This is not a defense of Woody Allen.
I’ve observed enough discussions about the director’s alleged transgressions in the last two weeks to know that any argument beyond “He should be dragged behind a truck” must begin with that preface. But this isn’t really about Allen, or the question of whether or not he sexually abused his adopted daughter. It’s about the rest of us.
Dylan Farrow bookended her now-famous open letter in the New York Times dredging up accusations that Allen molested her as a child by asking, “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?” The implication was clear: By continuing to exalt Woody Allen as a filmmaker, we, as in moviegoers, are tacitly excusing his behavior. We are, in essence, aiding and abetting a pedophile because, by continuing to praise his work and paying to see it, we’ve given him the power to get away with the most horrendous of all crimes.
I’m not going to claim Dylan is wrong. I will ask, though: Is she right?
This is the second time in two months that cultural consumers have been forced to face the vile indiscretions of popular entertainers. In December, a Village Voice piece reminded the world that the R&B singer R. Kelly has been accused, many times over, of having sex with underage girls. In that interview, reporter Jim DeRogatis (who’s stayed on Kelly the past decade even as his very serious improprieties transformed into sketch-comedy fodder) addressed the question of a fan’s responsibility regarding the actions of an artist. “A lot of art, great art, is made by despicable people,” he acknowledged, adding that “Each and every one of us . . . has to come up with our own answer.”
As a fan of both Kelly’s music and Allen’s movies, I’ve leaned on the belief that art is consumed independently of the artist, and that my appreciation for Annie Hall and “Step in the Name of Love” is not an endorsement of the screwed-up personalities responsible for their creation. I realize, though, that for someone in my position, that doesn’t totally hold up. If it were true, then I would never bring up the artist in a review, nor consider the work through the prism of their life. But then I wouldn’t be doing my job. Art is never truly divorced from the artist, and critics are complicit in how it’s interpreted and discussed by the culture at large. I can’t pretend, then, that I am not a little bit responsible for how the world sees an artist.
Should I feel guilty for giving Midnight In Paris a positive review a few years ago? Have we all, by praising Blue Jasmine, whether in print, online or in private conversations, contributed to the “nausea” Dylan Farrow experiences at the very mention of Woody Allen’s name? I’m sure she would say yes. She wrote as much in her open letter.
As I said before, I wouldn’t argue against her feelings, in part because I’m still trying to reconcile a lot of this within myself. As an agnostic, I’m comfortable with “I don’t know” as an answer. One thing I do know, though, is that none of us can punish or exonerate Woody Allen for what he did or did not do 20-some years ago. The only thing we really have some control over is our relationship to the art. And for me — for us — that’s the only debate worth having.
i Need Media is a biweekly media column by Matthew Singer. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.