Dances with the devil

As the list of ha­rass­ment cases in Hol­ly­wood grows, can we any longer separate cin­ema from the moral­ity of its mak­ers, asks Xan Brooks

The Guardian - Review - - Arts -

The 1949 film The Third Man casts Or­son Welles in the role of smirk­ing Harry Lime, a black­mar­ket rack­e­teer who sees him­self as an artist. War-torn Vi­enna is his can­vas; its des­per­ate peo­ple his oils. He needs a cli­mate of fear and dark­ness in or­der to paint his mas­ter­piece. “In Italy for 30 years un­der the Bor­gias, they had war­fare, ter­ror, mur­der and blood­shed, but they pro­duced Michelan­gelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Re­nais­sance,” Lime ex­plains. “In Switzer­land they had broth­erly love, 500 years of democ­racy and peace, and what did that pro­duce? The cuckoo clock.”

The Third Man was scripted by Gra­ham Greene, but its most fa­mous speech was im­pro­vised on the spot. Welles would later say he’d pil­fered it from “an old Hun­gar­ian play” the name of which he’d for­got­ten, but there are more philo­soph­i­cal echoes here, too. He might have been ref­er­enc­ing Walter Ben­jamin, who ar­gued that “at the base of ev­ery ma­jor work of art is a pile of bar­barism”, or Friedrich Ni­et­zsche, who felt that “the strong­est and most evil spir­its have so far done the most to ad­vance hu­man­ity”. True artists, in other words, are ruth­less and amoral. They make their own rules and leave ca­su­al­ties in their wake. But what would you rather have in your life? The soar­ing ge­nius of the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance or the bland pre­ci­sion of the cuckoo clock?

I used to think I knew the an­swer: Ital­ian Re­nais­sance, with­out a doubt. But these are dif­fi­cult times for tyran­ni­cal artists and the id­iots who sup­port them. The lid has been lifted, the list of sex­ual ha­rass­ments grows ever longer and there’s only so much you can read about the sup­posed mis­deeds of Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoff­man be­fore one starts to feel com­plicit. There have also been de­nials from James To­back, Louis CK and Lars von Trier. These are men whose work I ad­mire. Some (Polan­ski, Von Trier) have pro­duced art that I love. If they come up dirty, that means that I’m soiled, too.

Ex­cept that this is the dilemma that runs through the whole of art his­tory. Ei­ther ev­ery­thing’s dirty or ev­ery­thing’s clean. Car­avag­gio was a mur­derer but his paint­ings are sub­lime. David Bowie slept with un­der­age girls. Ezra Pound and TS Eliot were both an­ti­semites. Does ad­mir­ing their po­ems make us con­don­ers of hate-speech? Or do we cut this Gor­dian knot and view the work in iso­la­tion?

That’s the po­si­tion ad­vised by psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Peggy Drexler. “It’s crit­i­cal to re­mem­ber that when we watch a film, view art or read a book, we’re do­ing so to be en­ter­tained and en­riched,” she says. “We’re not do­ing it to is­sue an en­dorse­ment of the hu­man be­ing whose work it is.”

Drexler ac­knowl­edges that our at­ti­tude to the artist can im­pact on our at­ti­tude to their art. Still, she in­sists that a line must be main­tained. “Art and moral­ity are dis­tinct ac­tiv­i­ties. And it’s es­sen­tial to separate the art from the artist.”

I’d love to fol­low Drexler’s ad­vice. Keep the art clean and pure, ex­empt from the ac­tions of its cre­ator. I’m just not con­vinced it quite works in prac­tice. If we ac­cept that “bad” (sub­jec­tive moral judg­ment) peo­ple can cre­ate “good” (sub­jec­tive aes­thetic judg­ment) art, then it fol­lows that amoral artists can hold the world to a higher moral stan­dard than they fol­low them­selves. But isn’t art also an ex­ten­sion of the artist’s in­ner self? How does one be­gin sep­a­rat­ing the two? “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” as Yeats put it – though ought we still to quote Yeats, what with all that fas­cist-sym­pa­this­ing?

Away in Los Angeles, film his­to­rian Cari Beauchamp sug­gests a more nu­anced ap­proach. She cites the ex­am­ple of DW Grif­fith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Na­tion , a fan­tas­ti­cally racist cel­e­bra­tion of what it calls “the great KKK” which none­the­less es­tab­lished the rules of film gram­mar and stands as a piece of living his­tory. “You can’t erase his­tory by not show­ing The Birth of a Na­tion ,” Beauchamp in­sists. “It’s a pow­er­ful film. It should stay part of the con­ver­sa­tion. But what you can do is show it in con­text. You show it with a dis­cus­sion. You say: ‘That was then and this is now’ – and you learn from it.”

Beauchamp’s sug­ges­tion makes sense. Show the text, warts and all. Keep the on­go­ing quar­rel in the pub­lic do­main. But even here, per­haps, there are po­ten­tial haz­ards. Yes, the con­text ques­tions the art. But does it also add to its mys­tique? Maybe even en­hance it? As­sum­ing that hap­pens, we’ve crossed to the dark side. We’re back to the blood­shed and the Bor­gias and the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance.

