Learning to Put Morals on the Backburner at Film School

By William K. Boland
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

At the University of Southern California Film School, there are two main goals: to foster creativity and encourage technical growth. As the Cinema-Television School website states, “This is an environment in which the flow of creativity and shared information crosses disciplinary and technological lines. It is this cross-disciplinary, cross-technology flow of thought and resources that makes the School unique” (USC School of Cinema-Television). The school, one of the top film schools in the nation, prepares students for the growing market of film production in Hollywood and the world, focusing on obtaining its students a career after graduation. Classes center on what the mass markets crave, limiting the students’ perspective to the financially prosperous. Students are taught along a guideline of success and shown what’s necessary to obtain an affluent lifestyle. Basically, success and wealth in the future equals happiness. As John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, states in his 1997 speech “The Aims of Education,” “A Chicago education not only increases the likelihood that you will find an interesting job, but it also makes it more likely that you will be successful in your chosen profession, which in part means that you are likely to make lots of money over the course of your lifetime. To be perfectly candid, a Chicago education is a meal ticket” (150-151). A U.S.C. film school education is based around the absorption of similar presentation.

In his speech, Mearsheimer claims elite, higher education is and ought to be amoral: “Today, elite universities operate on the belief that there is a clear separation between intellectual and moral purpose, and they pursue the former while largely ignoring the latter” (150). U.S.C. film school follows a similar hymn in its curriculum, teaching the students the basics of filmmaking, but leaving little room for morality. This is based on the idea that students should not receive moral instruction but rather develop their own morality independent of their studies and instructors. The film school situates itself in a realm of amorality. Morality and ethics play a very small role in academic instruction, because, in the end, they delineate from the overall goal of the program, which stresses product, success, and learning over any kind of specific morality surrounding a film. Morality, supposedly, has no place in the learning experience. However, in spite of this idea, the film school classes inadvertently take a stance on the issue of moral instruction. Specifically, the Cinema-Television Production program teaches slightly immoral concepts, and in fact, I would argue should even shift its teachings in more immoral direction in order to properly prepare students for the cutthroat world of Hollywood.

The U.S.C. film program presents itself as if it is geared toward amoral filmmaking. Rather than teaching ethics, the program guides students toward “what works” and “what sells” while fostering technical skills and creativity. A film school does not force an opinion on the students, but rather develops a learning environment which allows the students to make their own decisions, whether successful or flawed. This particular type of education is focused on the future goal of gaining a career through skill and hard work. Ethics never really come into play during class discussions because they are not part of the “means to an end” theory. Nothing is taught that does not forward knowledge or status; ethics are simply secondary. Only specific, minor instances of ethics are ever even mentioned, such as stressing that students must pay studio teachers when using minors on set or that a filmmaker needs to research and properly plan for all hazardous conditions involving safety. These rare examples represent the few areas of the moral guidance the film program supposedly offers.

Despite its amoral approach toward education, the film program is actually immoral in its guidance and instruction of its students. The few instances that the program suggests it teaches ethics do not relate to morality at all, but rather illegality and protection of the school. If a studio teacher is not hired or someone is hurt from hazardous conditions on set, the school and student can be brought up on serious, legal charges. Therefore, this is not moral instruction, but rather the school trying to protect itself from future legal action and teach students to avoid a similar fate. The immorality of the school is first noted here because it places more focus on what will endanger the school and the student rather than the minor or the person involved in the hazardous conditions. It is an immoral approach to the problem, avoiding the morality of the situation completely, and focusing on the legality rather than the actual ethics. For example, in 310 production class, in which every student makes a single black and white 16mm short film, my instructor discussed the issue, bringing up a past incident in which a student had secretly tried to use a minor without having a studio teacher, a violation of California law. The instructor then described how he became infuriated, not mentioning his concern for the welfare of the minor, but stating specifically that by not hiring a studio teacher “the student had endangered his (the teacher’s) career and future employment at the university.” This is not a moral or amoral approach to the situation, but rather an immoral one, involving more selfish concern for one’s welfare.

In another recent example, in my directing class, a student used a real needle in one of his films, a major violation of the U.S.C. safety guidelines. The student and his two actors were inadvertently pricked, obviously a very serious health concern within our world of AIDs. The teacher, upon hearing this, first merely chastised the student briefly, before moving onto the next film. However, then in a strange transformation, she suddenly lost control and freaked out, screaming at the student in a grand-standing, fake manner. She was a glaring façade of anger, and it dawned on me that the instant metamorphosis was a realization of the danger the situation placed upon her career if it came back to the administration that she had not properly punished the student. Did she make the students go to the health center to be tested for safety’s sake? No, and in fact, it was never really mentioned, which should have been the real concern of the situation. Was she really angry? According to the student, who had a private meeting with her after class, she was not that upset about the incident. Her outburst was merely a show for the other students to protect herself. Again, selfish concern for one’s own well-being shows a corruption of the few “moral” concepts the faculty claims it teaches.

In my producing class, there are blatant conversations geared toward making active immoral decisions. For example, within a production, producers are in charge of the overall budget of the film. Therefore, they set the budgets for the other departments, including cinematography, production design, etc. In my class, our professor stresses that we should not tell the other departments the actual amount of money they have. He claims this is to “protect them” and the overall film. By “protect them,” he explains that if we were to tell them the real amount of money they had at their disposal, they would go over budget and spend more. Basically, he says we need to work as if the other departments are incompetent, childish, and unrestrained. If we tell them they have less money than they actually do and they go over budget, then technically, we’ve protected them by lying to them. As producers, we are taught to not tell the truth when asked questions by other departments and, therefore, lie. Is this for the overall good of the film? Yes. Is it immoral? Yes, because it involves being dishonest on a regular basis. This is a slightly immoral approach to moral instruction only because it stresses it is for the good of the overall project.

A second example of the immoral teaching revolves around a project our professor discussed that he is personally producing. In order for a film to attract financiers and investors, big name stars need to be attached. However, this is a double-edged sword because stars will not attach to a project, in most instances, unless financing is secured. This is where more lying comes into play. In the professor’s case, he has Christian Slater and several other big names attached, but he only managed to attach them by telling their agents that he had financing secured, which he does not. Through this example, he shows us how to develop a picture with little money behind it but with smooth-talking and lies. By selling ourselves properly and pushing the right buttons, a film project can be green-lighted and brought off its feet with little honesty and hard facts. However, he does not consider it lying or immoral, but rather “manipulating the truth” as a means to an end. But, from an outsider’s perspective, what is manipulation of the truth other than lying?

This brings up the question of the possible self-delusion of the professors within the film program. Are they guilty of being seduced by a world of glitz and glamour and therefore their views of morality skewed? To some extent, yes, their own inability to label the unethical as immoral is proof of the loss of their own moral compass. Having been immersed in the cutthroat, sometimes sadistic world of Hollywood for years, they have grown to believe their own lies. The line of morality for them has been redrawn in a much different direction than that of the norm. They walk a thin line between the amoral and immoral and more-so within the realm of the latter. Their own morality has been long since sacrificed at the gates of Hollywood. Does this mean they are completely lost, immoral souls? No, they are working class individuals doing what they need to survive in an environment where the average successful career is ten years, if that. In a world where many only have fifteen minutes of fame, but everyone wishes to be successful throughout their life, the idea of personal morals is almost absurd, if not impossible. This does not mean that all sense of ethics need be abandoned. A person does not need to murder to succeed (though I’m sure in some cases it has helped), but lying, cheating, and stealing are another issue. Success is fleeting in Hollywood, and when it is obtained, must be fought savagely to be maintained. As a result, ethics often must fall by the wayside.

