Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Claude Jutra: scandal vs achievement

Allegations in an explosive new biography of Claude Jutra suggest the master filmmaker was a pedophile. It is, perhaps, hard for those not familiar with the film world of Quebec how damaging the allegations are for a man considered one of Quebec's most exportable "true" artists.

It's impossible to underestimate the importance of Jutra to Quebec: not only are the major prize awards for film here named after him, there are squares in his honor, streets, parks, a house in Montreal (where he once lived) that's designated as an historic building because of his association with it.

Jutra made some extraordinary films. His best-known, Mon Oncle Antoine, marked a watershed in Quebec's cinematic history as it really became the first big international Quebec hit (not mainstream hit but a critical masterpiece and still widely discussed in the film world). And many others followed, films which in Quebec are part of our cultural literacy.

I've always found Jutra an essentially tragic figure and whenever I find myself walking through
Square St-Louis (where he lived and worked), I feel his ghost there. He committed suicide at age 56 by jumping off the Jacques Cartier Bridge into the St-Lawrence River, doing so because he felt that he was developing Alzheimer's disease.

For now the allegations are not proven and the biographer claims that his book is not about pedophilia (he claims that Jutra liked boys in their mid-teens) but this has still rocked the film world with committees being formed to explore the allegations and whether they are true.

To me this gets at the age old question: does a "great" artist actually have to be "great"? Even if the allegations are proved to be true, do they circumvent all his artistic achievements? I say they do not. Of course, naming parks and streets and squares after someone who did abhorrent things is problematic, but they are not named after him because we all assume he was a saint or even a particularly "good" person. They honour him because of his (in this case) artistic abilities, influence or merit. Just as politician might be honoured for his contributions to a city or province or country, even while doing terrible things in his personal life, we are often unable to hold contradictory or even complex portraits of people in our collective consciousness, especially of artists.

A great artist & a creep. The two aren't mutually exclusive
I want to argue that there is an immediacy to this kind of question that doesn't exist for more historical figures (many of whom were horrible people) but then I can also come up with examples of places or dorms at universities being renamed once it becomes clearer to the public what kinds of things those people did, even if that person lived hundreds of years ago.

It's so complicated: what kinds of crimes are unforgiveable (I don't mean legally or morally unforgiveable here)? What kinds of sins do we shrug at and move on from (there was a time when being gay was looked at as enough to strip someone of all his achievements) and which are simply too appalling to be looked past - or indeed, not even looked past but acknowledged as being part of a complex,messed up and contradictory person.

Then again, generations and generations of women were never acknowledged in any similar way (their achievements were ignored or the vast majority of them were simply never given any opportunity to achieve in the formal way we most appreciate).

I don't know if what the biographer says about Jutra is true. Either way, it won't change the way I feel about his films. It won't make him a less tragic figure for me, wandering those streets of Montreal as his mind was slipping away. But I didn't know the man. He didn't have any personal influence on me because I don't know a thing about him as a man; all most of us have is just a glimpse into his artistic vision. Is it possible to honour that without assuming we are honouring the man himself?

I don't have any answers. I just find this entire topic so very sad...

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