The specter of Casey Affleck’s past ruined ‘A Ghost Story’ for me

We cannot separate abusive artists from the art they create — in order to hold them accountable, we must condemn their actions and acknowledge their impact

Ghost from a ghost story looms, lonely and alone, in a dark corner
Bret Curry/Courtesy

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Content warning: sexual violence

When watching movies, we bring much more than popcorn and M&M’s — we bring our experiences, both consciously and subconsciously, and they inform our perception of each film we watch. David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” is built on the premise of this intimate cinematic exchange that allows us to project our personal memories and fears onto the characters in the film. This is precisely the type of emotional and spiritual engagement I crave from movies.

For this reason, I was worried that I’d love “A Ghost Story” so much that I would forget about Casey Affleck. I was sure that once his face was covered by a comical sheet — a children’s symbol masking adults’ anxieties about life’s ephemerality — I would forget. But I could not forget, because I was too damn angry.

I was angry because in 2010, two women filed suits against Affleck for sexual harassment. (The cases were settled out of court the same year.) I was angry because this year, he won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for “Manchester by the Sea” — just one year after 50 survivors shared the Oscars stage with Lady Gaga as she performed “Til It Happens to You.” I was angry last month, because “A Ghost Story” premiered and Casey Affleck ruined it for me. I am still angry.

Anyone who asks what sexual harassment has to do with Affleck’s career as an actor or filmmaker would do well to recognize that the lawsuits surrounded actions while he was working on the set of “I’m Still Here” — his coworkers filed the lawsuits against him. It is also important to note that regardless of the circumstance in which it takes place, abuse is abuse. Period.

In this case, it has everything to do with Affleck’s career, because he’s a public figure, an artist and an actor. When he was winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar, and while trailers for “A Ghost Story” trickled down my timelines, his face felt and now feels inescapable once again. This omnipresent glorification inevitably means that his behavior is a model for the public. When abusive actions are condoned or overlooked, it teaches people that abuse is acceptable.

As much as I wanted to let myself become fully immersed in the introspective existentialism of “A Ghost Story,” I couldn’t. Not once. I could not forget that the man looming over the past, present and future of the film is a man who was celebrated while lawsuits alleging abuse by him were being publicized. I could not forget, even when he looked lovingly at Rooney Mara. There was something sinister about his gaze — and it wasn’t just his voiceless ghostliness.

I could not forget while they cuddled. Instead, I shuddered, because I remembered the lawsuit alleging that Affleck had entered the bedroom of his cinematographer and climbed into bed with her and “caressed” her without her consent while she slept, until she awoke, “repulsed” to find him next to her in only a T-shirt and underwear. I could not forget these things — no matter how much I wanted to love the film. I could not avoid cringing each time he loomed over Mara, even though their characters were in love and she was grieving.

His presence is so palpable that it can’t be bridled by a sheet. I could not forget what rage or vengeance can look like when mixed with sexism and unbridled power. In a film so preoccupied with entrapment, I could not forget. We should not forget.

We should not forget, because every time an abuser is given a position of power or is not held accountable, their actions are excused. It’s not okay because he makes good movies. It’s not okay because he’s supposedly an “exceptional” actor. The point is that every time we excuse or erase sexual violence, we allow it to be perpetuated. The point is that we should stay angry.

We should stay angry enough to not forgive Woody Allen because of his nostalgic auteurism. We should stay angry enough to not defend Bill Cosby because he was an iconic father figure of 1980s television. We should stay angry enough to not forget that director Roman Polanski won an Academy Award after he was convicted of statutory rape. We should stay angry enough to not allow ourselves or each other to separate someone’s career from the lives and careers they imperil with their abusive actions.

As arts journalists, we face this moral dilemma each time we are tasked with reviewing a piece of art that involves someone like Casey Affleck: Do we include these misdeeds in our reviews? An overwhelming majority of outlets do not address them at all, and, if they do address them, it’s as an aside or as a footnote in a separate article entirely. Our own review of “A Ghost Story” did not mention the lawsuits. Reviewers justify this choice as an attempt to examine solely the films themselves, rather than the context or politics surrounding them.

But neither film nor art exists in a vacuum.

Journalists, arts writers included, have a responsibility to inform the public. Arts journalists have an added responsibility of guiding readers’ critical consumption of media. This includes recognizing the influence that artists (actors, directors, screenwriters, etc.) have on the films they create and the space in which they are created. We cannot separate the art from the artist, nor the artist from their past (or present) actions. Once concerning revelations enter public discourse, we become remiss if we exclude them from our reviews, because to do so is to ignore the impact that they have on audiences.

Reviewers must address this impact in their reviews. We must build and maintain a discourse that rejects the erasure of violence — sexual violence in particular — and rejects the idea that artists can get away with causing harm simply because they are talented or revered in their industry.

I can’t control the editorial choices of Variety or the Hollywood Reporter, but we at The Daily Californian can and should make this editorial commitment — and we have opened a discussion that will hopefully lead to policy that does so.

Sophie-Marie Prime is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].