Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Comment

I didn’t really feel like watching a movie today. That’s not something I say that often.

Over the last several days/weeks/feels like forever, allegations of sexual misconduct/abuse have come out against people in the entertainment industry. Virtually all of these have been verified or admitted. More are almost certainly going to come. Beloved figures are being toppled with likely more pillars of the entertainment industry set to fall as well. As painful as all of this is, it’s necessary. This is something that needed to happen and has been needed, clearly, for a long time.

This is a blog about movies. It’s always been a blog about movies and not much more than that. I don’t put my politics here very often (if ever) and I don’t do a great deal of commentary on the film industry. I talk about the films themselves. I don’t talk about the actors; I talk about the performances. I deal with narrative more than anything else. But this has substantially and categorically changed the way that many people are and will be looked at in the future, and it calls into question a number of important moral issues when it comes to both art and artist.

This is not a new question, and it’s one I’ve struggled with before. Dealing with the 1001 Movies list brought me into contact with despicable films like Triumph of the Will. It’s hard to deny that there is a primal power in the way that film was made, and it’s also undeniable that the film is morally repellent. Do we judge the message or the artistic quality? In a film like that, it’s an easier call to make. It’s hard to deny Leni Riefenstahl’s talent as a filmmaker and it’s easy to categorically castigate her for the way in which she allowed that talent to be used.

What about Birth of a Nation? This is a film that glamorized the KKK, probably doing more to increase its membership in the early part of the last century more than anything else in history. It is again a morally repugnant film, showing Klan members as heroes, protecting the genteel and honorable South from the predation of men depicted as little more than animals. The message is awful. And at the same time, it is almost impossible to understand film as a medium without seeing Birth of a Nation. In many ways, it created the cinematic language that we know. We know how to watch movies and know what to watch for because this movie exists and influenced everything that followed it.

The list here is endless. Hitchcock is routinely cited as one of the great directors in film history and he was notoriously vicious to his leading ladies. He notably traumatized Tippi Hedren and so dominated and curtailed her career that she is forever linked with him. Roman Polanski, accused of child molestation, has not set foot in the U.S. for decades and continues to make acclaimed films. The same can be said of Woody Allen. Allegations sprang up last year regarding Casey Affleck, who nonetheless won an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea. And on and on it goes.

How do we judge now the works of a Kevin Spacey, rightfully regarded as one of the most talented actors of this generation and now rightfully revealed as a predator and monster? Judging the person is easy. Judging the art? That’s not necessarily so easy.

The simplest answer is to avoid the artist. The Usual Suspects, Glengarry Glen Ross, Seven, American Beauty all assigned to the ash heap. Doing so gives a unique power to that accused individual. The work of hundreds of people lie in those films, and not just those who appear on the screen. By avoiding the films entirely, we negate huge parts of the careers of other people who, as far as we know, are blameless. Do we lose Diane Keaton in Annie Hall because Annie Hall was written and directed by someone who has turned out to be a monster? What did Diane Keaton do to deserve that other than have terrible luck? How do I react to dealing with at least two more unwatched Woody Allen films on my Oscar lists? Is it now even possible to look at them objectively? How do I deal with Best Actor 1999, knowing that Kevin Spacey won and may well have turned in the best male lead performance of that year while simultaneously knowing what I know about him now?

I don’t know. Plenty of great art has been created by terrible human beings. In the case of movies, much of that art was created by other people as well, people who are not terrible human beings.

Can we love the art without at least a little loving the person behind the art? Do we love the art while viewing it in the context of what we know now? Can we separate art and artist completely?

I don’t know. But at the same time, I don’t know how we seem to have managed to do that already for so long without thinking about it. I genuinely love the movie Chinatown. I think it’s a masterpiece of film and storytelling, and even with the first time I watched it, I knew about Polanski. Shouldn’t that have mattered then? If it didn’t, should it matter now? This is a real question. There is almost no way from this point moving forward that a Kevin Spacey film doesn’t come up without having an asterisk next to it. Should we do the same for Hitchcock or Griffith? Do the older works get a pass because we were naïve about those things until after the artist in question died?

This is where I am with this now. This blog has always been about the movies, and it will continue to be. But I can change the picture I’ve used for when Oscar doesn’t do well on Mondays and Fridays. Starting now, I’ll be using this:

Please, your comments are truly welcome on this.


