Today, Jessica from the wonderful Velvet Cafe blog wrote a great piece called “The less we know—the better?” which asked whether knowledge of a filmmaker’s personal life or misdeeds should play a role in our assessment of their films.
I wish I could say straight away that I always judge a work only on its own merits and that my integrity is impeccable, but a more honest response would probably be: it depends.
I do think this is an honest response. She goes on to say that an exception to her ignoring information about a filmmaker is her distaste for Leni Riefenstahl. Though even here, this reaction comes from the fact that Riefenstahl actually made films that were reprehensible in content and morals.
I also agree with everything she says regarding Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and Mel Gibson. I don’t care that Mel Gibson may have some serious anger problems or that he might be an anti-semite. Apocalypto is still a badass action movie.
In response to Jessica’s post, Bondo wrote a nice response at his blog, Deep Musings of the Third Kind. Bondo raises some additional questions about films that deal with lurid subject matter and how to approach such subjects without glorifying and thus becoming morally problematic. The Woodsman, which I reviewed on his recommendation for my “Can’t Stop Marathon,” is the example he uses. A film about pedophilia that does not glorify its subject, but examines it with a degree of honesty that could cause people to question the motivations of the director.
These are all fascinating interconnected issues that really get to the heart of something we as an audience have a hard time dealing with. When we watch and evaluate films it all comes down to our perception, but if that’s the case how do we separate our perceptions of the film from our perceptions of the people involved with its making.
Though I follow the same philosophical line of thinking as both Jessica and Bondo, I have to admit that I do sometimes fall into that perception trap. And in a way I have to question whether I am being fair about all of this. The most obvious example that comes to mind is my disdain for Katherine Heigl. I had seen her on Grey’s Anatomy and actually thought she was the most capable and most likable actress in that cast. Then I saw her in Knocked Up and thought she was great and funny and nuanced. But then some stories came out about her. Like her public statements about Kocked Up being sexist, or her refusal to be submitted for an Emmy because she thought the writers had not done a good job writing for her character. This kind of petty, self-entitled behaviour rubbed me the wrong way, and not only has it made me actively avoid seeing any of her new films, I have since come to find her character in Knocked Up annoying.
I fully admit it. This doesn’t make any sense. I stuck with Tom Cruise through all his craziness, and I still think he’s a talented actor who sometimes stars in great films. Yet somehow I couldn’t get past what Heigl said and did. Her behaviour got to me so much that I retroactively did not like her previous work. Is that fair? Probably not, but I can’t help it.
The same is true when I compare two actors. Sean Penn and Matt Damon. Both do a lot of great work for charities, and both are extremely intelligent on social and political issues, but somehow I find Sean Penn extremely irritating when he talks politics, and I love hearing what Damon has to say. And this has extended to how I approach their films. I think both of them are fine actors, but something about Penn’s personality doesn’t sit right with me and so I tend to hesitate when walking into one of his films. With Matt Damon, on the other hand, his personal political views have actually made me respect him even more, to the point where I feel my view of him actively contributes to my seeking out his films. I also think he’s a great actor, but I admit that there are other, non-film related reasons why I want to watch the movies he stars in.
None of this is particularly rational. It’s all emotional. It flies in the face of my philosophy on the matter. I just can’t help it, though. Sometimes we just have to accept that our emotions will affect us even when we don’t want them to. If somebody tells me that they won’t see Carnage because Roman Polanski is a child molester and a fugitive criminal, my immediate response would be that the film doesn’t reflect the deeds of its filmmaker. If the movie is good, it’s good, that’s all. And yet I completely understand it on an emotional level. The film may not reflect the filmmaker, but the filmmaker can certainly reflect on the film. If that person knows what Polanski did and that he made the movie, that lingering emotion might be there all while watching the film. It’s hard to fix and hard to ignore.
So while I fundamentally agree with what Jessica and Bondo are saying, and while I try to stick by those principles as best as I can, I can still sympathize with that basic emotional reaction. And hell, we’re all human, as much as we’d like to think otherwise, emotions usually do win out in the end.