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?

Advertisements

The Popularity Paradox

Woody Allen has always made a point never to read reviews of his own films.  The way he sees it, you cannot accept compliments without also accepting criticism, and since he has no desire to indulge the latter, he has opted to disregard both and just keep chugging along on his own terms, heedless of how the rest of the world might react to the finished product.

While one emulates Woody Allen at one’s peril, his philosophy of not being preoccupied with others’ opinions is a sound one—an idea that perhaps ought to be taken more to heart by the average American, and especially by not-so-average Americans like the one currently living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As things stand, if there’s one thing we know for sure about Donald Trump, it’s that he only cares about what other people think.  In every facet of his life, our president is essentially a human mood ring whose hue is perfectly synchronized with however his adoring public seems to perceive him at a given moment:  If they’re happy, he’s happy.  He quantifies all Earthly success in terms of ratings, status and wealth, and it has become abundantly clear that assuming the presidency has had absolutely no impact on this profoundly amoral view of the world.

While this dynamic worked beautifully for Trump as a candidate—“My poll numbers are bigger than yours!”—the fact of actually being commander-in-chief has introduced an unattractive complication into Trump’s perceived cult of infallibility:  At this moment, scarcely one-third of the country thinks he’s doing a decent job, and whenever he tries to make good on his core campaign pledges, his efforts are thwarted by either Congress or the courts.

This sure ain’t what Mr. Winning had it mind when he signed up.  Much as how Richard Nixon famously articulated, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Trump entered this job figuring that he could get away with anything so long as a majority of the public approved it—and that if the public didn’t approve it, he could simply claim the polls are wrong, as he did throughout the latter half of 2016.

In effect, he thought he could be an American Mussolini—ruling by executive fiat and steamrolling Congressional opposition through direct appeals to his base—and many of us had full faith that he would succeed, or at least give it the old college try.

Amidst all this fear that Trump would destroy American democracy as we know it (which he still has ample time to do, of course), we didn’t necessarily give much thought to what might happen were Trump to falter—how he would respond to a sustained period of fecklessness and public ennui, which we seem to have entered following last week’s aborted GOP healthcare bill, to say nothing of the ongoing Russian intrigue that has been piling up since before January 20.

Supposing this stench of failure doesn’t dissipate anytime soon, how does Trump justify his continued existence in government?  In the absence of being liked—nay, in the absence of “winning”—what exactly does Trump stand for in his own mind?  In the teeth of widespread public antipathy to his performance as America’s head of state—and “performance” is definitely the right word—what is the guiding principle that’ll carry him from one conflict to the next?

See, when there was a clear sense of what specific actions would sate the reptile minds of his minions—say, imposing a travel ban on Muslims or building a wall along the Mexican border—Trump could confidently put pen to paper and congratulate himself on a job well done.  Easy peasy.

What he didn’t count on—obvious as it was to everyone else—was that half of his campaign promises were unconstitutional, while the other half were fiscally insane.  Accordingly, short of torching both houses of Congress and crowning himself emperor (perhaps he’s saving that for the second term?), Trump was destined to face serious pushback to his agenda within minutes of “making America great again.”  Now that a major chunk of his policy portfolio is on life support or worse, he may need to decide whether playing to the angry mob was such a hot strategy after all.

Historically, presidents with exceptionally low approval ratings have taken the Woody Allen view—that is, to effect a conspicuous detachment from the passions of the unwashed masses, appealing instead to future historians as the ultimate arbiters of the rightness of their executive decisions.  As we know from such men as Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush, there is some credence to the theory that being unpopular in your own time doesn’t necessarily preclude you from achieving immortality—or at least respectability—a generation or two after the fact.

The catch, however, is that Truman and Bush were men of decency, conviction and patriotism:  Even in their lowest moments, they believed to their boots that they were trying to do the right thing and were prepared to defend their records until the last dog died.  In acting against the will of the majority, they evoked the classical ethos—championed by no less than the Founding Fathers—that the short-term desires of the people must occasionally be overruled in the long-term interest of the public.  In the long sweep of history, leaders who risked their reputations for the greater good of the country have been viewed very favorably, indeed.

