Eric has some compelling thoughts, over at SOTSOGM, about the troubling failure of the mind as a recording device, and how that evidentiary problem might relate to the accusations that Woody Allen, in addition to being a creepy, creepy guy who married his girlfriend’s daughter, might also have actually molested one of Mia Farrow’s other kids. I give my thoughts on that, and on the right of the public to condemn even when the evidence is not sufficient to convict, in comments on Eric’s post.
But in lieu of re-hashing that here, I thought I’d collect evidence about another charge instead: the charge that Allen is a mediocre and morally bankrupt filmmaker, and was known as one before Soon-Yi and before Dylan’s accusations. Really, this is just an opportunity for me to collect some really terrific writing by some great critics. But if you read these criticisms carefully, there’s a recurring theme: Allen’s moral worldview is one informed almost entirely by a deep love of power and the powerful, and contempt for the powerless.
(And it’s not as simple as “Where are the black people in Allen’s New York? Oh — they’re maids and prostitutes!” Larry David’s work also takes place in a highly whitened universe — though less so over time — and also features black prostitutes — black prostitutes who might even be described as stereotyped characters. But David also recognizes that, as a rich powerful white man in America, he should be the butt of the joke. His fictional surrogates are unloveable and he asks no quarter for them. Whereas Allen, while willing to put on the schlemiel mask and pose as an outsider, always seems to be peeking out from behind it to make sure you still find him admirable and lovable and deserving of his place among the wealthy and worthy.)
Separate the art from the artist if you think that wise. But the worldview expressed in so many of his movies — a complete contempt for the powerless in society, a juvenile striving to be accepted in the class of the powerful — is not, I think, entirely irrelevant to the worldview of someone who takes sexual advantage of the weak.
Anyway, here’s Joan Didion:
In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school. The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are . . . presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, “class brains,” acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life . . . .
These faux adults of Woody Allen’s have dinner at Elaine’s, and argue art versus ethics. They share sodas, and wonder “what love is.” They have “interesting” occupations, none of which intrudes in any serious way on their dating. Many characters in these pictures “write,” usually on tape recorders . . . .
In Annie Hall, Diane Keaton sings from time to time, at a place like Reno Sweeney’s. In Interiors she seems to be some kind of celebrity poet. In Manhattan she is a magazine writer, and we actually see her typing once, on a novelization, and talking on the telephone to “Harvey,” who, given the counterfeit “insider” shine to the dialogue, we are meant to understand is Harvey Shapiro, the editor of The New York Times Book Review . . . . “Have you thought any more about having kids?” a wife asks her husband in Manhattan. “I’ve got to get the O’Neill book finished,” the husband answers. “I could talk about my book all night,” one character says. “Viking loved my book,” another says . . . .
Most of us remember very well these secret signals and sighs of adolescence, remember the dramatic apprehension of our own mortality and other “more terrifying unsolvable problems about the universe,” but eventually we realize that we are not the first to notice that people die. “Even with all the distractions of my work and my life,” Woody Allen was quoted as saying in a cover story (the cover line was “Woody Allen Comes of Age”) in Time, “I spend a lot of time face to face with my own mortality.” This is actually the first time I have ever heard anyone speak of his own life as a “distraction.”
Here’s Jonathan Rosenbaum:
Crimes and Misdemeanors offers another case in point. A film that professes to address the rampant amorality and self-interest of the 1980s gives us an ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) who arranges to murder his mistress and gets away with it and a socially concerned documentary filmmaker (Allen) who isn’t rewarded for his good intentions. But both characters seem equally motivated by self-interest, and we are asked to care much more about Allen’s character as a fall guy than about the murdered mistress (Anjelica Huston). Landau’s masochism about his initial feelings of guilt are matched by Allen’s masochism about being a loser. There is a lack of ironic distance on this aspect of both characters, and if the film is genuinely attacking self-interest, it is seriously handicapped by being unable to see beyond it . . . .
One of the most disturbing facts about contemporary American life is its rejection of the concept of victims; the current synonym for “victim” is “loser.” When Allen’s character in Crimes and Misdemeanors is listening to his sister describe her humiliation at the hands of a sadist after answering a classified ad, Allen’s horrified responses are telegraphed to the audience as invitations to cruel and derisive laughter, not pity. This is a curious ploy in a film that professes to be protesting the erosion of moral and ethical values, but one that is consistent with Allen’s usual methods, because it’s much easier to laugh at a loser than at a victim.
And finally, from the irresistible Joe Queenan:
Don’t get me wrong. I find Allen’s films enormously appealing, and one of the reasons Allen’s fans like him so much is that in his own films he gets to fire off all the snappy comebacks we wish we could uncork in real life, but never can because we don’t have him as our scriptwriter–and because the people we wish to insult have tattoos. Allen, like Groucho before him, gets to mercilessly tee off on his victims, and they just have to sit there and take it. Of course, Allen’s victims do not have tattoos. Like Tom Wolfe, the only other great American satirist of the past quarter-century, Allen is one of the most accomplished hypocrites of our time, earning his living by pillorying the social milieu in which he is clearly most comfortable, eviscerating people who are obviously his dinner companions.
The logical result of this two-facedness is the absurd finale in Alice, where the wealthy Mia Farrow abandons her Upper East Side penthouse life to visit Mother Teresa, then chooses to raise her kids in the slums. One anxiously awaits the moment when Moishe’s Movers pull up in front of the Allen-Farrow Central Park East digs to effect their decampment to the more spiritually uplifting environs of the Lower East Side. One anxiously awaits that. One also anxiously awaits the moment when Woody and his lefty uptown buddies abandon their Park Avenue apartments, grab some baseball bats and go over to Jersey to break up a Neo-Nazi rally instead of writing scathing satirical Op-Ed pieces in The New York Times. One very anxiously waits that.
One of the greatest shocks caused by the interminable Interiors was the public’s realization that Woody Allen, the Ingmar Bergman Imitator, could show such compassion for the very same people that Woody Allen, the Satirist, had torn to shreds in his earlier films. How could we have known while watching Sleeper that when Diane Keaton played an airhead poetess so dumb she had to be told that butterflies do not turn into caterpillars, she was really only rehearsing her role as a pretentious poetess in Interiors? And how could we have known when Allen was heaping abuse on self-centered artists in his early films that in Interiors he would introduce us to the dominant theme in most of his subsequent work: that the greatest torment a human being can suffer is not death or blinding or the loss of a child or leprosy or even eviction from one’s co-op, but not being able to express oneself artistically.