The Court of Public Opinion: the Art vs. the Artist

Fifteen years ago, a colleague recommended I apply for a position as personal assistant to a high-powered movie executive. These types of positions are typically filled through word-of-mouth and individual referrals—this is a small, highly intense and demanding business, that necessitates trust and professional discretion. While at first I was excited, as I was an admirer of his films, I became less excited when this colleague made sure to mention: “Outside the norms of the job, the position will also likely involve the procurement of prostitutes on his behalf.”

I decided not to submit my resume.

I must note that the colleague who referred me to this position did not work for this company, and this particular task may not have been officially part of the job. It may have even been a joke. But the suggestion was something that didn’t seem all that surprising for this particular employer. And that, in and of itself, was telling. People talked about him; there were rumblings of his predilections—if these greenhorns applying for assistant positions fifteen years ago were aware of the rumored transgressions of this employer, surely those in a position of power, in a position to do something about it, were also aware.

Thanks to the #MeToo Movement, this type of abhorrent behavior is finally being exposed, and the practitioners of such behavior are being run out of town. What were once “open secrets” have now metastasized into visible tumors blighting the skin of Hollywood. These tumors are being excised from the industry by the scalpel of social media. The Court of Public Opinion has never been more powerful. In a world where everyone with a computer, a tablet or smart phone, has a voice, the judges and juries number into the millions and their verdicts are runaway trains. This marks a tipping point in our culture and most of the results are staggering, righteous and long overdue.

The movie business is interesting—it’s simultaneously invigorating and infuriating. The nature of art is personal; however, art can also be a business, and in the case of movies, it’s a multi-billion dollar business. I’ve often said it’s also one of the last handshake businesses, which also begs structural comparison to illegal enterprises like drug dealing and the mafia. It’s a freelance business in which one’s moral compass is often blindsided by ambition. It’s also a business in which people’s emotions are exploited—and, I would argue, this is a necessary aspect of the business. In this business, we sell emotions. For a movie to be good and worth watching, those emotions on screen must be real—or real enough—to inhabit the hearts of viewers. This is another reason why the sexual harassment, assault and rape perpetrated by those in charge against the conduits of these emotions—the actors—is so incredibly heinous. Actors trust filmmakers not only with their reputations, but also their physical and emotional safety. From the casting process through to the premiere of the film, if actors are to deliver genuinely good work, they must allow themselves to be vulnerable. They must provide instant-access to their emotions, often very dark and painful emotions, in order to sell a product. When those in charge of producing these products care only about the money, or use their power over these artists to abuse them, we destroy the lives of the people most vulnerable in the profession and taint the art form as a whole.

Change is happening, and change is good.

Change of this magnitude requires we pay attention and become involved—when power shifts, there will undoubtedly be those who attempt to manipulate it. This is the very reason we have a legal system. Outside of that system, we must be vigilant and when we speak, we must not only speak loud, but speak accurately; we must speak having done our own due diligence. The new power we are being afforded in the realm of online public debate requires reflection—it requires critical thinking.

I recently posted a link to a New York Times Op-Ed, written by Bret Stephens, to my Facebook page, which focused on the evidence, and lack of evidence, of child abuse against filmmaker Woody Allen. Allen has long been a focus of public attention relating to the allegations that he abused his daughter, accusations that eerily tread similar territory to that which Allen navigates in his films: namely relationships his older characters (often played by himself) have with much, much younger women, the best known example being the film “Manhattan.” Critic Pauline Kael wrote at the time of the film, criticizing the main character’s objective: “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?” It is also curious to note that when “Manhattan” was completed, Allen wrote a letter to the studio asking them not to release the movie. He claimed to be dissatisfied with the film; however, it is unclear as to what the source of this dissatisfaction was.When I posted the New York Times piece, in which it leaned to the side of defending Allen, I quoted a line from it: “Shouldn’t the weight of available evidence, to say nothing of the presumption of innocence, extend to the court of public opinion, too?”

I had no idea that I would unleash such animosity (animosity in the form of negative comments, primarily from friends and acquaintances). It turned out to be an interesting social experiment. Admittedly, the article’s headline was click-bait, “The Smearing of Woody Allen,” which I think did the thesis of the article a disservice: that we must weigh all available evidence when forming and disseminating such opinions in the public sphere. Shortly after this Op-Ed was published, a thought-provoking rebuttal to the piece was posted in The Atlantic, in which the writer argues that each person’s perspective of a hot-button topic differs; however, it is important to recognize each perspective as equal in weight and deserving of attention: “#MeToo, for all that, is also a visual movement. It is arguing against failures not only of justice, but also of vision itself: cultural biases about who will be seen, and who will be left to the shadows. About whose perspective will be valued, as a matter of cultural reflex, and whose, reflexively, will not. About whose allegations are actionable, and whose allegations are ‘mere.’”

There were investigations into the accusation of the abuse of Allen’s daughter at his own hands. They concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated. There were also the Connecticut State Prosecutor and the judge in Allen’s custody hearing who found the results of the investigations to be not credible.

