Woody Allen has a new movie, and new, or at least revived, accusations of incestuous pedophilia. I’m not interested in the first, and like most people repulsed by the very thought of the latter. You can read, or might already have read, about all this in a story on our website headlined “In Woody Allen, media & moviegoers again confront ambiguity.”
There’s no “ambiguity” about the things Woody Allen has been accused, over the last 20-plus years, by his own family, of doing to some of its members — only loathing and revulsion. The “scandal” of his affair with teen stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn, whom he later married, turned out to be a PG-rated preview.
But we are confronted again with the problem of how we’re supposed to feel and respond to genuinely evil deeds on the part of otherwise exceptional people.
I’ve batted this around before, and still don’t have any answers.
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Woody Allen is an extraordinary cinematic artist with a great body of work … and if he did even some of the things his family has accused him of doing, his talent is irrelevant to his character, and morally unredemptive in every sense.
But can the human being and the creative product — or, in Yeats’ poetic metaphor, the dancer and the dance — ever be completely separated? That’s the “ambiguity”: How are we supposed to feel about Allen movies we loved for years before we knew about any of this stuff? Granted, the idea of his character’s affair with a teenage Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan” creeps me out now in a way that makes me never want to see it again; but “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” are still classics. Are they less so if they really did come from the fertile artistic imagination of a sexual slimebag?
Roman Polanski is still a fugitive from American justice for the drugged rape of a 13-year-old in 1977. He should have spent every moment since in prison, and should never draw a free breath again. But I can’t just will myself to stop liking “Chinatown” or “The Pianist” even if I know their creator is morally loathsome.
We’re so used to bad behavior on the part of prominent people that a certain amount of it we take for granted, even laugh off. We don’t really expect kings, queens, lords, ladies, actors, artists, musicians, politicians, even (perhaps most of all) high-profile evangelists to lead pristine lives. Sexual escapades, drug busts, drunken outbursts, casual pregnancies, illicit lovers seem to be part of the package more often than not in the overlapping worlds of privilege and celebrity.
But when the behavior crosses a line, sometimes a starkly obvious one, the equation — especially between art and artist — changes substantially.
"I believe Woody Allen is one of the great American filmmakers,” wrote Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com. “I believe Dylan Farrow when she says Allen molested her as a child. The two thoughts are not mutually exclusive. But they are painful to reconcile."
Think about Mel Gibson, or Bill Cosby. Think about Ezra Pound, one of the greatest American poets, a committed fascist who during World War II made radio broadcasts from Italy supporting Hitler and Mussolini, and denouncing Jews, Roosevelt and the United States. Pablo Picasso was a serial abuser who once put out a cigarette on a lover’s body. These are just a few of the ones we know about.
This is a recycled hypothetical (at least it’s my own), but let’s suppose some historian finds unimpeachable evidence of some unspeakable evil in the life of Shakespeare, or Socrates, or Beethoven, or Mark Twain. Should their plays and philosophies and symphonies and stories be yanked out of libraries and concert halls and classrooms and consigned to some moral lockbox along with their disgraced creators? What about somebody whose work was of unquestionable moral value and made human society better, like a Charles Dickens?
Woody Allen is easy. He’s too tainted now for me to be interested in seeing any more of his movies, and especially in paying to see them. I’m not interested in seeing any more Polanski on the screen, either, unless it involves him in an orange jumpsuit.
Condemning obvious evil is also easy. What’s complicated — “painful” is Matt Seitz’s almost perfect word — is coming to terms with the incomprehensible complexity of human beings capable of, and responsible for, both evil and greatness.
Dusty Nix is the Ledger-Enquirer editorial page editor; 706-571-8528, firstname.lastname@example.org.