Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Don't Let An Angry Mob Take Away My Art

"I thought how I hate any kind of mob - I hate mobs of sports fans, mobs of environmental demonstrators, I even hate mobs of super-models, that's how much I hate mobs.  I tell you, mankind is bearable only when you get him on his own."

― Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole

TV Land dropped The Cosby Show reruns after the media reported rape allegations against series star Bill Cosby.  Daniel Holloway of The Wrap wrote, "The Cosby Show has become a pariah on television."  Larry McShane of The New York Daily News wrote, "American's dad Bill Cosby was banished. . . to 'Can’t See TV.''  The mob that arose in the wake of this scandal demanded Cosby's blood along with every bit of vinyl, celluloid and video tape onto which the comedian had imprinted his voice and image.  

A mob with an unbridled fury for justice, at least what they perceive to be justice, is not more important than the law.  Today, the self-appointed justice league argues that it will serve society to convict Cosby as a rapist and throw him in prison.  But the strange and contrived path that has been taken to justify Cosby’s trial is something that should bother anyone who values court procedure.  It reminds me of what Eisenhower said when mobs protested the Supreme Court's decision to desegregate the public schools (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954).  The President said, "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts."

The strategy of the activist mobs today is crude and childish.  It comes down to the same solution for everything.  You don't believe that the justice system will give you the outcome that you desire.  So, stomp your feet and scream.  You don't believe that the election process will give you the outcome that you desire.  So, stomp your feet and scream.  Never trust a mob.  A mob never thinks.  A mob only feels.  

The Cosby controversy brings up many issues that fascinate me - the conflict between mob frenzy and legal doctrine, the separation of art and artist, the distinction between coercion and consent, the worth of a cultural icon's legacy compared to the worth of social justice.  The least interesting aspect of the story to me is Cosby himself.

I am really here today to discuss the part of the controversy that has to do with art.  Sure, law is more important than the mob.  It is one of the most important principles of our government.  But, just as important, the furious mob is not more important than art.  As I get older, I find myself believing more and more in utilitarianism.  I believe, exactly as this doctrine holds, that the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility.  Certainly, I must question if we as a society are losing more than we gain to pursue this matter.  This is about more than a man's guilt or innocence in a sexual assault trial.  It is about the substantial amount of art that this man has produced in the last fifty years.  We need to treasure our art and be careful with the way we tend to it.  In the process, we need for sure to separate the art from the artist.  It just might be that one is far more important than the other.

So, you don't think that Cosby was funny?  At a time that the Cosby story was first receiving extensive coverage in the news, another famous comedian fell under scrutiny for unsavory sexual activities.  The comedian was Charlie Chaplin.  David Harding of the New York Daily News wrote, "The guy really was a tramp, according to divorce papers from 1927."  Divorce papers that were drawn up nearly 90 years ago were discovered in an abandoned Los Angeles bank.  The documents provided the nasty details of Chaplin's divorce from his second wife, Lita Grey.

By Grey's account, 35-year-old Chaplin seduced her when she was 15.  As it turned out, Grey got pregnant, which is something that happens in these circumstances.  Chaplin demanded that Grey have an abortion, but her mother threatened to report Chaplin to police unless the couple married and had the child.

Harding wrote:
That union went ahead following a discreet ceremony in November 1924, but the troubled marriage lasted just three years and produced two sons.  The papers claim that Grey was forced to perform sexual acts that were illegal in California during the 1920s. . .  He also asked her to take part in a threesome with another woman.  She described Chaplin's actions as "revolting, degrading and offensive". . .  Chaplin allegedly told Grey that his requests were reasonable.  "All married people do those kinds of things," he said.  "You are my wife and you have to do what I want you to do."
Late in his life, Chaplin admitted to having had sexual relations with more than 2,000 women.  Yes, the man was a tramp.

Maria Puente of USA Today pointed out, "History is replete with artists behaving badly."  She observed, "Considering how long and how often it has happened, Western culture should find it easy to separate art from artist — to judge a particular work of art apart from the behavior, even reprehensible behavior, of its creator. . . "

Peggy Drexler, a Cornell University psychology professor, was even more emphatic on the matter.  She said, "Chances are good that if we delved into the private lives of every single artist whose work we admire, surely we'd find plenty not to like, and even to be disgusted by.  It's possible we'd never see a movie, look at a work of art or read a book again."

Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers in "The Good Life"

British actress Felicity Kendal said that she couldn’t be less like the loving and devoted wife that she played in 1970s sitcom The Good Life.  Kendal admitted to having a "dark side."  The twice-divorced Kendal said, "Look, the aura and sweetness has got bullshit all to do with my life. . . I always did have affairs when I wanted – it’s just how you feel at the moment. . . [The Good Life was] a short period 40 years ago but it’s extended to now because it’s on all the fucking time and it’s what people talk about. . . It’s quite flattering that I did so well people think it’s real.  But the character I played wasn’t me." 

