Can You Hate the Artist and Still Love the Art?

Take the Money and Run

The residents of the film world and beyond are currently shouting at one another in an indignant tone as lines are drawn and actors, pundits, and the general public decide to side either with Woody Allen or his estranged daughter Dylan Farrow over allegations that the former sexually assaulted the latter when she was seven. For a sampling of both sides of the argument I invite you to read Farrow’s open letter and Robert Weide’s defence of Allen. The situation has reached fever pitch and online discussions have reached the point where not having an opinion is seen as just as harmful as taking the wrong side.

I am not going to even attempt to touch on choosing a side in this matter. What I am going to talk about will probably seem trivial in the circumstances but after all this is an arts blog and not a place to debate who is or isn’t guilty of a crime. I hope that discussing this does not come across as ignoring the real issue at stake or seem offensive to anyone. The whole situation is a distressing one and certainly doesn’t need me weighing in and wielding an uninformed opinion. What I want to focus on is the very first sentence of Dylan Farrow’s open letter:

What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?

Farrow poses the question at the start and end of her letter in the hope that we will reconsider whether you can indeed have a favourite film if the director is indeed a sex offender. Frankly… I don’t know. What you are reading is not an opinion piece about separating a person from their work nor a passionate essay about the intrinsic link between and artist and their output. Instead I am genuinely asking what has been running through my head the past few days; can you hate an artist and still love their art?

If you read any number of comment threads tearing the reputation of Woody Allen apart then the answer is a simple “no”. For those who believe that Woody Allen sexually assaulted his infant daughter the very concept of a favourite Allen film is invalid and his entire body of work is never to be seen again. In reality Hollywood in particular has a long history of sidestepping an individual’s indecencies when their artistic merit is seen as substantially worthwhile.

Roman Polanski was a well-respected director in the 1960s and 70s and received Oscar nominations for the Mia Farrow starring Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and Chinatown in 1974. In February 1978 Polanski was to be found fleeing America having plead guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Surely his career was over at this point? A scandal of this magnitude and moral repulsiveness is not the sort of thing someone can come back from.

Three years later and Roman Polanski was nominated for his third Oscar for Best Director and since fleeing the US he has made a total of twelve films, won an Oscar, and worked with top draw actors such as Kate Winslet as little as three years ago. While Polanski is unable to ever work in Hollywood or risk inevitable arrest he continues his career as an acclaimed director. For the most part the world seems to be able to separate the man from his work and celebrate his undeniable skill as a director far apart from any acts committed in his past.

Roman Polanski is not alone in this category of artists who are vilified and celebrated in the same breath. Alfred Hitchcock is one of cinema’s most applauded auteurs but only last year we were treated to two dramas about the directing giant. The first was the TV movie The Girl in which Hitchcock was portrayed as a predatory, vindictive, and downright abusive figure who we were encouraged to revile as much as we used to revere him. Mere months later, in the more light-hearted and fluffy cinematic release Hitchcock, Alfred is shown as a more loveable figure; one whose perversions are little more than some jolly voyeurism and nothing to get too upset about. Alfred Hitchcock films remain amongst the greatest films ever made. If he truly were a monster would this change a thing?

The Oscars are Hollywood’s biggest platform for celebrating the achievements of the English-speaking film community and it is at this ceremony that Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine could potentially win three awards next month. But if you cast your gaze further down the list of nominees you will notice that he is not the only celebrated artist with allegations sitting against their name. We have the actor questioned by police after allegedly assaulting his mother and sister, a director who was accused of groping his teenage transgender niece, and a second actor constantly surrounded by rumours of domestic assault. It doesn’t seem to matter what you are accused of, when the films you make are good enough then all is forgiven.

I myself am no different. When debating recently the various merits of Blue is the Warmest Colour the topic of the alleged mistreatment of actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux at the hands of the tyrannical director Abdellatif Kechiche arose and I found myself saying that no matter how cruelly the cast and crew were treated it didn’t take away from how beautiful the resulting film was. But was I right to say that?

Much as I want to separate the alleged actions of a film-maker from the films he makes, should I be doing this? When an artist makes a work of art in any medium they are putting a piece of themselves in it. The art is inherently linked to the artist so can you really praise one and prosecute the other? I have a confession to make: I have a great love for the films of Woody Allen but in light of the ongoing allegations I don’t know if that is OK any more.

I need answers, can you hate the artist and still love the art?

What’s New Pussycat?
Woody Allen Retrospective #1

What's New Pussycat?

