TO ACCUSE OR NOT TO ACCUSE? Some Things to Think About. And Some Names. Part 1

Accusations of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct are all the rage right now, with new revelations coming at us faster than we're able to absorb and consider them.

But why now?  And what does it all really mean?  And what are we supposed to think - or do - about it?

I mean, all these offenders, and then all the confessions/accusations of The Me-Too posters - where is this taking us?

King of the Douchebags

On the one hand, of course, are the hardcore predators and repeat offenders - Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey.  (Many would like to add Donald Trump's name to that list; I'll discuss that later on.) These are men who clearly took advantage of their positions to violate the rights of the less powerful by using them sexually and abusing their individual rights, perhaps in ways that constitute serious crimes.  There's no doubt that the downfall of these men is a positive thing, both for the inviduals involved and for society in general.  They represent the most noxious element of celebrity culture, the way certain men have been able to insulate themselves with their power from taking responsibility for their actions.  The rumors about all these men abounded for years, but still they paid no price.  Now they finally have.  I certainly welcome more disclosures of this type that would rid politics, the entertainment industry and every other aspect of American life of these vultures who prey on the vulnerability of others.

Brett Ratner and James Toback hanging out

James Toback and Brett Ratner?  Sure, that's probably right.  Toback is a 300 pound filmmaker/douchebag whose manipulations stink of old school misogyny.  I remember hearing all the stories of him hanging out in supermarkets on New York's upper West Side, waving his scripts around in the air and promising roles to any lady who would blow him; very classy, dude.  How could any woman resist that?  Alec Baldwin has been his recent enabler, for reasons I don't pretend to understand.  Brett Ratner is also out of step with the times and, it seems, fatally drawn to that misogynistic storyline.  But I believe he has genuine talent and still has real passion for moviemaking.  I found him engaging when I saw him speak at a festival.  Maybe it was all bullshit, who knows, but I wouldn't count him out yet.

Agent Adam Venit of WME, as accused by actor Terry Crews?  Absolutely.  I think this is really important, because it spotlights something that happens so much, 85% of the time to young women, the rest to young men - it happened frequently to me when I was a young actor, something I will talk about in Part 2 - but almost never to a 6'3" 240 pound black man like Terry Crews.  The fact that it did this time - and the fact that Adam Venit is certainly one of the stupidest people on earth, because he put his hands on a man who played pro football and who could have literally done to Venit what Venit was already figuratively doing - that is, put Venit's head up his ass - well, thank God this is something that is finally being talked about!  We've all seen it happen, at pretty much every big party we've been to where drinks are being served.  As the party goes on, men's hands slip down from touching the shoulder, then the middle of the back, then the small of the back, and then the butt.  Almost always accompanied by that shit-eating smile, in which the man is saying, there's more where that came from.  Except the young person being touched never asked for it, was never interested, and now the party is ruined for them as they're filled with confusion and trepidation about how to react and what to say.  Well, Terry Crews is standing up for all of you, and I applaud him with all my heart for doing so.  If only we could clone him and have him stand guard at these parties, then maybe these young people - our daughters and sons - could enjoy themselves without constantly being molested.

Louis CK?  See, here's where we start entering a gray area for me.  Here's a comedian whose act is comprised in large part of a catalogue of his darkly-comic misdeeds and angst.  So a comedian who jokes in the bluntest ways possible about masturbation - his constant need to do it, and the great pleasure  he derives from it - is outed by female comics for having masturbated in front of them.  This is bad, it's wrong, not just the act but his evasiveness over the years about whether it happened, and his lack of empathy for the women upon whom he inflicted this violation.  But it's just not surprising.  I can understand and even share the anger that these women felt in this famous comedian forcing them to watch him pleasure himself - he was indeed taking advantage of his fame to do something that these women in no way asked for or wanted to see.  But he didn't touch them or continue to try humiliating them after that.  So personally I believe he deserves censure, but I don't understand why his career has to be over.  Why he's so toxic that he can't be given another chance at some point.  He's not a friend, and he's not my favorite comic, but I think there's more to him than just his fucked-up behavior.  Witness the Sarah Baker-starring episode in Louie about the Fat Girl comic who kept asking Louie out.  And a really impressive body of work, most of which works against putting himself on any celebrity pedestal.  If anything, he comes across in his work as pathetic.  Which is a pretty accurate description of anyone who would compel women who are his friends to watch him jerk off.

Then we have been given this really bizarre political tandem of Roy Moore and Al Franken - two men who couldn't be more different than each other, who literally have nothing in common except that suddenly the latter man becomes the name shouted out when the former is accused.  But this is simply a "false equivalency," as both Bill Maher and Alan Blumenfeld (my friend and unofficial rabbi) have called it.  What after all did Franken do?  While he was on a USO tour as a comedian, not a senator, he had a silly photo taken of himself about to grope his fellow USO traveler, model Leeann Tweeden. The optics may not be great, but it's just the kind of juvenile thing that performers do to while away the long and tedious hours of travel between stops.  Her claims that the photo and an overly-aggressive kiss that Franken gave her in rehearsal have been haunting her for the last 10 years are hard to take on face value, since Leeann Tweeden has put herself in many other situations that would seem more likely to haunt her.  By which I mean all the nude and semi-nude modeling that she did, and all the other ways she chose to make a living from her body.  Now I'm not trying to shame how she made her money, and I understand that she feels like she had control over those situations, while an aggressive kiss during a rehearsal of a written sketch comedy scene is just soooo horrifying.

A Democratic Congresswoman holds up a photo of 4 of Moore's accusers

But even at the worst possible interpretation, it still doesn't compare in any way with dating girls under 17 when you are a 30-something District Attorney in a small town in Alabama.  It just doesn't, no way, no how.  (The idea that any senator should even consider resigning for such an inconsequential reason is deeply offensive.)  Al Franken had no power over Leeann Tweeden, obviously, she certainly had no reason to be in awe of him, nor could he have done anything for her career.  According to the women who have come forward, Roy Moore used his stature as a district attorney to "dazzle" them when they were young girls, then used it to intimidate them into silence after their encounter.   Still and all, if Moore had simply apologized for his misdeeds of 35 years ago, saying that he made mistakes as a young man, then I'm not sure these acts would have all that much relevance.  The fact that he keeps doubling down in his denials makes it evident that he is unqualified to run for high office.  While Al Franken's sincere contrition shows the opposite.

There have been many strange allegations and finger-pointing, but I think the strangest have to be events surrounding the actor Richard Dreyfuss, star of such '70s classic films as Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  First Dreyfuss sends out a proud tweet, standing behind his son Harry's claim that Kevin Spacey traumatized him by groping his genitals - and, basically, daring him to tell anyone, which at first Harry didn't have the nerve to do.  And then, the very next day, Richard Dreyfuss himself was accused of sexual abuse by Jessica Teich, a writer he had worked with 30 years earlier.  Honestly, both accusations sound highly credible, which sort of sums up how complicated this web of conflicting stories and revolving truths has become.   Dreyfuss's immediate response was to say, "At the height of my fame in the late 1970s, I became an asshole," but he refused to admit that her specific charges were true.  Nevertheless, Dreyfuss contributed what may be the best characterization of our current phase.

"There is a sea-change happening right now, which we can look upon as a problem or an opportunity... I hope this is the beginning of a larger conversation we can have as a culture."


BRETT RATNER, FILM GURU and THE TEN BEST FILMS at the 2017 Hollyshorts Festival

"You have to be in it for the right reasons - because you love storytelling.  That's the skill set of any filmmaker.  If you want to do it because you want to be famous, get laid, get rich, or whatever, then it's not going to happen for you." - Brett Ratner, from his IMDB page.

 

Steve Whitney of Kodak Inc. with Brett Ratner at Hollyshorts Awards Night

The Hollyshorts Festival recently concluded with an awards ceremony featuring 45 minutes of producer/director Brett Ratner in converation with Steve Whitney of Kodak Inc., followed by a 25 minute rush to hand out all the filmmaking awards.  The names were read out in quick succession, each accompanied by a slide show visual for a few seconds.  It was a weird scene, or at least it struck me as such.

The way that these film artists were scurrying up to the stage and then scurrying back to their seats, without even a moment to bask in the limelight just struck me as wrong, and I felt angry on their behalf.  The first award given out had gone to Brett Ratner, who hadn't had a film in the festival.  That had made me angry too.

What a typical Hollywood move, to shower the people at the top with attention and awards, while those at the bottom, who had so little, weren't even allowed a few moments of public acknowledgment (much less celebration) when they had finally won something!

Still, I had to admit that there were things in Brett Ratner's opening remarks that had surprised me, even touched me.  He described how his life was changed at 10 years old when he saw Scorcese's Raging Bull for the first time. He was smitten with a love of film and didn't really care about any other subject at school.  He found out that Martin Scorcese taught at NYU Film School, and from that point on, he was obsessed with going there to study.  He shot thousands of hours of film, hundreds of thousands of hours.  When the time came to apply to colleges, he only applied to NYU.  Then he went for his interview and was told that his grades weren't good enough, and he was being rejected.  "Did you look at my short films?" he asked. He was told that his films didn't matter - his bad grades disqualified him for consideration.  "I didn't know what to do," he told the Hollyshorts audience.  "I had no Plan B.  There was nothing else I wanted to do."

So what was he to do? What would you have done?  This was the pivotal moment, the dramatic turning point when sad young Brett became Brett Rattner.

He went to the Dean of NYU and told the secretary that he had to see the Dean.  Did he have an appointment?  No. Well, the Dean was a busy man, and he didn't have any openings for the next few weeks.  "But I can't wait three weeks.  I have to see him now," Brett insisted.  And it turned out to Brett's lucky day.  Because someone didn't show up for an appointment, and Brett got fifteen minutes with the Dean, and he made his point that admission to the film school should be based on how good a film director you are, not how good an all-around student you are.  And the Dean agreed to look at Brett's reel of short films.  And long story short, that's how Brett Ratner got into film school.  And got on the road to directing the Rush Hour Trilogy and X-Men: The Last Stand and other movies and a slew of music videos.

Not my kind of movies, I admit.  But I admire the dynamism and vitality of his visual storytelling.  And the money he's earned.  I'd like to experience some of that.  And his claim on our attention does have more to do with the money his films have garnered than with any claim of artistry.  But when I went to Brett Ratner's IMDB page, I was surprised to find how influential his production company, RatPac, was in making it possible for the visions of other filmmakers to be realized.  He had used his entreprenurial platform to make films he believed in, and not only the ones that were certain to make a profit.  I have a lot of respect for that.

I also enjoyed the lengthy comments on his IMDB Bio page, which re-enforced his gut-level commitment to film as a storytelling format, and to making good movies.

"When I was a film student at NYU, there wasn't a platform like the internet for filmmakers ... Now Steven Spielberg has someone every month prepare "The Best of YouTube."  There's so much short-form content better than feature films out there.  And there are huge opportunities out there now for young filmmakers to have something seen."

I also passionately agree with his statement that "the worst thing we have in today's movie culture in Rotten Tomatoes.  I think it's the destruction of our business.  I have such admiration and respect for that.  When I was growing up, film criticism was a real art.  There was intellect that went into that.  You would read Pauline Kael's reviews or some others ... Now it's about a number.  But that number is an aggregate, and nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it's not always correct.  It's hurting the business, and it's just insane."

So hey - maybe Brett Ratner was exactly the right person to preside over those awards.  And maybe he deserves his own "icon" award, or whatever.  I still wish that Hollyshorts had shown more respect for the filmmakers whose work they had chosen to exhibit, and especially for the winners of their own awards.

Free vodka is nice, and God knows I enjoyed all those flavors.  But I'd still prefer to see the winners given a chance to accept their award and maybe hear a few words about the film itself.  And then the free vodka.  Okay?

MY AWARDS, SANS CEREMONY

Whatever committee made the Hollyshorts choices got a few right, such as giving Kevin Wilson Jr. the award for Best Director for My Nephew Emmett.

But choosing Shoot Me Nicely over COMPANION for Best TV pilot?  Really?  I mean, come on.  What the hell were you smoking?

Michael Friedman, Alain Uy and Ray Stoney from COMPANION

Yes, most of the really exceptional films went uncelebrated.  And I am here to rectify that, to the best of my ability.

So here are my choices for the TOP 10 HOLLYSHORTS FILMS.

Drum roll please.

(I've written about all these in previous Hollyshorts columns - hope you will check those out.)

The bottom 5 (6-10), in no particular order and irrespective of genre category:

REFUGEE by Joyce Chen and Emily Moore - best documentary I saw in the festival.  I will never forget it.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY, Written by Casey Cannon and Angeliki Giannakopoulos, directed by Phedon Papamichael - This would have been memorable with any good actor, but James Brolin makes it special.

I KNOW JAKE GYLLENHAAL IS GOING TO FUCK MY GIRLFRIEND, Written by Sean Wing, Directed by Nino Mancuso -  No it's not perfect, but it's funny, and it really stayed with me.  Oh that Jake!

A STUDY IN TYRANNY by Andrew LaurichThe answer to the question: what would happen if I went back in time and tried to kill Hitler?  Here's a hint: He's Hitler!  No matter how nice he seems, he's still Hitler. And always will be.

FIVE MINUTES WITH MARY by Matt Beurois - It's amazing just how much you can say in five minutes.

The top 2-5, again in no particular order and irrespective of genre category:

11th HOUR by Jim Sheridan - Manages to say so much about 9/11 in 11 minutes.  Beautifully imagined.

MY NEPHEW EMMETT by Kevin Wilson Jr. - The tragedy of Emmett Till as you've never seen it.

MUSTARD SEED by Linda Roessler - Says volumes about the Holocaust in a few minutes.  No link here because I was unable to find any.  A shocking and beautiful film, and not without hope.

A TREE. A ROCK. A CLOUD. by Karen AllenIt's set in a particular time, but the story feels timeless, as if it has always existed.  Slows down time in a magical way, transporting us into a scene with great spiritual significance.

And the number 1 Film, Numero Uno, the Twisted Hipster's Palm D'or goes to:

"MOTHER" (Matka) by Piotrek Golebiowski - In 1943, a retreating Nazi regiment takes over the home of a Polish family, forcing them to live in their attic.  This is a work of art.  The final frame will freeze your blood.