Donald Trump is no such person.  Day in and day out, for 70 years running, our current president has only ever concerned himself with, well, himself.  Whether on top of the world or with his back against the wall, he prioritizes Trump first, the Trump family second, and everyone else not at all.  Matt Taibbi was perhaps being cheeky when he mused in Rolling Stone that “Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat,” but the image rings true:  In Trump’s eyes, no human being has value except for what he or she can do for Donald.

Which leads us to arguably the most essential, inescapable fact about Trump as president:  Because he does not view human relations in moral terms—because he is a textbook sociopath with zero capacity for emotional growth—he can never be counted on to do the right thing, unless he does it by accident.  Unlike virtually all past presidents at one point or another, he will never face down his staunchest supporters and say, “I know you won’t approve what I’m about to do, but trust me, it’s for your own good.  Someday, you’ll thank me.”

What will he do over the next four (if not eight) years?  Presumably, what he always does:  When his approval rating is solid, he will sign whatever bill will keep those numbers up (e.g., the Muslim ban).  When his popularity tanks—as it has done pretty much this whole time—he will publicly throw a tantrum while privately using the executive branch as his own personal graft machine.  And when he manages to be both unpopular and ineffectual (e.g., failing to repeal Obamacare), he will do what he does best:  Pretend nothing happened, lose interest and walk away.

That’s what you get when you put an emotionally needy charlatan in charge of the largest economy on Earth:  Instability, immorality, ineptitude and intransigence.  A bumbling, crooked train ride to nowhere.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

I have no idea whether Nasir Khan murdered Andrea Cornish during the first episode of The Night Of.  With the series finale set to air on HBO this Sunday at 9 o’clock, I doubt there’s anyone in America who has totally made up their mind—including every other character in this show.

Naz’s parents certainly haven’t built a united front on his behalf.  While his father vigorously defends his son’s honor in public, his mother has grown overcome with anxiety and guilt, asking herself, “Did I raise an animal?”

His two lawyers have had their own crises of faith, stumbling upon gaping holes in Naz’s credibility and wondering—as they must—whether he has been lying to them from Day One.

The lead investigator is more conflicted than he lets on, inferring Naz’s guilt based on the evidence but still, somehow, harboring a kernel of doubt as to whether this mild-mannered young man is capable of committing murder against a woman he had just met, stabbing her 22 times during an evening of drugs, booze and passionate sex.

Then there’s Naz himself—the mystery of all mysteries.  Played with spellbinding restraint by Riz Ahmed, Naz has proved considerably more complicated—and more compelling—than the first two or three episodes led us to believe.  While we, the audience, have been conditioned from the beginning to sympathize with him and give him the benefit of the doubt, the effect of the last several installments has been to make that doubt progressively less tenable by making Naz progressively less innocent—first, by demonstrating his knack for withholding information, and second, by suggesting his capacity to commit physical violence.

I confess, I’ve spent the better part of this series taking Naz at his word, even as he’s given us one reason after another to regard him with suspicion and even fear.

At the beginning, I figured the central question of The Night Of would be, simply, “What happens when a man’s innocence is overwhelmed by evidence of his guilt?”  Today—having spent seven TV hours with this case—I realize another question has been staring us in the face this whole time:  “What happens when a man’s innocence exists entirely within his own mind?”

What if Naz committed the murder but has convinced himself that he didn’t?  What if he—like us, his parents and his attorneys—has sorted through the haze of that crazy, coked-out evening and concluded that he couldn’t be responsible for Andrea’s death—like his mother says, only an animal could’ve done that, and he’s nothing of the sort—and that, therefore, some other explanation is in order?

In fact, there is a long and storied history of Americans compartmentalizing themselves to without an inch of their lives, from Thomas Jefferson writing “all men are created equal” while owning 200 human beings to Donald Trump proclaiming—with total conviction—that he hasn’t a racist or sexist bone in his body, despite hundreds of public statements to the contrary.

Similarly, I don’t doubt that America’s prisons are dotted with convicts who are as guilty as the day is long but who haven’t quite reconciled the truth with their ideal selves.  Evidence be damned, they are unable to abide the possibility that a cancer has infected their souls, so instead they deny, deny, deny.  It’s an easy enough thing to do, particularly if heavy drug use is involved.

To that end, maybe Naz is exactly what he now looks like:  An essentially good person who—as Norman Bates immortally put it—can go a little mad sometimes.

The cheeky brilliance of The Night Of is to have shown us every last detail of the night in question, except for the one that actually matters, i.e., the murder itself.  In an ordinary show, there would be something irredeemably cheap and gimmicky about a trick like that—a way of pointlessly stringing us along about an event that could be explained in two seconds flat.

However, in this ambitious, thoughtful and quite extraordinary show, the unaccounted-for period during which Andrea is killed serves a higher and deeper purpose than mere suspense.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with suspense.)  Rather, it’s HBO’s version of the 18-minute gap in Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes.  It’s Naz’s “rosebud”—the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that might explain everything about him, or perhaps nothing at all.

If we learned anything from Citizen Kane (the source of the original “rosebud”), it’s that certain mysteries can’t be explained in a satisfactory way; their power lies in their mysteriousness.

In The Night Of, the story’s real driving force is doubt itself—the reminder that nothing in life is certain, including certainty.  While there may well be such a thing as absolute truth, good luck finding it when everyone present was stoned out of their goddamn minds.

From the beginning, Naz has been put at the most spectacular disadvantage in the eyes of the law, steadfastly proclaiming his innocence, yet buried under an avalanche of DNA and circumstantial evidence that suggests his guilt.  As his case is put to the jury—which will presumably render a verdict before the final fade-out this Sunday—it’s hard not to recall 12 Angry Men, the 1957 movie with which this series has an obvious kinship.

In Sidney Lumet’s film, a jury is saddled with a murder case in which all the pieces seem to fit:  The motive, the weapon, the eyewitness testimony and—perhaps most damning of all—the unreliable and ethnically suspect defendant.  Indeed, as the deliberations progress, there’s only one tiny thing that gives any of the jurors a moment’s pause:  The possibility that they might be wrong.

12 Angry Men shows us the jury room and nothing else—not the trial, not the investigation and certainly not the crime—leaving us to depend for our conclusions on the impressions of the men arguing about it.

By contrast, The Night Of has shown us nearly everything—meticulously, at length, and without a shred of manipulation—and yet we find ourselves in essentially the same place:  Torn between our better angels and the facts that are directly in front of our noses, forever reckoning with the meaning of the words “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Personally, I still want Naz to be innocent.  Why?  Because I like him.  I like his intelligence, his resourcefulness, his innate sense of honor and—perhaps most of all—his silence.  I don’t want to find out that he’s a killer any more than I want to find out that Woody Allen is a child molester or that Hillary Clinton is a pathological liar, and like most Americans, I’m prepared to stick with my happy fantasies until the last dog dies.

But then I find myself admiring nearly everyone in this series, which—like most great TV drama nowadays—contains no real heroes and no real villains.  I admire Detective Dennis Box, whose subtlety and cunning allow him to extract deadly evidence from you without you realizing he’s doing it.  I admire District Attorney Helen Weiss, who, like Box, can do her job with one hand tied behind her back, knows how to bend the rules without breaking them, and—with that quintessentially New York accent and demeanor—is fundamentally incorruptible.

And of course I adore Naz’s counsel, John Stone and Chandra Kapoor, both continually negotiating the boundary between professionalism and being completely in over their heads.  As the defense team, they may technically be the underdogs in this story, but they certainly don’t behave like victims.  For that reason alone, they deserve our respect.

Call me sentimental, but I appreciate TV characters who aren’t stupid, histrionic, incompetent or corrupt.  It’s easy enough to create a show centered on a bunch of idiots and crooks, and incredibly difficult to fashion a series like this, in which everyone behaves as human nature and basic morality dictate, so that even their foolish decisions can be justified and understood.

My head says Naz is guilty.  My heart says he’s not.  I don’t require a final answer.  If Naz doesn’t know what really happened that night, why should any of us?  Doubt was good enough for 12 Angry Men and it would be bloody good enough here.

Hitchcock Goes to Church

I thought I knew everything about Alfred Hitchcock, probably my favorite director of all time.  As it turns out, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

Playing in select theaters right now is a crackerjack documentary called Hitchcock/Truffaut, which recounts the time in 1962 when up-and-coming French director François Truffaut conducted an interview with the Master of Suspense that was so long and so deep that the resulting material, published as a book in 1966, runs some 368 pages and covers virtually every frame of every Hitchcock film.

