The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The less we know – the better?

with 22 comments

I’m not that much into Hollywood gossip. This isn’t because I’m a person with some kind of superior morale who believes her self to stand above such petty and ugly things. I’m just not very good with names, so most of the time I have no idea of who they’re talking about.

But if I actually wanted to learn about their dirty secrets, it wouldn’t take a big effort.  We’re living in the golden age of gossip – or transparency if you put it nicely. The actor who cheats on his wife, the director with a drug addiction, the producer who prefers kinky sex, Tom Cruise who is a part of a crazy sect – it’s all out in the open.

The question is: does it matter? If I have certain information about a producer, director, screenwriter or actor, will it affect how my view on their work? Does it take away a bit of the enjoyment from watching a movie if I know that someone in the production has been accused of sexual abuse of children?

Is it possible to have one opinion about the person and a completely different opinion about the result of their creative process? Can you completely avoid getting influenced from what you know?

Allen and Polanski
I wish I could say straight away that I always judge a work only on its own merits and that my integrity is impeccable, but a more honest response would probably be: it depends.

Let’s look at a couple of cases. First we have Woody Allen. I’ve watched and loved his movies for as far as I can remember. In the early 90s Allen and Mia Farrow broke up after a 12 year long relationship. The reason was that he had gotten into a relationship with his partners adoptive daughter. This wasn’t against the law; he wasn’t legally the father, and the she was old enough to decide for herself. However – the whole business felt very icky to me, with its incestuous connotations. It still does and it affects my view on the person Woody Allen. But it doesn’t change my love for his movies. I still watch every one that comes out. I enjoy them for what they are and I don’t think at all about his private life issues.

A second example is Roman Polanski. He’s been worse than icky. He committed a crime as he took sexual advantage or even raped a 13 year old girl. It’s a long time ago and I won’t judge whether he has made up for it or not during all those years he’s been on the run. Fact remains that the very thought of someone raping a 13 year old girl is sickening to me. But it won’t change my appreciation of Rosemary’s Baby.

A more recent occurrence was Lars von Trier’s infamous press conference in Cannes, where the director made a fool of himself claiming that he was a nazist. This did a) not convince me that this actually was the case b) not change the way I thought of Melancholia (I liked it).

Making things complicated
The thing is we are surrounded by products and services that are creations of people. And people do bad things.

Life would become incredibly complicated if I would stop appreciating and using anything that can be connected to someone who once committed a crime. How do I know that the fork I’m eating with wasn’t designed by someone who hit his wife? Should I stop eating a certain brand of marmalade if I learned that the guy who made up the recipe was a fascist? Even the most repulsive person you may think of can somewhere in the midst of all his awfulness have made a contribution to the world in the form of a movie, a car design or a poem. I can’t see why it would make the world into a better place rejecting this little piece of goodness.

But everyone doesn’t agree with me. The most mind boggling example I’ve seen of this was the Swedish Save the Children organization, which a couple of years ago were pointed out that the font in their company profile, Gill Sans, was created by a paedophile. The media stirrup this caused made them instantly declare that they would change the font as soon as possible. And this is just craziness if you ask me. Changing your font is a big deal and very expensive. That money could have been used better. And where does it lead them? Will they check out that no paedophile was involved in the making of the furniture at their office as well?

The deal breaker
But there is a line for me as well. If the movie becomes a part of the crime that the person committed, a child molester making movies that glorify raping of children – or if children have been abused during the recording of the movie, if someone is making a profit thanks to their repulsive actions and views – then I have a problem.

It doesn’t matter to me how technically skilled Leni Riefenstahl was or what a pioneer she may have been especially as a woman in a male world. She was a friend and admirer of he-who-must-not-be-named. Her movies were a part of the nazi propaganda and no amount of claimed “naivety” will change this fact. She celebrated a human ideal that contributed to the disaster, to the unspeakable horrors. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see her movies as separate unities or enjoy them. They remind me too much of unspeakable crimes that were committed – and that still are committed, only in new appearances.

Happily unknowing
I know very little about the lives of the movie makers. And if I finally get to know anything, I’m usually years behind. It was only recently that I heard that Mel Gibson apparently had aired some appalling opinions, which had a bad impact on his image. I probably would have been better off without learning this.

Maybe I’m a coward, but for the future I will stick to my current tactics, not paying all that much attention to all the information that is floating around. In the end – it’s the movies that matter. Nothing else. With a few, rare exceptions.

Contagion is just about to open in my city and I’m planning to watch it. For some reason I’ve always been strangely attracted to movies about pandemics.  I know absolutely nothing about the director Steven Soderbergh as a person and I have  no intention of trying to find out. So if you know any icky details – please save them to yourself.

