Manchester by the Sea and political correctness
This post is fundamentally based on two separate topics (and note the insistence of separation here, something we’ll come back to in a bit). First off, it’s a brief review of Kenneth Lonergan’s Oscar-winning 2016 release Manchester by the Sea. Secondly, it makes a clumsy but just-about-acceptable segue into some thoughts on the accusations against Casey Affleck of sexual harassment. These accusations cast some gloom and controversy onto hisnomination for, and winning of, the 2016 Academy Award for Best Actor.
Part two I suspect might cause some problems. The reason is that with our current climate it seems acceptable to only publish beliefs which flow in a certain direction. This is in spite of some compelling arguments not necessarily to the contrary, but which council moderation in any view taken. This article does not espouse views which are radical, repressive, sexist or anti-feminist – so save your breath if those are the tired tropes you would deploy as retaliation. It is perfectly acceptable to hold any number of a range of opinions on this hand-grenade of a topic. What is not acceptable is to conflate issues to a point where no one is allowed to say anything without immediately being portrayed as having endorsed a series of supposedly connected views, and thus declared as having allegiance with one side or the other. Anyway, we’ll come back to that.
In the review section, I now feel an urge to hurry through it because the film was released more than three months ago. Frankly, anything I write will end up being a slightly ham-fisted paraphrasing of what hundreds of critics have already said, so I’ll keep it short and personal rather than general.
My first experience of watching Manchester by the Sea was on a 14-hour flight from Singapore to London. Watching it this way was inadvisable for a number of reasons. It may have seemed like an odd choice, but the only other thing that wasn’t in the realm of the 6-hour, subtitled art house monstrosity was Jack Reacher, and there was nowhere near enough whiskey on board for me to even begin going down that road. So, after a fitful sleep, I woke with a drool-patch on my shirt and grimly hit play.
On long-haul flights I’m more emotionally vulnerable than a four-year-old on a hot day-trip who has dropped his ice-cream, and watches his siblings gleefully finishing their own, while the parents argue about where the car was parked. Even the slightest thing might set me off – a stewardess may well walk toward me down the aisle, noting my red, glistening eyes as I bravely blink back tears, only to look over her shoulder to see that I’m 30 seconds into the opening credits Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban. It’s pathetic, I know. In this context, watching Manchester by the Sea was akin to putting Stephen Hawking into a rap-battle with Drake. I just didn’t stand a chance. For the record though, if rap-battles focused predominantly on the potential fusion of quantum mechanics and general relativity, then Hawkins would destroy Drake. Tragically though, the gap between astrophysics and whose mother might be the fattest is typically insurmountable in any one session.
In addition to these adversities bravely borne, this was one of those flights where every time the plane hit a bit of air and wobbled, a stewardess got on the intercom and told everybody to get out of the toilet, strap in, abandon their babies, and cast any thoughts of receiving hot drinks far from their minds. Since there is a lot of air in the sky, this happened every five minutes, which conspired somewhat to defuse the gut-wrenching potency of the tragedy unfolding on the screen before my eyes. Furthermore, as we approached the British seaboard, the same stewardess popped up again to remind us that we would be landing in Heathrow, and that the weather was shit.
The tendency of airlines the world over to do this always perplexes me. First off, it was February and we’re flying to England. I don’t think anybody was expecting blue skies and an evening breeze tinged with the scent of vine-ripened tomatoes. Also, the meteorological status of our destination was moot since we had no choice anyway. It’s not as if the passengers could have taken a show of hands to determine whether to carry on with the original plan, or turn round and go back to where they came from.
Anyway, these distractions notwithstanding, Manchester by the Sea was, and is, clearly a masterpiece. In spite of beinga blubbering mess as we touched down amidst driving rain that was freezing upon impact with the plane’s fuselage, I was determined to give it another watch later in the week. And, god, it is such a fucking good film. Check out some other reviews if you want to know more about the actual film rather than how I behaved on long-haul flights. It’s a beautifully-written and phenomenally acted film which hits at some points with serious force, and leaves you as the audience knowing that the deepest bass notes of your emotional spectrum have been plucked, and will be vibrating in the background for weeks to come.
Now for Part Two, and I’m really sorry if you have enjoyed reading so far and then find that this section annoys you as it’s really not supposed to. It is a necessary (in my opinion) micro-commentary of a macro-issue which is deeply contentious, and risks conflation to the point of undermining a basic argument of a equality which is unquestionably correct.
There were a sequence of increasingly shrill articles, tweets and general commentary regarding the accusations of sexual harassment against Casey Affleck (star of Manchester by the Sea), and being mired in such allegations, whether it would be right for him to receive an award. I am a huge believer in equality and accountability, and I simultaneously find myself in diametric opposition to these articles.
