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On Woody Allen: Brilliant Artist, Dysfunctional Man

When I was in my early twenties I used to go to the movies to watch Hannah and Her Sisters. I saw it maybe seven times, ritualizing it with a carton of white rice and plum sauce. I was fully immersed in the world of the film, seeing myself in each of the characters. How could I be Hannah sometimes, her sister Holly at other times, and even Lee. The dimensions of the female experience were so thoroughly and beautifully explored in that film maybe no other modern American film has matched it. Years earlier, I could have become Annie Hall. I was literally that character as a young woman coming of age. I dressed like her, talked like her, wanted to look like her. To this day I still feel connected to Diane Keaton, as Woody Allen memorialized her beautifully — really got her — in that film. Who else does that? Who else loves women enough to do that?

But if you’re a Woody Allen fan cut from the same cloth as I am, you would know his films inside and out. You know the characters depicted therein, the good, the bad and the ugly. You will know that there was one fictional Woody before the Soon-Yi debacle, and another Woody after the Soon-Yi debacle. You will know that his work struggled to ever be as good as it once was. You would know that his relationship with his audience depended on his audience thinking of him as the good guy, even when his films portrayed multiple dimensions of himself. The good, the bad and the ugly.

If you were like me you would have wanted him to do nothing so much as simply apologize for what he’d done, and not just to his family (though first and foremost to them).  You would have hoped he hadn’t tried so hard to convince us that Mia Farrow was crazy to have been insanely pissed when he began a lengthy affair with her young daughter, the sister of his own children. Perhaps he did apologize to her, again and again. But he never apologized to us, his fans, who believed he was that guy in his movies. Most would agree he is under no obligation to apologize to us. It’s none of our fucking business, they would say. And to a degree, that’s right. But there was a relationship there — between Woody’s moral self portrayed on screen, and the real Woody Allen off screen. Appreciating his movies meant loving him too. He starred in them, mostly as himself. The quirky, clarinet playing, brilliant brilliant man.

I will selfishly never give up my love for Woody Allen’s films. Sleeper, are you kidding me? I am now able to see the Woody Allen in all those movies as just another character in the array of self-portraits he’s delivered over the years. There are also many sociopaths invading his work. He is probably most like the character Martin Landau plays in Crimes and Misdemeanors. We’re thrown off because Woody is in that movie too, as the faithful documentarian who falls for Mia Farrow who dumps him for the sleazy Alan Alda. Or he could be Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point, taking advantage of whomever and whatever he pleases, with little regard for the consequences, and getting away with it.

Others have made the same connection. Last month, weeks before the Times published Dylan’s letter, Cartoonist R. Crumb reassessed what Woody might have been up to in this interpretation of Crimes and Misdemeanors:

And there’s this really arrogant comedy writer/director played by Alan Alda who plays such a jerk, and that’s part of Woody Allen also; very interesting. And I suspect that movie is kind of — and I don’t even know how aware of it he was — a confession. It was right around the time that whole scandal with Mia Farrow’s daughter happened — maybe right before — because Mia Farrow was in it. But, the ophthalmologist gets away with it. Yeah, the respected ophthalmologist, whose brother has the girlfriend murdered, is never detected, and he gets away with it. It’s a really excellent movie, very Jewish. It’s got Jewish philosophizing in it. Actually there’s a scene in it with the family at the dinner table philosophizing about God and justice and what it all means(laughs). It’s a very serious movie, and yet it has its comic relief.

You see, Woody Allen has been telling us who he is all of this time. We have selectively chosen to see him as just the one thing. The truth is, he’s done some terrible things. He has done worse than apologize for them, or own them, he has fully denied them — asked his fans and supporters to join him in believing Mia Farrow to be a psychotic mastermind who planted memories in her daughter, contacted a wild fantasy all to get back at him for throwing her (an old lady) over for a fresh young girl. It was never wrong for his fans to believe in him, because why wouldn’t they? All of the crazy women in his films — the “kamikaze women,” the young hotties like Juliet Lewis in Husbands and Wives and Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan — were the pursuers. Women like Charlotte Rampling in Stardust Memories and Mia Farrow in Husbands and Wives were just nuts. Woody was the sane one caught between them. He prefers them as naive as possible. The smarter they are, the more unbearable. Annie Hall becomes less attractive the more she evolves. He is worried Mariel Hemingway with lose that thing he loves so much about her — as in, her childlike innocence. As a woman absorbing Woody’s world I always felt guilt, and still do, for evolving out of that mode and into the kind of shrill harpy he so detests (“No jokes, these are friends.”)

What seems to have always been at stake is keeping alive the Woody Allen we all know so well, not accepting the Woody Allen he has actually shown us. He has always said that he was a phony. In interviews he says he’s too dumb to be a brilliant artist and that he preferred playing sports. He says he only put on those black framed glasses to play the character for our amusement, that he never needed them in the beginning. He has said he stole his whole schtick from Bob Hope. He never takes credit for anything. He has always been that guy who thinks people are insane for appreciating the work he does so well.

I believe Blue Jasmine is the closest to a Woody Allen self portrait we’re likely to see. You have to know his work extremely well to recognize it. You are probably thinking, if anything, Jasmine is Mia — living a lie that has dismantled her from the inside out. But I think Jasmine is Woody himself — too attached to the trappings of the good life to ever escape from the sham he’s been living, both as a man who has lied repeatedly to his public about his relationships with women, and as someone who has foisted a false image of himself and had to live with that image for the rest of his life. That’s the power of art if you believe in it, if you don’t moralize it. It expresses who we really are, not always who we would like to be.

Jasmine is a character whose life has been built on deception. You can’t tell me that Woody Allen doesn’t know the difference from right and wrong. This is the guy who had Michael Caine coming home off of fucking his wife’s sister, then laying down next to his wife and saying how good it felt to lie down next to Hannah. It causes a guilt spiral which finally makes him go to the phone and try to break up his affair. He can’t do it, of course. Eventually, though, he gets away with it. Jasmine continues to keep the truth pushed as far back as possible — there is no way she knew what her husband was doing and maybe she still has no idea. But it is destroying her.

The getting away with it threads through a lot of Woody’s work. It is as though he blames society for being so easily exploited, for believing people to be good at face value. Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters eventually stays with Hannah, Lee goes on to marry someone else. The world is right again. No harm done because no one was caught. This is explored again in Crimes and Misdemeanors, again in Match Point. Woody makes a point of telling us that there is wrong — a misdemeanor, as in, an affair, a deception. And a crime, murder.

It is then ironic that he would be caught in the same duality. A misdemeanor — his affair with Soon-Yi. And a crime, his supposed molestation of Dylan. It must drive him nuts that in the end he is trapped by the very thing he ruminated on so often.

Those who know Woody’s life well know the archetypes born from his own childhood. His crazy mother who did nothing but berate him, never acknowledged his successes. And his little sister Letty, with whom he formed a very tight bond when he was a teenager. Letty was, it appears, his own relief.  It isn’t that much of a leap of logic to see where his affection for the innocent came from. Does any of this mean he’s a child molester? That is something we can’t really know. I can say that I believe Dylan Farrow, that she’s telling the truth. But that doesn’t mean he is a pedophile. That doesn’t represent a pattern of behavior with other children. What it does tell me is that he had an untoward, overly affectionate, inappropriate relationship with the seven year-old Dylan, so much so that a therapist observing them together suggested he go into therapy to deal with that. Once he began therapy, he seemed to transfer that affection over to Soon-Yi, where it has resided ever since. But beyond that, unless any other victims come forward, it can be viewed as a one-off at best.

What I think about the case is this: it doesn’t matter whether he “did it” or not. He will never be tried for that crime, never convicted. All that matters here is that Dylan be heard, and Mia not be demonized, because to do so simply adds more victims to the pile. The more you add to a conspiracy the more implausible it becomes. The way this has divided down gender lines is telling. Somehow, in all of this, men have come to feel persecuted for wanting what the heart wants. Women are feeling defensive about people needing to believe Mia is crazy, Dylan is a manipulated puppet and Ronan Farrow is a career bent maniac. To me, that’s the longest way around when it is so much more logical to simply say, he had a relationship with Dylan that crossed the boundary of a healthy one. That is documented, witnessed, so much so that he had to seek therapy as a result of it (read the court transcript).

The thing is, to appreciate Woody Allen’s work should not be dependent upon whether he “did it” or not. He is the good, the bad and the ugly all rolled in one. He is an artist, a writer, a human being and a man. He is honest in his storytelling. We have just been digging in the wrong place.

Is Blue Jasmine a worthy screenplay for an Oscar nomination? Yes, it is. Is Cate Blanchett’s performance the best of the year for any actress? Yes, it is. As far as judging art goes, those are unshakable truths. If you want to separate that and take a side on what goes on in his personal life, we are a global community now, so perhaps it’s unavoidable. When Dylan Farrow asks the collaborators of Woody Allen’s films, his fans, and the voting bodies who judge his work if they are complicit in his dishonesty — I would say that they aren’t, unless they start buying and promoting the cancerous lie that Mia Farrow was crazy and wrong to want to protect her children. As long as they don’t do that? The work is the work is the work.

This comes up often where Roman Polanski’s films are concerned. Can you love a movie made by a man who raped a 13-year-old back in the 1970s but like Woody has gone on to have a loving “normal” marriage? I guess each person would have to decide for themselves. For me, I can’t ignore the brilliance of Woody Allen as a writer and director. I just feel, as some have already argued better than I ever could, that you have to combine your feelings about the case with the work Woody does.   You must abandon whom you thought he was — that funny, moral, wise bespeckled nebbish.  And you must fully embrace who he really is, a complicated man, sometimes cold and calculating, often acting in his own best interests despite the consequences and always getting away with it in the end, but also someone who struggles inwardly with all of these things. He works them out in art, not in public. That is what artists do. We live in an era that demands we (all of us) take responsibility for our actions, something Woody Allen has never publicly done, but instead has worked out artistically, especially with Blue Jasmine.  You will have to decide for yourself if you think that’s good enough. For me what is most at stake now is both that the work not be devalued, and that the Farrow family not be destroyed.  Again.

My two cents, for what they are worth.

Things to read:

Andrew O’Hehir’s How Do We Watch Woody Allen’s movies now?
Lili Loofbourow’ Brainwashing Woody
Sam Adams’ Dylan Farrow’s Open Letter to Us
The Woody Allen Debate belongs in the Public Sphere