Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 27, September 2001



Adam Muller

Rediscovering the Virtues in Popular Film




Joseph H. Kupfer

_Visions of Virtue in Popular Film_

Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999

ISBN 0-8133-6721-2

236 pp.


It is no secret that interest in normative ethics has increased across the humanities and social sciences in recent years. This trend has been driven, as much as anything else, by growing public awareness of the profound consequences of new developments in 'hard' scientific disciplines like molecular biology and genetics, and by a much longer-standing set of concerns involving the sustenance and protection of the environment. Literary and Film Studies have also benefited from this revival of ethical interest, and a number of fine critical studies have appeared over the last ten or so years which have succeeded in building new (and very necessary) bridges between ethics and the arts. Of the two disciplines, by far and away Literary Studies has been the greater beneficiary of this ethical turn, as excellent works by Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and more recently Colin McGinn attest. Films have traditionally proven to be of less interest to ethicists than literary fictions, perhaps because of the greater number of literary works from which to choose ethical exempla, but more probably because of the relatively more pronounced tradition in literature of texts deliberately designed to confront issues of enduring social and moral significance. The presence of these texts underwrites Doris Lessing's defense of literature's ethical import, a defense marshalled in her 1986 Massey Lectures in which she argues, *pace* Aristotle, that literary fictions offer readers 'laboratories of social change', [1] or imaginative domains in which to test the limits of their moral intuitions, thereby becoming better able to refine them.


Film, by way of contrast, was originally created primarily as a means of mass entertainment, and so from its start conceded the ethical terrain to literature, offering instead vaudevillian slapstick and (at best) a minimal narrativity. The later aestheticization of film -- a project self-consciously undertaken by great early film theorists including Eisenstein, Kracauer, and Bazin -- failed to remove the lingering odour of the boardwalk, the carnival, and the country fair. Even today, at a time in which film is most often taught as 'art', the technical sophistication and accomplishments of directors, cinematographers, and performers frequently justifies its being so-conceived; only secondarily is film celebrated for its ethical complexity and depth, and for its role as an instrument of narrative communication. Significantly, when film scholars do turn their attention to the ethics of cinematic representation, as they did during the much-discussed 1984 conference on Image Ethics held at the Annenberg School, the kinds of questions raised don't often address film's ability to contribute to our capacity for moral self-reflection and critique; instead the questions asked and answers given seem concerned principally with the ethics of image appropriation and the psycho-politics of spectatorship, the latter hardly counting as 'ethical' at all. As a result, the world of the film-fiction and the ethical contestations therein have remained subordinate to (or in extreme cases they have become read simply as a function of) the ethical imperatives organizing the world of the viewer. For the film theorist, empathy and other social emotions fail to register analytically at all.


These issues and concerns, then, along with the sense that film has something more to offer the applied ethicist, comprise the main *raisons d'etre* for Joseph Kupfer's new analysis of virtue in popular film. Kupfer, a philosophy professor at Iowa State University, has written widely on ethics and aesthetics, and in _Visions of Virtue_ he offers an account of virtue deeply indebted to the work of Alisdair MacIntyre, and to the cluster of neo-Aristotelian thinkers with whom MacIntyre is now regularly associated. It seems strange how easily Kupfer borrows from MacIntyre given the sustained philosophical attack on him following the publication of _After Virtue_, his landmark critique of modernity and defense of community standards and practices. Indeed Kupfer spends more time explaining how films mean than he does defending his conception of virtue, and his explanation of the former is (admittedly deliberately) not really all that robust.


And yet despite his disengagement from the philosophical paratext surrounding MacIntyre and his work, and quite possibly because of his tendency to rely upon Aristotle when MacIntyre himself won't do, Kupfer manages to offer an account of virtue quite appropriate to his subject matter. Specifically, Kupfer defines virtues as 'the qualities that promote attainment of those goods that are internal to activities' (29), and goes on to analyze the actions or activities of characters in films like _Groundhog Day_ in terms of the extent to which they promote (or fail to promote) *eudaimonia* or wellbeing. By so doing he hopes to encourage a dialogue with Aristotle 'by reinterpreting the Aristotelian perspective in light of popular American movies, which confront it with a contemporary sensibility. The wisdom and resiliency of the Aristotelian view of virtue are confirmed in its practical relevance to modern life' (33).


From MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum Kupfer borrows the notion that in order to understand human conduct as more than simply a disconnected series of behaviours we must have recourse to some kind of a coherent biographical narrative or story, a story that is part and parcel of every narrative film. Kupfer uses this claim to justify his attention to popular films such as _Groundhog Day_, _Rob Roy_, and _Jaws_, films which require of their protagonists actions which reveal their struggle either to become virtuous or to refine their virtues. The ethical payoff for viewers of these films consists in their ability to reveal -- through a by now well-established convention which holds that narrative films 'are like case studies in law, filled with the subtlety and messiness that naturally elicit attention to those loose ends of life so easily lost on the clean edges of academic theory' (32) -- the narrative content of our own ethical-interpretive frameworks. But even if Kupfer is right and it is only through stories that we come to make sense of one another as fully human beings, it is unclear from his argument, and indeed from his book as a whole, why the stories we should be looking at are ideally located in popular films. Nowhere in his book does Kupfer make clear why the films he chooses to discuss are better suited to his purpose than any of a large number of similarly popular films, all possessing more or less the same sorts of moral outlooks, or better even than a host of otherwise promising so-called 'art' films. To make the problem literary for a moment: why look to John Grisham for a lesson in virtue when we can turn to Tugenev and Flaubert instead?


One of the great curiosities of _Visions of Virtue_ is Kupfer's silence on the matter of what it is about popular film per se which makes it suitable for the kind of ethical reflection he endorses. Even more puzzling is my sense that an answer to this question can be readily found in Aristotle, and in particular in the _Nicomachean Ethics_, a work in which we find a strong argument for an ethics rooted in a special kind of social discourse, one centering on the reconciliation of contradictory appearances or *phainomena*. These 'appearances' are more or less our deeply held beliefs about what things are really like, and according to Aristotle we have a responsibility as members of a community to foreground these beliefs so as to try and reconcile them with those of others with whom we might otherwise markedly disagree, and with whom we desire to live together in a community. In the absence of this reconciliation a community weakens and slowly begins to pull itself apart. Popular films, simply by being 'of' the people in significant ways, are presumably one such site at which appearances converge. By enacting or representing for a mass audience their beliefs about virtues such as honour, love, courage, and so on, the audience (ideally) comes to understand what love, etc., really mean (for them), and at least minimally is presented with the basis for ongoing deliberation and clarificatory debate. Art films, and related works of 'highbrow' literature, precisely in virtue of the relatively small size of their audiences and readership, as well as of the kinds of specialized knowledge they assume that their readers and viewers possess, must of necessity prove less useful in this regard. Thus Martha Nussbaum's defense in _The Fragility of Goodness_ of the ordinary as an object of philosophical analysis and ethical reflection: 'We need philosophy to show us the way back to the ordinary and to make it an object of interest and pleasure, rather than contempt and evasion'. [2] By connecting ethics to popular film we place ourselves in a position to observe not simply ethics in practice, but to recognize the manifold beliefs which ground our daily lives.


The seven films that Kupfer examines in _Visions of Virtue_ are grouped together in two sets of three chapters each. The first set, consisting of chapters on _Groundhog Day_, _The African Queen_, and _Parenthood_, deal with characters who undergo processes of moral education and reform; the second set, consisting of _Rob Roy_, _Fresh_, _Aliens_, and _Jaws_, centrally concerns characters whose virtues are put to the test, usually in do-or-die situations. The first three chapters address issues of 'virtue acquisition', the next three with issues of 'virtue exhibition', and the results of Kupfer's analysis are mixed.


Perhaps the most successful reading in _Visions of Virtue_ is of Harold Ramis's 1993 film _Groundhog Day_. The film, which revolves around the conceit of a protagonist forced to re-live the same day over and over again until he becomes a better person, is ideally suited to a discussion of virtue; indeed it is a case study of moral reform, with the protagonist Phil (Bill Murray) becoming progressively more attentive, self-deprecating, generous, and kind. Drawing on Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Plato, Kupfer offers a lively account of Phil's transformation from egoist to altruist, a change which enables him ultimately to win the love of Rita (Andie MacDowell), a genuinely good person whom, Kupfer argues, 'provides Phil with a moral alternative to the tedium of unsatisfying pleasure seeking and an incentive to the moral life' (50). Kupfer does a good job of showing how Phil comes to better himself through activities such as learning to play the piano and sculpting ice. Echoing MacIntyre on the ethical significance of practices, Kupfer argues that:


'Although Phil embarks on his self-improvement in order to win Rita's love, he comes to enjoy the activities for their own sake. The result is a life made meaningful by activity that is intrinsically valued. Piano playing, poetry reading, lifesaving all are undertaken by Phil as ends in themselves. At the same time, Phil comes to value people for their own sakes, not for what they can provide him' (52).


