The first Hollywood scandal occurred in 1921 at a party at a San Francisco hotel. It involved Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, the silent screen star exulted as the first actor to sign a million-dollar contract (and that was a million dollars of 1920s currency). Arbuckle was a comic genius and an accomplished physical performer who was light on his feet despite his size. He had appeared in hundreds of films, both shorts and features. He was a huge star in every way.
But no one remembers Arbuckle today. People remember those he mentored, such as Charlie Chaplin, as icons of cinema but Fatty Arbuckle – or possibly, more importantly, his films – rarely rate a mention. Why?
At that San Francisco Hotel in 1921, a young actor named Virginia Rappe was discovered unconscious. She had been raped and would die from her injuries. The finger of the law pointed at Arbuckle and three trials followed that indelibly savaged his reputation and his professional legacy.
Can you name a Fatty Arbuckle film? It’s more than likely anyone would be hard-pressed to pinpoint even one.
Fast-forward almost a century later, and the Hollywood scandals keep coming. In particular, 2017 was a milestone year; so apocalyptic everyone knows the events that saw Hollywood heavyweights topple. Suffice to say, this has been a revolutionary time that has enabled, predominantly, women – those ritualistically subjected to sexual abuse in their professional and personal lives – to find a voice and scream ‘enough is enough!’
This is a very good thing. This is what Hollywood – and all industry, generally – has needed. However, as with every change, whether good or otherwise, there comes a cultural shift, and any shift necessitates a refocus of how we view, consume or consider the output of the guilty parties now that we are seeing them in a new light.
With cinema, does this mean we just keep watching the films of criminals? Is it OK to do so? Or would watching those films be akin to condoning the crime itself?
In the case of Fatty Arbuckle, his films were largely buried. His memory was almost entirely erased from history, except for stories of the scandal itself. As a superstar – and one of the first to be granted such a status – those who loved him and emotionally invested in his fame saw Arbuckle’s role in the scandal as a betrayal. He made them feel good yet he was bad. How could this happen?
Something similar occurred in recent years with the accusations of rape against Bill Cosby; an actor who functioned as everyone’s TV ‘dad’ but, more importantly, served as a positive role model for a new generation of African-American men. These accusations exposed him as a fraud and, systematically, cast dispersions on the messages communicated through his work.
But just because a physician cannot heal him/herself, does this mean the advice and medicine he/she dispenses is not valuable? Is it still possible to get something good from those who have done bad?
Two of the greatest filmmakers of recent decades are Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Two of the greatest scandals of recent decades involve Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Emerging more than 40 years after Arbuckle, along with increased media and viewing accessibility, Allen and Polanski’s filmographies have been far harder to expunge, if not just as easily besmirched.
In The Paris Review article, ‘What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?’, Claire Dederer tackles her own personal conundrum of approaching the films of, specifically, Allen and Polanski – two filmmakers who have been publicly exposed as sexual predators or ‘monsters’, although it is important to point out that Allen has never been tried for his alleged crimes. Dederer says, “They did or said something awful, and made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work.”
Across the course of her piece, Dederer grapples with the acute disappointment she feels at being robbed of the pure experience of watching the movies of these filmmakers. Now another agenda has been added to the picture, and having the viewing experience spoilt can be as much of a crime for the viewer as the wrongdoings of the filmmakers themselves.
Dederer pinpoints Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) and how the film’s comic genius comes from its acknowledgement of “the irrepressible nihilism that lurks at the center of all comedy.” She says, “To watch Annie Hall is to feel, just for a moment, that one belongs to humanity.” And then she adds, “I don’t get to go around feeling connected to humanity all the time. It’s a rare pleasure. And I’m supposed to give it up just because Woody Allen misbehaved? It hardly seems fair.”
In clocking her own disdain, Claire Dederer acknowledges that monstrous personalities are capable of brilliance and, possibly more distasteful to us as humans, these monsters still have the capability to teach us something. There is a misconception that a criminal is just a criminal and, as such, they have nothing else to offer. But could we be cutting off our noses to spite our faces if we are to deny ourselves the Annie Hall’s and Rosemary’s Baby’s of this world? Are we, therefore, in effect punishing ourselves as viewers?
To be clear, to consume the artwork of morally dubious people – or the artworks to which the names of these people are attributed – should not, in any way, justify their wrongdoings or suggest that any recriminations or retribution for their actions not be served. If a filmmaker is incarcerated for their crime and, due to such a punishment, will never to make a film again, then so be it. But the art itself is not guilty and, if a viewer is able to gain insight and enlightenment from this art, neither are they guilty. It’s just a matter of reconciling one’s own mind to that fact.
Similarly, filmmakers are often criticised for depictions of morally questionable behaviour – whether featured implicitly or explicitly – in their films, as if by presenting bad behaviour or imagery they are somehow condoning it. What many of these critics fail to acknowledge is cinema functions at its best when holding a mirror to society and forcing us to evaluate ourselves in its reflection. The reflection might be ugly but we need to see this ugliness in order to address it.
Even actor Molly Ringwald fails to consider such creative licence in filmmaking when she retroactively addresses the films she made with John Hughes in an opinion piece for The New Yorker. She notes her difficulty understanding “how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot” in his subject matter. It could be argued that Hughes showed no blind spot at all but instead revealed insight into the things that just happen, especially regarding the unbridled and often ambiguous behaviour of young men.
