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The Good Life in Philosophical Films

 

by Socrethics   First version 2015   Last version 2018

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Abstract

 

1.      Introduction

2.      Basics

2.1  Philosophical Films

2.2  Interpretation

2.3  Method of Teaching

2.4  The Good Life

3.      Teaching the Good Life

3.1  Freud – The Lady Eve

3.2  Nietzsche – Now, Voyager

3.3  Rawls – Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

3.4  Buddha – …….

4.      Cultural and Historical Context

4.1  Love – The Lady Eve

4.2  Power – Now, Voyager

4.3  Justice – Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

4.4  Salvation – …….

5.      Conclusion

 

References

Appendix: Cinema Therapy

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

 

Starting Point

Martha Nussbaum raised the following claims:

Certain novels are, irreplaceably, works of moral philosophy [Nussbaum, 148]

Texts which deepen and expand comprehension of the good life ought to be included in moral philosophy [Nussbaum, 138-9, 142]

In other words: Literature can – according to Nussbaum – teach the good life by means of insight.

 

 

Type of Problem

What is a good life?

Can the good life be taught by films (in analogy to literature)?

What is the best method of teaching?

 

 

What is a good life?

In this paper we refer to a contemporary approach to the search for a good life. It is called moral perfectionism and was proposed by the American philosopher Stanley Cavell. Cavell calls Socrates a forerunner [Cavell, 445-447]. The term perfectionism stands for the effort to improve and is reminiscent of Socrates’ endeavor (virtue) to improve ethical knowledge [Tayor, 60]. Cavell refers, among others, to Nietzsche, Freud and Wittgenstein.

 

 

Can the good life be taught by films (in analogy to literature)?

- The cinematic specification of a moral ideal (e.g. the ideal of a monogamous marriage) is questionable insofar, as it tends to create stereotypes (chapter 4.1)

- More consequent, in terms of moral perfectionism, is the filming of different learning processes, leading to different versions of a good life (chapter 4.2)

- Fairness, and even justice in a strict sense, can be taught by films (chapter 4.3).

- Retreat-oriented lives and spirituality are not suited to be taught by films (chapter 4.4)

In comparison with literature, films have a limited potential to reflect the cultural and historical context of a good life.

 

 

What is the best method of teaching?

The weakness of literature and films (as far as they attempt to teach the good life) is a biased description of reality coupled with emotions. Many authors promote their individual perception as if it were a general truth. There are, however, means to avoid this trap:

- Platon’s Socrates used to switch perspectives in order to correct distorted perceptions. His style is characterized by analytical thinking combined with empathy.

- A different approach consists in introducing a neutral observer (narrator) or in switching to a background story, which reflects the bias.

 

Available films never reach the level of reflection, which can be found in some works of literature (e.g. in those of Coetzee).

- Cavell hopes to reach this level by combining the films with philosophical analyses [Cavell].

- The best method is probably a Socratic discussion, based on (contradicting) films, reviews and analyses.

 

 

 

 

 

1.   Introduction

 

 

Starting Point

Martha Nussbaum raised the following claims:

         Certain novels are, irreplaceably, works of moral philosophy [Nussbaum, 148]

         Texts which deepen and expand comprehension of the good life ought to be included in moral philosophy [Nussbaum, 138-9, 142]

In other words:

Literature can – according to Nussbaum – teach the good life by means of insight.

 

 

Type of Problem

1.      What is a good life?

2.      Can the good life be taught by films (in analogy to literature)?

3.      What is the best method of teaching?

 

 

 

2.   Basics

 

 

2.1 Philosophical Films

 

In order to define philosophical films, the analogy to philosophical novels may be helpful:

Certain novels (films) are, irreplaceably, works of moral philosophy [Nussbaum 1990, 148].

Texts (films) which deepen and expand comprehension of the good life ought to be included in moral philosophy [Nussbaum 1990, 138-9, 142].

 

There is substantial agreement between Murdoch and Nussbaum on the question of literature (film)'s ability to enhance moral understanding (…). Art is far and away the most educational thing we have [Murdoch, 230]. It is on the task of philosophy that Murdoch and Nussbaum disagree. Murdoch views philosophy as the critical examination of concepts and systematic reflection on presuppositions, whereas Nussbaum sees it as the search for understanding:

         Murdoch's description of philosophy's ideal style and aim implies that works of literature (film), however well they portray moral life and also enhance the reader's understanding, are not works of philosophy.

         Nussbaum's view of philosophy is broad enough, I believe, to admit not only certain novels but also other (written) works (e. g. histories, biographies, religious texts) which portray moral life and have the capacity to provoke reflection in the thoughtful reader [Holland].

 

It seems that Murdoch largely agrees with the following definition:

Philosophical novels (films) are works of fiction in which a significant proportion of the novel (film) is devoted to a discussion of the sort normally addressed in discursive philosophy. These might include the function and role of society, the purpose of life, ethics or morals, and the role of experience or reason in the development of knowledge. Novels (films) that might qualify as philosophical novels (films) in terms of subject matter but which proceed by non-discursive means (such as allegory) would be excluded. If a novel (film), for example, which has social structures as its subject matter, but where the exploration of these subjects is entirely inferred rather than being the subject of overt discussion or debate, would be excluded (Philosophical novel, Wikipedia)

 

In this paper, however, we will adopt Nussbaum’s wider definition of method and style. If understanding – in the above mentioned areas – can be enhanced by means of imageries, allegories and metaphors, then we will call this film philosophical, even if there is no discourse at all. This implies, for example, that silent films can have a philosophical dimension. Since insight is not only an intellectual but also an emotional phenomenon, even the soundtrack may contribute [Cavell, 229, 311].

 

 

 

I am speechless.

 

……You say it.

 

Charles Chaplin

 

 

 

 

2.2 Interpretation

 

 

The hermeneutic cycle

The term hermeneutics was introduced in philosophy mainly through the title of Aristotle's work On Interpretation [Hermeneutics, Wikipedia].

In the humanities the subjective influence of the researcher cannot be eliminated. Practically every attempt to evaluate the quality of interpretations independent of the involved persons is doomed to fail. Friedrich Schleichermacher discovered as early as in the 19th century the interdependencies between the text, the author and the reader.

