When a Monster Makes Art

January 11, 2012
A thought by James Berardinelli

For many years, I have read the writings of Philadelphia Daily News baseball columnist Bill Conlin. For as long as I have followed the Phillies, Conlin has been there, first as a beat writer then as a featured columnist. He wrote about sports in general, but his first love was always baseball. Until last week, he had been writing a column or two a day. Then, suddenly, he retired. The reason became abundantly clear only hours later. Four victims accused him of sexual abuse. The supposed incidents occurred about 40 years ago, in the early 1970s, when Conlin was in his late 30s and the alleged objects of his attacks were between ages 7 and 10. In the days that followed, three additional victims came forward.

It is not up to me to judge Conlin's innocence or guilt. He has yet to make a public statement other than to say he is preparing a defense to set the record straight. He will not face the charges in court - the statute of limitations has long since expired - but he will be tried in the Court of Public Opinion. And the longer he waits to present his side of the story, the less likely anyone will be willing to pronounce him innocent. Maybe he's hoping everyone will forget and he can vanish into the obscurity of the Florida sunshine. Given the universal nature of the news cycle, that's not a reasonable assumption. A year from now, it's possible no one will care much about Conlin except those directly impacted.

His legacy is impossibly tarnished. His writings, which earned him many honors over the years, have been tainted. But there's a question here: Should they be? Do the actions, however monstrous, of a writer/artist/musician/filmmaker/etc. impact how their output is received? The obvious answer is "yes." But is that the "correct" answer?

If Bill Conlin was to publish a book tomorrow, I would not buy it. But that's more out of a desire not to contribute to the financial gain of an alleged predator. It's not because I no longer value Conlin's opinions and insight on baseball, which are as intelligent as they were a month ago, long before word of this broke. Does the fact that, 40 years ago, Conlin allegedly victimized seven children mean that his entire body of work - thousands upon thousands of articles - should be stricken from the record? To me, this is an incredibly difficult question. If he is guilty, I want Conlin to suffer for his actions. Destroying his life's work would certainly accomplish that, but is that the right approach?

Now extend this out of the realm of journalism and into the purview of movies, and widen the field to include more than sexual assaults and pedophilia. There are plenty of examples of "gross misconduct" in the motion picture industry to consider. From Elia Kazan and Leni Riefenstahl to Mel Gibson and John McTiernan, there's no shortage of cases. Time and space limit me to only a few, and I'm sticking to recent ones to enhance the chances of familiarity. Hopefully, as I go through these, the nature of my dilemma will become clear to those who are scratching their heads and wondering WTF I am thinking.

Take Mel Gibson, for example. Fifteen years ago, Gibson was on top. He was a bona fide A-list celebrity. Mad Max and Riggs helped to make him one of the highest paid actors in the business, and Braveheart transformed him into an Oscar winner and critical darling. Back in the mid-'90s, as he surfed his wave of popularity, you would have to look far and wide to hear anything bad said about Gibson. As everyone knows, the white hat has long since been knocked off Gibson's head. No matter how desperately his publicists seek to spin the various sordid incidents of recent years, it would seem that the old phrase of "where there's smoke, there's fire" applies. Even the rosiest portrayal - a bad drunk who spews hateful things when under the influence and who was set up by a scheming ex-girlfriend - is ugly. The worst possibility - an anti-Semitic monster with rage issues who abuses women - is also out there. Gibson has been tried and convicted in the Court of Public Opinion. His reputation hasn't merely been tarnished; it has been trashed. But does that matter when watching his movies?

Granted, he hasn't done much lately. There's The Beaver, which no one saw, and Edge of Darkness, which performed tepidly at the box office. I'm referring to his catalog - the movies we all loved when they first came out. Do we avoid Lethal Weapon now because Gibson's offscreen misadventures have colored our ability to see Martin Riggs as a wacko good guy? Has Braveheart been transformed from a rousing adventure to something unsavory? The fact is, those movies have not changed.

Tom Cruise hasn't committed any infractions on the scale of Gibson's, but he has done things to rub people the wrong way. At one point, Cruise was just an incredibly good looking guy whose winning smile and sex appeal could pack a movie theater. That was back in the heady days of Top Gun and Cocktail. Now, in some circles, he's better known for jumping on couches, preaching Scientology, and damning psychology. His antics have turned some people off, although there are others who probably don't care. But more than one person I know say they simply cannot watch a Tom Cruise movie anymore because his grotesque off-screen personality overwhelms whatever character he attempts to play. That's a fair assessment to a degree: accepting a character demands that the actor vanish. If we look at the screen and see only Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise, they have failed the first requirement of acting. And if their off-screen reputations have become so bloated and discordant, the potential exists that the necessary level of immersion cannot be achieved.

