Terrible Beauty

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As it happens, terrible people often produce great things. Once we learn of the terrible deeds of talented people, how do we handle that knowledge.

The matter has come up again with the release of Finding Neverland, the HBO documentary about Michael Jackson and his serial molestation of young boys. I have a lot of Michael Jackson's music in my collection. Am I supposed to stop listening to his music? Writing for The Week, Jeva Lange says yes, but she thinks certain deviant filmmakers are okay:

A boycott can feel like the only course of action when a musician (or a director, or a comedian, or an actor ... ) is credibly accused of something terrible. There is the financial consideration: Who wants their money going to a person, or the estate of a person, who's hurt other people? But a personal boycott is as much driven by one's conscience. In the case of Jackson, I've found it impossible to separate "the art" from "the artist," and the suffering the latter, in all likelihood, inflicted.

But I haven't felt similarly about films directed by two other celebrities accused of abuse: Woody Allen and Roman Polanski.

Why? Because making a film is apparently more of a collaborative effort:

But to take Allen and Polanski as representative examples, it is much harder to justify boycotting films in response to directors' alleged sexual misconduct than it is a solo singer like Jackson. The accentuation of a director as the single "author" of a film is known as auteur theory, and has persisted as the primary mode of interpreting and analyzing movies since the 1960s. But auteur theory has plenty of problems, not the least of which is that it subscribes to the notion of a "lone genius," emphasizing the overriding importance of the director — who, historically, is often a man — over the work of the others involved in the creation of a picture.

Allen, as one example, is a particularly heavy-handed director, often writing and acting in his films. His subject matter is also difficult to grapple with as a moviegoer; as The New Yorker's Richard Brody notes in his own attempt, "There has always been something sexually sordid in Allen's work," which makes watching his films while knowing the allegations deeply uncomfortable. But even Allen's most hands-on and autobiographical films are collaborations, and the final product is consequently the work, also, of the actors, actresses, and technical teams behind them.

This analysis doesn't make a lot of sense; as Lange admits later on, Michael Jackson's best work is certainly in collaboration with Quincy Jones. If you want a sense of how crucial Jones was to Jackson's work, consider another group Jones produced, the Brothers Johnson. I'll post two videos, both from the late 1970s, when Jones was working with the Brothers Johnson and with Jackson:

These are similar songs, with similar structures, and they were both big hits in that era. Whose vision dominates these two recordings?

Quincy Jones is a very rich man because of his collaboration with Michael Jackson, but he also made a lot of money working with the Brothers Johnson. He won't care whether Jeva Lange listens to Jackson's music. But there's a larger question about Jackson, and Allen, and Polanski, and Bill Cosby, and Kevin Spacey, and so many others. Should their work disappear entirely? I'm coming back to that topic next.