When I was a kid I sometimes watched a show my dad liked called The Prisoner. It takes place on an island that gets a new ruler each episode, referred to as “number 2.” (You never find out who #1 is). Every episode the main character tried to escape the island and every episode he was brought back in a big clear bubble. In one episode, he made a boat that he disguised by taking it apart and putting it in art exhibit. He calls it “escape.” But what does it mean, a guard at the exhibit asks. It means whatever you want it to mean.
I think about that scene when I think about Woody Allen. Like in a knock-off detective novel, the whole thing was avoided for so long only because it was always hiding in plain sight. I’m old enough that when I studied literature in college and graduate school, I was trained by people who came up during the hey day of the New Critics, the self-styled “apolitical” post-war school that sought to delineate nuances of language with as little reference to political or historical context as possible. And, especially, that promoted idea that the text stood alone, apart from the author’s biography, and that being interested in an author’s life was embarrassing, a descent into gossip.
Looking back at this now, after years of reading and teaching literature and making my own attempts at fiction, essays and poetry, it’s obvious to me now that all writing worth its salt both is and isn’t about the author: it’s not unfiltered or unreflected upon experience, but neither does it have nothing to do with the being who made it. Because of this I really enjoyed this piece by Amanda Hess written in the early days of #metoo. Each industry and workplace has particular mechanisms to shield the powerful; in the arts the idea of genius and the “brave truth teller” is one.
There was a piece in the Times recently about whether #metoo had finally caught up with Woody Allen. In Mic there’s speculation his time might be coming as a number of actresses have now stated their regret at working with him. It’s the kind of thing that makes people hopeful that this time will be different. Because, of course, we’ve been here before.
It was over twenty years ago when Allen was first accused of molesting his daughter. When Allen took up with Soon-Yi, leading to a custody battle at which the allegations surfaced, I had just started college, at a super feminist women’s college. I’d decided to go there in no small part because of the upswing in feminist writing and activism of the early nineties. When Anita Hill testified before congress, my parents stopped our nightly ritual of watching the news together out of embarrassment. I can’t blame them for that, really, but I do remember feeling uncomfortable with their sense that the news had descended into garbage by giving Hill a hearing. I didn’t know much about politics or feminism but I was a teenager who knew something about bullying and I knew Hill was doing something important. When she was humiliated it seemed to validate my keep your head down approach to being bullied. And even without knowing much about social movements versus electoral politics I understood the insufficiency the “Year of the Woman” that was touted as a response. (Six women in the Senate out of 100!)
Sometime around then I read Backlash. Despite the fact that feminism had supposedly been a part of mainstream culture for a long time by then, reading it I had something like the “click” experience 2nd wavers described in the 1960s and 70s: suddenly the patterns made sense. And even though there’s a lot to be said about the insufficiency of analyzing culture in creating real change, it was a revelation to read her then. I remember arguing with a girl in my math class about the sexism of Fatal Attraction. “But she was a psycho!” the girl insisted. “But the people who made the movie chose to make her look that way!” I said, giddy with the delight in my new found knowledge that the world was the way it was because people made decisions about it.
So off I went to the famous feminist college. I remember being at a party there shortly after the Allen story broke, where three different guys make the same joke. “Hey did you hear about the new Woody Allen movie, Honey I Fucked the Kids?” And we all laughed. All us budding radical feminists, at the height of when there was supposedly a panic on campuses about rape, when everyone was going to Take Back the Night marches – we all laughed at the joke. It’s a pretty good joke, I guess.
