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  • Keeping Company in Hollywood:Ethical Issues in Nonfiction Film
  • David H. Richter (bio)

It was in 1961, in the notorious thirteenth chapter of his first book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, that Wayne Booth took a flying leap into ethical criticism, an arena guarded by great souls like Plato, Samuel Johnson, and Leo Tolstoy, but primarily inhabited, fifty years ago, by narrow moralists from the Legion of Decency. In 1966 Booth told my class in contemporary theory at the University of Chicago that he had spent more time defending that chapter than the other twelve put together, but it was not time wasted, because it put that issue onto the table, where it turned into a busy field of inquiry. Booth's central thrust in the 1988 The Company We Keep was that, because man is a social animal, fiction is ethically formative: that our lives are significantly enriched or impoverished, our character strengthened or enfeebled, our values challenged or confirmed by the narratives that we read. Booth's views have attracted allies like Martha Nussbaum, and antagonists like Hillis Miller and Richard Posner.1

While I have elsewhere expressed my dissent from some of Booth's particular textual analyses, my discussion of "ethical cheating" in fiction films presumed his basic position on the ethics of fiction, and the essay that follows is an attempt to extend Booth's concerns in the area of narrative ethics to the nonfiction film.2 By nonfiction film, I refer to biographical and historical films that dramatize actual events in the lives of real people but use professional actors to represent the agents. I am not going to be discussing documentary films, which can raise very different ethical issues on top of, or in place of, the ones I shall be discussing here.3 [End Page 140]

Within the films I shall be discussing we can discern at least four arenas where narrative ethics operates, three of which were of concern to Booth in The Company We Keep. The first and perhaps most important is the ethics of rhetorical purpose, which applies to the final cause, the end or effect elicited or demanded of us by the film, and the ethical quality of that rhetorical purpose, its implications for human flourishing. The second is the ethics of the told, which applies to what is represented in the film: the agents in the film, their actions, choices, and thoughts as we are made to understand them from the words and images from the beginning through to the end. The third is the ethics of the telling, which covers narrative technique, how the story is told, the ethical consequences of decisions made about how to convey a particular story, technical decisions that can make the audience more or less sympathetic to individuals, their ideas, and their moral choices. The ethics of the telling will naturally involve techniques that film shares with verbal narrative (e.g., prolepses) along with others that are unique to film (e.g., split screen, jump cut, dissolve). These three modes of ethics correspond as well to three of the four causes in Aristotelian analysis, the final, formal, and efficient causes. Because the ethics of rhetorical purpose stands to the ethics of telling and the ethics of the told as the end to the means, these aspects are necessarily interconnected, although they need to be thought about as potentially separable issues.

The fourth cause, the material cause, marks the key difference between verbal and film narrative, and while words and images are, as such, ethically neutral, the material cause of narrative may in fact carry major ethical consequences as such; there may well be an ethics of film.4 Booth's book, subtitled An Ethics of Fiction, restricted itself to analyzing written narratives and representational poetry, and thus was not explicitly concerned with this issue, although Booth recognized that our ethical engagement with narrative included not only verbal narrative but also the feature films and television dramas we sought out, and even the hundreds of "expensively crafted thirty-second narratives" that come at us in the intervals of commercial TV programs (39). This essay has no grand theory about the relation between words and...


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