“When was the first time you saw yourself on screen?” asked the Twitter meme. It was yet another invitation to engage with a system that asks nothing of you except everything. Twitter wants and will take every last thing you have if you stay on it too long.
It needs your narcissism. It needs your fear. It needs your anger. It needs your memories. It needs your dreams. And it needs, most of all, your delusions. How do you see yourself, it asks? Sometimes it’s just a matter of a title. Other times, with other people, it’s a Pandora’s box. How people answer will define who they are, what they represent, how they protect themselves from the punitive, judgmental eyes of friends and anonymous strangers. It’s the same existential crisis that presents itself everyday on Instagram or when choosing a meme. This is, of course, mostly only applicable to white people who live in fear of being called out and use their profiles to shield themselves from scrutiny by putting pronouns or “BLM” as part of what defines who they are online.
That is where I found myself, staring at the meme – when was the first time you saw yourself on screen? [Note: this wasn’t the popular hashtag that involves representation. This was just a regular question that cycled casually around Twitter — with a different angle entirely.] It was a good question and I knew the answer. My answer would condemn me among my Twitter followers but it would also align me with a secret society who hides what they really think out of fear. Fear of what? Public shame. What could be as bad as all that? Have Orwellian thought-crimes actually arrived in our supposedly free society? Surely an opinion can’t hurt anyone.
Well, unless that opinion is Woody Allen. And if the first time you saw yourself on screen was in Annie Hall.
It was the 1980s. I had no business identifying with an icon from the 1970s but we didn’t really have icons on cinema in the 1980s. We had Body Snatcher versions of them. We had genre movies and their genre heroes. We had Linda Hamilton and Melanie Griffith. We had Glenn Close. We had Meryl Streep. We had Jodie Foster. We had bad haircuts, bad clothes, bad techno, bad cars, bad architecture – was there anything good about the 80s? I mean, seriously, what the hell was that? (Of course musicians are always the least likely artists to conform, so we can thank the ’80’s for U2, Depeche Mode, New Order, The Cure, R.E.M, Pet Shop Boys, The Smiths, The Police, Eurythmics, and Prince.)
The 1970s was the last gasp of individualism – a counter culture movement on the decline after exploding like a far away star in the 1960s but the only thing that mattered was breaking the mold, emerging as uniquely defined. Women’s Lib had coughed them up, these female icons that would never be matched in any decade to follow, not like then. Black Power, free love, braless women with their nipples poking through their silk blends – frizzy, untamed hair, a ubiquitous cigarette somehow the symbol of feminism – every bit the women of the Steinem era that refused to sacrifice sexuality for feminism all played into the women on screen in the 1970s, and not all of them white. 2021 would want them all to be white, to place them in a cage of shame – the white supremacy raging unchecked. But it wasn’t quite like that, though it was almost like that.
The 1980s ended most of what lived free in the 1970s. Gone were the hippies, free love and the counter culture – in was the “yuppy” and greed was good. It was corporate busy bees, not quite so into individualism anymore because what did that get us? Living in vans with no life savings to speak of? Old sad hippies no one paid any attention to? We had one homeless guy in Ojai, California where I grew up. We called him Harv. The legend went that he got hooked on smack and took too much acid one day and never shook himself out of the trip. That was what was left of the 1970s in Ojai in the 1980s.
“You’re like her, exactly like her.” That was what some film nerd told me once. “You’re like Annie Hall.”
I found my way to Woody Allen the way you find a new swimming hole people only find out about through word of mouth – you want to go every day and tell no one else about it until you got sick of swimming there. It was the ’80s and only older college nerds knew about Woody Allen. The only way to see Woody movies was to rent them. But he was still making movies through the 1980s and the 1990s. When the Soon-Yi scandal erupted my own opinion towards him and his work shifted. I saw him differently then. I no longer saw him as the hero he imagined himself to be in, say, Manhattan where he confronts Michael Murphy and always painted himself as someone imperfect but ethical. I could not square the person I had baked into my DNA with someone who would do that to Mia and their family.
Around 1994 I got online. I wrote in a cinema listserv my very first post to the group was about whether or not the “Soon-yi thing” bothered anyone. I was immediately attacked and practically ejected from the group. I learned my lesson about separating the art from the man. But that was then, needless to say, this is now. I also eventually figured out that Woody Allen might play the character with the most ethics and morality in his films his films are also a dialogue with characters who wrestle with big moral dilemmas, like Crimes and Misdemeanors or Stardust Memories or Another Woman.
So when the question came up, when was the first time you saw yourself on screen – how could tell the people on Twitter – or even mention Woody Allen’s name? That was before the HBO documentary dropped. And this is why I bring this up now. I read Ann Hornaday’s interview with the filmmakers of the documentary and they were indicating that the documentary doesn’t just expose the allegations against Woody by Dylan Farrow and Mia Farrow, but it goes to the work itself. The filmmakers and Hornaday have a conversation about that:
Q: But if I’m honest, I do have some misgivings about that. I promise you I’m not going to going use the term “cancel culture,” but the stance of refusing to see or review another Woody Allen film — I guess this is my age talking, but that’s not the way I learned how to do my job. You contend with the work in front of you. It’s not separating the art from the artist, it’s sitting with the art and the artist and making space for all of it.
AZ: The world is filled with brilliant, flawed people. That doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate and approve of their brilliance. But you can make a choice when you realize your economically supporting them allows them to do awful things, and allows to give cover to the awful things. So that’s where your responsibility as a consumer comes in. And everyone’s going to come down on a different side of that. . . . It would pain me to know that someone’s perpetrating violent acts on other people and getting away with them because I’m giving them box office support. And there is a one-to-one translation of that. As they accrue more power, they accrue more protection.
Q: Just to be fully transparent, I’ve been in constant evolution around this story. But I’ve never been comfortable with saying, “I’m not going to deal with Woody Allen’s films.” It’s just been extremely uncomfortable. And maybe that’s where we belong. Just sitting with that discomfort.
AZ: Maybe it’s uncomfortable for you, but it’s been uncomfortable for so many other people for so long.
Watching any Woody Allen movie now, or frankly any film made in the last 50 years, is a slightly uncomfortable experience. You watch every scene with a running ticker in your head pointing out the things that Twitter would flip out about if it was presented to them. The current method of evaluating all art now, at least among the loudest voices at the New York Times and Rotten Tomatoes is an interrogation of everything “good” and “bad” about the choices made. My daughter and I watched Scent of a Woman, which is a perfectly enjoyable film except that Al Pacino sexually harasses women throughout. That was part of what made it funny, of course, but it is unacceptable now.
I left a comment on the Washington Post article that said something like even Woody Allen is expunged from culture at a given point in time his work will endure because it is universal. But then I had to ask myself, is it? Will it go the way of Gone with the Wind? Will every joke made be somehow creepy and offensive? Or, twenty years from now will the judgmental eye not be on Woody Allen at all but the hyper critical unforgiving climate we’re living through?
My taste as a member of Generation X still looks to the “boomer influenced” era of the 1970s as the standard bearer for the greatest films in the Oscar race, or maybe even ever made. The great awakening of the 1960s and 1970s (out of the rigidity and puritanism of the 1950s) created the best era of American film, or the one I love the most. I can’t help but think that we’re about to see a collapse of everything we previously identified as “good” and “bad.”
This is by no means only something that happens only on the Left, though the Left used to be the forgiving side where conservatives were the ones policing art and advocating for censorship. Now the Left does it freely and with abandon as though it is some kind of righteous calling to purge society of all sins and sinners.
I used to believe that great art will always endure through the evolutions and devolutions of culture. But right now, the way things are going, I wonder if that is true. I wonder if we’re living through the destruction of all of it, the tearing down to the studs of whatever it was American or Western or European culture was rooted in. Since many now see it as all having somehow to do with colonization, imperialism and white supremacy, are we witnessing the moment when all of that is tossed in the ash heap of history? Nothing really lasts forever, that’s for sure. We know that tastes change. We know that the films Oscar voters liked have changed stylistically over the past 93 years – the 20s, the talkies, black and white, film noir, the ways actors used to talk. It has never stagnated.
I can see it all fairly clearly, our potential future. It doesn’t even matter if I think it is good or bad – because I am of the past generation and am trying to hold onto something that used to be true. The millennials will now decide what defines a good film or if they even care about film at all. Their attention is distracted by a million little things from TikTok to Instagram to Twitter. Their own lives are their entertainment. Unlike my generation, they do not seem willing or interested in using the Baby Boomer ethos to decide what defines “cinema.” They’re ready for the next thing, whatever that might be. Maybe this is the moment where there is nothing universal in the human experience at all.
I still don’t think it’s possible to erase great art. It become fashionable or unfashionable but sooner or later the storm around it passes and you are just left with the timelessness of the work. As we move out of this era of witch hunts, cancel culture, and paranoia we will eventually move into one where storytelling is necessary against to make sense of the crazy world we’re living in. As humans, we have always had a need for storytelling. It has been around as long as we have.
Charlie Brooker has found a way to tell the truth about who we REALLY are versus who we want to be in his Black Mirror episode. Hitchcock found a way around the censors. The movie Spree didn’t make much of a splash because it told a truth about our modern age most people weren’t ready to hear. As long as there are people who are brave enough and talented enough to tell the truth in their work art will endure, even if it isn’t popular in the moment.
The first time I saw myself on film was in Annie Hall. I saw a woman that was a creation of the actress herself as muse to a man who was inspired by her but I also saw a kindred spirit in whatever incarnation she became on screen. Woody Allen’s thoughts and observations have rescued me from many of a crisis point in my own life. They are as much a part of my DNA as my childhood. As long as I have access to his films I will watch them. That doesn’t diminish the story others want to tell about him or how others want to interface with his work.
I expect the HBO documentary will make up a lot of people’s minds for them (I have not yet seen it) and the decision to never watch a Woody Allen movie will be made. I certainly can’t judge them for it, as I know there is still a lot of residual trauma working its way through this country. But I am worried that they will force the Academy to throw Woody Allen, the one beloved icon, out. That will be a slippery slope yet again and will open the door to the Academy being an institution that doesn’t so much award talent and achievement but rather a person’s good life. Whatever happens, I know that the millennials will decide where the Oscars ultimately go, not Gen-xers like me.