In the documentary, A Loving Friend (2009), Kerry Negara looks at Australian artist Donald Friend, who lived in Bali, Indonesia, from 1967 to 1980. He was an artist of worldwide repute and undeniable talent. He was also a paedophile.
Using the diaries that Friend himself requested to be published posthumously, Negara details the systematic exploitation he inflicted on Balinese boys – his abuse of his cultural privilege and betrayal of trust – that he then openly documents in his diaries. More alarmingly, Negara interviews Australian academics and art intelligentsia who either deny Friend was a paedophile, despite Friend’s own words contradicting such denials, or offer excuses for his behaviour.
“There is no word for the opposite of a pederast where the young boy seduces the old man. There should be,” says one arts author and consultant in defence of Friend’s ‘relationships’ with the local Balinese.
Effectively, it could be deduced that apologists for Donald Friend dispute claims of his misconduct because of an inability to reconcile their veneration of ‘Friend as an artist’ or “Friend as a friend’ with the reality of ‘Friend as a predator’. In order to legitimate their passion for his art, they choose denial, a very familiar coping mechanism that we have employed as people since the beginning of humankind. But while it works for some, it doesn’t work for others.
French theorist Roland Barthes offers another means for negotiating this roadblock (and without resorting to denial), in his 1967 essay, The Death of the Author. Barthes argues that assigning a single author to a text – and interpreting that work based on the personality, ethnicity, religion, history, psychology and innumerable biographical elements of the author – is to impose a limit on that text.
As Barthes states, “All writing is itself a special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes it.”
While Barthes is pointedly referring to literature, his argument has been equally applied to all forms of art over the decades, with cinema being highly pertinent, especially given it is a collective artform reliant on the contribution and interpretation of many, not just the one author.
His argument helps with the digestion of films that could be seen as borne from monstrous personalities. For example, two of Roman Polanski’s masterpieces, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), were even drawn from source material written by someone else (Ira Levin penned the book Rosemary’s Baby and Robert Towne wrote the original screenplay for Chinatown). Regardless, however, using Barthes’ argument, we should be considering the work outside the barriers of a singular author, and these films, therefore, represent something far greater than just one of their many individual parts.
On an elemental level, we could also see it like this: If we stop watching the films of a filmmaker because of our own obstinacy for seeing these films through an auteur lens, then we are not just punishing the filmmaker but the thousands of other people who work on these films – from the production assistants, technicians, caterers, drivers and other support staff to the actors, producers, composers, camera people and so on. This collectiveness of filmmaking alone necessitates its consumption on a very different level.
The fundamental problem is, as people, we love to worship celebrity. Barthes’ essay was written half a century ago yet we have failed to divorce ourselves from veneration of celebrity or personality, and we continue with our propensity to cling to an individual or author – often outside our immediate sphere of influence – as someone/thing to admire or emulate.
With proliferation of information through social media, such obsession with celebrity – or, at the very least, the aspirational aspects that celebrity affords us – has only worsened. We live in a time where Kylie Jenner can criticise Snapchat in a tweet and instantly wipe US $1.3 billion off the company’s stock market value. When these celebrities fail, we feel that we – and our aspirations – have failed along with them.
Additionally, there is ferocity to rhetoric on social media that means the nuance of arguments is lost. People speak frankly and passionately but often under anonymity and, even more frequently, without properly researching their arguments. A strongly worded or controversial point-of-view can quickly do the international rounds of social media and transmogrify into fact, rather than opinion.
Author Margaret Atwood was vilified on social media when she criticised the #MeToo movement for convicting individuals as guilty before innocent; specifically, in Atwood’s instance, relating to the accusations against fellow author and professor at the University of British Columbia, Steven Galloway. But Atwood is right. There definitely will be – and there already has been – collateral damage as a result of unsubstantiated finger-pointing; those who will be proclaimed guilty through “vigilante justice” (as Atwood calls it) and who will have their lives and careers ruined because of it.
Fatty Arbuckle was finally acquitted of manslaughter in his third trial in 1922. But his star had fallen; so much so, he was forced to work under a pseudonym across the next decade. He continued to do great things for his industry, including the discovery of Bob Hope, yet he died of a heart attack when things started looking up, having just signed a new feature film deal with Warner Bros.
Arbuckle was that collateral damage, and this was at a time well before the viral spreading of news and gossip via social media. But we, as the audience, are also collateral damage, having been denied the fruits of Fatty Arbuckle’s career.
Taking a leaf from Rolande Barthes’ book may be one way of consuming cinema in this new climate but not everyone will be capable of taking such a philosophical stance. Whether a critic, academic or casual movie-watcher, people will bring their own circumstances and ethics to the table. Some will be able to distance themselves from experience and/or opinion, while others will find themselves lost in the delinquencies of the auteur, unable to rise above them. This is their choice – whether an actual choice or a burden – and this is their fundamental right.
Correspondingly, those who choose to watch films that someone else may find abhorrent are also exercising their right. That they can look beyond the personality of the auteur, or consume the film in an entirely different fashion, is not a trait to be lambasted or unfairly judged based on someone else’s experiences. Both parties need to understand their choices are not a rebuff to each either. Both parties need to respect each other’s decisions.
At a time when the ethics behind cinema viewing are only getting murkier, we should endeavour to extend some kindness and steer away from polarising each other because of the crimes of others.
1) In 2011, Leap Year – a never-before-released Fatty Arbuckle feature film, resurfaced and screened at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, San Francisco: https://blog.sfgate.com/tgladysz/2011/08/24/banned-film-resurfaces-90-years-after-san-francisco-scandal/