A movie is not a sandwich, and neither is a TV series, no matter how often we describe bingeing one as if it were a private encounter with a party hoagie. But we've developed a tendency to use the language of purchase power and nutrition — what's healthy, what's not — and to talk about the things we watch the same way that we talk about the things we shop for and eat. This was particularly on my mind when poking around Rotten Apples, a website that declares its aim to "make ethical media consumption easier," as if it were the Hollywood abuse equivalent of one of those sustainable seafood shopping guides.
Rotten Apples launched in December and attracted a burst of attention for presenting itself as the Rotten Tomatoes of the post-Weinstein era. It’s a searchable site that lets you input the title of a movie or TV show and see if anyone connected to it — cast member, writer, director, or producer — has had sexual misconduct allegations reported against them by a major news outlet. The results are either "fresh" or "rotten," and simply list the names of any alleged perpetrators, with the uglier details tucked away behind hyperlinks to relevant articles.
Rotten Apples’ impossible promise of simplicity seems emblematic of how much people want to be told there's an easy response to a vast and increasingly complicated conversation. Audiences have been demanding more, politically and morally, from their art and entertainment in general, a reality that goes beyond #MeToo, but to which #MeToo has given an incendiary urgency. We demand better representation and sharper cultural relevance in our entertainment, in addition to wanting the industry that produces it to stop being a hotbed of sexual assault, harassment, and misogyny. But all the thumbs up/down binary of Rotten Apples is actually good for is illuminating how much there is to wrestle with behind the jargony slogan of "ethical media consumption."
Type in "The Birth of a Nation" and you get the fascinating juxtaposition of a rotten result for the disgraced 2016 Sundance favorite directed by Nate Parker, but a clean bill of health for the KKK-glorifying 1915 D.W. Griffith film after which it's named. The Pirates of the Caribbean series gets a "fresh," as the domestic violence accusations against star Johnny Depp apparently fall outside the site's purview. Milestone Asian-American weepie The Joy Luck Club, on the other hand, is a no-go, courtesy of having been executive produced by alleged harasser Oliver Stone. The site’s internal logic gets even shakier once you go back more than a few decades. Per its own mission and given the long, terrible realities of show business, just about every pre-'80s title should probably come up as tainted.
"By no means is this site meant to serve as a condemnation of an entire project," the creators, who come from the advertising world, insist in the blurb describing their noncommercial project. But everything about the site suggests it's a resource for helping you sort through what to watch — and I understand how that pitch might be seductive. All the horrifying stories of the last few months have given people the urge to do their part in reacting to the news, whatever that might mean; in addition to delivering yes/no decrees, Rotten Apples provides a way to navigate labyrinthine showbiz structures that can make it tough to figure out who was involved with what. But being an ethical consumer of media, if that's what you want and how you want to put it — organic! free range! — was never going to mean just dumping any title that's been touched by one of the industry's seemingly boundless supply of bad men.
This isn't a "separating the art from the artist" argument — god, am I tired of "art from artist" arguments, when the reality of engaging with art has always been so much more complex than that. The inadequacy of that old mantra, which has been held up in some quarters as a purist approach to criticism, as if critics approached all art in white coveralls while in a clean room, has been especially evident of late. Being able to effortlessly separate work from its creator is most often the privilege of those who relate to the artist more than to anyone that artist might have wronged. It's easier to discount those details (and this goes beyond misconduct) when they don't apply to you, when they're abstract or distant.
Which is to say, it is a process that is entirely and uncomfortably personal, deciding how much what you know eclipses what you watch. While Hollywood pushes toward industry reform for the work that's made going forward, how we contend with the work that's already around remains an individual journey you're already on, and have been on all your life. And that, no matter how slick the branding, will never be easily outsourced to a website.
