Monsters, Men, and Power

Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney, who now hosts a podcast (after he was fired by Donald Trump), interviewed Judd Apatow on “The Problem of Power in Hollywood.”  It’s an interesting interview, and in it, Apatow does get to why (mostly) men in power do such horrible things to (mostly) women in this exchange:

Bharara: Why is it (harassment and sexual abuse) so prevalent in Hollywood?

Apatow: There are specific aspects to how the entertainment world is run that sets it up to be a problem. One is… it’s, you know, a business that’s…like a point of entry, and so there the potential for abuse to say: “You can enter this world, you can get this job if you do this.”

Bharara: You don’t take a test. It’s not a quantitative exam you take. Certain people have an outsized power to make you successful or not.

Apatow: Exactly. That becomes a problem…and I guess it’s probably the same in every other business. Someone decides you get the job. Someone decides you get the promotion. There are certain people with a lot of power, and if they abuse that power, you get these issues of harassment. But there’s something about handsome young men and beautiful young women trying to get noticed, trying to get people to realize they are talented to give them opportunities…uh, you know, you can’t prove you’re a great actress without getting the job. You have to get the work to show what you do. And that creates a lot of power and potential abuse from the people who give out those jobs. And I think there’s something about people’s self-interest that keeps them from stopping it. I think people don’t want to make waves. People don’t wanna get on the phone and call someone and go, “What’s going on with Harvey Weinstein? What’s is this?” The other day, Alec Baldwin was giving a speech somewhere, and he said, uh, “I heard for decades this rumor that Harvey Weinstein raped Rose McGowan.” And I just thought, “Did he ask anyone about it? Did you ever ask your agents?” I don’t know if he ever made movies with Harvey after the point when he heard that rumor.  Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but did he ever think it was worth saying: “Is that true?” And if it is true, shouldn’t we come up with a way to keep actor and actresses safe from him. 

Now, Apatow does say it’s not entirely fair to put the onus on Baldwin, but he does widen the circle of the blame on the hundreds of people who helped Weinstein abuse the women he did.  How did this happen?  Well, it seems Weinstein would go to film festivals around the country and say to his people, “These are the women I want to meet.” Then he’d set appointments in the morning, and then cancel at the last-minute and move the appointments to the early evening. There would be multiple people who would assure the woman that Harvey would be down in a few minutes when they showed up in the early evening for the meeting.  One by one, these people would leave for other appointments, until there was one person left. That was the cue to say to the woman, “Harvey would like to meet you upstairs” (i.e., alone and in his room). You’ve heard of the casting couch in Hollywood?  Well, that’s exactly what Weinstein was doing with these women. They thought they were up for role in a film. He saw them as sex objects he could have his way with. Hollywood is replete with stories like this, and David Lynch has often put Hollywood in the crosshairs with the way the system devours and craps out women with horrific consequences (see Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE).

And while Apatow is rightly appalled by Weinstein’s behavior, he wants to know more about the people involved the process of getting women to be alone with Weinstein. He feels they are guilty as well for turning a blind eye and letting self-interest get in the way of knowing right from wrong.  And it is a problem of self-interest in a system that punishes people for “doing the right thing” in Hollywood. Why? Because of threats of blackballing (i.e., “You’ll never work in this town again!”) and potential lawsuits. No one wants to stick their neck out because of the power of these men to ruin lives — both professional and personal.

As we’re well aware now that it’s in the media almost every day, every sector of society has men like Weinstein. Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roy Moore, Al Franken, Bill O’Reilly, Kevin Spacey, Bill Clinton, Clarence Thomas, John Conyers, Charlie Rose…the list grows every day.  Every day, more and more women come forward to tell their stories of men exhibiting monstrous behavior toward them…well, because these men believe they can act horribly without any consequences.

None of this is new, of course. But what may turn the tide is not only the intense scrutiny of this behavior — and the legal, financial, and professional repercussions of being monsters —  but also men looking at their gender and asking: “Is this who I am? Am I like Donald Trump? Am I like Harvey Weinstein? Am I a guy who thinks it’s okay to grope women like Al Franken?”  But it also gets down to less egregious behavior that makes women feel uncomfortable around men.

