You could get whiplash following the news in 2017, and that’s just in the movie world. Was it really less than a year ago that Barry Jenkins accepted the Oscar for best picture for “Moonlight,” but only after the mix-up that seemed to give the award to “La La Land”? That was a mistake that read like a metaphor for an industry that remains intransigently, at times cluelessly, white.
But something is happening. The tectonic plates in Hollywood show signs of shifting. Filmmakers like Mr. Jenkins and Patty Jenkins, who directed “Wonder Woman,” are agents of that change. So are the scores of women who have called out the systemic abuse of entertainment power brokers like Harvey Weinstein, Brett Ratner and John Lasseter. Change finally may be coming, whether the movie industry is ready or not.
The Times’s chief film critics, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, discuss some of the high and low points of an extraordinary year.
MANOHLA DARGIS As we look back at the year in movies, I kept thinking about how future film historians will frame 2017. They will probably go deep on Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” one of the surprises of the year, except that they will likely decree that its success was not unexpected but rather a predictable response to the Obama presidency. Others may discuss how “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” improved (or ruined) the franchise. But every historian will grapple with the allegations against Mr. Weinstein and the ensuing fallout.
A. O. SCOTT It’s hard to survey the landscape in the middle of an earthquake. And of course it’s a story that has rippled far beyond Mr. Weinstein and Hollywood, into nearly every industry and workplace. Like many men, I have watched the moral collapse of my gender with a mix of emotions that includes shame, compassion, anger and an occasional flicker of schadenfreude. The right response has seemed to me to be to listen, read, reflect and quiet the impulse to offer opinions that are likely to sound premature or self-serving.
We — as writers and critics, as consumers of popular art, as a culture — have a lot of rethinking to do. One of the mantras of the moment is that “everybody knew” about what the predators, rapists and gropers were doing, and that the ubiquity of such behavior was an open secret. That’s a tricky phrase, of course, and it invites observers of the industry to assess our own complicity. Is the open secret that men in power frequently behave despicably and with impunity? Or does it involve the particular things Mr. Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Mr. Lasseter, Mr. Ratner, Dustin Hoffman and others (so many others!) are alleged to have done? What did we know, and how did we know it?
DARGIS All I ever heard about Mr. Weinstein was that he was a bully. Being a jerk isn’t a crime — a lot of executives would be in jail if it were — and it wasn’t news or novel. It was largely hearsay in an industry that runs on fear (which encourages silence) and traffics in gossip, some malicious, some diversionary and some strategic, as we know from too many Oscar campaigns. The difference now is the dozens of women who have publicly accused Mr. Weinstein and the investigations into their allegations by The New York Times and The New Yorker, which have turned hearsay into news. There’s a preponderance of evidence, which brings me to Woody Allen.
In 1992, Mia Farrow learned that her longtime lover, Mr. Allen, then 56, had been seeing her daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, who was around 21. Later that year, allegations surfaced that he had sexually molested Dylan Farrow, his 7-year-old daughter with Ms. Farrow. The judge in their custody case wrote that evidence of abuse remained inconclusive and Mr. Allen was never charged. For her part, Dylan Farrow has been steadfast in her accusations that he assaulted her. I think that a lot of critics read about this case and tucked that information away. Jump to his latest, “Wonder Wheel,” which is about a desperate, morally reprehensible middle-aged woman whose lover, an Allen surrogate, ditches her for her bodacious, much younger stepdaughter.
I’ve liked and loved some of Mr. Allen’s movies, and loathed others, but I’ve always put the allegations against him aside because he wasn’t charged and I wanted to review the work, not the man. Even so, Mr. Allen’s movies can be hard to take if you’re a woman. He has written great female characters — given humanity by brilliant performers — but too many are ditzes, shrews and dewy young things gaga over uncomfortably older men and Allen stand-ins. “Wonder Wheel” manifests some of his worst tendencies; the sexism is overt and his blurring of life and art is repellent. In my review, I cited his marriage to Ms. Previn and Dylan Farrow’s allegations, a history I’ve seen as a malignant cloud. I had never referred to that history before because I hadn’t seen it in the work. Now I did.
