Publicity still for the film Take the Money and Run (1969). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Over the last few weeks, many have voiced outrage over Woody Allen receiving a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Golden Globes. The controversy was almost single handedly sparked by Allen’s (maybe?) son Ronan Farrow, who tweeted shortly after the event, “Missed the Woody Allen tribute – did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?”
The woman in question is Ronan’s sister Dylan, who wrote an open letter to The New York Times earlier this month to confirm once again her 21 year-old allegations that Allen molested her as a child.
I encourage everyone to check out the comprehensive coverage of the arguments both for and against Allen from last week’s Radio Dispatch episodes for further details, or research the issue via Google. At the very least, the current testimony surrounding the controversy highlights the power of expression that the internet allows, and how irrevocably such communication has changed our relationship with history. It’s only in our contemporary digital era that Woody Allen could face scrutiny from a decades old incident in nearly as intense fashion as when it was first reported.
Even outside the ugly details of the case, another debate is taking place in the worlds of film and commentary that transcends merely one incredibly accomplished director: How ethical it is to separate the art from the artist?
The conflict becomes especially tricky when considering an artist as acclaimed as Allen for a crime as despicable as the sexual assault of a child.
Looking back, Woody Allen’s prime as a writer and director (or even a standup comedian) was a time very different from the one we live in now, one in which he, and other directors like Scorcese, Coppola, Kubrick, and Friedkin, reigned supreme. Allen became a name as a filmmaker decades ago when competition and public interest for doing so were at a peak, thus creating a generation gap in his perception along with many of his era.
Now, in the age of social media, we journey deeper and deeper into the post-modern period where art is no longer distinguished by the single artistic genius at the center of production. Our consideration has shifted more to how well individuals can collaborate with others than esteemed creative icons.
That said, if the backlash from this year’s Golden Globes proves anything it’s that, conversely, art will be inextricable from an artist so long as the subject is thought of as a terrible person.
Child molestation and sexual assault, of course, have risen beyond a taboo and into perhaps the most frowned upon moral transgression in the western world. This evolved moral consciousness probably plays into the reason that Woody Allen’s past allegations are being so thoroughly examined through a lens by which all recorded history is available to us at the click of a button.
That is no defense of the crime or what Allen has been accused of, but merely an objective statement of fact. The fact of the matter is, who does America in 2014 hate more, O.J. Simpson or Jerry Sandusky? My money’s on Sandusky.
Though approval seemed universal when Joe Paterno’s statue was removed from the Penn State campus (perhaps except among the college’s students), there’s still one fact that can’t be taken away from Paterno’s legacy: he was an outstanding college football coach.
It’s possible to make this statement, without even mention of his moral failings, because of the objectivity athleticism affords its talents. They can take a player out of the Hall of Fame, but can they forcibly remove the collective memory of you winning all those championships? If you didn’t do a performance enhancing drug to get there, is the accomplishment no less legitimate, especially in the case of world records?
Artists, however, will always be treated differently as art is an intellectual endeavor. They employ their creativity, something that’s truly part of their characters.
Likewise, so are their morals. For artists, these two particular idiosyncrasies are very deep, telling aspects of their characters, so when we discover our esteemed creative figures making immoral decisions, we come across difficulties describing great talents solely as such when they harbor shameful personality flaws.
Somehow this seems all but true in the case of musicians. Or, well, certain musicians.
I could transition into a very long diatribe about R. Kelly right now, and while the example does say quite a bit, there are even more outstanding cases of bias to pull from, specifically when it comes to how we evaluate the moral failings of Baby Boomer artists versus the pop stars of today.
For instance, Twitter posters may never ever forgive Chris Brown for being an abusive boyfriend, even if Rhianna will, but John Lennon’s same violent tendencies as a husband has hardly scratched his legacy. Where the old world shared first wife Cynthia and Yoko Ono’s forgiveness and understanding for the emotionally troubled Lennon after his death, today’s internet audience has no problem slut shaming Rhianna for her acceptance.
But let’s get more specific with our parallels. Would anyone claim that Jimmy Page’s admitted kidnapping and raping of a fourteen-year-old girl at the height of Zeppelin’s fame ever comes up in conversations about the legendary band?
It’s a fairly well known story among biographers and general music geeks, but certainly one that has been buried in the band’s longer history of ‘70s zeitgeist debauchery. In fact, the case was first divulged in the book Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga by Stephen Davis, nearly a decade after the original incident. Davis illustrates how the victim, Lori Maddox, seems stricken with total Stockholm Syndrome, looking back at the entire affair as “romantic” despite details that would make Paterno apologists queasy.
In some sense, Page seems one awards show away for the sort of the double jeopardy trial in the court of public opinion that the internet has dutifully served Woody Allen so recently. Since he’s never really faced any actual consequence for these clearly illegal and abhorrent acts, consensual or not, it’s hard to say that he would be undeserving of the fall out. Until then, all the internet (or the universe for that matter) seems to want out of Led Zeppelin is a reunion tour.
If there appears to be any upside for when the Twittersphere’s penchant for rabid commentary turns into racism and bigotry, it’s that the platform has turned into a barrier by which all public figures — young or old — are subject to scrutiny under the criteria of new universal values that put the well being of the most vulnerable among us at their center.
While Woody Allen seems to be stuck in these crosshairs of late, any positive mention of his artistic output tends to be taken as some apology or defense of his accusations. There is real substantive debate to be had about whether or not we should continue to condemn a man, a rich and powerful man at that, standing against damning evidence but also with a verdict of innocence in the court of law.
There is no question, however, that it’s especially difficult for any of his fans to rationalize enjoying a would-be classic like Manhattan, that features Allen in the lead role of a grown man obsessed with an underage woman. If the old truism of ‘life imitating art and art imitating life’ is to be believed, the world many never be able to accept an Allen as a wholly innocent figure.