“The Best I Can Offer Is Distraction”: Woody Allen, ‘Magic in the Moonlight,’ and the Elephant in the Room


“Just want to remind you guys that we’re going to talk primarily — really, exclusively — about this film today, so please keep your questions centered on Magic in the Moonlight.” The moderator issued his edict early in the press conference, just after the introductions, and he restated it 12 minutes later, before turning the panel over to questions from the assembled press: “And again, just a reminder, please stick to focus on the film here today.” It was the closest anyone running Friday’s press event for Woody Allen’s new film came to acknowledging that there was something else we might want to ask about, and no one had to come out and say what it was. But the problem is, the only thing newsworthy about Magic in the Moonlight — an unexceptional, oddly slack late-period Allen picture — is that it’s his first release after decades-old allegations of sexual abuse resurfaced last winter, in a harrowing open letter by his adopted daughter Dylan. Ninety-nine percent of the writing about Woody Allen in the past year was rooted in that story. And now we were all being told to pretend like this ubiquitous scandal never happened.

It has been, to say the least, a strange time for those who admire Mr. Allen’s movies, and if you’re one of those people, imagine this: last Christmas, just before the Dylan scandal broke anew, I turned in the manuscript for a book-length study of Allen’s work, the result of nearly a year spent revisiting and reviewing all of his films, analyzing recurring themes, and breaking down his process. We chose not to alter the book, aside from a brief mention of the recent events in the prologue, because it is not a biography, but a filmography — though, as is discussed at length in the book, his life and his work aren’t always easy to separate (his objections to the contrary notwithstanding).

I was unable to secure an interview with Allen (unsurprisingly; it’s an “unauthorized” volume from a small publisher), so the press conference would be my first opportunity — after spending the better part of the previous year studying the man — to ask him a question. And it seemed absolutely ridiculous to act as though this were any old Woody Allen movie, utterly free of outside circumstance and context. So when I was called on to ask the second question of the Q&A portion, I posed this: “Mr. Allen, forgive me for quoting you to you. You’ve said, ‘I make escapist films, but it’s not the audience that escapes — it’s me.’ A similar description is used in the film to describe Mr. Firth’s character, that he is ‘an escape artist looking to escape from reality.’ And I’m just wondering if completing this film and working on the next one has served that ‘escapist’ purpose for you even more than usual over these past few months, as your reality in the present has seemed a good deal less idealized than this fantasy in the past?”

Woody Allen. Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

Allen responded quickly, with a bit of a smile. “I’ve been escaping my whole life,” he said, which prompted some nervous chuckles. “Since I was a little child, I escaped into the movies on the other side, as an audience member. I escaped by going into the movies and sitting in the movies all day long. And then when I got older, I escaped into the world of unreality by making movies. So I’ve spent the last, I don’t know, almost 50 years, not quite, but 45 years, something like that, escaping into movies, but on the other side. When I get up in the morning, I go and I work with beautiful women and charming men, and funny comedians and dramatic artists, and I’m presented with costumes and great music to choose from, and sets, and I travel a certain amount of places every year. So my whole year… for my whole life, I’ve been living in a bubble, you know. And I like it. I’m like Blanche DuBois that way. I prefer the magic to reality and have since I was five years old. And hopefully, I can continue to make films and constantly escape into them.”

He didn’t seem irritated by the question, or upset by it. He responded savvily, almost like a politician — choosing to answer the portion of the question that he wanted to answer, and ignoring the rest. And after that, as the reporter next to me noted when the press conference concluded, “no one else even tried.” Colin Firth was asked about his research, and about co-stars Eileen Atkins and Emma Stone. Jacki Weaver was asked to compare working on stage to working on screen. Allen was asked about his love for the 1920s, about writing neurotics and curmudgeons, about his development as a director. The stories and queries that greet each annual Allen picture, about his expedient audition process and hands-off direction, were trotted out again. The edict was heeded; my softball, sideways mention of it aside (and seriously, this was not exactly 60 Minutes-worthy stuff), you’d have never known that anything noteworthy had occurred in Allen’s private life since we’d gathered at the same Manhattan luxury hotel the previous year to talk about Blue Jasmine.

