Ennui on the Screen and the Purpose of Conscience

Guilt and shame are two profound, heavily-weighted, concepts and perhaps some of the most excruciating mental experiences for people to have – so it’s unsurprising that they should have found their way into a variety of creative works. There’s a slight difference between the two, guilt typically relating to an individual’s conscience and shame relating to social pressure. But what do television and film suggest about their relation to society? And what purpose do these works really serve?

Crime and Punishment is perhaps the classic text on guilt. Originally a novel by Dostoyevsky about a man who commits murder and  mistakingly thinks he can avoid any consequences, the 2002 BBC miniseries shows viscerally the effects of the character’s guilt. John Simm’s Raskolnikov is a sweat-drenched, awkward, inconsistent man whose physicality alone is enough to raise ever-increasing suspicions around his involvement. There’s suggestion in the inevitable drive towards his imprisonment that this is a moralistic universe, society and the self seemingly inherently bent towards justice.

Lars von Trier’s work often deals with such themes of morality and in a famous, status-solidifying film, looked at the clash between shame-based society and a higher morality. Breaking the Waves presents that conflict within devoutly religious Scottish society. Bess (played by the powerfully sincere Emily Watson) is a woman flouting the rules of this society, firstly by marrying an outsider, secondly by the particularly unorthodox behaviour of having sex with strangers due to the request of her injured husband. Shame is naturally cast upon her but she is single-mindedly driven by her vows to her husband, and the film results in literal cosmic approval of her belief in her purpose. It’s not the act being approved of, necessarily, but the fact that she follows her love-oriented values above the restrictions of her society.

Courtesy of Zentropa

Stepping outside of moral boundaries to follow your own beliefs has unquestionably been a historical necessity, and it’s one of which philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche approved. He suggested that philosophers of the future should be called experimenters, and that their approach to life will almost necessarily involve suffering to reach their purposes. Any great challenge of the norm naturally involves some suffering, whether we’re looking at the Suffragettes or the civil rights movement, though it’s crucial to consider that most “experimenters” have acted in committed, like-minded groups rather than alone.

Von Trier later, however, posited the dangers of creating your own moral compass, with his most recent work The House That Jack Built. The protagonist, Jack (a slimy Matt Dillon), is a narcissistic serial killer, driven to kill and unable to consider anyone else’s needs but his own; and like Raskolnikov he tries to justify his actions by invoking culture. However, he meets justice that is briefly tragic – he’s granted a vision of the happiness he could have achieved – but then turns mockingly punitive as he receives damnation. It’s a morally straightforward turn for a director known to challenge orthodoxy, and perhaps damningly simplistic in choosing an overtly evil character.

Perhaps Von Trier’s changed tack can be seen as contrition for his own morality-flouting behaviour. The director has been accused of making his sets uncomfortable, particularly for women, with Nicole Kidman having balked at his tempestuous nature and Björk recently accusing him of various harassments. Even if he wasn’t responding to those incidents he has been a fury-inducing provocateur in his work and life, and was notoriously banned from Cannes for years due to jokingly suggesting holding an affinity with Hitler. The House That Jack Built becomes, with his past of misdeeds taken into account, a self-analysis – and speaks somewhat of the insulting, self-serving nature of addressing guilt.

Spring, Autumn, Winter, Summer…and Spring addresses this fake culpability. It’s about a boy raised as a buddhist who shows violent tendencies, and the master (Yeong-su Oh) he lives with tries to teach him the error of his ways through strict lessons and the maintenance of attachment-free, isolated living. However, when the boy ages and kills a woman in jealousy the master burns himself alive. The master’s death is a false penance, abnegation of guilt for the boy’s emotional repression cloaked in religious ritual; the ultimate act of denial in an existence bent towards denying the wider world.

Courtesy of LJ Film / Pandora Film

Much of entertainment grasps quite correctly that people cultivate their own defence mechanisms for avoiding shame, and narcissism is the most notable one. It is widely agreed that narcissism is a shield against shame that can manifest in a variety of ways, and psychotherapist Joseph Burgo explained a central idea to Business Insider that narcissists perceive the world in terms of “winners and losers.” All of the characters separate themselves in some way from conventional morality, creating illusory worlds, and all suffer and create suffering for it. The suggestion is that many people do not move past their guilt and shame but simply replace it with potentially more destructive ideas.

Enduring Love suggests something of a utilitarian perspective for approaching guilt, a story about someone destructive and uselessly trying to reckon with it. Joe (Daniel Craig) attempts to stop a balloon accident but, unfortunately, witnesses a death and tries to come to terms with it; he destroys the relationship with his partner (Samantha Morton) and humiliates himself in the process. His grappling with guilt is ultimately presented as a selfishness and, if he’d taken a utilitarian step back and thought about creating the greatest good for the greatest number, he might’ve realised the fruitlessness of his quest.

Another perspective is provided by Objectivism, a philosophy created by Ayn Rand that promotes the pursuit of self-interest as the central moral purpose in existence. Rand hits on an important truth with her statement that “emotions are not tools of cognition”, and these works certainly agree strongly with that idea; the emotions are rarely driving people towards positive resolutions. Rand implies that leaning into shame and guilt where a constructive route forward isn’t evident is immoral, and there’s no question that those emotions often lead to immoral behaviours.

One of the most extensive, nuanced shows about the ever-descending circles of shame and guilt is Better Call Saul. Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) is a lawyer known in his past as Slippin’ Jimmy, his warm character contradicted by his urges to commit criminal acts. Throughout the show he slips between moral and immoral acts, creating ever more difficult circumstances even when he apparently has numerous opportunities to start over. But with such a mixture of criminal and personal mistakes there’s no clear outlet for his knotted guilt and he thus adopts the moniker of Saul Goodman; because how do you face complex truths that don’t have an obvious legal or moral to follow?

Parasite speaks about the conundrum of behaving morally within society, with its characters trapped within and responding to their own circumstances. It’s about a poor family working their way, through illicit means, into employment with a rich family; the disastrous results of that include impoverishment for people in a similar position. The tragic ending of the film, with everyone involved seeing their lives impacted regardless of status, hints at a rot in society – and that immoral acts can only be reduced by addressing that rot.

A moralistic look at guilt instinctively seems the right thing, people taking responsibility for their acts or receiving the justice they deserve – but this is rarely anything but a superficial, emotive response to immorality. Immoral acts are often the result of a deeply immoral society, and as long as guilt and shame are posited in life as the worst possible experiences, then narcissism will rise and wreak more havoc. The best work about guilt and shame, then, isn’t just about the individual, but speaks too of society and asks: who should be ashamed?

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