Why My Copy of ANNIE HALL is Not Yet in the Dumpster

Titles being my least favorite part of writing, I’ll make the title of this piece misleading right away. The following are not the reasons why Dylan Farrow’s renewal of accusations that Woody Allen molested her in 1993, when she was seven, have not yet caused me to toss out my copy of one of the greatest movies ever made.

1. Because That Bitch is Just Crazy/Lying/After His Money. (How the hell would I know that? More importantly, given how universally that line of argument is used to dismiss any woman to whom anything bad happens, ever, why wouldn’t I view these arguments with suspicion? Moreover, if common decency flinches from attributing horrible deeds to Woody Allen, a stranger, why would it be any more comfortable attributing such motives to Dylan Farrow?)

2. Because Though He May Have Done Horrible Things, We As Intellectuals Must Separate the Art From the Artist. (How do you do that, exactly? Art is, among other things, a kind of distanced communication, and communication always occurs in a context. In this case, that context may well be that Woody Allen is, to use his own terms, horrible as well as miserable. And for me, at least, that context has been inescapable, of late.)

3. Because I Just Can’t Believe That the Guy Who Came Up With [Scene Name Here] Could Possibly… (See art history, passim.)

Nothing I’m saying here is intended to cast aspersions on Dylan Farrow. Whether her open letter to the New York Times describes things that happened to her or things that she was coached to think happened to her (by a person betrayed beyond human capacity to bear), it takes guts to step forward as she has. And she will face reprisals, whether they come from Woody Allen or not. Anyone whose name gets mentioned on CNN once, in whatever context, is gonna get, at the least, creepy mail for the rest of her life.

For what it’s worth, it’s also true that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pay money for a Woody Allen movie again. But that ship sailed a long time ago: ca. 1989, in fact, when Allen allowed Martin Landau’s Crimes and Misdemeanors character to get away with murder, because life means only what we say it means. Woody Allen gave up any pretense of moral seriousness with that film, and when you give up moral seriousness, even if you’re a comedian—especially if you’re a comedian—you give up on making art that matters. Before Crimes and Misdemeanors his characters’ worrying at Big Problems and Existential Issues felt at least intermittently genuine; after that, it was a tic, or, worse, an assertion of cultural capital: you should care about these spoiled, vain, selfish people because they have been furnished with expensive educations and the ability to quote Kierkegaard more or less accurately. They are like us. In retrospect you could see the rot setting in as early as Manhattan, a movie that insists you sympathize with Isaac because … why, exactly? He dated a 17-year-old? Because he’s a writer, and not a very good one at that? Because True Love? It’s not clear what makes him less awful than anyone else in the movie, which is why Manhattan didn’t hold up for me on adult rewatching.

But Annie Hall… well, let’s say I decide I have a right to a definite yes-or-no opinion on the question “Is Woody Allen a child molester?” (I will argue below for why I don’t think I do and, in particular, why I resist a hardening left-wing consensus that says that bystanders must always believe accusers by default.) Annie Hall is the first work of art in any medium that told a nonlinear story to me in a way that made sense. It is the first movie that I ever watched, rewound, and immediately watched again. It conditioned my ability to read modern literature and art and probably helped to make me a writer. The day I met my wife-to-be, she mentioned it in conversation, unprompted, and this was one of several remarks she made that factored into my feeling like we had enough in common that I couldn’t go back to my room that night without kissing her, that she and I had achieved a level of rapport that was unprecedented for me and that for me not to kiss her that very night would be a kind of impiety, an unforgivable falseness to something good. And that kiss, in turn, was what made our eventual getting-together pretty much inevitable (much later, she referred to it as “the most romantic moment of my life”). I’m not saying that Annie Hall is too good of a movie to give up on over a little thing like child-molesting. I’m saying that I don’t know what it even means to conceive of myself without that movie somewhere in the picture. No Annie Hall, no me. It’s like trying to edit out a town you once lived in or a family member.

To say even this much is to open yourself up to the accusation that you’re sticking up for a culture that allows men to get away with these sorts of crimes. That suspicion is bolstered by the argument, which I’ve encountered in several venues but that I’ve seen best expressed here, that that says we should believe victims of rape, molestation, and sexual harassment by default. The argument usually concedes that court cases are a separate thing (there, you should use evidence and logic), but as far as mere social life is concerned, if someone says that Woody Allen molested her, she should be believed by default, until there’s certain proof against her or she recants. And he should be treated as though he did it. Then a second argument, which emerged in response to the revelation of Gunter Grass’s teenage Naziism and has since been levied at writer/john William Vollmann, tells us what we’re to do with artists whom we know (because default!) have done monstrous things: Never read, acknowledge, mention, or enjoy them again.

My first response to this is as the son-in-law of a man many of whose neighbors are sure that he killed his mother, and who was found guilty of same in a court of law, and who didn’t do it. That response is unprintable.

