A. O. Scott published an essay on Wednesday on “My Woody Allen Problem,” in which the New York Times film critic wrestled with his past defenses of the director, who is accused of sexually molesting his daughter Dylan Farrow long ago. Amid the #MeToo moment, Scott wrote, “The old defenses are being trotted out again. Like much else that used to sound like common sense, they have a tinny, clueless ring in present circumstances. The separation of art and artist is proclaimed—rather desperately, it seems to me—as if it were a philosophical principle, rather than a cultural habit buttressed by shopworn academic dogma.” Though he finds Allen’s work “ethically troubling,” Scott argued that it cannot be scrubbed from the canon because it’s “a part of the common artistic record, which is another way of saying that they inform the memories and experiences of a great many people.”
In the exchange below, New Republic staff writers Jeet Heer and Josephine Livingstone debate the merits of Scott’s argument.
Jeet Heer: Since you’re a cultural critic, I’m wondering what you thought about Scott’s piece on Allen and the problem of separating the artist from the art. This is an ancient dilemma, but one that has particular salience in our #MeToo moment.
Scott is making the case against an old-fashioned academic formalism (best exemplified, I think, by the New Critics who dominated literary theory in mid-twentieth century America) that holds that the biography should have no bearing on how we view a work of art. It seems like Scott might have once held that formalist position, but not anymore. Artists like Allen (and not him alone) aren’t experienced in states of pure contemplation (the way, in certain science fiction stories, an alien robot might observe human society), Scott argues. Art is part of life and we experience it as such, especially with works done by our contemporaries, who are like friends who let us inside their minds.
Scott does a good job, I think, of evoking what it felt like to grow up with Woody Allen, to have enjoyed his movies in the 1970s and 1980s when he was a cultural hero (especially, of course, if you were a nerdy boy with cultural aspirations). Allen was, Scott says, “A mentor. A culture hero. A masculine ideal.” We would now have to add: Allen was also a monster. Even if we leave aside the unproven but disturbing allegation that he molested his daughter Dylan Farrow, there is the undisputed fact that he has a sexual fixation on teenage girls (an obsession that features in many of his films) and that he had an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of his then-partner, Mia Farrow.
At the end of his essay, Scott does something really clever—perhaps too clever. He concludes that Allen’s odious behavior shouldn’t make us abandon his work but rather gives us an occasion to revisit it: “Reassessment is part of the ordinary work of culture, and in an extraordinary time, the work is especially vital and especially challenging. I will not blame you if you want to stop watching Woody Allen’s movies. But I also think that some of us have to start all over again.”
Part of me really likes this argument because I absolutely agree that challenging art that has aesthetic merit (which I think is true of some, though by no means all, of Allen’s movies) should not be abandoned. But part of me also thinks that ending on this note really just bolsters the status quo. Allen remains at the center of the film canon, this time not because he’s a “mentor” or “cultural hero” or “masculine ideal,” but because he’s a monster.
Were you also bothered by the final twist of Scott’s argument?
Josephine Livingstone: I was a little bothered by it, but not for quite the same reasons. I feel great ambivalence around this Times article. Scott deserves praise as a human being for trying to own his flaws as a critic and his struggles as a man. But I think he really wobbles on his pedestal here, for two reasons.
First, I think that he misconstrues why the formalists and the reader-response folks wanted to separate the artist from the art: They wanted to undo the artist’s monopoly over the way we talk about their art. Not hand them a carte blanche to be monsters! It’s about power, not behavior. Second, I think that Scott misses something big, which is that he—and other critics who are letting the artist’s life dictate the meaning of their works—are, in every public “reassessment,” bolstering that contested artist’s monopoly over interpretation. Again, it’s about power (as Miriam Bale has wisely been tweeting). Their power to abuse, their power to dictate the terms of the conversation, their power to define what a field like moviemaking even is.
A misconception abounds that feminists who want to bring abusers to account don’t accept Roland Barthes’s “death of the author” principle. This is not really true, at least for me. I consider Woody Allen and Roman Polanski’s movies gifts, to me and to the culture—even when they’re bad—and I’m never giving them back. I don’t want Allen and Polanski to have control over their own legacies or even over their own works. If they don’t get to dictate how I interpret their films, then they don’t get to control anything about the film industry. We, the viewers, do.
