When I was a teenager, I worshipped Woody Allen to an unhealthy degree. I think, at some particularly unfortunate point, I might have even dressed like him. To me, and I’m thinking to others, he represented three things: urbanity and sophistication; a wit born of erudition; and the possibility that one might, without an excess of good looks or distended musculature, attract the opposite sex—through the sheer force of words. When it was revealed that Allen had left Mia Farrow for his daughter/non-daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, I tried hard to be objective about him, as a figure, but my grasp of the reality of what one should and shouldn’t do in any human relationship, combined with the decline in quality of his films after that revelation, made it difficult to take him seriously, although I continue to rank Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, and Crimes and Misdemeanors among the greatest films of all time (it’s a long list). The recent unearthing and re-unearthing of allegations that he molested 7-year-old Dylan Farrow have provoked reams of commentary, consideration, and investigation into his life, and specifically his life with Mia Farrow and her numerous children. This fermenting, for lack of a better word, has been disappointing, not so much because no conclusion has been reached (there isn’t one), but because of a lack of overview, the inability of those commenting on the scenario to distance themselves from it, or what it might mean to them, personally. What has resulted from the feverish reaction to these decades-old events is a gradual tying of our hands, across the board, so that to even consider the controversy is akin to opening a Choose Your Own Adventure book, in which the judgment you might make, in whatever public forum, suggests that you possess a particular set of characteristics—and, as in the books, you can’t make two judgments at once, just as you can’t read two stories at once.
The problem is mainly one of tone. The words commonly used to describe Allen at this point—monster, creep, wouldn’t want him alone with my children, perverted—are not the words one uses when thinking clearly. Granted, the circumstances don’t allow for too much clear thought—the actions described, toy train, attic, and all, are horrific. It would be difficult for anyone to react with equipoise to testimony on such events, real or imagined. Nevertheless, what happens when public sentiment is stirred, across blogs, comment boxes, newspapers, and telephone waves, is that a sort of brushfire starts. If the fire grows too bright, it either subsumes other opinions or whittles them down, makes them look black and vaguely evil. To suggest, as many have, sentiments along the lines of “we’ll never know what happened” is to, in many cases, add a parenthetical “(but we kind of do know).” To shrug about it becomes, in a sense, a concession to the truth of What Is Written. Suggestions that Dylan Farrow made up her allegations, her memories having been molded by her mother’s coaching, end up sounding rather creepy beside the bold and righteous, “He’s a criminal. He should pay.” A Daily Beast essay by Robert Wiede on the matter, asserting that the allegations were false, was denounced by Jessica Winter at Slate as "smarmy," while Wiede’s tone wasn’t necessarily more or less hostile than Farrow’s.
But indeed, what of the tone of the father and daughter involved here? Their poorly written testimonies haven’t helped, speaking more to deep-rooted rage than anything else. Oddly, the epistles (that's what they are, really) share a tone, one of aggression, of pots boiled over, much like the tone of some of Allen’s most poignant filmic moments. Allen has his “Soon-Yi and I made countless attempts to see Dylan but Mia blocked them all, spitefully knowing how much we both loved her but totally indifferent to the pain and damage she was causing the little girl merely to appease her own vindictiveness” or “Again, I want to call attention to the integrity and honesty of a person who conducts her life like that,” while Farrow has her “So imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen” or her “I have a mother who found within herself a well of fortitude that saved us from the chaos a predator brought into our home.” Allen finds himself the victim of serious accusations, while Farrow finds herself the victim of both abuse and patriarchal oppression following that abuse, making it hard for her to speak up. Their public records, as it were, are powder kegs, bombs thrown into a movie house, ultimately dangerous and corrosive, for all of their seeming liberation. Farrow makes a strange gesture in offering a statement which can neither be proved nor disproved; Allen makes a strange response in deferring to logic rather than facts, as in his statement that it makes no sense that he would molest someone at such a tempestuous time in his relations with Farrow’s mother. The two statements cancel each other out, neither one more convincing than the other, really. It’s a loaded spat, close to after-dinner theater—but any popcorn you might throw has already been thrown. Just check the blogs, the comment boxes and the social media.
What if the story here is entirely
different from a tale of abuse of power, or a fable about the importance of
speaking up about abuse? What if the story unfolding now points backwards, to the
reasons we enter relationships, and how we need to think those reasons over
carefully? Allen, at the time of the beginning of his relationship with Farrow,
gravitated towards women who did not outshine him, most notably Diane Keaton,
who, comic chops aside, relies on self-effacement for her comedy and will never
have the cultural stature Allen has. Farrow fits this mold as well: a tremendous
talent whose screen presence, at least at the time she met Allen, was never
overwhelming, and who, for all intents and purposes, is no longer an actress.
Farrow, on the other hand, was attracted to powerful men, like, say, Frank
Sinatra, or Andre Previn, men who dwarfed her, in a professional sense. In
becoming involved with Allen, it would seem, she wanted more of the same. And
yet: Allen publicly acknowledged his sexual deviance, both in print and in
other ways too obvious to even refer to directly; Farrow liked to care for
children, often children weakened by disability or poverty. They gravitated
towards each other because they each had something the other wanted, and yet
neither need could sustain a loving relationship. Each chose an adventure, and
unfortunately, their adventures collided somewhere near the end of the book.
The result? Pain that has pursued the family for 20 years. In creating a household together, they ultimately harmed themselves, and those around them, in small and vast ways. And in choosing to
side with one person rather than the other, to say “he done it,” or “she done
it,” we limit ourselves. The harder choice for us, as thinking people who live
in a society that loves celebrities, would be to recognize how different these
celebrities are from us, and to try to glean what wisdom we can from their
repeated, grave errors.