Keeping the Balance: art, narrative and the state of moral equilibrium.

(Or, more succinctly: who has to die ?)

Art is about form, structure and balance: the Golden Section, proportion, a sense of integrity that unifies a work’s formal elements, supporting an understanding of the work as a whole. Music uses sonata-form, and structural principles of harmonic motion through related keys: painting uses the Golden Section (as does music, admittedly) and ideas of proportion; some are often underpinned by a triangular shape holding them together (Picasso’s Guernica being a prime example). A fourteen-line sonnet is divided into two sections of eight and six lines, the octet and the sestet, with a ‘turn’ between the two sections leading the tone of the poem from one section to the other.

But balance can also operate in a moral sense too, particularly in literature and especially in film. There is a unifying thread of fairness which governs the way elements relate to each other, and that drives the narrative towards a conclusion that reflects this idea. Moral equilibrium is the balance between right and wrong being asserted as part of a work which maintains not only structural proportions but moral ones as well. The success of the whole depends not only on the unfolding narrative and its resolution but also the moral relationships operating across the work and an effective culmination that links and balances them.

Is there a case for arguing that in fact it is the establishing of the moral balance that is the governing factor behind a narrative’s architecture? Actions need reactions, choices need justification, wrongs need to be righted, evil needs punishing and virtue needs rewarding: all these elements need to be aligned for a work to feel complete in the resolution of its inherent conflicts.

Ocean's Eleven
Good guys ?

In stories, characters are obliged to die because they have transgressed, committed some act which ordains their end in order to balance the moral state of the narrative; whatever steps they may take to redeem themselves will not be sufficient to allow them to survive. The queen in Snow White is irredeemable because she is jealous of the beauty of another, and condems herself by attempting to murder the object of her jealousy with a poisoned apple.

The more interesting works, though, are often those where the state of moral equilibrium is not established: the killer gets away with it, the monster is not vanquished by the hero but may still be alive somewhere; the wronged hero takes bloody vengeance and is not penalized for doing so.

Open-ended films are often more rewarding. Consider the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner; there is no tidy finale where the ends are all sewn up, all the issues resolved. Deckard flees with Rachel into the wilderness – will they be caught ? How long has Rachel left to live ? And is Deckard himself a replicant ?

At the conclusion of Thomas Harris’ novel, Hannibal, serial killer Lecter has seduced and won FBI agent Clarice Starling, and they sit together in a box at the opera. The film re-writes this ending – shamefully so – to allow Starling to attain a state of grace and redemption after leading the disastrous sting operation at the start of the film that results in the death of another agent. Perhaps the producers felt audiences would feel betrayed by the original ending in the novel.

Audiences often prefer these endings: stories that have a different resolution other than that which the moral imperative would ordain. They are more like real life, where problems often have no glib solution, where moral justice is often not attained.

American Psycho
All in the mind ?

In the controversial film American Psycho, if the film is not, as some readings of the end suggest it is, entirely in Patrick Bateman’s imagination, then there is no justice imparted in the film; the balance is not established, his villainy goes un-punished. Perhaps that’s why we don’t condemn the crooks in Ocean’s Eleven: Danny Ocean and his crew are villains, after all: but they are an amiable bunch who are breaking the law for what, from a moral perspective, seem to be the ‘right’ reasons: for the artistry of the challenge, for the re-dressing of former wrongs (Reuben Tishkoff’s casino was torn down by slickly villainous Terry Benedict  to make way for, unforgivably,  “some gaudy monstrosity,” thereby proving Benedict’s charlatanism by offending our aesthetic sensibilities as well. And not only that: Benedict has stolen Ocean’s girl.)

Perhaps that is why a series like The Sopranos has been so successful; secretly, the audience yearns for moral equilibrium not to be maintained, because life is like that…

Do you ?

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’