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Thinking Outside the Box: When Does Reality Subtext Overwrite Fiction?

It happens every so often, to the extent that I’m actually quite used to it. I’ll be either listening to Michael Jackson on my headphones, or mention in passing a bit of trivia, or name the musician as one of the most impressive of all time. And, undoubtedly, there will always be someone who will retort with, “Yeah, but he was a pedophile.” And that will be that – pretty much everything that Jackson has accomplished will be a moot point. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing one way or a nother, I just feel a little bit curious as to where the line between what happened in real life can prevent or undermine an artist’s work.

And, to be honest, Jackson represents the thin edge of the wedge on this one. The allegations made him against him are somewhat controversial, and, while largely accepted by the public at large, are not universally so. Truth be told, I still listen to the music and I still enjoy it, considering Thriller to be something of a pop masterpiece and still occasionally practice my moonwalk. Still, it understandably casts a fairly huge shadow over his work, and perhaps justifiably so.

However, I do feel somewhat strange when it comes to more clear-cut cases. Truth be told, I find quite a lot of the lobby to release Roman Polanski just a little bit distasteful. It isn’t as if there’s a hint of ambiguity in what he did. And yet the director continued to receive large volumes of support from various celebrities, enjoying a long career in Europe working with stars like Ewan McGregor and Johnny Depp. There’s no ambiguity around what he did – he has freely confessed it repeatedly. I find it fascinating that no real damage to his career occurred.

On the other hand, Mel Gibson’s recent actions have effectively rendered the actor persona non grata in Hollywood, with cast pressure reportedly forcing the actor out of a cameo in The Hangover: Part II and pretty much sinking any chance that Jodie Foster’s The Beaver had of finding a large audience. I find it fascinating that the cast of The Hangover had no problem working with Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, and yet Gibson represented a bridge too far.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way condoning or defending Gibson or his actions. I still feel a little uncomfortable when I catch him as I flick through the channels (which, it must be said, is a lot less frequent these days). Truth be told, I don’t know if there’s standard practice for how to react to a celebrity with such obvious failings and scandal, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I don’t know, I probably seem a little melodramatic. Still, truth be told, I’d probably enjoy Lethal Weapon if it came on the air (if the “crazy” subplot doesn’t hit a bit close to home).

Still, Gary Glitter is perhaps the fallen celebrity who saw his work most tarnished in my eyes. His actions are well-documented and, to be honest, continued throughout the decade following his original arrest. I honestly can’t listen to any of Glitter’s iconic Glam Rock themes, like I’m The Leader of The Gang (I Am) and Rock’n’Roll Parts I & II, without feeling intensely uncomfortable. It’s just impossible for me to separate the music from the creator. Perhaps it’s just the strong association between the artist and his offense – to the point where any mention of Glitter in the past fifteen years has mentioned his conviction and repeated offenses. Perhaps that’s responsible for building such a strong subconscious link.

It’s surreal, to be honest, but I can’t explain why some aspects of creators tend to tarnish their work. It doesn’t help that I can’t seem to discern a pattern to it, either in the volume of media coverage or in my own mind’s eye. Despite the fact that he didn’t do anything technically illegal, for example, I harbour a large amount of distaste for Eric Clapton after reading transcripts of the infamous statements he made in support of Enoch Powell. His work is important, influential, and genuinely entertaining – but his racist comments do sort of bubble away at the back of my mind every time I hear the start of one of those guitar riffs.

It’s strange how fickle the links between an artist and their work might be. Despite the majority opinion of Michael Jackson, Billy Jean and Smooth Criminal will remain dance floor favourites, while no advertiser in their right mind is going to touch any of Glitter’s catchy back catalogue. Assuming Roman Polanski can fight and win the legal battle brewing ahead of him, there’s no doubt that there will be an endless selection of famous international celebrities lining up for a role in his latest work – and yet Mel Gibson will remain a pariah.

I don’t know. I don’t think it’s anything I can necessarily rationalise out. I don’t think it’s possible to smoothly define the clear delineation between a piece of art and the person responsible – as if to perfectly distinguish between the two. I don’t think you can do that, no matter how much careful thought and logic you apply. Nor do I pretend that this is a universal concern – it’s inherently subjective. I’ll see a different amount of a particular artist in their work than anybody else. Some will see everything, some will see nothing – most will see varying shades in between.

However, at what point does that overlap, that sense of shared identity, potentially poison both parts of the equation? At what point can you cut off the offending artist and salvage a potentially beautiful piece of work? I suppose it works the other way around, where an actor or director might see themselves tarnished by associations with their work, but it’s hard to think of any situation quite as serious or on as large a scale as this one.

Truth be told, I can’t even answer that question when it comes to my own judgment. I can’t tell you the scale of offense required to render a film unwatchable or even uncomfortable. It’s admittedly an arbitrary thing, but I think it’s unavoidably so. I’ll always be sensitive to outside factors, even when I’m rational enough to know I should be able to divorce these external elements from the equation.

I was thinking this week, for example, about the Twilight Zone film produced in the eighties by Stephen Spielberg. You might not have heard of the film, and there’s a good reason for that. It was very quietly released in cinemas and then on home video. Even today, you’ll rarely find it on television, and it’s seldom mentioned in polite discussion about most of the people and talent involved. It’s understandable.

Actor Vic Morrow and two child actors were decapitated during a sequence that went horribly wrong. That accident scarred Hollywood, destroyed the relationship between Spielberg and the director of the piece, John Landis. It led to radically revised child labour laws in Hollywood, and also meant that audiences had to wait for CGI to see particularly intricate helicopter-related stunts. The studios were uneasy at handling the final product, and it ended up as a footnote in the filmographies of all involved.

I don’t know if I could watch that film without feeling just a little bit uneasy. It’s fairly harrowing what happened, after all. Even though I know, for example, Heath Ledger died shortly after filming The Dark Knight (and a stunt driver was killed during), it doesn’t manage to feel quite so unnerving and disturbing.

So maybe this is inherently irrational. Maybe there’s no way to tell what factors into how we enjoy or media, no logical way to deduce what will or won’t influence what the audience makes of it. So what outside events impact how you enjoy your films or music?

6 Responses

  1. I’ve heard Rock & Roll Parts 1 & 2 in dozens of movies, but maybe that’s because it’s one of those songs that people know more than the singer.

    • I think so. Perhaps I don’t notice it when I’m listening to it, but I could have sworn I have felt it conspicuous the one or two times I picked it up (in an ad or whatever).

  2. I feel like the Gibson backlash is unfair, but then again I’m not of Jewish descent. Still, it seems that his background has nothing to do with his films in general.

    Woody Allen’s background is somewhat more discerning and yet he enjoys acclaim wherever he goes. It seems unfair.

    • I didn’t want to mention Woody Allen because what he did wasn’t illegal… just something that I found very disturbing, on a personal level.

  3. I am definitely influenced by external factors when it comes to the things I like. I think it is only natural. Whether we make a conscrious decision to abhor something for whatever reason on principle, some things just provoke a reaction whether intentional or not. For example, I know it’s not art related but the recent revelations in national newspapers in Britain about a certain Premier League footballer, whose career had been built on his integrity and consistency as a player negatively affected my opinion of him as a professional, regardless of what I might think of him as a person. It is almost unavoidable that your enjoyment or appreciation of someone’s talent would be tainted by a revelation about their personal life. Whether it should or not is open to debate.

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