Aesthetic reasons against Kevin Spacey

Disclaimer: this is an English translation of a post that previously appeared on Dutch philosophy blog BijNaderInzien.org

In a blogpost on appreciating art by morally suspect artists, Kathleen Stock writes about her love for middle period Woody Allen films. She asks herself: why don’t I have a problem with appreciating these films, even while acknowledging that Allen himself is a horrible person. She argues that our imagination is not necessarily blocked, as long as the represented world of the film can be separated from the personal convictions of the artist. She concludes that there it is no aesthetic reason for rejecting art, simply because it was made by a morally bad person. For example: it seems clear to me that Kevin Spacey has done some horrible things. That is why there might be moral or political reasons for no longer watching House of Cards (e.g., because you do not want to financially support Spacey). But as long as House of Cards is not itself propaganda for sexual misconduct, there are as of yet no aesthetic reasons for negatively appraising the series, so Stock: “even people with very bad characteristics can sometimes make and produce enjoyable, pleasant, good, true, or otherwise life-enhancing things.”

Stock’s article is insightful (and entertaining!) and this seems like a nice, uplifting conclusion. But I believe it to be a bit rash. Of course it is true that, at least for some art, it is important to separate the work from the maker. It is commonly known that Wagner was an awful human being, but that does not seem to me to be pertinent to an aesthetic evaluation of his operas. The question is, however, whether this separation also holds for the genre of film/television and this, it seems to me, is not the case: for many films and tv series, there is at least one correct form of aesthetic judging in which the person of the maker (or more often a contributor like an actor) plays a crucial role.

First, let me give an obvious example of a film that explicitly thematizes the personal history of its lead actor as part of the plot. In Birdman (2014, by Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Michael Keaton plays a washed-up actor, once celebrated for his role in a superhero film, now trying to reinvent himself. In other words, Keaton is playing a character whose bio is remarkably close to his own. A clever move by the director: one of the film’s themes, the fading distinction between reality and fiction, now repeats itself in the perception of filmgoers who remember Keaton from his role as Batman.

Aura and actor

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Poster for “Sabrina” (1954)

Birdman, however, is explicitly about this theme. So is it not just a unique exception which proves the rule that, normally, we do draw a distinction between fictional plot and an actor’s personal history? I do not think so: classic Hollywood films, for example, were explicitly marketed to audiences by foregrounding the stars who featured in them. A poster advertising Sabrina (1954, by Billy Wilder) illustrates this well: twice (!) it mentions Audrey Hepburn’s name, next to a drawn picture of her which takes up most of the poster’s space. Only once, and in a much smaller font, it mentions the actual title of the film. Of course, it is possible to watch this film without paying much attention to Hepburn’s presence, but likewise, it is possible (and given the marketing strategy, much more likely) that audiences watched the film by chiefly appreciating the aura of Audrey Hepburn and not so much the plot, cinematography, etc. In any case, I think both forms of viewership can be aesthetically correct attitudes.

Of course, it’s an oft-heard lament, this sickly cult of personality that pervades Hollywood. But regardless of whether one thinks this is bad or not, within the practice of viewing Hollywood films, it is a valid form of cultural consumption: like it or not, it can be a correct aesthetic attitude to appreciate Sabrina chiefly by focusing on Hepburn’s aura.

What do I mean by aura? One could think that people going to see a film because of Hepburn, do so mainly because of her appearance. “The fairest lady of all” the poster boasts. But the appearance of a person is not the same as her personality: in this case, we would still make a kind of distinction between the work judged and the person who made it (or contributed to it). However, by aura, I mean something different than a person’s appearance. I mean by it, something like her image, the way in which she exists in the collective consciousness. Take, for example, a different actor who also has a distinctive aura: Arnold Schwarzenegger. In his films too, his appearance is very important. But if it were just his appearance we were judging, it would not strictly matter in what films he is playing. But it does matter: what sets Jingle All The Way (1994, by Brian Levant) apart from other Christmas films, is that the role of the incompetent dad is played, funnily enough, by a tough macho like Schwarzenegger. This makes clear that there definitely is something of Schwarzenegger’s person that becomes important in aesthetically evaluating the film: this is not necessarily the ‘real’ Schwarzenegger (that is, the person whom we would get to know, were we to befriend him), but rather his aura, the Schwarzenegger that exists outside of his sphere of intimacy, as well as his films.

