Let’s Judge Woody Allen — And His Golden Globes Tribute — By His Own Standards

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As you have perhaps heard, last night Ronan Farrow intervened in the matter of his (nominal) father’s career achievement Golden Globe by tweeting a single line:

Twitter promptly went wild, as Twitter is wont to do. (Farrow’s mom chimed in this morning.) People praised Farrow for standing up for his sister, who was the seven-year-old referred to. People also began to complain that the Golden Globes should not have given Allen any kind of award. And that Diane Keaton, who on her own merits is a figure considerably more beloved than Allen, should not have accepted it in his stead.

Some of the reaction was the kind of stuff that gives social media a bad name, you know, the please-die-immediately-for-you-have-offended-me kind of stuff. But the majority of it, to my reading, had a weary quality to it. It was a frustration at the distance between what Keaton was saying about Woody — she described him as a great promoter of women actors and as her personal friend — and what we are all thinking at home, and have been thinking at home for over 20 years. There was something so pandering and dishonest about the way she was talking that only a moral idiot could have missed.

In other words: grumbling about internet outrage is not adequate to the Woody Allen situation, circa 2014, I think.

Let me put my cards on the table, Allenwise: all his greatest movies? I love them. I think The Purple Rose of Cairo is about as near to a perfect film as has ever been made. There are arguments in Husbands and Wives that I can recite almost word-for-word. Like everyone else, I wanted to grow up to be Annie Hall.

But most importantly for present purposes, I regularly re-watch Crimes and Misdemeanors. It has some really interesting things to say about conscience and morality in those moments where the laws seem blurry, and even unjust. I often think of one particular argument Sam Waterston’s character has with Martin Landau’s. Landau is so desperate to find a way to justify a horrible crime in the name of some personally tailored form of “justice.” And Waterston says to him, “But the law, Judah. Without the law, it’s all darkness.” And despite Landau’s continuing bluster, Waterston is right. The movie knows it.

I simply wish that people were able to talk about Woody Allen with the thoughtfulness about the ambiguities and bright lines of these situations that his movies demand.

For example: my love notwithstanding, I am young enough that I never really knew Allen’s work outside the context of his disastrous personal life. I was never able to develop a wholly uncritical, context-free adoration for him. By the time I was seriously watching (and loving) many of his films, he was already an alleged sex abuser who had married the adopted daughter of a former lover. That’s just the undeniable stuff. And there is enough undeniable stuff, and always has been, to fail a smell test. I don’t need to get into the nitty-gritty of the allegations or make any legally significant pronunciations to see that something went terribly wrong here. It’s easy to pretend we’re in the darkness here, but we’re not. Not by a long shot.

I also don’t need to get into the nitty-gritty to feel that the blatantly dishonest setting of a Hollywood awards extravaganza is just not an appropriate forum to discuss Woody Allen’s devotion to “women” or “friendship.” There was no chance, from the get-go, that someone was going to give an appropriately nuanced assessment of the work. Instead, Hollywood people did what Hollywood people tend to do, which is talk to the rest of us like we don’t see that they’re lying. (Shades of that Alan Alda character in Crimes, come to think of it.) It’s a shame for everyone involved. Sure, it was just one moment of trumped-up-publicity glory for a guy who, notwithstanding his considerable personal flaws, has made great movies. And sure, Ronan Farrow definitively punctured it. But I would have been happier, myself, as an Allen fan, if they’d just skipped the whole damn thing. Without the truth, all is darkness, too.