Why Separating Art from the Artist Doesn’t Work at Award Shows

Relatively speaking, this year’s Academy Awards were kind of great. La La Land (which I liked, mind you) didn’t sweep like I feared it would. Arrival got a much-deserved sound editing award, Kenneth Lonergan won Best Original Screenplay, and most importantly, Moonlight won Best Picture (along with a Best Adapted Screenplay win and Mahershala Ali’s Best Supporting Actor win). It was the first year ever that my favorite movie of the year won Best Picture. Even most of the wins I didn’t agree with I could grudgingly accept; I love Emma Stone in general, and I loved Damian Chazelle’s work on Whiplash, so I didn’t mind their wins too much.

But there was one category where I really couldn’t figure out what I wanted to win and how I felt about the outcome: the Best Actor category.

To be fair, I haven’t seen Fences or Hacksaw Ridge. For all I know, if I’d seen those, I’d be rooting for Denzel Washington or Andrew Garfield (probably the former). But when I saw Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck blew me away. If we’re awarding the best performance of the year, I’d say he deserves it (though I was personally pulling for Trevante Rhodes, who didn’t even get nominated—he’d probably get classified as a ‘supporting actor’ anyway).

The thing is, the situation is more complicated than that. Controversy has been swirling around Affleck for the past few months due to multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

Normally, separating the art from the artist is fairly simple to me. I’m easily able to enjoy pieces of art I enjoy that were created by terrible people; Orson Scott Card’s views about homosexuality are pretty gross, for example, but Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books. I can love Annie Hall without thinking about Woody Allen sexually abusing his daughter, and I can enjoy Mel Gibson’s performances in Mad Max and Lethal Weapon without fixating on any number of the horrifying things he has said. I understand why people would draw the line with those cases, but I’ve always had no problem overlooking behind-the-scenes happenings to appreciate the art itself.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I necessarily support these artists continuing to have long, fruitful careers, free of serious consequences. Sure, I can enjoy Annie Hall and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but I’d have no problem with Woody Allen being blacklisted for the rest of his life (I guess it doesn’t hurt that most of his more recent movies aren’t great). Sure, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean is one of my earliest favorite performances, and I continue to enjoy Christian Slater’s work on Mr. Robot, but their repeated acts of domestic violence should prevent them from finding work. And sure, Casey Affleck was amazing in Manchester by the Sea, but he shouldn’t have been offered the role in the first place. Besides, it’s not like there’s any shortage of talented actors in Hollywood. I’m sure Matt Damon and Kenneth Lonergan could’ve found other actors capable of matching Affleck’s talent.

My point is that I can sit back and enjoy these performances and works of art for what they are, but when it comes to the artists’ careers, I support serious consequences. If you asked me to choose between Nate Parker having a long, fruitful career ahead of him and never making a movie again, I’d kill his career. Same goes for Casey Affleck, or Woody Allen, or any of the countless actors with a history of sexual violence. (And, just to clarify, I don’t mean to equate acts of sexual harassment with rape, but they are all lumped into the category of sexual violence—and repeated perpetrators of any kind of sexual violence clearly deserve consequences for that.)

And award shows like the Oscars complicate the whole dilemma. Because even if acting awards should be based only on performance alone, that’s not the case. There are so many other factors that go into who wins, and the outcomes of each competition carry unintended connotations outside the merit of the art.

Because winning Best Actor doesn’t just acknowledge that the performance was good; it acknowledges that the actor himself should be praised, that he should continue to receive more work and high-quality roles. Sure, awards recognition doesn’t always correlate with future success; the pattern of having a lackluster post-award career has been unofficially termed “F. Murray Abraham Syndrome,” after F. Murray Abraham failed to follow up his Best Actor win for Amadeus with many major roles.

But winning an Oscar is generally a pretty big thing for your career. Aside from the obvious prestige that an Academy Award brings, Oscar wins also correlate with higher box office revenue, higher DVD sales, higher paychecks later in your career, and higher visibility (many millions of people watching the award ceremony will do that). Jennifer Lawrence’s insane success the past few years isn’t entirely due to her 2012 Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook, but that certainly contributed. Lawrence has been the highest-paid actress in the world since 2015, and you don’t get there just from starring in an (admittedly lucrative) young adult science fiction franchise.

So when you win an Academy Award for Best Actor, you’re probably looking at a very successful career ahead of you, especially if you’re relatively young (Casey Affleck, at 41, definitely falls into that category, especially since roles for older men are much more widely available than roles for older women).