The investigations concluded are opinions, as are our own perspectives. The underlying difference between the two is that theirs exist in the realm of official record, in the arena of the law as it is understood and accepted in our society. I’m not defending Woody Allen; rather, I’m defending the concept of weighing all available evidence when forming and disseminating public opinions. I’m defending critical thinking, which is something I fear is dissipating in our society. Woody Allen may not be the ideal vehicle for such a discussion, but he is a compelling one, and this is a discussion that that needs to be had .

These types of discussions are now convened online, via social media, between millions of people, and communicated to and from various regions of the world. In the history of our culture, such discussions have never before held more weight or mattered more in our daily lives. When the system fails, or does not act swiftly enough, the court of public opinion is there—and, as of late, it’s been working in remarkable ways.

The concern is, what happens when the court of public opinion renders a verdict that’s on the wrong side of the truth? There is no appeals process; the sentence stands, and that sentence is now one’s reputation. The inherent problem is not everyone with a Twitter account is a steward of justice. Our court of public opinion is generating very real consequences—the question we must ask is: what are the consequences for those who manipulate such a court to their own advantage? This is brand new territory for us as a society and, presently, there seems to be no recourse. This begs the question: are we all right with potentially sacrificing innocent people as collateral damage through this current process?

With great power comes great responsibility—a phrase that originated during the French Revolution, but is also attributed to the Spiderman Comics—and it is the court of public opinion that affords each and every one us, and our voices, greater power than we’ve ever had before.

In the age of social media and its arbitrary character limits, critical thinking should be encouraged, not discouraged. Such contemplation is often shut down with pejoratives and vitriol no matter how open and shut the case may appear. If we bypass critical thinking, we bypass the opportunity to learn something else about society, about ourselves as a community, and we lose the opportunity to change the system, to impact society in some meaningful way. With respect to such critical thinking, we need to ask ourselves about the art of those artists under the microscope for personal failings and, in some cases, crimes of the ugliest sort. Part of the reason I became a filmmaker is because I love movies; movies are part of the fabric of who I am as an individual. Technically, human beings do not need art to survive—we will not die without it. But, personally, I would not be able to live without it. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, I believe many of you would say the same thing. Many films have woven themselves into the fabric of who I am as a person, and as an artist, and Woody Allen made some of them. Must we now reject such work? And if we’re to reject such work, what does that do to the parts of ourselves the work has affected?

This deliberation ultimately leads us to the core question: is it possible to separate the art from the artist?

This a slippery slope, as such a test of purity—both ideologically and culturally—can never be objective and may end up leading to the censorship of art and sanitization of personal expression. Pablo Picasso was a well-known abuser of women; should his art be removed from museum walls? David Bowie committed statutory rape; must we relegate his records to the trash heap and delete his MP3’s from our devices? In another recent article in The New York Times, art critics wrote with respect to the recent sexual harassment allegations against painter and photographer Chuck Close, “At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?”

Alfred Hitchcock allegedly harassed actress Tippi Hedren on the set of “Marnie,” and when she turned down his sexual advances, she accused him of threatening to ruin her career. If we were to discount the work of Hitchcock as a result of his personal behavior, we are essentially discounting his influence on the whole of modern cinema. There is no modern cinema without Alfred Hitchcock. How on earth do we reconcile this? We cannot ignore Hedren’s account, yet at the same time, we can’t ignore the importance of Hitchcock’s work. His film, “Vertigo,” is perhaps the greatest movie ever made—there would be no Francois Truffaut or Martin Scorsese without it (the artists, not the personal individuals—they surely would have been born without it).

David Lynch has implied that ideas do not belong to man, that ideas exist outside of us, and it’s up to us, as artists, to catch them. This implies that the artistry behind the art involves shepherding the idea into the tangible. Such a concept implies the idea is beyond the corruption of man. And if this is the case, if man as we know it is corruptible, there is no perfect steward of the idea and perhaps the flaws in the artist are what make such an idea tangible to an audience of other flawed individuals. There are degrees to these flaws, and art is one of the ways we wade through these degrees, separating and examining them; it’s how we separate from and examine ourselves.

If the point of art was simply to “enjoy” it, then perhaps the shunning of art from artists who are guilty of infractions against others is necessary. However, art’s greater purpose is the search for some semblance of catharsis, or emotional resolution, through confrontation, not a desire for formulaic escapism. Drama is conflict, and being conflicted about the art we experience, is necessary, helpful, and ultimately, the point of engaging with art in any meaningful way. While the conflict of art is derived from the artist, the conflict an audience confronts should be derived from the art, not the artist. I concede that this is easier preached than practiced. It is entirely possible that an artist’s transgressions risk distracting and alienating their audience from their work. It’s also important to call out auteur theory in cinema as the fallacy that it is. Filmmaking is a collaborative art form that involves hundreds of people who all bring their own expertise to the table and contribute their own perspectives. While the director is the de facto leader, or manager, of the project, is it right to neglect the work and contributions of the hundreds of people involved in bringing the work to life? Is it right to let the shadow of that person’s personal life loom so largely over the work that that work can’t be seen, experienced, or judged by anyone else?

