Saturday, February 3, 2018

Comfortably Numb

Should art be judged on its merits, apart from the artist who created it?

Until recently, I would have said yes. Art exists apart from its creator. It should stand or fall on the basis of whether it succeeds or fails as art.

Seems simple enough.

What if we had to vet every artist of every work of art in the MET?  And what of anonymous artists, whom we know nothing about?

And then there's Woody Allen, an interesting case in point.

How did the revelation of Allen's affair (and subsequent marriage) with Mia Farrow's daughter, Soon-Yi, affect your judgment of Woody Allen's movies?

And BTW, why does the media consistently refer to Soon-Yi as Mia Farrow's adopted daughter? Why not simply say her daughter?  Does the fact that Soon-Yi was adopted make her qualitatively less than a daughter?  No. But that is the subtext: that Soon-Yi was not really, wholly Mia's daughter--she was adopted, after all.  And this weighs in in Allen's favor, as though it were a mitigating factor.  But it is not a mitigating factor, unless you agree that adopted children are not wholly the children of their adoptive parents--which no reasonable person believes.

There are people in my family who despise Woody Allen.

I was in the camp of those who were merely disappointed in him.  (It wasn't until years later that allegations of Allen abusing the other children came out.)

When the news about Soon-Yi broke, in the 1990s, people were reluctant to believe the worst of those  we "knew" and admired (as opposed to their faceless, unknown victims). We preferred to believe that egregious things did not happen to the innocent. We cast doubt on the testimony of victims, whether they were children, women or men. That is what we did, something we have to own.  

But now, we are trying to face our demons squarely. We are calling them out. We are giving victims the benefit of the doubt.

And in this new framework, I ask the question again: Should art be judged apart from its creator?

I defended Woody Allen's movies, but not the man, NOT because I thought they were all good, because they're not, but because I believed that they should be judged on their own merits, apart from Woody Allen's personal failings.  I didn't think they should be condemned categorically because of something--anything--that Woody Allen had done.

But now, what about Quentin Tarantino?

Tarantino is the reason why I'm writing this post. I just finished reading Uma Thurman's account of her experiences working with him on "Kill Bill."

According to Uma Thurman, ["This Is Why Uma Thurman Is Angry," Maureen Dowd, New York Times, Feb. 3, 2018] for a scene in "Kill Bill," Tarantino pressured her, in lieu of a stunt double, to drive a car that Thurman believed was not safe.

Tarantino insisted that the car was safe. But, video shows Thurman driving it, wrestling with an unresponsive steering wheel, and crashing into a tree, seriously injuring her head, neck, and knees.

The article's author Maureen Dowd notes, "Tarantino aficionados spy an echo of Thurman's crash in...'Death Proof,' [in which young women] die in myriad ways, including by slamming into a windshield."

After that car accident, Thurman views her relationship with the auteur of pop violence in a different light.

In "Kill Bill," Trantino himself spit in Thurman's face "where Michael Madsen is seen on screen doing it." And it was Tarantino himself "choking her with a chain" in another scene in which another actor is shown choking her with a chain.

After I read this, not an hour ago, I realized that I could never enjoy Tarantino films again. Tarantino and his whole sadistic oeuvre are dead to me now.

I'm not saying that a rule emerged in my mind, clear as day, black and white:

"The sins of the fathers are to be laid upon the children."
Bill Shakespeare

It's still an arguable point. It remains gray, not black and white. But, in some cases, things become clearer. 

I now know that the violent pageantry and frothy pulp fiction of Tarantino's films, which I have only been able to enjoy in the  confidence that there is nothing real about them, that they were cotton candy, cheerfully over the top, stylishly dark, bordering on parody--in other words, a ROMP--was  actually pretty f__g malevolent. 

There was a contract that I assumed to be in place between Tarantino and myself. But there never was a contract--I had only imagined it. And it was never just a romp. It was always malevolent.

Caveat: I haven't seen all of Tarantino's movies, so I probably sound naive to say that every film was a romp. But, for the several movies I have seen, assuming the romp perspective was part of the suspended disbelief that allowed me to enjoy those movies.

Obviously, I can't trust Tarantino anymore. I believe he is a sadistic sonofabitch, and I can't pretend otherwise, or take enjoyment from his dark perversity. It really is violence against women.  That's the back story that is part and parcel of his film-making process. It's a pity, but there it is.

It's like Louis C.K.'s jokes about rape. To the extent that they were ever funny, which is entirely subjective, they were only funny because we believed that he actually respected women. Once that contract was broken, the number of people who would find those jokes funny is reduced to just the assholes in the audience.

In this whole gray area, I think the examples of Tarantino and Louis C.K. draw clear distinctions. 

If the subject matter is disturbing, but made palatable by a contract of confidence that the viewer has in the artist's integrity, and then that integrity turns out to be a sham, that does affect the viewer's experience of work. 

I can no longer view Tarantino's movies as a confection, but only as a reflection of his true and sadistic nature.

Jokes that were ironic when told by Louis C.K. who respected women become confessional when told by Louis C.K. as a sexual predator.  

Was Picasso an asshole?  Probably. Was he a sexual predator?  I don't know. He was unkind to many women. He loved and discarded many women.  In cubist paintings, he deconstructs and shatters many women and men...Personally, I can live with that. Picasso gets a pass in my book.

We'll never have a full accounting of all the crimes of all the artists in all of art history, thank God. We can be grateful for that.  But we may come to view art differently. 

I won't be so easily duped the next time I see violence against women being marketed as art.

The problem is, when you get right down to it, it's a minefield out there, in movies and primetime, of images of violence against women.

And part of the problem is, I've grown numb to it.

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