It is over a year since I first announced my intentions to watch every film Woody Allen has ever made. The reason for my delay is easy to explain and there is only one thing to blame. Not so coincidentally what caused the delay just happens to be Woody Allen’s very first film What’s New Pussycat?

When I first watched Pussycat this time last year I was so demotivated that I couldn’t bring myself to even begin trying to review it. Last week I felt the need to get this project off the ground again and popped the DVD back into my TV in an attempt to give the film a second chance. At first the film seemed to be better than my recollection; the lines were witty and I couldn’t see too much of the over-the-top slapstick I had remembered.

Peter Sellers and Peter O'Toole - Whats New Pussycat

The film stars Peter O’Toole as a notorious womaniser, Peter Sellers as a mad psychotherapist, and Woody Allen as… a character I can’t quite define through memory alone; it’s that kind of film. After a series of debauched comedic scenes the film reaches a climax as all the characters come together in a French hotel famous for housing dirty weekends, a farcical chase ensues, and the film ends with a go-kart race. As the film wore on and the witty dialogue was replaced with tedious scenes and then a try-hard farce.

The cast may well be stellar and Allen himself was on top form but the film simply does not properly reflect Allen’s humour and you can’t help but think that this was not the film he wrote and can easily understand why he would never let anyone else direct his screenplays again.

It’s not just me being fussy, the history of Pussycat is riddled with creative disputes. Despite being named after the way Warren Beatty answered the phone he was kicked off the film after complaining too much to producer Charles K. Feldman. Feldman had hired Woody Allen to rewrite the script and was more concerned with getting his girlfriend apart than ensuring that Beatty’s role remained intact. Allen himself was not happy with the film, even refusing Pussycat to see it after its release in New York. Allen has said that, “I had written what I felt was a very off-beat, uncommercial film. And the producers I turned it over to were the quintessential Hollywood machine.”

Woody Allen - What's New Pussycat

Warren Beatty himself has said that, “I’ve often thought that one experience made Woody a producer, and me a producer, because never again did we want to lose control over something that we’d created.” While Allen only has a producing credit on one film, he certainly insisted on taking over the directing reins for all future projects.

Is What’s New Pussycat? really that bad? Sadly I think that it is. It wastes the comedy talents of both Allen and Sellers, the latter suffering from an awful choice of wig, and O’Toole doesn’t do himself any favours either. I can’t even give a more detailed synopsis or critique in with greater specificity the film disagreed with me so much. Without Allen at the helm to give his words their due we are left with a mess. Some lines of superb dialogue do sneak through the cracks but I’ve found them much more amusing in researching this piece than I did when watching the film.

I suppose if one good thing came from this cinematic debacle it’s that we got an original song sung by Tom Jones. (Whoa, whoa!) But that hardly makes up for a 98 minute film that feels like three hours.

Foiled by a cheap cinematic trick!

Oscars 2012: One Big Yawn of Agreement

The Oscars are clearly, and arbitrarily, the most important of all the award ceremonies yet coming as they do after a dozen of similar awards are given out to the same winners, by the time the Oscars finally arrive we are suffering from award season fatigue. This is where the desire for surprising winners comes in, despite The Artist, Meryl Streep, Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer all being worthy winners writing about them winning the awards they were tipped to win isn’t all that exciting.

But is that the point? The Artist really was the best film of the past year and deserves to win all the awards it won, the list of winners is not surprising but for the first time in years it is hard to disagree with any of the choices. Let’s not gripe about predictability and just be happy that worthy winners won awards and that Eddie Murphy wasn’t the host.

I am happy that The Artist won five Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Costume Design and Best Score) leaving Hugo to pick up all the technical awards. I am happy that A Separation won Best Foreign Language Film for being an amazing drama and that Rango won Best Animated Film despite being semi-grown-up. I’m happy that Woody Allen won an Oscar for the screenplay for Midnight in Paris and showed that he remains a relevant film-maker. I’m happy that Jim Rash co-won an award for co-writing The Descendants leaving amazing-but-almost-cancelled-sitcom Community with an Oscar winner amongst its cast. I’m happy that The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore won Best Animated Short Film because, as we all know, it is damned adorable.

What I am most happy about is Bret McKenzie won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Man or Muppet”. There has never been a more obvious (there was only one other nominee for a start) yet deserving win.

So there you have it, the 2012 Oscar awards have made me happy but weren’t very exciting. It was the award ceremony equivalent of eating a trifle (for me at least).

A Few Obligatory Thoughts on the 2012 Oscar Nominations

In case you haven’t been lucky enough to have me mumble at you about the 2012 Oscar nominations in person, I thought I’d share with you some of my gut reactions to this year’s list of films of actor types that may win a fancy gold statue. For the full list of nominees have a look on IMDb, it’ll save me a lot of copying, pasting, and messing around with italics.

