Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Art vs. Artist

Film: Manchester by the Sea
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Way back in February of 2010 I reviewed Chinatown. I love Chinatown; I think it’s the best movie of 1972. But reviewing it and praising it put me in a difficult situation as a new blogger. How fiercely do I praise a film made by someone who literally cannot return to this country because of statutory rape charges? Where is the separation of the man from his art? I had a similar problem with Birth of a Nation. Decades ago, the same problem came up when looking at the poetry of Ezra Pound, who was both a genius and a Nazi sympathizer. I find myself in the same position again with Manchester by the Sea and the performance of Casey Affleck.

Manchester by the Sea is the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handyman working in Boston. Lee seems to be an emotional cipher, someone who essentially has zero affect because of severe depression. This is increased when he learns that his brother Joe (played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler) has died from the congestive heart failure that he was diagnosed with some time in the past. Through these flashbacks, we learn a few important things. First, Joe has a son named Patrick (Ben O’Brien as a child, Lucas Hedges as a teen). Joe’s wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) is an alcoholic who has left the family.

We also learn what is going on with Lee. Years earlier, he was married to Randi (Michelle Williams). One drunken evening, Lee went out for beer and through his own negligence, started a fire in the house that destroyed everything and killed his and Randi’s three children. Divorce soon followed and Lee left Manchester-by-the-Sea for Boston to get away from his ex-wife, his memories, and the stares of the people around him.

The problem here is that Joe has named Lee as the guardian of his son Patrick. Patrick naturally doesn’t want to move to Boston; his life is in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Lee doesn’t want to stay in town where he is a person of notoriety. He also doesn’t want Patrick to end up with Elise despite her cleaning up and getting sober because he doesn’t trust her. He also doesn’t really want to deal with Randi, who is remarried and has a child with her new husband.

More or less, Manchester by the Sea is the story of Lee figuring out that he still actually has some emotions buried down inside him and that the death of his brother, while more or less expected because of his illness, has brought all of these emotions to the surface. Suddenly, someone who had more or less not allowed himself to feel much of anything for years is flooded with a series of emotions and doesn’t really know how to deal with them.

And this is precisely where the dilemma comes in. Casey Affleck offers a performance here that is one of the best of this current decade. It’s a subtle skill, and one that Affleck has in spades: he is capable of allowing the audience to know what he is thinking and how he is feeling simply through nonverbal signals. There are few moments here where Lee actually talks about anything he is feeling, and yet through the entire film it is completely obvious to the audience precisely what is going on in the man’s head.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that Casey Affleck has been accused multiple times of sexual harassment, and if even half of the stories are true, his actions are truly reprehensible. I’m right back in the situation I was with Roman Polanksi. How much do I praise Affleck for a truly affecting and brilliant performance? How much do I condemn him for his real-world actions? Where do I separate the person from the performance? Do I run the risk of praising a brilliant performance offered by a terrible person? Do I denigrate a great performance because the performer himself is awful?

It’s an unfortunate thing. I feel damned if I do and damned if I don’t, because Affleck—who I’ve always thought was talented in front of the camera—is absolutely at the top of his game here.

Manchester by the Sea is a powerful film, made all the more powerful by its performances. Michelle Williams was nominated in a supporting role, and she’s good, but only memorable in one or two scenes. Lucas Hedges was nominated in a supporting role as well, and it’s an interesting performance. Patrick is also emotionally cold through most of the film until he has a complete breakdown. His relationship with Lee forms the center of the movie, and for the most part, Hedges is capable of standing toe-to-toe with Affleck.

Ultimately, Manchester by the Sea is not a pleasant film, but it is an important one, and one worth seeing. It’s not one I’ll want to watch again any time soon, though.

Why to watch Manchester by the Sea: Casey Affleck is unbelievable on screen.
Why not to watch: Casey Affleck off screen.

8 comments:

  1. This is on my queue. Thanks for the write-up.

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    1. It's good. It's a wrist-slitter, but it's very good.