Truffaut’s interview is considered a landmark in the history of cinema, because it marks the moment when Hitchcock began to be taken seriously by his peers.  Before Hitchcock/Truffaut, he was regarded strictly as an entertainer.  After the book was published, he became an artist and a renegade.  Today, he is considered arguably the most influential director who ever lived.

More noteworthy still is how much Hitchcock revealed about himself and his work.  Despite his reputation for being tight-lipped and (it must be said) a bit of a tyrant on the set, in his chat with Truffaut he pretty much gave the game away.

As such, perhaps the most tantalizing moment in the new documentary, which includes audio clips from the original interview, is the moment when Truffaut asks Hitch about the influence of his Catholicism in many of his most compelling works.  Hitchcock’s response:  “Go off-record.”  We hear a click, and everything goes black.

It was David McCullough who mused that you can learn an awful lot about a person from what he chooses not to say in public—particularly when he is perfectly willing to say so much else.  So perhaps if there is a “rosebud” to Hitchcock’s career, it can be found in his Catholic youth.

I must admit, I had no idea Hitchcock was Catholic.  Indeed, I had never given a thought to what religion he identified with, nor did it occur to me that such a thing might be relevant.

For some great directors, religion is inescapable—be it Catholicism for Martin Scorsese or Judaism for Woody Allen or Joel and Ethan Coen.  It’s not that their movies are necessarily about their faith so much as they are informed by the values and sensibilities that their faith espouses.  Taxi Driver could not possibly have been made by a non-Catholic and Annie Hall could not possibly have been made by a non-Jew.

You don’t get that sense with Hitchcock, whose movies are intended as mass entertainment above all else and possess no particular sensibility beyond wanting to give their audience a good old-fashioned thrill.

Or don’t they?

What changed my mind about this—what made me view Hitchcock’s work through a more theological lens—was seeing (for the first time) his 1953 film I Confess.  Based on an old French play, the story involves a priest who learns that a man has committed a murder, but because he hears this in the sanctity of the confessional, he cannot divulge any information to the police in their investigation of said murder.

This being a Hitchcock movie, the priest himself will eventually become implicated in the crime, thereby raising the stakes in his professional and spiritual obligation to “clergy-penitent privilege”—the notion that what happens in the confessional stays in the confessional.  By honoring his theological duty, he risks sacrificing his own freedom.  But by breaking his oath of confidentiality, he may well lose his job and, with it, his whole reason for being.

It’s a devilishly clever conceit—yet another variation on Hitchcock’s long-running theme of a man ensnarled in a legal bind from which there is no escape.

More than that, however, I Confess stands as one of the most singularly Catholic movies ever made by a major (and otherwise nondenominational) filmmaker.  The priest is played by Montgomery Clift—that most mysterious and charismatic of Hollywood stars—as a man undergoing a deep internal struggle over whether doing the “right” thing might involve turning his back on God.

It’s a performance of towering complexity—subtle, delicate and wrenching—in a movie that is brave and dignified enough to treat Catholic tradition with the gravity it deserves—in this case, the tradition of the confessional as a sacred space, even when that sanctity might allow a man to get away with murder.  Theological dilemmas don’t get much thornier than that.

It’s a measure of the movie’s nerve that audiences were not crazy about it when it was first released.  As recounted by Truffaut in his book, “[T]he public was irritated with the plot because they kept on hoping that Montgomery Clift would speak up.”  Hitchcock agreed, saying, “We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous!  No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.’”  When Truffaut asked if this disconnect served to weaken the film as a film, Hitchcock nodded, saying, with remarkable candor, “[W]e shouldn’t have made the picture.”

Here, in other words, was a movie more concerned with spiritual truth than with satisfying popular tastes.  That Hitch himself apparently disapproved of the final product only goes to show how personal the whole thing was, as if it was the one time he indulged whatever remained of his strict Jesuit upbringing, if only to get it out of his system once and for all.

