So here’s the thing: I’m a big fan of Woody Allen’s work. And that, I realize, makes me a bit of a… what’s the word… target? Okay, if not a target then… a suspect? Well, something—something that, frankly, makes makes me feel uncomfortable.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road: I teach screenwriting at a fairly large and renown university. Inevitably, an example from Mr. Allen’s work will come up in my instruction. In these occasions, every time, I am compelled to give a short disclaimer, a bit of a suggestion to temporarily couch any personal opinions about Mr. Allen the person and, for the purposes of the class, focus on the actual work at hand. I immediately feel strange; as if, by my use of the technical example of Mr. Allen’s work, I am some how aligned with, or worse, allied with, the man himself—and by that, I mean, of course, not the man, but the truly terrible things he has been accused of. (This begs the inevitable question: Why don’t you just don’t leave out these examples? My answer: Their actual worth as instruction to my students far outweighs any discomfort that I might take away from the exchange.)
Look, I get it. I understand that there is some (a lot of) controversy regarding Mr. Allen’s personal life. And I am and have always have been of the mind that, well, where there’s smoke, there’s probably some kind of fire—I’m just an Occam’s Razor sort of guy. Sorry. But I’m not here to debate the veracity of any claims made against (or for) him—those are the purview other people, other judges (literally, in some cases), other arbiters of morality to deliver their verdicts. But, me?
I simply don’t care.
For me, my adoration starts and ends with his work—and, make no mistake, on balance, I adore his work; I find his writing to be incredibly observant, honest, and legitimately poetic. And I also like, frankly, that it’s not all great stuff—some of it just plain sucks. (I absolutely hated Irrational Man, for example.) I like how he just keeps taking swings—some hit, a lot don’t, but he just keeps churning the work out.
But let’s be real here, that’s all I have: his work. And that’s all that I should have.
It’s not my business what Mr. Allen does or doesn’t do in his life. That’s just not part of the bargain that I made with Mr. Allen’s distribution structure for his art. He writes and directs films, they get released in the usual way—via major studios’ distribution models—and I consume them. Simple as that. I’m not sure how or why Mr. Allen’s—or any artist’s work I admire—personal life is included in that model. Regardless of what proclivities this life might include.
Here, let me respectfully recall the very basic art/artist/audience equation:
The artist creates the art. The audience experiences the art. Notice that the art is at the centre of this exchange, with the artist and the audience staying on their side of the velvet rope that surrounds the art. The art, you may see my point, exists on its own, separate of both the artist and the audience. End of story.
Put simply, there is no arrangement, implicit or explicit, made to ensure that one agent knows anything about the other—the artist’s knowledge of the audience or vice versa is never implied or understood.
Okay, how about this? Do you expect—or would you even want—the author of your favourite book (or your favourite rap artist or musician or painter or filmmaker or chef) to know everything about you in exchange for your experiencing their work? Should, say, Paul McCartney be able to review and adjudicate my personal movements before I am able to insert my copy of Band on the Run into my CD player? (Yeah, insert laugh here, kiddos—A CD player! Ha, ha, ha... Oh, wait, you never got the chance to see the Rolling Stones in their prime? You mean you didn’t spend your childhood hanging out outside all day and night with no adult supervision? You completely missed out on The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The New York Dolls, T. REX?!! Yeah, keep laughing, Junior.) If, after some rumination on some poor life choices I have made, Macca decides I’m not worth that badass opening guitar riff, should I not be able to listen to it? Should that be it for me? Should I be denied the melodic misadventures of said band, the percussive consequences of the search for them by the county judge who held a grudge? The jailer man? Sailor Sam?
Sounds absurd, doesn’t it?
Look, here’s the thing; this is why I’m bothering you with this today. This past week, I came across this article about, among other things (the Cannes film festival, indirectly), Woody Allen’s accusations of sexual assault. This got me thinking.
If you’re one of the few (the proud!) people that read this blog thing I’ve got going here, well, first off, ‘Thank you’—no, seriously; it’s nice to know that someone reads the words that you choose, the sentences that you craft. But know this: I will, inevitably, bring Woody Allen’s work into the fun we have here in some way.
The fact is that this is a blog about, ostensibly, my years of coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s—and, for me, a big part of those years were watching Woody Allen movies, reading Woody Allen short stories, essays. (A good part of those formative years were also spent as a resident of New York City, the very backdrop of Mr. Allen’s work.) It could be plausibly argued that I learned too much of how I understand men and women’s emotional movements with each other from these pieces of work (one of my best friends makes a reasonable argument that this has ‘crippled’ my understanding to a degree), but that’s for another blog post, another conversation.
Just understand this: if I see any kind of analogue for myself in Mr. Allen’s work, it is in his characters, as in, say, Alvy in Annie Hall or as Issac in Manhattan, not as the person-that-actually-exists known as Woody Allen. (Similarly, it’s Annie Hall, not Diane Keaton, who I might identify someone in my life with, for example.)
So, what do you think? Should we conflate the artist with the art? Should we punish the son for the sins of the father? For that matter, should we give a toss?
Feel free to leave a comment in the comments section or, if you’re reading this via Facebook, drop your wisdom there.