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  2. Here's what I make of it, and I said as much in my review of Whiplash when I came to that film's defense (though for different reasons than the issues you bring up with this one): Just because a movie like Triumph of the Will (or Birth of a Nation, which is another good example I'd forgotten about) is detestable in its endeavors and its message, does not mean that it is detestable as a piece of art. Even though Triumph is absolutely a film that tries to push the Nazi agenda down the throats of any who choose to view it, it is still a groundbreaking and masterful piece of propaganda, one that is still referenced to this day in the circles of documentaries, and I ended up giving it an 8 out of 10 for those reasons.

    Like almost everyone who's been throwing opinions at Casey Affleck since the whole mess came to light, I don't know if he actually is guilty of some or all of what he's been accused of. If he is, yes, he deserves a lot of shame and reprehension for what he did. But, and this is the kicker, in this film, he still gives a hell of a performance. It's up to individual people if they want to give him praise or laurels in the face of his accusations and potentially, to them, boost the man's ego by doing so, but regardless of whether they do so or not, it is almost impossible to argue that this isn't one of the best performances of the decade, as you said. To that end, he should have won the Oscar (though I have yet to see Denzel Washington in Fences, so I might change my opinion on that), as more than anything (or at least how I see it), the Oscars are about finding and recognizing the best effort of the year in each category, and by that definition, it was Affleck's all the way. To me, we can't blur the line too much and not recognize his achievement in the same way that Hitler and Stalin were both Time's Person of the Year (twice for Stalin, actually) during WWII.

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    1. In general, I agree with you. It's more or less where I came down on Birth of a Nation and Chinatown, and I did more or less the same with Triumph of the Will (which is a great example, and one I wish I had thought of). Affleck's performance is about as good as it gets, arguably one of the single best performances of the decade so far, although I have yet to see all four of the other nominees in the Best Actor category.

      And for what it's worth, this isn't a guilt thing. I don't feel guilty for thinking that Affleck's performance is astonishing. At some level, I think we need to separate the man from the art. But the same thing happens in sports. I'm not a sports fan at all--I can't name more than a half dozen people currently playing in any professional sport, but we see the same thing happen there. Do we forgive a player for something despicable simply because he (or she, although we're usually talking about men in this case) is really good at a sport?

      There aren't easy answers, and I'd have to be convinced on some level that art is somehow different materially from sport in a situation like this. Why should we forgive the artist and not the athlete?

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  3. Interesting dilemma. I've struggled with this issue as well. In my blogging I've decided to just try and express my opinion about what's in front of me on the screen.

    Not unlike most other industries, the history of Hollywood is filled with unsavory characters, many of whom engaged in outlandish / despicable / immoral / maybe criminal behavior. Some were called out in their lifetime, many were not.

    Joan Crawford allegedly abused her daughter. Woody Allen's personal life is a sordid mess. Tippi Hedren alleges that Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted her. Frank Sinatra had numerous alleged ties to murderous mobsters. Lana Turner was embroiled in the Stompanato killing. According to Wikipedia, Jeffrey Jones has serious issues with child porn. Winona Ryder, Mark Wahlberg, Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson, Randy Quaid and Lindsay Lohan all have had well-documented troubles. We can all go on with many more examples.

    Do we stop enjoying/admiring/honestly critiquing the artistic works of these people?

    I often don't know enough to judge, nor do I want to - passing judgment on actors and directors' private lives is not what I watch movies for. (and I'm not a big sports fan anymore, so I can't draw the parallels...)

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    1. It is a hard line to walk, and on this blog I tend to err on the side of the art. I'm not always so judicious outside of the blog, though.

      That said, it is a question that needs to be raised now and then. Art and even movies that don't qualify as art affect how we see the world and interact with it, and thus so do the people who make those movies and make that art. There does need to be a separation, of course, but I'm not always sure where that line should go.

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  4. I have like zero issues separating art and artist. I don't like them as people, but I will still watch movies with Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson without a second thought. I think Roman Polanski is a great director, and I have no qualms watching his films. I didn't even know about the Casey Affleck accusations until Manchester by the Sea was hitting the awards circuit and suddenly that's all anyone was saying about the movie. But even if it's true, it shouldn't be a detriment to the film. For all we know, Leonardo da Vinci could have created a time machine and become the Zodiac Killer, but that doesn't stop me from thinking he was a genius and amazing and influential artist.

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    1. That's a completely fair position.

      My first instance of dealing with something like this was encountering the work of Ezra Pound. Pound was a genius poet. He also happened to be a rabid fascist.

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