Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein story and all that it involves — as people reconsider their relationship to the Miramax films of the ’90s (or don’t) and brace for a new Woody Allen movie, etc. — we return to an age-old question that could always stand to be asked anew: How should the backstory of a film and / or its makers impact the way we receive it?
Kate Erbland (@katerbland), IndieWire
When horrifying accusations like the ones waged against Harvey Weinstein come to light, it’s very easy to scream for a boycott and move on (and, as we often see in cases like these, then actually ignoring it and not even holding fast to such public pronouncements), but when it comes to the question of what to actually do and how to really proceed, it gets murkier. And when it comes to cases like this, where years and years of art and cinema, mostly made by other people, are liable to be effected, it’s even trickier.
Harvey didn’t make these films, even if he produced them or distributed them or, as so many people know he loves to do, edited them in his own shape, and there’s a tremendous amount of work that went on far beyond his reach. But they do feel tainted now, and likely always will.
How do we watch? With an eye to the good people and talented artists who helped make them, and with a tremendous amount of care and respect when they involve women who have spoken out against Weinstein, who have voiced their own allegations. To ignore the films is to also ignore them, and that’s not something that should make anyone feel good. The key, however, is to watch and remember with respect and care. Think about the women who persevered to make their art, not the man who tried to stop them or change them for his own sick gains.
Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York
It’s the flip side to auteurism in a way: When we critics fabricate a connection between a filmmaker’s output — from year to year, project to project — we’re engaging in a kind of pop psychology that desires a coherence that may not exist. But isn’t it equally as valid to suggest that an artist’s actual life (personal indiscretions and all) might be the real skeleton holding a career together? That’s why auteurism only goes so far for me — it often leaves out the dirty stuff. Directors are complicated people. I want to engage with that complexity, for better or worse. So it’s much more exciting for me to think about “mother!” as a massively expensive piece of public therapy made by an egotistical yet honestly self-critical artist, instead of some bullshit allegory about Gaea or Mother Earth.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
Whatever a viewer knows about a film and a filmmaker can be illuminating. Criticism is a matter of making the useful connections. But the better a film is, the likelier that the biography only fills in details regarding what should already have been apparent to a clear-eyed viewing.
Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC), Vulture, Film Comment
I love this question even though I suspect I am going to fail utterly to answer it. There is no such thing as a “clean” view of a movie. As much as I would like to believe, for a moment (usually around the time of the opening logo) that I’m a blank slate, I never am and neither is anyone who lives a life connected to movies. We bring in our associations with the filmmakers and performers, and we (rightly) bring in our knowledge of the world. We all have baggage, but we all pack our bags differently. So I can’t answer how we “should” receive a movie. I know people who will simply refuse to see “Wonder Wheel” because of what they feel about Woody Allen and are using social media to excoriate the actors who appear in it, and I know people for whom “Separate the artist from the art” makes it all very simple. I’m in the middle somewhere. My standards aren’t consistent from culprit to culprit or even from movie to movie made by (or with) the same culprit. I sometimes envy the certainty of other people on this subject; I don’t share it.
Right now, however, I feel strongly that I am not going to do anything that puts one cent in the coffers of the Weinstein Company. So it turns out that, even for someone as ambivalent as I am, there are some absolutes after all.
Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Hello Beautiful, Birth.Movies.Death, The Mary Sue
I think this answer will vary from person to person, and I don’t necessarily think there is a wrong answer. For me, as hard as it is sometimes, I can separate the artist from his/her film. I do, however, think there is often a clear agenda an artist has when it comes to his/her work, which can influence the narrative they choose to present and their characterizations. But in the case of Weinstein and even Allen, the thought is always in the back of my head; What were the circumstances around the making the movie? What drew the actor to work with this person? But do I judge the film based off the filmmakers personal actions? No. Do I judge the filmmaker outside the film? Absolutely.