This is yet another artist with a dark side.  This is yet another artist who is not what they appear to be.  I have more than once fallen in love with an actress because I loved a character that the actress played.  It could not have been more devastating to learn that Linda Carter didn’t go around in real life spinning a golden lasso or Lauren Graham did not really have a wisecrack for every occasion.  It could be disturbing to be smitten by an actress who played a thoughtful and loving woman on screen only to see her on a talk show and realize how flaky and shallow the actress was in real life (I will not name the actress because, even though my heart was broken, I have moved on). 

So, do we now initiate a ban on City Lights?  No work of art would be immune from this type of ban.  I have many Facebook friends who adore Laurel and Hardy.  What if a judge suddenly unsealed divorce papers for Stan Laurel and the papers included accusations of sexual misdeeds by Laurel.  Do we stop enjoying Sons of the Desert or Way Out West?

Greg Ferrara of Movie Morlocks wrote, "I remember hearing this choice nugget about The Exorcist, and still do, when the movie is brought up:  'Did you know it’s based on a real possession?'  Again, yes, I’ve heard that.  And, no, I don’t care.  What I care about is what is in front of me on the screen when I’m watching the movie. . ."  I feel the same way.  So, it doesn't matter to me if I am watching The Gold Rush with a friend and the friend says, "Did you know that Chaplin had sex with underage girls?"  I don't care.  It has no bearing on Chaplin eating his boot, which is pretty funny.

After the "Harry Potter" book series had finished its run, J. K. Rowling suddenly announced that Harry's headmaster Albus Dumbledore was gay, which was information that the author had never passed to readers in any of the series' seven books.  Once the author made the announcement, fans rushed back to the books to see if this was just a fact they happened to miss.  But no amount of textual analysis has yielded the slightest clue that Dumbledore was gay.  A fan found that an anagram to Dumbledore's name was "Male bods rule, bud!"  The simple truth, though, is that, if it isn't on the page, it doesn't exist.

It's like if the man who painted this Paris cafe said that he imagined a man passed out in his own vomit in the cafe's bathroom.  It's not relevant.  All that is relevant is what I can see and the effect that this has on me.  The painting and an observer experience a personal one-on-one transaction.  The artist ceases to be relevant as soon as he washes off his brushes and moves on to his next painting.

It's like George Lucas coming back to the Star Wars films years later to insert new CGI effects, alter dialogue, and change music.  The fans were furious with Lucas.  As far as they were concerned, the filmmaker had no right to do this as the films no longer belonged him.  The films now and forever belonged to the fans. 

So, The Good Wife's Barbara Good was, in real life, an adulteress.  Forty years ago, Kendal stepped out onto a set and delivered a performance to the broadcast world.  Since that time, her performance has been aired innumerable times across the world.  An actor gives a performance to an audience, who immediately takes possession of it.  Barbara Good doesn't belong to Kendal anymore.  So, no matter if she left the set and screwed her brains out with a German Shepherd, it shouldn't have the least effect on the performance that she provided.

Cosby's records, films and television shows belong to the fans, who should only be concerned with what these works present to their eyes and their ears.  The exception to this is Leonard Part 6 and Ghost Dad, which Cosby can and should keep to himself.

No, please, let us separate the art from the artist.

Additional Notes: The Casting Couch

Everyone understands how the casting couch works.  An actress willing to trade sex for an acting role reclines on a couch in a producer's office and allows the producer to have his way with her.   Cosby's way, if the stories are to be believed, might have been stranger than most.

This is a couch. 

It is nothing more and nothing less than a couch.  As far as Hollywood tradition goes, it takes a naked young actress reclining across its cushy expanse to make it a casting couch.  So, to avoid impropriety, I recommend that a young actress keep on her clothes and submit nothing but her resume during an interview.

Rebecca Carroll of The Guardian wrote, "There is a convenient myth in the entertainment industry: 'the casting couch.'  As the myth goes, young women willingly sacrifice their virtue on this metaphorical piece of furniture to older, seemingly benevolent men who just need a little sexual encouragement to bestow their mentorship on the next big thing.  And, maybe, for some women that was true – but there has always been an uncomfortable whiff of coercion to the myth, and more than a little slut-shaming of the women who, willingly or usually less than willingly, found themselves on that couch."

