Dissecting the artist 

Do we still like Annie Hall, and other questions about Woody Allen

What if you knew for a fact that Woody Allen sexually abused Dylan Farrow when she was 7 years old? Before something awful happens to both of us, let me say that this allegation is by no means confirmed. Allen denies it. In 1993, during his custody battle with Mia Farrow, the Yale-New Haven Hospital Child Sexual Abuse Clinic determined that Dylan had not been abused. But she has stuck by her claim for the last two decades, most recently in an open letter to The New York Times.

"What's your favorite Woody Allen movie?" the letter begins, before detailing the afternoon when Allen allegedly led Dylan to the attic and assaulted her. Again, we have no way of knowing whether this story is true. A court and prosecutor reviewed the case and did not file charges. But if they had—if you believed everything Dylan Farrow says about her father and what he did to her—would you still like Annie Hall?

Obviously you shouldn't. No one would argue that the acting in Vicky Cristina Barcelona makes up for one molestation. Even Allen's most ardent fans acknowledge that if he really were a sex criminal, we should stop liking him immediately. Consider the case of Robert Weide.

The subject of this year's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival retrospective, Weide is best known as executive producer and principle director of the first five seasons of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Recently, though, he is known for producing Woody Allen: A Documentary on PBS and mounting a vigorous defense of the director in The Daily Beast.

Weide's position—which I'm sure he will be glad to answer dozens of questions about during his Missoula Q&A—is that Dylan Farrow's memory has been warped by pressure from her mother, Mia. Much of the Daily Beast piece implies that Mia is spiteful, erratic and more than usually promiscuous, and it comes off a little sleazy.

Weide even embraces the possibility that Ronan Farrow is not Allen's son, but there is one argument he will not touch: He never suggests that Allen's achievements as an artist make up for his allegedly molesting a 7-year-old girl. You'd have to be crazy to believe that—or at least you'd have to be crazy to say it out loud.

For the purposes of this discussion, let us say that we have the power to stop watching Annie Hall even though we really like the street scenes, and that we theoretically believe Woody Allen abused Dylan Farrow. The conjunction of these hypotheticals leaves us with exactly two options:

1) Forswear Woody Allen movies forever, lest we get misty near the end of Manhattan and say to ourselves, "This child molester's perspective on romance really speaks to me."

2) Declare that works of art are completely separate from the artists who make them.

Option No. 2 is not so easy as it first appears. It's particularly problematic when applied to Allen, whose presence is an integral part of his early, best work. When Ned Flanders on "The Simpsons" says, "You know, I like his films except for that nervous fellow who's always in them," it's funny because the movies are inseparable from the man. People don't like Bananas and Midnight in Paris and Crimes and Misdemeanors; they like Woody Allen pictures.

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The problem is more pronounced in other media. At least a Woody Allen movie contains other actors to distract us from the stammering, possibly child-assaulting homunculus in every scene. Music and books force us into relationships with their creators that are even more intimate. When you read At the Hawk's Well, you are alone with William Butler Yeats, who proposed to the same woman three times and then tried to marry her daughter. And no man who cares for his reputation would be seen publicly jamming out to Chris Brown.

Brown reveals a potential hypocrisy among those of us who would cleave to option No. 1. We all stopped listening to his music after he beat up Rihanna. Making that decision was not only noble but easy because Chris Brown sucks.

Compare to the director Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to statutory rape in 1977 and then fled to Europe to escape sentencing. Very few people suggest that we should stop watching Chinatown because Polanski had sex with an underage girl. We have agreed to ignore Polanski's sex crime, partly because it happened a long time ago but mostly because his movies are so good.

It seems our approach to the art of potentially awful people is utilitarian rather than deontological. Chris Brown is a pretty mediocre pop musician—let's say a six on a scale from one to Michael Jackson. What he did to Rihanna was pretty badlet's say an eight, also on a scale from one to Michael Jackson. The eight quality of his awfulness exceeds the six quality of his art, so screw him. Polanksi, who did something comparable but produced much better art, squeaks by.

Is that a just way to respond to good art or bad things? Absolutely not—we don't let criminals out of jail based on an annual painting contest. But it does reflect how we consume art and artists now.

We may pretend to an austere separation between the work and the maker, or to unstinting moral scruples, but contemporary culture makes art and artists the same thing. It is true of actors like Rob Lowe and musicians like James Brown, but it is also true of the auteurs whose work is not so immediately identifiable with their persons.

Everybody wants to be Ernest Hemingway, but not many want to write For Whom the Bell Tolls. A lot of us consume art through the fantasy of artistry, and that entails seeing the hard work of writing a novel or making a film as an extension of the basically fun and easy project of being a genius author or director.

Last weekend, Woody Allen wrote a denial of Dylan Farrow's claims in The New York Times, in which he implies that Mia Farrow is a crazy shrew and expresses unseemly enthusiasm for the possibility that Ronan Farrow is not his son. It's a sometimes sad, often undignified defense that forces us to consider how petty a great writer and director can be.

That is precisely what we do not want to do. The artist makes the art, but then the art goes on to render the artist in our minds. I want my Woody Allen to be Alvy Singer, the man who fell in love with Annie Hall. I want him to be funny and sometimes foolish but never selfish or depraved. I want to believe that if I wrote something as good as Annie Hall, my worst qualities would evaporate, too.

Robert Weide's Woody Allen: A Documentary screens at the Crystal Mon., Feb. 17, at noon as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Visit bigskyfilmfest.org for more info.

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