Garden-variety filmgoers are free to boycott work made by artists whose personal histories they deem unsavory or objectionable. They might have skipped “Blue Jasmine” or “The Ghost Writer” because they were deeply unsettled by reports of Allen’s alleged behavior, or outraged by Polanski’s conviction of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor in 1977, and his subsequent flight to Europe to avoid what he considered a rigged sentence. Similarly, some audiences may never forgive Gibson for his sexist, anti-Semitic outbursts over the years. As a professional movie-watcher, however, the critic doesn’t have that luxury.
“Separate the art from the artist” may be the closest secular analog we have to “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” And both phrases invite understandable skepticism. How can we possibly tease apart individuals and their actions, and doesn’t doing so mean that we’re failing our own moral imperative to hold people to account? Those questions have only gained in number and urgency as the writers, actors, singers, directors and playwrights we love have taken to Facebook, Twitter, Fox News and Bill Maher to share views that we find abhorrent — and only now know they held in the first place. Judging art on its merits has become increasingly difficult at a time when artists’ demerits seem to multiply by the day.
Having worked as a critic for 20 years, I’ve had plenty of practice in the mental yoga necessary to applaud a work of art while looking askance at what might generously be called the creator’s shadow material. I can despise the racism and bad faith that courses through D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” while being astonished by Griffith’s early use of shooting and editing techniques that formed the fundamentals of cinematic grammar. Ideologically, I may occupy a space precisely 180 degrees from the filmmaker John Milius, but I can still consider “Apocalypse Now,” which he wrote, an unqualified masterpiece. I can say without fear of remorse that the British director Mike Leigh was the most condescending, unpleasant human being I have ever interviewed — and I still and most likely always will cherish every film he’s ever made.
I can (and did) support the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowing an honorary Oscar on Elia Kazan in 1999; even though I harbor deep misgivings about his cooperation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s, I can still treasure Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Baby Doll” and “A Face In the Crowd.”
Indeed, I can appreciate Kazan’s definitive film, the 1954 drama “On the Waterfront,” on multiple levels — not just as a magnificent example of sensitive, naturalistic filmmaking, but as Kazan’s own allegorical response to the critics who excoriated him for naming names at the height of the Red Scare. The film only gains in fascination and poignancy within the deeply personal context of Kazan’s political history.
I first saw Allen’s “Manhattan” — with its subplot involving a romance between Allen’s character and a teenage girl, played by Mariel Hemingway — in 1979, long before I heard through the pop-culture grapevine of his fascination with young women. When he embarked on a relationship with Soon-Yi Previn — the daughter of his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow — I understood the public’s perception of the liaison as a profound boundary violation, both in terms of age difference (Allen was 56, Soon-Yi was 19) and family dynamics. In the intervening years, Allen’s personal story has re-shaped and informed the way I see “Manhattan,” but in no way diminishes its artistry — just as revelations of J.D. Salinger’s affection for teenage girls now add layers of unease and ambivalence to his fiction, without negating its pathos and lambent beauty. When I really want to deepen my mental yoga practice, I just watch “Rosemary’s Baby,” made when 21-year-old Mia Farrow was married to 51-year-old Frank Sinatra — and directed by none other than Roman Polanski himself.
Gets kind of gnarly, doesn’t it? Except that, really, it isn’t. Because the minute “Rosemary’s Baby” begins, the film exerts an irresistible psychic and emotional pull, creating a vivid, fully realized world all its own — not the one roiled by real-life dramas, grave moral lapses and unresolved questions. It’s been said that the sign of a sophisticated mind is its ability to hold two competing thoughts simultaneously. Once the house lights go down, it’s the critic’s job to encounter the work up on screen and ask three simple questions: What is the artist trying to achieve, does the artist achieve it, and is it worth achieving? More often than not, off-screen crimes and misdemeanors don’t play into that equation. The trick is recognizing when they do, and to what degree. Then, let the delicate balance begin. N