On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with A.O.
Scott, a film critic at the New York Times and the author of Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss the year in culture, how to think about movies in the post–Harvey Weinstein age, and wrestling with Woody Allen’s sins.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: I was looking over your top 10 list of movies, and I don’t see any huge things to give you shit about, so we can talk about something more serious.
A.O. Scott: You’re different from all of my Twitter followers, who are very upset with me about one thing and another. But that’s OK.
What’s been the biggest thing that you’ve gotten in trouble for?
Well, there’s a very passionate contingent in favor of Dunkirk, who think that Dunkirk was the great work of cinema of 2017, and I didn’t even say anything bad about Dunkirk, although I don’t particularly like it, but I just neglected, as they put it, to put it on my list, and someone on Twitter said that really undermined my credibility as a critic.
That’s an interesting argument from that interesting person.
As if it could be undermined further.
I need to have that person on the podcast. I was actually going to make the joke before you started talking that the thing I liked best about your top 10 list was that it did not include Dunkirk, which I thought was terrible, and I want to force someone who saw it and claims to like it to tell me what was going on in various scenes because I honestly had no idea.
I didn’t mind that so much. I just thought it was so empty and in common with the other Dunkirk movie of the year, Darkest Hour, was falling back on the most sentimental, nationalistic idea of what it is to be English. And I thought, Really? This is where we are in 2017? We’re all just stiff upper lips and strong cups of tea? I thought there was more to it.
It’s amazing. Our country has changed so much in so many ways, and it feels like there’s a version of Anglophilia that will never be extinguished, like the will of the British people.
As someone who writes about movies, what has that been like in the context of this Weinstein scandal?
It’s been very complicated, just in the way that you talk about it. My job is to see movies and figure out my opinion of them and share that opinion. And that seemed, in many ways this year, a particularly irrelevant undertaking—first, just because of the sort of political upheaval that this country is in the middle of that was distracting everyone’s attention from movies all the time, and then because this whole moment—the reckoning or #MeToo or, as I like to think of it, the moral collapse of my own gender—happened and started with Harvey Weinstein.
It’s moved well beyond Hollywood now, but it’s gotten me thinking about writing about the products of an intensely male-dominated industry that is built in a lot of different ways—in terms of what happens behind the scenes but also what we see on-screen—on the exploitation, and particularly the sexual exploitation, of women. And a lot that I’ve taken for granted or not thought about, say, the gender politics of American movies, I’ve had to really try to rethink. And I feel like, for a lot of us, male and female, critics and fans, we’re at an early stage in this rethinking process.
Have you had the experience of sitting in a movie this year where your thoughts about what’s been going on in Hollywood, and with Weinstein and the way films are made, has taken you out of the movie or made you think differently about something you’re watching?
What I have noticed is that the tiredness of a lot of movie storytelling, which comes from circling around the same themes of male angst and self-pity and identity crisis, which is something you see in superhero movies, in action movies, in cop movies, in all kinds of movies. I felt the weight of that fatigue increased a lot in the wake of the Weinstein revelations. One reason that I really liked Wonder Woman—and some of the recent Star Wars movies have felt sort of fresher and more exciting—is because they’re trying to shake out of that kind of genre cage. But there were movies that might have played a little better in previous years that just seemed kind of not getting it in this one.
We don’t seem to see movies as things that are really implicated by gender politics, which I think has been in a way the most enlightening aspect for some of us of the revelations.
I think that’s right, and I think across the board in many, many industries—not only in Hollywood, but certainly in our own media industry as well—one of the things that’s become very clear or newly clear, or that men in particular have to sort of wake up and realize, is that this issue of sexual harassment, sexual assault, you know, bad behavior on the part of men is in a way, fundamentally, a labor issue, an issue of situation in the workplace, of women trying to do their work, to get ahead professionally, to realize their own ambitions, and being discouraged, blocked, thwarted, compromised, or just completely demoralized by the way that they’re being treated by men.
And you see that particularly in Hollywood, which is so male-dominated but also doesn’t have a responsible corporate structure. The studios are parts of large corporations, but movies tend to be made on an ad-hoc basis. There’s a deal that’s put together by producers, by agents, by financiers, by the director and various other interested parties, and this deal is put together through a series of meetings, at film festivals, in hotels. That allows for a lot of this kind of stuff to happen.
And the people who are running it, who are in charge of it, are men and function with almost no accountability. You just look at Weinstein and Miramax and then the Weinstein Company. There was no HR department. There was no one to complain to. There was absolutely no one who any woman could go to and say, “Something’s got to be done about this. This is unacceptable.” And that was true in a lot of other cases in Hollywood as well.
There was an article by Amanda Hess in the New York Times, your newspaper. The piece is called “How the Myth of the Artistic Genius Excuses the Abuse of Women.” And one thing that the piece touches on is that we need to look at art through the prism of how it is made and having a different opinion of a work of art knowing how it was made and who the artists were behind it, that it’s OK to think about the art differently.
Do you find yourself sympathetic to that, or do you find yourself re-appraising Woody Allen or reappraising Chinatown, the great Roman Polanski movie, things like that?
I really liked that piece a lot because it made a very strong challenge to what have been critical shibboleths for a very long time: the idea that you must separate the art or that you can separate the art from the artist, or that your aesthetic enjoyment of something functions independent of your moral or ethical or other values.
And one of the things that struck me most that Amanda said in that piece is whether or not you can separate the art from the artist, the question might be: Can you separate the artist from the industry? Because that grounds it again in questions of working conditions, that it’s not just that, in the case of Harvey Weinstein, who I’m not sure anyone would call an artistic genius, certainly a brilliant marketer and packager—
Yeah, talent spotter. He sort of knew how to find an audience for certain kinds of movies that other people couldn’t quite get out into the marketplace as well, but, there is a lot of work that women artists were prevented from doing and a lot of art that we’ve, in a way, been denied because of the demoralizing effect of all of this sexual harassment. So that’s something to keep in mind as well.
As to the question of how you judge the work of a particular artist who is known to have done—or suspected to have done—bad things in his private life: That’s a very hard one. And I still don’t have a programmatic answer about that. I feel like everybody, critics or fans or whatever, figures out where to draw their own lines and how to deal with every case.
In the case of Woody Allen, that’s been a particularly hard one for me because, like a lot of people my age, I grew up on Woody Allen. He’s probably one of the three or four most important cultural influences in my life. I saw Annie Hall when it came out, when I was 11 or 12, and I saw it again and again, and I had all of his books on my bedside table all the time I was growing up, and I think I have seen every single one of his movies. So it’s not just thinking in some objective or abstract or detached way How do I, as a critic, make a judgment about that? but How do I, as someone who has attached some personal value to this person’s work, think about the personal implications of that? You know?
It seems like it’s harder the closer the act is to the present day.
I think it would be hard to tell someone something about Shakespeare that would cause them to stop enjoying Hamlet. I don’t think it bothers that many people that Charles Dickens was a horrible person. Nobody feels implicated by going to see a version of A Christmas Carol or reading A Tale of Two Cities in a way that people do by going to see a Woody Allen movie, and that could be in part because he’s being accepted by players in the industry, in part because you’re giving him your money. There are practical reasons for it, but it does seem that our emotional or subjective experience of watching a movie is implicated the closer that person is to us in time.
Also, I think especially when the content of that person’s work is in a way so intimate and plays on these very issues so that you cannot watch Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen’s just completely terrible in every way—quite apart from the morality—new movie, without thinking about it. It sometimes seems like he’s kind of trolling his most loyal fans. Because people would say, You can’t talk about his relationship with Soon-Yi or the allegations about his molestation of Dylan and this movie. They have nothing to do with each other.
But this movie’s about a guy, the Woody Allen surrogate, who’s played, oddly enough, by Justin Timberlake. He starts up an affair with his current lover’s stepdaughter. So, like, well, huh. Coincidence.
Yeah. Seems on the up and up.
It’s just an idea that someone could have. But if you have someone like Woody Allen or Louis C.K., who has involved a certain amount of self-revelation in his work and has invited you into his head, into his neuroses, into his libido, into the messed-up places in his mind, and you’ve lived in there with him and enjoyed it and seen something that you might have in common with it … I mean, I certainly was a huge fan of Louis C.K.’s cable show and felt, as a middle-aged, not-in-the-best-shape, kind-of-thinning-hairline white guy living in New York that it was speaking to me in a lot of ways.
So now what am I supposed to do? There’s a feeling of betrayal and also of implication, of complicity, and I think it’s very important, especially for male critics and male fans, to stay with that, not immediately to say, “This has nothing to do with me. That guy’s gross. I’m a good guy.” You might need to think about why the grossness appealed to you in certain ways.
So then answer your own question.
I think there is a rush to disown a lot these guys, to make them disappear, and I think that that is certainly warranted morally in a lot of ways, but I think it lets other people off the hook.
In the case, for example, of television and movies, there’s a lot of brand protection and corporate PR that goes on. So, Matt Lauer—we paid him $28 million a year or whatever it was for 20 years, and he was the greatest guy, and he was the face of our network on morning television, and now it’s like, Oh, Matt who? We didn’t, nothing, that guy? Never heard of him. And that just seems to me a blatant act of corporate ass-covering. So I think that can be a problem: how quickly companies and organizations and institutions divest themselves of these bad guys without acknowledging or taking accountability for how they supported and enabled and empowered these guys for so long.
I think the other problem is that it’s very convenient for those of us who haven’t done these terrible things to let ourselves completely off the hook, to not look at the ways that—whatever you want to call it—patriarchy, misogyny, a system of male power, an old boys’ network has helped us out, has enabled us, has propped us up. And the way that these bad guys have given us the luxury of thinking of ourselves as nice guys and of blinding ourselves to aspects, maybe, of our own behavior or our own thinking that, while they’re certainly nowhere near the aggressive physical or verbal abuse that these guys trafficked in, nonetheless is part of the same problem.
The slogan was, “Not all men” a year or so ago, but what I would want to say to that is Well, but actually maybe all men, and let’s not rush to exonerate ourselves.
The other thing that I think is hard to wrestle with is that if we’re watching Louis C.K. now, or Kevin Spacey or something, our subjective experience is going to be different, and I think that’s OK. That’s understandable. That’s how people interact with art—in personal ways. To anyone who had an experience of watching Chinatown and saying, “I can’t watch this movie knowing that this guy raped a 13-year-old,” that’s a totally understandable reaction. I also don’t want to feel like we can’t recognize that Chinatown is a great movie or A Tale of Two Cities is a great book because the person behind it is a monstrous person in many ways. So it’s a really hard line, but I think the point, at the very least, must be to recognize the structural things that go into making this art is an absolutely necessary condition for even starting the conversation.
I think so. I think you put it very well. You can’t deny anyone’s discomfort or rejection of the work on these grounds, but there also needs to be room to experience it and to appreciate it, and I actually think that the long-term aggregate work of cultural processing, of which criticism is a part, does that. Tastes change, and values change, and work is constantly being re-evaluated and rejected or neglected and then rediscovered. … We don’t have to worry about that too much. That process will happen in ways that we can’t predict or control, and in a way, what we need to think about now is our own ethical standards and our own values and how those relate to the art that we experience, that we appreciate, that we love.
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