Texts are understood as expression of the psyche, the life and the historical period of the author. Understanding is a re-experiencing and immersing into the consciousness, the life and the historical period, where the texts originated. Hermeneutics becomes the general art to empathize with the life that stands behind a certain brainchild (Hermeneutik, Wikipedia).

 

In his 1960 standard reference Wahrheit und Methode Hans-Georg Gadamer convincingly showed that the interpreter and the object of interpretation interdepend and go round in a hermeneutic circle. Subsequently hermeneutics expanded its influence on the whole spectrum of cognition by claiming that any form of knowledge is based on interpretation. Gadamer’s work strengthened the social sciences’ position relative to the natural sciences. The peculiarity of psychoanalytic interpretations, however, was not recognized as a problem at the time.

 

 

Psychoanalysis

The relation between hermeneutics and psychoanalysis was examined by Paul Ricoeur in his research on the relation between interpreting and remembering. Ricoeur found that psychoanalytical insight is a special case within hermeneutic insight:

         The general case says that the understanding of a phenomenon can be improved by discovering new connections between already known pieces of information.

         In the special case of psychoanalytic insight at least a part of the already known information is hidden in the unconscious.

The quality of a psychoanalytic interpretation therefore has to do with the capability to evoke memories in the patients, in particular the memory of suppressed desires. A (simplified) psychoanalytical thesis says that an interpretation is accepted by the patient if and only if it accommodates his/her unconscious desires.

 

We are confronted with the following situation:

1.      On one side there are the objective quality criteria of hermeneutics like consistency, precision and differentiation.

2.      On the other side there is the unscientific criterion subjective interest and irreducible privacy [Cavell, 229, 245-246]

The psychoanalytic interpretation is a mixture of objective and subjective criteria. Ideally it represents the desires of the patient in the same way, as a lawyer’s interpretation represent the interests of his client. In order to guess the patient’s interests, the psychoanalyst has to be familiar with the patients’ biography, including his/her social environment and cultural background. Things become even more complex, if the desires of the patient change in the course of the therapy. The same interpretation, which is refused at the beginning of the therapy, may be accepted later.

 

Stanley Cavell considers psychoanalysis to be philosophy, because it uses a philosophical method (hermeneutics) and because it improves (self-) knowledge [Cavell, 237, 282, 290]. He emphasizes that psychoanalysis is much closer to literature (and therefore also to film) than to science [Cavell, 286].

Freud likes to insist that his insights into the human mind have been anticipated by the creative writers of our civilization [Cavell, 287].

 

 

 

2.3 Method of Teaching

 

 

Reaching attention

The social importance of films was probably at its peak during the Great Depression, which originated in the United States. It was the time and the place where Cavell got his inspiration to teach the good life by means of films:

The popular feature films of the 1930s and 1940s drew vast audiences across the world, and as such can tell us much about the hopes and fears of ordinary people as learned treatises by contemporaries claiming to speak on their behalf (…). From the time of the Wall Street crash until the inaugural address of Franklin Roosevelt in March 1933 America experienced a crisis of confidence unequalled in its history (…). Ninety million Americans went to the movies each week in this decade. Film had a dramatic impact in a country in which only radio could compete for the attention of the mass audience. The dictators knew the power of film. The democracies were no less influenced by it (Film and History 1929-1945)

 

 

Learning by imitation

No matter, if the message is individualistic or normative: the most important factor for the acquirement of new behavior is the behavior of peers. In films the peers are usually main actors with positive characteristics (likeable or good-looking or strong or intelligent etc.) so that the spectator can easily identify with them. The influence of peers is possibly as important as the one of genes [Pentland], an empirical result which could explain the astonishing effect of propaganda films and TV-advertisement.

 

 

Learning by insight

Learning by insight as opposed to learning by imitation can be promoted if the peers pass thru a learning process themselves. A well-known example for this method is the so-called “Bildungsroman”:

Novel of formation, novel of education or coming-of-age story is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age) and in which, therefore, character change is extremely important (Bildungsroman, Wikipedia).

         Similarly to a coming-of-age story, a film can describe the psychological and moral growth of adults. This is Cavell’s approach for teaching moral perfectionism.

         Unfortunately, moral learning processes can be adopted by imitation as well, so that the behavior is only the same, if the environment is the same. Cavell’s goal, however, is to teach a certain way of thinking. He therefore presents many case studies, and the spectators should figure out, by time, the common mindset in all these cases.

         The available films never reach the level of reflection, which is evident in some works of literature (e.g. in those of Coetzee). Cavell hopes to reach this level by combining the films with philosophical analyses [Cavell].

 

 

 

2.4 The Good Life

 

 

Moral perfectionism

The idea that the good life could be taught by films was brought up by Stanley Cavell [Cavell 2002, A Philosopher Goes to the Movies]

Films can be considered like cases studies, where abstract ethical concepts become concrete.

 

The good life, according to Cavell, is defined by moral perfectionism. Cavell calls Socrates a forerunner [Cavell, 445-447] and refers, among others, to Wittgenstein. The term perfectionism stands for the effort to improve and is reminiscent of Socrates’ endeavor (virtue) to improve ethical knowledge [Tayor, 60]. Wittgenstein, similar to Cavell, stands in the tradition of Socrates [Peterman, 129]. The removal of linguistic confusion is a prerequisite for an authentic choice of one’s way of living. Language (including metaphorical, pictorial and visual forms) can either support or hinder the insight, which is required to change one’s way of living. Cavell suggests that commented films conform to Wittgenstein’s demand for the best possible clarity of representation. Unfortunately, whereas the films are easy to understand, Cavell’s comments tend towards over-complexity and over-interpretation:

Cavell can explain complex ideas in a compellingly succinct way. However, most of the time the reader is confronted by seemingly endless, comma-ridden sentences that require a map and a compass to get through [Alford].

 

In Pursuits of Happiness (1981), Cavell describes his experience of seven prominent Hollywood comedies: The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Adam’s Rib, and The Awful Truth. Cavell argues that these films, from the years 1934–1949, form part of what he calls the genre of remarriage, and he finds in them great philosophical, moral, and indeed political significance. Specifically, Cavell argues that these Hollywood comedies show that "the achievement of happiness requires not the [...] satisfaction of our needs [...] but the examination and transformation of those needs." According to Cavell, the emphasis that these movies place on "remarriage" draws attention to the fact that, within a relationship, happiness requires "growing up" together with one's partner

Note that the term happiness in above context corresponds to life satisfaction, i.e. it has a cognitive component and is not merely an affective state.

