Happy holidays! I’ve spent some time away from the blog (and from writing in general) as I’ve spent the holidays with family, friends, and so on. And yeah maybe I got lazy.
But I want to see if I can hash some thoughts out on Woody Allen, who is the topic of today’s big social-media firestorm. Last night at the Golden Globes, he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award—a decision that, as far as I can tell, no one has contested on artistic grounds. But just before that sequence of the show began, Mia Farrow tweeted:
In case the point wasn’t quite clear, later on that evening, Ronan Farrow, Mia’s son with Woody (or maybe Frank Sinatra?) wrote the following:
At which point Twitter blew up.
This is not one of those periodic Twitter feeding frenzies among social-justice activists who enjoy preaching to the converted. This is a real, honest-to-god moment of outrage toward a man who destroyed his family. And the allegations of abusing a young girl aren’t even Allen’s most well known misdeed. That, of course, would be his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, which went unmentioned amid all this. Whether or not he’s legally committed any crimes, it’s hard to deny that he’s a scummy person.
So what’s the problem here? It’s that I, and many, many other people, love Woody Allen. I’ve seen at least half of his movies. I would rank three of them (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors) among my favorite films ever. As far as I’m concerned, the first two in particular are pretty unassailable in terms of their place in film history. (And it’s hard to think of a better litmus test for whether you should date somebody than their opinion of Annie Hall.) Even allowing that Allen has made a lot of bad movies, I prefer his bad movies to a good movie by most other directors.
What makes this even more complicated is that people’s love for Woody Allen is usually not a matter of detached, aesthetic contemplation. His best movies are so beloved because they speak to people in ways that few other films can. We begin, of course, with the presence of a cohesive worldview that’s pretty rare in American cinema. Crucial elements of the Woody Allen universe are things like fate, luck, self-deception, wicked irony, cruelty to others, and nearly unbearable bittersweetness. And his films are well-shot, but they mostly hinge around acting and dialogue, not cinematography. Admittedly I’m painting with a broad brush here, but those are not the kinds of themes and motifs that I associate with mainstream American cinema. So it’s easy to see why people who are receptive to this worldview react so warmly to Allen’s films. They are among the few commercially successful films to capture the way we see and experience the world.
So the question the Golden Globes has to decide is, What’s more important: the art or the artist? There are a number of reasons why I think they made the right choice, and why it’s generally a bad idea to make artistic praise contingent on good behavior. Elia Kazan (who ruined dozens of lives by giving names to McCarthy’s committee) and Frank Sinatra (who collaborated proactively with the mafia) also received Lifetime Achievement Awards in their later years. Michael Jackson is still a beloved icon. Mel Gibson has been saying Mel Gibson-y things about Jews for awhile, and his career is still intact. Which of these crimes you find most egregious probably has a lot to do with which one you’ve had the closest brush with in your own life. There are only two honest ways to solve this problem: Boycott the work of all terrible people, or enjoy art without regard for whether someone is a good person or not. Almost everybody ends up choosing the second option, because there are too many skeletons in too many closets to really live by the first. Awards shows, generally speaking, should follow the same rule.
Where this particular award for Woody Allen gets hairy is that a large part of the presentation involved Diane Keaton talking about Allen’s love and respect for women. It began as a look at the female characters in his films, but quickly morphed into a testament to Allen’s loyalty as a friend. This is where things got ugly. Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress posted about this earlier today and I think she pretty much nailed it: The speech came off as a transparent, desperate attempt to defend Allen’s character. The Globes would have been on high ground if they’d shown some clips, had Keaton talk about his immense contribution to film and comedy, and called it a day. Having anyone, even someone as awesome as Diane Keaton, talk about how Woody Allen is a good person is a classic case of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Two things I wonder/acknowledge going forward: I think you could make a strong case (and Rosenberg alludes to this in her piece) that the art vs artist dichotomy doesn’t work in Allen’s case. Yes, it’s generally wise to reward artistic merit and leave character judgments out of things. But with Allen, a large part of his appeal/originality/obnoxiousness/whatever you want is the way he projects his own persona onto the screen. When Woody Allen the person is so heavily folded into Woody Allen the oeuvre, do you lose the right to say, “Focus on the art, not the artist”?
And second, I assume there is a fair amount of white straight dude privilege bound up in saying, “Forget about all that personal shit and just enjoy the films.” Allen has the benefit of lots of money and a community that is mostly run by white men, and “Judge the art, not the artist” is a sentiment that probably derives from that fact. So I acknowledge that, even as I’ll be the first to admit that my girlfriend and I spent a good half hour watching clips from Annie Hall on YouTube last night.