Have We Lost The Ability To Engage With Art?

Several years ago, I wrote an article for House of Geekery about problematic actors in films, and how that may color how we view certain movies we once loved. Essentially my contention was that it shouldn’t ruin your experience of the movie itself. The focus leaned heavily on the Kevin Spacey controversy going on at the time and how it soon came to light what a toxic, abusive, piece of garbage he was and still is. Looking back on it I can’t even find the article anymore, which leads me to believe I may have taken it down. In retrospect, that may have been a good idea because my article was callous when addressing real people who’ve suffered real-life abuse. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have suffered abuse at the hands of (insert actor/actress name here) and then have to endure watching that person on the big screen with zero repercussions. In fact, someone called me out on it, and rightly so. All I can say is I made a mistake, I was wrong, and hopefully, I’ve learned from it.

With that in mind, and armed with the knowledge that I’ve (hopefully) grown, I want to revisit this issue. It occurs to me that we obviously shouldn’t embrace abusers and pretend like their actions don’t count or have serious repercussions on the media we consume. At the end of the day, your mileage may vary and your own interaction with any form of media is completely subjective. Some people may choose to never engage with another Mel Gibson work ever again because of his past anti-Semitic, racist, and abusive comments. Others may recognize the problematic nature of the director/actor but still wish to watch Braveheart and Lethal Weapon on a regular basis. Both approaches I believe have equal validity.

What I take issue with and what concerns me, is it feels like we’ve lost the ability to engage meaningfully with art. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to limit my focus to film. If there is even the slightest scintilla of a problematic line, scene, or actor involved, it seems like the modern de facto approach is outright cancelation of the entire film. Now as a forty-three-year-old Gen Xer I recognize that I may just be Abe Simpson yelling at a cloud here. There’s the distinct possibility that I may be wrong. I think the best way to explain what I’m referring to is through two recent film examples that exemplify my point. Namely, the discourse surrounding Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest work Licorice Pizza, and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. Before we begin, I want to make it absolutely clear that I’ve seen neither of these movies. (I definitely intend to though.) The controversy surrounding them is based SOLELY on the discourse I’ve followed online.

Let’s start with Licorice Pizza first. Set in the San Fernando Valley during the 1970s, the film revolves around the romantic relationship between Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a teenage actor, and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a photographer’s assistant. The two main gripes I’ve heard regarding this movie are the existence of some poorly executed Asian jokes and the age disparity between Gary and Alana. From what I’ve read the Asian jokes offer no value or relevance to the plot. They are just there to say, “Hey this is how people talked back then.” If that’s the case then the criticism, in my opinion, is valid. It is beyond pointless to include racist jokes for no other reason than “that’s just the way people talked back then.” This is self-evident to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of cultural speech tendencies of 1970s America.

The second issue is where things become somewhat gray. The age gap between Gary and Alana is ten years, with Gary being fifteen and Alana being twenty-five. At face value, this is naturally problematic at the very least. However, as I understand it, the fact that the age gap IS problematic and IS toxic is ultimately one of the thematic points of the entire movie. Something not fully grasped until the end of the film. Yet I’ve seen multiple reports online of film bloggers walking out of the film halfway through because of the age disparity. To me, that demonstrates a fundamental lack of patience and an inability to critically engage with the movie.

Now as to Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, most reports indicate that Spielberg has updated the film to be a little more socially relevant without losing the heart of the story. Some of the more problematic aspects (i.e. an almost complete lack of diverse casting in the original) have been eliminated or at least minimized. The controversy, in this case, surrounds the film’s lead actor Ansel Elgort. A few years ago, it came to the forefront that Elgort may have engaged in an unwelcome sexual relationship with a seventeen-year-old when Elgort was twenty. The accusations have since been removed by the accuser and Elgort has gone on record saying the relationship was consensual. However, several other women have since come forward to accuse Elgort of similar indiscretions.

I’m not here to cast aspersions on either side. While I believe we should believe women when they make allegations of abuse, we also need to give the accused the benefit of the doubt and the ability to defend himself or herself. People too often get convicted in the court of public opinion and accusations – even false ones – can follow you forever. Having said that, it is suspect that 20th Century has gone out of their way to minimize PR exposure for Elgort. It is clearly an effort to save face and make sure the attention stays on the film rather than Elgort’s off-camera issues.

What I do take umbrage with are some online entities saying not to see this movie because of Elgort’s alleged actions. I’ve even read tweets along the lines of “If you saw West Side Story this weekend you’re part of the problem.” To me, that is ridiculous to the point of absurdity. Let’s assume for a second that the accusations against Elgort are legitimate. What about the hundreds of other actors, costume designers, set designers, stunt coordinators, etc…, that aren’t abusers? Do the actions of one person invalidate the efforts of the hundreds of others on the film, some of whom I’m sure are kind, decent, compassionate human beings? Again, your mileage may vary, but to me, the answer is no.

Listen I recognize the importance of feminist, racial, political criticism when it comes to film. For too long diverse voices have been suppressed or outright ignored in film criticism. It is crucial that those voices be heard, recognized, and validated. Concurrently, if all you ever do is view film through a political, economic, racial, identity politics lens, and let that lens determine the overall validity/enjoyment of a film, you have completely lost the ability to engage with film at a meaningful level. There are ALWAYS going to be problematic directors, writers, actors, actresses, best boys, grips, stunt coordinators et al. You as a consumer of film do not have the right not to be offended. On the contrary, film should challenge you, frustrate you, and even make you angry at times. Otherwise, all you’ll end up consuming is bland, prescreened, prepackaged art that fails to be anything other than mediocre.

I can’t think of a more joyless way to engage with art let alone cinema.