Let’s be honest, avoiding Roman Polanski, a convicted child rapist and middling filmmaker, isn’t exactly an arduous cultural undertaking —you see “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” once, and you’re probably good.
And really, how long can anyone stay mad at Jew haters like Wagner or Walt Disney or Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot? Pablo Picasso and Norman Mailer were active misogynists. But they’re dead. There are lots of racists out there. Killers, too. William Burroughs shot his wife in a game of “William Tell” and Caravaggio killed some guy in a drunken brawl. Scores of other artists have found innovative ways to be rotten people. We overlook or ignore. And to some extent, separating the art from the person producing it is a necessity for anyone interested in contemporary culture, as well.
But I have a dilemma. And it’s called Woody Allen. I haven’t merely found his movies funny; I probably know every line of “Love and Death” by heart. Not only do I consider the slapstick Bob Hope/Groucho Marx derivative films like “Take the Money and Run”/”Bananas”/”Sleeper” funny, I tend to think these are the finest comedic movies ever made. Other than some rare bombs, I like it all – everything from the whimsical “Purple Rose of Cairo”/”Zelig”/”Midnight in Paris” variety to the schizophrenic “Husbands and Wives” to the nihilistic “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point.” I actually like “Interiors.” I believe Allen out-Philip Rothed Philip Roth with “Deconstructing Harry.” “Radio Days” is one of the most beautifully nostalgic films ever made about New York. “Manhattan” is the most aesthetically beautiful ever made about the city.
There are so many quirky, thought-provoking morsels of intellectual banter embedded in his work, even in the mediocre stuff, that it’s difficult to think of another director who’s been as prodigious and smart. And yes, I’ve watched both Michael J. Fox and Jackie Gleason’s versions of “Don’t Drink the Water.” So, in other words, I’m a fan.
But I hadn’t thought much about the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow kerfuffle since it happened. When I first heard the name Soon-Yi Previn I was 23, a time in a man’s life when he has a strong disinclination to render moral judgments on anyone — lest he too be judged. Today, as a husband, father, cranky old guy, my attitude has radically shifted. And reading the devastating “Open Letter From Dylan Farrow” wasn’t only disturbing, it made me – and I’m sure I’m not the only one — wonder how far I could go in admiring the art of someone so revolting. That’s not to say I believe everything Dylan Farrow says. It’s wise to be skeptical about charges made in a contentious breakups – even years afterwards and even by the children. But, the fact is, that Woody Allen doesn’t seem like the kind of person I would want around my children or a person that seems honorable or decent in almost any way.
And I feel this way mostly because I pay attention to his art.
Even before he, at 56, became involved with his long-time girlfriend’s adopted daughter, 19 (“The heart wants what it wants,” he once said in an interview. “There’s no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that’s that”) and, no doubt, inflicted irreparable damage onto his family, the weird, hyper-nebbish neurosis-drenched cartoon he molded himself into did less to capture the American Jewish id than turn it into some distasteful cliché. Watch the documentary “Wild Man Blues” to discover a dislikable and spoiled man. (Though, to be fair, in the “American Masters” Woody Allen documentary we find a more affable Allen.) We can never dislodge Allen the person from Allen the movie star because he’s almost always there. He’s Woody Allen, or he’s Diane Keaton, or Kenneth Branagh, or Scarlett Johansson, or John Cusack, or whoever’s mimicking him next.
And while someone like Quentin Tarantino may imagine the most depraved blood-soaked scenarios of torture and bring them to us, we understand that his gory imagination ends in a imaginary Mexican standoff. Most of Woody Allen’s protagonists, though, are Woody Allen. And a closer examination of Woody Allen will tell you he is a nihilist who struggles to understand why any moral boundaries should exist for him. His characters often argue for moral order, but they never quite seem convinced that it’s needed. His alter egos may be saddened or bemoan the fact that life is without purpose, but they act accordingly. This topic is most notably in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” in which a character decides to murder an irritating mistress and move on with consequence or remorse. Woody Allen will never confess his sins by making his own Unforgiven.
The least plausible aspect of his movies, though, is the casual way in which human beings move through their lives cheating, remarrying, and cheating again, with no emotional fallout. You don’t need to look further than “Hannah and her Sisters.” After characters contemplate some of most egregious acts of disloyalty against their own family, all ends without any residual problems that might pop up when folks dive into infidelity and divorce. When relationships do form in his films, they are unloving and unreal. The type of self-centeredness and vacuous concerns that dominate these relationships, ones that could only exist in an insulated world foreign to most decent adults. And his history of sexualization of children — jokingly, of course — has been with him an entire career. That doesn’t make him a pedophile any more than it does Nabokov. But considering the autobiographical nature of his work, it doesn’t dissuade you of the notion either.
Should we judge an artist’s work only by the quality of his art? Generally, yes. I don’t care much about how novelists or filmmakers or musicians live their lives. That doesn’t mean their lives don’t alter our perceptions. Pete Seeger was an apologist for Stalin. It matters. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a massive talent, overdosed on heroin as his three young children played a few blocks away. That changes how we think about him. Our perception doesn’t alter the quality of art, of course. But it certainly can alter our perception of it. Especially when the ugliness of the real world starts to feel a lot like the art.
David Harsanyi is a Senior Editor at The Federalist and author of forthcoming The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy.