Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency?
-Love and Death (1975)
That’s a tough one there are so many! I am going to be a bit trite and say Annie Hall. I have watched it well over fifteen times and can quote it better than an evangelical can distort the bible. The film begins with the indisputable Groucho Marx valuation of human nature, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.” One of cinema’s greatest romances opens with cynicism. Woody Allen’s assessment of life has made him one of the most relevant writers and filmmakers for the past forty years. Pain and suffering is not something relegated to Eli Wiesel or Sylvia Plath, with a twisting of the senses satire would emerge and find no better home than the typewriter of Woody Allen.
As I checked my Facebook on Saturday, just above “Which Character of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose Are You?” was a “trending,” section (or perhaps another Zuckerberg ploy to re-configure status updates to slow down the extinction of his site)? According to this new configuration Woody Allen was trending which could only mean one thing in light of recent events —molestation.
An Allen fan or not, this is not jaw dropping information. Here is a man that married his girlfriends adopted daughter and whose son, Ronan Farrow, claims his real father is Old Blue Eyes (but where is this genius I.Q. coming from? Frank didn’t even write his own songs). Beyond his personal life are Allen’s movies—cowardice illuminated. His characters are broken beyond repair, cheaters, murderers, lairs, pseudo-intellectual frauds, and sex addicts drawn to a life of success that masks their limitations towards true intimacy. This is why we watch Allen and this is how he continues to remain relevant. There is no lie, no Elmo fitted to his hand, he makes damage look so good, perhaps too good.
Allen’s camp has made a statement, claiming his daughter Dylan Farrow’s accusations of sexual abuse are untrue and allude to the fact that she was coached by the scorned Mia Farrow as a child. The case was heard in court via custody hearings amongst the the couple. The court would find insufficient evidence for the molestation claim. Allen has never been charged with any crime. It would be fair to suggest his movies say it loud and clear but he never has. Everything he did with Soon-Ye was after the age of consent? Hmm. It is easy to conclude that he has molested children and will probably never admit to it.
So where does that leave us, his glass half-empty fans? We accepted the fact that the world was a cold and dark place long ago. It seems appropriate for a man who writes about brokenness to be broken. We are drawn to Allen due to this lack of like-ability, his neuroses, but can we separate the two—the child molester and auteur? If we stand in line for his next film will we be showing “contempt for her & all abuse survivors,” as Mia Farrow tweeted after Allen received a lifetime achievement award from the Golden Globes last month? Should I stop watching his movies—cinematic experiences which have changed my life and the way I view the world?
I hear you Mia and Dylan. But his writing opens up a vulnerability that no other man or woman for that matter has ever been able to capture. In Annie Hall his relationship with women began to change, female characters became more than sexual centerpieces, but dynamic active leads. Allen would share in Robert B. Weide’s Woody Allen: The Documentary that after working with Dian Keaton he began to write in the voice of women, “eventually it was more interesting to me than the male perspective.”
Mia Farrow would become the manifestation of his new writing style, a muse beyond reproach. From vivacious dame Tina Vitale in Broadway Danny Rose to unsettled Judy in Husbands and Wives, Allen had a range that Farrow understood and perfected. When it all came crashing down during the filming of Husbands and Wives, Farrow showed up for the last three days of filming and was able to be professional under the guidance of a man who cheated on her with the unlikeliest of women.
How many molested children will it take before I stop watching Woody Allen movies? Will it be a Sandusky or Polanski style revelation before I stop? If he does go to prison will camera equipment and a typewriter be allowed? I fully realize I am a bad person for the statements above and if it were me or someone I loved who was molested I would be asserting different feelings.
Yet a seed of doubt remains and before people make assumptions they need to read Weide’s Daily Beast article on the Allen debacle. Weide did extensive research on Allen’s life, including the child abuse case which was investigated, but charges were never brought.
If these allegations are true, what brought Allen to this strange state and should we care? A story he told in Weide’s documentary comes to mind:
My mother used to leave me with these maids all the time because she was working and I remember one of them, I was in my crib at the time, explaining to me that if she wanted to she could kill me, that she could smother me and she demonstrated she could wrap me in a blanket completely, cutting off all my air and smother me and then just dump me in the garbage outside. But she did do it and I couldn’t breath for a few seconds and then she let me out and one wonders how close I came?
The documentary goes on to describe Allen as a happy child until around the age of five he “turned grumpier or sour, I became aware of my mortality. I didn’t like that idea, what do you mean this ends? You vanish forever?” From his satirical depiction of Russian bleakness in Love and Death to a curious Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, death was his signature style:
Mrs. Singer: He’s been depressed. All of a sudden, he can’t do anything.
Dr. Flicker: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
Mrs. Singer: Tell Dr. Flicker. It’s something he read.
Dr. Flicker: Something you read, huh?
Alvy Singer: The universe is expanding.
Dr. Flicker: The universe is expanding?
Alvy Singer: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.
Mrs. Singer: What is that your business? He’s stopped doing his homework.
Alvy Singer: What’s the point?
For Allen death was the only known “we all know the same truth and our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.” For him this distortion meant “non-existence, black emptiness,” mixed in with some slapstick. Allen would “put a higher value on the tragic muse than the comic muse, [because it] confronts reality head on.” As his sister Letty Aronson emphasized “the dark side of him, is a very important part of him, in his work and in him, it’s a great thing and it’s a torture.”
This dark and twisted man would need to latch on to innocence, eighteen-year-old Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, Juliet Lewis in Husbands and Wives, and his young wife who would never appear in one of his films. Hana and Her Sisters would be his definitive female tale where, according to Allen, is “only optimistic in the sections where I failed.”
If what the audience latches onto is a twisted man in his darkest moments perhaps they can convince themselves that his actions as a pedestrian have no moral implications for them? Allen already seems imprisoned by his thoughts, but this tale will never have a conclusion, it will linger like the death of Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston) in Crimes and Misdemeanors. The only thing worse than the actual criminal is the bystander, but without a crime beyond an editorial (with no charge or conviction) all we have are the senses—those tricky emotions which cause us to endear Allen’s work. In the end the only person who will need to face these transgressions is the tragic poet himself.