Saturday, January 27, 2018

Which backs get lashed

Having kept my love for A Ghost Story entirely out of print -- though if you had listened to this podcast, you would have heard me rave about it -- I was somewhat taken aback when the first comment to greet my year-end list on Facebook was the following:

"Casey Affleck should BE a ghost. Fade into nothing. Scare people when he pops up so they run away."

As this comment came within five minutes of posting, when I was still in that delirious high of publishing the end result of "my year's work," I immediately felt a pit in my stomach.

Was I wrong to look past the involvement of Casey Affleck in this movie in giving it my highest honor for the year?

I knew this person was not trying to be funny, either, despite her at least somewhat playful use of the extended ghost metaphor. This is a woman I have consistently seen post about #MeToo, who does not consider this a laughing matter. (I mean, I'd hope no one would consider it a laughing matter, but this woman most certainly does not.)

So I had a momentary crisis about whether I had failed in my responsibility to an important social cause in completely disregarding Affleck's participation in the movie as a relevant factor in assessing it. Should I so actively promote something that has a genuine creep on screen for much of its running time, even if he is behind a sheet for most of it?

I've written a number of times in the past about my general philosophy -- I'm sure there are exceptions -- of separating the art from the artist. I mean, I've seen Woody Allen's films every year for five years running now, which is almost certainly my longest such streak in the man's entire career. I believe if a movie has something useful to add to the conversation, or may be doing something interesting, I should see it and grapple with it, even if the person who made it is not a very good person. There are a lot of not very good people making movies.

But I must admit I did not even have this internal debate when it came to Affleck and A Ghost Story. I know Affleck was guilty of some shady things, some awful things, on the set of I'm Still Here. Women are right to be skeeved out by him, and men should be sure he does not go near their daughters. Still, and maybe this is just because I did not pore over the details of the accusations against him, I didn't realize he was quite as worthy of being loathed as the level he is loathed. Especially as more and more names have come out of more and more people doing terrible things -- in many cases, worse things -- the accusations against Affleck have further receded in terms of how shocked I feel I should be by them.

And yet this woman came forward with an implicit scolding of me for supporting an Affleck project, reminding me just how angry people are at Affleck -- at how they have pulled him out of what has increasingly become an indistinguishable noise about sexual harassment, and targeted him specifically for their hatred and scorn.

I guess part of the disconnect for me is that he just won an Oscar last year, and I kind of feel like people already knew these things about him when Manchester by the Sea came out, though perhaps I am off on my chronology there. I feel like last year would have been the time to punish him, yet "we" did not. "We" awarded him with the year's highest acting honor, because he was just so damn good. (A textbook example of separating the art and the artist.)

In fact, I find myself wondering if Affleck will be allowed to hand out the best actress Oscar this year. I'm kind of suspecting no. Though maybe it would actually be a better punishment for him to throw him out there and see what kind of reception he gets than to keep him out of the show entirely.

So it seems especially strange to me that A Ghost Story should now be bearing the brunt of a delayed disgust with Affleck. Is it because people felt like they could dismiss A Ghost Story as a twee exercise, not a serious film, whereas Manchester by the Sea was something they should more obviously reckon with?

But I also know that this is not an unreasonable viewpoint, or one held by only a few people. My wife has so far boycotted A Ghost Story because of Affleck's involvement (though I hold out hope that I'll eventually get to show it to her). Another person said to me, regarding Ghost Story, "I also struggled with Casey Affleck in it in a way I wouldn't have if I'd liked the movie."

So I guess Affleck can set you off on the wrong foot with the movie, or, if you aren't liking it, become "the lightning rod," to quote that friend again.

What I guess I wonder is why we're not hearing people go on rants about Baby Driver because Kevin Spacey was in it or rants about The Disaster Artist because James Franco was in it. Some of that may be out there, but I haven't seen it.

Granted, a lot of that has to do with the timing. Most people saw and formed their opinions of those movies before the person in question was revealed to be a creep, though I can't imagine people didn't have suspicions about Franco. Maybe the backlash for things can't come retroactively, any more than you can say "Ugh, you like American Beauty? How dare you, Kevin Spacey is in that." Though it does seem to be the case that the timing of the accusations against Franco played a role in why he was nominated for a Golden Globe but not an Oscar. (Not that nominations are actually done like this, but I like to imagine the Academy hastily switching in Denzel Washington, for his performance in a movie nobody saw and which is supposed to be bad, in place of Franco.)

Of course, I'm not the only one supporting A Ghost Story, so I have company in my failure to punish the movie for Affleck's transgressions. Two critics I like very much and listen to on podcasts regularly, Michael Phillips and Matt Singer, had it in their top three for the year, and in glancing at one of those websites that compiles best-of lists from around the world, I saw at least one other where it was at the tippy top, like it was for me. I suspect there are more.

Still, I can't imagine I can go into a new ranking year with the same blase attitude about whether the people I'm watching on screen are shitheads or not. #MeToo is too important to not pay it some heed. So maybe I'll just skip Woody Allen's movie this year. I'm sure I won't miss much.

More than anything, I hope this is no long-term blight on David Lowery's beautiful film, in which Rooney Mara is also a blameless participant deserving of much praise. A Ghost Story deserves to be a film for the ages, and I hope that the incidental toxicity Affleck brought to the project does not keep it from being one.

And I also hope one day I can show it to my wife.

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