My Woody Allen Problem

On the morning of the Oscar nominations, I was chatting with a stranger about movies, as one does. The conversation turned to Woody Allen.

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, New York Times

On the morning of the Oscar nominations, I was chatting with a stranger about movies, as one does. The conversation turned to Woody Allen.

“My son has seen all his movies, and he thinks he’s innocent,” she said.

“I’ve seen all his movies, and I think he’s guilty,” I said.

There was not much else to say.

There is a lot more to say. The words we chose weren’t quite the right ones. Innocence and guilt are legal (and also metaphysical) standards, but when we talk about the behavior of artists and our feelings about them, we are inevitably dealing with much messier, murkier, subjective issues. It’s not just a matter of whether you believe Dylan Farrow’s accusation of sexual abuse — reiterated a few weeks ago in a television interview — or the denial from her father, Allen. It’s also a matter of who deserves the benefit of the doubt.

The charge that Allen molested Dylan Farrow surfaced in 1992, in the wake of his breakup with Mia Farrow. That rupture was caused by Mia Farrow’s discovery that Allen was sexually involved with Soon-Yi Previn, who was her adopted daughter, though not Allen’s. His defenders (including his and Mia Farrow’s adopted son Moses) suggest that the allegation of abuse was the invention of a spurned woman lashing out against the man who had humiliated her.

The severity of that accusation, and Allen’s steadfast denial of it, had the curious effect of neutralizing what might otherwise have been a reputation-destroying scandal. “The heart wants what it wants,” he famously said, and what his 56-year-old heart desired was a 21-year-old woman he had known since she was a child. He married her, kept making movies, and the whole business faded into tabloid memory. I remember the debating points vividly, which is to say I remember invoking them in arguments with friends at the time. Previn was not a minor. Allen and her mother had never lived together. He was not Previn’s father, or even her stepfather, even if he was the father of her half-siblings. And besides, Allen’s love life was personal, and therefore irrelevant. What mattered was the work.

For more than two decades, Allen’s credibility as an artist was undiminished. The reception of his movies fluctuated, but critics (myself included) often enough found reason to hail a return to form after a fallow period. He won awards, and actors clamored for the chance to appear in his films. Only now has that started to change.

The old defenses are being trotted out again. Like much else that used to sound like common sense, they have a tinny, clueless ring in present circumstances. The separation of art and artist is proclaimed — rather desperately, it seems to me — as if it were a philosophical principle, rather than a cultural habit buttressed by shopworn academic dogma. But the notion that art belongs to a zone of human experience somehow distinct from other human experiences is both conceptually incoherent and intellectually crippling. Art belongs to life, and anyone — critic, creator or fan — who has devoted his or her life to art knows as much.

Furthermore, Allen’s art in particular is saturated with his personality, his preoccupations, his biography and his tastes. One of the most powerful illusions encouraged by popular art is that its creators are people the rest of us know. This is not only because tales of their childhoods and news of their marriages and divorces feed our prurient appetites, or because we can peek into their lives on Instagram and Twitter. It’s also because they carry intimate baggage into their work and invite us to sort through the contents.

Whether you celebrate its authenticity or hate the TMI-ness of it all, this is unquestionably an age of self-display. And one of its founding fathers, without a doubt, is Woody Allen, the neurotic Narcissus of the Me Generation, the bridge between midcentury psychoanalysis and digital-era selfie culture.

Casting him aside will therefore not be so easy, which is part of what I was trying to say in that brief, stalemated discussion about his guilt or innocence. I could, I suppose, declare that I won’t watch any more of his movies. But I can hardly unwatch the ones I’ve seen, which is all of them, at least half more than once. And even if I could, by some feat of cinephilic sophistry, separate those movies from Allen’s life, I can’t possibly separate them from mine. When I was young — much too young, but it’s too late now — my grandmother took me to see “Play It Again, Sam.” Most of the jokes went over my head, but a lot of them stuck in it anyway. “Did you hear another Oakland girl got raped?” Diane Keaton asks. “But I was nowhere near Oakland!” says Allen, who is playing a San Francisco film critic named Allan Felix. (“Play It Again, Sam,” released in 1972, is a bit of an outlier in the early Allen canon. It was based on Allen’s play but directed by Herbert Ross.)