As a result of this aggressive, dog-eat-dog environment, it is necessary to adapt teaching methods in the U.S.C. film school in a more immoral direction in order to train students to survive in their futures. Importance and emphasis must be placed on social skills and schmoozing as well as creativity and technicality. In certain fields, such as producing, students need to be exposed to the harsh business-nature of Hollywood, therefore preparing them more for it. They need to not only know how to pitch, but strategically handle and manipulate a board meeting and sale in their direction. Whether it is a phone call or a small evening party, students need to be trained to put on a façade of subtle confidence, exuding belief, whether true or not, in whatever project they are currently helming. They must know when to lie and what to lie about in order to help their projects along. Where my producing teacher needed to lie about finances to obtain his actors, perhaps in another instance the reverse would be necessary. Students need to be trained for this instance and know how to strategically manipulate agencies and managers into deals. A job description, such as in the producing bin of “protecting” other departments when discussing budgets, should not be sugar-coated. It is protection, but it is also lying. There is and should be no denying this; the student needs to know what they are doing at all times and not be muddled down by mere semantics. Basically, students need to be taught to “walk-the-walk” and “talk-the-talk” in order to survive and be comfortably successful in Hollywood. And, in order to do this, the U.S.C. film program needs to first come to realistic terms with this level of cutthroat competition of the outside filmmaking world and then train its students like soldiers, making them prepared for every situation, every phone call, and every deal.

Critics of this thinking, including Tai Parks, a New York City prosecutor and graduate of Columbia and NYU law schools, believe this very immorality threatens the social fabric of our society. In his article, “Morality, Individual Responsibility, and the Law,” Parks writes about the importance of morality to the very core of our democratic system, saying, “Eye-rolling cynicism about things like truthis a rot that eats at us. Our system relies so heavily on truthfulness that it cannot long withstand a moral attitude careless about that value” (184). Without truthfulness, in Parks’ opinion, our system would collapse, broken by the anarchy of distrust and immorality. The very basis of what our country stands for would fail with a careless approach to ethics. His argument directly counters the idea of teaching immorality within an institution of higher-learning, feeling it would cripple society in the future. He supports his claim, stating:

Physical safety is only one of the basic social benefits we enjoy and which are endangered if we lose interest in the moral values underlying our society. Economic stability is another. The health of the marketplace relies heavily on accurate information, equally available to all investors. If public confidence in the integrity of this system falters, so does the economy. (184)

Without truthful information and morality in business, Parks claims our economic stability would be threatened as well. His issue with the idea of immorality is its undermining of public confidence and therefore its deconstruction of society. In his second article, Mearsheimer agrees with Parks, stating, “I fully agree with Tai Park's argument that societies only work well when their citizens possess strong moral beliefs. I also agree with his point that there is a moral deficit in contemporary American society,and that there is an urgent need to fix the problem” (194). Mearsheimer supports Parks along the lines that a society can not work without strong ethics standing behind it and that universities play an important role in shaping ethics. They both believe immorality is an urgent problem threatening contemporary society.

Parks and Mearsheimer’s points, though valid, fail to truly address society’s current condition. Morality as well as immorality has been at the very heart of the United States of America since its birth. A delicate balance between the two has elevated the country from a fledging nation to the leading world power. One cannot argue the fact that America has not lied, cheated, and stole in the past in order to reach its present status. A perfect example is almost every business dealing and treaty the nation has made with the Native American people and then subsequently broken for its own benefit. If Mearsheimer and Parks think otherwise, they are as delusional as my professors. Yes, ethics are critical to maintaining order as they suggest, but society does not crumble at the hands of immorality. Rather, it is this cutthroat immorality in terms of business and politics that have kept the ideals and ethics of the United States and its Constitution in place as long as they have been. Without this delicate balance of good and evil, a true, free democratic society simply cannot exist.

