic American films as The Grapes of Wrath, On the Waterfront, and It’s a Wonderful Life, noting that “redemption and regeneration are old stories in America.” These, and other classics of American cinema, are films in which a hero’s identity is thrown into question, leading to a transformative experience. That in turn involves “total commitment to an ethical order of belief or action, one that makes ethical relations with others more important than personal demands, success, and wealth.”

Girgus then explores the correlation of Levinasian ethics to Emerson’s moral argument, which underlies the narratives of many classic American films of redemption. “In some ways,” Girgus writes, “the Puritans and Emerson presage not only Levinas’s ethical priorities but also Levinas’s way of seeing national and institutional purpose as fulfilling individual ethical calling.”

The films of “the quintessential American director” Frank Capra, notes Girgus, carry strong moral and ethical messages. “Like Levinas,” he writes, “Capra insists that not only are we not duped by morality but that the real duping occurs when we try to cheat morality and hope to escape the consequences of such avoidance.”

While Girgus sees the cinema of redemption coming “closest to a movement” in these and other classic Hollywood films, it is not exclusively an American phenomenon. After a thorough exploration of the American end of things, Girgus turns to European film, especially La Dolce Vita and L’avventura, close studies of which comprise the final two chapters of this meticulous and thoughtful work of criticism.

Sam Girgus will discuss Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on September 22 at 7 p.m.