As privileged classes go, few hold as elevated pride of place in American culture as the fans.
Not just movies but entire franchises are constructed for their benefit — for good and, today at least, for ill (op. cit. the dreary “Justice League”). Other movies are made by them, such as the upcoming comedy “The Disaster Artist,” James Franco’s delightful, heartfelt homage to the hilariously execrable cult movie “The Room.”
Then there’s “I Love You, Daddy,” a movie that’s too radioactive for even the most loyal devotees of the man who made it. A creepy nod to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” in which writer-director Louis C.K. plays coy cat-and-mouse with long-running rumors of his sexual misbehavior with female colleagues, the film was shelved after it was revealed last week that those rumors were true.
After issuing a nonapologetic apology, C.K. has retreated to “step back and take a long time to listen.” In the meantime, his fans have been left with their own feelings of grief, betrayal and, in some instances, rationalizations about dark impulses necessarily informing great art. “This one hurts,” one C.K. follower tweeted late last week, suggesting that, within an odious sea of awful men, the tide had finally swept in someone most people actually like.
This isn’t America’s most reassuring sweater-clad dad, Bill Cosby, turning out to be a dissembling monster. This is a flawed but beloved figure — a beloved figure precisely because he’s flawed — who disarmed comedy nerds and sophisticates alike by “owning” his most shameful qualities, and marshaling his sexist id in service of a personal, perversely confessional (but, it turns out, deeply hypocritical) form of feminism.
Perhaps because so many people unthinkingly conflated Louis C.K. the man and Louis C.K. the act, a turning point seems to have been reached: Now that all our faves are problematic, or surely will be in a couple of news cycles, it feels like our own step back is in order, the better to put our pop culture crushes into proper focus.
In an era of peak TV, Comic-Concentric movies and hive-minded social media, fandom has gone from innocent pastime to supercharged marketing force: Whether they’re blogging, commenting, recapping or canon-policing, garden-variety viewers now have unprecedented power, their likes and dislikes compulsively tracked and catered to by studios, networks and other gatekeepers.
But while fandom has been weaponized — and as corporations have become more sophisticated about co-opting it — the fans themselves haven’t matured apace. Rather than cultivating more restraint, skepticism and semidetached reserve, admirers of particular artists have become even more neurotically attached to their cultural love-objects, demanding relatability, accessibility and “engagement,” no matter how manufactured. It’s a social contract that goes back to the silent era, but is newly enforceable in the era of constant iPhone surveillance: We’ll worship you, charming shadow material and all, as long as you don’t turn out to be an actual creep. (And, if you’re Mel Gibson, we’ll even make your new movie a big hit after an unspecified probation period.)
As a force multiplier, the press has its own ignominious role to play in the totalization of fandom. Breezy recaps and more serious-minded reviews now share space in the infinite maw of pop culture coverage, which now embraces trailers — and their hair-trigger evaluations — with more breathless anticipation than the movies themselves.
But instead of fans adopting traditional criticism’s arms-length rigor, the influence has gone in the other direction, with journalists more willing than ever to take the performative “niceness” of their subjects — or, even more interesting, their “darkness” — at fawning face value. As dismaying as it was to see writers desperately trying to still make a case for C.K.’s genius last week, it was just as unsettling to witness entertainment journalists fill a Twitter thread with anecdotes about “positive” celebrity encounters, their star-struck malleability almost as startling as their eagerness to name-drop. Thanks to bingeable content and burgeoning platforms, everyone’s a critic now. But far too many critics are comfortable with being fans, content to join the cult of personality rather than exercise a cooler form of connoisseurship, lest they be taken for elitist scolds a la Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” or Anton Ego in “Ratatouille.”
It’s a strain of the same populist, anti-intellectual impulse that now dominates nearly every outpost of American life, where irrational exuberance and throwing down tribal markers are the chief form of social participation, and which has reached its apotheosis in the era of Provocateur in Chief Donald Trump, whose recent trip to Asia felt less like diplomacy than an extended exercise in fan service (“China likes me”). Whether it’s Roy Moore partisans smashing their Keurig machines or Hillary haters demanding Shep Smith’s head at Fox News, what passes for political debate more closely resembles arguments between DC Comics and Marvel fans in the bowels of the San Diego Convention Center than genuine civic discourse.
Rather than reacting to the time by being more discerning and self-aware, fans and their proxies in the entertainment press seem to be regressing to a more childlike, credulous time, their passions lurching from abject adulation to garment-rending grief in the time it takes to issue an apology, which will surely be assessed alongside other apologies to judge whose was best — a whole new canon, ready to be parsed, classified and ranked.
What fans and their media coddlers forget at their peril is that the finest paintings, poetry, symphonies, films and, yes, stand-up comedy routines have been created by people of deep moral failings and sometimes unspeakable behavior. Confronting those contradictions is a crucial part of critical thinking about their work, as is managing idealistic but naive expectations of consonance between their public and private personas.
Some version of “this one hurts” was surely uttered by fans of “Lohengrin” when they heard that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite or Ezra Pound admirers when they discovered his fascist sympathies. Bill Cosby still hurts. And Louis C.K. will no doubt hurt for a long time to come. This is only the beginning of a period that will be remembered as a time when misogynist malefactors were finally held to account, when victims and their allies received an overdue reckoning and, with luck, when the fans finally grew up.