Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
A few months back, on the heels of a scandal where someone was not punished for sexual assault in any way, a friend asked me what I felt would be an appropriate reckoning. “I at least want them to lose their job,” I said. “I want their lives to be disrupted, and I want others to see that if you do that to someone, your life is turned upside down, so you better not do that to someone.”
The Harvey Weinstein story hadn’t broken yet, but I heard Lady Gaga very clearly when she told Howard Stern that Tony Bennett was one of the few producers she worked with who didn’t have his hand up her skirt. I stood by as people sided with Marina Zenovich, whose documentary, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” strongly suggested that it was outrageous for the judge of the director’s rape trial to want to put away a rapist. On “The View,” I saw Whoopi Goldberg defend Polanski on the grounds that he’s European. I read Robert Weide’s cruel takedown of Dylan Farrow’s account of her own sexual assault at the hands of Woody Allen when she was only a child. Weide’s explanation—that Farrow believes a lie implanted in her mind by her mother Mia—is less likely than the notion that the assault actually happened, but many people adopted his stance for fear of having to stop supporting the work of a director they’d loved.
“Separate the art from the artist,” people kept telling me. I can't anymore.
Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Casey Affleck—these accused men didn’t face any severe artistic punishment—save some public embarrassment that always finds the wind to magically blow over. Artists like these get to keep making their art with no real consequences.
But the thing is, I believe Dylan. And some time after her New York Times piece dropped, I decided that I couldn’t believe her and consume Allen’s work at the same time. While he continues to work, he also continues to terrorize her. She’s constantly being reminded not just of her assault, but also of the fact that the world doesn’t care about her assault. This world cares more about her abuser’s work than they do about whether or not he deserves to work.
I can’t make Allen lose his job, but I can stop watching his movies, especially on platforms that directly benefit him, like cinemas, Amazon and Netflix. It’s not a loud protest, but it’s what I can do until people start seriously believing victims and penalizing predators.
At first, it was difficult. I mean, I actually love Woody Allen movies! At one point, one of my favorites, “Midnight in Paris,” was on Netflix. I tried finding an angle that made watching it okay, but it required too many moral gymnastics so I gave up.
Then it got easier. It was like being allergic to a type of fruit or nut: you’ve had it before, and you remember the flavor, but it’s not good for you anymore, so you have to skip it at the supermarket.
In the few years that I’ve skipped Allen movies, I’ve thought a lot about the myth of the asshole genius. It’s mostly upheld by the fallacy that geniuses are assholes *because* they’re geniuses, and because we value prodigy, they can be assholes if they want because the world needs their genius art.
Allen’s been called a genius, and it turns out that I don’t need his art.
This made me think of the kind of world we’d live in if fewer asshole geniuses were given a hall pass. What if Picasso never got famous enough to pit women against each other, because, as a non-famous artist, there were rumors that he pitted women against each other? What if studio heads thought Alfred Hitchcock’s work was great, but limited their contracts with him because of the way he stalked his starlets? What if Polanski were jailed for raping a 13-year-old girl, and after doing his time, had difficulty even finding a numbing day job? Ya know, the way most inmates do?
I wondered about the work environment that asshole geniuses foster. We already have some idea of what that must be like. For Holly Raychelle Hughes, it was so bad, she left the film industry altogether. On the set where an Oscar-winning producer dry-humped her in front of everyone, her co-workers were too afraid to speak up for fear of losing their livelihood. She got the worst of it, of course, but that doesn’t mean things were rosy for the rest of the crew. What else were people not saying “no” to because they were scared?
Having been in a similar position at some point in my career, I know that my work suffered. When I got into a good rhythm, I was driven by the finish line, not the work itself; the finish line meant not having to deal with my abusive boss. I even left journalism for a spell after this particular gig was over. I also look back at the work I did during this period, and so little of it was any good.
I don’t think I’m an anomaly, so I tend to assume that if I’m capable of experiencing something, others are too. If my work was compromised because of a hostile workplace, what’s it like for people on volatile movie sets, or in a sadistic producer’s office?
When we think about asshole geniuses and whether or not they should continue making their art, we rarely consider how much better art could be if fewer assholes were allowed to make it.
Cut to now: post-Harvey Weinstein disaster, when more similar stories are starting to emerge about more assholes, some of them geniuses, some less so. And though society’s taking a hit from having our illusions about some of these folks completely shattered, I’m not sad about this development one bit.
A world with fewer assholes in it is one where people can get to work without worrying about harassment, abuse, assault, or anything in that family. There’d be fewer distractions and causes for anxiety, which means more quality work would get done, and most people would be happier doing it.
It’s difficult to imagine that art created under excellent conditions will consistently be bad. After all, it’s not like art created by asshole geniuses has always been good.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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