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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What to make of Woody Allen

I have seen 45 films directed by Woody Allen, plus 2 early ones that he wrote and acted in but did not direct -- his entire output of feature films. Yes, all of them. If you discount the notion that I'm crazy or obsessive (and I hope you do), you will conclude that I am a fan of Allen. There are many reasons to be his fan. There are also reasons not to be one.

It's not unusual for highly talented artists to have troubled or troubling personalities; Philip Seymour Hoffman died this week. Is the percentage of troubled/troubling artists any higher than the percentage of troubled/troubling personalities in the general population? Sometimes it seems so, but before jumping to that conclusion I'm aware that our judgment is clouded by websites like TMZ or gossip columnists like Louella Parsons that make their money by unveiling juicy tidbits about the lives of famous artists. Besides, I know many gifted artists who are perfectly sane.

Unable to dismiss Allen's behaviors as ying-and-yang of top talent, I have been pondering his situation ever since Manhattan, which creeped me out a bit at the time despite its excellence. Allen's relationship with Mia Farrow became mutually hateful a few years later. What followed was a sordid sequence of allegations, the most significant of which are that (1) Allen sexually abused the 7-year old Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Allen; (2) Allen developed prurient interest in teenage Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of Mia Farrow and a prior husband, despite the facts that Allen was 55 at the time and in an ongoing relationship with Farrow; and (3) Manhattan was based on Allen's infatuation with Stacey Nelkin, a teenage actress whom Allen had employed for his previous film, Annie Hall.

What do I make of this? Infatuation with Nelkin and pursuit of Previn while both were teenagers clearly indicates that Allen is troubled. The facts that Nelkin does not retroactively decry Allen's interest in her and that Allen and Previn have been married for 16 years now do not absolve Allen of having initiated immoral relationships, any more than the 8 years of apparently successful marriage between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau absolve her of committing a crime. The end does not justify the means; or to put it differently, we cannot have people over the age of 40 targeting teenagers for sex and romance -- whether it is criminal or not. Some taboo exists for good reason. On the most serious allegation, perhaps Allen did sexually abuse Dylan Farrow; his behavior with Nelkin and Previn makes him vulnerable in the court of public opinion, but so far he has not been convicted in criminal court of abusing the child. The retired prosecutor who declined to indict Allen observes that the statute of limitations has expired.

Let's move on to how to react to Allen's art, which is undeniably great. The question is general, however: how do I approach the art of any troubled/troubling artist? The short answer is, carefully. As long as the art doesn't seek to justify or to glorify the sins of the artist, the art should be evaluated on its own merits. If the art deserves acclaim, then acclaim the art. Using the first of several analogies to sports that I will offer, O. J. Simpson made some great runs on the football field. That's undeniable too.

But do I agree with Ronan Farrow that personal acclaim of Allen is wrong? Pete Rose and Barry Bonds should never be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but that's an easy position to take because their transgressions of gambling and drug abuse directly applied to baseball itself. Suppose that Simpson were just now becoming eligible to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Should he be elected? No, even though he was without doubt a great football player. Are the allegations against Allen sufficient to bar him from acclaim in the same way that acclaim of Simpson should be barred? Clearly we don't want to acclaim murderers, but on the other hand a mere traffic ticket for running a red light is no bar to acclaim. Somewhere between those bookends, the decision flips from granting acclaim to withholding it.

The Farrows and their supporters believe that Allen's behaviors crossed the line, and therefore they seek to punish him and to discourage future behavior like his by withholding acclaim even if the behavior is unrelated to the art. (Well, overlook the Nelkin matter.) Call them Camp A. On the other side of the argument, there are those who believe that either the allegations are untrue or the allegations are not so serious even if true. Call them Camp B. There are a few people who would grant Allen forgiveness without his confession; call them Camp C. There are a few people who hold that off-the-field behavior of the prospective honoree is irrelevant; call them Camp D. And lastly there are a few people who say that personal acclaim should always be posthumous so that a full examination of the prospective honoree can be undertaken slowly; such a position might have avoided the awkward outcome that O.J. Simpson was indeed elected to the Hall of Fame in 1985 before Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were murdered. Call them Camp E.

It takes a sharp knife to separate these positions. I disagree with Camp E because it penalizes the vast majority of prospective honorees in a futile endeavor never to err. I disagree with Camp D; in my hypothetical, they would elect Simpson to the Hall of Fame despite preexisting criminality. Note that the Hockey Hall of Fame explicitly requires that candidates be "of integrity". I like that. I disagree with Camp C because it's the secular equivalent of "cheap grace". If Allen wants forgiveness, let him ask for it; he has not.

This gets us down to Camps A and B. I can't say that the allegation of his sexually molesting a child is probably untrue. Furthermore, if true the allegation is serious -- a high-end felony in North Carolina, for example. Thus I'm not in Camp B. Does this process of elimination put me in Camp A? Sort of. The enraged Farrows appear to be saying that any acclaim of Allen is forever unthinkable, but I won't go that far. There are occasions when no action is the best course of action. I don't see why the Hollywood Foreign Press Association had to bestow a lifetime achievement Golden Globe on Allen at this moment in time. I would have voted to postpone consideration indefinitely per Robert's Rules. Is it unfair to Allen or any prospective honoree for acclaim to be withheld because of allegations unproved in court? Maybe, but no one has a right to receive acclaim, which is discretionary.

Would I vote for Blue Jasmine in the Academy Awards? Absolutely.