I love Woody Allen’s movies. His affection for old Hollywood and jazz music, his breadth of literary and cinematic reference points, his lack of fear as to whether a general audience will ‘get’ a joke or not, everything about his work resonates with me.
The problem is that I don’t much like Woody Allen as a person. Firstly, there are of course the infamous allegations about him and his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. To recap, Dylan has publicly and repeatedly accused her adopted father of molesting her as a child. The case was dropped after a seven month probe by a police-appointed medical team, who did not believe that Dylan was abused. Perhaps I shouldn’t weight in on such a touchy debate, and I’d like to stress that in the vast majority of cases, if a woman claims she’s been raped, she’s telling the truth and ought to be listened to, but something about the allegations has never sat right with me. First of all, from what I know about his wife Mia Farrow, it’s not that difficult to believe that she made up the allegations to spite Allen, and convinced Dylan from a young age that she’d been sexually assaulted. Allen’s son Moses Farrow also maintains that it would have been impossible in the house they were staying at for Allen to have done anything with Dylan unnoticed. Finally, child abusers tend not to just offend once, but are invariably repeat offenders. However, I believe that Dylan and his other son Ronan Farrow’s dislike of Allen speaks to something, and decisions he has made have torn their family apart, such as cheating on his wife with his adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
This relationship is for me the most alarming thing about Allen. Again, there is a lot of misinformation and inaccuracy surrounding their relationship; I still read that Soon-Yi Previn has a learning disability, when in fact she’s a psychology major who speaks more languages than you do. However, there’s no getting around the 35-year age gap, the fact that she’s his adopted daughter, and the unsettling way in which he speaks about her. In an interview with NPR, Allen claimed that there was a ‘paternal’ dynamic to their relationship, and that it worked because of their previous relationship as adopted father and daughter. In The Hollywood Reporter, his white saviour complex peeks through when he describes the pleasures of his relationship as ‘helping her out’, and saving her from her difficult upbringing in Korea.
I can’t not see Woody Allen as a creep, but should that affect my enjoyment of his movies? I have always been a firm believer in Roland Barthes’ idea of the ‘death of the author’, in which a piece of art must necessarily be divorced from the author and his or her intention. This is easy to do for the work of, say, Wagner, whose instrumental music does not necessarily reflect his furious anti-Semitism, or even another director such as Roman Polanski. However, the problem with Allen’s work is that so much of him is in his work. Literally of course, as he stars in many of his own movies, but also in that they all have a style and humour that is unmistakably Woody. Within the context of his personal life, it’s uncomfortable when watching Manhattan and seeing his character’s relationship with a then-17 year-old Muriel Hemingway. Crimes and Misdemeanours is about a character who literally gets away with murder, the only punishment being that he has to live with his past offences, again easily applied to what we know about Woody Allen.
As much as you may want it to be true, art and its artist can never truly be separate as the existence of the former is contingent on the latter. This is how art is different to science – if Einstein had never come up with the special theory of relativity, someone else inevitably would have, whilst if Woody Allen had never made Annie Hall, that movie would never have been made, ever. However, this doesn’t mean that art can’t be evaluated entirely on its own. In fact, if you had never heard of Woody Allen before and watched one of his films, then this is the only way you could evaluate his work. If Allen’s allegations had never come to light, then his films would still be no different, though certain external, ephemeral factors would change, such as perceiving it through the lens of what you already know about the artist. It’s what stays the same that comprises the artwork, and it’s this that will be judged decades from now when people will still be watching Allen’s films. If we couldn’t enjoy art because of flaws in the artist, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of art we could enjoy, so we owe it to art itself to try to appreciate quality work, regardless of who made it.