Before she is raped and impregnated by the devil, the eponymous character in the 1968 horror classic Rosemary's Baby, a guileless, young housewife played by Mia Farrow, eats a drugged dessert. Well, part of it — she knows something's wrong with it and doesn't want it, but pretends to finish it anyway, because her husband tells her to and she'd prefer not to upset him. Rosemary is lied to, coerced, terrorized, and made to doubt her own mind and body in countless escalating ways throughout the film, but it's the mundane menace of that early scene, before everything starts really going off the rails, that has always lingered with me — the candlelit dinner with the chalky chocolate mousse. How smoothly John Cassavetes' character, who's made a deal with satanists in exchange for a career boost, shifts between tactics as he attempts to coerce his wife into choking down the substance he knows is going to knock her out. How easily he makes her into the unreasonable one.
First she's imagining things ("That's silly, there is no undertaste," says Cassavetes), then she's being ungrateful toward the neighbor who made it ("Come on, the old bat slaved all day"). And when that doesn't take, he implies not just that she's being difficult ("There's always something wrong"), but that she makes a habit of it. There's no overt threat, just deftly scripted manipulation in which a woman's sense of obligation to keep the peace is used to leverage her into doing something she doesn't want to. Rosemary's Baby is a landmark of paranoid horror and a breathtaking pregnancy nightmare, but it's also a hell of a study in gaslighting. It’s a movie that reflects a keen understanding of gender dynamics and how regularly women are undermined, disbelieved, and made to question their own realities — by their spouses and their doctors as well as the occasional evil coven.
And it was written by Roman Polanski, who, in 1977, was convicted of the statutory rape of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey, then fled the United States, never to return, when he was told the judge had decided not to honor his plea bargain. In the last six months, he's been accused of assaulting multiple other women in that same time period. Polanski's track record of rape predates the Weinstein era by decades, which is why, maybe, his moment of reckoning has yet to come around. Not only has he managed to keep making lauded movies in the years since, but he also got the public support of over 100 prominent directors, actors, producers, writers, programmers, and executives who signed a letter demanding his release when he was arrested in Switzerland in 2009. To take a gander through all those names, in the light of 2018, might feel astonishing, though it shouldn't. The #MeToo moment has been one of seismic, desperately needed change, but it shouldn't blot out the memory of what business as usual was like right up until the past few months.
For so many of the people I've talked to, friends over beers and colleagues after screenings, the #MeToo movement has been a period of heady, long-simmering anger and righteous frustration — and underneath, a thrum of shamefaced dread that someone whose work is really important to them will be next. But my heart was broken long before by Polanski, whose work is part of how I learned to love movies, and whose work taught me the early lesson that someone can sympathize with and show a deep understanding of women on screen while abusing them in real life. The latter has counted for a lot less in the eyes of the industry than the former — until now. After decades of toxicity, so central to the business that the casting couch is as much a part of showbiz iconography as the fresh-faced dreamer getting off a bus in Hollywood, the fact that consequences have finally been attached to misconduct is an idea I'm still getting used to.
There is something startlingly satisfying in the way famous figures have recently been bumped from schedules or swapped out of work — Kevin Spacey from All the Money in the World and House of Cards, Bryan Singer from Bohemian Rhapsody, Ed Westwick from Ordeal by Innocence — because for so long, people have been protected and enabled by the myth that they are just too essential to be replaced. Their transgressions disappeared, while they remained. But the last few months have emphasized that the world keeps revolving without them, that no one is genuinely irreplaceable or so good that they have some kind of right to commit misconduct. One of the many side effects of #MeToo has been to provide a reminder that Hollywood has never been a meritocracy, that it operates on favors and favoritism, lust and spite, just as much as it does ability and bankability. If, despite her talent, a woman can have her career put on hold or cut short just because she turned down the unwelcome attentions of a powerful man, well, that capriciousness cuts both ways — any vacuum left by that powerful man would quickly be filled in by any of the people already around and jostling for a chance.
The vanishing, for yet-undetermined amounts of time, of predatory men isn't going to hurt film or television.