The weekend is around the corner. If you too have plans for a theatre visit, I hope it will be a good one. And don’t forget to drop by for a cup of something nice and a chat on your way home. This café is always open.


Written by Jessica

October 21, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

22 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. For the most part I like to think that I can remove any negative publicity from my perspective. I am not shy about saying there are actors and actresses I adore just as there are those I generally don’t care for in the least. The same goes with directors. However, I don’t think that any actions someone has taken outside of a film, or any other media form, have caused me to negatively react to the art.

    Now granted, I am not overly familiar with Polanski’s films, and his case seems to be the most prominent. But thinking about someone like Mel Gibson or Lars von Trier, I still expect to see and enjoy their latest films based on what I know of the projects. I think the distinction you make about profiting off of the glorification of illegal or skeevy acts to be agreeable, but I’m not so sure I am aware of a film that has done this that I have seen/enjoyed. I haven’t seen any of the Nazi propaganda films, and I probably won’t see them any time soon because what I know of them indicates to me that most of the appreciation I would be able to gather from them is technical rather than thematic. I have watched Birth of a Nation though, and while I can appreciate its place in cinematic history, thematically I did not find much worth processing. It’s a personal filter, but we all have those.

    It’s hard to avoid a lot of these scandals simply because media coverage is so pervasive, but for the most part it seems that it’s easy to not let them seep into criticism. Biases will always be apparent when discussing any type of art, but personal moral politics have never stopped me from engaging with a film the way I usually tend to approach the medium.

    Rich T

    October 21, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    • I’m not sure I could come up with a movie that actually made a profit on the glorification of illegal acts… But I think it’s how I feel about it on a moral standpoint. That people who do evil also can do good things and that it’s OK to enjoy those good things for what they are. Unless they’re actually part of the evilness.
      Anyway: thank you for your thoughtful comment!


      October 22, 2011 at 9:00 am

  2. Jess, I basically have exactly the same opinion as you. I don’t care what directors or actors or producers have done or said in their personal lives. I don’t have to like the person to like his movies.

    And yes, Leni Riefenstahl is something of an exception. Even in her non-propaganda films. I cannot get over the fact that this is a woman who should have been tried as a war criminal and put away, no matter how talented she was or technically brilliant her films might have been.

    Corey Atad

    October 21, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    • I think she was tried but got away possibly a little bit too easily? Not sure. Actually as I googled around a bit to find a pic of her I stumbled upon a couple of interesting reviews on biographies about her. Might be interesting to check out. For all what I’ve seen so far my opinion is that she was far from innocent.


      October 22, 2011 at 9:02 am

  3. Great post, I couldn’t fit my thoughts in just a comment so I did a whole post.


    October 21, 2011 at 7:01 pm

  4. I’ve had the same thoughts after reading about Orson Scott Card. He’s a brilliant writer and his Ender’s Game amazed me. Only afterwards did I read about the person, here’s a quote:
    “The dark secret of homosexual society — the one that dares not speak its name — is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.”

    The thing is, by buying his book I’m actively paying him and some of that money will go into the Mormon Church which is against homosexuality. Is that morally right?

    In the end however, a good book or movie is exactly that: a good book or movie, no matter who wrote it. Maybe I should just pirate those movies 😉


    October 21, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    • Ewww. I didn’t know that about Orson Scott Card. Well… as long as he doesn’t let it slip into his books I guess I’m ok. But it IS a creepy thought that his profits will go into such things… Hm. need to work through it. Perhaps there are situations where piracy is OK.


      October 22, 2011 at 9:12 am

  5. […] Jessica from the wonderful Velvet Cafe blog wrote a great piece called “The less we know—the better?” which asked whether knowledge of a filmmaker’s personal life or misdeeds should play a role […]

  6. What Lars von Trier said was a joke. He also said he’s the best filmmaker in the world. He called Roman Polanski a midget. He says a bunch of things. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers but I never took anything he says seriously. It’s because it’s all show for him and he just wants attention for his movies, which are really amazing.

    Woody Allen, I never really cared for what he did with Soon-Yi. If they’re happy, who cares.

    Yes, what Roman Polanski did was wrong and he’s apologized for it.

    Miles Davis was a wife-beater but that doesn’t stop me from listening to his music.

    Bottom line: Always separate from the art from the artist. Let the art stand for itself and not judge the artist for what he/she is.

    Steven Flores

    October 21, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    • Yes, basically that’s how I see it too. Even though there might be situations when it’s inseperable. But those are exceptions.


      October 22, 2011 at 9:14 am

  7. I pretty much agree with what everyone has been saying, separate the art from the artist. My 2 cents is simply that we are a generally forgiving society. People make mistakes, Polanksi is the best example of this. Sure, we can hold a type of grudge against him, or an ill opinion, but to chastise his films for it is unnecessary, and in a way being able to enjoy the wonderful art done by people who have done bad things is a minor way of forgiving them, a compromise where we can still dislike the person and their actions/philosophies, yet still appreciate their creative work. As you said, what do you do about the criminal who invented something spectacular. A cultural contribution, such as film, is fairly priceless and goes a long way in my book to being able to forgive people who make mistakes, because we all make them, just some bigger than others.


    October 21, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    • Well… you actually don’t need to forgive the person either. If someone did horrible things, but also did something good, you can still hold a grudge against the person, but at the same time enjoy the good fruits of their job. At least that’s how I see it.


      October 22, 2011 at 9:16 am

  8. A while back, I watched the films of Leni Riefenstahl and I’m glad I did. While I can understand people who would have a hard time getting past the fact that she helped promote one of the most oppressive and horrific human leaders of all time, I still find her work compelling in its own right. Do I still think Triumph of the Will is a dangerous film? Certainly. But Olympia is also one of my favorite films.

    I do try to divorce the personal lives of the artist from the art, but, if like you said, it emerges in the art, I’m going to have a problem with it. Roman Polanski is one of my all-time favorite directors and while I’m certainly aware of his crimes, it doesn’t stop me from loving a film like Chinatown…which actually directly references and involves a crime he himself would commit.

    James Blake Ewing

    October 21, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    • I must admit that I don’t remember if I’ve watched any of Riefenstahls movies in its entire lenght. I remember watching excerpts at school. Tbh I don’t feel that motivated to watch them, regardless of the beauty of them. She’s on the wrong side of the line for me.

      But in most cases I can separate it, like you do.


      October 22, 2011 at 9:27 am

  9. Good work is good work, regardless of the worker or the cause. Both the worker and the cause may be hideously reprehensible. The work itself may be in service to something horrible, but good work remains good work. To some degree I think Leni Riefenstahl is tragic, talent so horribly abused, but tragic also because it was a self-inflicted abuse as well. The same is true, in other ways, of Polanski. Or of some of the great Soviet composers, who abused their muscial talent in the service of a state just as hellish.

    In quality, I cannot find myself drawing a distinction between them.

    Lewis Maskell

    October 22, 2011 at 12:54 am

    • Basically I’m with you, even I can see a few exceptions where my experience of the work will be influenced by my knowledge. But that’s in extreme cases.


      October 22, 2011 at 9:36 am

  10. What’s amazing to me is that a lot of people who overlook what Woody Allen and Roman Polanski did are ready to pounce on Mel Gibson for what he did….. The larger question out of all this is perhaps whether the fact that these people are essentially public figures that it automatically permits us a certain level of judgement on them? I agree with you: what Polanski and Allen did was pretty “icky” at best, but I can’t help but sit and admire their talent in making great films.

    I think you’re right, Jessica – perhaps the less we know about these people, the more we disassociate ourselves from their personal lives and just appreciate their art. Which asks the question: would ignorance, in this case, be bliss….?

    Rodney Twelftree

    October 26, 2011 at 10:22 am

    • I think Polanski was more than icky, it was against the law? But nevertheless I can still enjoy his movies.
      I’m glad to be ignorent, even though you perhaps also could call it a bit cowardish, running away from possible ethical dilemmas.
      But I don’t dwell much about the lives of writers or painters either. I just read their books or watch their paintings. As long as the works are OK from an ethical point of view, I am OK too.


      October 26, 2011 at 11:05 am

      • I guess it means that a painting of a kitten done by Hitler and a painting of a kitten done by Michelangelo would have the same esoteric value regardless of who painted what?

        The question I’d put out there is at what point does an artists personal life influence their artistic work, and does it really make a difference? As you said, it probably really doesn’t make much difference to you, but there’s a bunch of people around who’d beg to disagree with you. (I’m not one of them – I’d rather just appreciate art on its own terms, instead of being burdened by the background of the artist)

        Rodney Twelftree

        October 26, 2011 at 12:17 pm

        • Well I suppose Hitler’s would be a bit hard to judge just as art. At least for me. But theoretically I guess – yes.


          October 27, 2011 at 12:07 am

  11. […] friend Jessica over at The Velvet Cafe has a post on the impact of film actors and directors personal lives on her perception of their films. I do […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: