Saturday, February 8, 2014

Deconstructing Woody Allen

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
-- Woody Allen
With a trio of remarkable and remarkably funny films in the early 1970s (Bananas, Sleeper, and Love & Death), I became a huge fan of Woody Allen movies in my tweens/teens.  I delighted in the other hilariously memorable movies made during this period too, including Take the Money and Run and Play It Again, Sam.  My love and deep appreciation for Allen's movies was then cemented with Annie Hall, one of the great romantic comedies of all time, followed by Manhattan.  There were more truly great movies in the 1980s, notably Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose, and Crimes and Misdemeanors, and several worthy films in the 1990s (e.g., Shadows and Fog, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Deconstructing Harry).  I haven't been able to summon the same level of devotion to his later works, but have continued to enjoy many -- certainly not all -- of the yearly movies Allen has released over the last decade or so. 

It has not been hard for me to separate Woody Allen the artist/filmmaker from Woody Allen the man.  I know the movies.  I don't know the man.  I know he married Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of Mia Farrow, with whom he had a long relationship, and that there is about a 35-year difference in their ages.  Kinda creepy, but they've been married a long time now and what do I really know about it?

And now, in the wake of Allen's lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, allegations have resurfaced of his molestation of Farrow's daughter Dylan twenty years ago when she was seven.  Allen was accused at the time but no charges were filed after an investigation proved inconclusive.  There has been almost universal outrage that an accused pedophile could be given such an award, with countless people expressing their certainty about Allen's guilt.  Others have been more cautious but still insist that accusations of abuse should be enough to disqualify him from being honored.  The few, brave souls who expressed appreciation of his work are themselves accused of being insensitive to victims of sexual abuse and supporting pedophilia.

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist and friend of Mia Farrow, published a letter from Dylan, herself, in which she insists that Allen assaulted her and remains haunted by the fact that he got away with it, spurring a ferocious and tragic inter-familial debate in the media.  One brother sides with Dylan and their mother.  Another sides with Allen. Allen has now felt compelled to come forward with his own defense, just published in the Times.

Kristof admits that "none of us can be certain what happened" but, nevertheless insists that while "the standard to send someone to prison is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, []shouldn’t the standard to honor someone be that they are unimpeachably, well, honorable?"   Well...No. 

When someone is accused of a heinous act, my criminal defense instincts are awakened and my skepticism of the so-called proof of guilt is heightened.  At least in a criminal case, the accused is entitled to cross-examine his accuser, challenge the evidence, and present a defense.   When someone is accused in the media, we only know what is being reported.  We don't know what the evidence really is.  We can't possibly know what actually occurred.

It should go without saying that sexual abuse is all too prevalent.  There are countless heartbreaking stories about victims whose perpetrators are never caught.  But there are also instances of false accusations,  and even of false memories, where children are manipulated to believe something that never happened.

The criminal justice system is a flawed vehicle for ferreting out the truth.  It is without doubt the province of powerful white males.  A fair and just result is often more dependent on the skill, resources and funding of the attorneys and experts, and on the sensitivity of the judge and other players in the process than on the actual facts.  Most cases are never brought to trial.  When they are, the guilty are often found guilty but not always; and the innocent are often found not guilty but not always.

And even more flawed than courts of law are courts of public opinion.  

Dalia Lithwick writes perceptively that "in the current debate about what happened between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow in a Connecticut farmhouse in 1992, it massively disserves and undermines the most basic goals of the legal system when we import legal concepts into what is essentially a barroom brawl." 
The Court of Public Opinion is what we used to call villagers with flaming torches. It has no rules, no arbiter, no mechanism at all for separating truth from lies. It allows everything into evidence and has no mechanism to separate facts about the case from the experiences and political leanings of the millions of us who are all acting as witnesses, judges, and jurors.
Is Woody Allen guilty of sexual abuse?  I have no idea and can't possibly know.  Does his lifestyle seem a little creepy?  Yep.  Are his movies -- particularly the early ones -- great.  Absolutely.

And can we honor his body of work without honoring his lifestyle or dishonoring his accusers?  Alyssa Rosenberg suggests we focus on the art not the artist:  "sticking to the work and avoiding personal praise of the person in question might be a good minimum standard."  Agreed.  But maybe we can also put down the pitchforks and flaming torches. 


Elizabeth said...

Thanks, Andy. I have found myself posting repeatedly in support of principle and against judgment out of ignorance. With the clear statement that I don't know what happened any more than anyone else in this forum. Those whose lives do not take them regularly into these murky waters might do well to become a bit better informed.
A good place to start is with Elizabeth Loftus:

It is not necessary to choose between "he said" and "she said."
Children can be and have been led to say things that an adult wants them to say -- or that an adult honestly believes are true -- and to come to believe they really really happened.

Here is an easily readable Q & A format article with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, probably the greatest expert on memory and its fallibility and malleability.
Just a taste: "We created these false memories in the minds of people in order to study the process of developing what we now call 'rich false memories.' We’re learning how people can develop entire memory for an event that did not happen."

Carol said...
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Carol said...

Perfect assessment Andy - especially on the heels of seeing the Danish film "The Hunt" last night. I highly recommend it and for the record, am so surprised that Nicolas Kristof decided to participate in this matter. Also, let's be real; we would have to search long and hard for unimpeachable honorees in Hollywood if "honorable" were a qualifying criterion.

Martin Snapp said...

I see denial is a river that runs through Manhattan. Speaking of Manhattan, how can anyone watch that movie and not be creeped out? The guy has been telegraphing his perverted intentions for decades. You defenders are just enablers.

Joe Baker said...

Hi Andy:

This new article by a journalist who first reported on the abuse allegations back in 1992 is a good summary of the background of the allegations and investigation.

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