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Canceled Or Not, Woody Allen Is A Genius

We don’t need to love the man to love the art.

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“Unfortunately,” writes AV Club, “Woody Allen will release another movie before he retires. Leaving behind a legacy of sexual abuse allegations and a handful of great movies that, well, people don’t feel enthusiastic about watching anymore.”

By a “legacy of sexual abuse allegations,” the publication means a single 30-year-old accusation that has never been substantiated by anyone. In 1991, during an ugly custody battle over their three shared children, the actress Mia Farrow accused Allen of molesting their 7-year-old adopted daughter Dylan. Though child abuse is unspeakably odious and a far-too-common crime, it is certainly not unknown for a spouse to make baseless accusations during a divorce proceeding.

The New York State Department of Social Services found no credible evidence of any molestation. The Yale-New Haven Hospital Child Sex Abuse Clinic, brought in by Connecticut police to investigate, found that “Dylan was not sexually abused by Mr. Allen” — though it strongly implied that Farrow, who has since been accused of abuse by her adopted children, had coached the kids. Dylan continues to claim she was molested, but her brother, Moses Farrow, now a licensed marriage and family therapist, refutes those claims.

Whenever I have conversations about Allen — which, undeniably, is far too often — I am reminded that people also seem to think that his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn was subject to an abuse allegation. It’s simply not so. Allen was not Soon-Yi’s stepfather or her adopted father or even a father figure. Her adoptive father was André Previn. And not only were Allen and Farrow never married, they never lived in the same building.

Granted, none of this absolves a 56-year-old who marries his long-time girlfriend’s adopted daughter, either 19 or 21 at the time (Soon-Yi’s exact age is unknown), of being a creep. Many Allen movies feature relationships between young women and older men — some of them illicit. “The heart wants what it wants,” Allen said in an interview at the time. “There’s no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that’s that.” No, that’s not that. Not when one inflicts damage on their family, on strangers, and on their honor. It is also true, however, that Allen and Soon Yi have now been married for 25 years and have two adopted children. I will spare you the list of people still admired by our society whose sins and debauchery are far worse.

Whatever the case, ever since Dylan wrote her op-ed in 2017 demanding Allen be punished, cultural critics have decided not only that the director is unworthy of a platform — Amazon canceled his film deal and Hachette canceled the publication of Allen’s memoir “Apropos of Nothing” — but that it is time to retroactively devalue his resume. Let’s call it cultural presentism.

We don’t need to love the man to love the art. Though his largely New-York-centric movies aren’t suited to everyone’s taste, Woody Allen has created more imaginative and interesting films than any director in American history — and it’s not particularly close. If we count his upcoming movie, “Wasp22,” and his first low-budget voiceover of a Japanese James Bond knock-off film, “What’s Up Tiger Lilly?,” Allen has now directed 50 movies since 1966. That’s 50 movies in 56 years. I’ve seen all but two, some of them numerous times, and only a handful are legitimate clunkers. More than a handful are classics. And most are better than the dreck Hollywood makes now.

A singular talent, Allen began his career as a teenager, sending one-liners to newspaper columnists. He would find himself writing skits for Ed Sullivan, “The Tonight Show,” Sid Caesar, working with young writers like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Neil Simon. Allen’s work withstands the test of time better than any of his colleagues’.

Allen would bring the hyper-nebbish, neurosis-drenched caricature he created as a standup comic to the movies in the early 1970s. Since its inception, Hollywood has produced superficially smart — “important” — films. Allen inverted the equation. The aesthetics of his early films might scream frivolity and chaos and sex — and in many ways, they do owe a debt to Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and, of course, the Marx Brothers — but they are teeming with literate observations about religion, history, politics, and philosophy.

Take “Bananas,” on the surface a bawdy comedy that finds a bumbling New Yorker named Fielding Mellish who inadvertently becomes a Castro-like dictator of the fictional San Marcos after trying to impress his socialist girlfriend. Allen, despite perceptions, is far more adept at mocking the pieties, fades, and sensibilities of his own tribe than others. “I love Eastern philosophy. It’s … it’s metaphysical and redundant. Abortively pedantic,” Mellish tells his girlfriend.