I’m afraid, however, that because of the zero-sum mentality of people, and how they see the world only in competitive terms, ceding any ground out of a sense of decency and fairness will result in certain men feeling like they are “losing out.” And “losing out” means a loss of power, status, and identity causing them to lash out with all sorts of behavior that runs the gamut from Weinstein-like assaults, to a simmering rage at the presence of a woman in the workplace, to stalking, hollering from car, and, well, you get the idea.  But for other men who aren’t like the parade of horribles we see on TV, their fundamental respect for the ideals of human rights has to be fused with the everyday practice of living those ideals. That means sticking your neck out to stop abuse, defusing festering sexism in the workplace, and showing women that not all men have an inner Weinstein/Trump/Cosby/Rose/Thomas waiting to pounce.

Another issue arose from this podcast that was also addressed in a recent opinion piece on Woody Allen in The Paris Review. Written by Claire Dederer, the long op-ed is about her reticence about viewing of Woody Allen’s films. She’s been a fan of his work for decades (like me), but she’s conflicted about continuing to treat Allen’s film work with respect, while having visceral and emotional feelings about “the fucking of Soon-Yi (Previn)” by Allen when she was around 17-years-old. By the way, no one exactly knows how old Previn is because when she was adopted, she was rescued as an abandoned child from the slums in Seoul, South Korea. She had no birth certificate, and authorities couldn’t find her birth mother –who Soon-Yi says was a prostitute. After she came to live with Mia Farrow and Andre Previn (her adoptive parents), she had bone scans in 1978 that revealed she was between five and seven-years-old. And while Allen on Previn are still married (and have two children), the incident wherein Allen had a “fling” with a young Previn in the late ’80s while in a relationship with Farrow made for a lot of moralizing media fodder for years. Add to that an accusation by Dylan Farrow about being molested by Allen in 1992 — and it just adds to the creep out factor about Allen’s personal life.

But it’s his on-screen persona in Manhattan (1979) that raises more than a few eyebrows after the sexual issues and allegations surrounding Soon-Yi Previn and Dylan Farrow. Specifically, Allen plays Issac Davis, a 41-year-old man dating — and having sex with — 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway).  Allen was 57 when it was revealed that he was having an affair with Soon-Yi (who was 22ish in 1991). So, knowing what we know about Allen and then viewing Manhattan, what are we to think about Allen’s views of young women — or in the case of the character of Tracy, a teenager. Well, Dederer has some thoughts:

Allen/Isaac can get closer to that ideal world, a world that has forgotten its knowledge of death, by fucking Tracy. Because he’s Woody Allen—a great filmmaker—Tracy is allowed her say; she’s not a nitwit. “Your concerns are my concerns,” she says. “We have great sex.” This works out well for Isaac: he gets to hoover up her beautiful embodied simplicity and he’s absolved of guilt. The women in the film don’t have that advantage.

The grown women in Manhattan are brittle and all too aware of death; they’re aware of every goddamn thing. A thinking woman is stuck—distanced from the body, from beauty, from life itself.

For me, the most telling moment in the film is a throwaway line delivered in a high whine by a chic woman at a cocktail party: “I finally had an orgasm and my doctor told me it was the wrong kind.” Isaac’s (very funny) response: “You had the wrong kind? I’ve never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money.”

Every woman watching the movie knows that it’s the doctor who’s an asshole, not the woman. But that’s not how Woody/Isaac sees it.

If a woman can think, she can’t come; if she can come, she can’t think.

Is that correct? Is it fair? Does it matter? We don’t live Allen and Previn’s life. We don’t know what kind of dynamic they have, nor how deep and heart-felt their love is for one another. What we know is the emotional response many of us have when we remember Allen’s seduction of Previn in light of one of his best known (and well made) films, Manhattan — a film where the protagonist is, in the eyes of the law, a pedophile.

To circle back to the question of how should we view the works of art by a horrible man like Woody Allen in light of their views of women?  Well, Allen will have the long shadow of shame on him even after he’s long dead and gone. Moreover, people will continue to view his films (specifically his character’s relationships with young women) as a thinly veiled apologia for his own personal and sexual predilections. But what to do about films like Manhattan? The best thing, of course, is not to watch it if it dredges up emotions about Allen and Previn in 1991. But to discard his entire oeuvre because of his personal life obscures the fact that while fiction does contain elements of biography, fiction itself is not always biography in disguise.

Stay Tuned with Preet podcast featuring Judd Apatow

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