From screening Peterloo amongst industrial disputes to allegations of abuse, the film industry of 2018 presents critics with the sort of moral quandaries few seem ready to engage withby Caspar Salmon / November 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
A detail from the poster for new film Peterloo. Photo: Amazon Studios Bohemian Rhapsody, the recently-released film, which charts the life of Freddie Mercury and the ascendancy of rock band Queen, was nominally made by Bryan Singer. “Nominally,” because the director was very publicly fired from the project and replaced on directing duties by Dexter Fletcher late last year following a period of repeated absences from the set. Now, however, Bryan Singer has been reinstated as the official director of the film, with his name on publicity material. Coincidentally, Singer is the subject of a reportedly incendiary Esquire profile, rumoured to be published soon, which will allegedly lift the lid on various aspects of Singer’s much-bruited private life. The director has been the subject of harassment accusations going back as far as 1997—all of which have been rejected, been withdrawn or have not made it to court. The film world, therefore, finds itself in a quandary—or at least what should be a quandary. Singer has consistently denied any allegations of harassment or assault, and has litigated accordingly. But other cases are less clear-cut. What is the role of the critic in these cases? Quite beyond the art-not-the-artist argument, how does a reviewer square a director or actor’s troubled reputation with attending the film; how does an editor commission articles that generate publicity for it? A critical vigilance It isn’t hard to see that there’s a difference in these two scenarios: 1) a film by someone reported to be a sex offender is released, and a journalist reports that it has been released; 2) a film by someone reported to be a sex offender is released, and a journalist sees the film and discusses its merits. In this writer’s opinion, journalists have an imperative to exercise a moral code when dealing with work by people repeatedly accused of wrongdoing. Critics should furthermore pay attention to work that might be seen to further an abusive or extreme agenda. In a review for Variety of Dragged Across Concrete—a film starring Mel Gibson, who has a history of antisemitism, racism and abusing women—the critic Guy Lodge gives a good example of this sort of vigilance, writing: “Zahler’s film places a lot of …. wink-wink reactionary assertions in the mouths of Gibson and Vince Vaughn—noted Hollywood conservatives both, of course—as old-school policemen who run topically afoul of a crackdown on brutality in the force.” Since Gibson’s work repeatedly returns to themes of male violence and authoritarianism, this seems a worthwhile aside. The same attention to extracurricular matters is unlikely to be found in the words of those publicising the release of the Queen film on social media this week. But what should the film reviewer do? Nothing could be plainer, post-Weinstein, than that the reviewer is merely a cog in a relentless machine. In three weeks, Fantastic Beasts 2: The Crimes of Grindelwald, starring Johnny Depp, is to be released. Don’t expect reviewers to boycott the hugely popular blockbuster on ethical grounds—even though Depp’s settlement following assault allegations made with regards to his former partner, actress Amber Heard, caused discomfort in other parts of the media. From Peterloo to the Picturehouse This month, a different type of film is being released. Mike Leigh’s Peterloo tells the story of the brutal 1819 repression of workers in the textile trade calling for reform of parliamentary representation, after a period of famine and unemployment. With delectable irony, the film was screened for review by British journalists at this year’s London Film Festival in a Picturehouse cinema, where there is an advised boycott in place and an ongoing campaign of industrial action from workers demanding to be paid the London Living Wage. Last year, workers demonstrated during the festival; they protested again this year in May, having called off action in January saying they had been threatened with loss of wages. (Picturehouse staff are only permitted to unionise at one cinema, the Ritzy in Brixton.) Again, we come up against the question of how reviewers, at least, square the moral decision to pursue a boycott with their desire to do their job. The Picturehouse struggle has somehow not taken hold of the public consciousness, so Peterloo doesn’t stand to lose much from any public boycotts when it’s released. But it’s fair to suggest that critics at the LFF could perhaps have exercised a little more care or social conscience when attending screenings. More than this, a call from some of journalism’s biggest names for trade screenings not to be held in cinemas where workers aren’t paid a living wage could exert real change. It would seem to be standard journalistic practice to query the practices of large organisations in the industry you write about. Critics are journalists. Moreover, at a time when journalism is increasingly undermined 0r suffocated, it wouldn’t hurt them to extend solidarity to other workers. The whole gist of the #MeToo movement that sprang up following the accusations against Harvey Weinstein is to highlight abuses and exploitation of workers by people in positions of power. Naming the problem could begin to lead towards real change in an area of film that is neglected—namely, workers’ rights at the lower end of the business—but which is absolutely connected to a holistic understanding of ills in the industry. Any understanding that reviewers are able to give readers that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that filmgoing carries a code of ethics, would significantly improve criticism. As the film industry trundles on, implementing more and more glossy initiatives to bring about equality and afford more opportunities to women and minorities, it surely behoves journalists—which includes reviewers—to bring a more questioning, more incisive stance to bear on the films we love and the people who produce them.