  1. I respect the moral clarity you bring to this problem, and I appreciate your quandary. You and I might not be neighbors politically, but we're really not that far apart when it comes to the dilemma in question. I have no answers for this; like you, I bring a lot of questions to the table. Good luck to us all as we wrestle with issues of art and morality.

    1. Sadly, I think this is a question that's never going to go away.

      I remember dealing with this in college when we got to the work of Ezra Pound.

  2. This is not a new discussion, it has been around for decades, if not a century. Joan Crawford was and still is highly acclaimed despite being, privately, a monster. Roscoe Arbucle got involved in terrible things, but we still like his movies. The list is endless. What about John Wayne's role in the blacklisting?
    The current wave is a long overdue cleanup, why should rules be different in the movie industry, but it has no or little impact on the movies we watch. Whenever I see an interview with Cameron Diaz she strikes me as a complete idiot, but I can still enjoy her in movies. I saw Tarantino completely drunk making a fool of himself, but his movies are still worth watching. And Tom Cruise...? The less said about him the better, but I almost always like his movies.
    What these people do is relevant to their workplace, their collegues, the rule of the law, but not on our enjoyment of their movies. The reason for taking off House of Cards should be that the company and his colleagues cannot work with Spacey, not that we have to be somehow protected from him. That sort of reaction is misguided and misdirected.
    I can only hope that the entertainment business eventually realizes that being an asshole is not acceptable, but I am afraid that is a naive hope. There is something inherent in the public adoration, the money and the power that attracts assholes or turn people into assholes. And it has not changed in a hundred years.

    1. Right, and I understand House of Cards being pulled, but it penalizes everyone else who worked on it. One person is a horrible human being, and now hundreds of people are out of work because of it. That's the problem when it comes to movies and television. It's easy to not watch the work of a comedian, or to not look at the work of a painter, or to not read the books by a particular author. Movies and television are such joint affairs, though, that boycotting because of one guilty person means punishing people who don't deserve the punishment. In some cases, it means punishing a person who is a victim.

  3. Like Steve, I wasn't sure where or how to come down on this issue, as if there is a clear black-and-white distinction that one can come down on one side or the other and call it a day. It's not, as much as that would make this whole snafu easier to resolve; it's a gray area, much like most things in life. Steve makes an excellent point towards films like Seven and American Beauty that are the result of hundreds of people's work, and that it would be unfair to them to dismiss the product as a whole because of an unlucky misfortune that one of the others involved is and/or has always been morally repugnant. It adds another swirl of gray to the issue.

    I wasn't sure how to comment on it, so I am actually quite thankful that TSorensen put into words what he did, and I agree with just about his whole comment. Even with my not having watched House of Cards, I think his assessment as to how the future of that show should be handled, as a removal of Spacey due to conflicts of work ethic instead of merely axing the entire show to save Spacey getting anything from its continuation, to be absolutely spot on. I don't have very much else to say myself, but like Steve, it seemed to be prudent to add to the discussion in some way, given how important this is or will be to all of us; mostly, I wanted to second TSorensen's reply, as he said a lot of what I wasn't able to put into words.

    1. Exactly. It would be easy for all of us to collectively throw up our hands and burn everything to the ground. With something like House of Cards...one school of thought would be clearly to replace Spacey with someone else. But if you do that, in a sense you prevent anyone new from entering into the show. I've heard the show is great, but right now, do I want to wade through five seasons of Spacey?

      It might simply be that some of these films are forever ruined--like we've all collectively grown up, and the things that got tainted in that moment are forever going to be tainted. Maybe that's what should happen, but some of those things are cultural touchstones. If we judged every movie or show by the character of the performers, we'd never be able to watch anything. Sean Connery has talked in interviews about his willingness to slap women. Gwyneth Paltrow pushes pseudo-scientific quackery--some of it highly dangerous--on her website. Dennis Hopper, who I met spent an afternoon with and who I genuinely liked, was certainly no angel.

      I think everyone's thoughts on this are going to be coalescing over the next few days and weeks.

