Eye of the Beholder

Can a piece of art ever exist entirely on its own, or is it always tethered to the context of its creation?

For instance, is it possible to listen to the Ring Cycle without remembering that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semitic prick whose music inspired the rise of Hitler?

Can one watch Manhattan—the story of a 42-year-old man’s love affair with a 17-year-old girl—and not be distracted and/or repulsed by the personal life of its writer, director and star, Woody Allen?

As a society, we’ve had a version of this argument many times before, trying to figure out how to separate the art from the artist, while also debating whether such a thing is even desirable in the first place.  (The answer to both:  “It depends.”)

Lately, however, this perennial question has assumed a racial dimension, compelling us to re-litigate it anew—this time with considerably higher stakes.

Here’s what happened.  Over at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the curators of the institution’s 78th biennial—an exhibition of hundreds of contemporary works by dozens of artists—chose to include Open Casket, a semi-abstract painting that depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white girl.  (The woman in question later admitted she made the whole thing up, but that’s another story.)

As a painting, Open Casket is arresting, with the oils so thickly layered that Till’s mangled face literally protrudes from the canvas, as if calling out to us from beyond the grave.  As a political statement, it fits comfortably into our uncomfortable era of police brutality and racial unease—a natural, even obvious, choice for any socially conscious art show in 2017.

There was just one little problem:  The creator of Open Casket is white.  Specifically, a Midwestern white woman living in Brooklyn named Dana Schutz.

Upon hearing that a Caucasian had dared to tackle Emmett Till as the subject for a painting, many patrons demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket from its walls, while condemning Schutz for attempting to profit off of black pain—a practice, they argued, that has defined—and defiled—white culture since before the founding of the republic, and should be discouraged at all costs.  The message, in effect, was that white people should stick to their own history and allow black people to deal with theirs.

In response to this brouhaha, the Whitney defended its inclusion of Schutz’s work without directly addressing the race question, while Schutz herself issued a statement that read, in part, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America.  But I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her.  In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”

In other words:  Far from being exploitative or opportunistic, Open Casket is meant as an act of compassion and empathy toward black America from an artist who views Emmett Till’s death as a tragedy for all Americans—not just black ones.

Of course, that is merely Dana Schutz’s own interpretation of her work, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that the meaning of a given cultural artifact is never limited to what its creator might have intended at the time.  The artist Hannah Black, one of Schutz’s critics, is quite right in observing, “[I]f black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she […] must accept the truth of this.”

The real question, then, is whether offensiveness—inadvertent or not—is enough to justify removing a piece of art from public view, as Black and others have advocated in this case.

If, like me, you believe the First Amendment is more or less absolute—that all forms of honest expression are inherently useful in a free society—then the question answers itself.  Short of inciting a riot (and possibly not even then), no art museum should be compelled to censor itself so as not to hurt the feelings of its most sensitive patrons, however justified those feelings might be.  Au contraire:  If a museum isn’t offending somebody—thereby sparking a fruitful conversationit probably isn’t worth visiting in the first place.

Unfortunately, in the Age of Trump, the American left has decided the First Amendment is negotiable—that its guarantee of free speech can, and should, be suspended whenever the dignity of a vulnerable group is threatened.  That so-called “hate speech” is so inherently destructive—so wounding, so cruel—that it needn’t be protected by the Constitution at all.  As everyone knows, if there was one thing the Founding Fathers could not abide, it was controversy.

What is most disturbing about this liberal drift toward total political correctness is the creative slippery slope it has unleashed—and the abnegation of all nuance and moral perspective that goes with it—of which the Whitney kerfuffle is but the latest example.

See, it’s one thing if Open Casket had been painted by David Duke—that is, if it had been an openly racist provocation by a callous, genocidal lunatic.  But it wasn’t:  It was painted by a mildly-entitled white lady from Brooklyn who has a genuine concern for black suffering and wants more Americans to know what happened to Emmett Till.

And yet, in today’s liberal bubble factory, even that is considered too unseemly for public consumption and must be stamped out with all deliberate speed.  Here in 2017, the line of acceptable artistic practice has been moved so far downfield that an artist can only explore the meaning of life within his or her own racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group, because apparently it’s impossible and counterproductive to creatively empathize with anyone with a different background from yours.

By this standard, Kathryn Bigelow should not have directed The Hurt Locker, since, as a woman, she could not possibly appreciate the experience of being a male combat soldier in Iraq.  Nor, for that matter, should Ang Lee have tackled Brokeback Mountain, because what on Earth does a straight Taiwanese man like him know about surreptitious homosexual relationships in the remote hills of Wyoming?  Likewise, light-skinned David Simon evidently had no business creating Treme or The Wire, while Bob Dylan should’ve steered clear of Hattie Carroll and Rubin Carter as characters in two of his most politically-charged songs.