Allen, who never graduated college — “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam. I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me” — often shows off his autodidacticism by playing off the shallow knowledge of his alter egos. In “Sleeper,” Allen’s Miles Monroe finds himself in a dystopian future where historians, trying to figure out who’s who in the 20th century, ask him to identify a batch of ancient pictures:

This was Josef Stalin. He was a communist, I was not too crazy about him, had a bad moustache, lot of bad habits. This is Bela Lugosi. He was the mayor of New York City for a while, you can see what it did to him there, you know. This is, uhm, this is, uh, Charles DeGaulle, he, he was a very famous French chef, had his own television show, showed you how to make souffles and omelets and everything. This is Scott Fitzgerald over here. A very romantic writer. Big with English majors, college girls, you know, nymphomaniacs. Very well, eh — This is Chiang Kai-Shek, who I was not too crazy about either. This is Billy Graham. He was very big in the religion business, you know. He knew God personally. … [This is a] photograph of Norman Mailer. He was a very great writer. He donated his ego to the Harvard Medical school for study.

1975’s “Love and Death,” one of his most underappreciated films, lampoons Russian literature by juxtaposing rapid-fire Bob Hope dialogue with beautiful Bergman-esque shots of France and Hungary and blaring soundtrack of Prokofiev. I’ve seen the movie probably a hundred times. Nearly every line of dialogue is a joke or a setup, and yet it is consistently funny. Can anyone imagine a major studio releasing a movie parodying Tolstoy and the Napoleonic wars? To be fair, who would watch it today?

This is all before Allen even invented the modern romantic comedy with “Annie Hall.” We can forgive him for crimes Hollywood committed in the genre’s name because it is a nearly perfect movie. Allen, of course, is one of the few American filmmakers who openly detests Hollywood, famously skipping the Oscars to play with his jazz band. “They don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows,” Alvy says during one of his disastrous visits to Los Angeles in Annie Hall.

What Allen really loves is New York, and “Manhattan,” with its “Rhapsody in Blue” and timeless black and white cinematography, might be the most aesthetically pleasing version of the city ever conceived. Just as “Stardust Memories” is perhaps the best Fellini remake ever made. But rather than turn to bigger-budget movies, Allen entered a romantic, art house phase in the 1980s, which we can liken to short storytelling. There is great diversity and imagination in these films — “Zelig,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and “Radio Days,” his most nostalgic film. Allen continued this trend into the ’90s with the Kafkaesque “Shadow and Fog,” the musical “Everyone Says I Love You,” his ode to jazz “Sweet and Lowdown,” and his ode to the Jazz Age, “Bullets Over Broadway.” No director has ever matched this output.

That said, Allen’s pessimism and egocentricity are also on display in some of his best work. Allen out-Philip Rothed Philip Roth in “Deconstructing Harry.” And the biting cynicism of “Husband and Wives,” made in the aftermath of the Farrow breakup, offers a quite low opinion of humanity. Many of his characters exist in insulated worlds that would be foreign to most decent adults. In “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the story of a man who decides to murder his mistress, Allen channels Dostoevsky. Yet Allen is unable to come to any gratifying resolution. In the classic “Hannah and Her Sisters,” infidelity and divorce are as inevitable as the seasons, and egregious acts of disloyalty are almost always rationalized. “You meet someone and you fall in love and that’s that.” Though Allen’s alter egos argue for moral order, he struggles to comprehend why the boundaries are necessary. This lack of meaning and moral chaos brings him to the brink of suicide in a number of his films.

In “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Allen, quite hilariously, tries Catholicism:

In “Manhattan,” Allen asks himself what makes life worth living? Answer: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the “Jupiter Symphony,” Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues,” Swedish movies, “Sentimental Education” by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, the apples and pears by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, and, yes, his high underaged girlfriend’s face.

“But if there is no God then life has no meaning,” Diane Keaton’s Sonja asks Woody Allen’s Boris in “Love and Death,” “Why go on living? Why not just kill yourself?”

“Well, let’s not get hysterical, I could be wrong,” Boris answers. “I’d hate to blow my brains out and then read in the papers they found something.”

Listen, it’s not Kierkegaard, but it’s a lot more interesting that most of what we’re supposed to pretend is cerebral fare these days.

Anyway, after making a string of subpar movies in the early 2000s — “Hollywood Ending,” “Anything Else,” and “Melinda and Melinda” among them — Allen directed the moody non-comedic thriller “Match Point” (which in many ways relitigates the ethical questions of “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”) It was followed by another unlikely movie, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Allen again faltered with “Whatever Works” (one of his worst films) and “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” before making “Midnight in Paris,” a critical hit and his biggest financial success. That was followed by “Blue Jasmine” and the underrated “Café Society.”

It is probably true that the workaholic Allen would have benefitted from making only 30 sterling movies rather than making 30 sterling movies among 50. And that’s not to say Allen is the creator of the greatest movies ever made, it’s to say that no one has made more quality films. And the fact that audiences aren’t interested in them, or that he’s been canceled over an uncorroborated accusation, doesn’t change that fact.


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