However, even if I Confess is an outlier in the Hitchcock canon, it helps us to recognize the latent Catholic themes that run through virtually all of his great works—most prominently, the sin of guilt.  Janet Leigh’s guilt over stealing $40,000 in Psycho.  Kim Novak’s guilt over masquerading as James Stewart’s dream girl in Vertigo (and Stewart’s guilt in thinking he contributed to her death).  Eva Marie Saint’s guilt over deceiving Carey Grant in North by Northwest.  Farley Granger’s guilt over murdering a classmate for sport in Rope.  And on and on and on.

These are not Catholic movies, per se.  However, they are all haunted by the aura of divine justice and the fear of God’s eternal wrath that only a Catholic could fully appreciate.  While most of Hitchcock’s heroes probably fear the police and/or each other more than the man upstairs (this was certainly the case with the director himself), they are nonetheless aware that their actions have consequences.  That sooner or later, one way or another, they’re going to get what’s coming to them.

And unlike in, say, the films of Woody Allen—a writer-director who has very little faith in God or justice—these sinners generally do pay a price for their crimes, thereby allowing moral order to be restored to the universe just in time for the end credits to roll.

While Catholicism certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on guilt, sin, justice or anything else, Catholic filmmakers have long been uncommonly adept at portraying how the teachings of their ancient holy books manifest themselves in the contemporary world.  They’re the ones who take God seriously, for better and for worse.

I note this, in part, because there is a large cadre of nonbelievers who sincerely think that religion has nothing positive to offer civilization.  Or, at the least, that whatever good might come from religion could just as easily come from secularism and, in any case, is dramatically outweighed by the evil that could not come from anywhere else.

I used to agree with this assessment.  Most of the time, I still do.  But in the process of extricating myself from the world of the faithful, I have come to better appreciate the monumental role of religion in the lives of others.  I don’t think either God or religion is necessary to lead a fulfilling life, but roughly three in four Americans do, and their faith has sometimes inspired them to craft works of art that could not have emerged in any other way.

I can live without God.  I’m not sure I could live without Raging Bull.  I don’t generally resort to prayer to help solve my biggest problems, but I’m pleased that it worked for George Bailey.  Religion does little for me, but in the end that doesn’t matter so long as it does something for everyone else.  And if no religion meant no Alfred Hitchcock—well, I’m not sure that’s a trade-off I’d be prepared to make.

Loving the Sinner

We have faced the question many times before:  Is it possible to appreciate a work of art knowing that its creator did a terrible thing?

Do the flaws of an artist detract from the greatness of his art?  When a person is found to have committed the most unforgivable crimes, should his work be publicly shunned along with him, or are we permitted—ethically and/or intellectually—to separate one from the other?

Generally speaking, I have long found that reconciliation is indeed possible, and probably necessary most of the time.  While circumstances vary, we just might need to accept that all humans are flawed and the search for great achievements will inevitably be fraught with some unsavory characters.

To wit:  I can marvel at Ty Cobb’s near-superhuman baseball playing abilities while acknowledging that Cobb was a racist buffoon.  I can admire Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments about freedom and equality knowing how violently and deliberately he violated those principles all through his life.  I’m not especially taken by the paintings of Adolph Hitler, but if I was, I wouldn’t allow the evils of their creator to prevent me from saying so.

Art is art, for better and for worse, and it ought to be considered on its own merits.

However, even if we take all of this to be true—and many people firmly do not—we are left with several essential unresolved issues.  Not least among these is the question of what to do with such undesirables while they’re still walking among us, and whether we ought to avoid going out of our way to honor them for their creative pursuits, both as a culture and in our own minds.

Which brings us to Woody Allen.

As many are now aware, the 78-year-old movie director stands accused of sexually assaulting the seven-year-old adopted daughter of Allen and his then-partner, Mia Farrow.

Dylan Farrow, the alleged victim, first leveled this charge of rape in 1992, and the whole nasty business was resurrected this past weekend when she submitted an open letter restating her case to the New York Times, apparently inspired by Allen’s receiving a life achievement award at last month’s Golden Globes.

Allen has never been formally prosecuted for the crime in question, let alone found guilty.  He has always denied the alleged incident ever occurred; Farrow has always maintained that it did.  There is no definitive evidence either way.  Unless and until further details come to light, it’s a good old “he said, she said” situation.  Considering that the would-be prosecutor now says the statute of limitations has elapsed, it will likely remain as such.

