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The ethics of a film fan

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As Woody Allen’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow accuses the director of abusing her as a child, a look at the ethics of being a film fan.

Sam Peckinpah, director of Cross of Iron, once urinated on a screen to demonstrate his disgust at the footage shot during a day’s filming for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. His behaviour on the set of The Wild Bunch was said to be so erratic and hot-headed that he marginalised his actors. He cultivated a reputation as being hard to deal with, tempestuous, and prone to wild behaviour on set if things weren’t going right, yet he is still revered as one of America’s greatest ever directors; he was an innovative, forward-thinking filmmaker who smashed boundaries.

Dylan Farrow asks us: what is our favourite Woody Allen film? Do we still have a favourite? The answer is probably yes for many

Filmmaking hasn’t exactly been associated with on set politeness anyway, so perhaps we can forgive Sam this one. Taking it up a few levels, Polish-born director Roman Polanski was accused of statutory rape in America in the 70s, only to flee the country to France before the court could charge him. The American court still wants him extradited, but in the meantime people continue to watch his films, give him awards, and extol him as a filmmaking maverick.

Woody Allen was recently accused of a similar misdemeanour by his adopted daughter in an open letter. She detailed what she claims the legendary auteur did to her when she was seven, and accused those who have acted in his films of siding with him, ignoring her and addressed the fog of rumours that have long surrounded him. She asks us, in light of her lurid revelations, what is our favourite Woody Allen film? Do we still have a favourite? The answer is probably a resounding yes for many.

annie hall woody allen diane keaton

The Italian artist Caravaggio, highly regarded as one of the world’s greatest ever artists, was a murderer, yet we still look at his work today and admire his touch of genius, virtually ignoring his consistently crude, vile, and deeply criminal behaviour. He was a vagabond, a rogue, a knife fighter; but often these are qualities we come to love in our artists. They’re part of their troubled, and hugely fascinating psychological make-up. We seem drawn to drunks and rebels who are prone to contradictory moments of transcendental inspiration, perhaps because this paradox inherent in their persona is so interesting.

We’re drawn to rebels prone to contradictory moments of inspiration, perhaps because this paradox is so interesting

The Norwegian musician Varg Vikernes was imprisoned for murdering another musician, yet continued to make music from his cell, which fans continued to buy. Now free, he continues to make music that is sold on Amazon, music which fans and critics continue to listen to and discuss. But the question is, are our greatest artists and filmmakers really above human scorn because of the fantastical feats they’re capable of? Is Annie Hall Woody Allen’s redemption in light of the accusations because it is that good? Is art above morality?

When does an organised boycott of a director’s films take place? Are we waiting for a bunch of angry Christians to start, only for us to tell them they don’t understand film, and that they should go home with their fossilised 10th century ideals and watch Peter Pan? What does it take for the Woody Allen connoisseurs to get behind Dylan, denying themselves the opportunity to watch Annie Hall and Manhattan ever again? Perhaps films are too precious for us; too good for us to let go. Perhaps we ignore the accusations, block them out, because we put genius, cinema, and artistry before ethics.

Polanski has never been convicted of the charges levelled against him (he fled the country hours before he was to be sentenced), whilst Woody Allen has never been charged with anything. Similarly, Michael Jackson was never convicted, and no one really boycotted his music. People still listened to Beat It, Thriller, and Billie Jean, and continue to enjoy them now. Michael Jackson, and music fans in general, are fanatical. Polanski fans are not. Music has die-hard fans, auteur cinema doesn’t. Not really.

chinatown john huston

The aficionados of auteur cinema are more measured, more disciplined in their views. They attach themselves to the work of their favourite artist in a much different way than Michael Jackson fans do. For Jackson fans, the singer was, without even a hint of doubt, never guilty. For Polanski fans, it doesn’t even seem a question whether he is guilty or not; they have come to separate the artist from the person, the person from their art. Art transcends all objective morality because of its natural subjectivity.

We are the nihilists Nietzsche wrote about. We know good and evil, but suspend it when it comes to certain people because they’re capable of extraordinary feats

In light of this, though, we have to wonder whether we are guilty of putting genius before ethics; whether we are putting our love of film before morality; whether our love of art has peeled away our moral compass; whether Chinatown is just too good to discard forever. If it has, we are the nihilists Nietzsche wrote about. We know good and evil exists, and that there is a right and a wrong, but we suspend it when it comes to certain people simply because they’re capable of extraordinary feats. We may look with disgust at the local labourer who was once accused of buggery, but we continue to watch our favourite films despite what the creator is accused of. No conviction means we, as well as they, have little to answer for.

We watch them because we enjoy them. They’re touched by artistic genius. We perhaps continue to watch them because artists are allowed to be troubled – it’s what makes them fascinating, right? Their troubles may even cast their films in a new light, opening up the possibilities for new interpretations. Maybe the answer is otherwise. The human mind is vastly complicated, however. One thing is for certain: we separate the artist from the person; we separate the person from the art, and this answer at least offers us some comfort when the question of ethics comes knocking at our door. Who cares what such-and-such is accused of? This is a damn good film, we say, and we’re not gonna stop watching it.

 

Featured image: United Artists

Inset images: United Artists; Paramount

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