Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Last Thoughts on Woody Allen

When I was a freshman in college, I took a history class that has forever influenced my thinking. During the first week of coursework, we watched the classic Akira Kurosawa film, Rashomon. Rashomon retells the story of a mysterious murder and a rape in 12th Century Japan. Four men, stuck in the middle of a violent rainstorm, tell their version of what happened three days prior.

The account is masterfully presented through the perspectives of four different witnesses to the crimes. Each first-person account is plausible, though it frequently contradicts every other witness’s prior testimony. Personal bias factors in strongly to every retelling, at times overt, at times less so. The movie concludes by insisting that while objective truth may be impossible, the virtues of hope, love, and compassion never desert us. Our deeds are more important than our justifications.

In a historical context, this was an important lesson for my classmates and me to learn. History is a study of the past, and since we are only well-versed in relatively recent history, we must place our trust in the records and accounts left by others. Historians like to believe that they write strictly non-fiction, but this is only partially true. With time, enough voices have muddied fact from fantasy that scholarship becomes something of a game of telephone.

Every writer of truth puts pen to paper with an automatic kind of bias. It is sometimes subliminal and sometimes not, much like when we relate an anecdote to a friend. Should I write about a particular event in history, I pick the commentators who agree with my own views. Today, in my own written discourse, I find I place less emphasis upon a strict account and more upon the concepts and analysis birthed by those who share my ideological views. When enough people ascribe to this same thinking, these same patterns, it’s called a narrative.

I wrote last week about the Woody Allen debate. Due to recent developments, I’d like to respond with a second post. Some feminists writers are contradicting Allen’s recent op-ed in The New York Times that ran over the weekend. As was the case in 1992, they’ve critiqued the dynamics of the director’s relationship with third wife Soon Yi-Previn, several years his junior. A nearly ten-year old interview in Vanity Fair has been dusted off and presented anew. In it, Allen is quoted as saying:
The very inequality of me being older and much more accomplished, much more experienced, takes away any real meaningful conflict. So when there’s disagreement, it’s never an adversarial thing. I don’t ever feel that I’m with a hostile or threatening person. It’s got a more paternal feeling to it.
Here, my own bias in action. I do not understand intimate romantic relationships between two people that are described as paternal. Chalk me up as one of those hopeless romantics who, when it came his time, always dreamed of an egalitarian partnership. I’ve learned, with no small discomfort, that these parent-child pairings among consenting adults exist in numbers more than occasional. Much of the time, they take the form of an older man and a much younger woman. Other May-December romances have blossomed and showed sustaining power.

Returning to my college days, one of my former professors took a similar path. He married one of his students, a woman in her twenties who was more than half his age. I couldn’t help but notice that she was not much older than me. His wife was quietly deferential, shy, and reticent. I suppose that’s the way he’d always wanted it. He was always the one in charge and she knew when to get out of his way. They have remained married for several years.

A second example, for the sake of greater inclusion, involves a long-time partnership between two gay men. One of them is a psychologist. The other is severely mentally ill and disabled. If I had to wager a guess, I’d say that the therapist has some deep-seeded issues with dependency. Many people would not stay for over twenty years with someone that high maintenance unless they craved being wanted and needed. At first glance, dysfunction within partnerships may be complementary and even seem to be strangely unifying, when in actuality they are far from stable or healthy.

I can’t vouch for the whole of Woody Allen’s baggage, but I do know that prior girlfriends and wives many times had more problems than he did. Allen’s shtick is that of the socially awkward neurotic, but who he really is off-stage has always been a mystery to me. According to at least one reputable biography, an examination of the details of Allen’s life show a challenging upbringing and lots of self-inflicted injury.

Allen was born to distant, uncaring parents. Some of the memories of those times found his way into his early standup. In one routine, he stated, fictionally, that he was kidnapped at a young age. Instead of having concern for his well-being, the first thing his parents did was rent out his room. Allen cracked cruel jokes about his first wife and divorced his second wife because of her incestuous desire for her father, drug addiction, and general emotional instability. As is the case with any famous person, one reads a series of biographies and media articles, then seeks to put together an account of him or her that best fits our preferences.

The charges against Woody Allen this go round are serious, far more serious than they were twenty-two years ago. I want to accept the account of the adopted daughter of his long-time partner on its face, but once again I am bringing my own bias into the matter. Broken marriages, bitter divorces, and their fallout often create bile and nastiness. Allen hasn’t helped himself by inserting jokes into film screenplays that involve the desirability and the sexuality of underage girls. The circumstantial evidence in this case is damaging, but it is not enough to separate guilt from innocence.

Though the two were never formally married, Allen isn’t the first ex-husband to be accused of a shocking crime by a spiteful former wife. Every new voice added to the debate adds a different layer of meaning. As long as this controversy stays in he said/she said form, our individual personal experiences will fill in the gaps. When we don’t know who committed the rape in the metaphorical Japanese wilderness, our emotions will lead the way. If we think Allen is a creepy child predator, we may well always. If we never really found his movies and life story that appealing, now is as good a time as any to say so.

I’ll always have a fondness for Woody Allen’s films. I discovered them at a young age. I believe I saw Bananas first. I’m a fan of wit and satire and so I appreciated his cerebral, but very silly sense of humor as found in the first few cinematic releases. My favorite Woody Allen movie is probably Love and Death, the last of the slapstick, one-liner movies before the emergence of the new seriousness and art house pretensions of Annie Hall and beyond. In the meantime, I’ve observed once more that Allen films, like their creator, are either beloved or disliked. Now audience are split again, but for a very different reason.

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