It’s at this moment that Scott really loses the thread of the Barthes argument: “Part of the job of a critic—meaning anyone with a serious interest in movies, professional or otherwise—is judgment, and no judgment is ever without a moral dimension.” I think that Barthes would disagree that a critic’s assessment of a work of art has any moral dimension that touches on the author himself, because the critic is simply not concerned with the author of the work. Let’s go back and look at Barthes’s article, which is really very readable and helpful in these problems.
Let’s say that a filmmaker makes a film. “[Once] an action is recounted, for intransitive ends, and no longer in order to act directly upon reality—that is, finally external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol—this disjunction occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins.” (Intransitive here means that the artwork exists only in its own universe, not to deliberately produce some result in the world.) Once the artwork has entered the world, then the only way for us to really understand all its manifold meanings is to see that it “consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author ... but the reader.”
This makes perfect sense. Swap out author and reader for filmmaker and viewer. Only the viewer of a Woody Allen film can see how all the things that have come since Manhattan was made are now a part of the movie. Allen couldn’t. The viewer is the only person who can see all those messy and multiple and wonderfully infinite versions of the film. Of course Woody Allen has had intentions, but those intentions cannot be “personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.” That’s us, that’s me, that’s you.
This is not what Scott is saying at all. Not only does criticism have a moral dimension, he thinks—thereby absolutely drawing a philosophical line which runs from critic through artwork to artist—he writes that criticism is never “without a personal interest.” The thing that he finds “most ethically troubling about Mr. Allen’s work at present is the extent to which [Scott] and so many of my colleagues have ignored or minimized its uglier aspects.” I think in focusing so much on the “personal interest” side of things, specifically the way that Allen was a role model for him while growing up, he falls into a trap that Allen and many authors throughout history have set for readers/viewers. Barthes writes:
The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions; criticism still consists, most of the time, in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of the man Baudelaire, Van Gogh’s work his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice: the explanation of the work is always sought in the man who has produced it, as if, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, it was always finally the voice of one and the same person, the author, which delivered his “confidence.”
Barthes calls this the “empire” of the author, a power which he exerts over a whole complex of interpretation, not just over the work itself. The more that critics hand that empire to the author/filmmaker, the more they sacrifice their own power.
The problem with the way we talk about Woody Allen is not in accidentally saying he is good when he is bad, or bad when he is good—either as a man or as a filmmaker. No, the problem is in giving him the keys to the kingdom of moviemaking. The problem with Allen is his power. The same power that enables him to make artistic choices, and to remain the be-all-and-end-all of “what his movies mean,” also empowers him to do whatever he likes, including abuse vulnerable people. Does that make sense? It’s all the same power. And only recognizing that Woody Allen doesn’t get to control what Woody Allen movies mean can really take that power away.
And Scott has power too. When he reviews a new Woody Allen movie he shores Allen’s power up. So the question he poses himself seems, while important to him, the wrong one to be talking through in public.
Jeet: Yes, reframing these issues in terms of power helps clarify the dynamics (and stakes). I would add that one way of challenging this harmful power structure is to fight the myth of the auteur. Woody Allen is a good example, since he’s often written, directed, and starred in his movies, so is often treated as the sole creator. But film is always a collaborative art. There is no such thing as a Woody Allen movie, pure and simple. Annie Hall is a Diane Keaton movie as well as a Woody Allen movie, Manhattan is a Mariel Hemingway movie as well as a Woody Allen movie, Hannah and Her Sisters is a Mia Farrow movie as well as a Woody Allen movie. (The same applies to the countless other collaborators—both onscreen and behind—who made these films possible).
The power that a Woody Allen or a Roman Polanski enjoyed (and abused) is inseparable from their status as auteurs. Directors are often accorded a God-like status, and, like Zeus or other misbehaving deities, have been permitted to commit sins that would be unforgivable in a mere mortal.
I agree that part of the problem is that Woody Allen has been allowed to control the meaning of his movies. To put it another way, some critics have been complicit in Allen’s work because they’ve watched the movies the way Allen wanted them to, without sufficient distance. I should add, though, that this doesn’t apply to all critics. Female film critics were early in spotting the dubious aspects of Allen’s work. In 1979, Joan Didion described Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) in Manhattan as “another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family.” In a devastating review of Stardust Memories for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael asked, “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?” The review destroyed the friendship Kael and Allen had enjoyed. But perhaps that’s a lesson, too: Dethroning male abusers means being willing to talk back to them.