 

In Cities of Words (2004) Cavell traces the history of moral perfectionism, a mode of moral thinking spanning the history of Western philosophy and literature. Having previously used Emerson to define the concept, this book suggests ways we might want to understand philosophy, literature, and film as preoccupied with features of perfectionism (Stanley Cavell, Wikipedia).

 

For more information on Cavell’s concept see Moral Perfectionism and Justice [German].

 

 

Topics

In Cities of Words (2004) Cavell uses a great variety of topics in order to demonstrate the perfectionist way of thinking. In this paper we restrict this diversity to four basic topics, which are borrowed from the purusarthas. Cavell’s philosophers are assigned to the purusarthas as follows:

 

1.     Freud is assigned to Love and desire because of the central role of the pleasure principle and sexuality in psychoanalysis.

2.      Nietzsche is assigned to Power and Wealth because of the central role of the will to power, power understood as influence in its widest sense.

3.      Rawls is assigned to Compliance with the Law because his theory of justice defines the law of cohabitation

 

Buddha is missing in Cavell’s list and requires a special discussion.

He is assigned to Salvation because the prime goal of his philosophy is the liberation from suffering.

 

 

 

Salvation

 Buddha

.

 

Power and Wealth

Nietzsche 

.

 

Comply with the Law

Rawls

.

 

Love and Desire

 Freud

.

 

 

 

 

3.   Teaching the Good Life

 

 

3.1 Freud – The Lady Eve  [Cavell, 282-312]

 

 

Plot

A short description of the plot can be found in

         The Lady Eve (Wikipedia)

         Cavell’s Cities of Words [Cavell, 301-305].

         Trailer (Youtube).

 

 

 

 

 

The good life

In the context of love the good life is – according to Cavell – a kind of marriage, which is based on true (authentic) emotions and where the partners help each other to discover and develop their potential.

         Cavell argues that the genre of remarriage represented Hollywood's crowning achievement, and that beneath all the slapstick and innuendo is a serious effort to create a new basis for marriage centered on mutual love – religious and economic necessity no longer applying for much of the American middle class (Comedy of remarriage, Wikipedia)

         The perfectionist vision is that the journey toward each other (…) will become for each a journey together of continuous interest [Cavell, 299].

Cavell maintains that

1.      psychoanalysis is a contemporary form of philosophy

2.      psychoanalysis can help to realize the above described process

We start with the first issue:

 

 

Psychoanalysis as fable

Freud takes the fable (a story intended to illustrate a moral) as an allegory of psychoanalysis. Most generally these allegorical connections turn on the presence of delusions from which the sufferer has to be, as Freud characteristically puts the matter, awakened; and on the feeling to be a prisoner of the circumstances [Cavell, 284]

         Freud chose the novel Gradiva in particular, as an allegory of psychoanalysis

         Cavell uses The Lady Eve as an allegory of psychoanalysis, by emphasizing the affinity with Gradiva.

 

Freud summarizes Gradiva as follows:

“The story as set in the frame of Pompeii and dealing with a young archaeologist who had surrendered his interest in life in exchange for an interest in the remains of classical antiquity and who is now brought back to real life by a roundabout path which was strange but perfectly logical.”[Cavell, 284].

Cavell notes that

this may be taken as a fair epitomizing of the story of The Lady Eve, the film which I have paired Freud’s text – with the classical archaeologist replaced by a zoologist [Cavell, 284].

 

 

Psychoanalysis as philosophy

Something, however, is strange or unannounced in Freud’s comparison of Gradiva with psychoanalysis.

The story is too happy, too sunny I might say, for the essence of the travails of psychoanalysis, and the difficult and measured return to life it promises at best, to be essentially captured in it – as if Freud in his taking up of the fable is romanticizing his own achievements [Cavell, 289].

 

Cavell’s explication for Freud’s choice of a romantic fable is the following:

From ancient times mental treatment had been part of medical treatment known to physicians, but it was left behind, when in the nineteenth century, medicine shook off its dependence on “what was known as natural philosophy” and …came under the influence of the natural sciences. Physicians came to restrict their interest to the physical side of things and were glad to leave the mental field to the philosophers whom they despised. [Cavell, 290-291]

 

Philosophy and its sages – respectively their academic representatives – were now those who claimed the psychic therapeutic role, most famously in Plato’s portraits of Socrates teaching [Cavell, 290]. Freud wanted to free the study of the mind from the hold of academic philosophy [Cavell, 289].

His intention was probably to suggest that psychoanalysis is a new (non-academic) form of philosophy. A romantic fable is – in particular with respect to emotions – completely different from academic philosophical discourses.

 

According to Cavell there are many parallels between psychoanalysis and the ancient (therapeutic) form of philosophy:

         Freud maintains that the state of every human being is a life-and-death struggle with unconsciousness, and the unawareness of this struggle (although it indirectly expresses itself at every moment) is a kind of delusion.

         Similarly Plato – in his Allegory of the Cave – pictures everyday or “ordinary” experience as a delusion. The therapeutic motive in Plato’s and Socrates’ philosophizing is to free us from this imprisoned experience of everyday [Cavell, 292].

Freud explains his grounds for having given up the use of the technique of hypnosis by the fact that hypnosis does not try to understand the patient’s psyche. “There is, actually, the greatest possible antithesis between suggestive (hypnotic) and analytic technique.” (…) “Hypnosis does not permit us to recognize the resistance with which the patient clings to his disease and thus even fights against his own recovery.” – a point Plato emphasizes in telling the allegory of the Cave [Cavell, 293] (…) In Plato’s Republic, the approach of redemptive philosophy is greeted by the inhabitants of the Cave with murderous hostility [Cavell, 295].

 

 

Partner selection

         The technical form of the issue of attachment – how it is one finds oneself attracted to one person rather than another – is one of the most elaborated in psychoanalysis (…). This issue is fundamental to the narrative of remarriage, as one of Freud’s most remarkable formulations makes clear: “The finding of an object of love is in fact a refinding of it.” [Cavell, 299, 310].

