While my main goal on this blog is to not get too political, it's hard sometimes to avoid discussing certain things. If you're anyone who follows the media circuit, you'll know that this was a big day for Woody Allen. For starters, his new film Cafe Society opened Cannes. However, it was overshadowed by a variety of events including Ronan Farrow's excellent piece regarding the media's handling of Allen's own molestation charges. This has raised the obvious statement, and one when pieced together with a recent interview that suggested that he saved his wife and adopted daughter (the same person) Soon-Yi from misery, is that he's a creepy pervert. Here's my opinion: I acknowledge that all of this really does it make more conflicting for me to like his work, but it's also harder to not admit that I still like his work. It's time that I discuss the unfortunate deed of separating the artist from the artist.
It has been well chronicled here that I'm a fan of Allen's films and have generally reviewed each new entry. He's as hit and miss as any director who has an annual track record could be, but I have to admit that Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine show that he still has something to offer. In general, I think that his output over the decades (specifically in the 80's) is some of the more fascinating work of an American director. His work may at times be frustrating in its singularity of a nebbish white man stuck in the past, but there's some magic to a voice that's specific. It's divisive in the way that all specific writers are. You either like or hate how Aaron Sorkin's dialogue moves too fast. Same goes for Allen, who may not be as experimental as his days when making Zelig or Stardust Memories, but you know what you're expecting.
The argument of his personal life becomes harder when I admit another truth: Annie Hall is among my personal favorites, often alternating the top spot with Taxi Driver. There's at least half a dozen more that are irrefutable favorites. I would even say that as a high school kid, being exposed to his films taught me that there was comedy beyond broad slapstick. Someone could be smart and witty while giving poignant commentary about love. There's a magic to Annie Hall that stuck with me, and it becomes difficult to really explain why when put into context of his personal life, which I didn't become aware of until several years into watching his work. By then, I designated him as a funny man.
Ironically, I think that I became aware of Allen's personal affairs around the time that I watched Husband and Wives: a film from the early 90's that not only came during his personal creative rut, but also when his initial scandal with Soon-Yi was released. Considering that the news is almost 30 years old, it's hard to find most of it shocking. However, it shifts towards accusatory towards fans now. Having known this news for some time, why do you continue to support a man who allegedly molested his daughter and married his adopted daughter? The fact that his films have underlying themes that could be argued as autobiographical don't help the case. Even his classics like Manhattan allude to his later problems. How can you support a man with such a terrible personal life?
In all honesty, I do think that Ronan Farrow does have a point. The media is too shy to address it. Considering that another director with a checkered past like Roman Polanski has failed to return to America only continues to show the problematic treatment of a sexual assaulter. To some extent, Bill Cosby's past few years in exile are about as cathartic as issues like this get. Of course, the one difference (beyond racial) is that Cosby's entire brand was based on being family friendly. Polanski's best work, such as Chinatown, were bleak stories for adults. Allen somehow skirts the line between the two, where his brand is mature enough to not make his allegations too shocking while each new film feels like a subtle revelation of his personal problems. His lack of awareness of modern culture itself feels like he's become a recluse to avoid facing the obvious backlash that Ronan Farrow mentioned. As it stands, nobody at Cannes has yet to ask him about the issues.
The main issue that Ronan Farrow brings up is that it's demeaning for people to support someone who clearly lacks atonement for his actions. That's where things become difficult, and at which point it is best to apply the art and the artist debate. Is it possible to like one without respecting the other? Subliminally, cinephiles have no choice but to sometimes think this way. Consider the greats throughout history. Clark Gable was homophobic. Elia Kazan ratted on his Communist friends. Judy Garland was royally abused by her co-stars and crew members in The Wizard of Oz. Now tell me, does that at all reshape how you view the classics like Gone With the Wind, On the Waterfront, or The Wizard of Oz? All it will really do is give you an altered view of the work that you knew. Sometimes it will ruin the magic, but it's inevitably as cruel and problematic as anything you can lobby at Allen. The only difference is that there's time extracted from the moment.
It may be difficult to also assess the similar problematic nature due to how publicized every single take is. It may also hurt because most of the defamed artists are still alive and are seen as cowards for not fessing up. In fairness, that is true. However, and it becomes difficult once you know all of this, does it show in their art? While there's the inevitable allegory of life imitates art, how much of it is rooted in their notoriety? Sure, cases like Cosby are jarring because of how differing they are from his public persona. However, I dare say that there's something that separates Allen's better work from these problems. His stories may be about frustrated white males, but very little of his best work has to do with issues that parallel that. One can look at his 70's and 80's work, before news broke, and find plenty of admirable work in which he experiments with his own persona and what it means to be an artist. I argue that everything after 1990 is a little harder to assess as fairly, but the classics manage to have a fluidity.
I know that it is difficult to separate the two, and even I have trouble sometimes calling Allen a great artist because of this. The fact is that there's several artists throughout history that have terrible personal lives, yet made huge contributions to society. It's tough to assess Allen that way because of what he did before things went south. It's even more painful because he still occasionally does good work. While I don't fault anyone who hates him for being a terrible person, I do think that there's value in judging the work on its own merits (though Allen's increasingly limited voice may be more isolating out of context). In the grand scheme of things, Allen is sometimes a great artist with a terrible personal life. I choose to separate the two, and that's just as difficult as you think.