In light of the escalating wave of revelations and accusations of rape and ‘sexual misconduct’ involving some of entertainment’s most powerful players, more and more people seem to be asking: is it time separate art from artist?
Is it time to rethink our understanding of the history of film itself, let alone our DVD collections, given our evolving understanding of its most influential icons?
Sarah Louise Dean looks for answers…
Are you a good person?
You probably answered yes. But perhaps it’s a silly question. How objective can we be about our own behaviour, after all? A study commissioned by the airline Monarch in early 2017 suggests not very objective at all. Study subjects were required to rank themselves on a ‘niceness scale’ and practically all who took part considered themselves to be in the top 20% of the rankings. Of course, we can’t all be the nicest, but we like to think that we are good people most of the time. Good people think about their choices and consequences. And now good people are thinking about whether their film and TV choices need to change.
In the wake of Weinsteingate, Hollywood is itself conducting a pseudo-scientific study, re-examining the relationship between being a good person and being a good filmmaker, terms that are mutually exclusive. The flood of allegations against powerful filmmakers have lead commentators to recommend that we boycott the accused’s films, as a sign of solidarity with the victims of abuse. It is a noble stance, but it requires viewers to do something they haven’t had to previously: consider personal morality when watching a movie. How do we go about separating filmmakers from their films?
Let’s look first at boycotting work made by individuals. Roman Polanski skipped countries to escape a rape charge and has now been effectively extradited by the US. It’s probably easy to ignore his albeit accomplished catalogue, in favour of seeing, say, Thor: Ragnarok at the local cinema.
What about the work of Woody Allen? Allen has made more than sixty feature films, a canon envied by many. It is not possible to know whether he was a child abuser while making all of these films, it’s not even possible to know whether he is a child abuser at all, as no criminal charges have been brought. However, on suspicion alone, we could easily decide to stop watching any of his films. Done. But then Hannah and Her Sisters appears as a Netflix recommendation and we briefly reconsider. We know that the allegations made against Allen only came out in this century. Hannah and Her Sisters was made in 1986, is it okay to watch Michael Caine’s Oscar-winning turn made well before Allen committed any indiscretions? No, we immediately chastise ourselves, of course not. So, later, a teacher puts Annie Hall on in film class to showcase Allen’s skill in applying little-seen techniques like fourth-wall breaking and split-screen work to a comedy. If students decide to watch the film for the purposes of critique, maybe it’s okay to laugh at the jokes? Maybe. Try hard enough and viewers will always find a justification for watching a film they love.
We still watch Alfred Hitchcock films, even though his terrible treatment of leading ladies is the stuff of Hollywood legend; 2017 marks thirty years since Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining was released, a movie that has spawned worldwide devotion and multiple documentaries. It’s also the movie that caused Shelley Duvall to have a mental breakdown through over-work by a perfectionist director. Yet it is in cinemas right now.
Perhaps it is easier to avoid films starring certain actors. Casey Affleck won an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea. At the same time, it transpired that he had allegedly paid off two women to settle harassment cases. We could stop watching anything Affleck has been in. So far, so good.
It gets trickier with Kevin Spacey’s work. Having been accused of multiple improprieties, it seems sad but sensible to avoid his pivotal roles in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty. In fact, we could also avoid everything he has been in, which rules out re-runs of L.A. Confidential. Should we also stop watching Captain Phillips? Spacey isn’t in it, but he was an executive producer, likely providing money and clout that helped get the film made.
The painful truth is that it’s not hard to bury discomfort and focus on the value of the art, essentially divorcing work from the personalities that make it. In certain circumstances, such as when the art is designated of superior quality, we’re very happy to separate art from artist.
Applying this to a larger scale, complicates matters even further. In order to stop engaging with Harvey Weinstein’s work, each viewer must decide for themselves where his influence begins and ends.
Collectively, The Weinstein Company and Miramax have made more than two hundred films during their tenure, as well as television programmes and other works. All of these can be avoided. Many of the films are much-loved and have won prestigious awards, so that means no watching of The King’s Speech, Sex, Lies and Videotape, or Pulp Fiction. Nor should we watch The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, an amalgamation of British comedy benefit gigs from 1982, even though the American distribution of that film made a lot of money for Amnesty International and enabled Pulp Fiction to be made. There are also rumours that these companies might go under, which sounds like a victory for those whom Weinstein abused. As tent-pole studios, TWC and Miramax employ hundreds of people outside of the key cast, including, technical film crew, post-production teams, sound recordists and costumers. While reducing these companies to dust may well stick it to Weinstein, it may also put honest people out of their jobs. When art is created by so many people, this spider network may end up being unfairly punished for the bad behaviour of the tarantulas at the top.
So how can we disentangle the art from the artist? Voting with our wallets and boycotting certain movies and TV shows, even ones we would like to see, shows Hollywood that viewers don’t agree with mistreatment by powerful figures. But whether or not to watch a re-run of Pulp Fiction for the tenth time makes any difference at all to Hollywood is questionable at best.
There is a light on the horizon. The majority of problems with the old Hollywood power system revolve around its domination by male privilege. Female artists, particularly at director and producer level, only make up a small proportion of those working today, but, so far at least, women are rarely involved in any scandal. We could do worse than explore the work of artists like Sarah Polley, an accomplished director who has made fantastic films despite having personally experienced sexual intimidation at the hands of male Hollywood power players.
In the end, there is no right or wrong way to divorce film from the filmmaker, it is completely up to viewer discretion. If you love watching Keyser Söze do his thing, then you should go ahead and watch The Usual Suspects without fear. However, if we vary the breadth of work consumed and make the difficult decision of avoiding things that don’t sit well with our personal ethics, we may inch towards curing Hollywood of a filthy disease. Oscar Wilde said that, “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.” I say, good people can draw a line of morality in all art.
Sarah Louise Dean writes about film, television and culture and is currently on a one-woman mission to champion female directors. This hasn’t stopped her enjoying playing The Witcher 3 and dreaming that Geralt of Rivia might slay a wyvern in her honour. She can be found on twitter at @contrarah and on Instagram @coffee_and_design. More of her work can be found here: https://www.quiet.ly/profile