         In The Lady Eve there are two versions of the same woman providing an education for a young scientist who has used his intellectual calling to turn away from the society of women [Cavell, 299]

 

 

Criticism

         It is probably true that the choice of a partner is driven by the unconscious wish to meet a certain type of character [Lotter, 15]. This selection mechanism, however, does not guarantee that the partner contributes to the liberation of the psyche [Willi]. Also see Kollusion, Wikipedia.

         According to Cavell teaching the good life means teaching the psychoanalytic way of thinking. The romantic comedies of the American filmmaker Woody Allen (who spent over 37 years undergoing psychoanalysis), however, suggest that psychoanalysis is not a universal remedy:

 

Examples:

 

 Year

Wikipedia

 Youtube

 1977

Annie Hall

 Trailer

 1979

Manhattan

 Trailer

 

 

Freud's allusion to the goal of analysis as that of transforming neurotic misery into common unhappiness implies that the outcome of treatment is not concerned with happiness but with the reduction of suffering [Thomson].

The Socratic search leads to the discovery of timeless structures indeed, but not all of these structures represent solutions. The discovery of unresolvable conflicts (moral dilemmas) is as important as the discovery of solvable conflicts.

 

 

 

3.2 Nietzsche – Now, Voyager [Cavell, 208–246]

 

 

Plot

Now, Voyager is a film about a dowdy spinster terrorized by her possessive mother and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A psychiatrist cures the daughter and suggests a cruise, where she falls in love with a married man. The impossible romance does not depress her but rather transforms her into a confident, independent woman (National film preservation board).

 

A short description of the plot can be found in

         Now, Voyager (Wikipedia)

         Cavell’s Cities of Words [Cavell, 301-305].

         Trailer (Youtube).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good life

The will to power describes what Friedrich Nietzsche may have believed to be the main driving force in humans: achievement, ambition, the striving to reach the highest possible position in life; these are all manifestations of the will to power. However, the will to power was never systematically defined, and its interpretation has been open to debate (The will to power, Wikipedia).

Cavell interprets the term power in its broadest sense:

Leading a good life in the context of power means – according to Cavell – to discover and develop one’s potential and make an authentic choice of one’s societal role. Cavell maintains that

1.      Nietzsche’s philosophy can help to realize the above described process of liberation

2.      Nietzsche’s philosophy has much in common with psychoanalysis

We start with the first issue:

 

                               

The will to power

At the beginning of the film Now, Voyager we are confronted with a familiar abuse of power:

Charlotte Vale is an unattractive, overweight, repressed spinster whose life is brutally dominated by her dictatorial mother, an aristocratic Boston dowager whose verbal and emotional abuse of her daughter has contributed to the woman’s complete lack of self-confidence (Now, Voyager, Wikipedia).

The mother effectively reduces her daughter (Charlotte) to silence, until later in the narrative – thru the help of a psychiatrist – the daughter gets access to speech. Charlotte’s will to power is activated in the therapy and then materializes in a stepwise liberation:

1.      She decides – at least temporarily – to leave her mother by going on a cruise [Cavell, 228].

2.      She makes friends on the cruise; falls in love with a married man called Jerry, and becomes a dashing woman, surrounded by admiring, voluble friends [Cavell, 230].

3.      She separates from Jerry after the cruise and gets engaged to a young widower. However, after a reunion with Jerry, she realizes that she does not love the widower and breaks her engagement.

When she informs her mother of the break, the mother becomes enraged, and among other insults, hurls at her the observation that “I would have thought you would be ashamed to spend your whole life as Miss Charlotte Vale!” Charlotte responds roughly that tyranny takes many forms and that if her mother is an instance of maternal tyranny, she wants nothing to do with it (…) Her mother slumps, shocked into a loss of consciousness, which proves to be fatal [Cavell, 231].

4.      Charlotte returns to the place, where she started her psychotherapy and accidentally meets Jerry’s daughter Tina. Tina was an unwanted child, as well as Charlotte [Cavell, 228]. Charlotte becomes Tinas’ friend, nurse and companion [Cavell, 231].

5.      Charlotte moves up to the board of directors at the therapy center. She finally found a satisfying role in life, without being married and without having her own child.

 

 

Nietzschean liberation and psychoanalysis

In the 1890s, Freud, whose education at the University of Vienna in the 1870s had included a strong relationship with Franz Brentano, his teacher in philosophy (…) was acutely aware of the possibility of convergence of his own ideas with those of Nietzsche and doggedly refused to read the philosopher as a result (Influence of Friedrich Nietzsche, Wikipedia)

 

Cavell thinks that the epistemic and therapeutic concepts of philosophy were fulfilled in the form of psychoanalysis:

         After a millennium or so in which philosophy, as established in Greece carried on the idea of philosophy as a way of life, constituted in view of the (perfectionist) task of caring for the self, call this philosophy’s therapeutic mission, and

         after another millennium or so in which philosophy has seemed prepared to discard this piece of its mission

philosophy has discovered methods which can make good on philosophy’s originating goal of liberation [Cavell, 237].

He then compares the state before liberation with Plato’s image of our lives as those of chained prisoners in a cave.

 

 

Criticism

There are important differences between Nietzsche’s philosophy and psychoanalysis. Nietzsche’s reference to the “toughest self-discipline”, which is required to pursue the goal of perfectionism [Zerm, 287] does not have an analogy in psychoanalysis.

Furthermore self-discipline, if applied by Nietzsche, should not be mixed up with the renunciation to power – on the contrary: it is the key to power. From this perspective the ending of Now Voyager is not characteristic for Nietzsche’s philosophy:

 

Charlotte’s closing words, “Oh, Jerry, don’t ask for the moon, we have the stars!” have become one of the most famous quotes in the history of American cinema:

         “Asking for the moon” means asking for the unreasonable.

         The stars serve as a symbol for a transcendent form of love.

The question, whether transcendent love is the best solution for Charlotte’s emotional conflict is debatable. But sacrifice and transcendent love are not convincing examples for Nietzsche’s philosophy – unless the sublimation serves cultural perfection in art and science.

 

Better examples for Nietzschean sublimation can be found in the following films:

 

 Year

Wikipedia

 Youtube

 2007

Molière

 Trailer

 2009

Coco Chanel & Igor Strawinski

 Trailer

 

 

 

3.3 Rawls – Mr. Deeds Goes to Town  [Cavell, 164–207]

 

 

Plot

A short description of the plot can be found in

         Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Wikipedia)  

         Cavell’s Cities of Words [Cavell, 190-195].

         Trailer (Youtube).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good life

Rawls’ called his concept Justice as fairness [Rawls] in order to make clear, that justice in a strict sense is beyond our reach. Justice in a strict sense would include equality of opportunity (and risk) in all aspects of life. Fairness is less than justice, but represents a useful benchmark for comparing political systems. We can accordingly distinguish between the following versions of a just life:

 

1.      Combat unfair public laws

The United States constitution is a liberal constitution and promotes the equality of opportunity, but it lacks a direct reference to Rawls’ difference principle as e.g. in the preamble of the (1999) Federal Constitution of the Swiss Federation:

 “…only those who use their freedom remain free, and the strength of a people is measured by the well-being of its weakest members;

Let us assume that the political system of the United States is way below the benchmark of fairness. In this case a just life – according to Rawls – requires the engagement for human rights (e.g. the abolition of capital punishment), for the equality of opportunity, for the (economic) welfare of the worst-off and for intergenerational justice (keyword sustainability).

 

2.      Combat unfair implementation

Even if Rawls’ principles are perfectly materialized in the laws, there is no guarantee that these laws are implemented in practice. In this case a just life has to concentrate on law enforcement. An unfair implementation could e.g. mean that minorities are discriminated or disrespected. In the context of above film this means, for example, that adherents of a simple life like individualist anarchists are urged to deal with monetary systems, taxes, administration, lawyers, computers and countless other blessings of high-tech cultures, despite the constitution’s priority to liberty rights.

 

3.      Engagement beyond fair laws

The good life in the context of justice is – according Cavell – a life that pursues justice beyond enforcing fair public laws. This means in particular:

         to prevent the abuse of power in the private realm

         to engage for charitable actions

         to engage for animal welfare

Without the register of moral perfectionism Rawls’ theory cannot reach its goal of being able to say (to oneself, if no further) that one is above reproach [Cavell, 174]

For a comparison of Rawls’ and Cavell’s concept see Moral Perfectionism and Justice [German].

 

 

Criticism

Does Mr. Deeds teach the just life?

For each of above described versions of justice, there is a different answer:

1.      Generally it can be said that improving the laws has a more lasting effect than a single action. If the misery is caused by unjust laws, then Mr. Deeds should concentrate on political work.

2.      If the law prescribes the equality of opportunity and enables – at least in theory – a land reform, then the problem is one of law enforcement. Mr. Deeds respects the public tribunal, but basically he solves the problem by means of private initiative and not by law enforcement.

3.      Mr. Deeds teaches either charity or populism. The following critic suggests the latter:

Can Movies Teach Moral Philosophy? (…) Mr. Cavell may be too generous in attributing moral subtleties to films because in many, moral education is really a blunt and predetermined thing, particularly when it comes to matters of class (…) The ideal, characters often learn, is to be rich but act populist, to undermine class while reaping its benefits (…). In these films the couple that jokes together belongs together: social iconoclasts without material worries. Even by Mr. Cavell's standards this is a fairly weak version of moral perfectionism [Jefs Web Files].

 

A more challenging engagement for justice can be found in the following film:

 

 Year

Wikipedia

 Youtube

 1957

Twelve Angry Men

 Full Length

 

 

 

3.4 Buddha – ………..

 

Buddha is missing in Cavell’s list of philosophical films.

In the following we suggest some explanations for this fact:

 

 

The good life

The Buddhist denial of the world is in a complete contradiction to Nietzsche’s will to power and the Western understanding of self-realization.

Since Buddhism denies the existence of a separate self, self-realization is considered to be a contradictio in terminis (Self-realization, Wikipedia).

Buddhists strive for the liberation from the ego and from the ego’s reincarnations (Salvation, Wikipedia). Consequently, as far as moral perfectionism is inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy, it can never grasp the essence of Buddhism.

         In orthodox Buddhism the good life is defined by the Eightfold Path. Justice is realized by the doctrine of rebirth.

         In secular Buddhism – which is a comparatively new movement – the topic of justice is still in discussion, but it seems that Rawls’concept complies well with the secular Buddhist spirit. The specific Buddhist values can be promoted within a Rawlsian framework [Contestabile, 2018].

 

 

Buddhism in films

Basically a good life according to Buddha is difficult to be shown in films, because it is simple, unspectacular and introverted. The absence of action is troublesome for most movie makers. The best chances to grasp some of the Buddhist spirit have probably symbolic or documentary approaches like the following:

 

 

  Year

 Wikipedia

  Youtube

  2003

 Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring

  Trailer

  2015

 The Buddha, A Documentary Story

  Full Length

 

 

On the other hand we know that Buddha’s journey started with experiences of suffering and compassion. It is hardly possible to understand Buddhism without (emotional) knowledge about suffering. The question then is: Why not a film about suffering?

For example a film about

         the Hoeryong concentration camp or

         the refugee kidnapping in Sinai or

         the Mexican drug war or

         the suffering of everyday people in all its varieties (see Literature, Arts and Medicine Database)

 

Asked this question Cavell referred to the following story:

A filmmaker, who was very successful based on making thrillers with little intellectual or political content, and wishes to make a film about something true and important, about suffering. He escapes the world of Hollywood in order to experience the suffering of, after all, most people in the world, in preparation for making his important film of witness. The narratives takes him to the bottom of the world, in the form of being falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to a southern chain gang, where he discovers that the laughter provided by a Hollywood cartoon may provide the only rare moments of respite in a stretch of fully desperate existence. He contrives to be recognized in this place of anonymity, and returns to Hollywood to apply his hard-won insight, which means leaving unrealized his film about suffering [Cavell, 337].

 

The never-ending news about wars, crimes, accidents and natural catastrophes has a bad influence on our sentiment. At some point we have seen too much, we just can’t take it anymore. According to the historian Samuel Moyn compassion fatigue is as old as compassion itself.

No one can endure the permanent confrontation with the world’s misery without getting harmed him/-herself. Self-protection must be allowed [Büttner].

Cavell suggests that we need a guideline which preserves us from dying of pity for the world – without becoming pitiless [Cavell, 174].

 

From a Buddhist perspective such a guideline has the following characteristics:

1.      Cinematic anti-depressants (see Appendix) are considered to be a superficial means to go on distance to the atrocities of this world. A more profound means are meditative techniques, which allow changing the perception of the world [Zimmer 1973, 214-215].

2.      In contrast to some Western forms of altruism, the Buddhists engagement does not go with an expectation that the world can be repaired, engineered, managed and finally be made acceptable. It only assumes that the world can be made less evil than it would be otherwise. Altruism is combined with an escapist message.

A practitioner, who adopts this view, alternates between compassionate engagement and meditative disengagement.

 

 

 

4. Cultural and Historical Context

 

The interpretation of films in general and the interpretation of the good life in particular, changes in the course of time. Hans-Georg Gadamer stressed that the meaning of a novel must be found within its cultural, historical, and literary context (see chapter 2.2). In the following we will – in analogy to the interpretation of novels – investigate the meaning of our selected films in their cultural and historical context.

 

 

4.1 Love – The Lady Eve

 

 

Historical context

The Lady Eve is a film about the good life in terms of “true love”.

Following some different meanings of the term love and associated meanings of a good life:

1.      In traditional families the prime concern was the material and social well-being of the group.

2.      In the last third of the 18th century happiness was increasingly tied to the idea of romantic love [Burkhart, 179].

3.      Romantic love is unstable and cannot guarantee the symmetry of the genders. For that reason the concept of partnership is currently favored. Partnership is better suited to control and solve the problems of daily life, except for the problem of passion. Emotions have their own logic and are not easily sacrificed to the ideal of equality and justice [Burkhart, 184].

4.      In the 1960ies the idea came up to search happiness outside of stable relationships. Divorce was institutionalized and consecutive marriages gained acceptance. Self-realization finally culminated in the life style of a single or in free relationships without obligations [Burkhart, 184].

Cavell’s comedy of remarriage can easily be located within this historical process:

 

The genre was given its name by the philosopher Stanley Cavell in a series of academic articles that later became a book, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cavell argues that the genre represented Hollywood’s crowning achievement, and that beneath all the slapstick and innuendo is a serious effort to create a new basis for marriage centered on mutual love – religious and economic necessity no longer applying for much of the American middle class.(Comedy of remarriage, Wikipedia)

 

From an emotional point of view romantic love is “true” as compared to an economically motivated partnership – that might explain why Cavell associates it with a Platonic truth – but with the same emotional argument a passionate escapade (sometimes associated with an escape from prison) is “true” as compared to an ageing marriage, based on friendship and “mutual education”. The question is whether a certain kind of behavior is socially promoted:

 

The comedy of remarriage is a sub-genre of American comedy films of the 1930s and 1940s. At the time, the Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, banned any explicit references to or attempts to justify adultery and illicit sex. The comedy of remarriage enabled filmmakers to evade this provision of the Code. The protagonists divorced, flirted with strangers without risking the wrath of censorship, and then got back together. (Comedy of remarriage, Wikipedia)

 

Surprisingly Cavell – an expert in psychoanalysis – does not address this double standard:

1.      Officially the films promote the perfectionist ideal of a monogamous, steadily deepening partnership

2.      Unofficially the moviemakers satisfy the spectators’ interest for adultery and illicit sex.

 

 

Cultural context

         Cavell describes the state of the bachelor in The Lady Eve as a state of delusion and suggests that he has to be awakened and be given a therapy by a woman.

         Interestingly, in some cultures, the process of falling in love is described in exactly the opposite way. The tribes of Makassar consider infatuation with all its physical side effects to be a delusion – even a disease. The concerned people are convinced that they are in need of a healer and a therapy (Verliebtheit, Wikipedia).

 

 

 

4.2 Power – Now, Voyager

 

Now, Voyager (1942) was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.” What is the significance of the film Now, Voyager?

1.      The film was produced, when psychoanalytic theories were popularized in the United States. It can also be associated with the growing power of women during World War II (Cinematernity).

2.      It is the first of many roles where Bette Davis enlarged the parameters of acceptable female behavior (Hollywood Melodrama).

3.      The American culture is currently (2005) obsessed with the ritualized physical transformation known as makeover. Now, Voyager has been associated with the birth of makeover programs and transformation narratives (Hollywood Catwalk).

 

Cavell interprets the film as an example of Nietzschean liberation. We will concentrate on the third of above issues, an issue which suggests that this liberation has an ambivalent character:

 

1.      Films such as Pretty Woman (1990), Now, Voyager (1942) and Working Girl (1988) reveal, with particular clarity, the psychological and cultural assumptions that both create and sustain the makeover (…). The makeover in consumer culture and the makeover in film engage in an endless cycle of creation and vicarious satisfaction of our collective desire for transformation. Unlike the makeover in television and women’s magazines where ‘ordinary’ people are improved through changes in their appearance, the makeover in film presents us with actresses who are essentially disguised, through costuming and cosmetic effects, as these same ordinary people – and not just ordinary, but unattractive or even ugly. When an actress playing the part of an unattractive woman receives a makeover, it becomes simply a reinstatement of her already recognized glamour and celebrity persona. Because of this, I argue, the makeover in film ultimately represents a contradictory ideology. While it asserts that with a little bit of make-up and the right haircut, anyone can be sexually competitive and climb the social ladder, the makeover simultaneously reinforces very strict ideals of physical beauty, as embodied by the female star.  In other words, the makeover is egalitarian and at the same time elitist, presenting unrealistic standards of appearance somehow attainable by anyone (…)

 

2.      Finally, in my conclusion, I offer some possible explanations for the relative absence of male bodies within the makeover narrative in film (…) A potential influence is the fundamental argument made by feminist theory that in visual representation, including narrative film, women are valued primarily for how they look, while men are valued for what they do.

[Dancey, Diss.Abstract]

 

 

 

4.3 Justice – Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

 

 

The Great Depression

The film Mr.Deed Goes to Town by Frank Capra has to be seen in the context of the Great Depression.