Acting is a very public, visible profession, and it can be almost impossible to separate the actor from his craft. But what about directing? What about filmmakers whose fingerprints are all over a movie but whose features are not shown?

Consider Woody Allen. For decades, he was a darling of the "elite" film crowd. After starting his career in the mainstream, he gradually drifted into what today would be considered the "art house" vein. For the most part, his movies didn't make a lot of money, but he assembled them cheaply and he was beloved by critics and a select group of film-goers. Then came the scandal. I remember it as events unfolded, with every day bringing a new update. In the end, it was sordid, but it hardly warranted the amount of coverage it was accorded. The upshot: Allen bedded (and later wed) a girl for whom he had been, for all intents and purposes, an acting stepfather. For a while, it looked like the situation might end Allen's career, but his most loyal fans forgave him. There remains, however, a segment of the public who are vocal in their disdain of Allen and who refuse to see any project in which he is involved. (I wonder, however, how many of these people liked him before the Soon-Yi incident.) For the most part, this segment of Allen's life has been forgotten (except by his most virulent detractors). He continues to make movies, although he now appears infrequently in front of the camera and there is less of an autobiographical flavor to them. (For many years, Allen used filmmaking as an extension of psychoanalysis.)

Perhaps the most infamous recent case of a filmmaker's transgression impacting his reputation is Roman Polanski. Convicted of statutory rape, he jumped bail when he feared a judge was preparing to set aside a plea bargain and sentence him to a lengthy prison term. Polanski is unquestionably a creep, but he continues to make movies. Some have been atrociously bad; some have been excellent. But he has alienated a significant block of movie-goers. Time has been kind to Polanski - few of his detractors are as passionate in attacking him as they once were and there is a vocal segment of the Hollywood elite who actively work toward his being allowed to return to the United States without facing jail time.

I can understand the unwillingness on the part of some viewers not to see a movie starring/directed by/written by/produced by someone with an unsavory reputation. After all, by seeing a Polanski movie, isn't one contributing to Polanski's reputation and financial well-being? I am hard-pressed to refute this argument.

I do not forgive easily; truth be told, I'm probably more judgmental than is good for me. But I have never avoided or considered avoiding any movie featuring or involving Gibson, Cruise, Allen, or Polanski. I would not have dinner with any of them. I would not shake their hands or enter into a personal relationship with them. I think all of them did things that are questionable at best (Allen, Cruise) and unpardonable at worst (Polanski, Gibson). But when I sit down to watch a movie, those extraneous things go away. It's just me and the images on screen. And my reaction doesn't take into account what happens outside of that. Gibson, Cruise, Polanski, Allen, and others do not get "demerits" on moral grounds. I let their movies speak for themselves.

This position may outrage some, and I acknowledge I did not arrive at it easily. The reality is, however, that the film industry contains its share of degenerates, many of whom have done far worse than these four but whose deeds are not publicly known. When you watch a movie, you know little about the collaborators who have bought it to the screen. They may be adulterers, anti-Semites, racists, rapists, or even murderers. A lot of Hollywood's skeletons remain in locked closets. Someone who decides what to see based on the moral character of those involved in the film's production may not be spending much time in multiplexes.

What I'm saying is that I do not forgive the sins of artists, but I believe it is possible to appreciate the products of their creativity. Many will disagree, and I understand why.

Back to Bill Conlin. Looking back, I can admit I enjoyed reading his columns. The things I learned from them and my sense of engagement in the moment remain. I will not banish them nor would I if I could. But if Conlin was to come out of retirement, I'm not sure I would read another article under his byline. Why not? Because journalism is more personal than filmmaking. It is a one-way direct communication, unfiltered and delivered by a single voice. And I would be unable to focus on the message without remembering the alleged sins of the messenger.

My purpose in writing this is not to justify my position or to condemn the (alleged) transgressions of those I have singled out as examples. It is, instead, to ask a simple question: Should the "real life" activities of those involved in the making of a movie in any way impact the way the movie is viewed? It is, in my view, a deeply personal question but also an important one. It would be better, I think, if we stopped setting up filmmakers and actors as icons and viewed them as human beings - as capable of great good and great evil as any of us. That, perhaps, would make the question easier to answer. Or at least it would make the answer less controversial.