“This is a basic principle: until it is proven otherwise, beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s important to extend the presumption of innocence to Dylan Farrow, and presume that she is not guilty of the crime of lying about what Woody Allen did to her,” Aaron Bady writes in a terrific piece in The New Inquiry. He’s explaining the dilemma that those of us who believe in both the ideals of our criminal justice system and in changing a culture that’s deeply hostile to survivors of sexual abuse and assault were confronted with anew this weekend, when the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof published a letter from Dylan Farrow, reiterating the abuse charges she made against director Woody Allen as a child, when Allen was dating Farrow’s mother, Mia Farrow. “If you are saying things like ‘We can’t really know what happened’ and extra-specially pleading on behalf of the extra-special Woody Allen, then you are saying that his innocence is more presumptive than hers. You are saying that he is on trial, not her: he deserves judicial safeguards in the court of public opinion, but she does not. The damnably difficult thing about all of this, of course, is that you can’t presume that both are innocent at the same time.”
In terms of Allen’s criminal guilt or innocence, and Farrow’s guilt or innocence of the charges that she is lying–whether as a result of her mother’s manipulations, or of her own accord–that irresolvable contradiction will continue to hang in the air before us: the statute of limitations in the case has long since run out.
Instead, we’re left with the more difficult task of deciding on a movie-lover-by-movie-lover basis, whether we feel comfortable continuing to watch Allen’s films. And actors, producers, editors, and everyone else involved in film production, will have to decide whether or not they’re comfortable continuing to work with Allen, a charge Farrow put to a number of them by name in her letter. Thus far, those artists who have chosen to comment have mostly demurred on the question of whether they’ll continue to work with Allen. “You are mistaken if you think there is a place for me, or any outsider, in this family’s issue,” Alec Baldwin tweeted. And Cate Blanchett, who is up for a Best Actress Oscar for her work in Allen’s Blue Jasmine, told Jeffrey Wells: “It’s obviously been a long and painful situation for the family and I hope they find some resolution and peace.”
As those of us who don’t have the option of being enriched or awarded for working with Allen consider how we’ll approach his movies (not to mention his short stories, his music, and his stage plays) in the future, one idea that’s emerged is that some of his recent work functions as a kind of confession. Is Match Point, in which a man who’s married into a wealthy family gets away with murder, a riff on Crime and Punishment, or Allen reflecting on his own escape from prosecution? Is Blue Jasmine, as Maureen Orth suggested in Vanity Fair, about a woman–an adoptee–who turns in her husband, a financial fraudster, as revenge for his infidelity with a teenaged girl, a reflection on both what Allen believes Mia Farrow did to him, and his actual guilt?
I’m of the party that suggests it’s wise to be judicious and careful in such readings. The analogues aren’t exact, or in some cases, even close, and as with Match Point, there are clearer and more specific points of reference than Allen’s own life. More to the point, it’s a risky precedent to treat art as evidence of crime, for reasons having to do with the integrity of art and the criminal justice system. As Erik Nielson and Charis Kubrin wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, “Rap lyrics and videos are turning up as evidence in courtrooms across the country with alarming regularity. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey found that in 18 cases in which various courts considered the admissibility of rap as evidence, the lyrics were allowed nearly 80 percent of the time,” even in cases where the lyrics couldn’t possibly apply to the specific crimes for which defendants are being tried. Using art as evidence in criminal cases, whether they’re being tried in the courts of law or public opinion, is a great incentive for artists to narrow the scope of their subject material to avoid indictment.
But just because I’m suspicious of such literal readings doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s important to interrogate what it is that we like, or have liked, in Allen’s work, and how it affects our responses to Dylan Farrow’s letter.
