Out of State
Why does film – an art form built on stardom, visual pleasure, and control – have such a persistent sexual misconduct problem? It's an industry full of either monsters or geniuses, depending on who you ask. Natasha Stagg meanders through the minefield of cancellable cinema for this week's column.
What are all the fired artists doing these days? I just saw that John Galliano was in a lighthearted Vogue video last week. Tao Lin’s new book is getting rave reviews. Louis C.K. sold out Madison Square Garden twice this month. The list of cancelled collaborations is long – maybe longer than we’ll ever know. Some artists have lost followers but gained new audiences. We can all agree, can’t we, that each case should be judged individually? We will attempt, as objective viewers, to separate the artist from the work, but in truth, we will not be able to.
And if we’re being honest, we’d like to know how it felt. Especially if the artist in question was, previous to the accusations, making work that concerned power dynamics. A comeback, in these cases, should continue to interrogate authority and its abuses, perhaps with gained perspective. Louis C.K.’s comedic work, for example, tended to explore guilt, desire, untenable expectations, humbled situations, and the reality of American dreaming. A joke from his 2020 stand-up series Sincerely Louis C.K. – the first since he was let go from so many projects in 2017 – mentions that he never could have prepared for the feeling of knowing that everyone, “even Obama” is aware of his sexual fetishes.
Here, his discomfort is on display, if in his control. He is famous, he reminds us, and we’re relieved by this, since famous people are less deserving of privacy. We, the audience, want C.K. to suffer a little. We know how he got there, and that however far he fell, his landing was cushioned by a pile of money. It occurs to us that it might be better for the psyches of the abusers, the people they hurt, and everyone learning of the abuse if past behaviours were not revisited. In the moment, though, we agree that exploring the leadup to a scandal will more likely benefit us in some way. We want to know: What makes a person behave in a way that will humiliate others, and eventually, themselves? How does a pumped ego amplify or suppress certain voices in one’s head? As a powerful person in media, C.K. has a responsibility to behave professionally. Would he have had the confidence to behave so unprofessionally, had he not achieved such power?
Perhaps, instead of glossing over public fallouts with apologia, the cancelled artists could untangle their personal dramas through their work, the way they used to. Besides the Obama joke, though, C.K. mostly avoids the subject of his cancellation. “Can Louis C.K. Spin His Troubles into Art?” asks the headline of a Hilton Als review for the New Yorker in February of 2020. The answer, the article surmises, is not really. “Couldn’t he go there, Richard Pryor style, and talk from the vantage point of his disgraced penis?” Als asks. “Instead, he let his better stories trail off, fearing perhaps the existential ramifications of doing what he used to do, digging and dancing in the minefields of our collective unconscious.”
Digging and dancing in these minefields is expected of high art, even required, until, apparently, it is tainted with personal drama. When an artist’s conduct is found to be indefensible, they are expected to self-flagellate instead, which never seems to work, anyway. We, the audience, take part in these punishments by witnessing them. A power dynamic slightly see-saws, and the world around us might appear to have changed, when in truth nothing really has. Apologies are easy. When, instead, the artist confronts the psychology of seduction and attempts an articulation, we might at least learn something. Yes, he is on the stage, doing the talking, and we are without leverage or voice. He is flailing and vulnerable as opposed shrouded by the rituals of remorse, though, and so in the end we’ve learned what we do and do not want from this, from him, from life, if only a little.
THE FILM TRACES A WAVERING LINE BETWEEN SEXUAL PASSION AND THE DESIRE TO BE REWARDED, OR A DESIRE FOR THE POWER TO REWARD.
Last year, I happened to watch Jean-Claude Brisseau’s The Exterminating Angels (2006). It was released just after the filmmaker was convicted of manipulating two women into performing sexual acts on camera by promising them roles in another erotic thriller (neither were cast). The Exterminating Angels is overtly autobiographical at times, opening with a scene in which a director, Francois (Frederic Van Den Driessche), is holding (and filming) auditions. When an actress doesn’t get the part after masturbating in front of Francois and his camera, she publicly alleges abuse. The film traces a wavering line between sexual passion and the desire to be rewarded, or a desire for the power to reward. Francois tests his actresses’ limits by filming them becoming aroused, while the fictional actresses admit to being aroused by being filmed. Taboos are broken. Motives are questioned. Things fall apart. Francois is a moving target for projections of both lust and derision. He learns from the experience, but not in the way I expected. The film’s panting horniness reads, at times, like an honest portrayal of the director’s libido, and at others, like yet another untenable powerplay. (Following his arrest, Brisseau insisted his films “use sexual feelings in the same way that Hitchcock used fears.”)
In the end, Francois is confused by his willingness to let so much go in order to get the perfect, sexy shot. The film’s pornographic pacing leaves us bewildered as well. Upon its release, Angels received plenty of high praise. Mostly, critics separated the accused artist from his work, or at least credited him with trying to understand the accusations through this work. Nick Pinkerton wrote, “though [Brisseau’s] dashing alter-ego in Exterminating Angels enjoys attention from a buffet of young, tantalizing women, I never got the queasy feeling that comes from, say, watching Woody Allen surround himself with willing lovelies. That’s thanks to this director’s unsparing curiosity in defining the dynamic between this established older man with a modicum of authority and these women, variously wracked by the tidal emotions of youth.”
Brisseau died in 2019. In 2017, the Cinématèque Française cancelled a Brisseau retrospective, following protests against their Roman Polanski retrospective. In 2021, it is difficult to imagine Angels getting the fair treatment it did in 2006. But even back then, the un-accused Catherine Breillat was consistently reprimanded for pushing her actors’ and audience’s limits with a similar approach to Brisseau’s. In more than one review of Angels, critics compared the two auteurs. Lisa Neselsson wrote, “It would be difficult to argue that there’s anything remotely sordid about sex as scripter-helmer Brisseau films it…there’s a lot of deliberate humor to leaven the threat of pretentiousness, which is more than one can say for the average Catherine Breillat opus.”
Breillat’s films, particularly Sex is Comedy (2002), unravel the sexualized power dynamics of a director and actors performing sex scenes as well, tacking on the taboo of an older woman wielding control on set. Sex is Comedy, too, is a movie about the making of a movie. Unlike The Exterminating Angels, though (and unlike most of Breillat’s own other films), it is admittedly unsexy, even frustratingly so. The plot revolves around two nameless actor characters that can’t stand one another. A director character, Jeanne (Anne Parillaud) wants to create romance where there is none, telling the actors to endure days of getting a sex scene right. Her insistence feels unwarranted, or stupid, until it becomes clear that Sex is Comedy is based on the behind-the-scenes of Breillat’s most acclaimed film, Fat Girl (2001). For that movie, actor Roxane Mesquida performed several sex scenes with actor Libero De Rienzo. In Sex is Comedy, Mesquida is back, playing an actress forced to be in sex scenes with an actor she despises.
The reveal makes re-watching Fat Girl less bearable. The first time around, I assumed that Mesquida’s uneasiness during scenes in which her character is slowly manipulated into losing her virginity is great acting. After watching Sex is Comedy, however, I can only see real unhappiness. Jeanne is ruthless, bearing a side of Breillat she is surely a little ashamed of. If Breillat had been cancelled (or outed as a pig, as the French say), Sex is Comedy would take on another tenor, offering up one explanation as to why some auteurs keep trying to get away with so much. The film is a self-interrogation that idles on Breillat’s own hunger for a power struggle, whether it be over actors on set or lovers at home.
The director character Jeanne has almost no redeeming qualities. In this way, Breillat exposes a slightly sadistic side of herself, making her foils suffer from the derision of other characters and from us, the audience. But she does so with the steady eye contact of a true masochist, asking us for another round of torture. Instead of self-satirizing or seducing us into staying on her side, she baldly recreates the problematic dynamic, even hiring back the actress that suffered the original trauma this metanarrative depicts, ostensibly asserting the same power over her all over again. In the end, Sex is Comedy asks if Fat Girl was worth the trouble it took to make it. It offers no way out for those of us that like Fat Girl. We like it, after all, for its unflinching depiction of real life.