Like a house of cards

This brings me back to Kevin Spacey. It seems possible to watch House of Cards, not by following the (mis)deeds of Frank Underwood, but rather by merely appreciating Spacey’s aura. Moreover, that seems to me not only possible, but also one of the correct ways (be it a limited one) of appreciating the series. More importantly: even if appreciating Spacey’s aura is not exactly our main concern, still it seems to me to be an important part of our evaluation. Daniel Radcliffe is not often seen starring in films anymore and part of the reason why is that we find it difficult to look at him and see anybody other than Harry Potter. Radcliffe’s new films have (at least principally) nothing to do with his old ones, but still his aura (the ‘fact’ that he is Harry Potter) is a bona fide reason that one can weigh in appreciating his films. But then it is also true that it is not necessarily incorrect to suddenly find House of Cards a sickening show, just because of Spacey’s misdeeds. That is not simply a category mistake in which we let moral reasons weigh in an aesthetic judgment: rather, if Spacey’s aura is a suitable object of aesthetic appreciation, the judgment is both moral as well as aesthetic at the same time.

Does this mean that it has now become impossible to positively value House of Cards? No, that seems too strong a conclusion: it seems to me that there can be other aesthetic reasons which outweigh Spacey’s presence and render the series interesting enough to watch. On the other hand, we should not overestimate the extent to which it is correct to perceive a film in isolation of its maker. Sometimes, it is not only possible, but also necessary to evaluate an artwork by also taking into account the context in which it was made. That is why it is wrong to think that we should abstract from Spacey’s misdeeds when evaluating his works: if a film or series can be carried by the aura of an actor, then it can also make it collapse. It just so happens that there is an apt idiom for that.

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Dunkirk (2017) never happened: Christopher Nolan and the fabrication of history

In blatant honesty: I am not a fan of the films of Christopher Nolan. At best, his films provoke in me just a mild irritation. An annoyance which, sadly, gets amplified, when a reviewer, without the slightest sense of irony, glorifies him as the next Stanley Kubrick. So, with that confession in mind, one would be justified in thinking that I was stacking the cards against Nolan’s new war film Dunkirk (2017). To be frank, Nolan’s latest is also his finest yet. But I still don’t think it’s a good film. Dunkirk (2017), while officially about the evacuation of British soldiers from France during the opening stages of the Second World War in 1940, is not really a war film. It barely even classifies as cinema, rather it is more akin to an episode of confabulation.

Continue reading Dunkirk (2017) never happened: Christopher Nolan and the fabrication of history

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Ask yourself this question: can you rehearse to yourself the plots of Eddie Murphy flicks Trading Places (1983) and Coming to America (1988)? How many scenes come to mind? Maybe you’re thinking of the one scene in Trading Places where Murphy’s character is pretending to be blind. Or you might be thinking of the barbershop scenes from Coming To America. Now ask yourself whether you can remember any particularly funny scene from Beverly Hills Cop (1984)… No? Try searching YouTube to refresh your memory: it just doesn’t yield anything memorable. Well… except for the theme. That one you can remember, right?

Continue reading Total eclipse of the plot: Bruckheimer, Schopenhauer and the essence of music in Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Mondriaan stelt niets voor: representatie en abstractie

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De gedeelde werkelijkheid: gemeenschapszin in Passengers (2016)

Stel dat je wordt veroordeeld om de rest van je leven door te brengen in eenzaamheid. Je wordt van alle gemakken voorzien: luxe suite met kingsize bed, restaurant, sportschool en zelfs een bar. Je mag enkel en alleen geen enkel contact meer kan hebben met anderen. Akelig? Stel dan nu dat je de kans wordt gegeven om de man of vrouw van uw dromen met je mee te nemen. Dat klinkt al beter. Het addertje: kies je hiervoor, dan beslis je ook over het noodlot van je partner.

Continue reading De gedeelde werkelijkheid: gemeenschapszin in Passengers (2016)

Bauhaus: universal vs. international philosophy

From hipster coffeeshops to gothic rockbands to an entire neighbourhood in the city of Tel Aviv, it seems that a certain Bauhaus aesthetic has cemented itself in the collective consciousness. At least as far as the (upper) middle class is concerned, objects of dwelling should be spartan in design (“less is more” as the man used to say) and stay true to their accorded purpose (“form follows functions” as that other man used to say). Bulky chairs, folksy designs and figurative and religious art, on the other hand, are merely the outdated remnants of previous centuries.

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Reconstruction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion for the Barcelona World Exposition 1929. Photo by Hans Peter Schaefer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Dirty Dancing: alienation, ideology & emancipation

Beyond the formula

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Continue reading Dirty Dancing: alienation, ideology & emancipation