A few years later, Mia Farrow published her memoir about her marriage to Allen. Around the same time Claire Bloom published a memoir about her marriage to Philip Roth, who I would go on to write about in grad school, and Joyce Maynard published hers about how J.D. Salinger pursued her when she was a teenager who had a “voice of the youth” piece published in the Times magazine and her picture was on the cover. I remember a lot of people grouping these writers together and describing their work as gossipy and unworthy, and thinking that people like to do that because by taking the side of Allen or Roth or Salinger a little of their greatness would rub off – they would be on the side of Greatness. It’s not so much about preserving the work – no one is coming for your Annie Hall – but preserving their sense of icons. As Aaron Bady wrote when Dylan Farrow came forward as an adult to write about her experience, if you focus on the artist’s “good name” you are prioritizing the famous who have such valuable and cultivated names. Time was a woman’s “good name” was her virginity. (Because of which, sexual assault could be ignored or over-punished depending on the sexual and social status of the victim and perpetrator.) Today we’re hard-pressed to say what your “good name” is if you’re not famous; suffice it to say if you are a non-famous victim of a famous man your choices appear to be having your name dragged through the mud or remaining a person without a name.
One thing I remember reading at the famous feminist college was an essay by Pearl Cleage called “Mad at Miles,” about how she reluctantly lost her love of his music the more she learned about his history of abuse. What struck me about the essay then was how much her genuine love of his music and genius was blended with what loving that music signaled: “Chill the wine. Light the candles. Put on a little early Miles. Give the gentleman caller an immediate understanding of what kind of woman he was dealing with.” What strikes me rereading it now is how hard it was to break through that, how much work you had to do to overcome the feeling it was petty to think about such things when you are face to face with a real serious genius.
Woody was never serious, not really. (My dad, a firm believer in the line between comedy and tragedy, could have been the fan in Stardust Memories begging for the early, funny ones.) But it is nonetheless the case, that for many years he and his movies were a touchstone. People took you to see them or talked about them on first dates. They were my first ideas about what it was to be sophisticated, to be Jewish, to be a New Yorker, and so forth. In high school I grabbed “Without Feathers” from my parent’s shelves and regaled people with jokes about Kafka. It was a way to be a pretentious adolescent while showing you had a sense of humor about it. People who don’t like Woody like to quote this Joan Didion takedown of him, where she quite accurately notes the hollowness of his cultural references. Of the famous scene at the end of Manhattan, when he details the things that make life worth living she says this: “This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’être go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.”
As is often the case with Didion, her scorn brings out my defensiveness: yes, people come to New York and want to see the right movies, what of it? Didion’s to-the-manner-born contempt for new arrivals to the cultural scene makes me want to defend every stupid French movie rip off movie Woody ever did. And it makes me want to be the teenager I used to be, when I could somehow separate the tenderness of that scene, which I watched endlessly at the famous feminist college, from the part where a seventeen year old says to a middle-aged guy, “Let’s have sex some new crazy way you’ve always wanted to do it before.” (Get it – she’s the sexual aggressor! And he’s bumbling and awkward and a nebbish so he must be harmless . . right?) As a teenager who thought the “things that make life worth living” speech was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard or would, it didn’t occur to me that inventing a story where the teenage girl is more sexually aggressive than him is exactly the fantasy someone who like to pray on teenage girls would create.
I say this as someone who believes in the right to sexual pleasure and agency of teenagers, who does believe in the famous “shades of gray” we are told to bear in mind when evaluating such things. There are lots of shades of gray – and some of them are pretty fucking dark.
When she spoke out as an adult, Dylan Farrow ended her piece by asking “Now tell me your favorite Woody Allen film?” It hit me in the gut at the time as someone who had asked and answered that question countless times. My answer had always been Purple Rose of Cairo – a film in which Mia Farrow falls for a fictional character in a movie. For a long time that was how I looked at Allen – everything about it was fake, but it was a comforting fake, and how much harm was there in that?
It’s not that hard to let go of Woody now – I don’t go on dates anymore, and there are hundreds of movies I’ll never get time to see that seem more interesting relevant and sexy than whatever he is turning out now. Still, saying goodbye to Woody feels like some kind of turning point: the final letting go of the belief in cleverness that takes hold of so many of us in the teenage years. I don’t begrudge anyone who still finds pleasure in them, it’s just harder and harder to understand how I ever did.