Allan is sometimes visited by the specter of Humphrey Bogart, in trench coat and fedora. He has hard-boiled advice about “dames” and other matters. I had only the vaguest idea of who this apparition was supposed to be, but before long what Bogey was to Allan Felix, Woody Allen was for me. A mentor. A culture hero. A masculine ideal.

He sparked my interest in foreign films and old movies, in jazz and Russian literature, in Franz Kafka and Marshall McLuhan. Whenever there was a revival of “Sleeper,” “Bananas” or “Love and Death” in those pre-home-video days, I was there. My paperback copies of his first two collections, “Getting Even” and “Without Feathers,” were dog-eared from endless rereading. No present was ever as keenly coveted or quickly devoured as the hardcover of his third, “Side Effects,” which my parents gave me one Christmas.

Allen’s prose made an even stronger impression on me than his films. His characteristic deflationary swerve from the lofty to the absurd, from high seriousness to utter banality, struck me as the very definition of funny.

The man himself was a plausible definition of sexy. The achievement of his early movies, culminating in “Annie Hall” (his seventh feature as a director) was to turn a scrawny, bookish, self-conscious nebbish into a player. His subsequent achievement was to turn himself into a serious filmmaker without surrendering that initial cachet.

The Allen character in his various incarnations might be insecure, childishly silly, socially hapless (or all of the above), but he was never single for long. The aspects of his temperament held up for mockery — the hyperintellectualism, the snobbery, the irreducible Jewishness — doubled as weapons of seduction. His self-deprecation was a tactic, a feint, a rope-a-dope, and he was plagued less by the frustration of his desires than by their fulfillment. As soon as the heart got what it wanted, it wanted something else. What impressionable, heterosexual, unathletic adolescent boy would not want a piece of that action? OK, fine. Not all adolescent males. But underneath the neurosis and the shrugging, stammering self-directed put-downs was a powerful sense of entitlement. The Woody Allen figure in a Woody Allen movie is almost always in transit from one woman to another, impelled by a dialectic of enchantment, disappointment and reawakened desire.

The rejected women appear shrewish, needy, shallow or boring. Their replacements, at least temporarily, are earnest, sensuous, generous and, more often than not, younger and less worldly than their predecessors. For a very long time, this was taken not as a self-serving fantasy but as a token of honesty, or freedom from sentimental conceptions of domestic love.

There was a lot more going on, too. The imagination goes where it will. A recent Washington Post article dug deep into the archive of Allen’s unpublished writings and found ample signs of his preoccupation with very young women, something moviegoers have been aware of since “Manhattan.”

Part of the job of a critic — meaning anyone with a serious interest in movies, professional or otherwise — is judgment, and no judgment is ever without a moral dimension. Nor is it ever without a personal interest. What I find most ethically troubling about Allen’s work at present is the extent to which I and so many of my colleagues have ignored or minimized its uglier aspects. A sensibility that seemed sweet, skeptical and self-scrutinizing may have been cruel, cynical and self-justifying all along.

There is a powerful and understandable urge, as a consequence of the long-overdue recognition of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, to expunge the perpetrators, to turn away from their work and scrub it from the canon. It’s never quite so simple. Allen’s films and writings are a part of the common artistic record, which is another way of saying that they inform the memories and experiences of a great many people. I don’t mean this as a defense, but an acknowledgment of betrayal and shame.

As I said, there is much more to say. Reassessment is part of the ordinary work of culture, and in an extraordinary time, the work is especially vital and especially challenging. I will not blame you if you want to stop watching Woody Allen’s movies. But I also think that some of us have to start all over again.

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