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Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: Sexual Assault and Harassment in Hollywood

Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the recent news reports of sexual assault and harassment in the arts and entertainment worlds.

This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.

Clarence:

Kevin, I’m sure you’ve heard about what’s going on with Hollywood mogul and serial rapist Harvey Weinstein. I've been following this story along with the string of others after it and thinking about what it means for the film industry.

While I never followed the details of the personal lives of Harvey or his brother Bob, for the last few decades I have been a huge fan of the company they founded, Miramax (producer and/or distributor of a string of '90s landmarks like Pulp FictionGood Will HuntingThe Crying Game, and Clerks).

To me, this was a company that proved quality and profitability are not mutually exclusive in mass-market filmmaking. Even after the Weinsteins sold Miramax to Disney in 1993, they represented the idea that an independent operation could not only compete but be successful in movies, an idea that was inspirational to me and many others.

With the architect of this media miracle now hiding overseas, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the “casting couch” mentality that so many people (myself included) dismissed as just a fact of life of Tinsel Town is, literally and definitively, rape culture.

Hollywood is the most high-profile and glamorous example of something that happens in just about every industry. This is a country, after all, where openly bragging about how you force yourself on women is not a barrier to getting elected President (a process now indistinguishable from show business).

This problem happens at a local level too. Just last year Chicago’s theatre world witnessed the closing of Profiles Theatre, one of its oldest and most successful storefronts, after revelations of serial abuse by one of its principles, Darrell Cox. 

The music industry isn’t immune either - the pop singer Kesha being one of the most talked-about recent cases. There’s an ideal of the arts as somehow being more enlightened than other areas of life, but it several ways it’s an ideal environment for powerful people to prey on the powerless.

I have a few ideas about what we can try to do to stop this. But I wanted to ask you something else first. Is it desirable, or even possible, to separate artists from their work?

There are quite a few directors and producers, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen, who remain among the most respected figures in the industry despite the ugliness of their past treatment of women, as are the men who ran the Hollywood studio system during its 1920s-1960s “Golden Age.” In light of the current revelations about the truth of Hollywood culture, what context should this work be presented in?

Kevin:

Well, Clarence, there is a lot to unpack here. 

Ultimately, I think artists should be separated from their work... as should business magnates, world leaders, and pretty much everyone else. The further back in time we go, the more slack we should probably give as far as what we'd consider failings today. Societal morality has never been a fixed entity. 

Also, I'd venture to guess that if everyone's dirty laundry (and worse) was aired in public, we'd find very few figures worthy of modern-day veneration. And who's to say that current icons might not be considered brutish and backwards by the standards of future generations?

Now, that doesn't mean people should keep quiet about their displeasure with the abuses perpetrated by others, particularly by the living. I know a few ladies who have been uncomfortable with supporting Casey Affleck films, and based on the allegations, I'm certainly sympathetic to such a boycott. 

On a personal level? Honestly, I probably don't think about the moral character of celebrities too often. Perhaps I should? I still watch Hitchcock. And interestingly enough, no one is clamoring to remove his catalog from circulation in spite of all the recent stories which have come to light. At the same time -- Bill Cosby is a pariah, right? And I doubt you'd be able to find The Cosby Show on any cable channel today.

Also, I've seen Rosemary's Baby at least half a dozen times, and I can't say I've ever dredged up much outrage against director Roman Polanski during viewings of what I feel is a sensational film. And while I don't care for Woody Allen, that has little to do with his marriage to formerly adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn; I simply can't stand his persona or his brand of humor. Obviously, his fans don't seem to terribly mind -- Allen's directed over two dozen movies since the news of his relationship with Previn surfaced 25 years ago.

Is it simply a matter of time? Or something else? 

NFL quarterback Michael Vick was imprisoned a decade ago for animal cruelty stemming from a dogfighting ring he ran. When he was released and signed by the Philadelphia Eagles, there was certainly an outcry from animal activists. Me? Along with many others, I was happy to cheer the guy as long as he was leading my beloved Eagles to touchdowns. Of course, here you could say that at least he was punished and "paid his debt" to society. It has to be far more galling that various Hollywood Gatekeepers have been getting away with their abuses for decades, with none of their misdeeds seeing the light of day until now. 

Of course, Vick's crimes had nothing to do with football. So perhaps a different line should be drawn with someone like Weinstein, since his acts directly interfered with the careers of others? Would we be talking about him today if he were instead guilty of repeated domestic abuse, as opposed to trading acting roles for sexual favors? 

Some random thoughts here:

* We just saw The Florida Project, which featured about as bad a case of parenting as I can imagine, and from what I've read of real-life grunge icon Courtney Love, her maternal skills weren't much better. That said, I still consider Live Through This and Celebrity Skin to be two of my favorite albums. And yet, I'd also likely have a meltdown if I were forced to spend an hour with her. Are there musicians you would likely personally despise... yet you love their songs?

* I am quite sympathetic to the collective outcry of women in show business, and so we need to ask the question, "how can we solve this problem?" I think one possible way is to try and bypass the studio-financing model entirely? We now see Kickstarter used to finance all sorts of creative projects, including albums from artists who can no longer attract the attention of record companies. 

Why not do the same with film, in the interest of funding projects helmed by women? I'd certainly agree that the world of cinema would benefit greatly with the inclusion of more female directors/screenwriters/producers. One way to do this is to vote with our wallets and pocketbooks on the front ends of projects. 

* I'll throw out two names of legendary artists for you: Richard Wagner and D. W. Griffith. 

-- Wagner lived a century prior to the Third Reich, but his music was championed by Hitler and Nazi Germany, and it's suspected that his views were antisemitic. To date, his operas have  never been performed in Israel, yet The Ring is considered one of the greatest works of the genre. 

