Monday, February 3, 2014

Can We Ever Watch a Woody Allen Movie Again?

Posted By on Mon, Feb 3, 2014 at 11:47 AM

woody allen mia farrow dylan ronan
I like Woody Allen a lot—which is to say, I like his movies. I have 19 of them on DVD, more than those of any other director. And several, like Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters, would surely make my short and long lists of best films. At the same time, it's getting a hell of a lot harder to stick up for liking the man to the point that you can't even just try and ignore the accusations against him. It started, or restarted, with the October issue of Vanity Fair, which featured a long piece about Mia Farrow and her children, wherein Mia suggested her and Woody's son Ronan (né Satchel) could actually be Frank Sinatra's—that was the tabloid takeaway, anyway. Not picked up as much by other news organizations was the fact that Dylan Farrow, once the seven-year-old target of at-best inappropriate attention from Allen, had finally broken years of silence to speak on the record about what she says was a pattern of sexual abuse at his hands.

When the filmmaker was given a lifetime achievement award at this year's Golden Globes, Mia and Ronan were aghast at the tributes amid these newly revived revelations. (Vanity Fair had run a lengthy article in 1992 about the allegations, and the story was told in Mia Farrow's autobiography, but the accusations have largely remained overshadowed by the tawdrier tale of Allen's affair with and subsequent marriage to one of Mia's adopted children, Soon-Yi Previn.) Then, over the weekend, Dylan posted an open letter to Allen's fans through Nicolas Kristof's blog at the New York Times, detailing the abuse she suffered.

Imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter. Are you imagining that? Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?

It's a powerful rhetorical device that puts the culpability on the audience—that because he's the famous and beloved man we've made him, he's been able to get away with unspeakable acts. At the same time, of course, Allen has denied the allegations; he's never been found guilty of this crime nor charged with it (though a Connecticut state attorney said in 1993 that he had "probable cause" to prosecute, he declined because Dylan was too "fragile"; the prosecutor was later criticized) and no hard evidence has been offered. This isn't to say her story should be discounted, just that we should be careful not to rush to judgment. As outsiders, we don't have reliable reasons to side with accuser or accused aside from general feelings we might have about them: either that Dylan has been manipulated by a wicked Mia Farrow or that Woody Allen is a sick fuck for marrying his adopted daughter so therefore why wouldn't he molest a small child? (For the record, Soon-Yi was over 18 when her relationship with Allen began, and thus the relationship shouldn't count as cocktail-party evidence of a history of pedophilia—only, say, of untrustworthiness and gross behavior. She was also not legally his daughter.) Not even Allen has suggested Dylan is lying, and it takes courage for her to go public in our skeptical, often demonizing culture.

The trickiest thing about the situation is that we, the general public, don't really know Woody Allen at all—though many of us feel like we do. Or, to put it another way, we know Woody Allen, but we don't know Allan Stewart Konigsberg, the name by which he grew up in Brooklyn and attended Midwood High School. "Woody Allen... is a comic fabrication," my old Brooklyn College film professor Foster Hirsch writes in Love, Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life, "as much a result of conscious artisanship as Chaplin's tramp."

Drawing on his own experiences, anxieties, beliefs and aspirations, and exploiting his own natural endowments and shortcomings, Brooklyn-born Allen [sic] Stewart Konigsberg created someone else...: "Woody Allen," a comic mask that hides as much as it reveals about his real life counterpart. Allen Konigsberg is playing a shrewd burlesque version of himself, a made-up character that exaggerates and distorts reality. "Woody Allen" is therefore a pose, a masquerade... Who is "Woody Allen" and what is he really like? If Allen Konigsberg has anything to say about it, we will never know.

The lovable Woody Allen character the director has played in so many of his movies shouldn't be mistaken for an accurate representation of the man who created him: it's a persona, an illusion, one Allen has maintained by, say, never appearing at awards shows or not speaking to the audience at his weekly clarinet gig. So even the staunchest fan of the work has to admit that it's certainly possible that, as Dylan writes, "Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me."

But can't you be a fan of the films without giving their creator a standing ovation at the Golden Globes? The difference is that between the art and the artist. There's value in Woody Allen's films, the same way there's value in all great films: they make us reassess our selves and our values and can help us to improve ourselves, or at least be more self-aware, or god just not feel so alone. Barring an apocalypse, long after Woody Allen is dead, and his family is dead, and their immediate families are dead, and we're all dead, his work will likely survive and matter to people as it mattered to us. Great art is worth defending and protecting.

The same isn't true of great artists, who have a moral responsibility to the world they live in and the people around them. As Kristof put it, "do we really need to leap to our feet and lionize an alleged molester?" We don't need to defend Allen nor to cast aspersions on his daughter or former partner. Nor do we need to vilify him. We just can't pretend this doesn't exist. "I think we can still love the work of Woody Allen," Kelsey Miller wrote on Refinery29, "but under one condition: This part of his story is told."

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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