Officially, this is all old news.  However, I must admit that, until very recently, I was completely oblivious to the whole bloody thing.  I knew all about Allen’s unusual marriage to Soon-Yi Previn—some scandals are simply unavoidable—but somehow the Dylan Farrow accusation eluded me.  I’d like to think this cultural blind spot was simply a consequence of my general policy of not caring about the private lives of public figures, but I now suspect I was subconsciously suppressing any urge to seek out information about Allen that would reduce his standing in the cinematic hierarchy in my head.

You see, my admiration for Woody Allen as a filmmaker is not casual.  I was introduced to his best works at a fairly young age.  I can probably quote Annie Hall by heart.  On some days, his Hannah and Her Sisters is my favorite of all movies, and I could happily watch it every week for the remainder of my natural life.

Yet I am inclined to believe Dylan Farrow is telling the truth, which means I worship at the cinematic alter of a rapist.  What is more, a rapist who is still alive and making movies, and so every time I buy a ticket, some of that money goes directly into Allen’s pocket.

Under these circumstances, the obvious moral thing to do would be to take Farrow’s advice and turn my back on Allen with some sort of one-person boycott.  Stop watching his films, stop singing his praises, stop acting like his alleged personal behavior is not utterly abhorrent and can be somehow brushed aside.

And yet, at least on the first two points, I can’t.  Or rather, I won’t.

The films of Woody Allen mean too much to me.  I could not do without them any more than I could Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” or the music of rock ‘n’ rollers whose abuses of women and drugs were as bottomless as they were repugnant.

As is so often the case, I must perform a cop-out and simply live with the contradiction, accepting the ugly possibility that the provider of some of my life’s greatest pleasures is also responsible for inflicting on others the most unimaginable pain.

Different Love

When someone tells you they’re in love, how can you possibly convince them that they’re not?

That’s how some atheists explain the intellectual quandary of debating with the faithful about the existence of God.  While the arguments for atheism and agnosticism might be based strictly on evidence and logic, most believers think as they do not because of empirical facts, but rather because of what they feel in their hearts.  And there is no arguing with how one feels.  It is, you might say, a fact in and of itself.

The analogy of belief in God to love is a good one, since the act of being in love does seem to function in a similar way.

Romantic love occurs independent of reason, if not in outright opposition thereto.  It is a matter of the heart, not the mind.  It cannot be explained; it can only be felt.

When someone tells you they’re in love, you cannot question them or reason them out of it.  You must simply accept it, no matter how bizarre or “wrong” their particular attraction might appear to you.

The elusive, inexplicable nature of love is the primary subject of Her, the fascinating and altogether profound new movie by Spike Jonze.

By turns depressing and whimsical, Her takes place in a near-ish future in which the automated voices on our tablets and smart phones—the ones that say, “You have three new e-mails!”—have been made to think and speak for themselves.

From this fanciful premise (which will surely one day become real), the movie imagines a lonely, semi-divorced man who forms an emotional bond with his own such “operating system” voice.  Soon enough, this rapport develops into what you might call a relationship, and the man’s fixation develops into what you might call love.

The implications of this unusual arrangement are addressed by the film in surprising and perceptive ways, and are as provocative as it gets, because they cut to the core of what it means to love and be loved, and by extension, what it means to be human.

In an affair between a man and his computer, perhaps the most important question of all is whether this can really be considered love at all—or, for that matter, a real relationship.

There is agreement by all parties involved—the man, the computer, the man’s friends and the movie itself—that falling for a disembodied voice is unorthodox and more than a little bit strange, even in the context of this fictional future world.  But this fact does not, by itself, mean that the man’s professed affection for the voice in his ear is invalid or less meaningful than a person’s love for a fellow human being.

After all, many corners of the world have spent the better part of several millennia viewing couplings between people of different races, religions, ethnic groups or social classes as perverted, shameful or otherwise “unnatural.”  The same goes for love between people of the same sex.  For a great many folks, to not understand a particular form of emotional attachment is to condemn it and wish that it would go away.

Yet in spite of such visceral resistance, we in the civilized world have nonetheless come to accept so-called “nontraditional” love as real.  We might not approve of it, but we at least recognize that it exists and, to that extent, that it is deserving of our respect.

