Imagine a world where you could consume art and culture without corrupting influence of bad people. Folks, the future is now, thanks to the new online movie/TV database The Rotten Apples. Never again will you have to fear accidental exposure to the creative output of a Casey Affleck, a Brett Ratner, or a Jeffrey Tambor. This searchable database makes no judgments about the severity of the abuse, and draws no distinction between abusers who are alive or dead, or whether it stars Dustin Hoffman or Kevin Spacey, or is directed by Roman Polanski or Woody Allen or the late Alfred Hitchcock. It simply provides a list of the creative talent who have been accused of sexual misconduct, a link to an article outlining the allegations, and a “Fresh Apples”/”Rotten Apples” seal of dis/approval.
Even on its own dubious terms, the site is useless. Hitchcock’s harassment of Tippi Hedren renders his films “rotten,” but the films of Charlie Chaplin—whose marriage to 16-year-old Lita Grey could easily be described as abusive—have “no known affiliation to anyone with allegations of sexual misconduct against them.” The same goes for Errol Flynn, another Golden Age star who serially preyed on teenagers, and Klaus Kinski, accused of rape by his daughter. Don Juan DeMarco is dinged for starring the “rotten apple” Marlon Brando (cited for improvising an assault in Last Tango in Paris without co-star Maria Schneider’s consent), but not for co-starring Johnny Depp, whose spousal abuse apparently doesn’t fall under the purview of “sexual misconduct.” Speaking of Depp, Ed Wood is “fresh” despite featuring convicted sex offender Jeffrey Jones, while Pirates of the Caribbean is “rotten” only because of co-star Geoffrey Rush’s inappropriate touching. Mel Gibson, another poster child for abusive men and unearned second-chances, does not fall under Rotten Apples’ sexual misconduct umbrella. Nor does director Bernardo Bertolucci, who conspired with Brando on Last Tango’s assault scene but apparently shares none of the blame. If you saw Salma Hayek’s New York Times op-ed about Harvey Weinstein’s monstrous behaviour during the making of Frida, you might be interested to know that the film is “rotten”… because of Geoffrey Rush. Pulp Fiction is “rotten” for John Travolta and executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, but Clerks—an acquisition that helped define the Weinsteins’ identity, and that Kevin Smith now pledges he will donate all royalties from as penance—is “fresh.” As long as we’re punishing films for the executives that financed them, why not anything made at Columbia Pictures during the reign of Harry Cohn, who used his stable of female stars as a virtual harem? Or Wonder Woman, produced by Brett Ratner’s RatPac Entertainment and executive produced by Steven Mnuchin, now Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury?
Even if the site were more expansive or rigorous, it’s hard to imagine who will find it useful (will anyone rent Repulsion and, finger hovering over the Play button, suddenly remember to check Rotten Apples to see if anyone involved is problematic?). The site is also unhelpful in suggesting what we’re supposed to do with the information. Should we refuse to watch The Joy Luck Club—the only Hollywood movie I can think of with a cast of mostly Asian women—because of “rotten apple” executive producer Oliver Stone? Throw our Diane Keaton as Annie Hall with the Woody Allen bathwater? Watch Psycho, but just bear in mind that the filmmaker was an abuser? These are three very different situations, but all are flattened into the same thing by The Rotten Apples.
So, The Rotten Apples is useless, but it does have me thinking again about two questions that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: When and why should one boycott an artist? And what is the nature of our relationship with art?
The most obvious reason to boycott an artist is that the royalties from your $4.99 iTunes rental of The Ninth Gate might contribute, in a very small way, to funding Roman Polanski’s career and lifestyle as a fugitive from justice. Or perhaps you cannot even look at, for example, Woody Allen without seeing a child molester who escaped justice. Life is too short to subject yourself to movies you won’t enjoy, so go ahead and skip Annie Hall. (I’m a little cynical that people are quite as pure in their principles as they sometimes claim. I’ve heard people say with a straight face that they’re okay with watching Roman Polanski movies made before his 1977 sexual assault, as if this single event suddenly turned him into a different person. I also doubt that many people get upset when they hear Thriller at the grocery store. People rationalize.) In the case of James Toback, who has abused his power to assault and harass women, a boycott of his work might make it harder for him to wield that power again. In the case of Hitchcock, part of his mystique comes from the iron-fisted control he wielded over his films; if this control enabled his abuse of actors, and if this has been too long overlooked, then it’s good that we’re talking about it. Aside from that, what justice does it serve to boycott the filmography of a dead man other than to give oneself the false sense of keeping pure from corrupting influence?
What is the nature of our relationship with an art? Social media has made stars and directors more accessible, and fostered a false sense of intimacy between celebrities and fans. These people are not actually our friends, which might be news to the many ostensibly professional film journalists tagging @RianJohnson in their tweet-reviews of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. (It was interesting to observe the sense of personal betrayal when fans of Joss Whedon learned that the ostentatious “male feminist” possesses feet of clay.) I find it more interesting and illuminating to wrestle with a difficult artist working through something deeply personal rather than cheering on a Good Person™ who regurgitates my values back to me, which is why R. Crumb—a man who has dedicated his career to exploring what a piece of shit he is—is a better artist than Norman Rockwell (and, for that matter, why Alfred Hitchcock is a more interesting filmmaker than Joss Whedon). Do you want to engage with art as art, or as comfort food and personal branding?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in relation to my own problematic bae, Woody Allen (I know, I know, I need to stop talking about him). It would be disingenuous to pretend that one of the appeals of Allen’s films isn’t for audiences to project themselves onto his witty, sophisticated urbanites. As a public figure, Allen cultivated a persona as pseudo-intellectual, Manhattan dwelling Total Filmmaker whose once-movie-a-year assembly line emerged fully-formed from his genius brain, making him a role model for generations of wannabe creatives. Post-Dylan Farrow, I think people are disturbed by the fact that they ever identified with Allen, and want to banish the influence. Certainly Allen’s work is impossible to view in the same light: the career-summing monologue that concludes Whatever Works (“Whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works. And don’t kid yourself, because it’s by no means up to your own human ingenuity”) is a lot less charming when you remember it comes from a man who married his daughter’s sister. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of his post-1992 movies are about shrewish women and put-upon men, and the mental gymnastics they undertake to justify their irresponsible love lives. This is troubling stuff for anyone who once took comfort in Annie Hall, but if you’re willing to engage with him as an artist and a cultural phenomenon rather than as a hero/spirit-animal, the work can still be interesting. The same is true of Roman Polanski, a rapist who has made piercing masterpieces about power and gender, and whose filmography represents a challenging interplay of his best and worst qualities. I don’t want to hang out with either of them, but I somehow doubt I’ll be asked.