Take Last Tango in Paris , in which direc­tor Bernardo Ber­tolucci hid the de­tails of a graphic rape scene from Maria Sch­nei­der, “be­cause he wanted her to feel, not act, the rage and hu­mil­i­a­tion”. The writer and film-maker Mark Cousins says he can no longer de­fend this film in the way he once did. He thinks Polan­ski’s work may now be com­pro­mised, too. Un­bri­dled ge­nius is no ex­cuse. “Artists have the same so­cial and moral re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as bus driv­ers and bankers,” Cousins says.

At the root of all this is a ques­tion of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity. That ap­plies to the ex­ec­u­tives at Net­flix, now hastily sev­er­ing their ties with House of Cards star Spacey, or the Hol­ly­wood suits cur­rently ag­o­nis­ing over what to do with the up­com­ing We­in­stein Com­pany re­leases. No doubt it’s an is­sue for ac­tors such as Kate Winslet and Kris­ten Ste­wart who con­tinue to work with Woody Allen in the light of a his­tor­i­cal child-abuse al­le­ga­tion, al­though he has al­ways de­nied it. But per­haps it also ex­tends to us, the con­sumer. In sup­port­ing the art, we are – in­di­rectly – sup­port­ing the per­son who made it, too.

Mor­ti­fy­ingly, I sus­pect I’m more guilty than most. For years I thrilled to the no­tion of the wild, out­law artist. I thought of great, per­sonal film-mak­ing as some­thing torn from the heart, or a form of self-ther­apy. It was the process by which flawed, stum­bling in­di­vid­u­als could har­ness their demons and spin their basest mat­ter into gold. That sounds won­der­fully ro­man­tic. It may also be bull­shit. Be­cause what if it’s not that at all? How about, in­stead of har­ness­ing the demons, the artis­tic process is a means of feed­ing the demons, of in­dulging them? Then the film is a fig leaf; even a by-prod­uct of abuse. In 1997, Beauchamp wrote a book called With­out Ly­ing Down , a cel­e­bra­tion of the women who helped make Hol­ly­wood. This showed that, back in the 1920s and 30s, the US film in­dus­try was more open and equal. But when it be­gan to make money, the men took the top jobs. Hol­ly­wood nar­rowed, so­cially and morally. “It be­came a tran­sit lounge where abuse hap­pened,” Cousins ex­plains. “It was a stag fan­tasy, a Lord of the Flies. ‘What hap­pens in Hol­ly­wood stays in Hol­ly­wood’ could have been the leg­end.” Which brings us up to the present day.

If mod­ern day Hol­ly­wood has a Harry Lime fig­ure, it is surely Har­vey We­in­stein, an­other hubris­tic mon­ster who played by his own rules. We­in­stein, sources say, would typ­i­cally ex­plain his vol­canic tem­per and vo­ra­cious ap­petites as be­ing all part and par­cel of his “pas­sion for movies”. This im­plied that the ends al­ways jus­ti­fied the means – even if the means were com­pul­sive sex­ual ha­rass­ment, and al­legedly worse; even if the end was a film like Madonna’s W.E . Ul­ti­mately, he was no more a great artist than smirk­ing Lime. And yet We­in­stein’s fall has cast the whole in­dus­try in an ugly light. It’s like di­rect­ing a UVA lamp at a crime scene. That gleam­ing in­te­rior is thick with thumbprints, blood and se­men.

We­in­stein’s dis­grace is still rolling news. It re­mains to be seen where more ev­i­dence is un­cov­ered and which other film-mak­ers get caught in the net. Beauchamp hopes that the reper­cus­sions will prompt a wider so­ci­etal shift. Fail­ing that, it may re­sult in a few re­peat of­fend­ers be­ing abruptly scared straight.

“Fear is the op­er­a­tive emo­tion in this town,” she says. “And the pri­or­ity is al­ways the next quar­ter’s bot­tom line. Right now, af­ter We­in­stein, ev­ery­body’s floun­der­ing, look­ing over their shoul­der. If it’s be­cause of fear that some peo­ple will stop in­tim­i­dat­ing other peo­ple, then that’s good, I’ll ac­cept it. At least it means that they’re stop­ping.”

So what should we choose – cuckoo clock or Re­nais­sance? Al­ter­na­tively we could agree that the dis­tinc­tion is false. Our re­la­tion­ship with art is not a po­lit­i­cal stance, or life­time mem­ber­ship of one par­tic­u­lar club. It’s more fluid, more thorny. Our judg­ment shifts back and forth and re­quires con­stant rene­go­ti­a­tion – just as our re­la­tion­ship with the artist needs to be closely mon­i­tored, too. If a film strikes us dif­fer­ently ev­ery time that we see it, it fol­lows that some of these en­coun­ters will be more awk­ward than oth­ers. Some­times they might be bet­ter avoided al­to­gether.

In a chest of draw­ers are a stack of old DVDs. There’s Polan­ski’s Chi­na­town, Lars von Trier’s Dogville . These re­main two of my favourite films. Each is a pow­er­ful, in­sight­ful – and yes, even moral – work of art. I don’t think they’re com­pro­mised; I think they might be ex­empt. It’s just that this week, tem­po­rar­ily, I’m in no rush to re­watch them. Re­nais­sance Italy seems less ap­peal­ing and the old as­sump­tions are toast. All at once, Switzer­land seems a good place to make camp.

Maria Sch­nei­der and Mar­lon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972)

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