Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Orange Is the New Blacklist:
What Shouldn't We Watch?

Unless you live under a rock, you've undoubtedly heard some friend/acquaintance/person in the next seat in the doctor's office jabbering on his cell phone breathlessly sing the praises of the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. This is one of pop culture's most highly recommended current binge-watching experiences. I myself haven't got around to it yet, though it's on my list. (Not at the top, so it could be a while.) Apparently the second season has just been released or something because Piper Kerman, the author of the memoir on which the show is based, has been making the rounds over the last couple of weeks. She is all over NPR (Fresh Air, etc.), and she has been featured in the past in major newspapers, prestigious magazines, cable networks, you name it. Her story has been called fascinating, emotional, and unforgettable. By all accounts, the "TV" show (are we just going to keep calling Netflix shows "TV" until we think of a better term? All right, then) is "brilliant."

What has gone unsaid or at least rarely said amid all the "this-could-have-been-you!" breathlessness, is that Piper Kerman went to jail because of a crime. What has gone unasked is the question of how we feel about her profiting now from her criminal acts. This appears to be in stark contrast to the recent kerfuffle over Woody Allen in the wake of his estranged daughter's allegations of abuse, which were followed by much hand wringing about whether to continue watching Woody Allen movies. 

Now, let me say from the outset that I believe Dylan Farrow. Her story rings true to me, and for the purposes of this blog entry, it doesn't matter why, so that's not going to distract us here. (We can take up that issue another day, if y'all like.) What is less clear to me is why I should "boycott" Woody Allen's movies. I should also point out that if I were to boycott the "genius" Woody Allen, I'm not sure it would lead to the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for me that the mere thought of not watching his movies has inspired in others. (*cough* I find Annie Hall overrated. *cough*) But that's not the point either.

The question is: (why) are we obligated to not partake of a criminal's art? 

Clearly, boycotts can be about money. But they are also about larger issues; they are about making a statement, and, it is hoped, eventually a difference in behavior. This has occasionally worked when corporations are doing jerky things, and sometimes it has galvanized an entire movement (see, e.g., Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, MLK Jr., NOW, etc.)  The impact comes from, first of all, numbers (there have to be a lot of people who actually participate in the boycott) and, secondly, the common sense of purpose. This is where most social-media-forwarded boycotts these days kind of fail right out of the gate; internet activism is often widespread but generally fragmented (read: all over the place, physically and intellectually). Attempting to "boycott" a heretofore well-regarded film director's future projects is such a poorly constructed set-up that I'm not surprised it didn't totally catch on. 

The even more interesting question, though, is whether a well-organized, less vague, clearly outlined and strategized refusal to ever see, act in, or work for a Woody Allen movie would be any better. For one thing, how does it work, with a boycott of creative endeavors? Do we just stop going to his films in theaters? Can we still rent ones that we have seen before, or watch the copy that's been sitting on our shelves for ten years? (Not my shelf, though.) Is the American Film Institute morally obligated to remove his films from their Top 100 lists? I should say not, seeing as they have Birth of a Nation on there. 

I firmly believe that everyone -- including criminals, alleged criminals, not-yet-caught criminals, and wrongly accused criminals -- should be allowed to creatively express themselves. Not just allowed, but encouraged. I believe that creativity should be a major component of prison life: writing class, crafts, art projects, musical performances, whatever helps people rehabilitate and find themselves. I think it's clear that there's been no lack of "crazy" and tormented artists over the years, whether it's Vincent Van Gogh, or writers such as Dylan Thomas and F. Scott Fitzgerald, or the "27 club" of singers who fell prey to substance abuse and/or mental illness and died at age 27 (Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, et. al.) Where do you draw the line of behavior that is OK to support in your artist and behavior that isn't? Do you draw that line in a court of law? A few people said that they couldn't give up on Woody Allen because he wasn't criminally convicted of the abuse. Do those people have any earthly idea of how many child abusers -- even officially accused ones - remain blissfully unconvicted for their entire lives?  

What if you found out your office building was designed by an architect who had juvenile drug convictions? Or a DUI on his record? Would you stop listening to your favorite band if one of its members went to jail? What if your favorite painter admitted she was a shoplifter? Does it matter if they served time? Is there a difference between art and "writing" a memoir with a ghost writer? Is it OK to depict Piper Kerman's life in a Netflix series but not give her any of the profits? Is her crime somehow "different" or "better" or "not as bad" because she was this young, pretty, blonde woman who got "caught up" in something? What about all the young, teenaged, often-not-blonde kids who get "caught up" in things and have their lives forever set down a dismal path with an early conviction in the so-called war on drugs? Are we more angry at Woody Allen because he is such a big celebrity? No matter how horrible Woody Allen's actions were, do we feel comfortable saying he shouldn't continue to make his art? Or just that no one should help him do it? 

No, I am not (as my friend asked me) interested in scooping up some of notorious mass murder mastermind Charles Manson's paintings for my art collection. But do I think he should be stopped from making them? Absolutely not. If someone else wants to buy them, do I think that person should be stopped? Well, Manson is a prisoner, and the prisons/legal system have the right to curtail  the commercial acts of the prison population (for obvious reasons).  Once they get out, though, they can evidently profit with impunity and hardly ruffle society's collective feathers, whether they are Jordan Belfort, better known as The Wolf of Wall Street, or Piper Kerman. And buying a book is an obvious, willful act. You might watch a Roman Polanski film and not even know about the actions that sent him into a life of European "exile," but you could hardly waltz into the local book shop and pick up a copy of the infamous OJ Simpson's (If) I Did It and claim ignorance. People seemed to realize that truth when (the not-convicted-of-those-particular-murders) OJ tried to unleash his screed on us. But amid all the dismay with which we speak of sensational memoirs that profit off of "scandal" or victimhood, we don't seem to mind when someone gets out of prison and then tells their story, which is then made into irresistible, award-winning entertainment. Why not? 

I don't profess to have answers to these questions. I find them endlessly fascinating, and I would like to know how  and why we decide whether someone is a pariah or a fascinating interview subject who will now get paid a handsome sum for speaking engagements. 

I will say that I can't imagine any mistake, crime, or egregious act could ever justify telling people to stop creatively expressing themselves, even the worst psychopaths. (Note, for the record, that snuff films and crush films do not count as "creative expression" -- those are actual harmful acts, so it doesn't matter how creative your depiction of them is -- as if! -- because the act itself must still be punished, and that includes all its accomplices, from camera operators to key grips. I can't believe this nonsense about cruelty on film being allowed as free speech or expression has been allowed to persist as long as it has.)  Prison as deterrence or incapacitation is one thing, to keep someone who is potentially harmful away from society. But I don't agree that you can keep them from their artistic, creative selves. 

No comments: