Why I’ll still watch Woody Allen films

Dylan Farrow’s open letter in The New York Times started with the question, ‘What’s your favourite Woody Allen movie?’ She then went on to detail how he sexually assaulted her when she was seven years old. The letter was the first time Dylan Farrow had ever written or spoken publicly about the abuse, though the allegations were first aired during the high-profile custody battle in 1992, when Mia Farrow reported a sexual relationship between Allen and her adopted daughter Soon-Yi. Allen always denied the claims, and despite charges and counter-charges, he was never convicted. But for a long time, public opinion has been divided over his guilt.

Dylan’s letter was written just after Allen was awarded the Cecil B DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes, accepted on his behalf by Diane Keaton. According to The New York Times’ Nick Kristof, Dylan Farrow ‘curled up in a ball on her bed, crying hysterically’ when she heard about the award. Farrow’s response was not an isolated event. ‘Each time I saw my abuser’s face – on a poster, on a t-shirt, on television,’ she wrote, ‘I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart.’

What was different about this award speech was that Keaton praised Allen as someone who loves and celebrates strong women, calling the 178 women in his films ‘the hallmark of Woody’s work’. For Farrow, Allen represents something else entirely: ‘Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse.’ As we all know, the majority of survivors of sexual assault and abuse are women.

Woody Allen has won more than 100 prestigious awards for the seventy-four films made over his forty-eight-year career. Celebrating both his films and talents, the awards recognise his achievements in writing, directing, producing and acting. So the question might be: do the awards, the accolades and the public acclaim equate to the endorsement of abuse? But to even attempt to answer that question one would have to have conviction over the charges.

Without moving into speculation, there is another, perhaps more apathetic – some might say, dangerously indifferent – perspective rooted in critical theory and reception studies. That is, to separate the artist from their work, and I don’t mean in Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ way. Quite the contrary: Woody Allen is considered an auteur and his oeuvre ought to be seen in relation to his world view, psychology and many of his personal attributes – at least insofar as they pertain to his role as writer, actor, director and, ultimately, the ‘consciousness’ of his films.

But I think we need to separate what the person Woody Allen means outside of this specific context. (The problem with that, of course, is that it’s a form of denial.)

This separation is the reason I still watch, review and, as recently as last year, thoroughly enjoyed a Woody Allen movie. From my perspective, the decision to separate artist and output is a personal one, to be reconciled with one’s own convictions. Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting for a moment that my decision to continue to watch films by Woody Allen or Roman Polanski is superior to the contrary decision. Certainly, there is a persuasive case to be made for not watching their films.

Now, I’m not some kind of purist, who believes my job dictates I watch all cinema free from prejudice. That is an utterly idiotic position: it’s impossible to watch anything without bringing one’s own prejudices to the screen. Moreover, what separates the more prudent critic is the awareness of these prejudices: race, gender, class etc. I don’t watch everything. I haven’t, for example, seen a Hollywood rom-com for at least a year and personally believe the quality of my life to be better for it. Just like I won’t watch Richard Curtis’ movies because I think they ooze misogyny and racism. But I will still watch Woody Allen’s films and Roman Polanski’s and wanted to explain why.

Obviously I agree that it’s important not to belittle the significance of Dylan Farrow’s accusation or the response it’s since spurred. Speculation over the ‘truth’ of the allegations persists, with more journalists defending Allen than Farrow. The courage it must have taken to write that letter needs to be acknowledged and a woman speaking out is not something that should be trivialised or ignored, as it so often is.

Nonetheless, we live in societies where we have agreed to presume someone innocent until proven guilty. We define ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ as being synonymous with confession or forensic evidence. In the absence of those two things, there is conjecture. Add to this the fact that it is harder for women to speak out – especially those who have been abused and silenced – as well as that, in society’s eyes, a young woman is not considered as trustworthy as a culturally acclaimed, socially esteemed man.

In contrast, Polanski has admitted to the rape of Samantha Gailey – after initially pleading not guilty – though he fled the US before he was formally sentenced. In the recent documentary Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, Polanski apologises for his crime. That he hasn’t served any formal penance is, for many, reason enough to boycott his films. For those who believe in restorative justice, in the documentary at least, Samantha Gailey says she has accepted Polanski’s apology and that she has forgiven him. Still, there is no way to be certain that Polanski is truly sorry, or that he has in any way repaired the harm he has done, or that Samantha Gailey has truly accepted his apology and forgiven him. Whether or not it’s true, Rosemary’s Baby remains one of my all-time favourite horror movies: the tension is sublime, Mia Farrow is amazing.

We don’t live in a cultural vacuum. We do know that there are circumstances, systems and people that exist outside of what we consume. Comparably, I believe that a film exists outside of its maker. If I do have a favourite Woody Allen movie, it is based entirely upon what is in the film and not who Woody Allen is.

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Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at tarajudah.com and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

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