What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?
That’s the haunting question with which the woman once known as Dylan Farrow begins and ends the personal essay published yesterday on Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog, and which forms the heart of his column today. Like many recent pieces, it’s billed as an open letter, but unlike, say, Sinead O’Connor’s advice to Miley Cyrus or Juan Luis Garcia’s plea for recognition from Spike Lee, Farrow’s piece isn’t addressed to anyone in particular. At one point, she speaks directly to Diane Keaton, Cate Blanchett, and others who’ve recently, or persistently, cast their lot with her adoptive stepfather, whom she accuses of sexually assaulting her when she was seven years old. But for the most part, her unspoken addressee is whoever happens to be reading at the time. In other words, she’s talking to us.
What happened between Farrow and Allen on August 4, 1992 has been the subject of public debate and legal action, especially since the publication of Maureen Orth’s Vanity Fair article detailing a range of behaviors on Allen’s part ranging from queasy-making to outright monstrous. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the debate lay dormant somewhere in the back of the national consciousness until the Golden Globes tribute to Allen — and the pointed public reminders from Allen’s former romantic partner and his estranged biological son — pushed it back into the spotlight.
Earlier this week, Robert Weide, who supervised the creation of the montage accompanying Allen’s Globes tribute and spent hours interviewing him for his 2011 film, Woody Allen: A Documentary, posted a detailed, often withering rebuttal on the Daily Beast. The least prejudicial way to read Weide’s article is to starts with its third section, the one dealing specifically with Dylan’s accusations, since its first two parts are filled with smarmy asides and bad-faith insinuations. (Among other things, Weide casually drops Dylan’s new name, which she has avoided using in public.) Weide paints himself as a reluctant warrior, getting dragged into what he variously describes as “the fray” and “the noise” of the debate, as if the question of whether Allen sexually assaulted a seven-year-old is a gossipy inconvenience, and spending several paragraphs detailing Mia Farrow’s (real and hypothetical) sexual history before concluding we should “forget the whole damn thing, considering it’s none of our business.”
From a legal, reasonable-doubt standpoint, some of the issues Weide raises are compelling: the in-camera edits to Dylan’s homemade deposition, which was recorded by Mia Farrow, who at that point had a well-documented animus towards Allen; the statements by various psychiatrists that Dylan’s testimony seemed coached or rehearsed, and contained major inconsistencies. But because prosecutors at the time determined that the stress of a trial would do further harm to Dylan (or, according to Weide, used that as an excuse to hide their lack of conclusive evidence), neither Woody Allen nor Dylan Farrow will have their day in court.
As far as the law is concerned, Woody Allen is innocent, or, more accurately, not guilty. But the court of public opinion is something else, and that’s where Dylan and Ronan and Mia Farrow have chosen to make their case. This strikes some as courageous, especially on Dylan’s part, and others as slander — a divide that, as Kristof observed, sadly but predictably tracks with the observer’s gender. But there’s another ruling to be made, according to criteria that aren’t laid down in black and white: Who do you believe? And if you believe Dylan, what do you do with that?
On the one hand, what you or I or anyone not intimately connected with the Farrow and Allen families believes doesn’t make a bit of difference. Except, that is, insofar as it affects our future actions, and, in my case, my professional conduct. If I’d read Dylan’s letter before I spent an hour in Allen’s company two years ago, would I have asked him about it? Would it have made a difference? I found Allen difficult enough to connect with as it was; he came off to me as a deeply private person whose inner self was not available for public scrutiny. For every question I asked, he had a ready answer, often one I’d already read in other interviews, and while he wasn’t brusque or uncooperative, it’s hard to say I came away with anything other than exactly what he wanted me to get.
Not coincidentally, that’s the same feeling I’ve gotten, to varying degrees, from every one of Allen’s films since the controversy erupted in 1992. Husbands and Wives, which was released that year, struck me as a high-water mark, the best of Allen’s “serious” films and one of his best, period, and it’s one I think he’s unlikely to reach again. Some of the movies he’s made since are better than others, but with the sole exception of Vicky Christina Barcelona, they’re all steeped in the same sour misogyny, at least alienated from if not overtly hostile towards their female characters. Whether or not the brittle psychotic Cate Blanchett plays in Blue Jasmine is modeled on Mia Farrow, she’s a hollow shell of a human being, external tics mixed with a dose of contemptuous pity.
The extent to which one can, or should, separate the artist from the art is less a subject for a debate than a question that has to be argued and re-argued with each subsequent work, and each new piece of evidence. As someone who holds that Roman Polanski is still capable of filmmaking genius, I believe no person can be reduced to their worst action (a position, for what it’s worth, I hold towards death row inmates as well). But it strains credulity and upends the idea that art is an expression of its creator’s soul to think the two can be neatly cleaved from one another. The Polanski who drugged and raped Samantha Gemier is part of the man who directed The Pianist and Carnage, as is the man who fled what he feared, with some reason, would be an unjust prosecution and has lived in legal exile ever since. The extent to which that’s reflected in, say, The Ghost Writer or The Ninth Gate, both of which center on men victimized by shadowy conspiracies, is as legitimate a subject of critical exploration as Polanski’s experience of the Holocaust.
So it is — so it has to be — with Allen, at least for this critic. None of us will ever know exactly what happened between Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen in the summer of 1992 — at least, not to an ironclad certainty. But that’s not the legal standard for guilt, and my own, if I’m honest, is somewhat lower. Who do I believe? Let’s put it like this. I’ve followed what became known as the West Memphis Three case since Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary Paradise Lost was released in 1996. Even more than what took place between Farrow and Allen, what happened in the woods outside West Memphis, Arkansas, where three young boys were tied up, stripped naked, and murdered, will be forever uncertain. After nearly 20 years of investigation (and three feature-length documentaries), after the initial suspects were jailed and much later set free, Berlinger and Sinofsky cautiously turned their suspicions towards Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. But for me, it’s Amy Berg’s West of Memphis that landed the decisive blow.
For the most part, Berg’s documentary struck me as flagrantly irresponsible in the zeal with which it presses its case against Hobbs, heedless of repeating the mistakes that led to three likely innocents being jailed in the first place. But then she presents an interview with Hobbs’ daughter, Amanda, whose mother has accused her now-ex-husband of molesting her when she was a child. A few seconds with Amanda, who seems as if someone reached into her chest and yanked out her heart, and I felt I knew something terrible had happened in her house. It was enough to convince me that her father was a monster, and that he was capable of anything. I haven’t seen Dylan Farrow tell her story, but I’ve read it, and I’m haunted by the picture that accompanies it. If I believe Amanda Hobbs, why wouldn’t I believe her?