Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (3.5/5)

By now even those who dislike Christopher Nolan’s Batman triptych have been so beaten into submission that, in lieu of screaming “uncle,” they have conceded that the trio of films serve as a sort of repository of all of the anxieties running through the first decade or so of the new millennium.  They may disagree about the quality of the films themselves, but after seven years everyone agrees that these movies have established themselves as important cultural artifacts.  In particular, I’ve enjoyed that Nolan has somehow managed to hoist his personal vision of the world in front of millions and it has still connected with large swaths of audiences.  The blockbuster as personal missive approach to filmmaking has become increasingly rare, because either the audience or the studio have rejected those directors (see: Lee’s Hulk, Singer’s Superman Returns, and Raimi’s Spiderman series).  These days it seems as if Nolan is one of a few directors with the clout to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on his own personal vision.

So where does The Dark Knight Rises, the epic finale square with its predecessors?  Does it consistently meld its fantastical premise with a real world aesthetic like Begins?  Does it successfully tangle with questions of ethics like the sequel?  Well, not exactly.  At two hours and forty-five minutes, the film is unwieldy (how could it not be).  But it still manages to stick its landing, providing a satisfying and logical conclusion to one of the most distinct movie series of the last ten years.

The Dark Knight Rises plays out like a dialectic of the first two films, stringing along the two main threads of the previous installments – the League of Shadow’s terrorist attack and the moral fall and death of Harvey Dent – and combining them.  Because the people of Gotham still believe in Harvey Dent’s martyrdom, the lie concocted by Batman and Gordon at the end of The Dark Knight, they have come together and passed something called the “Dent Act,” which has helped clear the streets of criminals.  It isn’t exactly clear what was in the Dent act, but apparently it was controversial enough for some politicians to push for repeal.  The dramatic cut in crime has formed a city that no longer needs Batman as its protector, and Bruce Wayne hasn’t worn the cape and cowl since the end of the second film, eight years ago in movie time.  After a stunningly shot jail break in mid air, the film opens with a large gala at the Wayne mansion, but Wayne himself is absent, leading one party-goer to suggest that he may be growing out his finger nails and filling jars with urine in solidarity with Howard Hughes. 
During the gala one of the maids, suspiciously played by the headlining starlet Anne Hathaway, makes her way into a largely abandoned wing of Wayne manor.  Of course, Hathaway is playing Selina Kyle, better known as Catwoman (although that name is never used).  And after a confrontation with her reclusive host, she slips out with some pearls and copies of Bruce Wayne’s finger prints.  The pearls are for her while the fingerprints are for a mysterious new player in Gotham who happen to be a front for the League of Shadow, the same terrorist organization that trained Bruce Wayne and then later attempted to destroy Gotham in the first film. 

Like a lot of people, I was skeptical of Hathaway’s ability to play Catwoman.  She has a tendency to find roles that take advantage of her mostly chipper attitude, and I wasn’t sure she would be able to convincingly beat up guys twice her size on screen.  Luckily, my skepticism was misplaced.  Hathaway is easily one of the best elements of the movie.  Most of Nolan’s Batman films are shrouded in a decidedly pessimistic view of humanity, an element that is both refreshing in a blockbuster but also, at times, oppressive.  Hathaway provides a respite from the heavier aspects of Rises because she’s one of the few characters who seems to actually enjoy herself from time to time.  When she first stumbles upon Wayne during her burglary she starts by playing innocent, but when he calls her out on her lying Hathaway’s entire demeanor shifts, from the way she speaks to how she holds herself.  Throughout the film Hathaway plays Selina Kyle as mercurial, and we never really know which side she’s on or whether or not she has gained or lost the upper hand.

The central protagonist, however, is Bane, the new leader of the League of Shadows.  Rumors about Bane suggest that he comes from a prison pit in one of the more brutal corners of the world.  It is nearly impossible for any prisoner to scale this pit and gain his freedom, and although many of tried, Bane is the only one who has made it out alive.  Bane’s approach to leading the League of Shadows is different from Ra’s al Ghul’s.  Where Ra’s obscured the violence of the terrorist group through reasonable sounding rhetoric and Liam Neesom’s proper British accent, Bane himself appears to be brutality incarnate.  Without hesitation he guns civilians down but seems to prefer killing people with his bare hands. 