What’s more, when a sex offender wins the Best Actor award, it implicitly sends the message to general audiences that you can get away with things like sexual assault and still be rewarded for it. When I see Casey Affleck win Best Actor, and when I see people like Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, and Donald fucking Trump continue to prosper despite the heinous things they’ve said and done, I know that it’s easy to get away with practically anything. If you’re a white man, anyway; if anyone in the film industry was actually hurt by allegations of sexual assault, it was Nate Parker, and race was almost certainly a factor.

Look, I’m all for separating the art from the artist when it comes to evaluating the quality of the art. But it’s different when our decisions actually affect the careers of the artists we’re evaluating. It’s not as simple as separating the art from the artist when rewarding the art actually rewards the artist.

What Book Should I Buy?

When I was little, when Borders was still around, I loved buying books. Dad would tell me I could buy one book, and I’d take so long looking around, trying to decide between all the different books I wanted. I wanted everything.

In recent years, as I’ve had to start thinking about saving money, I haven’t bought nearly as many books. Most of the books I get now are presents for my birthday or Christmas. Aside from buying textbooks, the only real time I spend money on books is when I get a gift card.

Well, I got a gift card for Christmas this year, and I’ve been debating what to spend it on since. Here’s the thing: there are countless novels I’ve been meaning to read, but I don’t really want to spend money on a random novel unless it’s one I’m going to revisit. Otherwise, I could just check it out from the library, right? If I’m going to buy a novel, I want it to be one of my new favorites, you know? I don’t regret owning I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak or The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, because I’d like to reread those one day, and it feels good to own your favorite books. When people are visiting, they see the books you use to represent yourself.

In the end, with the help of my friend Kháhn San, I settled on two books. The first was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. There’s no guarantee it’ll be one of my favorite books or anything, but it’s very long, complex, and difficult, so I’ll want longer than the standard library loan period to read it. I’ll probably want to go back and revisit earlier chapters late in the book, and really get into the experience of decoding the complex web of narratives. The other I chose, on my friend’s recommendation, was Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I’m told it’s a relatively accessible book of poetry, and that’s what I’m looking for. I figure a book of poetry is another good choice for buying, since poems are the kind of writing you want to revisit a lot. You don’t really read them as narrative; rereading a poem is different from just reading the same story over again.

Even if I don’t buy many books anymore, there’s still something so magical about bookstores; even if I don’t want to buy every book, I still want to read every one. Once everything is in ebook form and bookstores are less populous, this is what I’m going to miss.

Book Review – Modern Lovers

Modern Lovers is my first Emma Straub book, and I ended up really enjoying it. This semester, I’m trying to really start reading for pleasure again after many semesters when that seemed possible because of all the reading I had to do for class. And this book is pretty perfect for getting you back into that mood to read; it’s light and funny, with short chapters that fly by quickly, but it’s not just empty fluff. It has interesting points to make, and it’s smart.

The first half is a tad slow. The short chapters and fun characters make it enjoyable and breezy, but there’s no one central conflict, which makes the story ultra low-concept; it’s basically a story about two families and their various relationship dynamics, which doesn’t make for a catchy logline, really. You could say it’s about two marriages that are on the brink of failure, one fraught with years of tension and contention and one haunted by a slowly building sense of complacency and buried secrets. You could also say it’s about a teen romance that threatens the stability of the kids’ parents’ friendships. You could also focus on the character of Lydia and the band that she once created with the parents and say that the story is about how it’s difficult to move on from the past, how old events and old tensions can linger years afterward. All of these coexisting stories fit together well in retrospect, but as you’re reading the first half, it’s a bit difficult to see how they’ll build off each other. The first half feels like a time to just hang out with the characters and get to know them a little bit. It’s mostly fun, but occasionally it feels too directionless.

In the second half, the dominoes start to fall, and the conflicts build, and that’s really where the story starts to speed up. Straub is smart about depicting the conflicting ways people view their relationships; Harry views Ruby, for example, as the clear love of his life, but it’s clear to us even without seeing her point of view that she views their relationship differently. Then we get to see her perspective and learn that she really thinks of Harry as a pet project, a fun diversion where she’s able to ‘practice’ saying she loves someone, because all teenage love is performative. It’s sad to see Harry so delusional in his infatuation for Ruby when she looks down a bit at him, but it’s also sweet, and the story sidesteps the big, cliche confrontation scenes where Harry and Ruby might get into a fight about what their relationship means, or have a melodramatic breakup. I like how their story ends, with them agreeing to break up when Ruby arrives at the airport. Their relationship clearly meant something to each of them, and even if those interpretations were different, that doesn’t mean either was wrong. In the end, the story of Harry and Ruby is a hopeful one. Ruby’s flashforward to imagining her and Harry seeing each other at reunions years down the road was one of the most emotionally potent scenes of the book for me.