Eric Kohn (@erickohn), IndieWire
Context is essential to assessing all culture. It’s important to question the ethics behind every facet of that logic. Should we give Harvey Weinstein so much credit for the mythology of ’90s American indies? I’ve argued that we shouldn’t. Is “Pulp Fiction” still a masterpiece of cinematic pastiche even though Weinstein played a pivotal role in getting it out there? Of course. His own terrible, predatory behavior doesn’t erase the accomplishments of any given artist who benefited from his support. The questions change once we’re talking about the artists themselves. Is one required to address Woody Allen’s family history in every assessment of his latest work? That depends on the degree to which the conversation surrounding said work demands it. At this point, any journalistic work related to Allen must acknowledge his divisive stature, while ensuring that it is not confused with a discussion of the actual movie. “Wonder Wheel” doesn’t seem to channel any gross kinks or relate to the allegations of child molestation that have hung over his career for decades. Artistically, it has nothing to do with that conversation; culturally, its very existence has everything to do with that conversation, and it’s essential that we’re able to acknowledge both sides of that equation whenever it comes up.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today
The simple answer to the question is that the art should speak for itself. It is never that simple, however. Am I able to watch films by Roman Polanski or Woody Allen without considering their makers’ deeply problematic histories? Perhaps some can; I cannot, though since I grew up appreciating Woody Allen before his own scandals erupted, I have a harder time dismissing his pre-1990s work than I do all of Polanski’s movies, since the experience of watching them was part of my growth as a cinephile. And therein lies part of the problem: it is very hard to disassociate oneself from past pleasant memories, even when they become tainted for the most legitimate of reasons. Witness the difficulties faced by accusers, not only of public figures but also within families, when they come forward. No one likes to be forced to change their mind about someone.
I can’t tell others how to behave, but in my own teaching I try to qualify the contributions of troublesome figures whenever I feel compelled to mention them in the course of an historical timeline. I explain D.W. Griffith’s contributions to the development of cinematic language, but with an enormous caveat that his “The Birth of a Nation” is a work of virulently racist propaganda that served as a recruiting tool for the KKK through the 1960s. For other, later filmmakers, however, one has to ask, are there no other choices? Do we have to celebrate a Polanski or an Allen? Knowing what we know about both men, how can we not see “Rosemary’s Baby” in the context of Polanski’s later rape of a young teen, or “Manhattan” in the light of Allen’s seduction of his step-daughter? In their day, the films were important, but we humans have forgotten many things that were once considered important. It would be no great tragedy to let these films go, as well.
As for Weinstein, I don’t know how to proceed, since he had his hand in so much work from the late 1980s to the present. I’ll be mulling this over for a while, figuring out how to think about, and teach, this entire era for years to come. If we are being completely honest, he is not the first movie mogul to behave in this way. How do we handle Jack Warner’s long-ago output as studio head of Warner Brothers, for example? I welcome suggestions…
Ray Pride (@raypride), Newcity, Movie City News
Old saying: the history behind the making of any given American movie will be more complex and fascinating than any movie the process might leave behind.
I have a colleague who claims to be wholly indifferent to anything other than what’s on the screen. (Their eyes glaze if I can’t contain a production tidbit about a film we’re talking about.) I’m fascinated by both sides, and often invoke film history (if not a particular production history) in a review. Plus, I conduct lengthy interviews with filmmakers, often going deep on process or technique, so I don’t know how I could hold that information at arm’s length. And aggregating links to stories about movies and the industry every day at Movie City News for years now has filled my head with enough information to fill a tidy shelf of volumes of scuttlebutt. I feel like any and all of this enhances any insight or observation I may have to offer.
It’s always a marvel. Jean Renoir once observed something to the effect that it’s not only a miracle that history had been granted a few supremely great films, but a miracle, considering the complexity of the endeavor, that any films even get finished at all.
