On Art and Aberration: Midnight in Paris and Woody Allen

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I saw Midnight in Paris this weekend. I wish I could sit here and tell you how much I really liked it. The narrative spoke to me, and I loved Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and who wouldn't want Gertrude Stein to read your manuscript. Hell, I want to be Gertrude Stein. I even want to be able to talk to you about the stuff I didn't like. The part where Owen Wilson's character had his epiphany and got a bit preachy. How shrewish (and I hate that word, but it's the only one that works) Rachel McAdams's character was. How intellectuals were characterized as boorish and full of braggadocio. How Wilson romanced two age-appropriate women but ended up with one who was way too young. How a Diane Keaton look-alike shows up in every Woody Allen film.

But I can't tell you that, because Woody Allen made this movie. And I have to sit here and feel conflicted over even thinking about liking this film. I have long, tortured conversations with myself and anyone in earshot (sorry Mum!) about how to weigh the bad against the good, when the bad is so very, very bad. How to address the fact that people are complicated and not, for the most part, just good or just bad though when it comes to child molestation or rape, there is very little worse. I twist myself in circles trying to find ways to explain how I can still watch Woody Allen, albeit with strong internal cringes, while I've outright banned Roman Polanski* from my house because I cannot bring myself to sit through his visions of the world, no matter how beautiful they may be. And don't even get me started on how I feel about Bill Cosby.

Here's the truth.

I am disappointed in Woody Allen. And in Bill Cosby. And Roman Polanski. I am disappointed that they have put me in a position where I can't just write about Midnight in Paris, and about what I liked and didn't like, without having to mention how icky they are in real life. I resent having to draw a parallel between the main character's much younger love interest and Allen's own creepy marriage. And I hate that they put me in a position where I have to consider why so many men in these positions of power — who know so much about how story works, and how beautiful and interesting the world, and people, can be — still do such horrible things to the women and children around them. And I have to worry about who else might be doing it.

Do I have to worry about Scorsese? Or Spielberg? Or Boyle?** Will my world one day crumble slightly more from some awful revelation about one of my absolute favorite directors, in the same way the reports about Cosby's rapes have devastated some of my closest friends?

Certainly, Allen and Cosby and Polanski owe me only a miniscule fraction of what they owe to their victims. But they still owe me, their audience, something.

By putting themselves up there as the definers of our world, as our storytellers, they envision the world both how it is and how it could be. By first ripping through even the most basic standards of human decency, and then making a mockery of the system put in place to protect victims, they repudiate their own stories, graying the vibrancy of their worlds as they could be. Their actions disparage their venerable profession.

And because of this, I can no longer believe their stories or their voices.

Powerful people, and especially powerful men, take advantage of their power. We know that to be true. But why don't other powerful men men like Spielberg or Scorsesemake them stop. Shame them? Cosby and Allen and Polanski mean that we can’t wholeheartedly embrace the art of the rest of our top directors without asking questions about their personal lives. The actions of the few harm all and make all of the film world a little sleazier.

Why do we cover up the crimes instead of fixing the environment that makes it acceptable to commit them? Over and over again, we've seen that when you know something is wrong, covering up is the wrong PR move. But for some reason, that doesn’t seem to apply to Hollywood. Other powerful men don’t get tarnished by the misdeeds of Cosby, even as it becomes clear how long this has been an open secret in the industry. Or, indeed, even as every other woman Cosby has ever worked with has undergone invasive scrutiny by the mainstream press which demands to know what Cosby did to her or worse! demands that she offers up some statement defending him (see Keshia Knight Pulliam or Phylicia Rashad).

But Woody Allen gets his own show on Amazon.

And I won't be able to just write about that either because Allen’s art must be overshadowed by his actions. To be decent human beings, we must acknowledge that his art is created by a deeply flawed person living a life that is (or at least should be) anathema to modern civilization; therefore his messages, as imparted in his stories, must be suspect.***

And so, no, I can’t just write about Midnight in Paris and what I liked about it and what I hated about it.

And that’s a damn shame.

 

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* The thing about Polanski is that his misdeeds could have passed into distant memory, if he hadn’t also made a mockery of the justice system. It’s a fine line (and one I know doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the nature of dealing with this kind of art), but for me, it’s horrible enough that Polanski did something so awful that even the law caught up with him, which we know is not the norm for powerful men, but that he couldn’t even be bothered to serve his sentence — well, that’s just too much for me. This is a case where the legal system (mostly) worked, but he thumbed his nose at the punishment.

** For the record, I am only mentioning these names because they are who first popped into my head and they seem like decent people. I have no reason to believe otherwise, and I hope I never do.

*** I can't believe I have to clarify here, but I can guess the comments I will get if I don't. We must acknowledge that even if, by some minuscule chance, Allen did not molest one daughter, he did marry another. And she was his daughter, at least morally, if not legally. What decent person does that? In what universe is that not creepy?

 

References:

Midnight in Paris. dir. Woody Allen. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2011. Film.