First off, and most fundamentally, Casey Affleck was not convicted of anything. He reached out of court settlements with both of his accusers. Now, before anybody explodes, a lack of conviction doesn’t mean that something didn’t happen, I know – and there are plenty of examples of miscarriages of justice when it comes to issues such as sexual assault, misconduct, harassment and so on. But an out-of-court settlement does not by the same token indicate an admission of guilt. There are plenty of reasons why this may have been felt to be the right way to go and – for the record – Affleck has consistently denied having committed the actions of which he’s accused.
So, before we get too over-excited, bear in mind that presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise is a core underpinning of the American legal system. This affords protection to every US citizen, including Affleck and also including his accusers. It is both illegal and also an example of prejudiced thinking, to declare that Affleck should be treated differently as an artist because of an accusation, unless the accusation resulted in a judicial ruling which declared him guilty of the crime in question. In an ideal world, anybody who has committed a crime should be convicted of that crime. The other side of the coin is that it is wrong to subject somebody to a different code of treatment and different set of rules just because you feel they might be guilty. The exception might be a demonstrable miscarriage of justice, but I don’t think anybody is arguing that case here.
Secondly, you’re starting down a very dark road if you want to argue that somebody’s conduct outside of their art should necessarily determine an acknowledgment of the quality of their art. When taken to its natural conclusion, this is a genuinely troubling concept: that art can’t be viewed as an individual form of expression, but must be contextualized within the perceived level of approval that society in general holds of the artist. Constance Wu (star of Fresh off the Boatand upcoming lead of Crazy Rich Asians) argued something similar in a long and impassioned point tweeted in the run up to the Academy awards, suggesting among other things that ‘The absence of awards doesn’t diminish a great performance‘.It would serve, though, as a punishment for a person who has been accused (yet not convicted) of a crime. This would imply an elevation of the role of the Academy as not just a judge of artistic quality, but also as an arbiter of moral and social integrity. There’s also a fairly flippant comparison in this tweet between a possible Affleck Academy Award win being a nod to Trump’s election as President. Again, mentioning two things in the same breath does not make them the same thing. Trump has a demonstrated, documented history of misogyny and is rightly derided for it. Affleck was accused of sexual harassment, which is, if anything, more severe; BUT being accused is not the same as being convicted, AND neither is relevant to his quality as an artist. Did you know that Affleck was a vocal opponent of Trump during the election, calling him a “dangerous fool”? Did you know Affleck is a Vegan and an activist for animal rights? No? Does it matter as far as the Academy Awards are concerned? NO! Because a moral judgement on his position on anything should exist in isolation to the quality of his artistic output.
The issue of unrelated fusion is such an important one, because it’s the tool that Kellyanne Conway uses every single day to try to confound the American public when answering awkward questions about Trump’s idiotic behavior. It’s a dirty trick which aims to shut down the argument instead of engaging in it, and Wu should have known better than to deploy the same tactics, especially when her target in this instance had been a consistent and vocal opponent of the exact same ideologue with whom she’s comparing him.
Here’s the thing. We live in a time where emotional response is increasingly the norm, whereas factual response gets left in the shade. For the past couple of years, particularly in America, but increasingly so across the world, we’re exposed to emotionally-charged ‘all or nothing’ thinking from a number of sources but particularly from our politicians. Trump’s campaign was based on the idea that you’re either with me or you’re against me with no middle ground. Its not enough to alter Obamacare, it needs to be repealed, smashed and burned. Its not sufficient to merely defeat Hillary Clinton in an election, she’s got to go to jail as well. America’s going to have the greatest trade deals, build the most beautiful wall, the list goes on and on. The public is buried under an avalanche of polarized superlatives, and the instinct is to respond in kind because what else can we do amidst such an escalation in expression?
The intelligent response here is to understand that shouting louder doesn’t make you right, that issues aren’t as simple as right or wrong. Somebody can be good at one thing and bad at another, morally reprehensible in one respect yet simultaneously sensitive and emotionally intelligent in the next. An artist should be judged by his art, and a man or woman should be judged by their actions. If you join the dance of mutually escalating hysteria and conflation then it might feel good, but ultimately you’ll lose yourself and your argument amidst the noise. If you’re smart enough to know better, then its your responsibility to do better.
So, before signing off I’d like to just reiterate a couple of points:
- I am not for one second acting as an apologist for misogyny, sexual harassment or anything of the kind – but I am pointing out that there is a difference between an accusation and conviction, and there may be many of us who come to benefit from that precise distinction at some point or another in our lives.
- It is my contention that a body designed to judge artistic merit has no business judging moral culpability, and vice-versa. To expect it to do so hopelessly conflates issues and potentially stifles the scope of any artist in any discipline.
- The temptation to merge issues and engage in ‘all or nothing’ thinking is both dangerous and easy to slip into. It is representative of the tactics used by Trump and his administration to avoid accountability whilst simultaneously launching baseless yet seemingly compelling attacks upon anybody with whom it disagrees.
The End. Oh, and if you haven’t already, go and see Manchester by the Sea. Its brilliant.