Sunday, October 7, 2018

Should art be independent of it's creator? The problem of Seder-Masochism and Nina Paley

Simple question- does art exist in a vacuum?

Does the art we all create exist on its own away from its creator?

Ultimately yes it does. Once a piece of art moves out from its creator, the art takes on its own life as people who know nothing of its creation simply take it on face value. This is more true of long surviving works of art where the art remains and the author or creator becomes nothing more than a name. If any tales of the author survive after decades it simply becomes coloring. In a way great art will survive anything, good or bad, it’s creator will have done.

Of course that assumes that the art survives the time of creation and the days, weeks or years right after its creation when passion, emotion and the acts of the creator can influence how a piece of work is seen, if at all in the future.

You’re probably wondering why I’m talking about this, simple several weeks ago I saw Nina Paley’s SEDER-MASOCHISM and I fell in love with it. I mean I fell long and hard and I (still) think it’s one of 2018’s best films… and then things happened...and I don't know how to view the film any more.

The short version of the story is I wanted a palette cleanse from all of the films I was watching. The last few weeks my viewing has been entirely directed by the programming of festivals and what PR people have been sending me.I was burnt and I needed to watch something for me so I went on Festival Scope where I discovered that Paley’s film was listed. It looked like it was just what the doctor ordered and I put it on. It delighted me. I then went on Twitter and raved about it.

And then, Danielle, a friend on Twitter, said the film sounded great, adding that she wouldn't see it before explaining to me about Paley's trans-phobia and her run in with the director. I was a little confused because based on the content of the film that didn’t seem right. I checked Paley’s Twitter account, admittedly in a cursory manner, and thought nothing of it and just went to bed.I didn't see anything earth shaking, but I didn't go that far down her timeline. The next day I wrote a glowing review during my lunch break at work.

That night, after I had did a once over the review, I started looking for art to go with the piece and then I decided to look again and see what Danielle was talking about so I circled back to Paley’s Twitter account... and on the top of her page was an animated gif based on the asinine decals someone is putting everywhere that says something to the affect that "real women don’t have penises". I groaned and I went down the page and found example after example of Paley’s anti trans feelings. To say Nina Paley doesn’t like or understand people who are transgender is an understatement.

Normally when I run across people exposing misguided attitudes I simply shrug and move on. My attitude is that people can believe whatever they want so long as they aren’t inciting violence, this is after all a free country. Besides trying to engage in a debate on a platform like Twitter doesn’t really work since the number of characters doesn’t allow for any real discourse. People are too entrenched to ever change over something said in 280 characters.

Looking at Paley’s tweets I was left very confused and very upset. Her view in real life didn't seem to match up with what she was saying in the film.

My attitude when looking at the art is to divorce myself from its creator. I try to walk into films knowing nothing and taking them purely on face value. I do that with plays, TV shows and all works of art.I want no outside influences- or as few as possible. Part of it is because I don’t have time to learn everything about every film, partly because in most cases I really don’t care to have all the details on every film I see, but mostly because the vast majority of people who run across a film or play or painting will know nothing. They will just see it in isolation. They won’t know or care about a director's obscure Lithuanian background or their struggles to get it to the screen. They will simply know that it is about orphans in Poland during the Second World War staring Brad Pitt. And fifty years down the road, should the film still remain relevant, no one other than an obsessive movie fan, will know or care about it being anything other than a good film.

I went into SEDER-MASOCHISM knowing nothing and as a result I loved it.

And then I found out about Paley’s statements about transgender women and my feelings shifted.

That my feelings shifted is important because normally I don’t really care about an artist’s misdeeds. I have dealt with numerous SOB’s over the years whose art was brilliant and wonderful and had nothing to do with their awful behavior. The behavior did not seem to have an analog to the art so I ignored it. Of course there have been times where I have hated the behavior/person so much that I’ve not bought a ticket to their film or tuned in for their TV show or bought their new book. More times than not that is a matter of not liking them on a human level.

And then there are the times where what someone creates seems to either reflect some sort of personal problem or runs counter to what they are saying in public. There are times when you simply cannot divorce yourself from what you are seeing on screen. An example of someone's life making a film uncomfortable would be writer/director Victor Salva’s inappropriate behavior with a 12 year old boy prior to making the film POWDER hangs over the film making some of the shots and bits of the story line very uncomfortable to watch.

SEDER-MASOCHISM falls squarely into the valley where personal beliefs color a film that is different than their words.

For those who don’t know SEDER-MASOCHISM is an examination of the story of Exodus and Passover through a feminist lens. Paley’s film posits that the move away from the Earth Mother/Goddess was a major mistake. She seems to be saying that in the arms of the great goddess everything would have been so much better because the male cosmic thunderer has caused way too much pain and suffering.

Before I dive in to how Paley's statements recolor her film, I think her film on its own terms, in a vacuum, which is how most people will see the film, is a masterpiece. If we can divorce the creator from the creation we have a great film and I still will consider it for my best of the year list.

That said knowing Paley’s attitude really mucks things up.

In that vacuum and divorced from Paley’s thoughts the film brilliantly makes the case that we might have been better under a mother goddess. Watching the film it is clear guys really have messed things up. Perhaps we really should have stayed in "mom’s" warm embrace.

In the film Paley's goddess seems to be all inclusive. In the sequences with the goddess men and women of all types are there and everyone is happy. You really see this in the sequence where the idol is made while Moses is getting the commandments from the hairy cosmic thunderer god. It is only once Moses comes down and the men start  killing people that the "us and them" divisions are made- divisions made by the male god. Paley seems to be saying that in the world of the mother goddess we can all get along. Which is a problem when you take into account Paley’s position since  you realize she wants to exclude an entire group of women in real life. I don’t think that the goddess she shows us on screen would have wanted that.

Honestly I probably might have given the film a pass except that Paley’s film also explicitly takes on racism, misogyny and divisions that result in hatred. Paley forcefully argues that the divisions are stupid and dangerous in one of her most visceral segments involving the song Free To Be You and Me. In it the Jewish refugees wade into the Holy Land and while singing they have found a place where everyone can be whoever they want to be, they murder the people who aren’t like them. It’s done for ironic effect showing that how the idea of who is "free to be" depends on if you are with the right group. It’s a point Paley makes over and over again through the rest of the film as various conquers kill the people they oppress who are not in the "right group". She even goes so far as to use photographic inserts to get her point across. Her argument is game set and match and it is something that I truly admire about the film. Except it doesn't jibe with her publicly tweeted beliefs thus complicating how you see the film.

And you really can't divorce her words from the film because she has presented herself as part of the narrative. The film is not a work like the aforementioned POWDER, where personal beliefs or experience influenced the work but are not part of the work, because SEDER-MASOCHISM is a work where the artist is actually part and parcel to the film and to it's thematic discussions via the inclusion of a talk she has with her father about belief. The inclusion of a literal discussion with her father, animated or not, puts this into a gray area where it's not really a fictional recreation of one's self but something closer to reality. If she has put one part of herself into the mix why shouldn't we include her intolerance of transgender women into the discussion, especially when it runs counter to the film's themes?

It is the closeness to reality that has necessitated this discussion of art and its creator.  It is this closeness that has me trying to work out where the line is, or if there should be a line at all, either in that we should take everything said or done by a creator into account or not at all. It is a discussion that I have been having with myself and with my friends in the weeks since I first saw SEDER-MASOCHISM.

However despite weeks of thought and discussion I don't have any sort of answers, nor am I close to having even one.

I am not close because in the vacuum what Paley has done in the film is truly brilliant. It a wonderful thought provoking film. The fact that I find it so good, and want to like it just for itself is what propels this pondering.  Shouldn't  the words and behavior of it's creator be discounted when the art speaks about the greater nature of human existence?

I think yes, but sadly that isn't always going to be possible- especially in the short term where a creator's behavior subverts their creation.

To end where I began - Does art exist in a vacuum? Or more to the point should art exist in a vacuum?

Should it, yes. Most definitely. Unfortunately there are times, such as with SEDER-MASOCHISM, where it cannot.  I find it while we should probably always look to view art in isolation that isn't always going to be the possible. Some times when things are created they take on unexpected resonances which may not go away until years or decades have passed and people have forgotten the people who created them.

Nina Paley's Seder-Masochism screens this coming Tuesday (10/9) during Sitges and Friday (10/19) as part of Animation is Film in Los Angeles.My actual review of the film will run when I figure out my complicated feelings for it and for Paley's work from here on out.


  1. Hello. Your statement, "To say Nina Paley doesn’t like or understand people who are transgender is an understatement." It's not an understatement. It's a lie. If you had even bothered to contact Nina Paley, (which is SUPER easy to do; she's all over social media and she has written a very detailed explanation of her feelings about transACTIVISTS on her own blog, which contains links to all the many ways that you can communicate directly with her) you would know that your opinion of her is misinformed. What Nina Paley is against is the same thing many women are against; the invasion of safe spaces for women by men who hate women, but like to dress up in what they believe is typical western women's attire. Please do some research before you publish again.

  2. The comment by Tracey Polyflavor is exactly the point: super anti tans crap wrapped up in some kind of male fearing, female protectionist, woman as victim celebrating blanket. I don't think anyone is misunderstanding. Thank you Steve Kopian for this thoughtful piece. It summarizes the anguish my family is facing considering this beautiful film.