From Louis C.K. to Roman Polanski, we must question why men are allowed to create works which minimise the acts they stand accused ofby Caspar Salmon / November 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
There’s a scene in the first season of the popular television show Louie in which Louis C.K., the popular comedian, is interrupted by a woman talking during his show. He asks her to stop talking, but she carries on, and even heckles him, telling him he’s not funny. (I’ve checked the episode in question, and can verify that the routine she interrupted was indeed not funny). Louis C.K then confronts her about her objections to his material, saying: “You don’t like rape? [Audience laughter] You don’t? That’s really weird, because you wouldn’t exist if your mom hadn’t raped that homeless Chinese guy.”
He then appears to regret his harshness—for a moment. Then, he piles on. “Look, can you do me a favour? Can you please just die of AIDS? [To the audience] Does anyone have AIDS that could just put their dick in her face and get her started on that?” Later on—and this is crucial—C.K. kindly points out to her outside the club, without any bitterness, as a caring human, that she misspoke. She shouldn’t have interrupted his act, because comedians don’t have it as easy as her.
This type of material is everywhere in Louis C.K.’s stand-up. First, the grim contravention, and then the second moment in which C.K. saves his own arse by making plain that he knows how grim he is, before, finally, him ending up in the right because of the manifest goodness of his intentions.
He does it, too, in a comedy special with Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, where he explains the mechanics behind his rape jokes. With no-one there to challenge him, C.K. is at liberty to explain the perfect non-offensiveness of his joke, safe in the knowledge that he’s paid his liberal dues.
Only now, with the revelations about his alleged sexual behaviour, are we able to see that Louis C.K.’s material was riven with dangerously hateful material, which he took great pains to proof against criticism. His film I Love You Daddy—which has had its premiere cancelled—reportedly contains scenes in which a comedian mimes masturbating with other people present, including a female producer. When someone pointed out that this trope mirrors rumours about his own behaviour, C.K. responded: “It’s funny, I didn’t think of that.”
What we are seeing, with the accusations surrounding C.K. but also with other abusers including Roman Polanski, is new challenge to the “separate the art from the artist” myth.
However edifying an injunction to separate the two may be—and I celebrate people who are able to take that vertiginous leap of the mind—it has now become harder to claim that they are distinct. We see in the material put out by C.K. that he was actually producing endless variations on an “if I did it” theme; that his work was littered with casually derogatory and sexist remarks, predicated on belittling sexual aggression.
Similarly with Polanski: he isn’t just a rapist whose work deals in floral tableaux and wittily-staged dinner scenes, but a rapist whose very corpus labours away at recurring themes of sexual aggression and retribution. This doesn’t, of course, invalidate his work, which can still be evaluated on its artistic merit—but it reminds us that that work also propagates ideas of sexual dominance and the terrorising of women. Refusing to query the queasy ethics of this (something festivals, and critics, and filmgoers have been failing to do for years) is in part what propagates a misogynistic world of male creators and female subjects, in which sexual aggression flourishes.
Likewise the art of Woody Allen, who has been accused of rape by Dylan Farrow and famously began a sexual relationship with his partner’s daughter, returns again and again to February-December relationships, with a blitheness of morals that has been relatively unquestioned. The relationship between Allen (aged 44) and Mariel Hemingway (aged 17) in Manhattan is set to be mirrored in Allen’s new film, in which Jude Law will play a married man accused of sleeping with a 15-year-old (Elle Fanning), who, in a twist, turns out to be the brow-wipingly acceptable age of 21.
It isn’t merely the increasingly reduced artistic merit of Allen’s films that should make us question this facet of his work, but a concern as moral filmgoers that he not propagate dangerous ideas that serve his own case under the auspices of creating art.
The list goes on: alleged abuser’s Brett Ratner’s upcoming films were to have been the Libertine (a film about about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape scandal, starring blameless Johnny Depp) and a biopic of Hugh Hefner. Of course, it’s a possibility that these films could have turned out to be immaculately handled exemplars of right-on-ness, but it seems unlikely given Ratner’s personal morals and the acclaim given to ‘legend’-slash-drugger-of-women Hugh Hefner in the days following his death.
To ignore these grotesque imbalances of power is to enter an alarming sphere where the art becomes a document which works in its creators’ defence, reinforcing a worldview which would let them off the hook. Why is this permitted to happen?
The work of these men doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it vehicles ideas, feeds into a conversation, and—crucially—exists as a rebuke to the victims speaking out. No reasonable critic would wish for art to be assessed purely on its ethical compass, but neither can we turn a blind eye to their aberrations. The question with the work of Louis C.K., Allen and Polanski is not so much about its intrinsic morality, but about the way it serves the thinking and position of its creator—and about the ways in which dramatising abusive behaviour from their perspective does a cruel disservice to victims.