Undoubtedly there are some people who agree with all of the above, and would proscribe any non-minority from using minorities as raw material for his or her creative outlet (and vice versa).

However, if one insists on full-bore racial and ethnic purity when it comes to the arts, one must also reckon with its consequences—namely, the utter negation of most of the greatest art ever created by man (and woman).  As I hope those few recent examples illustrate, this whole theory that only the members of a particular group are qualified to tell the story of that group is a lie.  An attractive, romantic and sensible lie, to be sure—but a lie nonetheless.

The truth—for those with the nerve to face it—is that although America’s many “communities” are ultimately defined by the qualities that separate them from each other—certainly, no one would mistake the black experience for the Jewish experience, or the Chinese experience for the Puerto Rican experience—human nature itself remains remarkably consistent across all known cultural subgroups.  As such, even if an outsider to a particular sect cannot know what it is like to be of that group, the power of empathy is (or can be) strong enough to allow one to know—or at least estimate—how such a thing feels.

As a final example, consider Moonlight—the best movie of 2016, according to me and the Academy (in that order).  A coming-of-age saga told in three parts, Moonlight has been universally lauded as one of the great cinematic depictions of black life in America—and no wonder, since its director, Barry Jenkins, grew up in the same neighborhood as the film’s hero, Chiron, and is, himself, black.

Slightly less commented on—but no less noteworthy—is Moonlight’s masterful meditation on what it’s like to be gay—specifically, to be a gay, male teenager in an environment where heterosexuality and masculinity are one and the same, and where being different—i.e., soft-spoken, sensitive and unsure—can turn you into a marked man overnight, and the only way to save yourself is to pretend—for years on end—to be someone else.

Now, my own gay adolescence was nowhere near as traumatic as Chiron’s—it wasn’t traumatic at all, really—yet I found myself overwhelmed by the horrible verisimilitude of every detail of Chiron’s reckoning with his emerging self.  Here was a portrait of nascent homosexuality that felt more authentic than real life—something that cannot possibly be achieved in film unless the men on both sides of the camera have a deep and intimate understanding of the character they’re developing.

Well, guess what:  They didn’t.  For all the insights Moonlight possesses on this subject, neither Barry Jenkins, the director, nor a single one of the leading actors is gay.  While they may well have drawn from their own brushes with adversity to determine precisely who this young man is—while also receiving a major assist from the film’s (gay) screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney—the finished product is essentially a bold leap of faith as to what the gay experience is actually like.

Jenkins and his actors had no reason—no right, according to some—to pull this off as flawlessly as they did, and yet they did.  How?  Could it be that the condition of being black in this country—of feeling perpetually ill at ease, guarded and slightly out of place in one’s cultural milieu—has a clear, if imprecise, parallel to the condition of being gay, such that to have a deep appreciation of one is to give you a pretty darned good idea of the other?  And, by extension, that to be one form of human being is to be empowered to understand—or attempt to understand—the point of view of another?  And that this just might be a good thing after all?

All That Jazz

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is going to win Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.  That’s not a prediction:  That’s a fact.  As Oscar wagers go, this is a slam dunk to end all slam dunks.  No ’bout-a-doubt it.  If you enter an office pool this year, go long on La La.

We know this for two reasons.  First, Chazelle’s movie is unabashedly about Hollywood’s all-time favorite subject:  itself.  And second, it’s a live-action musical propelled by an original soundtrack—something Hollywood seldom even thinks of doing, let alone executes with passion, charm and finesse.  As with 2011’s The Artist—a black-and-white silent film bubbling with cheeky nostalgia about the glory days of the old studio system—La La Land is a once-in-a-decade novelty whose very existence is such a miracle of ingenuity that the Academy couldn’t ignore it even if it wanted to—and why on Earth would it want to?

That said, La La Land was not the best picture of 2016.  Nor, for that matter, is it the most deserving among the nine nominees in that category.  To be sure, this will hardly make a difference:  By my estimation, the Academy gets it right about once every five years, and since it did exactly that 12 months ago, we can expect quite a long wait until it happens again.

And I’m totally fine with that.  After 15 years of taking movies seriously—and obsessing over the Academy Awards in the process—I’ve come to realize that the Academy’s opinions needn’t align perfectly with mine every year.  Just as I learned to live with (and vote for) a presidential candidate with whom I agreed “only” 90 percent of the time, I don’t need my tastes in cinema validated by 6,000 anonymous industry professionals in order to achieve inner peace.

In truth, I’ve flirted with this I-don’t-care-what-the-Academy-thinks attitude for a while now.  Indeed, if I had any sense, I would’ve thrown in the towel a decade ago when the Academy chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain—a decision that looks even dumber in retrospect than it did at the time.

My problem is that I’m a natural elitist who believes the Oscars should mean something and should reflect some sort of objective truth about what constitutes cinematic greatness.  That such a thing doesn’t actually exist has never prevented me from wishing otherwise—just as the inherent worthlessness of paper money has never prevented anyone from using it to buy a Volvo.  The value of golden statues is like God:  It exists because we say it does.

As far as I’m concerned, the true purpose of the Academy Awards is simply to highlight a handful of terrific films that most American moviegoers probably wouldn’t have discovered on their own.  If cinema itself is a window into the lives of others—a “machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert put it—the Oscars are the most visible means of pointing people in the right direction.

The best movie of 2016 was Moonlight, an intensely personal project that, by dint of its miniscule budget and largely unknown cast, could easily have opened in 20 theatres for one weekend and then disappeared forever.  If its eight (!) Oscar nominations lead another million people to seek it out—in addition to the $21 million in revenue it has generated thus far—I will consider the Academy to have done its job with gusto.  Same for the Best Actress nomination for Isabelle Huppert in Elle, a demented tour de force that most Americans wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole but now might give a fair shot.  And ditto, especially, for the trio of masterpieces in the Best Documentary field—Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America—all three of which deserve the widest audience possible and whose inclusion in Sunday’s telecast is entirely to the benefit of both Hollywood and society as a whole.

Of course, the Academy can’t get everything right, and this year was no exception.  As ever, the list of unjust omissions is longer and more enticing than the list of worthy nominees, and if your only interest is to bitch about Hollywood’s perennial wrongheadedness, you have plenty of material to work with.

What I would prefer, however, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and to accept that a gang that gives eight nominations to Moonlight is not entirely irredeemable.

For context, allow me to present the year 2002, which I consider the genesis of my life as a semi-serious film buff (and the first time I watched the Oscars).  For whatever reason, 2002 was an extraordinary year for cinema, producing such visionary, enduring works as Minority Report, Spirited Away, 25th Hour, Adaptation., and City of God.

Of those five modern classics, how many were nominated for Best Picture?  You guessed it:  Zero.  The Academy was offered an embarrassment of riches and it chose to embarrass itself.  Provided a golden opportunity to embrace any number of challenging, thoughtful, innovative films, Oscar voters decided to turn their backs and play it safe.

And what sort of movie did they ultimately choose for Best Picture?  A musical!  Specifically, an adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, directed by Rob Marshall and starring a group of A-list actors with minimal experience in musical theatre.  Why did Chicago win?  Presumably through a Hollywood consensus that appreciated the novelty of a movie musical—then, as now, an exceedingly rare event—and was understandably dazzled by the catchy songs and hypnotic choreography.

As they say:  The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same.  Given the choice, the Academy will err toward fluff when something much more daring is called for.  The good news is that, outside of the movie industry itself, the recipients of these eight-pound gold trophies ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of cinema.

The Oscars come and go, but the movies are forever.

Playing It Straight

What ever happened to acting?

That’s what I wondered after reading Matt Damon’s controversial new interview this week in the Guardian.  Asked whether it’s still difficult to be openly gay in Hollywood, Damon—who is openly straight—responded in the affirmative, then offered the following advice:

I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period.  And sexuality is a huge part of that.  Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.

Rarely has a beloved celebrity been so right while also being so very, very wrong.

Damon was asked the gay question because of his recent performance as Liberace’s boyfriend in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra.  The implication is that it’s much easier for a straight actor to play a gay character than the other way around.  That is, audiences are more willing to accept a straight person “acting” gay than a gay person “acting” straight.

Historically, this hypothesis has proved true beyond dispute.  Pick any moderately-successful recent film with gay themes and/or prominent gay characters, and you’ll find they all have one thing in common:  heterosexuals.

Just in the last year or two, for instance, we have had Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Love is Strange and Mark Ruffalo in The Normal Heart.  (That last one was technically a TV movie, but who’s counting?)  Before that, of course, there was Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain and Sean Penn and James Franco in Milk.

Know how many same-sex relationships those actors have had in their collective lifetimes?  You could count it on the fingers of two fists.

Taken in isolation, this doesn’t necessarily strike me as a problem.  The names I just listed include some of the finest performers working today and I wouldn’t trade those performances for anything.  A straight person is allowed to be gay in a film.  As a wise man once said, there’s a reason they call it acting.

But that’s only one half of the issue.  The other, much more challenging part is the natural follow-up:  Where are all the gay movie stars?

Why is it that, in a supposedly liberal Hollywood in a supposedly gay-friendly epoch of American history, virtually all of the great gay and straight roles go to heterosexuals?  Is it because the major studios still treat gays the way they treat black people and women over 40—namely, as an inessential niche commodity?  Or is it simply that there are no bankable gay actors available to fill these roles?