  4. Necessary to do something about it, yes. But I hate that certain performances have been ruined for me. Watching Kevin Spacey would be cringeworthy now.
    Then again, I suppose it depends what you are willing to forgive in the long run. I was enjoying a classic Bob Marley album in the car this week, knowing full well that he was no angel, an irresponsible womanizer who had children left right and center.
    Good discussion topic

    1. I don't know if it's about forgiveness or even acceptance. I don't know if anyone will know for a long time.

    2. It's a tricky one for sure, since we are still in the middle of the scandal. Protecting the crew and other actors from monsters is paramount. Audiences have to make their own choices who to watch.

      Mel Gibson comes to mind as someone who was outed from Hollywood, but managed to reboot his career with Hacksaw Ridge. Took about 6-7 years for him to be accepted again, although he's still a devisive figure with some audiences. Spacey and Weinstein's offenses are worse though, and I can't see a way back for them.

    3. Maybe that's the answer, then. Maybe they're done and should be. The projects that are in the bag and completed perhaps shouldn't be permanently shunned because of the work of the other people involved, but I think they'll have an asterisk on them for a long time.

      There are things for which we give second chances. I don't think predatory behavior is one of them and it shouldn't be.

  5. This has been going on since the dawn of the human race. It's only now that the lens has been finally turned around and finally focused on Hollywood/the entertainment industry. This is rather ironic since "Spotlight" won the 2015 best film Oscar as were the calls of the entertainment elite to throw Mel Gibson under the bus a few years ago. In the big picture, it still doesn't lessen the contributions even truly horrible or evil people make, and made, to this world. Only we might just judge those works much more harshly though.

    It's just a shame that so many of these criminals never faced repercussions as dire as the crimes they committed or allowed to happen. But even to this day, I don't have a decent answer to students' questions as to why so many WWII war criminals were not charged for war crimes. Of course, the U.S. was greatly interested in the knowledge they acquired while participating in villainous war machines like Wernher von Braun and some of the Japanese physicians of Unit 731 who worked for the U.S. government after the war, but it doesn't make it remotely right or fair. And it boggles my mind that so many are rightfully upset about Confederate monuments in public places, yet so few of them are even upset about real-life, modern slavery that currently has over 40 million breathing people in its dire grip.

    In the grand scheme of things, the hypocrisy of Hollywood will end up just being a small footnote and forgotten within a few weeks time as is the current public mindset in today's 24-nanosecond, news cycle age that cares more for Kardashian fluff than anything as meaningful as public introspection and discourse about current ills, or solutions, in our world.

    1. It is a highlight of a larger problem, and we're seeing it in places other than Hollywood, of course. There's a new probe hitting my state capital right now investigating something like two dozen instances of misconduct, some of them sexual, some of which could result in criminal prosecution.

      I'm not sure this one goes away. I think it's entirely possible that the climate that is now being created will root more and more of this out and we'll see more and more people thrown on the pile. That's not a bad thing. Allegations will continue to happen, I think for years. But the climate is now being created that will make it much, much harder for newer cases to happen without repercussion, and that's a good thing.

      It's a bit like surgery. It's painful. We're weakened and feeling at a low point, but if we survive the surgery, we may come back stronger, healthier, and better than we were.

  6. Interesting discussion and, as noted, one that's gone on for a long time.

    My wife was an extra in at least a half dozen House of Card episodes over the last couple of years. She met both Robin Wright and Spacey and says that while she was kind but distant, he was really great to the extras. The show films in Baltimore and pulls a lot of extras from the DC area. If I had the time, I could have done it too. Unfortunately, that's apparently over now.

    I agree that we shouldn't burn down everything, but I suppose that being a mature adult means that while the art stands alone, you'll have to view everything through a slightly different lens. It sucks, but that's life.

    I am thrilled that we're finally addressing this issue, however long overdue. Unfortunately, this introspection came a year too late to take down all the predators.

    1. Just today, my wife asked me why I thought all of this was happening now. I don't know, of course, but I do have an idea or two.

      I think a lot of people felt like we had been on a slow path toward getting better in a general, social trend. We had a black president for eight years, something that would have seemed impossible to me when I was a child based on the racial climate of the country. Same-sex marriage was legalized across the country, a concept that wasn't even a concept when I was a child. It was slow, incremental change, but it seemed to at least be going in the right direction.

      I think the last election caused a lot of people to throw their hands in the air and realize that maybe we weren't as far along as we thought we were, and that it was time for things to stop. "I'm not going to continue to live with this" doesn't seem like it's too far off for a mantra for this day and age, does it?