The Oscars are less than two weeks away, and Hollywood has been in the news even more than usual. If this is partly because of the controversy surrounding Woody Allen, it is also the result of the terrific year of cinema that just ended. In short, it seemed like a good time to talk all things film with one of subject’s experts. Mark Harris is a writer for Grantland and Entertainment Weekly, and he is also the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood and the forthcoming Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. We started by discussing left-wing attacks on Hollywood movies.
Isaac Chotiner: You have a piece for Grantland basically arguing that political objections to films used to be based on the fact that they were immoral, with social conservatives objecting. Now a lot of films are being objected to from the left-wing point-of-view. The Wolf of Wall Street is attacked for not being tough enough on predatory capitalists, for example.
Mark Harris: Yes. The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyer’s Club and Captain Phillips came in for left critiques whereas I think, of the Oscar contenders, the only one that came in for a kind of more traditional, conservative critique was Philomena, for being anti-Catholic.
IC: I actually thought Philomena, which was a good movie, was actually slightly too easy on the Church.
MH: Well Kyle Smith, the conservative film critic at the New York Post, would disagree with you. I don’t want to create the impression that the left has never offered political critiques of movies before; they’ve done it all the time. And, you know, they’ve done it often in regard to violence and often in regard to the depiction of women. One thing that’s changed is that a lot of left criticism is now being directed at movies that are not conservative but are seen as insufficiently of the left.
When I look at a movie like Captain Phillips, I see an implicit critique of the imbalance of power between the US and Africa kind of built into the story, but I would also defend the right of a director like Paul Greengrass or a director like Kathryn Bigelow to be primarily interested in depicting how something works—an operation or a mission, you know. There is a growing critique that says, “No, you can’t—it’s not enough to create this sort of ‘you are there’ sensory, visceral experience without a movie also addressing the ‘you are there’ question and why are you there, what got us there, what are the ramifications of us being there." I find myself being in different positions depending on the movie, but I think it’s an interesting fight and a fight worth having.
IC: When America fights a war now, it’s not unquestionably thought of as a good thing, which is great. At the same time, I wonder if you should be able to make a movie like Captain Phillips without going into the history of the United States and Africa and colonialism and power imbalances.
MH: It depends on the movie for me. I’ve written about my problem with The Wolf of Wall Street and I’m not entirely convinced that they ever gave much thought to what Jordan Belfort did and who he hurt when they were making the movie. And so, everybody has the right to tell the story they want to tell but we as viewers have the right, in a way, to judge that story if we feel it has been kind of artificially gerrymandered to leave certain stuff out. And we also have the right, and I think this is dangerous ground sometimes, to even say, “Why are you choosing to tell story A instead of story B through Z." Now I think this is a very slippery slope because I think one basic rule is try to focus your critique on what’s there instead of what you wish were there or what you ideologically feel should have been there.
IC: It is a slippery slope. Spielberg got criticized for making a Holocaust movie about a gentile.
MH: Right, so I find it more objectionable to say that Dallas Buyers Club chooses to make a movie about the early years of the AIDS crisis and either picks a straight guy as a hero or makes the hero into a straight guy. I think for one thing, you know, any population that feels insufficiently represented is going to be more sensitive to being omitted from its own history. And the fact is, there have been a hundred Holocaust movies. There haven’t been a hundred AIDS movies. So when you finally make an AIDS movie, what you choose to make it about carries more baggage.
IC: Right, it’s sort of like this micro-macro problem where at one level the specific filmmakers don’t have the responsibility of every AIDS movie. At another level, you’ve got to question the macro assumptions about why Hollywood makes these larger choices.
MH: Yes, I think the second thing is really fair to do and I think when the first thing feels to you like an actual distortion of historical reality then it’s also fair game to interrogate that. However, when political criticism is done badly, that becomes manifest really quickly. Remember that the dumbest critiques of Zero Dark Thirty last year sort of boiled down to shrill statements that, you know, Kathryn Bigelow is pro-torture. And when something gets into that off with her head territory, I believe that the idea will die of its own stupidity fairly quickly. But if they were to look at Zero Dark Thirty and ask Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, Exactly what do you mean by depicting this series of events and in this world are you implying causation? What do you think you’re saying about torture? Those are completely fair questions. And the discussion of Zero Dark Thirty was better because those questions were asked. It’s not enough for the other side to simply say, you know, thinking about that stuff is not a filmmaker’s problem or responsibility. That to me is just this nonsensical way of walling off politics and ethics and morals from art as if those are gross, yucky things that real artists aren’t ever supposed to think about or deal with rather than, you know, some of the most fascinating things that art can grapple with.
