Can you separate the art from the artist?

February 5, 2014

Two images come to mind when thinking about Tinseltown:

1.       A gleaming city where dreams come true and fame comes to those deserving.

2.       A dingy hellhole where dreams go to die and the deserving are pushed aside by the fame-starved narcissists, willing to stab their own mother for a five-second spot on a mediocre sitcom.

The troubling truth is that both of these perceptions are true. If you want to have any success in film or TV, and your virtue is pure, you must be associated with the egocentric, cesspool known as Hollywood.

There will always be a love/hate relationship with Hollywood. It is an evil that America, and the world, has deemed necessary, but why must this self-obsessed machine be praised when more wickedness is produced than optimism.

Lately (er, always), studios have been releasing movies that glorify the most immoral aspects of American culture, and adding a funny take to relieve the anger that would swell up in any normally rational person. ‘American Hustle’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ lead the Academy Awards nominees in questionable glorification. Both are based on true stories, therefore relinquishing the directors and writers of any accusation of responsibility by simply saying, “Well it really happened.”

Being based on a true story does not immediately pardon the filmmakers for telling a story that has little to no consequences for the protagonists. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is basically a how-to guide for stockbrokers to rip off clients for large profits. “American Hustle” shows a different perspective on who the hero is. Is the con man who essentially gets away at the end (spoiler) or the federal agent who makes shady dealings and goes against police procedure the hero?

For the record, I love both these movies, for various reasons. I will watch any movie Martin Scorsese, director of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” puts out, even if he is only a producer. David O Russell, director of “American Hustle,” has put out some solid movies and feels like a less dense P.T. Anderson, but in a good way.

I am not knocking these directors artistically. I am questioning America’s fascination with the anti-hero. Does it make for better storytelling? Of course it does. Having a morally ambiguous character makes everything more intriguing. That is what most “water cooler” debates are based around. Is Walter White a hero or villain? Which side is Sawyer going to fall on, the survivors or the Others? Should Jack Bauer use torture when the fate of America, nay the world, is in danger? What are we saying as a culture, however, when every character in modern pop culture is morally ambiguous?

This issue goes beyond the movies and TV shows. What about the actors and filmmakers themselves? When do their personal lives become too controversial to ignore their art? When do we start damning Alec Baldwin because of the way he treats his children? In the now infamous 2007 leaked voicemails to his daughter we hear him demean and belittle his 11 year-old daughter. His daughter, Ireland, publically acknowledged the voicemail saying that this was a common occurrence when her dad was frustrated. How is that acceptable? If any other father caught in child custody battles like Mr. Baldwin, he would have lost any chance to seeing his kids again. Yet his popularity grew and he continued to star in the popular show “30 Rock.”

Chris Brown beats Rihanna to the point that she has to be hospitalized. He is then vilified, criticized, and still continues to sell out concerts and release chart breaking albums.

Mel Gibson was arrested for drunk driving. While in custody he went on an anti-Semitic tirade and called the female officer “Sugar Tits.”

However, this does not mean people are beyond redemption. Robert Downey Jr. was arrested for drugs, amongst other crimes, and now he is one of the highest paid actors ever, while also donating time and money to various charities.

Art should only be judged for the sake of art. I always hear this phrase from mediocre local artists trying to make sense out of paint splatters. I’m looking at you Pollock. By enjoying a movie directed by someone with moral inconsistencies, am I approving of their personal lives?

The worst part about the current culture is that when news breaks about a celebrity committing a legal or moral crime our first reaction is to make jokes about it. Laughter is the best medicine when digesting horrible news, but how soon is too soon? Is it ever appropriate? How long should Saturday Night Live wait before making a joke about child abuse, domestic violence, or homophobia? The Comedy Central program @Midnight makes it a daily purpose to find the most ridiculous elements of the internet, clebrities and social media, and proceed to make jokes. 

Is making tasteless jokes on Twitter without any real information any better than the questionable celebrity behavior that is being made fun of? Justin Bieber’s music is awful. I know I am not breaking new ground with this statement, but the jokes humanize him by normalizing the horrible behavior.

I am guilty of this like everyone else. It is so easy to make a tasteless joke. It is so easy comedians make a living at it on a regular basis. Anytime a celebrity makes the news, Twitter blows up before I even know what the actual news story is. Are their jokes art or the result of lack of hindsight? Why is it OK to crack jokes when someone is obviously in need of help?

This comes down to one question, “What’s funny?” Is a cheap one liner, again I am very guilty of this, worth someone’s personal tragedy? Has the internet finally taken away all responsibility to be human beings and to be empathetic?

The reason I feel these issues need to be shared and considered is that on February 1, Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of Woody Allen, wrote for the first time her side of the story about Woody Allen sexually assaulting her when she was seven. In an open letter posted on the New York Times opinions page, Dylan goes into moderate detail, accusing Allen and damning the celebrities who constantly work with him.

Dylan pleads, “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett? Louis CK? Alec Baldwin? What if it had been you, Emma Stone? Or you, Scarlett Johansson? You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?” Woody Allen is constantly winning awards and even being recognized with a lifetime achievement award from the Hollywood Foreign Press, or more commonly the Golden Globes. With this constant admiration and acceptance, Dylan felt it was time to break her silence stating, “For so long, Woody Allen’s acceptance silenced me. It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away.” 

Woody Allen has been the center of controversy several times from the original accusations from Dylan and her mother Mia Farrow during their public break up, to Allen marrying his other adoptive daughter. While custody was denied, criminal charges were never brought forth, leaving Allen free from any official charges. Everyone aware of the director knows about these accusations and occurrences. It has become a joke among even the novice joke tellers. I have always known about the accusations, yet I still enjoyed a number of Allen’s movies.

The Woody Allen impression, a mixture of nebbish nerd and joyless Jew, has been a staple for every hack comedian. Why are these jokes acceptable? This, is the question I present to you. This letter written by Dylan Farrow is heartbreaking and I was left feeling conflicted. Two people I have never met have made me question my decisions when it comes to my entertainment. While he is not my favorite director, I like enough of his movies that it takes both hands to count them. Yet, I don’t want to support a man who is the subject of such heinous accusations.

Another famous director has gone through similar accusations, Roman Polanski. Polanski has made several movies that have changed the cinematic landscape. “Chinatown,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and the more recent “Carnage” are amazing movies that break the preconceived barriers regarding genre. However, Polanski was officially charged with sleeping with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. He was subsequently barred from Hollywood and fled to Paris, France. Polanski is essentially exiled from the United States, in the sense that if he ever returns he will be brought to court on the charges.  He has consistently directed critically acclaimed movies starring some of Hollywood’s biggest actors like Johnny Depp, Adrien Brody, Kate Winslet and Jodi Foster.

At what point must an artist ignore accusations towards another artist in order to work with them. Valid or not, the stigma lasts forever. Are the actors wrong for wanting to work on a well-written movie with a message? Am I wrong for liking their movies? Is it the critic’s responsibility to ignore personal lives when critically looking at film? These are the questions that will never be answered. Before it was celebrity gossip about these two directors, Allen and Polanski, and easy to ignore. With Dylan Farrow’s open and very personal letter, it is no longer easier to ignore.

It is ultimately up the to the individual audience member to choose how to react to situations like this. Unfortunately, it is too easy to say, “it didn’t happen to me,” or, “well no one knows the full story.” Society likes to ignore and pass blame. It is up to the individual to make their own decision. It is up to you. Personally, I am officially done with Allen, Polanski, and any other artist that create hostile environments, both professionally and personally. I do not know what difference my decision makes, if any, but I do know that my karma feels lighter.