The Woody Allen Conundrum

Separating the art from the artist in a post-Weinstein world

by Izzy Harbinson

'...can we separate the art from the artist, and perhaps more importantly, should we?'

I first came across the films of Woody Allen at the height of the #TIMESUP movement in Hollywood, and as the #MeToo movement was spreading worldwide. Actors showed their solidarity by wearing black to the major award shows and acceptance speeches were filled with powerful moments and commitments to change. Harvey Weinstein was exposed as a serial sexual abuser by multiple women and (eventually) arrested for his crimes, whilst the ‘Weinstein effect’ led to the renouncement of many other powerful perpetrators. One of these was Woody Allen, who is alleged to have molested his daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992 when she was 7 years old. Allen has never been charged or tried for this crime and it is still a contentious topic which divides commentators.

One thing we can almost say for sure is that we will never know the truth. Allen is highly unlikely to have his day in court so your opinion on the validity of the accusations will unfortunately have to boil down to which side you believe. I am not going to attempt to dissect the complex nature of these accusations but a good place to start if you want to know more would be Dylan Farrow’s open letter and Moses Farrow’s blog post, as they detail contradicting accounts of what happened during their respective childhoods. This article was prompted by Hadley Freeman’s interview with Allen which is also well worth a read. What I am going to do instead is consider if it is possible to continue to consume art created by Allen considering this context. I want to see if I can pull apart this complicated web of issues and answer the question: can we separate the art from the artist, and perhaps more importantly, should we?

'...we all found ourselves facing constant dilemmas about how to engage with his work...'

Whilst all this was going on, I was in my second year at the University of Sheffield and had opted to take a module entitled ‘Love and Death in the Films of Woody Allen’, a module which was arguably the main reason I decided to make film the focus of the rest of my English Literature degree. I unashamedly loved this module; I enjoyed aspects of many of Allen’s films, and Annie Hall was a revelation for me (as it has been for many others).

More than this though, I appreciated the discussions that were prompted by the films as we considered everything from the Jewish experience in America, to philosophy, to Diane Keaton’s awesome wardrobe. Towards the end of the module, I wrote an essay on intellectualism in Allen’s films, specifically focusing on the complex misogyny which surrounds the way intellectualism (or the lack thereof) in the female characters is treated. It was by no means a celebration of his work and I’m pretty sure it ended with me concluding he was a narcissistic, sexist man with a superiority complex which was impossible to ignore in his filmmaking. Yet, later that year an opinion piece was published in Forge Press (the university’s student newspaper) accusing the university of being ‘passive and [un]apologetic’ for continuing to run a module on Allen despite his ‘questionable past’. My lecturer was given a chance to respond: he explained that the module didn’t ‘airbrush out deeply problematic questions of gender, sexuality and race in Allen’s films’ and would be reviewed in the normal way at the end of the academic year. This is a point I must emphasise: I don’t remember a single seminar in which Allen was straightforwardly celebrated and I know that far more time was spent tearing him apart than praising him. From what I can recall, the majority of the students (I wouldn’t want to speak for everyone) had appreciated a chance to study something in our degree that was extremely culturally relevant - it was a rare moment for us literature students in which the essays we were writing felt like they could potentially be breaking new ground. Nonetheless we all found ourselves facing constant dilemmas about how to engage with his work, during the module and beyond. Sure enough, when the next academic year rolled around, the Allen module had been replaced and, at Sheffield at least, the conversation around studying Allen’s work was ended.

The conversation has not, however, ended however in the wider world. Despite the ostracisation of Allen and his ability to make films being curtailed in many ways (he lost a four movie deal with Amazon and his latest film A Rainy Day in New York does not have an American distributor), he has nonetheless recently released his memoir Apropos of Nothing (despite it being dropped by the publisher Hachette after staff at their New York offices staged a walkout in protest) and still continues to be interviewed by mainstream journalism. Yes, A Rainy Day doesn't seem likely to be his last film, but he will, if American distributors continue to refuse to support his work, probably never release another movie in the US (judging by the reviews of A Rainy Day this may be no bad thing). These obstacles to Allen go some way towards lessening the dilemma around whether to watch his future films and personally I have no plans to support his future creations regardless. I don’t think I will be missing out on much and I would rather lend my support and money to directors I like and whose voices I believe need amplifying in the film industry, such as female directors and directors of colour (take a look at this wonderful initiative by Netflix for example who have complied a ‘Black Lives Matter’ collection in the wake of the recent protests). If I refuse to support his future work in any capacity then I have solved at least one aspect of my personal dilemma surrounding Allen. However, for me and anyone else in the same boat, there then comes the gargantuan task of deciding what to do with his back catalog.

'We can see Allen’s influence in many contemporary directors such as Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig...'

It is a catalog of films which, whether we like it or not, have had a big impact on filmmaking, and whether I like it or not, include some films which had a big impact on me. From the witty scripts to the unique stylistic choices in the editing, there is a reason films such as Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Manhattan are still being revisited today. We can see Allen’s influence in many contemporary directors such as Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig whose collaboration on Frances Ha is filled with nods to Allen and his filmmaking style. For me, Allen’s films helped me discover what it was I actually liked in films, which I had perhaps struggled to pinpoint before - namely good writing and a focus on human relationships over action and violence. I also surprisingly liked some aspects of the depiction of the female characters overall; though rampant sexism seemed to be a hallmark of a lot of Allen’s work, I nonetheless felt the women in these stories were frequently portrayed with more nuance than many of Allen’s contemporaries.

Yet, the fundamental problem I have with the back catalog is that Allen presents two unique caveats to the usual kinds of arguments presented in debates about separating the art from the artist. Firstly, his work is so entirely ‘him’: many of his films were written, directed by and star Allen himself as a character who is rarely very dissimilar to the real man - how does one remove the artist in a situation like that? Secondly, because of this, many of Allen’s own problematic viewpoints then permeate these films. Just take the classic example of Manhattan. The ‘Allen’ character, Isaac, at the age of 42 dates, and (perhaps even more key to remember when considering Allen’s moral code) ultimately ends up with a 17 year old played by Mariel Hemmingway. And - get this - she was 16 at the time of filming! I will give you a second to let that age gap sink in.

When I watch Manhattan (I say ‘watch’ in the present tense but I will be happy if I never see another second of that film) I just cannot separate the accusations against Allen from my viewing experience. His creepiness seems to seep out of the pores of this movie fogging up every scene with Hemmingway’s character Tracy, something which no amount of good writing or interesting interior design can clear away. Most of the arguments I have seen for separating the art from the artist do not have to contend so readily with this particular issue; it’s not as though when listening to Billie Jean you have to face the allegations against Michael Jackson quite so head on. Perhaps the Allen of real life and the Allen that exists in his movies are both too far beyond redemption, and too impossible to divide.

'Ignoring Allen’s back catalogue asserts the supremacy of the director and steamrollers over the incredible work of countless other individuals which enabled these films to be made.'

Against this wave of reasons to blot Allen and his work from my life entirely, there is one final line of defence, and that is to consider what we would lose if we refuse to watch or acknowledge Allen’s back catalogue of films. Yes, on the one hand we lose the sexism, racism and downright creepiness that pervades a lot of Allen’s work, but we also stand to lose a whole lot more than that. One way my lecturer put it to our seminar class was by asking us to consider the role of others in Allen’s films - the acting of Keaton for example, or the cinematography of Gordon Willis. Ignoring Allen’s back catalogue asserts the supremacy of the director and steamrollers over the incredible work of countless other individuals which enabled these films to be made. As someone who is passionately against this ‘supremacy’, one which frequently serves to erase the hard work of those from marginalised groups who struggle to break into the film industry (essentially anyone that isn’t a straight, white, cis man), I can’t allow myself to view these films as solely belonging to Allen. If you choose to view Allen as the sole genius behind these films then it is hard to separate the art from the artist, as you pin all of the ‘genius’ onto Allen’s mind alone. If you see them for what they are, a collaborative project with admittedly a large influence from this one problematic man, perhaps it becomes easier to remove the artist’s commanding influence over the work.

So what is the answer to this conundrum? Have I managed to untangle this confusing issue and make a firm decision about how to deal with Allen’s work in the future? The answer is, frustratingly, no. A concrete solution seems to slip through my fingers and it is hard to grasp onto a consistent line of reasoning. Yet, perhaps the fact that I am considering this conundrum at such a great length is itself enough. I have often felt this topic comes up so often in discourse surrounding popular culture precisely because it was not previously considered at all. At least in 2020 we are conscious of not wanting to actively support those that we find problematic, instead of blindly consuming media without a thought for where it came from or the actions of those who made it.

'These debates can often be infuriatingly binary in nature and [...] underplay the intelligence of the viewer...'

That which is problematic cannot be erased from the past, but also must not be allowed to continue to happen in the future. I may allow myself to enjoy the cinematography of Annie Hall, and love Diane Keaton, whilst also hate Allen’s sexism and condemn the actions he is accused of. These debates can often be infuriatingly binary in nature and can I think underplay the intelligence of the viewer, who is after all capable of holding several opinions at once.

At least for me, the only vaguely clear decision I can make on this matter is to ensure I do not support Allen actively or financially. I have no qualms with avoiding his future productions and there are ways to watch the back catalogue without spending any money. So my final advice is to watch Allen’s old films if you want to, and appreciate Keaton’s, Willis’ and others’ work, but don’t let the problematic aspects just slip by without scrutiny - and don’t pay to stream them. Am I ending this article by advocating illegal streaming? Well I guess I am - save yourself the money, just watch out for viruses!

If you’re interested in reading more about separating the art from the artist, these two articles make some really interesting points:

Izzy is a recent English graduate with a passion for cinematography who enjoys writing about film and political issues. When not teaching herself to design Instagram posts you can find her reading, talking about astrology or joining Kez for a river swim!