If I have a complaint with the second half, it’s that the whole thing works out a little too perfectly. To be honest, I was hoping one of the marriages would end, preferably Elizabeth and Andrew’s. I like the idea that the real failing marriage wasn’t the one fraught with disagreement and jealousy (Zoe and Jane), but the one that seemed stable but wasn’t. The other issue, I think, is that I just really disliked Andrew throughout almost the entire book. The EVOLVEment subplot, in which Andrew basically joins a cultish group of hippies who do yoga and drink kombucha, was a bit cringey and annoying for me, even though it’s clear Straub is satirizing the concept and explaining why it holds appeal for Andrew, not endorsing it for everyone. Despite that self-awareness on Straub’s part, though, the EVOLVEment setting took up too much space in the story for me, and I disliked the character of Dave.

In general, Andrew just seemed very selfish and cold to me. Even when he made good points (Elizabeth, of course, shouldn’t have forged his signature to allow the movie studio to use their song), I felt no sympathy for him, because he’d been lying about cheating on Elizabeth with Lydia, because his reasons for turning down the movie deal were selfish. Even when he and Elizabeth got into the fight, Andrew just assumed everything would work out fine for them, and I wished the story punished him more for it. While I’m glad that Zoe and Jane were able to repair their marriage, that, too, seemed a tad too easy; they basically went on one rare date, they had sex, and Jane admitted she was jealous of Elizabeth, and that was it. They were fixed.

There’s also something a bit too perfect about the ending, socioeconomically speaking. Yes, I understand that these people are all well-off, so there are reasonable explanations for how they’re able to overcome their financial issues so easily, but it’s still just…too easy, you know? The fact that Ruby just moved to Mexico and opened up her own pizza place, and Jane and Zoe were able to just open this new pastry shop without any issues…not all couples have the option to spontaneously create a new business together to fix their marriage and start anew. I wanted to see each character find ways to grapple with their issues without throwing money at the problem, and I didn’t really get that.

Still, though I occasionally hoped for a deeper exploration of these characters’ issues and the ways they could fix them, I ultimately really enjoyed Modern Lovers. It’s light, fun, and filled with relatable scenarios and characters. I’ll definitely be checking out more of Emma Straub’s stuff.

Grade: B+

Reaffirming your Passion – On English Classes vs. Film Classes

There’s something I remember hearing throughout high school English classes. Whenever we’d read some classic work—Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men in ninth grade, Jane Eyre and Hamlet in twelfth—I’d hear people complaining that they couldn’t enjoy the books because we were being forced to read them. Something about the simple fact that we had to read To Kill a Mockingbird made it unenjoyable to some students, who might’ve enjoyed it a lot more if they’d chosen to read it on their own.

I can sympathize with this view, but I don’t share it when it comes to books. Reading books for school and having the opportunity to talk about them in class has always been something I loved; I don’t think I would’ve liked Animal Farm as much, for example, if I hadn’t discussed it in class with Mrs. Robinson. Same goes for The Giver, which I read in seventh grade. That class, with Ms. Fifield, was maybe my favorite English class that I ever took before college; I distinctly remember the feeling of actually loving going to class, because it meant we could uncover the mysteries of The Giver’s strange society together.

When I got to the University of Michigan, and as I got more into TV and movies—even spending my spare time watching TV more than reading—I was attracted to the idea of a Screen Arts and Cultures department. There were no film classes in high school, and suddenly I was able to replicate the experience I’ve always had with English classes, except we’d get to talk about movies instead.

Oddly enough, though, my experience with film classes has always been different than English classes. While English classes have always enhanced the experience of reading, SAC classes inexplicably seem to make the experience of watching movies…maybe not worse, but not better. The same way students wouldn’t want to read The Great Gatsby for the simple reason that they were being forced to, I’ve resented being forced to watch movies like Citizen Kane or Chinatown. It’s weird, because I think I’d genuinely enjoy these movies if I watched them on my own. But sometimes having to go to screenings at set times (often when I’m either really hungry for dinner or tired after just eating) makes me resent the movies we have to watch.

