2017 Was A Bad Year For Cinema's "Tortured Artists"

Director Greta Gerwig conducted the set of Lady Bird with the utmost respect for her crew. Cribbing an idea from her 20th Century Women director Mike Mills, she asked everyone to wear name tags during filming so people could get to know each other. She even took it one step further – a PA came up with a conversation-starting question of the day, which everyone then had to answer on their name tag.

Gerwig is not the first person to run a set with this kind of dignity and civility, nor does Lady Bird's status as Rotten Tomatoes' best reviewed film of all time (well, until recently) inherently derive from this production environment. But it does show that there is more than one way to create great art, and it is not necessarily the product of toil and agony from a single tortured artist.

Look at the films from 2017 that centered around artists and their creative process, however, and it's tough to find anyone who looks or acts remotely like a Gerwig. In a year where the toxicity of a male-dominated film production space became glaringly apparent thanks to the courage of countless brave individuals, the prevalence of this abrasive, abusive archetype in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel, James Franco's The Disaster Artist, Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina's Coco, Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories and Darren Aronofsky's mother! speaks volumes about the mindset of an industry. Most stop short of full-scale lionizing this figure, but the collective fascination borders on fetishization.

As a caveat, only one among the characters in question from these six movies is an actual filmmaker, James Franco's Tommy Wiseau (and he's a real person, to boot). They are not necessarily autobiographical in nature; Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, has taken steps to distance himself from Daniel Day-Lewis' Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread despite similarities in the precision of their output. But taken together, these six men provide a glimpse into a dominant mindset surrounding who can create great art and what it takes to achieve such renown.

(Spoilers to follow for all films, especially Coco and mother!.)

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Each of these artists gives at least some credence to the idea that great art is the product of a lone visionary creator. They have some special spark inside of them, the germ of a great idea, and their struggle is to express it with as little compromise as possible. For a writer like Javier's Bardem's "Him" in mother!, an aspiring playwright like Justin Timberlake's Mickey in Wonder Wheel or a visual artist like Dustin Hoffman's Harold Meyerowitz in The Meyerowitz Stories, perhaps they can create their work in total isolation and prepare their masterworks. But dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, filmmaker Tommy Wiseau and guitarist Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) in Coco, their art depends on the contributions of countless skilled technicians and artisans. Music, cinema and fashion are collaborative forms requiring input from any number of fellow artists. Still, the idea of a dominant individual authoring and owning the work persists.

In order to maintain this tired trope, these men resort to mythologizing themselves – even, and especially, the failed ones. Mickey, in the mold of a true Woody Allen protagonist, mansplains his brilliance to both Kate Winslet's bored waitress and her stepdaughter, Juno Temple's troubled Carolina. Though he's just a Coney Island lifeguard an armchair Shakespeare, he bequeaths books to his doting admirers in an attempt to establish his intellectual superiority. Harold Meyerowitz, meanwhile, excuses his lack of success by denigrating the esteem lavished on his contemporaries. At a MoMA retrospective for friend and rival L.J., Harold sneers at the curator who puts such a "popular but minor" artist on a pedestal while his own work languishes in obscurity. Tommy Wiseau, insistent on giving his film The Room some patina of respectability, insists on the Alfred Hitchcock model of directing where actors must be treated like cattle. He holds up The Birds as an example of how to run a film set. (Star Tippi Hedren recently wrote that her director's behavior in production was sexually abusive.)

phantom thread review

Others manage to enlist the people around them to do the mythologizing for them. Reynolds Woodcock in all his mystery does an effective job of building a punctilious aura, but that persona gets a tremendous boost from his sister, Lesley Manville's Cyril. She marshals the seamstresses in his studio as well as an entire household staff to ensure Reynolds has both the mental space to create his designs and the proper preparation of his asparagus (cooked with oil and salt, never butter). Dave Franco's incarnation of Greg Sestero fulfills a similar function for Tommy Wiseau, often serving as a translator of Tommy's bizarre on-set ramblings to the cast and crew. As the beneficiary of Tommy's unexplained financial generosity, Greg feels a certain duty to ensure the wagon to which he hitched himself runs smoothly.

While some characters manage to fight back against these controlling artists (most notably Vicky Krieps' Alma in Phantom Thread and Anthony Gonzalez's Miguel in Coco), the allure of being in the presence of a luminary exerts a strong pull. A scene in The Disaster Artist best showcases just how irresistible a force it can be. After another rough day on set, Greg attempts to rally the cast at lunch. He's clearly expecting resigned comments, if not outright defeat. Instead, he gets peppered with questions about what The Room is really about. Each of them trades their theories about the deeper meaning of Tommy's story, unable to accept it as a grab-bag of melodramatic cliches. If it didn't have any grand significance, their work would just be a health hazard.

And so they continue, nose to the grindstone, like so many other characters do. The cumulative effect? As willing participants in this artistry, they create a climate in which the pursuit of creative goals cannot be challenged. Within this framework, the artist can callously disregard the feelings of their coworkers as well as those who love them. At its most extreme, it leads Ernesto de la Cruz to murder his songwriter Héctor (voiced by Gael García Bernal) so he can take full credit as a singer-songwriter. It also permits Him to prioritize the devotees of his poetry over his family, even going so far as to offer the long-awaited son of Jennifer Lawrence's mother as a human sacrifice to fans gathered in their home. Metaphorical though mother! might be, the implications are loud and clear: here is an artist so enveloped in the cult of his own celebrity that he would value the intellectual creation of his work over a physical creation with his wife.

The Disaster Artist trailer

On a more relatable level, though, this system ushers in unsafe working conditions on the set of The Room as Tommy Wiseau insists on a commitment to Method acting. An older actress faints in the heat due to a lack of air conditioning. His scene partner in the film's big love scene receives nothing short of sexual harassment as Tommy treats her body with flagrant disrespect, ignoring her pleas to shoot more professionally. This same spirit animates Reynolds Woodcock as he verbally redresses Alma for disrupting his precious routine by – gasp! – preparing a nice dinner and intimate evening for the two of them. Daniel Day-Lewis' cutting delivery of British mockery might lend the scene a humorous tone, but it's an unnecessarily cruel redressing of a genuine gesture of affection. Mickey treats the two women vying for his love as mere characters in a drama, often ignoring their feelings and desires in favor of the more theatrical outcome. And, most comprehensively, The Meyerowitz Stories depicts the multi-generational toll of this mindset in its depiction of how Harold's narcissism and neglect trickles down to his children. The tragedy of the film is that, despite their cognizance of its deleterious effect, they are not always able to stop themselves from repeating the same mistakes.

Make no mistake about it: this is a value system that prioritizes art over people. The belief that an artist should be permitted to let their creative urges run wild in pursuit of aesthetic truth, even if it endangers or imperils others, might produce a masterpiece. It also provides cover for monsters. The two cannot, and should not, be disassociated.

Filmmakers have every right to tell these kinds of stories and feature these kinds of characters. For directors like Darren Aronofsky and Paul Thomas Anderson, perhaps this type of artist reflects their frustration with a broken framework of film financing that makes each film feel like a true labor of love. Both writer/directors managed to release ambitious projects in 2014 (Noah and Inherent Vice, respectively) through a studio system that no doubt wanted to sand off their rough edges in the name of marketability. James Franco has worked on many a literary adaptation considered folly by critics and observers. Noah Baumbach, a true believer in the big screen experience, became the latest high-profile director to take his work to Netflix. In an age of shrinking theatrical revenue and booming streaming behemoths, these characters make for an effective avatar for the considerable anxiety in the industry.

wonder wheel trailer

Yet the persistence of this tired trope manages to crowd out more progressive or less masculine iterations of the artist in public discourse. In Lone Scherfig's Their Finest, for example, Gemma Arterton's Catrin Cole manages to usher through a screenplay of integrity in World War II-era Britain. She fends off entreaties from both the government and her curmudgeonly co-writer, Sam Claflin's Tom Buckley, to make the story conform to the prevailing mold of "authenticity informed by optimism." Geremy Jasper's Patti Cake$ tells the story of Danielle Macdonald's Patti, an aspiring rapper in working class New Jersey. The film could have easily taken the form of another tired Horatio Alger-esque plot of rags to riches predicated on the strength of an individual will. Instead, it's a lesson in how a raw talent reaches her true potential by collaborating with unlikely partners.

Granted, neither of those films scales the heights reached by the previously mentioned six films. It's not entirely fair to ask why Their Finest and Patti Cake$ don't enter into conversation in the same way as the latest Aronofsky or Allen project when the filmmaking does not fully pass muster. But when talking about the larger cultural conversation surrounding art and artists, they deserve a seat at the table. Our obsession with auteurs should not go unchecked. Without a challenge to the dominant cultural archetype, we allow a select group to shape our perceptions of artists in a way that reinforces their own mythos. They should make the movies that most honestly express their feelings and views about the world, though we as the audience should also be aware that an externality of such unvarnished expressions of the artistic id is the narrowing of the types of people we consider "serious" artists.

Really, is it any wonder women are underrepresented across the field when this monolithic portrait of the artist reigns? Representation matters because it serves to provide our society with a repository of cultural images to process. It's significant when an Asian woman plays a crucial part in battling the First Order, when a woman or black man takes center stage in an superhero movie or a person with disabilities takes a part originally designated for an able-bodied actor because it expands our notion of who can play these roles. Without them, myths of the tortured male artist spin into self-fulfilling prophecies. They are the only ones who make bold art because they are the only ones people think can.

Here's to hoping that the great reckoning of 2017 and the enhanced scrutiny it brought to these coarse artists, both on screen and off, awakens cinema's desire for a broader range of representation in 2018 and beyond. When the voices of the silenced begin to overpower those who silenced them, perhaps then we will see the full spectrum of the filmmaking community showing us how many ways exist to create meaningful art.