In December, when former music journalist Jim DeRogatis sat for an interview with the Village Voice’s Jessica Hopper about his reporting on R. Kelly’s history of sexual assaults of very young Chicago-area girls, he made an important point. “There’s a very — I don’t know what the percentage is — some percentage of fans are liking Kelly’s music because they know,” DeRogatis explained. “And that’s really troublesome to me. There is some sort of — and this is tied up to complicated questions of racism and sexism — there is some sort of vicarious thrill to seeing this guy play this character in these songs and knowing that it’s not just a character.”
I’d take this a step further. R. Kelly’s enormous cultural power means that we hear the story of his sexual exploits, over and over again, from his perspective. And that perspective is that the kinky sex he’s having is consensual (and by extension, that everyone involved is legally and morally capable of consenting), and that’s it all good fun. There may be angst, and efforts to reconcile Kelly’s sexual compulsions with other values he holds, including belief in God, but there is not actual material harm. And if you hear that often enough, and loudly enough, and in enough settings where you’re having the right amount of fun, those ideas will stick.
Similarly, the reason I feel repulsed thinking about so much of Woody Allen’s work now, is not that I see it as a confession. Rather, the great and abiding message of so many of Allen’s movies, and his prose writing, is that the person who suffers most from Woody Allen’s neuroses is Woody Allen, not the people Allen and his characters have power over.
This is true in his early light movies, as well as ones he made after his turn to more serious, and more realistic, stories. In Bananas, for example, it’s Fielding Mellish, a nebbish becomes the accidental dictator of a small Latin American country, who is the real victim, rather than the people who have to live under his rule, which is the result of a struggle between a repressive regime and an incompetent revolutionary movement. That might be a classical exercise in fish-out-of-water comedy, rather than a defining trait, if it didn’t continue to be a prevailing mode in Allen’s more naturalistic movies.
Annie Hall gives us Alvy Singer as an Allen stand-in, worrying about how Jewish he feels and imagining conversations between their families that lead to a breakup, rather than to actual work to make their differences a strength, rather than a weakness. In Love And Death, Allen’s character is executed for trying to kill Napoleon, while the lover who talked him into the plot, escapes. Manhattan follows Allen’s Isaac Davis as a 42-year-old dating a 17-year-old high school student (Mariel Hemingway), a relationship that Isaac describes as essentially to her benefit, even as he doesn’t want her to get stuck on him: “I want you to enjoy me, my wry sense of humor and astonishing sexual technique,” he tells her. First, he tries to push her away by encouraging her to travel abroad without him–then he begs her not to go on the trip, saying that she doesn’t have to make that sacrifice for his sake. Fortunately, she insists that the voyage has already been booked, providing those of us in the audience with a reminder that everything doesn’t have to be about Isaac–or Allen. I could go on.
Setting himself up as a victim of his own hypochondria, sexual anxiety, mother issues, and assorted other neuroses is a clever trick for Allen, one that simultaneously anticipates nearly everything anyone could accuse him of, and renders him pathetic and sympathetic. See, so many of his movies say. Look how he suffers. But there are other people who are affected by the behavior of severely neurotic people, even if the impact on their lives doesn’t rise to the level of criminal trespass. Woody Allen’s just spent years training us to look past that damage, and to look at him instead. That’s a terrific insurance policy for the day it turns out you can’t preempt everything.
This isn’t to say that Allen hasn’t tried. Over the weekend, a friend gave me a 1976 profile of Allen that appeared in People Magazine. It ends on a disturbing note. “I’m open-minded about sex. I’m not above reproach; if anything, I’m below reproach. I mean, if I was caught in a love nest with 15 12-year-old girls tomorrow, people would think, yeah, I always knew that about him,” Allen tells Jim Jerome, the reporter. “Nothing I could come up with would surprise anyone. I admit to it all.”
Not quite all of it. Without the power of the courts, we’re not in a position to resolve the conundrum that Aaron Bady laid out for us. But if we can’t lay to rest, to a legal standard of guilt or innocence, what Woody Allen may have done to Dylan Farrow, we can at least make an accounting of what his movies have done to us–and what we’ve done to others because of them.