Other than their current availability in video stores, what do the films The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Do The Right Thing, and Crimes and Misdemeanors have in common? My answer is that each uses comedy to describe how individuals affect what happens to them and their fellow human beings, and the limitations or restrictions on this influence. (Since none of these movies is new, some knowledge of their plots and milieu will be assumed.)
Set during a time that we generally call without blushing the Age of Reason, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen focuses on the siege of an unnamed coastal European city by a Turkish Sultan. To the central question: why did the Sultan attack the city and what can the city do to save itself? two answers are given. The first comes from Sir Horatio Jackson, the second from Heronymous Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen. The former is identified as the voice of realism; the latter as the advocate of fantasy. The film sides with fantasy. Jackson thinks that the war is caused by conventional greed, (a rational cause for war) and the solution is thus to follow ordinary rules. However, the truth is nearer to the Baron's assertion that war is both caused by and solvable through extraordinary (i.e., fantastic) human behavior.
Jackson is a public servant in the tradition of Robespierre. More than a republican zealot, he is a stereotype of the composite voice of the entire, secular humanist tradition, from Rousseau and Locke through Hegel and Marx. In short, he is the pure and simple believer in reason. Everything that does happen has a rational explanation and solution. Furthermore, everything that should happen should reflect the universal laws of reason, i.e., be common to all humanity and in accord with prescribed rules. Jackson interprets "to be common to all humanity" to mean, "unexceptional." Hence, Jackson executes a war hero at the beginning of the film, precisely because he was a hero, i.e., exceptional, and, as such, a bad object lesson to the rest of the troops.
The same motive underlies his attempt to kill the Baron, who is, above all, an exceptional human being. Similarly, Jackson interprets "in accord with prescribed rules" to mean, "independent of any consequences to human beings." Hence, for Jackson, all that matters in the war is that the rules are followed. In short, Jackson is a parody on the ethics of Immanual Kant's teaching that ethics are determined by pure, a priori rules independent of all experience and are intentionally blind to all consequences for human beings. The film's implicit charge is that Jackson is the kind of man inevitably produced by this kind of ethics: a bureaucrat, a man so bound by rules that experience no longer matters. Jackson's solution, when experience defies rational conception, is to outlaw the experience rather than to find new laws.
The Baron is an epic hero in the tradition of Homerian tales. In fact, the film's story is an odyssey, as the Baron undergoes multiple adventures in pursuit of his extraordinary friends. He sails to the moon, romances its queen and escapes the king's jealousy in order to find Bertold. Next, he enters the volcano of Mt. Edna, romances Venus and escapes her husband, Vulcan's jealousy in order to find Albrecht. Finally, he is swallowed by a South Sea sea-monster in order to find Gustavus and Adolphus. As Odysseus' voyage culminates in a heroic battle, so Baron Munchausen's adventure culminates in a long and complicated battle sequence. In short, the screen play of Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown asserts that there are heroes whose extraordinary abilities give human beings control of their universe. Hence, it is fantasy that best describes reality. In the end, life is what we make of it. Our control of our fate is limited solely by our lack of talent, the most important ones being courage and imagination. As such, this film, while appearing to critique the ideals of the age of reason, fundamentally advocates its individualistic, humanist ethics.
If Munchausen is the thesis, Do The Right Thing is our antithesis. Gilliam's movie suggests that human beings can determine their fate; Spike Lee's film argues that they cannot. As Munchausen focused on a war in which Turks besiege a classical European city, Do The Right Thing focuses on a different kind of war, where Blacks and Puerto Ricans burn down an Italian pizzeria in the Bedford- Styvesant area of contemporary New York City. Lee's film is set on a day when the temperature is more than 100°F and there is a water shortage, with characters who include middle-aged and young Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Italians, and Koreans. Besides the pizzeria, the only other businesses that we see is a Korean-owned, "Ma-and-Pa" grocery/convenience store, and a Black-owned push cart selling flavored ice shavings. The Black establishment leaders are the so-called Mayor, Mother Sister, and a disc-jockey called Love Daddy who "plays platters that matter" on the neighborhood radio station, We Love FM 108. Of all the music played, the dominant song "that matters" is Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." On the face of it, burning down the store fought the power. The burning questions though, are who is the "power" ? and does it really "matter"?
Lee carefully lays out the causes of the riot, and all of them can be described as being outside anyone's control. None of them, however, is in itself a sufficient and necessary cause, for chance also makes its contribution. What happens happens for other reasons, if, in fact, there are any reasons for what happens.
The Mayor and Mookie are the heroes; like the Baron, they are leaders who could (if anyone could) affect the outcome of the war. They can do something, but, unlike the Baron, they cannot do much, and it is not clear that what they can do matters. The mayor can save a child from being hit by a car, but he cannot make his mother stop abusing him. Nor could the mayor feed his own children. In other words, he can save lives, but he cannot affect their quality. We are presented with carefully chosen messages from Martin Luther King that violence "as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral..." and from Malcolm: "I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are plenty of bad people in America, and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power. ...it doesn't mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense ... I call it intelligence."
However, no hero's advice seems to offer any solution. King is right that violence doesn't work, but the riot wasn't really about racial justice, and it was not a rational act on anyone's part, but merely an instinctual release of tension. The good that the Mayor and Mookie perform is equally instinctual, as the Mayor says, "I wasn't a hero; I just seen what was happening and I reacted; didn't even think." In the situation documented by the movie, Malcolm's advice is equally unhelpful, for self-defense was an irrelevancy. In fact, the best use of self-defense was that of the Korean, not because he was swinging a broom at the angry crowd of blacks, but because his assertion of oneness with them was so absurd that the humor of it dissipated their anger.