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for The Guardian, Vulture, Nylon
I don’t think the backstory of a film should necessarily impact our appraisal of its quality — a movie doesn’t suddenly become crap when you find out its director’s a real piece of shit — but that sort of thing is still definitely worth taking into consideration. We factor background into our reviews because it enriches our understanding and appreciation of a film; “Crimes and Misdemeanors” takes on some sickly new hues when you realize who it is that’s telling this story of a man forgiving himself for a great wrongdoing. But the background of a film impacts me most strongly in my real-world engagement with it. I’ve stopped giving my money to art fronted by the more flagrantly awful people in Hollywood, in part on principle and in part because I do have trouble enjoying products made by monstrous men. (I removed “Ignition (Remix)” from my karaoke repertoire after the most recent, most sickening round of R. Kelly revelations.) If I feel like I desperately need to see a new Woody Allen or Roman Polanski movie, and it’s been a while since I’ve had to cross that bridge, I’ll wait until I can see it for free.
Christian Blauvelt (@Ctblauvelt), BBC Culture
Quite frankly too many culture writers resort to “let’s separate the art from the artist” clichés whenever there’s any kind of scandal that complicates our reception of a film or other work of art. Ostensibly, that cliché argues for us to give the film a chance – it’s presented as an anti-censorship statement – but really it’s about shutting down the (hard, but necessary) conversation about the ethics of watching such a film or patronizing its makers. Film is a business as much as it’s an art – as the Weinstein scandal certainly reminds us – and it seems totally reasonable that if we would make a choice about, say, not wanting to patronize Uber, Chik Fil-A, or the Alamo Drafthouse, that same logic might apply toward not purchasing a movie ticket for a Weinstein Company release or a Woody Allen film.
It doesn’t help that the “let’s separate the art from the artist” policy can be so inconsistently applied – or that we only believe in that credo when we want to. One of our writers on BBC Culture, Fisun Güner, wrote about that inconsistency recently: why is it that the sculptor Carl Andre has been consistently targeted for protests since the 1985 death of his wife, artist Ana Mendieta – she fell to her death from their 34th floor Greenwich Village apartment and he was charged for her murder and ultimately acquitted – while the artist Kenneth Halliwell’s murder of his partner playwright Joe Orton in 1967 (followed by Halliwell’s suicide) was practically romanticized in Stephen Frears’ “Prick Up Your Ears” and subsequent exhibitions of Halliwell’s work have invited no controversy? If Joe Orton had been a woman, would there be more outrage when Halliwell’s work is put on display? Is the lack of outrage about that murder-suicide a homophobic response?
Convenience really helps fan the flames of a scandal like Weinstein’s. Of course these allegations would only come out in such a big way once he had already lost much of his prominence in the industry. Likewise, Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” met with a tepid response from a lot of critics, so it was easy to say that film shouldn’t be part of any awards season conversations at all when we were reminded of his rape trial, subsequent acquittal and then the tragic suicide of his alleged victim. All of that just made it easier for some critics to dismiss a movie they wanted to dismiss anyway. But then those who loved Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea” were all too willing to overlook his sexual harassment allegations, because they loved the movie just that much. (I’m sure race had nothing to do with these different responses.) And then Affleck picks up the best actor Oscar. Artistic greatness sanctifies, for many.
But then who would still say we should separate Leni Reifenstahl’s films from the context in which they were made? Or that we should still praise DW Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” for its epic storytelling despite its repellent racism – and that it actually did spur a revival of the KKK nationwide, with all the loss of life that that entailed? Art is human, it’s made by humans – acting like art exists in some Apollonian void where it’s not subject to any sense of human decency or ethics seems like a sure-fire way to make art irrelevant.
There’s a middle ground to be had here. Stephanie Zacharek argued brilliantly in Time that you don’t need to disown Miramax films from the ‘90s – actresses who were Weinstein’s victims did great work in those movies and disowning their work seems like yet another way to blame the victim. But you can have an honest conversation about how Miramax films were framed by (and in turn helped frame for the culture at large) attitudes about sex and gender roles we find disturbing. You don’t automatically need, as a (usually self-serving) statement, to avoid seeing the latest Woody Allen movie – but constantly hammering home “let’s separate the art from the artist” is like saying that you don’t have to think about or be aware of the allegations surrounding Allen at all. It’s another way of saying “let’s turn off our brains,” which is usually not the best attitude to have when watching a film or taking in any work of art.