-- Griffith is best-known for directing Birth of a Nation, a film from 1915 which pioneered a slew of filmmaking techniques and is considered a landmark work. However, BoaN is also notorious for its racist depiction of blacks (as well as white actors in blackface) and championing of the Ku Klux Klan, who later used the film as a recruiting tool. 

Should Griffith be considered a great filmmaker and BoaN a classic film? Is the opposition to Wagner's work in some circles overblown? 

Clarence:

I agree with you on the larger point; In any walk of life, there is just no correlation between talent and moral character. I think of someone like R&B singer R. Kelly who, if it weren't for the fact that he’s the scumbag he is, would be one of the biggest pop stars in America right now, if not the world. He is definitely someone I would be more of a fan of if I didn’t know about his personal life.

Wagner and Griffith are great examples of how compromise comes with the territory when it comes to great works of art. For those two, time was an advantage. With instantaneous global communication, ignorance of these issues is becoming less and less of an option for the general public, especially for people like us who have a strong interest in film. While I don’t think we should demand background checks on every high-profile movie/TV/music personality, once information does emerge, it’s probably worth reflecting on whether that person should be supported with attention and money.

When it comes to eliminating the rampant sexual abuse of people in Hollywood, here are some things we should NOT do:

*Ignore it and hope it goes away (like the National Football League does with every problem it has)

*Wait for all potential perpetrators to "get woke" and realize that these kinds of things are wrong. Twitter and Facebook campaigns are a great way to help spread the word, but actions on behalf of victims are not the same as actions against criminals.

*Rely on peer pressure or “society” to fix it. Weinstein couldn’t have done what he did without the tacit approval of friends and colleagues who looked the other way.

Here are some things I think we should do:

*Treat crimes like crimes. The only language people like Weinstein understand is money and power. Genuine punishment (i.e. prison) needs to be a part of the consequences, not just “rehab” or fading from the spotlight. This of course has to happen in an environment that respects due process, but also with an attitude that doesn't tolerate vile behavior.

*Give victims a place to go for help NOW, not years from now. This is where unions like the Screen Actors Guild need to step up. Wouldn’t it be great if they would, for example. use some of their members’ dues money to provide legal assistance, counseling, or even just information to struggling actors who needed help?

*Remove the barriers preventing women from taking more power and autonomy in the industry. Hollywood has to have more women in positions of power – Director, Producer, Executive Producer, Studio Head – with the authority to fire people who commit these crimes.

I’m sure there are probably several important practical details I’m missing here. But I feel the worst thing that can be done is nothing.

You make a very good point about the financing aspect of movies. Most other industrialized countries have national film boards that provide financing. I would love to see something like that in the U.S. rather than another additional billion going to “defense” contractors.

Kevin, do you think these are problems that can be solved in years, decades, or longer?

Kevin:

I think that, in spirit, I agree with much of what you advocate. Things get a bit trickier when the rubber meets the road, though. How do we rid the industry of folks like Weinstein, who seem to be absolute sleazeballs, while ensuring that the accused aren't convicted in the court of public opinion before all the facts are checked? This came to mind while I was reading the story you'd linked to about Kesha and her accusations against producer Dr. Luke. Many of the allegations she claimed seemed rather... flimsy? Especially in the light of a deposition she'd previously given (and later recanted, calling into question her reliability). There was also a great deal of money at stake via Kesha's attempt to void her recording contract; this further muddies the waters. 

[I couldn't help but think of a number of false accusations/threats in cinema, such as Lester Burnham's (Kevin Spacey, also facing career suicide now) threat while quitting his job in American Beauty.

On the other hand, while we were having this e-conversation, the Louis CK scandal broke. And with at least five women involved, I doubt anyone would've believed Louie even if he'd denied it... which he didn't. At a certain point, the validity of the accusations rises past "he said/she said" to "strong suspicion of guilt." My sympathies go out to not only the victims, but also Louie's family. He has two daughters, who now are around middle-school age or so? And who have to live under this cloud of shame through no fault of their own. 

Is there a comparable societal issue that we can look to as a reference? I'm not sure. The uniqueness of Hollywood is that the rewards are so vast and the opportunities so few. If I feel mistreated at Tech Firm ABC, I could seek out lots of competitors. But there ain't too many places where one can become movie stars. 

How do we solve this mess? For film studios, there are at least some possible solutions here. All casting calls recorded for quality assurance? No interaction outside of studio property or sets? Corporations have more incentive to squash this, because the ramifications are very bad for business. Case in point, The Weinstein Company quickly moved to fire Harvey after his crimes emerged. Louis CK, however, isn't a man who's beholden to a company. Clearly, he is (or was) a very powerful man in that industry, with no one to police him. 

As far as financing -- I hadn't really been thinking about siphoning off tax money from Uncle Sam. I agree that we probably don't need quite so many billions spent on national defense (especially in this day and age), but something never sat that well with me about the government sponsoring artistic expression? I also would hope that we wouldn't stipulate that X amount of dollars had to be spent on films promoting specific messages/themes. Let that happen organically. 

Ultimately, it will be quite interesting to see how the public proceeds regarding their support of future cinema projects. I've informally polled a number of friends, both female and male, and the only thing that was clear is that everyone is rather unclear as to what sort of impact these scandals will have on their own moviegoing habits. There are hundreds of people involved in the production of a film -- is it right to boycott* a film because one actor was a harasser? But they don't want to be tacitly supporting this behavior either. Like I said: complicated. 

[*One way to head off a possible boycott: re-shoot scenes with the offending actor! Exit Kevin Spacey, enter Christopher Plummer.]

 

 

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