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in 1930 and lasted until the late 1930s or middle 1940s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century.  (Great Depression, Wikipedia).

Frank Capra’s films feature prominently in the classes on American history because they chimed so perfectly with the zeitgeist. Mainstream movies are designed to appeal to the largest audience possible so their commercial fate tells us how successfully they have captured the mood of the moment.  Capra’s Mr Deeds Goes to Town tells us things about America in 1936 that we can't get simply from a study of New Deal legislation (Film and History 1929-1945).

 

 

Hollywood as cultural mythmaker

It was argued that Capra's popularity during the Depression was no accident. His democratic visions in films were also "psychic escapes, safety valves”. Capra felt the Depression caused him to take a "hard look at life from the eye level of the hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses, lift the human spirit and revitalize American cultural mythology. Economic breakdown, fascism, and communism threatened American ideals, particularly the "virtue of deferred gratitude and the assurance that hard work and perseverance would bring success." Fewer than half of the unemployed during the early '30s still believed in "rugged individualism" and the "formula of work, save, and success."

Hollywood stood to gain long-sought prestige through its role as cultural mythmaker. Individual studios and directors benefitted as well. In his autobiography, Capra asked, "Was there some film "hay" to be made out of the Depression? Of course--the "sob" angle: wealth versus "ideals"; Big Money against little people (…). Eighty million people went to the movies each week during the early years of the Depression, despite ticket prices ranging from fifty cents to a dollar. When the people went to see Frank Capra movies, they saw what one critic has since called "the essence of Depression America (…) e.g. the long, long line of unemployed men in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." But how willing was Capra to acknowledge the root causes of the Depression?

It was argued that Capra's films don't demonstrate any awareness of the Depression until two-thirds of the way through Mr. Deeds Goes to Town when a hungry farmer lambasts Deeds for his wealth (…). For Capra, America's problems were crooked businessmen and political opportunists who ultimately acted un-American and wrecked the system." He possessed an essentially conservative view: "Communism-- Fascism--voodooism--everybody's got an "ism" these days...John Paul Jones. Patrick Henry. Samuel Adams. Washington. Jefferson. Monroe. Lincoln. Grant. Lee. Edison. Mark Twain. When things got tough with those boys they didn't run around looking for "isms."" Throughout the '30s, Capra remained skeptical of organized mass movements and fundamental change (…).(Capra’s Films in the 1930s)

 

 

Self-reliance versus politics

Because Capra chose to avoid any extended treatment of the working-class movements of the '30s, the solutions he offered seem particularly implausible. Critic Herbert Biberman took Capra to task for his apolitical vision:

“You tell us that private charity holds a more creative future for millions of Americans than does the WPA. Where is there a factual basis for such a theory in the whole of American history? Was the Revolutionary War a manifestation of organized neighborliness of an unpolitical character?...Will "unpolitical neighborliness" prevent the eight- hour day from becoming the twelve-hour day?...Do you believe politics should be left to the mugs? The mugs, from [Hamilton] to Hitler, have tried to spread such a belief."  
In Capra's '30s films, the hero depends upon the masses, but the masses, stripped of any political savvy, "rarely act on their own initiative; they often panic in the hero's hour of need." Capra did not take notice of the people who won the sit down strikes, were murdered at Republic Steel, and managed to oust anti-labor Republican administrations in Pennsylvania steel towns. He avoided the 'real' opportunities for change like government regulation or union mutualism (…).

Like others in the '30s and '40s, Capra was worried that reliance on government and mass movements threatened to swallow the idea of individual self-reliance. A survey of college males during the period revealed that most wanted to work for a giant company rather than start their own business; sociologists coined the term "organization man" to describe this worker. Capra called his films after Deeds "the rebellious cry of the individual against being trampled by massiveness – mass production, mass thought, mass education, mass politics, mass wealth, and mass conformity." Although the small town was becoming an anachronism, and the mythic small-town hero's ability to navigate urban mass culture was increasingly suspect, Capra continued to rely on his formula. But finally the qualities associated with the typical American hero prove inadequate to surmount the difficulties posed by an increasingly institutionalized, modern society. The relationship of the hero to the people is so completely mediated by an assortment of technologies and institutions that he can't reach them effectively. And Capra, like Emerson, remained doubtful of the people's ability to act without the inspiration of the hero (Capra’s Films in the 1930s).

 

 

Conclusion

1.      Mr.Deed Goes to Town can be interpreted as political criticism, but then it is not persuading. In the Great Depression the tedious political work was probably more appropriate than spectacular populist actions.

2.   The film can also be interpreted as cultural criticism: Industrialization, banks and lawyers were (and still are) undesirable for a minority.

Capra’s message is that we should respect this minority and let them live their (different) life. With regard to mass culture, however, Capra contradicts himself:

         He criticizes mass education and at the same

         uses a mass medium to reach a mass audience

 

 

4.4 Salvation – ………

 

Buddhism, once thought of as a mysterious religion from the East, has now become very popular in the West, and is one of the largest religions in the United States. As Buddhism does not require any formal "conversion", American Buddhists can easily incorporate dharma practice into their normal routines and traditions. The result is that American Buddhists come from every ethnicity, nationality and religious tradition. In 2012, U-T San Diego estimated U.S. practitioners at 1.2 million people, of whom 40% are living in Southern California (Buddhism in the United States, Wikipedia).

 

Hollywood is a neighborhood in the central region of Los Angeles, California and is notable as the home of the U.S. film industry. The early life of the Dalai Lama was depicted (1997) in the Hollywood films Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet.

Before 1997 there were no influential films on Buddhist topics in the United States. And consequently there was no corresponding inspiration for Stanley Cavell, when he spent his afternoons and evenings in the movie theaters.

 

 

 

5. Conclusion

 

 

What is a good life?

In this paper we refer to a contemporary approach to the search for a good life. It is called moral perfectionism and was proposed by the American philosopher Stanley Cavell. Cavell calls Socrates a forerunner [Cavell, 445-447]. The term perfectionism stands for the effort to improve and is reminiscent of Socrates’ endeavor (virtue) to improve ethical knowledge [Tayor, 60]. Cavell refers, among others, to Nietzsche, Freud and Wittgenstein.

 

 

Can the good life be taught by films (in analogy to literature)?

