Saturday, 5 January 2013

Correction: someone professing to be Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out an error in this post. It doesn't seem likely that this poster is a fraud, despite my initial surprise that someone of Mr Rosenbaum's stature would stumble upon my amateur writing. In any case, it is a significant error, which I have left in, but drawn further attention to in the comments. 



I have just finished watching Jack Reacher, the latest genre film starring Tom Cruise. The film itself is a well crafted slice of action, which on the face of it offers nothing new to the mainstream. Although after a while one starts to feel a pattern to the very straight-faced delivery of a series of overtly macho lines of dialogue. And there is also the fact that the film-makers, in an uncharacteristic move, chose not to ignore the fact that if a man looking like Tom Cruise walked into your average bar, he would turn the heads of many a lady. Jack Reacher is more parts John Shaft than John McClane.

I enjoyed Reacher more than might be wise to admit in public, and I knew that when entering the cinema, which is why I bought my ticket. I have long wondered when the film's director, Christopher McQuarrie was going to produce a follow-up to his 2000 directorial debut, The Way of the Gun, which got written off as  another Quentin Tarantino bandwagon jumper, when its real crime was more likely that it drew from some of the same influences as Tarantino. Never mind the director, I am an unabashed fan of Tom Cruise, the movie star. 

The persona of Cruise was at the forefront of my mind as I entered the cinema. The most recognizable male face in film for as long as I can remember, he is also well-known for his odd, problematic personal life. Most notably, his high standing in the Church of Scientology and his marriage to Katie Holmes, many years his junior. A marriage which ended with all interested parties in the media clearly taking the side of Ms Holmes. 

I have no special fondness for the controversial faith that is Scientology, but more to the point, I have no idea as to why the Cruise-Holmes union ended abruptly other than what I have read in the papers. I am not entirely sure why I should care about such things? Scientology courts nothing but bad press - usually along the lines of its newest members having their personal finances eloquently plundered by the church. My personal view of the faith is dim. However, I have yet to hear of its high priests systematically abusing minors, then having their crimes covered up by their supreme leaders. Nobody in Hollywood ever had their reputation dragged through the mud for pledging allegiance to Roman Catholicism. 

Indeed Scientology is said to have played a key role in the Cruise divorce. But again, it seems to boil down to differences of opinion, with nobody being forced to act against their will, and Holmes making a clean exit.

This is all tabloid fodder which feels insignificant given the state of the world, but try as I might, the topic became unavoidable as it quickly found its way into non-tabloid media outlets. As far as I know Cruise has never been accused of a felony. I severely doubt I will ever get the chance to spend quality time socializing with him, so I cannot find it in my heart to worry about whether he is of sterling character or not. I am much more concerned about the man on the screen, than the individual who believes in some fairly far-flung ideas about the origins of man. I do admit to having read biographies of famous people, but most of them are dead already. Additionally, they are biographies which are more likely to reveal what went on behind the camera than in front of it, let alone during a highly intimate conversation with a loved one. 

Thankfully, 2012 was a genuinely good year for film, that produced more high-quality craftsmanship than highly-gossiped about scandalous behaviour. Mind you, as the year came to an end, Spike Lee managed to launch a personal tirade against one of his peers that struck me as being worth gossiping about. I do of course refer to his very public yet very personal ire for Quentin Tarantino's revisionist slave epic - Django Unchained. As I consider QT to be among the greatest director's alive (and on a clear track to becoming one of the greatest ever), I am eager to see whether Lee's anger is founded, although for now, like Mr Lee, have not managed to watch the film in question. 

The ultimate case of private behaviour affecting perception of art in modern times must be Roman Polanski. Here is a man who drew revulsion from his biggest admirers when it became known that he had had sexual intercourse with a minor. The cynic in me feels that this decades-old incident would now be long forgotten were it not for the fact that, facing a sentence far harsher than the norm at the hands of an attention-seeking judge, Polanski fled the scene of the crime, America, and has yet to return. A lover of film such as myself is faced with the heinous act of a man who admitted to sex with a thirteen year-old when he was well into his forties, yet also created such monumental milestones of cinema such as Chinatown, Bitter Moon and The Pianist.   

 There is no question in my mind that his prowess as a director in no way condones his crime. But having said that, his art did make me curious as to the circumstances of the crime itself. They are murky indeed, and many of Polanski's detractors who are in the habit of levelling false accusations against him would do well to read up on the actual event. There are also the facts of Mr Polanski losing his entire immediate family in the Holocaust, and later on having his wife and unborn child brutally murdered by the Manson Family. Both before he committed the act which would stain the rest of his life so far. There is also the victim of the crime, Samantha Geimer, repeatedly pleading with US authorities to drop their pursuit of Polanski, as well as publicly forgiving him. 

I enjoy watching his movies, and make a point of seeing them when they are playing at the cinema. I cannot avoid thinking about the private life of the man behind them, public as it is. However, I do not believe that I am committing any kind of ideological transgression by watching, and enjoying. If Polanski had not felt that he was looking down the barrel of a gun, unfairly pointed in his direction, and had not fled the country, I cannot imagine that many among us would be paying so much attention to a crime of statutory rape committed so long ago, regardless of how heinous it unavoidably is.

The scholarly film critic and film writer, Jonathan Rosenbaum, famously refuses to watch Elia Kazan's classic boxing-gangster movie, On the Waterfront. This is not a comment on the film's worth as a piece of cinema, but is entirely to do with Kazan naming names when his back was put up against the wall during the McCarthy communist witch-hunts, and the film being allegorical to this - expressing Kazan's frustration at the condemnation which he in turn received from his peers. It is almost certain that Kazan's actions ruined entire families, by incarcerating breadwinners, and/or putting them on the infamous Hollywood blacklist, which prevented them from finding work. 

Yet I cannot imagine how I noble I could find the temerity to be, if I myself were being blackmailed by my own government, with the choice being information, or ruination. On the Waterfront, like many of Kazan's films, also happens to be one that passionate observers of the craft should watch. 

I do not want to imagine what immoral or misguided act would be the one so reprehensible so as to cause me to boycott an artist. I do not really want to think about it, because I do not want to be somebody who imposes my own moral judgement on people whom I have never met.


  1. I don't know who told you that I've ever "refused" to watch On the Waterfront, but this is completely untrue. I've seen the film several times.

  2. I believe I read it in a book by Roger Ebert.

  3. And I profusely apologize for getting it wrong.

  4. 'For some viewers, the buried agenda of ``On the Waterfront'' tarnishes the picture; the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum told me he could ``never forgive'' Kazan for using the film to justify himself.'

    The actually text, copy/pasted from Ebert's essay. I should have checked first; my weak defense being that I write with low expectations for the attention gained by my idle musings.