Mr. Weinstein was fouling up the air when I wrote my review, so sexual assault was certainly on my mind. But as you said to me when we later talked about the movie, it also felt as if Mr. Allen were trolling his critics.
SCOTT He was also trolling his defenders — those who cling to the idea that an artist’s work has nothing to do with his life. Mr. Allen and Roman Polanski have figured in can-we-separate-the-art-from-the-artist debates for a long time. Mr. Polanski, who was publicly forgiven by one teenage victim, remains both a fugitive from American justice and an active filmmaker. Mr. Allen continues to make a movie a year, and a dwindling chorus of apologists has insisted that to discuss those movies with reference to very public aspects of his personal life offends the integrity of criticism.
But the idea that you could separate the art from the life, a conceptually and practically incoherent notion in any case, is as ludicrous for him as it is for Louis C.K. The principal subject of Woody Allen’s work has always been Woody Allen, and his insistence on putting himself into the picture leaves his defenders in the distasteful position of having to choose between denial and apology: Either “because I like his movies, I can’t bring myself to believe he molested his daughter,” or “because I like his movies, I have decided not to care if he molested his daughter.”
Not that I can exactly let myself off the hook. Long before I became a film critic, I was a Woody Allen obsessive. I’m hardly unusual among men of my generation for having learned a lot of what I know (but was afraid to ask) from him. About sex, Jewishness, literature, New York and a whole lot more — about myself, in sum. I kept his books by my bedside for most of my adolescence, and saw his movies over and over. It’s not possible for me to separate art from life — his life or mine.
DARGIS This year’s anguished discourse about art and artists underscores that criticism is rooted in lived experience. There’s no right or wrong way to review (well, there is, but that’s a discussion for another time). But I’m as impatient with critics who embrace self-serving auteurist fundamentalism or aesthetic formalism as I am with those belligerent fan boys who insist that only a comic-book obsessive can review a superhero movie. None of these camps want their pleasures challenged or their bubble worlds burst by reminders that a cherished director, say, denigrates women. I mean, by all means enjoy! But don’t expect me to shut up about it.
Criticism is always personal and so is movie love, which is why I’ve been delighted by female-driven movies as different as “Lady Bird,” “Faces Places,” “Wonder Woman” and “The Last Jedi” — all of which speak to me in some way. These are the movies that in some modest yet real way feel like rejoinders to all the stories of assault and abuse that reminded us, outrage by outrage, of what a cesspool the movie industry can be. Women had been assaulted, their careers derailed. And all because some grotesque excuse for a human being had gone into a business that has historically encouraged, profited from, ignored and rewarded sexism and misogyny.
SCOTT Some of the most insightful writing about the meaning of the Weinstein revelations — by you, by our colleague Amanda Hess, by Rebecca Traister in New York magazine and Melissa Gira Grant in The New York Review of Books — has argued that the sexual depredations of Mr. Weinstein and others are also a labor issue. The public record is now overflowing with testimony from women whose ambitions were thwarted, whose aspirations were sullied, whose efforts to get through a meeting or a rehearsal or a day’s shooting were disrupted and derailed because the men they were working for and with saw them not as colleagues or collaborators but as bodies to be humiliated and exploited.
This isn’t just a matter of individual behavior. The boundaries of complicity have not yet been mapped, and the purging of the bad guys has an air of corporate damage control. If the creeps can be expunged, maybe the system can survive. It shouldn’t. The stories that continue to emerge, in every industry, add up to more than just a catalog of crimes. They constitute a case for reparations.
The movie business might start by designating a pool of money — maybe equivalent to the value of the Miramax and Weinstein Company libraries, and the budgets of every Brett Ratner film and some fraction of Pixar’s worldwide revenues — to fund movies written and directed by women. Some people might see that as a threat to meritocracy. I would challenge those people to use the words “Brett Ratner” and “meritocracy” in the same sentence. The idea that Hollywood functions by rewarding excellence is laughable on its face.
