The credible evidence presented in HBO’s new four-part documentary about Michael Jackson, Leaving Neverland, wasn’t my final straw. Rather, Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck’s accounts of the years of molestation and rape they survived at Jackson’s home was the nail in an already-shut coffin. As much as I once loved “Billie Jean,” the testimonies only confirmed that I can no longer listen to Jackson’s music as if it exists in a vacuum.
Yet I can’t universally declare boycotts when allegations arise. When it comes to movies, I am not so ready to throw out the disc.
A boycott can feel like the only course of action when a musician or a director, or a comedian, or an actor … is credibly accused of something terrible. There is the financial consideration: Who wants their money going to a person, or the estate of a person, who’s hurt other people? But a personal boycott is as much driven by one’s conscience. In the case of Jackson, I’ve found it impossible to separate “the art” from “the artist,” and the suffering the latter, in all likelihood, inflicted.
But I haven’t felt similarly about films directed by two other celebrities accused of abuse: Woody Allen and Roman Polanski.
That’s not say the allegations against them aren’t horrifying or credible. They are both. To refresh your memory: Allen’s daughter, Dylan Farrow, claims her father sexually assaulted her in 1992, when she was 7. Polanski was charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977, when he was 43; he fled overseas while awaiting sentencing and has continued to live and work abroad in order to avoid extradition back to the United States.
But to take Allen and Polanski as representative examples, it is much harder to justify boycotting films in response to directors’ alleged sexual misconduct than it is a solo singer like Jackson. The accentuation of a director as the single “author” of a film is known as auteur theory, and has persisted as the primary mode of interpreting and analyzing movies since the 1960s. But auteur theory has plenty of problems, not the least of which is that it subscribes to the notion of a “lone genius,” emphasizing the overriding importance of the director — who, historically, is often a man — over the work of the others involved in the creation of a picture.
Allen, as one example, is a particularly heavy-handed director, often writing and acting in his films. His subject matter is also difficult to grapple with as a moviegoer; as The New Yorker’s Richard Brody notes in his own attempt, “There has always been something sexually sordid in Allen’s work,” which makes watching his films while knowing the allegations deeply uncomfortable. But even Allen’s most hands-on and autobiographical films are collaborations, and the final product is consequently the work, also, of the actors, actresses, and technical teams behind them.
To summarily dismiss “Woody Allen films” because Allen himself is accused of despicable behavior is to also inadvertently write off the symphonic city shots of Gordon Willis in Manhattan, the zany costumes designed by Ruth Morley for Annie Hall, or the underrated Ingrid Bergman-esque performance by Geraldine Page in Interiors. Perhaps you believe that one bad apple spoils the barrel; I would strongly caution that this dismissal often brushes off the contributions particularly of women, whose incredible work is all too frequently in non-directorial positions. To never watch Polanski’s Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby is to erase, likewise, some of the best work of costume designer Anthea Sylbert, or performances by Faye Dunaway and Mia Farrow.
Music, though, is neater than the messy collaborative efforts of filmmaking. Although creating an album is indisputably also a group effort — think of Quincy Jones’ work producing Thriller — music is generally a much more individual effort than filmmaking, and especially so in the case of a solo artist like Jackson. While I regret not being able to appreciate Jones’ work on Thriller by cutting it out of my life, I am lying to myself if I claim it is not Jackson’s voice that I am actually enjoying when I listen to the album. Filmmaking, by its very nature, is much more ambiguous.
Artists who continue to choose to collaborate with known or accused abusers are their own can of worms. This was part of my reservation with Bohemian Rhapsody, due to the fact that its initial director, Bryan Singer, had long faced allegations of sexual misconduct the film’s star, Rami Malek, has repeatedly insisted he was not aware of the allegations before he signed on. Many actors and actresses have sworn off working with Woody Allen, or expressed regret over their decisions to do so in the past. This is not insignificant; due to the failings of the American justice system when it comes to issues of sexual misconduct, a key part of holding abusers accountable is for their communities to hold them accountable, too. It is a forward-oriented action, intended to keep known abusers from continuing to work in the industry, rather than pretending work that already exists isn’t worthy, in any respect, of our attention.
It is the audience’s job, meanwhile, to be responsible fans. Sadly, too often our fandom would have us turn a blind eye to allegations against creators we love. By that token, watching Woody Allen or Roman Polanski films in willful denial of the allegations against the directors is impossible to justify. Let’s just ensure that in reacting to them, we don’t turn away from the people who deserve our recognition, too.
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