In the Guardian interview, Damon cited the British thespian Rupert Everett as evidence that “coming out” can actually damage an actor’s career—that is, by precluding him from ever again being cast as a strong heterosexual lead, out of fear that audiences won’t buy such a character if they know the man playing him is a queer.  (“It’s tough to make the argument that [Everett] didn’t take a hit for being out,” Damon said.)

The implication is clear:  If you’re an aspiring gay actor interested in success above all else, you’re better off staying in the closet forever.  Just like in sports, high school and the Republican Party.

It’s worth noting—to use Damon’s own example—that Rupert Everett came out in 1989, which was an entirely different universe from the one we currently inhabit.  It would be ridiculous to suggest that a closeted actor’s fears of coming out today are identical to those of a quarter-century past.

That is, until you take a look at today’s Hollywood and realize how shockingly little has really changed.

Here’s a simple challenge:  Name any successful openly gay film star in, say, the last decade who has achieved his or her success in mainstream cinematic fare, post-coming out.

The list is achingly short and comes with several key caveats.  Almost without exception, the members of this elite club are either British, female and/or primarily involved in television or theater—artistic arenas that, for various reasons, are much more sexually equitable than film.  Even a certified A-lister like Neil Patrick Harris—who has proved, more or less single-handedly, that an “out” entertainer can conquer just about every artistic medium simultaneously—has yet to become anything resembling a cinematic leading man, and neither has anyone like him.

Which is all to say that Matt Damon has a point.  If being openly gay is not a hindrance to success in Hollywood, the evidence is pretty damning nonetheless.

That’s the bad news.  The question is whether this could ever change.  Should closeted actors continue to feign straightness to advance their careers, or are truth and self-respect more important?  It’s all well and good to trump honesty and equality above all else, but when those values necessitate risking your very way of life—and a lucrative one at that—it is not irrational to hedge your bets.

And besides, for all the flak Damon has drawn for suggesting that actors should conceal their true selves from the public—up to and including their sexual preferences—the idea is not without real merit.

Personally, I think it’s kind of neat for a great actor to be utterly penetrating on the screen and a total mystery in real life.  I like the notion of actor-as-chameleon—someone, like Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, with a superhuman ability to assume the character of anyone else but whose own character remains largely, if not purposefully, unknown.

As a rule, I frankly don’t care what my favorite movie stars do in their spare time, just as I’m not much interested in what my favorite politicians or athletes do in theirs.  While this is hardly a prevailing view in our hyper-voyeuristic culture, it’s one I would recommend all the same.

However, to advocate, as Damon did, that America’s entertainers actively withhold basic information about their personal lives in the interest of objectivity is completely insane in the context of today’s world.  While I don’t for a moment think Damon meant to come off as homophobic, the logic of his theory leads us to no other conclusion.

To wit:  When, in the entire history of forever, has a well-known heterosexual person been compelled to hide the existence of an opposite-sex spouse for the purpose of appearances?  Under what possible circumstances would this be seen as a reasonable request?  Is it not utterly demeaning to both parties to carry on their relationship behind closed doors because, hey, audiences might get the wrong idea when the next big movie is released?

It’s completely idiotic and unworkable, and a huge insult to the intelligence of American moviegoers, most of whom—I dare say—are capable of holding opposing ideas in their heads at the same time.  You know, ideas such as “Matt Damon normally makes love to a woman, but for two hours on HBO, he will make love to Michael Douglas, because that’s what actors do.”

In fact, while straight couples are never expected to keep their private affairs under wraps, gay couples are frequently under pressure to do exactly that.  Whether the pressure is external—say, having to conceal a relationship to get into the army in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” days—or internal—such as wanting to avoid an international incident with relatives at Thanksgiving—the practice of hiding major components of your day-to-day life in the interest of self-preservation has been a part of the gay experience since time immemorial, and one that most members of the gay community would be happy to put behind them once and for all.

As of late, this has certainly begun to happen in the entertainment industry, as it has in most other walks of life.  Closeted actors are coming out in greater numbers than ever before, and audiences have taken it in stride, recognizing that actors (for the most part) are human beings who are entitled to personal happiness like everyone else.

If Matt Damon wants to implore his colleagues to stop revealing so much about themselves to the press and online, he is welcome to try.  For all we know, it might restore a degree of majesty and class to this great art form, creating icons instead of mere personalities.

But let’s not kid ourselves that there is a straight line (so to speak) between being a great actor and being unknowable in real life.  Many of the greatest stars of all time had private lives every bit as lurid and public as those of today, yet audiences could somehow tune them out once the lights dimmed and picture started.

The way Damon talks, you’d almost think he was from Mars.