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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How Should Critics Deal with Woody Allen?

 

Tonight, the Cannes Film Festival kicks off with a new Woody Allen film. There will be press conferences and a red-carpet walk by my father and his wife (my sister). He'll have his stars at his side — Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg. They can trust that the press won't ask them the tough questions. It's not the time, it's not the place, it's just not done. That kind of silence isn't just wrong. It's dangerous. It sends a message to victims that it's not worth the anguish of coming forward. It sends a message about who we are as a society, what we'll overlook, who we'll ignore, who matters and who doesn't.

                                                   - Ronan Farrow, The Hollywood Reporter

The above quote is from a guest article about Academy Award-winning writer and director Woody Allen written for The Hollywood Reporter by guest columnist Ronan Farrow.  The whole article is a well written plea to the public, Hollywood, and journalists everywhere to not stand by and let sex offenders off the hook when it comes to their professional life.  Now, before you continue reading this blog post, I recommend you follow this link and read the whole article before continuing this post.  In fact, I recommend you read this article, let it sink in a bit, read it again if you must, and THEN continue with this blog!  Because while I am about to write an opinion piece that sounds contradictory to Farrow's piece, his concerns are greatly valid and contain a personal touch that makes this situation all the more complicated.  The only way to understand this controversy is to read all points of view, and understand where the disagreements come in.

Read it?  Alright let's continue.

So, to start we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room: That Farrow is not some mere outside observer in this situation.  He is Allen's biological son.  Soon-Yi Previn is Farrow's sister through adoption.  As he has stated in the past (about his relationship with his father) "He's my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression."  This is a situation that many of us have observed from the outside, but few can truly understand.  Those of us who have watched Allen's movies for years knows that this isn't a situation the auteur has any problem with.  He is seen having relationships with underage girls in his movies as early as "Manhattan" (incidentally, one of his best films).  The question has always remained whether or not you can watch a Woody Allen film and be comfortable doing so.  Can the art and the artist ever be truly separated (especially when so much of the artist is in the art itself)?

Ronan's article isn't directed at film critics.  Not really.  He takes issues with actors who not only decide to act in Allen's films, but line up for the privilege to do so.  He feels offended that the Cannes Film Festival rolls out a red carpet for a man that is widely known to be a sex offender and pervert (though it should be noted he hasn't admitted to any wrongdoing).  He calls out journalists who don't grill him about the accusations he feels they should (in all fairness to them, Allen rarely gives interviews in the first place).  The thing about Ronan's complaints that we should acknowledge right now is that he has every right to feel this way.  Whether he is correct in feeling this way is irrelevant; in his mind, being willing to work with the man and praise his work is the same as condoning what the man has done.  He feels that being silent about such issues is the same as telling the victims in the crime that they don't matter.  He takes any praise towards his father personally (and who the heck are we to say he shouldn't... that's my quote by the way, not his).  He feels these are tough questions that should be asked.

And you know what?  He's absolutely right.  Now, again, he doesn't actually call out critics in his piece as being part of the problem, but in a way I think it is worth discussing since critics are (at the very least) a lower form of journalism.  When we give a Woody Allen film a positive review are we endorsing his train of thought?  I've written a few positive reviews for Allen's films before.  Does that make me part of the problem? These are serious questions to ponder, and to be honest I've pondered them before with other controversial film makers before (Roman Polanski, Elias Kazan, Bernardo Bertolucci, etc...).  This piece made me look at what I did under a microscope even further though.  It made me evaluate whether positive reviews for Woody Allen films were a true slap in the face to the victims of a man who is obviously sick in the head.  Let's look at this from a few different angle's.

If we are to take the person behind the camera seriously we need to ask a couple of basic questions: Is the director also writing the movie and does he put much of himself into it?  In the case of Woody Allen, the answer to both these questions are obviously yes.  He rarely acts in a movie that isn't his own, to my knowledge he has not written a screenplay for another director since "What's New Pussycat?," and his personal views are very much ingrained in his movies.  This creates a real moral dilemma if you want to separate the artist from the art.  After all, Warren Beatty is also an Academy Award-winning director who writes most of his own movies.  He was also a notorious womanizer, flirt, and cheater in his personal life before he married Annette Benning.  Yet despite his less than model lifestyle, we rarely saw any of his personal views or lifestyle choices in the movies he directed.  It was a clear case that the art did not reflect the man making it.  The same can be said for Roman Polanski, who never tried to justify the rape he did in real life in his movies.

I should also mention that while I find "JFK" to be great entertainment, it is clearly not supposed to be a history lesson.  Yet director Oliver Stone thinks a good portion of this movie is true, so what does that say about the critic when he endorses such a film?  That leads us to our second question: Can you be entertained by a movie you disagree with?  The answer to this is also yes.  I don't completely agree with all the things Spike Lee has to say in his movies, but I can not deny the power of "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X." So, does that mean that you are a hypocrite if you like a movie that you disagree with?  No, it does not.  There are scholars out there who can read Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" and completely disagree with the politics of the book yet find a lot of worth behind the way those politics are presented in a story.  Again though, what does that say about the position of the critic if he puts a seal of approval on a piece of art he disagrees with, yet one that is obviously the end result of the artists personal beliefs?

I suppose the next question to ask ourselves is whether or not we like the movie with a contradicting opinion because we feel the artist was able to justify his/her opinion.  I'll admit that this is where I got a little tripped up on, because "Crimes and Misdemeanor's" is one of my favorite Woody Allen films, and that is a movie essentially justifying how someone can do something morally wrong and sleep well at night.  Even though Allen gives the "be a good guy" speech himself at the end of the film, one does get the sense he really does believe that morality is subjective depending on the person, and that maybe - just maybe - some people deserve to get away with what they've done.  This is a point of view I do not agree with.  So how can I love the movie so much?  Probably because in this case, I believe the opposing viewpoint is what makes the film great.  It's almost like a peak into the mind of someone who has no shame for immoral behavior.

I have stated many times on this blog that I mainly watch movies to understand people better, and movies like "Crimes and Misdemeanor's" give me a clear picture of how some bad people honestly think.  That fact that it was written and directed by a man I do consider to be morally corrupt myself just makes this all the more perfect a representation I can think of.  On the other hand, I also disagree profoundly with Allen's "Whatever Works," which is as amoralistisc a movie as Allen has ever made, and fails on two levels.  It neither justifies its positions very well, nor does it provide a decent glimpse into people who think the way these characters do.  It's just too goofy and clich√© to get anything other than apathy from.  All this leads to the million dollar question: Taking all of this into consideration, are critics part of the problem when they give a positive review to a Woody Allen film?

While it may come off as a cop out, I believe the answer is a little of both.  Yeah, I know, that's not what anyone really wants to hear, but its true.  The fact of the matter is critics are given the task of judging the art on it's own merit.  If we were to take the personal lives of everyone involved with the film into account, there would probably be nothing to recommend because no one is completely innocent.  True, there are people who do worse things than others, but those personal beliefs rarely affect the movie itself.  On the other hand, I do agree that Woody Allen seems to get a bigger pass than most when he puts some disturbing ideas into his movies.  On the few times he's interviewed he never shows any remorse for what he's done.  The fact that you can't force someone to see what they've done wrong is a frustrating fact of life.  The best you can do is put the person on trial and hope that the justice system prevails.

In a strange way though critics are possibly a problem in this case because when aspects of Woody Allen's opinion show up in his movies we have a tendency to just brush them off as being par the course for his films.  At the end of the day though he is a dirty old man.  He has done some very bad things.  I feel further legal action should have gone against the man.  The reasons for Dylan Farrow not going forward with pressing charges are her own business and I'm certain there were valid reasons for why she didn't.  I can't speak for the actors who want to be in a Woody Allen film (sorry, I can't; it's not my field).  All I can say to Ronan Farrow is that I am personally sorry if my liking a movie by his father is taken as personal.  I don't mean it to be.  I understand where he is coming from, but I can't help it.  The art doesn't excuse the crime, but the crime doesn't diminish the art.  If Farrow ever wants to discuss this with me I will be more than happy to do so.

I do feel victims in these crimes have been given the raw end of the stick at times, but at the end of the day we are just critics reviewing movies.  Liking "JFK" does not mean I believe in the conspiracy.  Loving the characters in "The Godfather" does not mean I feel they are doing good things.  So by that logic, just because I like "Hannah and Her Sisters" does not mean I necessarily condone Woody Allen or his moral guidelines.  All I can do is review movies based on the quality of the films themselves.  Maybe that isn't progress enough, but it's all I know what to do for the time being.  This is certainly a subject that will be revisited many times in the future, and I guess we'll just have to see what I think of it when those times come.

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