Extremely Lame & Poorly Reviewed
Somewhere amongst the nine nominees for Best Motion Picture of the Year is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the family drama about a young boy searching for the lock to match a key left to him by his father, a victim of 9/11. What makes this film stand out, beyond its terrifying poster, is that it is the worst reviewed film to get nominated for this award for the past 10 years. At the time of writing this potential Oscar winner has just 47% positive reviews over at Rotten Tomatoes with a pretty damning consensus; “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has a story worth telling, but it deserves better than the treacly and pretentious treatment director Stephen Daldry gives it.”

Albert Who?
Noticing that a film called Albert Nobbs had gathered three nominations I decided to look into it. Turns out that Albert Nobbs is a woman in 19th century Ireland pretending to be a man in order to survive, and is played by Glenn Close. Curious to see what Glenn Close would look like as a man I bravely Googled on.

Thanks Glenn, I didn’t need to sleep tonight anyway.

Gary!
With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sadly missing out on a Best Picture nod it’s great to see Gary Oldman getting his first ever Best Actor nomination, and not for his role in Kung Fu Panda 2. In Tinker Oldman ably held together a weighty bit of British cinema and showed hipsters that some people actually wear oversized glasses for medical reasons. What a guy.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Mediocre Biopic
With Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams both getting nominated for Best Actress, it seems that it really doesn’t matter how lukewarm the reaction is to your film so long as you give a scarily accurate portrayal of an icon. In a way it’s reassuring to know that no matter how mediocre the film you’re in, there’s still a chance to act your way above the rest of the film.

Plummer!
It’s exciting enough that the little seen film Beginners might get some free press thanks to Christopher Plummer’s nomination, but the fact that Captain Von Trapp has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor twice out of the last three years is almost too much too handle. Excuse the hyperbole, I’m tired.

Woody’s Back
Woody Allen has another hit on his hands as Midnight in Paris garnered four nominations, and three of them are the kind that people actually care about. Shame I have 45 Woody Allen films to get through before I’m allowed to watch this one.

How Could They Leave Out ________?
For every nomination which warms the cockles of your heart there will be dozens of omissions which are completely outrageous and terribly short-sighted of the academy, only in your humble opinion of course. For me there’s not enough love for Drive and Olivia Colman has been robbed, robbed blind I say! I’m sure you have your own opinions, but how can they be as important as mine?

A Few Surprising Screenplays
The fact that fantastic Iranian film A Separation and delightful silent film The Artist are both nominated for Best Original Screenplay, a category normally filled with English scripts filled with dialogue, shows a fun bit of diverse nominating from the academy. It brings to mind the fact that the only time Buffy was nominated for a Golden Globe for writing was for the almost silent episode Hush. For anyone not sure why I’m rambling about Buffy, why not have a look at what the script for The Artist looks like, you can download it here.

The Difference Between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing is…
The same as the difference between Drive and Moneyball, apparently. These two categories, for Sound Mixing/Editing, have always baffled me and no more so than this year where they share a fourfilmnomineecrossover.

Is the Animated Feature Oscar Just for Kids?
I had a theory that Best Animated Feature only goes to the most accessible end of the animated film genre. With a few “proper” animated films on the shortlist, Chico & Rita and A Cat in Paris among them, I look forward to being proven wrong. The absence of Cars 2 from the list gives me hope.

If nothing else, at least we’ll get to see this fella again (I hope):

Woody Allen – Body of Work

Woody Allen is one of my favourite writers, directors and actors, and yet I have only seen a handful of his films. With every new film he releases Woody Allen is declared to have either returned to form or lost the plot, and yet with a list of almost countless films he has either written, directed, or starred in I can’t be sure when Allen truly peaked as an auteur, what his best work is, or whether he’s ever made a film worse than Match Point/Scoop.

To combat this confusion and dire lack of Woody Allen experience I am going to blog my way through every single film for which Woody Allen has either written, directed, or acted in chronological order. As over fifty films already sit on this list, and Allen shows no signs of stopping any time soon, this is going to be a long-term endeavour and will most likely take years to complete. With any luck this project will give me an insight into one of cinema’s icons and give me a new specialist category in Mastermind should the need ever arise.

My journey will start with 1965’s What’s New Pussycat, Woody Allen’s first screenplay, and ends with whenever he steps out from behind the camera for the last time.

The full list of films, with links to reviews when completed, can be found below: Continue reading