IC: I was thinking about this in terms of Tarantino. His last two movies have taken historical events—the Holocaust and slavery—where there were certainly right and wrong sides, and they’ve shown the right side enacting delicious vengeance on the wrong side. And whatever you think of the choices he made in those movies, it would clearly be different in 2014 if he showed a movie of Americans gleefully torturing Al Qaeda. Which is not say Al Qaeda is good or that people don’t have a right to be angry about terrorism, but to do a gleeful movie about that would have a real political connotation that older movies don’t have.
MH: Well, I think some of the arguing over Django Unchained last year and for that matter, Lincoln, showed that there’s not a statute of limitations on movies being grappled with politically—just because those movies were set 150 years ago, that did not prevent really strong critiques of both movies. But the fresher the material is, the more living people there are to contradict or embellish or elaborate or refute what your movie is doing, the hotter the seat you’re going to find yourself in.
IC: Right. Mississippi Burning, which I think in a lot of ways is a good movie, was attacked for good reason because it really did make it seem like FBI agents were the heroes of the Civil Rights movement.
IC: Okay, to Woody Allen. How do you think this controversy is registering in Hollywood?
MH: I don’t think Oscar voters in general want to feel like they’re in the position of adjudicating an accusation of child molestation by who they cast the ballot for. Blue Jasmine is nominated for three Oscars. Cate Blanchett was sort of quote-unquote supposed to win Best Actress. Woody Allen was never going to win Best Original Screenplay for this and Sally Hawkins was never going to win Best Supporting Actress for this. So, you know, Woody Allen losing won’t mean anything. Woody Allen winning will be extremely weird and unexpected.
IC: I saw Cate Blanchett was at some awards show or dinner or something and she was pestered with questions about Allen. I wonder if this wil hurt his ability to cast people in his movies because people feel like “Oh, I don’t want to talk about allegations of, you know, sexual abuse of a seven-year-old.”
MH: I don’t remember exactly what Cate Blanchett’s original statement about all of this was but I think it was something like, “This has been a long and painful thing for the family and I hope it reaches a peaceful resolution” or something like that. If that is the attitude that other actors take then, no he won’t have a problem. I mean, what you’re asking is if he will have trouble casting his movies, which is not the same question as “Do you think there are actors out there who will not want to work with him because of this?” The answer to that second question is yes, of course there are actors out there who will not want to work with him because of this.
IC: I remember several years ago Elia Kazan was given an honorary Oscar and it angered a lot of people in Hollywood and you could see a lot of people sat on their hands when he received it. And then Roman Polanski won an Oscar for The Pianist to riotous applause. And you could certainly make that case that what Polanski perpetrated didn’t have to do with the business but what Kazan did had to do with the industry. And so the industry should punish Kazan more than they should Polanski. But I had a moment where I sort of felt like a right winger scolding Hollywood for its low morals. You’re going to be clapping for this guy that raped a thirteen-year-old but not Kazan?
MH: This is why it’s really dangerous to treat Hollywood as a monolith because Polanski and Kazan, and now I guess some say Woody Allen, will join that list. They all occasion, among many other arguments, one argument that’s identical, which is: Should you separate the artist from the art? And people have been having that fight since Richard Wagner and Ezra Pound and probably before that, so you know, I don’t think you should necessarily assume that the same person in Hollywood who sat on his hands and didn’t applaud when Kazan one was enthusiastically cheering when Roman Polanski won. So some people are absolutely consistent in their belief that you should separate the artist from the art. Some people are contended in their belief that you shouldn’t. And yeah, probably there are some people who probably go case-by-case.
IC: Your specific answers are screwing up my broad generalizations.
MH: Well, I’m sorry but you brought up my broad generalizations in my piece and now I have for you specific answers!
IC: Fair enough. The tables have been turned on me. When the Polanski stuff was going on there were a lot of famous artists (and I mean artists broadly) who wrote something to the degree of “Yeah, what this guy did is bad but he’s also a great artist and that’s more important.” I do wonder how widespread that sentiment is about Woody Allen.
MH: I think that’s a good question—and I remember a few years ago when the Polanski thing flared up again and there were questions about extradition. And a great number of film artists signed a petition or an open letter or something calling for, or pointing to, inconsistencies in the original case and suggesting that charges should be dropped. But, you know, what you can never see in an open letter or in a petition like that is who didn’t sign, who refused to sign, who said, "I’m not going to do it." You see a long list of names and you think Oh, Hollywood is backing up Roman Polanski but there were plenty of people, I know for a fact, who were asked to sign that letter who said, “Fuck no. He raped someone. And then he fled.” So in regards to Woody Allen, if you talk to five different people in the movie industry you’re going to get five different answers. When he makes his next movie, you’ll only know who’s in it, you won’t know who turned it down.
IC: Well, you need to report on it for us, come on.
MH: I think my goal is now to write about this particular case as little as possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed.