Grey Areas and Silver Screens 005/016
WORDS: Iris Feldman
When the professor of my French cinema class asked us for an example of an American auteur, I raised my hand and said Woody Allen. I heard a snicker from behind me in the back of the classroom. At first, I felt a little defensive and insecure, but then something settled in me and I realized I’d been preparing for this reaction for awhile. Paying attention to the news of the #metoo and #timesup movements at the end of 2017 was like a case of emotional whiplash. There was such a quick back and forth between genuine satisfaction that women finally had the voice and platform they’d always deserved and a little fear that some of the men I admired would be the next to fall—taken down by personal choices and actions I previously assumed they wouldn’t make or do. After Al Franken and Louis CK fell from grace, I realized I would eventually have to answer to someone about how I could be in love with the movies of Woody Allen while still calling myself a feminist and a supporter of these new movements. This sharp snicker from four seats behind me was merely a reminder of the debate I’d already begun having in my own head.

I’ve always liked to play top fives with my family and they all love to complain that it’s “just too hard.” Every time I’d ask my dad for his top five favorite movies, they would change a bit. He would play around with four of them, but Woody Allen’s Annie Hall would always top the list. Sometimes when I was really young, I’d ask him and then I’d answer “Well, Annie Hall, of course,” before he could even respond. “Of course,” he’d smile and nod back at me. The movie was something sacred to me, like I could better understand who he was by seeing his definition of art. It was so special that I didn’t even want to watch it until I thought I was ready. I thought if I was too young and I didn’t get it that I might ruin it. So I waited till the right time, and then on one day in 10th grade when I was home sick, I ordered matzo ball soup from the deli across the street and popped in the DVD. Finally watching it was like opening a door I’d been slowly pacing in front of for years. I loved it, perhaps because I wanted to so much, but watching it felt like spending an afternoon with a friend. I’d never seen something so honest in its humor and its pain. From that point on I’d find myself looking for ways to bring it up in conversation so I could figure out what it really meant to my dad.

My father is a third generation New York Jew. Woody Allen was one of the only people who was telling his experience to a wider audience. His father died when I was only a year old, his mother when I was eleven, and I could never get him to tell me the stories I wanted to hear about his parents’ childhood and his grandparents’ experience as Jewish immigrants. Over bagels and lox with his cousins, I’d heard snippets of dialogue through thick Brooklyn accents that I’d like to imagine Woody Allen could havepenned himself, but I wanted more. The first time he was able to pull something out of the recesses of his mind was during one of many conversations about Annie Hall. “That scene where Alvy visits his memories of his childhood home? That’s kind of what it was like to spend time with my dad’s family.” From there he began recalling stories I’d never heard before about his aunts and uncles and grandparents. He told jokes about how the Easter dinner scene in which Alvy meets Annie’s waspy parents reminded him of the mild discomfort he felt the first time he spent Easter with my mom’s family in Connecticut. Annie Hall became a special window for both of us—through it he could access his past and I could see his world. It was through this experience that I first thought about the power of film and the various mediums of art. I’d always said art was important to me, but I’d never really thought about why until I started watching and discussing Woody Allen films. It was through his work that I saw the power within the medium: that it’s a shared cultural language that cuts across boundaries, that there is beauty in pain and the mundane. If you asked me to identify the art that has most influenced the person I am today I’d name his films, but now it feels like this is something I have to apologize for.

Granted, no one ever stood in front of me and verbally demanded an apology, but I started feeling guilty and hypocritical as I cheered at the demise of Harvey Weinstein but quietly hoped that people would let me enjoy Woody Allen’s work without asking me to talk about it. This approach seemed unsustainable, so I sought out more information to parse out what I believe and how to move forward. The strange thing about the case of Woody Allen is that since the #metoo movement started, no new allegations have been made against him. We have all the same information that we’ve had for decades, so if he himself hasn’t changed, what has is the context of the issue. Twitter users, the New York Times, and The Hollywood Reporter didn’t ask Penelope Cruz and Cate Blanchett how they could work with him when they took home Oscars for roles in his films within the past 10 years. It’s only now that major publications and thousands of social media users are demanding answers from stars like Greta Gerwig and Timothèe Chalamet about how they could have worked with him.

In trying to navigate my conflicting feelings I sought out other opinions. I saw a newsfeed with long Facebook posts by friends condemning any person who could support Woody Allen or Roman Polanski and posts criticizing anyone who conflated the personal life of the artist with the art itself. When I started reading opinion pieces from respected film critics and authors, I was only left with more questions, as there was a pattern to the way this was being discussed. Most of the pieces I read told a narrative of the writer going through the same thing I was going through. They were lovers of film who felt conflicted about whether they could love Woody Allen’s movies anymore. In a piece in the Times Style section entitled, “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Manhattan?” the writer, Steven Kurwitz, questions whether Woody Allen and his films, specifically Manhattan, are too problematic to watch or respect 40 years later. He quotes the blog of a woman who bonded with her husband over Woody Allen movies when they first met who said, “I’m rethinking my decisions about which artists to support and whether watching Allen’s films is something we want to do anymore.” What struck me was the ambiguity in the simple statement. When she talks of supporting artists what is she talking about? Financially, by paying to see his movies? Is she talking about supporting an artist’s personal character? Defending them in the court of public opinion? What ‘we’ is she talking about when she wonders if we should watch Allen’s films anymore? Is she talking about her and her husband or a collective ‘we?’ Does revoking her support of Woody Allen deny his talent as a filmmaker? In another lengthy piece in The Paris Review entitled “What Do We Do With The Art of Monstrous Men?” the writer, Claire Dederer, explores the same issues. She says that Annie Hall is the greatest work of comedy of the 20th century and she doesn’t want to give it up, but she talks about ordering it on-demand and watching it in 2017 as an “act of transgression.” It brings some levity to the piece, but based on the outrage I see on Twitter, I’m sure there are people who wouldn’t see the irony.

Dederer’s piece succeeds in exploring just how layered and complex this issue is: if you love the art of “monstrous men” but still care about progress. The problem is that even with essays like this that explore this murky in-between area, there are still many others who are writing like they have to come to a decision between two choices. It seems as though everyone is looking for something finite, an authoritative answer, “this is the only way to move forward.” They have to decide to live with the guilt of watching Woody Allen movies while taking his personal life out of the equation, or they have to just stop watching them. They may feel the same conflicts I feel, torn between two ideologies, but it feels like everyone is trying to work their way to one side and no one is trying to build a bridge between the two. I think that’s the problem with an era where political movements all come with a hashtag; a middle ground becomes untenable. Language is more complex than a hashtag. We’ve tried to distill one of our society’s biggest problems into a phrase, into something Emma Watson can tattoo on her arm. You share something with #timesup and all of a sudden you’ve placed yourself in the same virtual filing cabinet with anyone who’s ever done the same. Hashtag politics are nice. The sayings are catchy, and posting them is an easy way to tell your world that you are “woke,” paying attention, or on the right side of history; but when we let these slogans guide the movements, we tend to filter out the shades of grey.

Some really do think the problem is economic—that we speak and vote with our wallets. They can’t justify spending money on the consumption of products from producers they can’t respect. They don’t want to play into a system that says if anyone is smart enough or talented enough, they get a pass. I understand this completely. I don’t want to put any more money into Woody Allen’s bank account and contribute to a system that rewards misogyny and alleged abuse, but what if I already have all the DVDs at home? Financial reward can’t be the only motivation. To move past centuries of abuse and toxic patriarchal systems is to deal with a collective trauma; it’s something we have to heal from but we can’t heal by enforcing a binary, or by making people feel guilty for loving the art they love, because the art we love becomes part of who we are.The choice is yours if you can’t watch, or read, or look at the work of so-called “monstrous men,” but when it comes to art, how can we fault anyone who chooses differently? There just has to be a way to appreciate the art without granting a blank check to artists in their treatment of other people.

Woody Allen’s work has had an immense impact on my life, but if Dylan Farrow’s accusations of sexual abuse are true then he isn’t someone I can respect. To acknowledge one fact is not to deny the truth of the other, and to speak of one is not to ignore the other. The solution isn’t, as some film critics and writers have suggested, eventually making a decision between cutting art out of your life or accepting it without reservations, it’s neither. It’s irresponsible to think about this art without thinking of the misconduct of the artists, but for many people it can be impossible to separate themselves from the art that has touched their lives. I assess the complexities of Manhattan by acknowledging that there is a problem; by talking about how the first five minutes of the opening sequence are my favorite in all of cinema and then noting the issues within the central relationship between Isaac and Tracey; Isaac’s speech about the art that makes life worth living forever changed the way I think, but I’ll never be okay with the way he allegedly treated Mariel Hemingway on set.

If it sounds like I’m biased about Woody Allen’s work due to its sentimental value, it’s because I am. His films essentially created the standard by which I assess art’s role in life, so it’s obvious that I think they hold under said standard. I never claimed objectivity because I don’t think it exists within art; its power is in its ability to move people. For me it’s about Woody Allen, for someone else it’s about Roman Polanksi or Louis CK or James Franco. So yes, I’m biased, but I don’t think this bias disqualifies me from speaking on any of it. It’s the fact that it’s personal that kept me thinking about these issues for months, that drove me to write this at all. Were these artists unimportant in our cultural history, there would be nothing to talk about. It’s this conflict that facilitates a conversation, and through discourse we find answers and we heal. This kind of healing is impossible when our choices are limited, when there is a right and wrong way to be politically engaged, when the term feminist is defined so rigidly. The medium of art has for centuries taught us that life is not black and white, and the more people think it is, the less we can accomplish.