Thandie Newton

Actress Thandie Newton began a six-year-long relationship with a 39-year-old director, John Duigan, after auditioning for a film at the age of 16.  She claimed to have been coerced into the relationship.  She said, "I was a very shy, very sweet girl.  I wasn't in control of the situation.  Would I have liked things to be different?  Sure.  But I can now value myself more for the way I got through it."

Newton was later given a lead role in Duigan's critically acclaimed film Flirting (1991).  The film put her into the spotlight and led to her becoming a star.  Newton became a director's girlfriend and the director launched her career in one of his films.  Was this trade or coercion?  Was this exploitation or love?  It was a six-year relationship.  It had to be have more complicated than a casting couch tumble.  It is also significant to note that this happened in Australia, where the age of consent for sexual activity is 16.  Newton acknowledges that Duigan broke no law, but she remains angry about the relationship and sees it no differently than the other instances of casting couch abuse that she had to endure.  She complained about a photographer who had her in a leather miniskirt bending over a desk.  Isn't that just Tuesday in show business?

Newton described in detail to CNN's Max Foster an even worse experience, which she regarded as "horrific."  She was at the time eighteen years old.  She said:
The director asked me to sit with my legs apart.  The camera was positioned where it could see up my skirt.  [He asked me] to put my leg over the arm of the chair and, before I started my dialogue, think about the character that I was supposed to be having the dialogue with and how it felt to be made love to by this person.  I was thinking this was strange.  Why would I need to do that?  But this is the director. . . It must be normal. . . I'm thinking, I was in a protected [environment].  There were boundaries.  Three years later, I was at the Cannes Film Festival.  My husband and I bumped in this rather drunk producer. . . who mentioned the director I had had this audition with, and he looked very sheepish and walked away.  My husband grabbed him later and said, 'Why did you start to say something and didn't?'  It turned out that the director, who had went on to make the film, used to show that video late at night to interested parties at his house.  A video of me touching myself with a camera up my skirt!
I do not know what this scene revealed that made it so special.  I don't know why a producer would think it was so extraordinary that he would have to show it to late-night visitors.  Flirting, which was made at around the same time as this audition, features a scene in which Newton spreads apart her legs to allow a young man to reach under her skirt.  The actress has done many explicit sex scenes in films.  If you want to see Newton stimulating sex, you don't need to belong to a secret underground society of film industry perverts.  You just need a subscription to Mr. Skin.  How was her touching herself between her legs out of line with her other acting work for the last twenty-five years?  You either want to preserve your modesty or you don't.

Newton was willing to act sexy in front of film cameras and was presumably willing to act sexy in auditions to prove that she could handle these roles.  I am confused, honestly.  I have tried my best to put myself into Newton's place at that audition.  The director asks me to play with myself while he points a camera down my pants.  Even if I am sixteen years old, I have to become uncomfortable.  I have to question if this is a necessary part of the audition.  So, I don't unbuckle my pants.  I leave.  Or, maybe, I am feeling unusually bold that day and I do see this as a necessary part of the audition.  So, I unbuckle my pants.  I make a choice.  It's not a grey area.  I imagine that Newton wanted to please the director to get a role in his film.  She, too, made a choice.  A person needs to take responsibility for the choices they make in life.

Was this outfit coercion or choice?

Was this outfit coercion or choice?
The average person doesn't care about the sleazy stuff that goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood.  Even if they did, it is beyond their control to do anything about it.  As long as an aspiring actress is willing to sleep with a producer for a job, we will have the casting couch.  It is the choice of the starlet to sell her body for the possibility of fame and fortune.  Mickey Rourke said, "There's ways you get a job and ways you get a job."  The sleaziest proposition is just a proposition.  The starlet has the option of accepting or rejecting the proposition.

Kirsten Dunst, who worked with Newton in Interview with a Vampire (1994), was once asked in an interview if she was ever pressured by a director to have sex.  She said, "No.  I don’t give off that vibe.  I think that you court that stuff, and to me it’s crossing a boundary that would hinder the trust in your working relationship."  Feminists were infuriated with Dunst over this remark.  This was, in their minds, blaming the victim.  Her remarks were reshaped by angry bloggers into blunt and provocative statements.  It was claimed that, in essence, Dunst said, "If you end up on a casting couch, it’s because you were probably a slut to begin with."  Allison of dlisted wrote, "So, let me get this straight – basically she’s saying is that if you find yourself in a casting couch situation, it’s because you were asking for it?"  Some actors come into an audition with feeling that they'll do anything for the role.  That's the sort of desperation and vulnerability that is sensed immediately by a sexual predator.  But be strong and say "no."

You should never be harassed in any way when you apply for a job.  There's no question about that.  But I do not believe that an actress lacks control in the situation.  Keep your dignity.  Leave your resume.

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