ARTISTS ARE, AFTER ALL, OVERSENSITIVE. THE BACKLASH THEY HAVE FACED FOR EXPOSING THEIR EXPLOITATIVE DESIRES IN THE INDUSTRIES BUILT AROUND EXPLOITATION IS STILL TOO RAW TO PUBLICLY PROCESS.
The first feature-length film Louis C.K. had directed since Pootie Tang (2001) – and the first film he’d directed, written, and starred in – was set to open in 2017, until accusations of his sexual misconduct became public. Not only was the release date a bit of bad timing, but the publicity also appeared as further proof of C.K.’s cancellable character: from the black-and-white jazz-inflected trailer, I Love You, Daddy looked like an unapologetic homage to the besmirched Woody Allen’s late-70s films. Even the title cards copied movies like Manhattan, in which Allen’s 42-year-old character dates a 17-year-old girl. Plus, it’s called I Love You, Daddy. Despite acclaim from critics at its festival premiere, it was shelved.
It’s easy to find I Love You, Daddy as an illegal stream or torrent, even if it never got a wide release. Watching it after 2017 is disorienting, as the very texture of it seems to have anticipated C.K.’s callouts. The choice of shooting on black-and-white 35mm film turns out to be a ruse, of sorts. A director character, Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), has a similar reputation to present-day Allen. Leslie is the film’s antihero. A movie producer, Glen Topher (C.K.), is a Leslie Goodwin fan. Glen sees Manhattan through Leslie’s eyes, as the audience must, via Manhattan-esque cinematography. Glen knows the rumours of Leslie’s ephebophilia, but would love to work with him, regardless. He is only forced to rethink his devotion when his own teenaged daughter, China (Chloe Grace Moretz) becomes involved in an affair with Leslie. Glen instinctively wants China to break it off, which reveals some of Glen’s own self-delusions. The internal negotiation isn’t easy. It isn’t easy for us, the viewers, either, who are at once reminded of the delightful impact early Allen films had on cinema – and on New York itself – and confronted with some self-serving pretentions there that we maybe didn’t notice at first, seeing as we were being seduced, too.
C.K.’s MSG comeback received a standing ovation, apparently, but is being torn apart by critics, again, for being sarcastically self-effacing instead of genuinely introspective, like his old stuff. It could be that he doesn’t have enough critical distance yet to look at his own situation clearly. It could be, though, that he’ll be forever bitter. Maybe he’s hardened to an ever-present crowd, making work for his new fans only.
Artists are, after all, oversensitive. The backlash they have faced for exposing their exploitative desires in the industries built around exploitation is still too raw to publicly process. They’re still under the radar, boringly defensive, hiding in Europe, or talking about leaving everything behind, as if that’s a possibility. We hope that they get past these banal reactions and try exploiting their own circumstances – asking, along with us, why this type of thing keeps happening. Why entertainment will inevitably articulate power imbalances and the messy challenges they incur. Why we can’t get enough of it.
In 1980, the French newspaper Libération asked Marguerite Duras to write a chronicle for them over one year. The pieces could be as long or short as she liked, so long as she wrote every day. Duras said a year was far too long and proposed three months instead. “Why three months?” her editor asked. “Three months is one summer long,” she replied. “Agreed, three months, but every day!” the editor insisted. Duras didn’t have anything planned for the summer and almost gave in. But then she suddenly became terrified that she couldn’t plan her days as she wished. So she said: “No, once a week, about whatever I want.” The editor agreed.
Since 2017, Spike has invited Natasha Stagg to do the same: one text a week, of any length, on whatever she likes. A new installment of Out of State will be published online every Tuesday for ten weeks – one summer long. Last week, she wrote about the conspiracy of killer models.
NATASHA STAGG is a writer based in New York. She is the author of Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019 (2019) and the novel Surveys (2016) both published with Semiotext(e).