Annie Hall came up on my Netflix page this summer. It was in the Critically-acclaimed Movies section, a portion of Netflix I’ve spent many hours in— watching Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Fargo, all of the movies I was supposed to have seen already by the age of 18.
Annie Hall was the first Woody Allen flick I’d ever sat down and really watched. Of course I had heard of Woody Allen and his genius by then. There was that documentary about him that came out a couple of years ago. He’s heralded in the two film-theory books I permanently borrowed from a family friend, and the history-of-film series I watched with my dad the previous spring. They say he broke the mould. That his style is unique, fresh, authentic, courageously Jewish. He took comedy and turned it on its head.
So sitting down to watch Hall I had high hopes, and those hopes were entirely fulfilled. I loved the movie. It’s funny and it’s heart wrenching. The narrative jumps around and keeps the viewer on his toes— it’s not a dry cut, three act story. Allen breaks the fourth wall and talks into the camera. I don’t know if that had ever been done before, in a feature movie. The film’s ingenuity is a mirror image of Allen’s unique, neurotic creativity.
I’m not well-versed enough in film to be able to cite every influence that Allen has had, but Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me is clearly riffing off of Allen’s inventions in the 1970s. Without a doubt, his influence as an artist spreads far and wide.
After watching Annie Hall on my own, I brought it up over breakfast at the Denver Diner with my girlfriend. Becca is generally great about my interests—for example, I love podcasts and Becca hates them. But still, every once in a while she’ll let me play This American Life while we’re hanging out on the back porch. It’s a reciprocal relationship— for every podcast I put on, I can expect to have to listen to ten-to-twenty minutes of Bon Iver, or some other listless hipster band singing in falsetto. Ugh.
We’re decent at respecting the differences in our tastes. But when I mentioned Woody Allen to Becca, she wouldn’t hear a word of praise out of my mouth.
If you know Woody Allen, then you probably know why. There’s really no way around it— Allen is a piece of filth human being. Technically speaking this is alleged, but the evidence is insurmountable, at least to me. Woody Allen is almost definitely a sexual criminal. He has fondled his children. He is currently married to his adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, which is something his own family finds weird. Seriously?
I didn’t know this until Becca told me about it at the Denver Diner. All of the times I had heard and read about Woody Allen, never did I know that his personal life was anything short of regular.
Becca said that she just couldn’t respect anything that Wood Allen had ever made because of how awful he is as a person. At the time, I countered with the usual ways you see people try to defend Woody Allen. You have to be able to separate the artist from his art! You can’t be quick to judge a man for sheer allegations! Maybe his divorced family is simply resorting to horrid tactics in order destroy Allen’s legacy and career!
I could have put it the way TIME puts it, in an article about Allen’s complicated identity: “While some celebrity offenses are made public, it’s fair to assume many are not. Chances are good that if we delved into the private lives of every single artist whose work we admire, surely we’d find plenty not to like.”
I’ve thought about this. I’ve thought about it morally, philosophically, politically. And what I’ve realized to be true is this: Becca is actually completely right. It’s bullshit. Defending Woody Allen is bullshit.
Principally, it’s bullshit because we as a culture have erroneously decided to let every successful male in pop art and otherwise off of the hook as a person if they’re complete scum bags. I don’t care what the paradigm is— that’s wrong to me on a moral basis.
Sean Penn has won multiple Oscars. He has also taken a baseball bat to his wife’s (Madonna’s) head. Roman Polanski is an Oscar-nominated, legendary film director. He raped a 13 year-old in 1977. Jay-Z is a critcally-acclaimed musician, lucky enough to be the husband of Beyoncé, and one of the few people in the world who can call the President a personal friend. Jay-Z plead guilty to stabbing someone in 1999.
Speaking of Beyoncé, we’ve also got Terry Richardson— the man behind many of Queen B’s latest music videos. That’s right— the guy known to many for sexually assaulting models and taking horrific pictures of women giving blow jobs while crouched inside of trash cans— is producing content for Beyoncé, who many believe is the new pillar of modern feminism in pop music.
Lots of people don’t let Richardson off the hook, because he’s so clearly a predator. And yet he continues to dominate the behind-the-scenes world of photography and directing because that’s just how it goes.
The pop industry is chalk-full of sleazy men who are getting away with horrible things because they’re good at what they do. It’s when I realized this that I understood that there’s no need to try defending Woody Allen’s work. His work doesn’t matter to me, and it shouldn’t matter to me. I’m allowed to have an opinion, and I’m allowed to incorporate anything I please into the justification of that opinion. I’m allowed to decide who is great and who should be forgotten. I don’t care if the critics disagree with me— the critics are allowed to have wrong opinions. If it’s up to me, sleazy men who are at this present moment doing sleazy things or cashing in on success despite a sleazy past, don’t get a chance at any form of redemption in my book.
I’m writing all of this because it should be your opinion, too. Stop separating art from artists. It’s bullshit. It’s patriarchal bullshit.
Sometimes, one can separate art from the artist without feeling too bad about it. Like, for example, who wrote the lion’s share of How I Met Your Mother? I don’t care who it was— the show is entertaining, but mostly I write it off as unimportant either way, so there’s no reason to delve into who wrote which episode, and whether they’re good people or not.
But even with a show like The Office, which has a little bit more critical acclaim and probably longevity, I’ve personally gone and vetted the writers of my favorite episodes before I laid judgement on the series. I’ve come to feel that it’s my responsibility to know whether a creator deserves my favor before I blindly hand it to him or her.
Some artists simply don’t allow their art to separate cleanly from them. Dan Harmon can’t be separated from Community, Terry Richardson can’t be separated (in my mind, at least) from Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” and Woody Allen can’t be separated from Annie Hall.
When I saw Hall a second, speculative time, I couldn’t not see Woody Allen’s awfulness in it. The movie is actually pretty rapey. There’s a lot of shaming and villainizing of women that don’t want to have sex as often as their lovers do.
Lots of art, maybe most art, reflects the artist’s outlook on life, his sensibilities and his ethics. And YOU. YOU. Have the power to decide whether the art deserves credit for the sensibilities the artist presents for yourself.
But if you want my advice: never catch yourself saying that Allen’s new film Magic in the Moonlight is deserving of an Oscar.