DARGIS Ha, ha — though honestly it is hard to laugh given that the revelations of abuse are further proof of what some of us have been saying for a very long time: that the industry’s sexism isn’t in our imaginations. It isn’t a female fantasy or a “hysterical” feminist myth. As for compensation, I think that’s a good idea, but it’s instructive that we haven’t heard about many (any?) concrete institutional actions that the industry is taking to correct its wrongs from the inside. Some moves — like removing names from credits — evoke the old Soviet-era purges, when so-called undesirable elements were ousted. Of course getting fired isn’t like a bullet to the head, though maybe it feels that way in Malibu.
The problem is that industry talk is cheap and its apologies feel the same. So what now? The recently announced activist group Time’s Up, which seeks to end sexual harassment both inside and outside Hollywood, looks promising. But how about inside the corridors of power? Is it time for quotas? How about the Rooney Rule? Versions of that rule — which requires teams in the National Football League to interview at least one minority candidate for top positions — have been adopted by some tech companies. It’s apparently stalled in the N.F.L., but it is a place to start. In 2014, the Directors Guild of America added language to its contract that required major television studios to maintain or establish director programs that “focused on diversity — complete with enforceable provisions.” I’d like to see enforceable provisions throughout the industry.
SCOTT The deeply ingrained homogeneity of the business is reflected on the screen. It’s hardly surprising that an industry that often functions as a protection racket for white male mediocrity should specialize in spectacles of white male self-pity. That description covers most of the comedies, action movies, superhero franchises and science-fiction epics produced by the big studios in the past decade.
But that edifice of monochromatic machismo showed signs of cracking throughout 2017. “Get Out” opened the same weekend that “Moonlight” won best picture. “Wonder Woman” temporarily shook the DC/Warner Bros. machine out of its rut. “The Last Jedi” is the most inclusive “Star Wars” chapter to date, thanks in part to the presence of nonwhite, non-male players on the creative team. Two of the most anticipated big-budget movies of 2018 are Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” and Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” both products of the ever-growing Disney empire. And of course right now there’s Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” which has been embraced with some of the same kind of ardor that critics and audiences brought to “Moonlight.”
DARGIS Movies like “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird,” though, are reminders that there are subindustries in entertainment. One gives us small, personal movies like those made by Mr. Jenkins and Ms. Gerwig. The other, far more dominant part of the industry churns out movies that are sometimes good (“The Last Jedi”), but are also primarily delivery systems for a company’s branded content, including its action figures, bedsheets and theme parks. That’s why Disney’s acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox is so important. It’s praiseworthy that Disney has hired Mr. Coogler and Ms. DuVernay; Disney understands the audience in all its multiplicities.
At the same time, the end of the old Fox and the Disneyfication of the entire movie mainstream are bleak.
SCOTT Good movies are made as much in spite of the industry as by means of it. Disney is moving aggressively to consolidate its dominance of large-scale, global, branded entertainment — the Fox acquisition gives them more Marvel to go with Pixar and Star Wars — but the demand for other stories and experiences will persist, and other companies will try to turn that desire into profit: A24, for example, which released “Lady Bird,” “The Florida Project,” “The Disaster Artist,” “Good Time” and “Menashe.” Netflix may be hastening the demise of the theatrical experience, but it also brought us “Okja,” “Mudbound” and the latest projects from Noah Baumbach and Errol Morris.
I’m always anxious about the state of ambitious filmmaking, and about the health of the independent audience, but I also shy away from fatalism. At any rate, the good work we saw this year — and the public and critical embrace of films as varied as “Get Out,” “The Big Sick,” “Call Me by Your Name” — can at least give us a shred of hope to cling to.
DARGIS So many movies of old racist, sexist Hollywood nonetheless give me pleasure and there are movies with Mr. Weinstein’s imprimatur that I love. But it’s heartbreaking that this pleasure was ever derived at the expense of someone else’s humanity. The art form that we love should not carry such a ghastly price. So hope is good.
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