The last thing I wanted to do was write a piece about Woody Allen.
That might seem disingenuous, since here I am, writing a piece about Woody Allen. But after reading the open letter by Dylan Farrow, published February 1 on Nicholas Kristof’s blog in The New York Times, I would have liked to avoid the subject altogether.
In the piece, Farrow (who now goes by a different name) alleges that “when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me.”
Who wants to think that a beloved filmmaker, comedian and cultural icon could well be a child molester? Who wants to struggle with what that means for our appreciation of his work?
Unfortunately, we don’t really have a choice. And because I’m a critic who writes about Allen’s films, I can’t avoid writing about it, either.
The allegations against Allen have been around for decades, but they were always vague enough and unsubstantiated enough to ignore. Only recently have they been stirred up again, first by a Vanity Fair profile of Mia Farrow and her children, then by the decision to give Allen a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes and finally, most significantly, by Farrow’s letter.
Of course we don’t know for sure what happened, and likely never will. Allen was never prosecuted, and he claims innocence. But allegations by his ex-girlfriend more than 20 years ago are one thing. It’s another thing for the same charges to be leveled by the alleged victim, at length and in detail. We don’t have to know for sure in order to be faced with the grim possibility that Woody Allen is a child molester. Thanks to Farrow’s letter, it’s impossible to dodge the question.
As someone who writes about Allen’s movies, it’s hard not to feel implicated in all of this. When the news struck, I was at work on a piece about “Fading Gigolo,” a forthcoming film in which he plays a major role. Yet how can I write about Allen without “child molester” hanging over everything I say? Should I mention these accusations, just so I can’t be accused of avoiding them, even when they seem irrelevant to the work? Or should I just ignore Allen entirely, for lack of better options? Is that even an option?
This is particularly a problem in a time of Twitter and social media and an Internet conversation that careens like a thousand snowballs down all sides of the mountain simultaneously. To focus only on the art and ignore the scandal seems willfully obtuse, or worse. It makes writing about Allen as though nothing happened seem a lot like joining his side. But then how do you write about him at all?
It would be different if Woody Allen were dead, or had faded into obsolescence. Then we could say, “Well, he was probably a child molester, but he made some great movies.” Plenty of great works of art have been created by morally corrupt artists. But the problem with Woody Allen is that he’s still very much around, acting and directing and winning awards. “Blue Jasmine” is nominated for Oscars. “Bullets Over Broadway,” a theatrical adaptation of his 1994 movie, starts previews in March. A new movie is, as ever, in production. Roman Polanski, at least, is in exile for his crimes.
This conundrum was the explicit purpose of Farrow’s piece. At the beginning and end she asks readers what their favorite Woody Allen movie is, and to consider her story before answering that question. She calls out actors who have worked with Allen by name: “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett? Louis CK? Alec Baldwin? What if it had been you, Emma Stone? Or you, Scarlett Johansson? You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?” If Allen did molest her, it’s a question well worth asking.
It’s also a question that critics need to ask of themselves — if not right now, then certainly when the next Woody Allen movie hits theaters.
At its best, criticism places art in context and explains its significance — it doesn’t just provide a thumbs up or thumbs down to whatever comes down the pike. The critic should have their own voice, not be a voice for their subject, and their criticism itself should be a creative endeavor. A critic should be free to write about anything or anybody, regardless of what they may or may not have done.
In practice, however, writing about the arts is often just another aspect of the entertainment industry — a form of publicity for the companies that make the shows and movies and albums we consume. This arrangement is usually benign enough — we all toil under capitalism and participate in its structures — but sometimes it becomes something more sinister. When allegations of child abuse surface, how do you write anything about the perpetrator without providing support?
For those of us who have written about Allen or praised him or invested ourselves in his work, it’s hard not to feel tainted. And this isn’t just a problem for a writer — it’s a problem for everyone who ever has, or ever will, watch and love a Woody Allen movie. It’s a problem for Jews, who have made Woody Allen an icon of American Jewish culture. It’s a problem, as Farrow makes clear, for the entertainment industry that supports and honors him. Right now Woody Allen is a problem for us all.
And I don’t know what the answer to that problem is.