His followers also have a religious-like devotion, dutifully sacrificing their lives upon a simple request, which Bane makes in the same perfunctory manner that a boss might when asking for a TPS report.  But it’s not exactly clear why Bane himself garners such allegiance from his acolytes beyond the mythology surrounding his emergence from the pit.  Tom Hardy, who has put in some great performances in his career, is constrained by a mouth piece that not only serves to obscure his facial expressions, but also distorts his voice, which ends up sounding like Sean Connery with laryngitis.  The end result can look menacing in a fight, but when Hardy has dialogue to deliver, his tools as an actor are hobbled.  This is no more apparent than when Bane gives an impassioned speech to Gotham’s downtrodden, but the audience can’t even see his mouth move, and his vocal range is electronically suppressed.

Bane’s goal is not only to break Batman but also to hold Gotham hostage, cutting it off from the outside world and allowing the city residents to turn on each other.  After a vicious battle against Batman where Bane methodically dismantles his opponent, the League of Shadows proceeds to blow up any egress from the city and arm a nuclear weapon, which they are prepared to detonate if the U.S. military takes action against them.  The sequence is impressive in the way that it manages to make the stakes suitably and improbably high, a difficult task coming off of the threat of the Joker.  While Batman is trapped in the same prison that once held Bane, the citizens of Gotham plot to bring down the League of Shadows.

Bane’s ideology and the film itself are peppered with pseudo-populist sentiment about inequality and class.  Selina Kyle, who has had to scramble to survive her entire life, resents Wayne and his high society peers.  And when Bane has finally cut Gotham off from the outside world his first move is to release all of the prisoners from jail.  Unfortunately, the film’s handling of class issues is muddle at best and downright moronic at worst.  After Bane releases Gotham’s prisoners, waves of the resentful underclass spread out over Gotham smashing the homes of the city’s economic elite.  But it’s unclear if all of this terror is a part of some Marxist dialectic, or if they’re just angry prisoners.  The film suggests that the Dent Act, which is vaguely defined, has prevented parole for many of the prisoners and has in turn stoked much of their anger.  But later, these criminals form a twisted version of the judicial system in a kangaroo court headed up by none other than Dr. Crane a.k.a. the Scarecrow.  We’re supposed to be incensed by a court whose sole purpose is to sentence its subjects because the verdict of guilty has already been determined, but we’re not asked to question whether the Dent Act affected potentially reformed convicts who may have lingered in jail for years, or wonder about the potential for false conviction present in most attempts to create a tougher, more rigid judicial system. 

All of Nolan’s philosophizing has the bong scented whiff of a dorm room soliloquy.  In the previous films the ethical and moral questions were wonderful thought puzzles buried within exciting action movies, but here the very premise of these concerns fall apart the moment you think about them.  The obvious contemporary parallel to the film’s class anger is the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 2008 financial crash.  But is the inclination to open prison doors and suspend the right to a fair trial really all that similar to increasing the top tax bracket by three percent and reinstituting economic safety guards put in place after the Great Depression, like the Glass-Steagall Act?  Nolan himself has distanced the film from real world events and claims that much of it is based off of the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities.  And at times it seems as if Chris and his brother Jonathan want to be writing novels instead of making movies (which would explain the incredible amount of exposition that at times bogs down their plots).  But this doesn’t necessarily solve the problem that, unlike much of Dickens’s work, the moral quandaries found in this film are not well thought out.
But despite all of this, I enjoyed the film.  When it started to wobble, and it does from time to time, the movie got a boost from the emotional resonance that carried over from the first two movies.  Nolan does not treat this Batman series as a movie studio franchise, a fungible property that can be turned out by any number of studio approved directors.  If anything The Dark Knight Rises puts a cap on the series, and anyone would be hard pressed to awkwardly continue Nolan’s story except for Nolan himself (and my guess is that he will be out of the Batman business for some time).  This is a situation where the studio should wait a decade or so, give the audience some distance from Nolan’s vision of Batman, and then completely reinvent the character with a young and hungry director.  Whether you loved Nolan’s movies or hated them, you must admit that the character has so clearly become his in the public eye that it will take some time before anyone will accept a Batman film that isn’t helmed by Nolan.  Rises may not reach the heights of its predecessors, but its surprisingly moving denouement proves that it is possible to spin fully realized characters out of a world of superheroes. 

Addendum: in the next week or so I will have a brief write up detailing my thoughts on all three of Nolan's Batman films.  This short wrap up will allow me to discuss the relationship between all three films in more detail.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (4/5)

By now we’ve been trained to expect a franchise’s second film to be its darkest.  This precedent was arguably set by Empire Strikes Back, which managed to end on a surprisingly bleak note for a blockbuster film.  This trend continued with Back to the Future Part 2, which brought us the terrifying Biff controlled Hill Valley, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, which introduced a heart collecting Thuggee cult, and D2: The Mighty Ducks, which placed our pee wee hockey team in the middle of geopolitical turmoil.  In this sense, The Dark Knight does not disappoint.  If in the first movie Batman struggled against questions of retribution and revenge, in The Dark Knight he confronts untethered chaos as embodied in Heath Ledger’s Joker.

The movie begins in media res, as the Joker’s men rip off a bank housing the unjust enrichments of Gotham’s mob.  The heist’s “punch line” happens to be the fact that the Joker has told each thief that he should kill the others in order to cut down on the number of people who will eventually split the money.  The only thief who survives happens to be the Joker in disguise.  This is one of many robberies the Joker has committed, all of which targeted the holdings of Gotham’s organized crime, a move so brazen that one of the bank’s guards even asks “Do you know who you’re stealing from?”  I think it is safe to say that the Joker does in fact know who he’s stealing from. 

This string of robberies stretches back to Batman Begins where Gordon tells Batman that a bank was ripped off by a lunatic who left a joker card as his calling, which means that the heist that opens the sequel does a nice job of connecting both films.  The Dark Knight further maintains the global scope of its predecessor.  Gotham’s mob community (who have sorts of inter-familial meetings along the lines of the Algonquin round table) are involved in an international money laundering scheme that stretches across the globe to China.  In one of the film’s best sequences, Batman decides to forcibly extradite Lau, the head of a Chinese corporation that is in league with Gotham’s underworld.  Not only does Batman glide from one Hong Kong skyscraper to another, but he also devises a way for to hitch a ride with an in-flight airplane with Lau in tow.

The series of decisions that lead up to this abduction lend the world of Gotham some real life weight.  Like an episode of Law and Order, the district attorney Harvey Dent confers with Lieutenant Gordon in order to determine how best to take down Gotham’s mobsters.  The two then decide to rely on Batman’s ability to perform an extra-legal extradition.  The police procedural aspect to the film accomplishes something that we rarely see in the comic books which are often concerned with flitting from one action panel to another: presenting the Gotham as a living, breathing city.  It is certainly in-keeping with Christopher Nolan’s goal of grounding the superhero film in reality, an objective that is often achieved on the level of aesthetics, if not often on the level of plot.

The Joker pulls off a series of criminal acts that look more like thought experiments than traditional crimes.  He threatens to continue killing Gotham’s citizens until Batman reveals his identity to the public, and when Harvey Dent turns himself in as Batman in order to calm an agitated public, the Joker attacks Dent’s SWAT team convoy in a dazzling set piece.  Later the Joker will make Batman choose between the life of Gotham’s one true hero, the law abiding Harvey Dent, and Wayne’s childhood friend Rachel Dawes, graciously recast from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal.  And in the film’s climax two ferries, one containing everyday citizens and the other criminals, must decide whether or not they want to blow the other up in order to save their own lives. 

All of these Sophie’s choices could have easily come across as the product of a freshman college student’s philosophy 101 term paper, if not for the byzantine, contorted, and scene stealing performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker.  Despite the fact that Ledger’s Joker only appears for a grand total of ten and a half minutes in the entire two and a half hour movie, he successfully hijacks the film.  I think it is safe to say that Ledger’s performance would have received the same accolades even if it weren’t for his untimely death.  Ledger frequently smacks his distended lips as if he is never quite satiated, and at times he moves in a waddle in what is some unknowable inside joke.  Perhaps the film’s most iconic scene occurs when Joker swerves down a street in a stolen police car, stretching his head out of the window and enjoying the wind on his face.  It is in this moment that the Joker seduces the audience to his point of view.  For just a second we get to see the joy and absolute freedom of anarchic will.  I have always felt that a great portrayal of the Joker lies not in his body count (although there’s plenty of that here), but in his ability to convince an audience that his form of freewheeling violence might be just a little enjoyable.

As a villain, the Joker poses a problem that’s distinct from the League of Shadows.  Where the League of Shadows was an ideological terrorist group bent on refashioning the world in their own image, the Joker is pure bedlam.  His reasoning is inscrutable and thus unpredictable.  Like in the best horror movies, a genre from which Nolan also borrows, the Joker is scary because he defies traditional Enlightenment notions of reason.  Where half of Batman Begins was dedicated to the origins of its title character, Joker is distinct because we are denied an origin story.  He does provide a shifting narrative of his scarred face, but he’s an unreliable narrator switching out his traumatic beginning whenever he feels like it.