I’m not sure why this is; maybe Michigan’s film department is just crappy, but I don’t think it is. I’ve enjoyed most of my professors here, and I know theoretically that talking about movies in class should be just as stimulating as talking about books in English classes. And to be fair, I’m learning to enjoy the movies themselves more; this semester I’ve watched The Rain People, The President’s Analyst, and Il Sorpasso, and all of them I’ve either loved or just enjoyed watching. I haven’t come close to falling asleep during the screenings like I have in previous classes. It’s just that talking about them during lecture and discussion isn’t enlightening for me like it is talking about the books I read for English classes.

Maybe, in the end, the answer is just that I prefer books to movies. There was a time earlier in college when I was a little worried that I’d been wrong all along about my great passion in life; maybe I was supposed to move out to L.A. and work in the film industry instead of the publishing industry. But over the past couple years, taking both English and SAC classes has reassured me that, despite any new interests, my original passion is still the one I’m meant to pursue. Sometimes it’s nice to remember how much you love the thing you’ve chosen to study.

Weekend Watch – Florence Foster Jenkins

In children’s literature and children’s programming, there sometimes seem to be a few core themes and lessons that are hammered home over and over. “Be yourself.” “Don’t care what other people think.” “It’s not about being the best; it’s about having fun.” Children’s narratives are certainly capable of more nuance than that—the children’s-young adult hybrid series Animorphs, for example, explores the ramifications of war and the pain of PTSD, concepts that are unexpectedly sophisticated for their target audience—but children’s stories tend to be inherently more simplistic than adult narratives. (I say this as a huge fan of children’s and young adult literature and programming.)

This week I watched Florence Foster Jenkins, a film that is certainly entertaining, but whose central themes are about as sophisticated as a child’s fable. The plot concerns Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), a real-life New York City socialite who devoted her life to celebrating opera and music. The premise (based in reality) is a bit sitcom-y; as Florence resumes her singing lessons, everyone around her lies to her about her talent, afraid to be honest with her about how terrible of a singer she is. Florence’s husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), most blatantly encourages Florence’s delusions, hiring a new accompanist for her lessons and warning him not to criticize her.

Most of the movie proceeds how you’d expect. Bayfield and accompanist/audience surrogate Cosmé McMoon (Helberg, whose erratic facial twitches are funny, though a little too much for me) bend over backwards to cover up the truth. When Florence proposes performing to a wider audience, Bayfield and McMoon hand-pick members of Florence’s Verdi Club, hoping that paying people off will prevent the truth from coming out.


There are numerous close calls, like when one socialite named Agnes Stark (Nina Arianda, animated and funny) erupts in uncontrollable laughter at the first recital, but for the most part Florence remains oblivious to her vocal shortcomings until the very end, at which point the movie goes full optimistic crowd-pleaser, laying on all the cheesy lessons you’d expect: be yourself. Don’t care what other people think. It’s not about being the best; it’s about having fun.

Look, I know that these are lessons that can still be helpful for adults to hear. But you can’t blame me for wishing there was something a little more there. It reminds me of all the cookie-cutter biopic endings when the main characters spew inspirational quotes seemingly designed to generations to come.

There was Alan Turing, in The Imitation Game, being reminded that “Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” In Florence Foster Jenkins, it’s Florence proudly pointing out that “Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing” only moments before she succumbs to sickness and dies. It doesn’t really matter that these historical figures really did say those things; movies have to find a way to make those quotes feel like more than empty faux-inspiration, and I’d argue that neither quite succeeds.

Besides, it’d be easier to enjoy the simplistic lessons for what they are if the film really made you invest in Florence, but she isn’t challenged nearly enough for her schmaltzy breakthrough at the end to hold much emotional weight. At her final concert at Carnegie Hall, the audience breaks out in laughter, and for a moment, Florence is stunned, afraid, confused. But even that moment is quickly reversed when Agnes yells at the audience to be quiet, and everyone ends up giving Florence a standing ovation, encouraging her to go on. She carries on in delusion.

The only real challenge to Florence’s pride occurs with less than 15 minutes left in the movie, when Bayfield fails to prevent her from seeing a copy of the New York Post, which contains a scathing review of her performance. Florence is upset, but by limiting the negative reception to just one review, the film’s lesson momentarily shifts to the idea that there’ll always be someone who doesn’t like your art, and that you have to accept that not everyone will like you.