So when a friend informs you that he has fallen in love with an operating system, who are you to tell him that he is mistaken?  By what objective standard can one thing be considered “real love” and another thing not?

Love is irrational.  It is, as a character in Her postulates, a “form of socially acceptable insanity.”  We talk sometimes about falling for the “wrong” person, but the fact is that right and wrong have nothing to do with it.  Like Woody Allen once said, “The heart wants what it wants,” and that’s that.

Of course, nonbelievers have never let the inherent irrationality of the God proposition prevent them from interrogating those who insist God is real.  Should those who are skeptical about the prospect of falling in love with a computer be similarly stubborn and relentless in their public critique?  Or would that ultimately be a big waste of time?

Salman Rushdie recently mused, “Love feels, more and more, like the only subject.”  He might be right, and we might be stuck talking about it for the rest of our natural lives.

But that does not mean we will ever truly understand it, or be able to assign moral weight to its myriad and disparate forms.

We can’t explain what love is.  We just know it when we feel it.

Onward

If there is one thing I do not understand, it is why anyone would be afraid of death.

I am acutely aware that some of humanity’s most clever individuals have devoted lifetimes to contemplating the mysteries of the deep, not least one of my artistic heroes, Woody Allen.

Nonetheless, I resolved the issue for myself years ago, with a philosophy articulated most succinctly (funnily enough) by Allen himself, as screenwriter.  In his film Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen’s character probes his father as to why he does not worry about his own death, to which the old man responds, “I’ll be unconscious.  Or I won’t.  If not, I’ll deal with it then.”  Voilà.

We say that death is tragic, but that is only true because it happens one at a time—because there are survivors who must wrestle with their grief and yet somehow soldier on.  Death would be neither tragic nor particularly interesting if we all snuffed it at the exact same moment—an eventuality made possible by the wonders of nuclear weapons, although that is another story entirely.

I muse on these questions, in part, because earlier this week some as-yet-unidentified jerk took it upon himself to blow holes in my hometown of Boston with a pair of improvised explosive devices, murdering three and wounding 170 more.  In the intervening time, I have been asked—as all residents of stricken big cities are—if the Boston Marathon bombing has led me to fear for my safety a bit more than usual.

The question, however compassionate and well-meaning, rather confused me.  Of course I don’t fear for my safety more than at any other time.  I don’t understand why anyone would.

Sure, in the minutes immediately following the Boylston Street blasts, when all hell was breaking loose and the prospect of further explosions was entirely in the cards, one is entitled to a cold rush of fright.

But once the initial shock has receded and life in the big city returns to its normal rhythms?  Well, as a certain British cliché enjoins, you carry on.

Yes, amongst the seven billion souls on our young planet are a few who wish the rest of us harm and have access to weaponry that can do the job.  I was unaware this information had been withheld from certain people before Monday’s madness, but that is what one must believe in order to say we should suddenly cower, having held our heads high up until now.  It is an utterly irrational attitude to strike.

Could I (or anyone else) meet my end by being blown to smithereens?  Sure.  Anything is possible.

On the other hand, as a recreational bike rider, I am far more likely to flutter toward the pearly gates as the result of turning a sharp corner, looking the wrong way and being rendered a human pancake by a passing city bus.

Heck, I live in the attic of a rickety old tree house of an apartment, with every trip down the staircase a delicate fencing match with the Grim Reaper, particularly after a few cocktails.

I could slip out of the shower, bang my head and never be heard from again.

Or I could live a hundred years and go peacefully in my sleep, my weary heart deciding, at long last, that enough is enough.

An individual’s cause of death is a matter for actuarial tables.  It is only death itself that is certain.

In that way, we all step out the door every day under an illusion of immortality, confident that today, at least, we will triumphantly avert death.  But then, we scarcely have a choice in the matter and, after all, on most of these days we are correct.

It is not simply a matter of “not letting the terrorists win,” you see.  As if life only has meaning in the face of a homicidal nemesis.

No, it is about those universal American values that never go away—the ones about life and liberty and pursuing one’s happiness without intimidation and without fear.

I do not wish to expend inordinate amounts of my remaining time on Earth contemplating my own death, or avoiding all activity that could possibly cause it.  It will happen sooner or later, and until it does, I would prefer to devote my life to living.