Movie fans, we have a problem.
And yo, my dudes — you have an even bigger one.
The past several weeks of allegations regarding systemic sexual abuse in the movie industry, launched by dozens of women accusing Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein of harassment and assault, have created an ethical vortex for movie lovers. How can we watch “Shakespeare in Love” — the frothy romantic comedy for which Gwyneth Paltrow won an Oscar in 1999 — without conjuring images of Weinstein trying to give her a massage in a hotel room a few years earlier, as Paltrow claimed recently?
How can we blithely accept a fetishistically tricked-out Rose McGowan in the Miramax film “Grindhouse" if we believe that she felt “shattered” making the film, having accused Weinstein of raping her several years earlier? How can we not cringe watching Mira Sorvino play a thigh-high-booted prostitute (with a heart of gold, natch) in Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” after Sorvino alleges that Weinstein physically imposed himself on her while doing publicity for the film?
This quandary goes beyond the familiar exercise of whether and how to separate the art from the artist — a debate that will continue to rage every time Allen makes a movie or Roman Polanski receives an award. The current challenge is more akin to football fans learning of the severe physical costs of their favorite sport, and deciding whether they can in good conscience still cheer on Sunday-afternoon gladiators knowing they very likely are risking crippling brain injuries every time they take the field.
As a different but no less profound traumatic wound, sexual exploitation and abuse — and the moral injury incurred by witnesses who enabled it or didn’t intervene — raise similar questions regarding the ethics of spectatorship. With every new revelation of the abuse actors, executives and crew people have suffered at the hands of their bosses and colleagues in the movie industry, film fans must reckon with the degree to which they can enjoy a piece of filmed entertainment knowing that it was created in the midst of unspeakable — and, until now, unspoken — suffering.
It’s a particularly pressing problem for the male filmgoers whose ideas of pleasure are both constructed and catered to by the men running Hollywood, where frat-boy humor, guns-as-phallic-symbols and puerile sexuality are as ingrained in the cinematic lexicon as glamorous close-ups and tracking shots. Now they must come to terms with the fact that their cinematic pleasure has all too often been predicated on someone else’s pain.
In the Los Angeles Times, six women accused the director and producer Brett Ratner of sexual harassment, including two background players who appeared in Ratner’s 2001 movie “Rush Hour 2.” In the midst of a “sexually charged” set populated with women in bikinis and lingerie, Ratner allegedly ran his finger down the stomach of one actress, invited her into the bathroom and implied that he could make her famous if she complied. He allegedly asked another extra to see her breasts, holding out the promise of a speaking role if she cooperated.
Surviving a miserable film shoot is part of the folklore of auteurism and, when the movie in question turns out to be a classic, it often becomes a badge of honor: recall the macho war stories of filming “Apocalypse Now” and “Fitzcarraldo." But the troubling gender politics of great-man filmmaking increasingly put such self-mythologizing to the test.
Considering what we now know about how Alfred Hitchcock ruthlessly pursued and undermined Tippi Hedren, how can we watch “The Birds” and “Marnie" without feeling not just creeped out but complicit? How can we watch a boyish, guilelessly charming Robert Downey Jr. act out a sanitized version of writer-director James Toback’s predatory behavior toward hundreds of women in “The Pick-Up Artist”? How will guys ogling scantily clad women in a cable broadcast of “Rush Hour 2” feel about being proxies for Ratner’s own voyeuristic tendencies? (Weinstein’s spokesperson and Ratner’s attorney have denied all allegations of nonconsensual sexual activity.)
Cinema isn’t just an art form. It’s also an industrial practice. And just as every film bears the distinctive collective signature of the artists behind it, it’s inscribed with the conditions of its making — conditions that can either make viewers part of an enriching, vicariously exhilarating collaboration or force them to weigh their own entertainment against the human costs of creating it.
Just as everyone must now decide for themselves whether a football game is worth the long-term effects of serial concussions, or whether they want to buy jeans made in an overseas sweatshop, we’re now faced with the reality that movies, too, are part of a long supply chain that for too long has involved abuse of power, oppressive working conditions and profound physical and psychological distress.
It’s a chain that begins in acting class, when young women are encouraged to make themselves physically and emotionally vulnerable, extends to dictatorial film sets and goes all the way to the screen, where they’re often objectified and hypersexualized for the supposed benefit of male viewers who are habitually mistaken for the norm.
For years, movies have come with disclaimers assuring audiences that no animals were hurt during filming. Perhaps it’s time to devise a similar seal of approval for productions that treated their human collaborators with dignity and professional decorum. Harmless escapism is one of the fundamental values of the moviegoing experience. But escapism is difficult to justify — and anything but harmless — when we know that the people creating it felt trapped, with nowhere to turn.