This is an equally disingenuous lesson, because Florence is unquestionably a bad singer. If there’s an argument to be made in her favor, it’s that she does what she’s passionate about, not that she’s an objectively good singer. Limiting the negative reception to only one review makes it feel like one unreasonable outlying opinion.

Indeed, the few people who are honest to Florence are treated as cartoonish villains. The writer of that Post article is angry and vindictive, the kind of critic that movies like Birdman love to demonize. He seems to relish tearing Florence apart, hyperbolically calling her the worst singer in the world. The film paints him as an evil man who wants to ruin everyone’s fun, even if his criticisms of Florence’s singing are fairly accurate.


The movie does have hints of nuance in its subplots. There’s a genuine warmth to Florence’s interactions with McMoon, who she occasionally treats like the son she could never have. The heart of the film, though, lies in the love Florence and Bayfield have for each other.

At the beginning, when Bayfield’s mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) is introduced, you start to suspect there’ll be a predictable series of scenes culminating in the truth coming out about Bayfield’s infidelity, tearing their marriage apart until a third-act reconciliation. The reality, though, is that Florence and Bayfield have an unspoken understanding; due to Florence’s syphilis, they abstain from sex, and Bayfield finds satisfaction elsewhere. The movie doesn’t delve too deeply into the implications of this arrangement, but it’s refreshing to see Nicholas Martin’s script avoid the trappings of the cliché infidelity plot.

And the movie in general is pretty fun, bolstered by typically strong acting from Streep and Grant, a pleasantly light tone, and expectedly meticulous period detail. It’s an enjoyable experience, even if it mostly fails to come up with anything deeper than “Do what you love and don’t care what other people think.”

Grade: B-

Taking Advantage of My Free Time This Semester

Well, it’s my last semester here at the University of Michigan, and I’m lucky to be only taking six credits. It’s a huge change in terms of how much time I actually have on my hands; suddenly, I have class only on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, leaving me more days without class than with class.

This was probably a good choice. For one, why take an excessive number of credits when each class costs a lot of money and I’ve taken almost every class I need to graduate? It’s also a welcome break after 2016, which I spent as a Senior Arts Editor for The Michigan Daily. It was a position that seemed to sap almost every night of free time, even though it’s a relatively small time commitment compared to an editorial position on the news section, for example.

The thing about the Daily was even if it could be a pain to spend so much time there when I had so much studying to do all the time, it was rarely not fun being there. I worked closely with many of my best friends there, and it was a comforting place to go to each night I worked, not an unwelcome one. So even though the end of my editor position means a lot of nice free time, it also means spending less time in that fun environment surrounded by the people I laugh around the most. As a result, I think, I’ve felt a little despondent in the week since we came back from winter break…a little unmotivated, unproductive, with too much time to just sit in my room. I’ve felt a little lonely, to be honest.

And we all know what the best thing is for feeling lonely: art!

So I’m determined to start taking in a lot more art this semester, and not feel guilty about it. To start, of course, I’m watching a lot of TV and movies, and listening to a lot of music, as usual. I recently finished watching The Leftovers, and I just started Bates Motel tonight. I also have The Americans and Twin Peaks on my agenda for this semester. I have an endless list of movies to watch, and I’m going to enjoy watching them.

The most notable things, though are these:

First, I’m going to read more. I feel like I haven’t really read for pleasure that much since at least the summer, but more realistically farther back—you could even extend that to high school. I’m finally finishing Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth after starting it over the summer and promptly stopping when school started. I also have Super Sad True Love Story checked out, and plan to read The Handmaid’s Tale and some other good stuff soon.

Second, I’m going to journal consistently. My journal is massively important to me—I still have to write a longer post about that sometime—and I always inevitably fall behind because I spend so much time on it, imbuing every entry with so many details. When I fall behind, it takes the emotional power out of some of the entries, because I’m recalling events long after the fact, so I’m going to make sure to catch up once and for all and journal consistently this semester.

Third, I’m going to start writing fiction again. I haven’t done this in a while, either, and I really need to just write a novel already. It’s not good to take huge breaks from writing, and I need to learn to really discipline myself when it comes to that.

Anyways, yeah, that’s it! I’m also, obviously, applying to jobs for after graduation and trying to spend time with friends, but sometimes it seems like I am the single least busy person this semester, so I’ll have plenty of extra time, and art is the best way to fill that.