Michael L. Hall, a teacher in the honors program at the University of Maryland, expresses similar concern to Parks in terms of morality when discussing Machiavelli’s The Prince and other famous works in his classroom:

Machiavelli is concerned with the real world, with gaining and holding political power. How is it that Machiavelli's one book can somehow overturn the entire heroic tradition we have been attempting to study throughout the course? Aren't they (the students) bothered, we ask, by the amoralityof Machiavelli's advice? Well, yes, some say, they are troubled by the lack of concern for moral consequences. And, yes, others say, they think his vision of human nature is perhaps too cynical. But that's the way things are. (161-162)

Machiavelli’s The Prince, stressing the necessity for leaders to use immorality in order to maintain power, attracts the most student attention according to Hall. This sparks a chilling debate in which the students are troubled by the immorality but justify it by claiming it is simply the way the real world is. Hall expresses great unease at this casual acceptance of immorality and, like Parks, feels it threatens and undermines are social fabric. But, again, who is being realistic and who is being idealistic in this situation? Does this casual acceptance of immorality negatively affect society in all areas in which it is condoned?

To Parks and Hall’s credit, it is given that in some careers honesty and truth are two ideals that should never be sacrificed, specifically within the justice system as Parks discusses. However, the world of Hollywood does not hold lives in the balance; it is a business just like any other. And, just like any business, success means competing, almost fighting, for every inch of your career. True, economic stability has been threatened in the past by misinformation, but Hollywood has survived since its creation based on this same type of misinformation. If every deal was laid out on the table honestly for all eyes to see, the business would have collapsed long ago. In a creative field, secrecy and misinformation insure success, originality, and the protection of one’s work. And, if the structure of a field is based around immorality, wouldn’t it be doing an injustice to the students to not properly prepare them for the environment before releasing them into it in a few short years?

Another possible criticism arises here by John D. Lyons, Commonwealth Professor of French at the University of Virginia, who questions a professor’s right to teach any type of morality. He expresses his opposition to universities and faculty members claiming an ethical high ground, stating the ethics of students are no less authentic. In order to teach morality, he feels the faculty must justify themselves to the students. In his article, “Upon What Authority Might We Teach Morality,’” he writes:

Most faculty members who speak on ethical matters, whether in their courses or in college debates about rules of speech and conduct, locate the source of theirauthority in an experience initially or primarily separate from a traditional academic discipline. The two major currents of such experience are religious movements (such as Christian evangelicals or Orthodox Judaism) and what Whitney Davis calls the "New Ethicism" of identity-based liberationist ethics. (158)

His argument revolves around the idea that morality should only be taught if the professors have proved themselves as a source of moral guidance. In his statement, he describes that most faculty members draw upon personal, ethical backgrounds when dealing with morality or at least attempt to establish some type of moral foundation. In this manner, he would argue against the U.S.C. professors’ right to engage in immoral teaching based on the idea that no one really has any basis or authority on which to give immoral guidance to another individual.

However, I would argue the exact opposite is true because instead of drawing their immoral guidance from the two schools of thought Henry mentions or personal, ethical backgrounds, the professors would be drawing on their personal experiences within the realm of Hollywood. The main idea of Lyons article is that he encourages universities and faculty to first prove the instructor’s authority as a moral guide to the students and then have them accept it in order before engaging in teaching morality. Most U.S.C. film professors have been exposed to the skewed immorality of Hollywood for more than a decade and therefore are almost qualified experts on the inner workings of the town. By drawing on their past experiences and history in the area, they could act as a gentle, guiding hand to helps students avoid similar pitfalls that unfortunately hurt them. In this particular case, the faculty members would have the ethical authority on the students in the sense that they have years of experience under their belts to draw from where the students have none. Therefore, they would be merely guiding and assisting the students in their preparation for the immorality of Hollywood.

In conclusion, the U.S.C.’s film school walks a thin line along the edge of amorality and immorality, leaning more toward the latter. However, in order to insure security and protection for its students in terms of their film careers in the future, it is necessary for the school to abandon all notions of its amorality and immerse the students in the immoral. By doing this, it will not be sacrificing ethics, but preparing students for the field they have chosen and, more importantly, expect and pay U.S.C. to train them for. Hollywood is very much like an unpredictable war zone, and if you send in young filmmakers unarmed with the proper skills, they simply will not survive. And, in the end, where does the greater injustice lie: in teaching film students to act immorally in order to succeed or fooling them to believe Hollywood is actually moral and possibly insuring their failure in the one thing they love and want to dedicate the rest of their life to?

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