My second, less visceral response is to point out that nobody actually lives up to this code. For example, if you’re thinking judgmental thoughts about me for still acknowledging my personal debts to Annie Hall … well, I’ll assume you trashed all the R. Kelly sound files on your computer a long time ago. But did you pay money to see American Hustle—probably the best film of 2013, and definitely the only one made by a man whose transgender niece accused him of uninvited groping? Do you like Johnny Cash, who burned down a forest, or Elvis Costello, who yelled the n-word in a crowded bar? (Is there a Statute of Limitations on social shaming?) Dave Chappelle has rehabilitated Rick James for frat boys, but not, I suspect, for the woman James tortured. On my Twitter timeline, some of the same people who are so proud of their compassionate response to Dylan Farrow were the ones reacting angrily, mere days or weeks ago, to any mention of Pete Seeger’s Stalinism or Amiri Baraka’s anti-Semitism. And of course Woody Allen’s staunch defenders have made much of Mia Farrow’s continued protestations of friendship for Roman Polanski.

And that’s just considering the living and the recently dead. If we assume no statute of limitations, here’s who else can’t judge me: people who still listen to Michael Jackson on their car radios (I’m not sure he actually molested those kids either, but we’re talking about a culture of always believing victims); academics who continue to revere Louis Althusser, who definitely did strangle his wife; anyone who loves ’80s “Doctor Who” (John Nathan-Turner was recently accused of using his status as showrunner to lure underage teenagers backstage, where he’d try to have his way with them).

Some of the people mentioned above are probably innocent. Some definitely aren’t. (Elvis Costello was rightly and publicly ashamed of his juvenile tirade thirty-three years ago, and that capacity for shame is one reason that he’s so good at writing richly self-scrutinizing material. Again, it’s hard to fully separate art from artist.) Facts and logic may yet settle some particular cases. But facts, logic ,and particular cases are exactly what we’re being told to ignore when someone says “Believe Group X by default.” A culture of default belief in victims is actually a culture of default belief of accusers. Now, if our only options were that, or the culture we have now—the culture of That Bitch Is Just After His Money—I would, with fear and trembling, opt for the former. It seems defensible to risk a blackmailer’s paradise to get rid of a rapist’s paradise. But these aren’t our only options. In the absence of knowledge, we can always go with agnosticism: with “I don’t know, and I’ll probably never know.” And I’m more interested in defending that than I am in defending Woody Allen. Hesitation and indecision are important weapons against false certainty, and many of the worst things we do are done from that.

Except for this: Whatever else he did, Woody Allen, in making Annie Hall, helped me learn how hesitation and indecision can result in art.

3 responses to “Why My Copy of ANNIE HALL is Not Yet in the Dumpster

  1. One caveat I’d interject into this is that I think it makes a lot more sense to say, “I don’t know, and I’ll probably never know” when we’re talking about the intricacies of the relationships of strangers. Which is to say, in the absence of any personal knowledge of any of the players, and in the absence of my actions having any real impact on the lives of any of the players, I am more comfortable saying, “I don’t know, and I’ll probably never know, so I have to take Mr. Allen’s works on their own merits,” or something to that effect.

    I think this probably exactly what you meant in your piece, but I feel like it’s worth highlighting because if this kind of drama was going down in, say, my own family, or among colleagues I knew personally, I’m not entirely sure it would actually work to take that kind of tack. I think it’d also be inappropriate as someone running a convention (to jump off from the Philip Sandifer piece) to respond to repeated reports of sexual harassment with “Who really knows what happened?” *weighty shrug*

    But again, those are situations where one’s opinion and one’s actions actually have an impact on the outcome of the situation. Whereas if I throw my VHS of “Mighty Aphrodite” in the trash can next week, all it might give me is a sense of superiority. It doesn’t actually help anyone.

    • You’re totally right, Kirsten, and it would also have been fairer of me to acknowledge that that’s the sort of context Sandifer seemed mostly to be talking about in his post (though, unless I misremember, he starts out by talking about semi-famous strangers). To make the political subtext more obvious: No, I am not criticizing women who elect to avoid associating with a guy whom a woman in their circle of friends has said groped her.

  2. Personally I’m more sympathetic to number 2 on your list (separating the art from the artist), and wonder if you might have dismissed this position a little bit too quickly.
    I also believe that these are serious charges against Woody Allen, and more appropriate to the legal system than the court of public opinion. Not that the legal system doesn’t have its faults, and I know that the accusers were already frustrated by the legal system, et cetera. But I think it’s just bizarre to ask the public to try this case, as if we have any insight into what happened or didn’t happen in Woody Allen’s family. The attempt to shame any celebrity who ever worked with Woody Allen also strikes me as bizarre for the same reasons.

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