If the League of Shadows represented Al Qaeda, then the Joker represents the anthrax attacks that followed.  Where the Twin Towers attack was a sickening spectacle, the anthrax attacks only furthered America’s belief that violence could strike any one of us at any time and was arguably just as influential in convincing Americans that it was a good idea to invade Iraq as the 9/11 attack.  To this day, it is still entirely unclear who was involved in the anthrax attack and for what reason.  As the Joker tells a mentally and physically scarred Harvey Dent, “If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger, will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all, part of the plan.”  Likewise, Americans seemed perfectly comfortable with the idea of civilian and military deaths within a war zone half a world away, but the moment that our own sense of security comes under attack, then we readily sacrifice hundreds of thousands of innocent foreigners and thousands of our own soldiers just so we can open our mail in peace. 

The central idea of The Dark Knight, that we are willing to cross ethical lines when the personal safety of ourselves and loved ones is broached, is embodied in the character of Harvey Dent.  While we see shadows in the corners of Dent’s personality early on—he is surprisingly tolerant of Batman for a DA—the film explicitly positions him as the opposite of the caped crusader, as a man who works within the system and still manages to put criminals behind bars.  At one point he is referred to as Gotham’s “white knight.”  But over the course of the film Dent becomes tarnished.  He begins bending rules, even threatening to shoot a suspect in order to garner more information.  When the Joker blows up half of Dent’s face, then he goes into full on Inigo Montoya revenge mode. 

Any fan of Batman knows that Dent is playing the role of Two-Face, one of Batman’s most complex villains.  While I’m sure most moviegoers were happy with Two-Face’s appearance, as a longtime fan of the comics I was a little disappointed in his inclusion as a second tier villain.  The character also got short shrift in the campfest Batman Forever (again, playing second fiddle).  Even at two and a half hours, The Dark Knight feels increasingly overstuffed (I haven’t even touched upon the subplot of the Wayne employee who uncovers his dual identity), and tacking on Two-Face feels like there are too many balls in the air.  Besides, when will this great character get the full spotlight he deserves?

In some ways The Dark Knight is a messier film than its predecessor, but it more than makes up for it by being a much more ambitious film as well.  Arguably the greatest improvement between the first film and the second is Nolan’s increased comfort shooting action scenes.  This is apparent in a showdown between the Joker brandishing a machine gun and Batman on a high tech motorcycle.  The scene becomes a clash of wills, the Joker employing Batman to break his code against killing, willing to sacrifice himself to prove man’s infallibility.

The Dark Knight ends on a note of nihilism.  Batman must become the villain in order to maintain Dent’s role as a hero, because otherwise the masses would lose faith in social and government systems.  In Nolan’s world there’s a deep distrust of the people.  And while he does suggest that at times everyday people might surprise us and make the moral decision, ultimately this is overshadowed by the central characters who give in to a code of no code.  It is this anti-democratic point of view that not only makes the film an intriguing in its own right, but also makes it a unique blockbuster.  What other multi-million dollar success stories are as critical of the type of widespread populism that makes the summer blockbuster possible in the first place?  I may not agree with The Dark Knight’s view of the world, and at times its theorizing can be incredibly thin, but it is a rare big budgeted film that makes us question our own moral fortitude. 

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne

Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne (4/5)

Listen: Bruce Wayne has come unstuck in time.  The last we saw of Batman, he had been zapped by Darkseid’s omega beams, but instead of killing him, they actually sent him into the past.  The Return of Bruce Wayne follows Bruce Wayne as he skips from one century to the next getting in all sorts of adventures.  It’s the kind of set up that’s bursting with potential and any writer worth his salt would jump at the opportunity to write stories about Batman battling the pirate Blackbeard, caught in the middle of a prehistoric intertribal feud, or solving mysteries in Puritan New England.  But we don’t have just any writer at the helm of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne.  We have Grant Morrison that insanely inventive but wildly uneven Scottsman.

The Return of Bruce Wayne follows Morrison’s writing on Final Crisis, arguably the absolute nadir of his major comic book work.  Most of that series reads as if Morrison was vomiting up ideas and hoping that a few of them stuck.  What’s most frustrating about Grant Morrison is that he is, when at the top of his game, a tremendous talent.  His first creator owned invention, The Invisibles is a wonderful distillation of his interest in magic, countercultural movements, and mind melting time travel.  But when he superimposes those interests onto the world of superheroes, the results are often mixed.  I sometimes wish Morrison had a mentor around like Gertrude Stein who famously told a young Ernest Hemingway, “Start again – and this time concentrate.”  Luckily, The Return of Bruce Wayne, while far from perfect, is some of Morrison’s best work with DC’s major characters. 

The fact that each issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne is largely self-contained reigns in Morrison’s more self-indulgent tendencies.  While there is an overarching plot dealing with Darkseid’s attempt to use Bruce as a weapon, the story is mostly episodic.  The best moments in the series occur early on.  In the first chapter, Bruce Wayne is found in a prehistoric cave and discovered by a tribe of early men.  The story is told from the perspectives of the cave men, so we cannot understand anything Wayne has to say, since he is speaking in modern day English.  The tribe has a run in with another group of cavemen lead by none other than Vandal Savage, and Bruce Wayne must take on the mantle of the bat in order to fight his way out of their clutches.  At the end of this adventure an eclipse occurs, which sends Wayne skipping along to the next point in time with only echoes of his memory still in tact.

Wayne then finds himself in an early 17th century Gotham run by Puritans.  There Wayne befriends a pagan who lives by herself, hidden away in the local woods.  He also becomes an inspector who uses his still intact detective skills to solve crimes in colonial America.  Morrison has fun with these jumps in time.  The story takes on an epic scope, even if it mostly takes place in and around what would be modern day Gotham.  Wayne leaps through time even as he stays relatively grounded in place.  Morrison also builds a fun mythology around Wayne’s time traveling adventures.  The cape and cowl he brought back from the future, as well as his first appearance as a Bat-like god, appears to later influence the Miagani, a nation of Native-Americans whose culture revolves around the bat. 

And because this is a Morrison book, it can be read as a meta-commentary on Batman as a character.  Each time Bruce Wayne reconstitutes himself in time, he essentially forms himself into a different variation of Batman.  This is reminiscent of ways that Batman has been reinvented throughout his seventy year history, from his beginnings as a hard boiled vigilante to his role as a pop art icon in the 60s to his transformation into an anti-hero by Frank Miller in the 80s.  But Morrison is also commenting on the number of archetypal heroes that make up Batman’s DNA, including the bat as a totem symbol, the Western gunslinger, and the film noir detective.

But, unfortunately, Morrison isn’t able to keep up this level of storytelling.  As the series runs on, he spends more time explaining Darkseid’s plan to charge Wayne up with omega energy so that when he reaches the present day, he will destroy the planet.  These cosmic level shenanigans are far less interesting than the individual adventures Wayne had been having throughout time.  And eventually the story devolves into a bunch of technobabble you might find in an episode of Star Trek.  Still, the good outweighs the bad, and unless you’re one of those who absolutely cannot stand Morrison’s brand of insanity, then there’s plenty to love in The Return of Bruce Wayne.  At the very least, the series proves that no matter the century, Batman will always be cool as hell. 

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

A Groundwork of Metaphysics of Internet Piracy

 Arguments about internet piracy have, like piracy itself, ravaged the internet at least since Napster’s wonderful explosion in popularity followed by its just as glorious collapse.  But recently an article written by college student and NPR intern EmilyWhite has reignited this always contentious debate.  On NPR’s All Songs Considered blog, Emily White details her music buying experience, or, more precisely, a nearly total lack of it.  Through the process of friends who uploaded songs onto various devices, Kazaa, and ripping albums from her university’s radio station, Emily estimates that she has only bought perhaps fifteen albums in her lifetime, but owns around 11,000 songs.  Wisely, Emily feels somewhat guilty about this.  She notes that many of the flippant, poorly thought out solutions to the problem of easy access to free music, like “sell more t-shirts,” are completely inadequate.  But she also doesn’t really offer any solutions of her own beyond a vague call for a more convenient way to access music.  (Is clicking a mouse really all that inconvenient?)

Emily’s article garnered a slew of rebuttals, the most popular being the response of Dave Lowery, singer for the bands Cracker and Camper Von Beethoven and current professor of music business.  Where Emily’s solutions were somewhat vague, Lowery’s response was far more interested in clear details, and while I certainly don’t agree with everything he writes, I’m fairly certain it does a nice job of voicing the larger frustrations felt among the musician community.  The debate expanded from there with people taking both sides.  In the ensuing discourse there were two go to assumptions that really got under my skin: 1) generation gap politics and 2) coddling the young.  These might seem contradictory at first, but upon further examination they fit nicely next to one another. 