I’m wondering, though, whether there isn’t a further question of what type of art gets made. Allen is generally a comedic filmmaker (despite his forays into Bergman-esque angst). Comedy is built on complicity: We share a laugh. So when a comedian turns out to be a monster, there’s a real impulse to question the work. The same applies to Bill Cosby and Louis CK, among others. But isn’t the situation different if we’re talking about an artist who deals with horror—say, a Lovecraft or a Polanski? In their case, being a horrible person doesn’t seem to damage the work in quite the same way, does it?
Josephine: Diane Keaton is an artist, and so was Pauline Kael, and so is Mariel Hemingway. You hit upon an interesting genre issue here, the intersection of Allen as an auteur, which is what—a genre of celebrity? A type of artist that critics think is good? And then Allen as a comedic auteur, which is a genre of moviemaking. How do those bounce off one another in the culture?
Perhaps that’s the thing that Scott was trying to get at in his piece, the way that funny and non-good-looking men get to harness a type of social power denied them by their physical appearance. Think of the funniest boys you knew in high school. They all had a “victim” to their jokes, right? And then the question becomes, who is the butt of the joke? With Allen, a lot of his humor was subversive in that it made super-masculine guys look stupid, which was well-deserved (I’m thinking of Crimes and Misdemeanors). He also made himself look neurotic and foolish, but in a lothario-ish way that in the end placed the joke on whatever woman was willing to be with him. And because of the lack of distinction between Allen the person, the filmmaker, and the performer, he has infected the very identities of so many American men that his power spreads.
The Polanski issue has its own complex aspects. The fact that he can never come to America means that nobody in Hollywood ever has to “face” him, and his works stay in a sort of locked box of the past, so there’s less to worry about. Unless I’m very much mistaken, nobody is really making big bucks off his reputation now, as they are with Allen’s.
Jeet: Yes, Polanski’s distance from contemporary America and Hollywood does explain why he’s “in a sort of locked box of the past.” And, as you suggest with that metaphor, distance is a matter not only of geography but time.
I think that’s something that doesn’t get discussed enough in these debates—the role of time. A. O. Scott grew up with Woody Allen, so has a closeness to him as if he’s an older brother or uncle, with the same tendency to forgiveness we often extend to family. But the greater the distance in time, the less pressing these issues become. I mean who really cares that Caravaggio was a murderer? (Or maybe some people do?)
In a recent Commentary piece, Terry Teachout frets about how to assess the behavior of the late choreographer, George Balanchine, who was, if not abusive, at least domineering in a way that feels creepy. Teachout does a good job in linking Balanchine’s behavior to the power structure in dance, where often male choreographers are given immense power to groom children and teenagers, a pattern that makes abuse easy. But to me, the central fact is that Balanchine died in 1983. If he were alive today, his behavior would certainly warrant a reprimand and possibly firing. And in fact, Peter Martins, Balanchine’s successor at the New York Ballet, resigned last month after stories emerged of him abusing ballerinas.
But we can’t fire Balanchine. All we can do is rewatch his old dances, and ponder how the dancers we’re watching (often performing stories of romantic agony) were both Balanchine’s essential collaborators and his victims.
Put another way: To the living we owe justice, to the dead reappraisal.
Josephine: I just wish with all my withered heart that our culture’s most prominent critics, like A. O. Scott, would see that the biggest debt we owe the living is to be cognizant of our own power. It’s so easy to dismiss that angle as a “check your privilege” soundbite, but it does actually have meaning, a big meaning.
Here you and I are, having this conversation about Woody Allen. I think some readers will see the headline and think, why give more oxygen to this question? And I hope they’ll be patient enough to see that this is a question that troubles people—what to do with the abusers whose art we like—and it’s worth sticking with. And as writers with a platform (mine smaller than yours, but both of us combined have a smaller one than Scott’s) we own a slice of the conversation. That power can be really daunting, sometimes, and I know I struggled a lot towards the end of last year with the task of writing ambitious essays with pompous titles like “The Task Ahead for Feminism.” Who am I to make statements like that?
This is why I ultimately respect Scott’s gesture of vulnerability in his Allen piece. I also love the idea of your watching Balanchine’s old dances and thinking anew about the collaborative genius of those women onstage. What a beautiful thing to do with this prompt. As readers, Barthes gave us a marvelous superpower, the ability to remake the world of art every time we witness it. I’m going to spend the rest of this afternoon watching the dances that Balanchine choreographed, and I’m not going to think about Balanchine himself even once.