So, what’s more ridiculous: that such a condition for participation was issued, or that it was heeded? (The primary topic of overheard conversation among the junketeers, both before and after the press conference, was where the hospitality suite was, and if they were serving lunch.) It’s not as though anyone in the room was foiled in their plans to leap to their feet and demand to know what happened in that Connecticut attic; Allen has, after all, addressed the allegations, in a New York Times op-ed that he labeled “my final word on the entire matter.” But there are legitimate questions to be asked about the film and how it relates to his current station, even beyond its accidental subtext — as Film Comment’s Nicholas Rapold notes, it concerns “an older entertainer trying to prove that a young woman is lying.” Such questions were posed by The New York Times and The Daily Beast, who either weren’t instructed to steer clear of the scandal, or chose to ignore those warnings. Also instructive is how Allen chose to answer (to the Times) and not answer (to the Beast) said questions.

Instead of raising the subject (and, in doing so, dealing with what it means to see, and for that matter cover, a Woody Allen movie now), the assembled junketeers — who presumably don’t want to make waves, lest they be taken off the invite list — went along. We fulfilled our role as cogs in the publicity machine, and were charmed by our witty host, who was in fine form: funny, sharp, playing his patented pessimistic neurotic role to the hilt, launching into a lengthy monologue on the meaninglessness of life that could very well have been delivered from behind a nightclub microphone, closing it out with a sideways grin and a perfectly timed, “Have a good weekend!”

But between the fawning questions and well-placed witticisms and rote answers (I’d already read a variation on the “beautiful women and charming men” bit in the same 2006 interview that provided the “escapist films” quote), there were some bits of insight, accidental though they may have been. At the end of his treatise on the meaningless of life, Allen offered up a solution to dealing with the essential emptiness of existence: distraction. “You get up,” he explained, “you can be distracted by your love life, by the baseball game, by the movies, by the nonsense: Can I get my kid into this private school? Will this girl go out with me Saturday night? Can I think of an ending for the third act of my play? Am I going to get the promotion in my office? You know, all this stuff. But in the end, the universe burns out.”

Later, he tied his own work more directly into that idea: “I think it’s my job, or the artist’s job, to try and find some solution or some reason to accept things. But given the grimmest reality, I feel the grimmest facts are the real facts, the true facts. You know, you’re born, you die, you suffer, it’s to no purpose, you’re gone forever, ever, ever, and that’s it. And facing that massive, massive, overwhelming, bleak reality, to find a good way to cope with that — I feel it’s the artist’s job to do that. I’ve never found a good solution to it, and the best that I can offer is distraction.”

Woody Allen and Jacki Weaver. Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

And a light, comic bauble like Magic in the Moonlight does offer up that distraction — it’s a delight to look at, the leads are charming, there’s a laugh or two. But those of us who continue to view, study, and (yes) admire Allen’s work, both after the Soon-Yi scandal in 1992 and in light of these current allegations, are increasingly choosing the same path: to see his work as a distraction or an escape, not just from our own reality, but from the grim facts and the grimmer rumors about this gifted artist. Or, as Allen himself said Friday (paraphrasing his own Deconstructing Harry), “We all know the same truth: our lives depend on how we choose to distort it.”

The name Mia Farrow was raised once that afternoon, though not within the context of their personal lives; it was in an answer Allen gave about the power of illusion, one of Magic in the Moonlight’s key themes. “In The Purple Rose of Cairo, the film was all about the difference between reality and illusion, and how much better illusion is. The problem is, in that movie, Mia Farrow had to choose between reality and illusion, and she had to choose reality, because if you choose illusion it’s crazy. You can’t, you’d just go mad. So she chose reality, and it hurt her in the end.”

If the allegations against Woody Allen are false, then one can understand his reluctance to discuss them further. (And for that matter, the same reluctance presumably holds if they’re true.) But the reality is that they are out there, and that the publicity around them — for good or ill — has affected how at least some of the movie-going public sees Allen, how they see his work, and whether they will continue to support it. To pretend that this is not the case is, to borrow the other half of his equation, an illusion. “So my whole year,” Allen told me, before correcting himself, “for my whole life, I’ve been living in a bubble, you know. And I like it.” I’m certain he does. But are those who report on his work required to live in that bubble as well?