Sunday, June 23, 2024

Progress Isn’t a Bargain

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*Content warning for discussions of sexual assault and abuse

One of my favorite movies is Stanley Kramer’s Inherit The Wind. I’m not going to get into what the movie is about or why it’s my favorite because that’s not what I want to talk about. No, what I want to talk about is a line from the movie. A line that has stuck with me since the first time I saw the movie.

“Progress isn’t a bargain, you have to pay for it.”

As some of you may know, Emma Thompson recently quit her latest movie Lucky because the animation studio Skydance had hired John Lassiter. She has also recently published an open letter explaining her reasons and feelings behind her leaving and his hiring. Miss Thompson understands the price of progress.

We live not in a post #MeToo era but smack in the middle of it. #MeToo is not just about women though. It’s about how we have upheld a system that not only allows, but enables, fosters, and protects abusers who abuse women, men, and children. It is an all-encompassing movement hellbent on doing the unthinkable: demanding people be treated with dignity and respect. And, you know, the stunningly audacious belief that going to work does not mean submitting your body or psyche to lecherous or abusive bosses.

Yet, looking around I see a pittance of change. Not in them, but in us. Bohemian Rhapsody has made some two hundred million dollars domestically and shows no signs of stopping. It has come out on DVD and yet it is still in theaters. Why? Because we still go see it. Bohemian Rhapsody is a film born and released into a repulsive, salacious scandal. Bryan Singer is accused of sexual assault against minors.


X-Men: Days of Future Past had the same drama. It made a paltry two hundred million dollars domestically as well. I remember fondly a pretty famous YouTube movie news show even had a round table discussion about it. They sat around a table and essentially said, “It doesn’t matter” and worse, blamed the survivor for coming forward at all. But we should grant them some measure of mercy, after all, this was pre-#MeToo.

Rami Malek now holds an Oscar, and it’s telling that among all the people he thanked, Bryan Singer, is not among them. However, we are still seeing Bohemian Rhapsody, and Bryan Singer is still getting, at the very least, forty million dollars. Now we could argue that this means nothing and that Singer’s next project Red Sonja has been “canceled,” as the kids would say.

Except it hasn’t. It’s been put on hold. It’s been put on hold until this whole fiasco blows over. Again. You see Hollywood is a cynical town and they bank, wisely and repeatedly, on the moral apathy of the movie-going audience.

Social media is more a curse than a blessing, in my mind, but it does allow us less room for willful ignorance than ever before. I often cite that while artists are encouraged to be fearless in their work, we as movie lovers should be equally as fearless. But with the consumption of any art, of consumerism in general, there comes an implied moral framework. As of right now, our present moral framework is rusting from the inside out.

You can argue that we’re getting better but, frankly, I don’t see it. I’ve heard the argument about how we shouldn’t boycott because we don’t want to hurt the other people who worked on the film. A noble idea except that implied in such thinking is the laughable notion that the studios will do a damn thing about it.

Avi Lerner, the founder of Millennium studios and person who hired Singer, was quoted to say, “The over $800 million ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ has grossed, making it the highest grossing drama in film history, is a testament to his remarkable vision and acumen. I know the difference between agenda driven fake news and reality, and I am very comfortable with this decision. In America, people are innocent until proven otherwise.”

Lerner has himself faced allegations of abuse. Luckily, despite the last two years of near constant public outrage, we managed to get the production pushed back. To be clear, Singer is not fired, and Red Sonja isn’t being made with without him. The project is merely on the back burner and Singer is still attached. Lerner is the reason boycotts are necessary.

Many of the people in charge are guilty themselves. It is how Harvey Weinstein was able to weave an omnidirectional web of proliferating destruction and trauma. The fish’s head is rotting and it affects every other part. As of now the people doing the most about it are not executives, directors, producers, or even the boom mic guy. No, the ones doing the most are the actors and actresses.

Yes, they are the most visible, but why must they be burdened with the responsibility of speaking up? By being the most visible they are de facto the most vulnerable as well. Where do we, the audience, come into all of this? What responsibility do we have? What, if anything, can we do?

Simple. All we can do is buy a ticket or not buy a ticket. We could raise hell on twitter to our heart’s delight but if a movie makes over eight hundred million dollars worldwide, the studios are not going to take the noise very seriously. “My, they do seem disgusted. Hey, look at that number one at the box office. What if we hire the kid again?”

Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Bryan Singer, a stunningly large population of the Catholic Church, and no less than the presidency itself—all of them-abusers of one kind or another. But don’t boycott. It might hurt innocent bystanders.

What about the people who were abused!? The issue is, we don’t realize our own power or our own culpability. Sitting idly by and grousing about how we feel bad but we’re still going to see the movie belies our truest moral instinct. We don’t really care.

Hannah Gadsby made a point to ask her audience in her stand up special, Nanette, about whether a painting by Picasso was really worth the price of a life of another human being. Picasso was a rapist, you see, of underage girls. The question is a fair one and one that is baked into the very fiber of the #MeToo movement. What is the cost?

Abuse, sexual and physical, is not a one-time thing. It haunts you. It affects you. I would know, I’m a survivor of sexual child abuse myself. Like a ghost, you can’t see it but you can feel it all times; some days more than others. I can’t speak for others but for myself what I hear, oh so subtly, from people online as they defend Roman Polanski or Woody Allen, is that you don’t really care.

Annie Hall is a great movie. But it is not worth the destruction of a childhood. Rosemary’s Baby is a wonderful movie but it is not worth the destruction of a young girl’s psyche. The question remains: what is the cost? What are we willing to abide?

But what about Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock? Or countless others? Sometimes the knowledge of abuses perpetrated by the Hollywood system, new and old, is overwhelming and exhausting. Artists who are dead are dead and can face no more wrath or contribution. Yet, “Progress isn’t a bargain, you have to pay for it.”

We know things now that previous generations did not. Stories go viral, a word that did not exist at the beginning or middle of my life. Each generation of movie lovers is more informed and more knowledgeable about movies than the generation before by virtue of the evolution of social media and dissemination of news.

Now, you may be asking, “Where do we draw the line?” It saddens me that I cannot give you an answer. For as much as I’ve railed against the seemingly apathetic masses, I understand that I do not stand above or apart from you. Much like you, I am at a loss and adrift at what to do. 

I do know, however, that blindly handing my money over and shrugging my shoulders while saying, “What are you going to do?” is not the answer. Hell, it’s not even AN answer. The question is how much is a movie worth, not in dollars, but in human lives? Great art is priceless but so are people.

We cannot let actors like Emma Thompson bare the brunt of responsibility for making sure studios behave in a decent and humane manner. It’s ludicrous and cruel to suggest otherwise. “But you haven’t answered the question, Mr. Sherman? What are your standards?”

It’s simple: jerks, assholes, and morons are fine. But if you abuse, sexually, psychologically, or physically women, men, or children, then I’m done. Some may believe boycotting hurts the innocent, but such thinking ignores the fact that in many cases where we wish to boycott, the innocent have already been hurt.

Image Courtesy of  20th Century Fox

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