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The Melodrama Of Woody Allen’s Critical Reputation

It’s Time We All Admitted That Woody Allen Is A Creep, Insists One Culture Writer. And Then What? 

Woody Allen is a genius. Woody Allen is a predator. He put those two sides of himself together, hand in hand, and dared us to applaud. And we did — over and over.” So writes Salon culture editor Erin Keane in a piece that went online last week, about an anecdote in Mariel Hemingway’s new memoir, and how it ought to spark another reassessment of Woody Allen as an artist and as a human being. Hemingway was one of the female leads in Allen’s 1979 “Manhattan,” playing a very young love interest (17; Hemingway herself was a year younger than that when the film was shot) of the film’s Allen-esque protagonist, Isaac, played, as was the custom of the time, by Allen himself. In her book she tells of a visit from Allen a couple of years later, when she was 18, and a proposal that her parents were enthusiastic about but which she herself was not, and how Allen slunk back to New York with his tail, such as it was, between his legs after the proposal was nixed. Allen does not come off particularly well in the story. (I don’t believe I can overstate that. Truly.)

“They put me on the cover of ‘Time’ and ‘The New York Times Magazine,’ and they said it was the greatest. But two weeks before that happened, if United Artists had said, ‘Well, tell you what we’ll do. If you do two films for us for nothing, we’ll burn the negative of this one,’ I would have said, ‘Okay, you have it.’” That’s Allen himself, talking about, yep, “Manhattan.” Among the most entertaining parts of Jason Bailey’s recent book “The Ultimate Woody Allen Companion” are the blurbs Bailey places in every chapter wherein Allen himself assesses the movie under consideration. He doesn’t like a whole bunch of them. And doesn’t consider himself a genius.

Keane would like her readers to take the Hemingway anecdote and frame it so that it not only establishes or fills in a behavioral pattern, but also casts “Manhattan” as an apologia for sexually predatory male behavior, it appears. She understands this may take some doing, as she herself has had to struggle with Allen and his work: “If you had asked me at 17 if I would ever date a 44-year old, I might have actually barfed […]If you had asked me at 19 if I thought there was anything disgusting about Tracy and Isaac’s relationship in ‘Manhattan,’ I would have said something like, well, it’s not real life, is it? It’s a story. And to make great literature and film and drama, we have to create spaces of empathy for characters who make poor choices in life.

(What is it about These Kids Today, by the way, that compels them, when writing about a work of art even a smidge older than they are, to chronicle Their Personal Journey With That Work, as if that were the only way to put it in context? Imagine if Carlos Clarens, born in 1930, had taken this approach in his “Illustrated History of  Horror And Sci-Fi Films.” It might go a little something like this: “'The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari' was a milestone, indeed. But is it a film? I have to admit that on some level, I will always feel drawn to it, maybe in the way that disillusioned former church-goers might feel a yearning from somewhere deep inside of them when they pass a door they know on so many levels they can never cross again.” Well, I guess had that been the passage on page 19 of Clarens’ book that I read, oh so many years, ago, I might have put said book down, and gone ahead and learned a trade like my dad suggested, and we might have all been better off. But I digress.)

Hemingway’s revelation demands we look unflinchingly at the reality that ‘Manhattan’ so artfully disguised as art, and see it for what it truly is,” Keane avers.  “We all have our blind spots, but after a while, we also have to admit what we have deliberately refused to see.” According to the headline, Mariel Hemingway’s “new revelation matters.” But matters to who? And how? Is there some kind of concern here that Allen has provided, through his art, not just a moral apologia for sexually predatory behavior, but a how-to? And if so, who’s going to take the advice? Why is a seamy incident, which took place well after the film was wrapped, some kind of “open sesame” with respect to Allen’s perniciousness not just as a human being but also as an artist?

There are a couple of things that occurred to me as I was turning over Keane’s piece in my head, which answer these questions to my satisfaction, albeit indirectly.

