I recently watched Manhattan again. It is an ingenious movie with a perfect score accompanying splendid images of New York City. It has couples on park benches, watching the moon’s reflection on the Hudson River. It has innovative and playful cuts and sequences, and a nostalgic yet optimistic feel throughout. From the first second of its iconic opening scene, I remembered why I loved this film so much the first time I watched it. Then I remembered the plot, which features the ‘romantic’ love story between a 42-year-old TV writer and a 17-year-old high-school pupil. What also came to mind were the sexual abuse allegations towards Woody Allen. Then Allen tricked me again with witty one-liners about Catholic pigeons and medieval literature, delivered over a few notes of George Gershwin, and I was both back into blissful ignorance, and awestruck.
The current downfall of many of Hollywood’s most prominent individuals, who committed sexual abuse or harassment, is forcing us to think about our relationship towards art, and towards its creators. I was engrossed in the impeccable production of House of Cards, a landmark of the current golden age of television series. Kevin Spacey and his skillful acting embodies the character of Frank Underwood oh so perfectly. And then the news fell.
Can a show like House of Cards still be appreciated and loved, knowing the actor starring in it is being investigated by the British police for sexual assault? Considering Netflix’s reaction and Spacey’s eviction from both the show as an actor and a producer, for House of Cards, the moral dilemma seems to be easily overcome. Kevin Spacey will no longer make any money from the show, and his vision and personality does not make up the creative force behind it. In the case of Manhattan or other such art work however, the situation is a tad more complex. Woody Allen plays an exaggerated version of himself in almost all of his films. He is both the scriptwriter and the director, meaning that his personality, his character, his behaviour makes up the essence of his work. Allen’s filmography is an incredibly personal and revealing one. And Allen himself is often the reason why people love his movies. But how can you justify the pleasure you get from watching the romanticized life story of a devious and manipulative man?
One of the concepts we could look at to answer this is to question the importance of authorial intent. Some philosophers and literary critics argue that the views and personality of the author cannot be reconstructed from the text alone. And while watching a movie such as Manhattan might make you uncomfortable because of its plot, with no prior knowledge of Woody Allen’s life you would have no idea about his personal behaviour. But of course, we know about the allegations, so the problem doesn’t just lie in authorial intent, but something much deeper.
A movie remains an art piece, which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.’ In order to properly judge an art piece, it is important to look at how it fulfills this definition. Does it provoke in the spectators some sort of an emotional or aesthetic reaction? Neither of those are relating to the creator, but to the consumer of art. This is where we need to shift focus if we want to escape our cognitive dissonance (the mental discomfort experienced by holding two or more contradictory beliefs) regarding art. Art derives its meaning from the receiver, not the maker. The artist may have control over the production of their work, but their reception and its meaning once it is released belongs to the people who enjoy it. The morality check needs to come from the producers and enablers of this twisted creative process, not us.
Allen, Spacey, or Weinstein movies are out and available, and you can figure out for yourself how much you are personally able to distance them from their makers and actors. Your level of engagement is a personal decision, and appreciating an artwork for its production value and artistic qualities does not equate to condoning the actions of the producer. It is the responsibility of the financiers to stop the inflow of cash from going towards condemned people. Whether this is by refusing to finance new productions, firing actors or not booking certain artists in your venue, there are many ways the various artistic industries can take to reprehend morally problematic artists. While watching a rented copy of The Passion of the Christ, you have the capacity to put the work in context and know that you are not endorsing Mel Gibson’s point of view. Being a consumer of art can be a passive and distant process, if you so wish. Helping in its production and distribution on the other hand, never is. There is a semi-endorsement, if not some sort tacit complicity, in helping known dangerous men continue to perform their trade, one that could allow them to commit more repulsive acts. Many people within Hollywood have referred to Weinstein’s or Spacey’s behaviour as ‘open-secrets’. The people who turned a blind eye to this and permitted these people to achieve more fame are the ones facing the largest moral conundrum, not the spectator. (And to clarify, this is not including victims or powerless people who were intimidated by the predators. Their inaction is completely understandable and justifiable).
The decision to stop consuming the work of certain artists because of their personal lives is yours. I have friends who have trouble watching Woody Allen films, and others who would gladly binge watch them with me. The two positions are perfectly comprehensible, and loving something while fighting against the actions of their producer is not a moral failing. Both oppose sexual harassment and would gladly see Kevin Spacey or Roman Polanski be sent to jail, whilst still be moved to tears by the tale of The Pianist. Whatever one’s decision is, acknowledging the fullness of the creator’s self, including the awful part of their nature, is vital. A strong act would be re-appropriating their artwork and using them to showcase the complexity of human creation and highlight their wrongdoings so they may not be forgotten and ‘washed-away’. As the final line of Manhattan goes, ‘you have to have a little faith in people’, and trust that audiences are able to distinguish fiction from reality.
Having said that, I doubt that American Beauty will be part of my watch-list anytime soon.