From the perspective of Lee's film, what is the answer to the question of adequate ethical framework for action? The one implicit answer is, as it is for Aristotelian ethics, good character. Mookie and the Mayor act the way they do not because they deliberate, but because they are the kinds of people that they are. They cannot win a war, or at least they cannot prevent a riot, but they can minimize its damage when they "do the right thing."
Whereas the first film focused on individuals in states and the second in smaller community, Woody Allen's film focuses on them in families. Judah Rosenthal, an eminent and successful Jewish ophthalmologist, is a religious sceptic, but retains a "spark" of his religious upbringing. He has had an affair for the past two years with Dolores, an airline stewardess, who now threatens to ruin his marriage of twenty five years to Miriam and to destroy his reputation and business by revealing that he illegally borrowed money from one of his charities. After much soul-searching, he allows his brother Jack to have her murdered. To his utter chagrin, Judah not only gets away with the murder, but he discovers that he can overcome the guilt and continue to lead a successful, happy life.
The story also contains a number of parallel subplots involving characters loosely connected to Judah: the saintly Rabbi Ben, who, in spite of his moral excellence and Judah's treatment, goes blind; Ben's sister Wendy and their brother Lester; the assorted partners of these siblings. Wendy is about to divorce Clifford Stern who is competing (unsuccessfully) with Lester for the affection of Holly Reed, an associate TV producer whose interest in Cliff is primarily in Cliff's documentary about a Holocaust survivor, Louis Levy, who subsequently commits suicide. Both Lester and Cliff are film makers, though the implicit assumption (which we receive primarily through Cliff's eyes) is that Lester is shallow and successful while Cliff is deep and a failure.
Eyes play a central role in both the film's story line and its symbolism. Judah, morally blind, is an eye doctor in whose office hangs a painting of two people whose faces have no features. In contrast, Ben, who has moral vision, goes blind. Judah frequently quotes his father, Sol's lesson: "The eyes of God are on us always," though he never really understands it. He thinks it means that "the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished." He notes that when he looked into the murdered Del's eyes, he saw nothing behind them; all he saw was 'a black void.' In the end, because Judah does not understand, he rejects his father's lesson. Judah's communist Aunt May told her brother Sol to open his eyes, that might makes right However, even she sees more than Judah. She says, "For those who want morality, there is morality" and notes that her brother's faith in moral order is "a gift." Sol notes that he prefers God to truth, and comments that even if his faith were wrong, he would still have 'a better life' for that faith. Judah thinks that this means more happiness and success, but Sol means 'better' in a moral sense. The implication is that Sol knows what Ben knows, and that ideals cannot be falsified by mere events in this world. The film ends not with the moral despair of Judah and Cliff, but with the blind Ben dancing with his just-married daughter to the music of "I'll Be Seeing You."
Two views of divine providence seem to dominate the film. One is Judah's: the world is moral in that the good are rewarded and the evil punished. The other is Cliff’s: the world is immoral in that the good are punished and the evil prosper. The story line itself suggests that both are wrong. At the descriptive level the world is non-moral, since there is no correlation whatsoever (either direct or indirect) between morality and success. However, that does not mean that morality is futile. On the contrary, morality is something that human beings create, project on the universe, and, in so doing, create reality. The spokes-people for this view are Professor Levy, Rabbi Ben and Judah's father.
A sharp contrast is drawn between the amoral world of experience and the divine/human world of morality. The former is a world without love and forgiveness, because these are both part of the God/human co-creation of the moral order. Those who, because they lack both, have never known either, think that the world of experience is reality, but those who have had the good fortune to be touched in their youth by moral persons have the strength and 'vision' of character to know that the ideal is the real. Cliff thinks that movies are unreal, because they reflect morality, but, throughout the film, events from the experienced world are paralleled by movies, that is, by human creations that project order on the apparently haphazard events of human interaction. The reward for virtue is more virtue, and the punishment for sin is more sin. Hence, the "misdemeanors" of borrowing money illegally and having an affair lead Judah to the "crime" of murder. In Judah's own words, at first he did "a foolish thing, senseless, vain, dumb," and his "one sin leads to a deeper sin." Feeling guilt, Judah tells Ben that "after two years of shameful deceit ... I awakened as if from a dream." Ben tells him, "It's called wisdom. It comes to some suddenly. We realize the difference between what is real and deep and everlasting, versus the superficial pay off of the moment." Ben loses the ability to see "the superficial," but grows in his ability to see "what is real and deep and everlasting." Judah is blind to this moral reality. He sacrifices long term gain for short term advantage. Ben's advice to Judah to tell Miriam the truth about his affair and thus move together to a deeper life is unheard, as instead, Judah has Dolores murdered, and in so doing preserves the static superficiality of his marriage.
If The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the thesis, and Do The Right Thing is the antithesis, then Crimes and Misdemeanors is the synthesis. If the conceptual framework of Gilliam's film is modern, and Lee's is contemporary, the implicit ethics in Allen's film is post-modern. Gilliam tells us that exceptional people can affect the moral quality of the world, and Lee tells us that what matters is innate virtue. Crimes accepts both claims, and expresses a richer conceptual framework in which this apparent contradiction becomes coherent. The underlying schema of Munchausen is both humanist and romantic, for good and evil are defined in terms of maximizing human pleasure and minimizing human suffering, while emphasizing the richness of human imagination over and against the narrow perspective of conventional human intellect. The underlying schema of Right Thing is Aristotelian. Pleasure and pain have more to do with human fortune than with human deliberation, and ethics have more to do with character than action. In contrast to both, the underlying schema of Crimes is the Jewish philosophical tradition of Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas, which asserts that while the empirical world of nature is morally neutral, human beings can produce a moral order that is inherently more real. In other words, whereas the reason of science can only describe an apparent universe that is non-moral, the reason of ethics can produce an ideal universe that is moral.