Samuel Brace on separating art from the artist…
When viewing a movie, or TV show for that matter, what takes precedent inside your head? Is it how good the film is? How much you liked it? Or is it your opinion of the person that made the film? It’s easy to look at a movie as purely that — a piece of entertainment — a product that is independent from anything else. But the truth is that someone made that product, the truth is that there’s a person with thoughts and opinions that helped bring that movie into the world. Sometimes that individual may not be a very good person, sometimes we may fundamentally disagree with them, but should we care? Does the person behind the project matter at all or as much as the project itself?
Recently I watched what I believe to be the best film of 2016, Hacksaw Ridge. This is a movie that shook me to my very core. It was both inspiring and disturbing, and I even shed a tear. This is a great film, with an even greater message behind it. It was the type of movie that reminded me why I like cinema so much. But there is one problem – or perhaps problem isn’t the right word – there is one issue with Hacksaw Ridge, and that issue is Mel Gibson. Gibson is the director of this WW2 drama, the man behind the moments that affected me so very much. Yes, a lot of it was down to the performances, particularly the extraordinary turn of Andrew Garfield, but ultimately this is Gibson’s product. And Gibson’s issues are well documented. He’s done and said things in the past that I fundamentally disagree with. But should I care? Should we take his personal life and comments into account when thinking of his movie?
Should the fact that Gibson has espoused anti-Semitism be enough for us to turn off our screens? It’s a difficult one. This person, by most accounts, is not a good guy, but should I not support a movie I love – financially and vocally – because I don’t like the person that made it? Can the two be disconnected? I’m not sure that they can, or rather, I’m not sure that they should. Do we want to support people that we are deeply and morally opposed to? Do I want to give money to someone like that? Not really, is the answer, but Hacksaw is so damn good and it has, as mentioned, beautiful things to say about the world. So should we forgive Mel Gibson’s personal life because we like his movies? Should we watch the films of Roman Polanski even though he’s an abhorrent individual? Should we tweet and talk about the films of a person we don’t like? Does it even matter what we think personally about these people? What’s more important, the person or the art?
While we try and answer these questions, while I try and come up with a position on the subject as I write this piece, let’s turn it around for a second. If we really like an individual, if we think an actor or director is just wonderful — a great person that we agree with on almost everything — should we endorse their work even if it’s a steaming pile of garbage? Should we support someone we believe to be virtuous and a benefit to society even if their latest movie isn’t very good? Of course you want to promote and help good people but this is an obvious trap that we would do well in avoiding. We all like to live in bubbles, surrounding ourselves with likeminded individuals that reinforce our views. It would therefore seem prudent to elevate those that we agree with. However, just because we like someone doesn’t mean we should lie, and just because we approve of someone doesn’t make their work good. It seems like it’s important to separate here our opinions from reality.
So is this where our answer lies? Not entirely. But perhaps mostly. It’s evident that we must accept reality, that we shouldn’t disparage or attack a movie because we don’t like the personal opinions/or actions of the person that made it. If someone says something you don’t like that doesn’t make a film lesser. A bad comment or opposing view does not a bad movie make. Because Mel Gibson has said vile things about Jews and portrayed them disparagingly in his films, does that mean one can’t appreciate the positive message of Hacksaw Ridge and the wonderful filmmaking that fuels it? No. No, it doesn’t. A person’s opinion doesn’t change reality. The truth is the truth regardless of your opinion. But that doesn’t exactly answer the question. Should we care about the personal opinions of filmmakers and film stars? And more importantly, should we support people we don’t like with our time, voices and money?
The truth is that this is a very hard issue to resolve. No, I don’t like Mel Gibson as a person (without knowing him personally) but yes, I do like his films and I don’t mind saying how great Hacksaw Ridge is. Is that wrong of me? Perhaps. No matter how opposed I am to someone, and Mel Gibson is hardly the worst person on earth, and hardly in the same league as someone like Polanski, that doesn’t change the fact that a film is good. But of course by supporting Hacksaw I am supporting Gibson. Does it mean I am endorsing him? No, I don’t believe it does. There are plenty of actors and writers that I don’t like based on their public appearances and comments, and I am sure there is even more that I wouldn’t like if I knew them personally. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy their work, and therefore I guess it is okay to support them to the extent of buying a movie ticket or saying that you enjoyed their movie. And I suppose therefore the question is mostly answered.
Yes, we should care about the personal opinions of filmmakers, but no, it doesn’t, or rather it shouldn’t, affect our enjoyment of their work. Is it okay to give them our money? I suppose it depends on what the opinion is that we are opposed to. There is a line in Hacksaw, the best one of the film, where Desmond is facing extreme pressure to abandon his values and says, “I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe.” And this I suppose is pretty relevant to one end of the spectrum. If someone is exhibiting behaviour so detestable, behaviour that you find to be so immoral, the onus might be on you to put your values before your enjoyment of fictional entertainment – as long as you don’t present mendacious statements about a film’s objective quality.
In the case of Gibson; I don’t think highly enough of him to care what he thinks about anything, and actions always speak larger than words, and the message behind Hacksaw Ridge is more powerful than any gross stereotype presented in The Passion of the Christ, or the drunken rants of a guy that became famous for saying the words other people wrote for him.