Despite the crass commercialism that drives the production of many movies, there's no doubt that film is a distinctive and distinctively powerful art form.
Why are some films philosophically important? People often assume there’s only one answer to that question: because they reveal important truths about life. But that assumption is profoundly and importantly mistaken. Although most of us have been conditioned since early childhood into thinking that all fictions Teach Lessons, Send Messages, and Offer Morals, it turns out that many of the world’s most sophisticated novelists and film-makers often aim at completely different goals.
Large numbers of great artists have made this point. Virginia Woolf said “art is being rid of all preaching”; Caryl Churchill said “the role of the playwright is not to give answers but to ask questions”; Toni Morrison said “I just cannot pass out these little pieces of paper with these messages on them telling people who I respect ‘this is the way it is’”; A. S. Byatt said “I do not have a message to give to the world”; Vladimir Nabokov said “I have no social purpose, no moral message”; Friedrich Schiller said “it is only a bad reader who will enjoy a moving poem as though it were a sermon”; Kaitlyn Greenidge said fiction “is not didactic”; Milan Kundera said “novelistic thinking… does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs”; Imbolo Mbue said “my job is to tell the story and let the reader decide”; Jorge Luis Borges said “many writers from here tell me, ‘We would like to have your message.’ [But] we have no message at all.” Add to that list Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Tom Stoppard, Eugène Ionesco, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Syrian poet Adunis, and any number of others. It’s not that artists haven’t been telling us what they’re trying to do; it’s that we haven’t been listening.
In the world of film, perhaps the most eloquent statement I know comes from Charlie Kaufman, the genius behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “I don’t like the idea of dictating what people ought to think. I can’t stand movies that are about teaching people things, like how to live better or something. First of all, I’m not qualified to do that, and second of all, it’s like, garbage.”
I’m not saying that films never try to teach lessons. But many of them don’t—and they can still be philosophically important even then. Some raise questions to which we, the viewer, have to offer answers. Some provide thought experiments that can spur our thinking. Some help us feel less alone. Some help us to understand ourselves. Some offer access to the inner world of another human being. (Being John Malkovich is really a route to “being Charlie Kaufman.”) Some help us to know what we know, see what we see, and feel what we feel. Some give us practice in using our minds in certain important ways. And some do other things besides.
One of last year’s greatest movies, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is a brilliant case in point. I won’t give anything away—you should watch this amazing movie for yourself—but suffice to say that it keeps pulling the rug out from under our feet, over and over again. It is constantly destabilizing our judgments, constantly making it impossible for us to say with certainty “this is good and that is bad.” And this kind of destabilization is good for us: while there is clear value in being able to make decisive moral judgments, there is surely also real value in being able to revise our opinions, to question our own beliefs, and to accept the limits of our knowledge.
Disappointingly, if predictably, some viewers and critics reacted with impatience. There’s a valid worry to be raised about the treatment of an African-American character, but concerns about the ending derive from a mistaken understanding of what kind of film this is and, in general, of what film is for. Just look at this emblematic headline: “‘Three Billboards’ backlash flows from debate over its message.” What message? Three Billboards does not have a message; that is the point. A world in which all films are assumed to be message-delivery systems is going to be a world that will never understand movies like Three Billboards.
Milan Kundera said it best: “Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil.”