It’s often nerve-wracking to talk about art in a public forum, but I think the more people discuss such topics openly and objectively, the more we will progress as a culture, and the more we will deter the atrocities that are currently being discussed from happening in the future. The #MeToo movement has put transgressors on notice. If their reputations are on the line, their work isn’t far behind. This will hopefully be a deterrent. At the same time, we must also protect the art itself from sanitization. Art is meant to transgress, to push people’s buttons, and in the words of Antonin Artaud, “defy the spectator to give himself up to ideas of war, riot, and blatant murder.” Art is meant to explore the opposite of ideological purity, in an attempt to steer the audience toward something better, as ideological purity is an impossibility.

We need to protect ourselves from people, not ideas. As far as separating the people from the ideas, I believe it’s important to spend more time considering the ideas themselves rather than indiscriminately embracing them.

Triptych: The Three Doors

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July 1st, 2016 marks two years since my sister, Briana, died. It’s surreal to write those words. I promised myself that I would post a piece of writing either about, or inspired by, my sister annually on this date. It is this commitment I honor forthwith.

The grieving process is something that does not end. It’s just not that simple, though I, and others I’m sure, wish it were. It’s akin to the aging process, meaning that we cannot stop it; we must accept it and embrace it as a part of our life. Death, in fact, is as much a part of our lives as life itself. I’ve grown a great deal over the past two years, largely due to the tragic and untimely, passing of Briana. The notion that heartbreaking events put one’s life in perspective is accurate. I have dedicated the past decade of my life to pursuing my dream of making movies. This dedication moved me to Los Angeles, over three thousand miles away from my family, away from my friends, away from my sister. I rarely saw Briana these past ten years, and when I did see her, she was so numbed by drugs in an effort to shield herself from the debilitating effects of her borderline personality disorder that our reunions were limited, disconnected and generally worrisome.

If there’s one thing in life I fear most, it is regret that I fear. Regret is something that terrifies me—will I find myself on my deathbed regretting the choices I made during my tenure in this life? Regret, as both a literary and cinematic theme, consistently weaves its way through my work. It is, perhaps, a bit of an obsession, as any decent artistic theme should be, really. It is also obsession that brought me here to LA in the first place; it is obsession that has fueled my filmmaking pursuits.

My sister and I both shared a love for movies. While I decided to pursue movies as my artistic outlet, she decided to pursue painting, and one of my favorite pieces she created is a triptych of movie theater entrances—those ubiquitous square portals that exist inside a variety of multiplexes worldwide. Movies were, and continue to be, important to my family—the shared experience of going to the movies and watching these emotional rollercoasters on the big screen together and reacting to them collectively, has had a profound effect on me. Briana had a terrific laugh, and we shared many laughs together at the movies (not to mention countless laughs when we both discovered “Da Ali G Show” back in the day). That is why this particular painting—or, rather, three paintings—holds a great deal of meaning for me, and why it hangs on my wall today.

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The entrance to a movie theater is a magical thing: it’s like the door to a spaceship that transports you to worlds you could never fathom existed in other people’s minds. You proceed down a carpeted hallway, within which the unmistakable smell of buttered popcorn wafts through the air, to a succession of doorways, each entrance identical except for the glowing title of the movie that occupies the cavernous room beyond the door that week. Once you sit down in that plush seat, and the light of the projector illuminates itself above you, you are instantly whisked away to an endless number of worlds that stand immune to imaginative limitations.

I am in a business where imaginative limitations are something I stand firmly against. This distaste for such limitations extends to my personal life, particularly in light of the fact that my sister is no longer with us—you see, she is still with us, and it is because of memory and imagination that she is. Behind each of the doors she painted, projects a piece of her life.

In the final paragraph of my novel, “No Alternative,” the dead narrator describes how he would like to be remembered:

I have become the impression that’s perceived by my sister, or that’s how I’d like to be remembered, if given the choice. However Bridget remembers me. The extent of my existence, the part of me that remains and makes a difference, is captured in the colors she uses to paint me on the canvas in her head. And I hope she continues to paint.

It has been difficult for me to regain my focus on filmmaking. Part of the point of my novel was to demonstrate to my sister—while she was still with us—just how devastating it would be to lose a sibling through the realization of how important that sibling relationship is to the characters post-death. In a manner of speaking, the relationship I have with my sister today, post-death, has become more important to me than ever. Briana has become the impression that’s perceived by me. The extent of her existence, the part of her that remains and makes a difference, is captured in the light I use to project her onto the screen in my head.

I’ve made it my mission to use my craft, the craft my sister and I held dear, and every resource I have at my disposal—through both my own means and the goodwill of others—to capture her spirit on film, the film based on my novel, which was inspired by her life. The film is “No Alternative” and I have no alternative but to make it.

William Dickerson is Stephen Fry proof thanks to caching by WP Super Cache