- The cinematic specification of a moral ideal (e.g. the ideal of a monogamous marriage) is questionable insofar, as it tends to create stereotypes (chapter 4.1)

- More consequent, in terms of moral perfectionism, is the filming of different learning processes, leading to different versions of a good life (chapter 4.2)

- Fairness, and even justice in a strict sense, can be taught by films (chapter 4.3).

- Retreat-oriented lives and spirituality are not suited to be taught by films (chapter 4.4)

In comparison with literature, films have a limited potential to reflect the cultural and historical context of a good life.

 

 

What is the best method of teaching?

The weakness of literature and films (as far as they attempt to teach the good life) is a biased description of reality coupled with emotions. Many authors promote their individual perception as if it were a general truth. There are, however, means to avoid this trap:

- Platon’s Socrates used to switch perspectives in order to correct distorted perceptions. His style is characterized by analytical thinking combined with empathy.

- A different approach consists in introducing a neutral observer (narrator) or in switching to a background story, which reflects the bias.

 

Available films never reach the level of reflection, which can be found in some works of literature (e.g. in those of Coetzee).

- Cavell hopes to reach this level by combining the films with philosophical analyses [Cavell].

- The best method is probably a Socratic discussion, based on (contradicting) films, reviews and analyses.

 

 

 

References

 

1.      Alford, Steven E. (2006), Philosopher shares thoughts Hollywood-style

2.      Burkhart Günter (2002), Glück in der Liebe, in Glücksforschung - eine Bestandesaufnahme von Alfred Bellebaum (Ed.), UVK Verlag, Konstanz

3.      Büttner Jean-Martin (2018), Es geht immer weiter, wir können nicht mehr, Tages-Anzeiger, 6.August, p.4

4.      Cavell Stanley (2004), Cities of Words, Harvard University Press

5.      Contestabile Bruno (2018), Secular Buddhism and Justice, Contemporary Buddhism, Routledge, London

6.      Dancey Angela Clair (2005), Before and After: The Makeover in Film and Culture, Diss. Ohio State University

7.      Gier Nicholas F. (2004), The Virtue of Nonviolence: From Gautama to Gandhi. Suny Press.

8.      Holland Margaret G. (1998), Can Fiction be Philosophy?, 20th World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, Massachusetts.

9.      Economist (2005), The Economist Intelligence Unit’s quality-of-life index

10.  Jefs Web Files (2006), Can Movies Teach Moral Philosophy?

11.  Hamilton Alexander (1788), The Federalist No.70, p.448, New York

12.  Hampe Michael (2004), Propheten, Richter, Narren, Ärzte, ETH Zürich

13.  Lotter Maria-Sibylla (2006), Nietzsche in Amerika

14.  Murdoch Iris (1982), "Philosophy and Literature," in Men of Ideas ed. Bryan Magee, Oxford: Oxford University Press

15.  Nussbaum Martha (1990), Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (LK), New York: Oxford University Press

16.  Nussbaum Martha (1994), The Therapy of Desire, Princeton University Press, New Jersey

17.  Pentland Alex (2014), The Death of Individuality, New Scientist, April 5, p.30-31

18.  Peterman James, F. (1992), Philosophy as Therapy, An Interpretation and Defense of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophical Project, State University, New York

19.  Popper Karl R.(1945), The Open Society and its Enemies, London

20.  Rawls John (1958), Justice as Fairness, in Philosophical Review 67, pp.164-194

21.  Saito Naoko (1998), On the Education of the Heart: The Idea of Growth in Emerson and Cavell for Contemporary Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

22.  Sellars John (2009), The Art of Living, The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy, Bristol Classical, London

23.  Taylor C.C.W.(1998), Socrates, Oxford University Press

24.  Thomson Michael G. (2004), Happiness and Chance: A Reappraisal of the Psychoanalytic Conception of Suffering. Psychoanalytic Psychology 21:134-153.

25.  Van Hooft Stan, Philosophy as Therapy, Deakin University, Melbourne

26.  Willi Jürg (1975), Die Zweierbeziehung, Rowohlt, Hamburg, Germany

27.  Zerm Stephanie (2005), Moral als Selbsterschaffung, Eine Untersuchung zum moralischen Perfektionismus in der Philosophie Friedrich Nietzsches, Diss. Universität Hannover, Nr.247

28.  Zimmer Heinrich (1973), Philosophie und Religion Indiens, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, 7.Auflage 1992, Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin

 

 

Appendix: Cinema Therapy

 

 

Claim

1.      Laughter diminishes anxiety or fear and improves overall mood

(Laughter, Wikipedia).

2.      Humor – if it is not self-defeating or aggressive – reduces depression

(Humor research, Wikipedia)

 

 

Disclaimer

The effect of films, like that of literature and music is an individual matter. The examples given below have proven to be amusing for a great number of people, but that does not exclude that they are a nuisance for others (see chapter 2.2).

 

 

Screwball comedies

 

  Year

Wikipedia

  [Cavell]

  Youtube

  1934

It Happened one Night

  p.145-163

  Trailer

  1937

The Awful Truth

  p.373-383

  Trailer

  1940

His Girl Friday

  p.340-351

  Trailer

 

 

Romantic comedies

 

  Year

Wikipedia

  [Cavell]

  Youtube

  1940

The Philadelphia Story

  p.35-48

  Trailer

  1949

Adams Rib

  p.70-81

  Trailer

  1989

When Harry Met Sally

 

  Trailer

  1990

Green Card

 

  Trailer

  1993

Groundhog Day

 

  Trailer

  2008

Marcello Marcello

 

  Trailer

  2011

Midnight in Paris

 

  Trailer

 

 

The power of contingency

 

  Year

Wikipedia

  [Cavell]

  Youtube

  1992

A Tale of Winter

  p.421-445

  Trailer

  1993

Oh Brother Where Art Thou

  p.305-306

  Trailer

 

 

Criticism of modernity

 

  Year

Wikipedia

  Youtube

  1936

Modern Times

  Trailer

  1958

Mon Oncle

  Trailer

  1967

Playtime

  Trailer

 

 

Sketches

 

  Year

Wikipedia

  Youtube

  1972

The Philosopher’s Football Match

  Full Length

  2010

Promotion of Match for Africa

  Full Length