In an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Mia Farrow and her son, Ronan (the Accuser), made some very strong statements about Steven Spielberg and his involvement in the 2008 Olympics, to be held in China. "Is Mr. Spielberg, who in 1994 founded the Shoah Foundation to record the testimony of survivors of the Holocaust, aware that China is bankrolling Darfur’s genocide?” she asks. "Does Mr. Spielberg really want to go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games?"
Farrow’s points are, frankly, completely correct. Spielberg is hypocritical for getting involved with a nation that is underwriting modern genocide (and that, by the way, is just one of China’s multitude of human rights sins). It’s pretty hard to argue against the idea that working with a nation that is knowingly funding mass slaughter is a moral compromise of the strongest order (although the weak argument that would be given is that China can only change if the international community works with it, spreading Western ideas of human rights, much as we have already spread capitalism. The problem is that human rights are in no way a precondition for capitalism, and in fact basic human rights are antithetical to purest capitalism, which is a Darwinian economic system that demands a permanent underclass to serve the rich. Democracy would be a Western idea that would help human rights flourish in China. That’s not happening).
But what does this mean beyond the political? It’s a situation that presents a fascinating intersection between the artist as artist and the artist as person and how we judge them. Take Roman Polanski for instance: there are people who will never again watch a Polanski film because of the statutory rape he committed years ago. But does Polanski as rapist diminish Polanski as filmmakers? Of course not… unless Polanski was a filmmaker whose whole oeuvre was based on the sanctity and beauty of youth and innocence. Which could be your argument against Victor Salva, another statutory rapist who directs films, but whose movies tend to disturbingly focus on young people. And frankly, you’re missing out if you skip The Pianist and not so much so if you avoid Jeepers Creeper II.
Spielberg is a filmmaker whose works are filled with concepts of justice, honor and moral rectitude. It’s a rare Spielberg movie that leaves us feeling morally confused – Minority Report almost accomplishes this, but Spielberg copped out at the last moment (the original end text crawl mentioned that after Pre-Crime was shut down, murders began to again happen). Munich is much more successful in creating a sense of moral ambiguity, but even in that film Spielberg ends up taking what feels like a pretty solid position on the futility of vengeance.
He’s also a director who seems drawn to movies with social consciences, and films about the plights and struggles of minorities. While not technically ‘good’ movies, The Color Purple and Amistad both attempt to do this for the black experience. Intriguingly, Spielberg succeeds artistically with social conscience movies about Jews, although I don’t want to assign some kind of Zionist self-love to that, especially since Schindler’s List is about a heroic goy. But it does lead me to believe that, like most human beings, he’s better with things he personally understands, and the black experience isn’t one of those things.
But still, he likes to do movies about ‘important’ issues every now and again, and that’s where he should be judged when it comes to the Olympics, not as one of the guys behind the Shoah Foundation. Because frankly, I don’t care about Spielberg as a person all that much, except in how Spielberg the man informs Spielberg the artist. Knowing that Spielberg comes from a broken home sheds light on the way he portrays families on screen. So while I don’t like the fact that Spielberg is working on the Olympics, and while I think he is outing himself as a hypocrite and I find the whole thing distasteful and disappointing, it has no bearing on how I will view Indiana Jones IV. When he makes his next socially conscious movie about an oppressed minority is when I’ll hold the Olympics against him as an artist.