A quick glance at any comment board that dealt with Emily’s post will garner a slew of arguments about generational norms.  The act of stealing tens of thousands of songs, the argument goes, can be chalked up to those worthless millennials who are selfish and want everything handed to them, never mind that a generation ago the means to illegally download this number of songs just didn’t exist.  David Lowery’s post, at times, falls back on this generational finger pointing, and it’s one of his weakest arguments.  Travis Morrison, of Dismemberment Plan fame,responded to the assumption that millennials must some how be more morally bankrupt than past generations by noting that he as well as many of his friends stole music all the time back in the day.  Of course, he doesn’t really deal with the fact that it used to require a good amount of effort to steal back in the day where it has become nearly labor free today. 

Regardless, some of this generational resentment comes down to a vague anxiety plenty of baby boomers have that their place in the world of popular culture is quickly being replaced.  Couple this with the fact that the decline of the middle class tracks with the political rise of the baby boomers, and you have an entire generation worried about their own legacy and willing to lash out at their youngers.  Recent years have done damage to the narrative the boomers have constructed of themselves: principled actors who protested against the Vietnam War out of moral convictions and helped form a more open society.  Of course, this narrative is hurt by the fact that Nixon actually won the youth vote in his election runs, suggesting that plenty of the baby boomers were less concerned with American imperialism than they were with the fact that now they were being asked to sacrifice in order to support our overseas adventures.  In other words, no one cared about the war when the poor were dying, but as soon as the middle class were asked to join, then the youth culture of the late 60s started to pay attention.

This generational resentment finds its way into plenty of arguments, and my guess is that we will be seeing it for some time.  The other obnoxious trend I’ve noticed surrounding the Emily White article is a protective, sometimes condescending, tone people take when defending 21-year-old Emily.  There are a number of posts that accuse Lowery of “yelling at a 21 year old,” as if she isn’t old enough to handle a rebuttal to her public statement.  In one particular defense of Emily’s original post, written confusingly enough by another person named Emily White, the author begins by telling the first Emily that she “wrote a great blog post!”  (yes, with an exclamation mark).  I know that if you’re 21, then you’re just barely old enough to drink.  But you’re also old enough to handle some criticism.  You’re considered an adult at 18, and we do no service to young adults if we don’t call out their dumb ideas as dumb ideas.  When Emily writes that what she really wants is some vague notion of convenience, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell her, “You know, Emily, that’s kind of stupid.”

What is perhaps most frustrating aspect of the internet piracy argument is the fact that people are constantly speaking past one another.  There are those who are concerned with making sure that musicians can make a decent living so that they can make more great music.  On the other end, there are those “free culture” extremists who rightly note that technology has shifted the old business models, pointing out the benefits of this new technology, but plug their ears when people start talking about reasonable compensation for artists.  There are two related but separate issues at stake in this conversation.  First, the macro issue of business models and corralling the buying behavior of large groups of people.  Second, the micro issue of individual moral choice.  We might agree that downloading music without compensating the artist is a bad ethical choice, but that doesn’t mean that the problem will dissipate any time soon.  This means we must come up with a new business plan to better address this problem and make sure that artists receive enough compensation to continue to produce great art.

But at the same time (and this should really go without saying), just because a large number of people are stealing music does not make it ethical for you as an individual to also engage in this same behavior.  This part of the argument reminds me of Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” from his treatise, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  In this text, Kant attempts to provide the basis for an understanding of morals that are universal, separate from any particular time and place.  In order to deal with this problem (and I’ll skip all of the intricate abstraction that he develops), Kant comes up with the idea of the “categorical imperative,” which he defines, in its simplest terms, as the maxim that “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (70).  So in order to adjudge whether or not illegally downloading music is an ethical choice, we should ask ourselves what would happen if everyone were to make the same decision.  Obviously, if no one paid for music, then the entire industry would pretty much fall apart, and we would have a lot less great art in the world.  In fact, those who pirate music have benefited greatly from those of us who have purchased our music over the years (or mostly purchased our music, as the case may be). 

We need to have both a discussion about the micro and macro aspect of internet piracy.  Each of us should determine what sort of ethical choices we need to make.  But at the same time, it is unrealistic to believe that people will automatically just stop pirating, especially cash strapped college students who love music.  And as we have this conversation, let’s not confuse the overarching issue of business models with individual ethical choice.