The first is that Woody Allen is, when you get down to it, a cult artist. He is an uncommonly well-known and well-compensated cult artist, but a cult artist nevertheless. I’d guess that the actual height of his mainstream popularity, such as it was, occurred prior to his becoming a filmmaker. As a standup comic (the portion of his career in which he made what was his most offensive joke, a rape one-liner directed at his first wife which prompted a lawsuit) Allen was a near-ubiquitous presence on television; his popularity in this context bled over into his early film career, to the extent that there was actually a daily black-and-white newspaper comic with the schlemiel Allen persona as protagonist for a spell beginning in the mid-70s. (It wasn’t very good—or perhaps I should say, I liked it when it first came out, but then after I had a personal journey with it, I realized it wasn’t very good).

As a filmmaker, he’s not such a culturally huge deal. Yes, his style of comedy—the persona, the emphases on the neurotic, the urban, the urbane, cynicism, the fake-nervous performance mode, etc—has been hugely influential, just look at Jerry Seinfeld and so on; and on the other hand, has kind of not been influential at all, just look at Larry The Cable Guy. Anyway, the total box office take of the films he’s directed has been a little over half a billion dollars, which is an awful lot of money—BUT, when you average it out, or rather, when Box Office Mojo averages it out (and I must thank Box Office Mojo for doing the heavy lifting, data-wise) to a gross of less than 15 million dollars per film, it looks less impressive because it is less impressive. Even when adjusting for inflation, all but his two very best-performing films—and these are, as it happens, “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”—are not much to delight an avaricious businessman. He makes his films cheaply, he’s well-regarded enough in creative circles that prominent actors will take a big cut in pay to work with him, and so on, so he isn’t a big risk, return-on-investment wise, except when he is, as in the out-and-out bombs in his filmography, which I’ll arbitrarily deem the pictures that made less than $10 million in U.S. box office, of which there are ten out of 41, or roughly a quarter of his output. Then there are 18 pictures that come in between $10 and $30 million. These are not movie business world-beater numbers. And yet such is Woody Allen’s public image that, for example, in 1992 Newt Gingrich could disapprovingly cite Allen’s lifestyle, and everyone knew what he was talking about. Hmm. Perhaps Allen is, finally, better known as a public figure for the string of scandals to which his name has been attached since 1992 than he is for his art or “art.”

The second thing that occurred to me is that it’s probably not such a useful thing to seek life lessons from Allen in any event. Allen’s a talented writer and filmmaker who has kind of come close to genius a handful of times, he’s a lethal creator of gags (the one beginning “We were married by a reform rabbi” is classic), but I’ve never been entirely nuts about “Manhattan” myself.  It’s got some good jokes, and some nice bits of cinematic lyricism, and Allen does aesthetes of good faith a solid by exposing the hateful pretentious underbelly of The Academy Of The Overrated, and of course it’s beautiful to look at (Gordon Willis’ responsibility more than Allen’s) but on the whole I find it a bit trite in its own sentimentality, and largely on-the-nose in its insights. Insights in art are funny things: there may not be a whole lot of them out there that are particularly new or fresh, so a work of art that wants to put across some insights is going to have to articulate them with a particular kind of force. I don’t think “Manhattan” quite musters that force. The governing irony of the movie is that its youngest character, Tracy, is the most grounded and reasonable and mature of the whole lot—and this notion is, the autobiographical elements of the movie’s storyline notwithstanding, a high-flown cliché, as more than one of the movie’s detractors (whom I’ll get to in a moment) have pointed out. What’s lacking in the art, in other words, is already lacking. As creepy as the anecdote from the Hemingway memoir is—and again, it is plenty creepy, and reflects badly on all the older adults in the story, not just Allen—to conclude that it definitively draws back the curtain and reveals not just “Manhattan,” but Allen’s entire film career, as a plea to be let off the hook for having a thing for teenage girls is shaky critical math.

Blah, blah, blah, your conflicted male desire,” Keane scoffs (with respect to Allen/Isaac’s “dilemma” in “Manhattan”), possibly wishing to solicit Real White Male Tears with her disdain. But this White Male kind of, um, digs where she’s coming from: conflicted male desire is, in and of itself, a pretty played-out and possibly boring theme. On the other hand, I’m not so crazy about “Fifty Shades Of Grey” either. As with themes so it is with insights: it really all comes down to what the artist does with them. While “Manhattan” depicts an arguably age-inappropriate relationship, that in and of itself does not make the film a programmatic apologia for that relationship. Rather, at the end, when Isaac doesn’t end up with Tracy, “Manhattan” wants to extract poignancy from the ebb and flow of desire and its fulfillment/non-fulfillment—and the quixotic chasing of another desire. Because Isaac can’t, in the words of Muddy Waters, be satisfied, he also can’t, until the movie’s end, see the wonder of what’s in front of him. And that’s sad, or at least, it’s supposed to be sad. The only possible solution to the dilemma is described by, yes, the Wiser-Than-Them-All teen Tracy: “You have to have a little faith in people.” Is this a universal truth worth iterating, or an overplayed slab of sub-Chaplin and/or Renoir humanism? I suppose your answer to that will mediate your response to the overall work. Unless you find the actual content of the film to be immaterial.

For many Allen detractors, it is immaterial, or, to be a bit of a cynic about it, there’s a hierarchy of what content IS material: “You have to have a little faith in people” doesn’t count, but the retrospectively damning “I’m reminded tonight of the farmer who had incestuous relations with both his daughters simultaneously” (from “Bananas;” there is a possibly legitimate comic setup to that bit, but never mind) is a prime exhibit. The Salon piece, a late-breaking bit of Allen disapprobation, is just one of a great many you see these days; a cultural note that attempts to instruct the reader that “we” can’t accept “this” anymore. One almost universal feature of such pieces is a frustrating vagueness about what action “we” are supposed to take concerning the unacceptable state of affairs. What about Woody Allen, then: Should Sony Picture Classics not finance the next batch of Allen films? Should a boycott be organized?

The vagueness makes me curious. I suppose I could infer that the ultimate purpose of the piece might be to “open up” “the conversation”—that latter term, though is one I’ve never felt at home with in the realm of cultural discourse. Nevertheless, comfortable or no, it is, these days, a term. But from where I sit the conversation about Allen, or at least the conversation about Allen’s art, has been going on for quite some time. And has never been particularly monochromatic, for as much praise as his work has garnered.

The fact is, there really is no “we” in this exchange, and there never really has been. There has never actually been unanimity of opinion on Allen’s work. Check this out: “The characters in ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Interiors’ are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, ‘class brains,’ acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life. (The one exception is ‘Tracy,’ the Mariel Hemingway part in ‘Manhattan,’ another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family. Tracy’s mother and father are covered in a single line: they are said to be in London, finding Tracy an apartment. When Tracy wants to go to JFK she calls a limo. Tracy put me in mind of an American-International Pictures executive who once advised me, by way of pointing out the absence of adult characters in AIP beach movies, that nobody ever paid $3 to see a parent.)” That’s Joan Didion. In 1979, yet. Similarly, Stanley Crouch, in a multi-author colloquy in the “Village Voice” at the time, spewed terse disdain at “Manhattan” and called out its treatment/conception of the Tracy character as flat-out exploitative. So again, one may be compelled to ask, who’s this “we?” And what are Stanley Crouch and Joan Didion: chopped liver?

As a society we obey a certain set of rules that allow our lives to proceed on a particular path, a path we wish to be as free of various hassles as possible. But as cultural consumers people have a variety of different options and a variety of different priorities, and one of those options directly relates to how much we allow ourselves to be affected by the fact that artists whose work we admire are, with some frequency, not good moral actors. Keane believes that cultural consumers ought to be affected quite substantially by this. And as a side note, anyone who’s been around show business a fair amount of time understands it’s so rife with bad moral actors that people who strive to conduct their own lives with a semblance of decency are practically compelled to enter stomach-churning Faustian bargains on a nearly daily basis. But I’d like to see, just once, a “What Is To Be Done?” piece that has the intestinal fortitude to suggest at least one concrete answer to the question. 

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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