I Can’t Watch It: The Art of Pop Culture Self-Censorship
So far this year, I have seen no fewer than three movies directed by Roman Polanski. In the space of two weeks, I watched Carnage, Venus in Fur, and Death and the Maiden. I can’t say I made the choice to watch them of my own free will. Each viewing was for a class assignment for my film studies Masters degree. At one point, during Venus in Fur, which is based on a play I loved, I had to quietly admit to myself that I was enjoying the movie.
I don’t say this to ask for sympathy or to position myself as somehow above those who outright avoid Polanski films. Under different circumstances, I would be one of those people. You can read my words as an excuse or whatever, because sometimes for me, it felt like I had to justify my own emotions to myself. We all have limits, and he’s one of mine. The fact that I came out of one screening with real enthusiasm for one of the movies just made me feel worse. The baggage was too much.
The conversations around the revival of Roseanne have been especially heated, and for good reason. Critics have been warmer on the show than many predicted they’d be, but that hasn’t made the dialogue around the show any easier to navigate. There’s Roseanne the actress, Roseanne the character, Roseanne the cultural icon, and Roseanne the bigot-slash-icon of Trumpian ideals. There are barriers between each of these figures, or the spaces in between simply don’t exist, depending on who you ask. I’ve seen critics be slammed for being too hard, for not being hard enough, and so on. Yet I cannot say I blame anyone for the responses they have. Choosing to watch Roseanne means more than simply deciding you want to enjoy an episode of TV. It’s that power and the shadow it leaves in its trail that makes the necessity of self-censorship and selective consumerism more in-demand than ever.
I don’t usually watch Roman Polanski films. I don’t watch Woody Allen films. There’s no list of people whose works I avoid, no names set in stone or rules to follow, but my gut knows my limits. It’s been working overtime since the news of Harvey Weinstein’s mass accusations of abuse and harassment. What films are okay to watch, who’s on the no-go list, what’s the line, and so on. Even as a conscientious viewer, the process has become tougher than ever, and I’m not sure I’ve nailed it. There will always be exceptions, people will always have differing tolerances, and some can separate the art from the artist better than others. So, how the hell do you even get through this all?
Nobody has the right answers for this, but the need for it shouldn’t be dismissed. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been accused of evil liberal manipulations for admitting something as banal as my lack of desire to see the latest Woody Allen movie. It’s unfair to judge the man over the art, it’s another angry witch-hunt, it’s a basic failure of your occupation as a critic, and so on. I’m no Roger Ebert or Matt Zoller Seitz. If I review something, it’s not going to reach a huge audience and I doubt it would influence many people over whether or not they’d go to see the movie in question. So, why not review it, right? What’s the harm?
Watching Venus in Fur was surprisingly easy for the majority of its running time. I had an assignment to do so I buckled down and focused on the task at hand. I looked at the camera blocking and the acting, I took in the sparky dialogue and I thought of its myriad of fascinating themes. The barriers were distinct and easy to deal with - this was a movie, not a director. But it did hit me eventually. How could it not? The weight of that moment - me, not only watching a Polanski film but enjoying it - spread like a stain throughout my mind. Then the questions started roaring within, and all the details I knew of the rape case, and all the people I’d heard defend the rape act itself, and all the people who stood up to applaud him when he won his Best Director Oscar. It smacks you cross the face, the realization that you’re possibly contributing to the problem. You think of how often you’ve seen monstrous deeds dismissed because hey, that guy made Chinatown. You consider how you could be part of that overwhelming wave that crashes upon accusers and victims when their time comes to be brave and speak up. Will they be drowned out by every person who values the art more than the person?
It’s not a good feeling, and no matter how much I try to reason with myself, it doesn’t go away.
Selfishly, I self-censor and choose my pop culture more carefully in part because I don’t like feeling so dirty.
Everyone will make the choices they want to make and explain their reasoning as clearly as they can. Sometimes, that will anger you. It will make you want to leave and never come back. You’ll want to talk them out of it, to explain how it’s not as simple as one episode of TV a week or handing your cash over for the screening or getting tickets for the concert. They may change their mind, or they may dig their heels in further. The fleeting pleasures of pop culture can often be more powerful and easier to swallow than the tangle of ethical ramifications.
I make the choice I do because I want to be part of the solution. I don’t want those who abuse their power to be bolstered by the money I can give them. I don’t want to be forever on the fence, scared to take a side. I can’t allow myself to implicitly endorse bad things or bad people because I enjoyed a movie. I’m exhausted by false narratives and don’t want to contribute to that in any way, be it the notion that Polanski’s art is more important than his abuses, or that watching Roseanne proves the fetishized image of the beleaguered working-class Trump supporter is the ideal. Your limits may be different, and I can’t say I won’t judge that. Truthfully, I’m feeling more judgmental than ever these days. It’s a newly weaponised defence mechanism, although I hope I can get through it without descending into total dick-dom.
Still, if nothing else, I hope that you will consider what it means to be a fan, a consumer, a critic, and what power that comes with. It may not seem like much, but it does matter, and your voice will travel.
I liked Venus in Fur. Happily, I will never watch it again.
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