The question of the legitimacy of authorial intent is, to say the least, tricky. There’s a natural inclination to bind a work of art to its creator, or (if you subscribe to auteurism) a film to its director, but many would argue that this is a limiting and narrow-minded way to approach art. Literary critic Roland Barthes famously said as much in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” wherein he put forth the idea that an artist’s identity should have no part in interpretation of their work, as it “imposes a limit on that text.” More common parlance puts it like this: “Separate the art from the artist.”
But is there a line to be crossed here? Can an artist’s actions be so extreme that it’s impossible — or even unethical — to ignore that fact in judgement of their work? Today is Roman Polanski’s birthday, and over the past couple decades he’s been one of the most controversial figures in cinema. He’s made eleven features since his flight to France to avoid sentencing in his rape trial, and every time one of them comes out, the same conversation arises. Is it acceptable to discuss the films without acknowledging his crimes? If we’re supposed to separate the art from the artist, is okay to separate Polanski’s crimes from his work?
Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite films of all time, and I feel comfortable admitting that. When I talk about the film, am I morally obligated to include a “Polanski is a monster, but” prefix? It’s easy to say that such a caveat distracts from a serious discussion of the work, but that veers dangerously close to the stereotypical notion of the snobby critic speaking from atop an ivory tower. Movies are works of art unto themselves, but it may be a seriously immoral act to ignore something like Roman Polanski’s past when discussing his films.
For the critic, the question becomes this: are we morally obligated to discuss these kinds of things when discussing films? Should reviews of Woody Allen’s latest film include a post-script reminding readers of the despicable crimes of which he’s been accused? I know that this article has been almost nothing but questions so far, but this isn’t an issue with a single, simple answer. This discussion tends to veer into debates over where the line should be drawn. That’s not an area that has any relevance to the core question, and it invariably becomes about which crimes people find excusable. It’s hard to swallow the idea that people put quality of art and severity of crime on a sliding scale, but they do. For instance, I’m not a big Woody Allen fan. Am I likely to consider his crimes more harshly than I view Polanski’s because I respect the latter more as an artist? I don’t want to believe that, but it’s probably true.
In some cases, people use their lack of enthusiasm about an artist as an opportunity to lash out regarding issues they care about. Consider last year’s controversy over Ender’s Game, based on a book written by notorious homophobe Orson Scott Card. I have no attachment to that novel, so I lost nothing by vowing to boycott the film. If the novel had been a childhood favorite of mine, it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have taken that stance, or at least found a way to justify paying to see it. I’m also not likely to ever pay to see another Mel Gibson project, because I found his anti-Semitic rantings to be deplorable and (as a Jew) personally hurtful. Does it make me a hypocrite that I would financially support Polanski, whose crimes are undeniably more horrific and destructive, and not Gibson? It’s hard to come to terms with, but the answer is yes.
We all hold these hypocrisies to some degree, though we’d rather not admit it. For average moviegoers, it’s as easy as deciding whether or not to buy a ticket to something. For critics and more serious cinephiles, it’s more complicated. When you make it your business to dive deep into cinema, you can’t pretend as though these problems don’t exist. It’s hard to mention my love for Rosemary’s Baby without seeming as though I’m excusing Polanski’s crimes. It’s even harder for me personally to come to grips with that same fact. At the end of the day, separating art from its artist is a great philosophy when it comes to the art, but it comes up short when it comes to the artist.
But even if we take that philosophy as a given, there’s another issue at play. What happens when the films themselves seem to endorse terrible things? Consider the minor uproar over Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture a couple years ago. The film makes no outright moral judgement about the use of torture by the central characters, and some critics objected to this apparent endorsement of the act. “Depiction doesn’t equal endorsement!” others shot back. They’re right, it doesn’t, and the misunderstanding of that fact is as good as saying that audiences are too stupid to understand things that aren’t spelled out for them.
If that sounds like an argument for the death of nuance and moral ambiguity, that’s because it more or less is. The problem is that it opens up a new can of worms. Do we hold a film responsible for the things that people might take away from it? What about last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street? Many people questioned whether or not director Martin Scorsese was glorifying Jordan Belfort’s hedonistic lifestyle. Most people who saw the film shot back that Scorsese clearly wasn’t endorsing Belfort’s actions, but casting them in a negative light. While that’s certainly an accurate assessment of the film, is any depiction of that lifestyle irresponsible? Perhaps it’s fair to take the film to task for showing a decadent, misogynistic man as anything other than an outright villain. On the other hand, perhaps we should have faith in audiences to understand that the film doesn’t want you to idolize Belfort. On the other other hand, the plethora of dumb teenage boys who do idolize Belfort (and Tyler Durden before him) may be proof enough that we shouldn’t put that faith in audiences.
Ultimately, this is a question without any one good answer. It’s not right to shame others for consuming art made by awful people, and it’s not right to shame art for what it might inspire in awful people. I’m not saying that the next time you watch a Roman Polanski movie you should feel guilty for doing so. I’m saying that you should feel guilty, at least a little. Artistic ideals aside, people like Polanski exist in the real world, and we can’t ignore them. We can’t live in a bubble of critical integrity and remain willfully ignorant of what he did. But we also don’t have to bring it up every time we discuss him. His atrocious crime is common knowledge. It hangs over every single conversation about his work. The same goes for Woody Allen. When you talk about their films, you can’t help but acknowledge it. In other words, there’s no need to tamper praise of their work with concession of their evil. Everyone can do that on their own. However, keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily the same thing as excusing their crimes. When you see a Roman Polanski movie, see it as art, but keep in mind who he is and what he did. There’s not an easy way out of this conundrum, and until there is, we’re all going to have to live with being hypocrites.