It might hurt you a little, or me, to have to accept that someone who made something personally meaningful to us has abused power and other people, but no one's art (or box-office draw) is so astonishing as to merit some kind of consequences-free pass on predatory behavior. And no one's art is so astonishing that it's proof they're incapable of wrongdoing, despite the way Dustin Hoffman brandished his role in Tootsie like a Get Out of Jail Free card when being questioned by John Oliver on stage at a Wag the Dog event in December. Hoffman, who's been the focus of multiple harassment accusations, insisted that "I would not have made that movie if I didn’t have an incredible respect for women," as if the very act of making the film, in which he played an actor whose ideas about women change after disguising himself as one to land a role on a soap, were indisputable evidence on his behalf.
I still love Tootsie, though. And Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, Knife in the Water, and Chinatown, and the Casey Affleck–starring A Ghost Story, and Louis C.K.'s weird and wonderful Horace and Pete, in which at one point Laurie Metcalf delivers a 20-minute monologue so riveting and human and funny-dirty-agonizing that I went back and restarted the episode as soon as it was over just to see the whole thing again.
I would happily never hear about Woody Allen and most of his output ever again, because I've never been able to see what his fans see, and because so much of who he seems to be as a person seeps onto the screen, and I don't like who he seems to be as a person at all. But I've tried (I have tried so hard!) to stop fighting about him, both because it's ruined some friendships and because, in the eyes of people who defend him as fiercely as they would a beloved family member, I see the impulses I've tried my best to let go of myself: the rush to defend something that has spoken to you so deeply that criticisms of its creator feel like personal attacks. Liking Tootsie doesn't make you rotten any more than making it proves Hoffman fresh.
At the Golden Globes the other week, the red carpet was flooded with celebrities dressed in black, the color of mourning or of businesslike seriousness. Some celebrities had brought activists with them to try to broaden the conversation about sexism and harassment beyond Hollywood, and all listened to Oprah declare "that a new day is on the horizon" and heard Laura Dern "urge all of us to not only support survivors and bystanders who are brave enough to tell their truth, but to promote restorative justice." Not everyone agreed on how meaningful these demonstrations and statements were, but what seemed clear is that they speak to an underlying culture in need of change. They point to skewed stats that could be shifted, from who's in front of the camera to who's behind it to who's greenlighting these projects to begin with. And those stats aren't just about balancing the two sides of the gender binary, though the “50/50 by 2020” push that is one of Time's Up goals is a place to start.
These are all initiatives that outsiders can support as consumers, with the tickets they buy and the subscriptions they sign up for. There are actionable ways in which the film and TV industry can be pressured into change by its audience, in terms of supporting more diverse voices and work produced by companies that are conscious of both preventing misconduct and protecting those who report it. There are things you can do looking forward that can affect change. When it comes to looking back, though — that's still really up to you alone, and no one's going to be forced to stream the complete Cosby Show any more than angry mobs are going to go door to door tearing Hannah and Her Sisters posters from walls and tossing them on a public bonfire.
The #MeToo moment might well come around for Roman Polanski, though then again, who knows, given that he's not dependent on Hollywood money to make his films. It seems to, finally, be arriving for Woody Allen, whose days as a working filmmaker may be coming to an end as actors have been distancing themselves and expressing regret for appearing in his movies. Both men are in their 80s, so if funding or distribution dried up for either, it would be more of an ignominious push toward retirement than a more decisive gesture. But it would still be a sign of an industry actually attempting to change direction, slowly, like an ocean liner charting a new course.
Either way, the history they're part of and the work they've made will remain, leaving audiences to choose to contend with it or not, and to figure out how to feel about it. That sequence from Rosemary's Baby isn't going anywhere, and it'll keep reverberating in my head whenever I see it. I'd love to see something even better, though, from someone new. ●
Alison Willmore is a critic and culture writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Alison Willmore at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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