Similarly effective is Kupfer's juxtaposition of _Groundhog Day_ with Stephen Frears's 1989 film _Dangerous Liasons_. Kupfer compares Phil with Valmont (John Malkovich), and argues that both characters undergo similar moral transformations, similar in that they are both brought on by contact with virtuous others, although the latter's moral reform remains necessarily incomplete because he is evil, whereas Phil is just morally immature.


Kupfer's subsequent readings of _Parenthood_, _Fresh_, and _Rob Roy_ succeed, but are not particularly surprising. To say of Ron Howard's _Parenthood_ (1989), for example, that it shows us how: 'Parents who assume too much credit for their children's successes or failures are guilty of lacking humility, even though they may not lack love or compassion' (97), seems not to say very much at all. Nor does Kupfer startle us when he observes of _Rob Roy_ that: 'Just as Rob's sterling nature elevates the moral life of the clan, so do the clan and Rob's family sustain him' (151). Yet Kupfer's critical emphasis on language in _Rob Roy_, and especially on the connection between moral standards of speech (reciprocity, regard for promise keeping, etc.) and virtues such as respect, integrity, and fidelity, ultimately proves rewarding, not least because of its clarification of the nature of the reciprocity linking Rob Roy to his clan. These moral standards, standards violated or ignored by the film's evil-doers to their great disadvantage, make a moral community possible in the first place. At the personal level these standards, and the virtues to which they are connected, also form the basis for other virtues like courage and trustworthiness, all of which in turn enhance the moral character of the community. In Kupfer's words:


'The linguistic virtues are important to an individual's overall moral character because his relationship to himself is mediated by how he speaks with other people. We cannot maintain our self-respect and integrity unless we exercise these virtues in social intercourse. In being true to other people, individuals are true to themselves, to what they believe and value' (127).


Perhaps the least successful reading in _Visions of Virtue_ involves John Huston's _The African Queen_ (1951). In it Kupfer argues for the transformative power of romantic friendship, which in the film is exemplified by the romance between Charlie Allnutt (Humphrey Bogart) and Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn). Beginning with the notion that 'lovers inspire one another to be better than they presently are and enable each other to see their potential for moral improvement' (63), Kupfer goes on to show how Charlie loses his loutishness and Rose her priggishness as their journey down river progresses, and how consequently 'they see themselves as ennobled by one another. Each enables the other person to see herself or himself developing into a finer individual' (78). So far as it goes this reading of the film is persuasive, and indeed it is relatively consistent with a number of other interpretations of the Rose-Charlie relationship, and of Aristotle's views on friendship as well. What troubles me about Kupfer's reading is how reductive and flat it seems. Love, or at least the process of falling in love, is chaotic, passionate, capricious, contradictory, and often whimsical, all of which makes it wonderfully well-suited for representation in narrative films, including _The African Queen_. Very little of this excitement is conveyed by Kupfer's account, nor are its ethical implications explored other than tangentially. It would be too strong to call this a misreading of the film, but nonetheless it does suggest a regrettable under-reading of it. To a lesser extent this same problem bedevils Kupfer's account of _Aliens_, in which he offers a compelling reading of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as an agent of justice, a reading which for the most part neglects the ethical implications of her concurrent role as a surrogate mother. Although Kupfer does indeed offer some analysis of the relationship between Ripley and Newt, his claim that Newt is simply a 'miniature Ripley' (217) obscures the extent to which these characters' virtues fail to overlap. And yet Kupfer's reading of _Aliens_ is finally a satisfying one. By considering the film alongside _Jaws_ he is able to alert us to a number of semantically rewarding thematic and structural parallels between the two works, as well as to contrast the virtues of their protagonists and the self-deceptions of the films' other characters.


In sum, _Visions of Virtue_ works reasonably well as an exposition of virtue in selected popular films, but it remains philosophically underwhelming. Kupfer spends too much time generating (sometimes quite constricted) readings of the films he discusses, and not nearly enough assessing their ability to problematize or reflect back upon the philosophical accounts of virtue he deploys. Nor does he provide an adequate explanation of his choice of films, something which might have gone a long way towards offering an overdue justification for ethical- philosophical interest in popular culture more generally.


Center for Professional and Applied Ethics

University of Manitoba, Canada





1. See Doris Lessing, _Prisons We Choose to Live Inside_ (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1986).


2. Martha Nussbaum, _The Fragility of Goodness_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 260.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Adam Muller, 'Rediscovering the Virtues in Popular Film', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 27, September 2001 <>.



Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle


Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here


Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England



Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage