Monday, February 12, 2018

The Film Critic as Moral Haranguer: A.O. Scott on Woody Allen

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam (1972).

Though I often disagree with his esthetic judgments, I have always had a great deal of respect for the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott – for his intelligence, for his literacy, for his skill at advancing an argument, and above all for the quality of his prose. And until now I’ve always thought him fair-minded. But his article, “Coming to Terms with Woody Allen,” which appeared in print in the Times on Friday, February 1, is shocking: a spurious and opportunistic personal attack masquerading as an analysis of Woody Allen’s movies. (You can access it online here.)

Here’s how Scott begins his piece:
On the morning of the Oscar nominations, I was chatting with a stranger about movies, as one does. The conversation turned to Woody Allen. “My son has seen all his movies, and he thinks he’s innocent,” she said. “I’ve seen all his movies, and I think he’s guilty,” I said.
He does mediate this startling opening salvo in the second paragraph: “The words we chose weren’t quite the right ones. Innocence and guilt are legal (and also metaphysical) standards.” But Scott is far too accomplished a writer not to know that by beginning with the definitive statement that he believes Allen guilty of molesting his seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, in 1992, and that the proof is in his movies, he has made an indelible accusation and a confident assertion based on his expertise as a movie critic. “It’s not just a matter of whether you believe Dylan Farrow’s accusation of sexual abuse... or the denial from her father, Mr. Allen,” he continues. “It’s also a matter of who deserves the benefit of the doubt.” I would have thought that anyone who has been accused of a single instance of child molestation by a single alleged victim and who has never stopped, over twenty-six years, professing his innocence deserves the benefit of the doubt, but let’s proceed with Scott’s brief against Woody Allen.

What passes for evidence in the ensuing argument is a combination of several weak – unsupportable – claims. First there is a defense of the biographical fallacy (i.e., that a work of art necessarily reflects the life and character of the artist): “The separation of art and artist is proclaimed – rather desperately, it seems to me – as if it were a philosophical principle, rather than a cultural habit buttressed by shopworn academic dogma.” Really? That’s all it is – a worn tradition invented by out-of-touch scholars? I would have thought that it was an intellectual habit acquired by adults who are capable of holding two ideas in their head at the same time. It’s true that Allen’s protagonists tend to be variations on the same character, often played by Allen himself. But I don’t assume when I read one of Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman novels that, however much of himself Roth has used to construct Zuckerman, there is no distinction at all between the author and the character. The work of an artist can certainly tell us something about his or her attitudes: we know from his comic thrillers that the Floridian novelist Carl Hiaasen is an environmentalist and from his poetry that Ezra Pound was anti-Semitic. But what we mostly learn is what qualities he or she possesses as an artist. In his brilliant exegesis of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights at the beginning of his piece “A Feeling of Sad Dignity,” the great critic Robert Warshow shows that what most viewers respond to in Chaplin as touching and exquisite is rigged in such a way that we’re continually in the position of admiring Chaplin himself – as writer and director and as The Little Tramp – for his delicacy and sensitivity. If you buy Warshow’s argument (and I do), then it illustrates how solipsistic Chaplin’s art is. But assuming you’ve seen a certifiable glimpse of what he’s like as a man is making a hell of a leap. It’s not much more sophisticated or much more persuasive than the assumptions my parents used to make about the personal lives of drivers who cut them off on the highway when we went on road trips when I was a teenager.

Next Scott quotes an exchange from Herbert Ross’s 1972 film Play It Again, Sam, which Allen wrote and starred in: “’Did you hear another Oakland girl got raped?’ Diane Keaton asks. ‘But I was nowhere near Oakland!’ says Mr. Allen...” Scott doesn’t actually claim that these two lines prove that the man who wrote them and speaks reply is a rapist; he skates away to another idea, a comparison of his own youthful adoration of Allen to the character Allan Felix’s hero worship of Humphrey Bogart in the movie. But of course he’s implying that the kind of man who thinks rape is funny is the kind of man who could perpetrate one, or something approaching one. We no longer make rape jokes, but plenty of people did in 1972, and I don’t think that every one of them can seriously be considered to have been a potential rapist. And though, compared to the outrageous assumption, remarkable in a professional critic, that dramatic language is evidence of the writer’s real-life agenda, this is a relatively minor issue, Scott doesn’t seem to have considered that this quip might be a comment on Felix’s paranoia – a characteristic shared by all of the figures Allen has played in his own movies – rather than on his sexual proclivities.

Then Scott makes a generalization about the women in Allen’s movies whom his protagonists reject: they’re “shrewish, needy, shallow or boring.” Is it too glib to say that presumably that’s why his heroes reject them, on their way to finding more suitable partners – as, say, Rosalind Russell rejects Ralph Bellamy in favor of Cary Grant in His Girl Friday or Melanie Griffith shows her maturity by moving on from Ray Liotta to Jeff Daniels in Something Wild? Scott’s point might be more convincing if he provided some examples; in fact, it’s often the case that the women reject the Woody Allen character, not the other way around. I’ve never liked Manhattan, partly because of the way Allen draws the female characters – very differently from the way he drew Keaton’s Annie Hall in his previous romantic comedy, who grows up and past Allen’s Alvy Singer, leaving him, but not us, baffled about why she broke up with him. I’d even go so far as to say that his model in Manhattan is Chaplin in City Lights, that in it his art is as self-adoring as Chaplin’s. But how is his unappealing portrayal of the women in Manhattan, or even the fact that his character, Isaac, dates a college student, relevant to Dylan Farrow’s accusation that he molested her when she was a little girl? Scott proclaims that you can watch Allen’s movies and be sure that he’s guilty of what she’s accused him of, but he doesn’t come up with a single shred of even coded evidence. What he does conclude – though after reading through his article three times I still can’t find the cause for that effect – is that when you re-watch, or at any rate re-think, Allen’s movies in the light of Dylan Farrow’s allegation, “a sensibility that seemed sweet, skeptical and self-scrutinizing may have been cruel, cynical and self-justifying all along.” And that makes him a child molester?

A friend who believes Farrow’s story assumed, when I said I didn’t, that Woody Allen is a hero of mine whom I can’t let go of. Actually, Allen has never been one of my heroes, and I don’t like most of his pictures; my point of view is based on the reasonableness of his defense on a 1992 segment of 60 Minutes (which you can see on YouTube), on the fact that the case was never prosecuted, and especially on the unlikelihood that a claustrophobe like Allen would seek out a crawl space in an attic to initiate sexual contact. (I’m claustrophobic myself, and there’s no impulse strong enough to get me into a crawl space.) But Scott’s treatment of Allen reads unmistakably like the ire of a fan whose idol has let him down. At the end of the penultimate paragraph of his article he writes:
Mr. Allen’s films and writings are part of the common artistic record, which is another way of saying that they inform the memories and experiences of a great many people. I don’t mean this as a defense, but an acknowledgement of betrayal and shame.
There we have it: betrayal. What Scott makes clear in his piece is that all his life he has been reading Allen’s movies as a reflection of a charming, sexy nerdiness and therefore making excuses for his conduct (cheating on Mia Farrow with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and then marrying Soon-Yi despite the significant age difference between them). Now, in the light of #MeToo, he’s decided that there’s a less appetizing side of Allen’s screen persona and that therefore he’s been fooling himself about Allen’s personal life. To the first part of his new reading of Allen I’d say it’s taken one of America’s most widely read film critics an awfully long time to grow out of his adolescent adoration of Allen the artist. The second part is a prime example of the logical fallacy.

Hollywood’s behavior around Dylan Farrow’s renewed allegation has been reprehensible – not only because, to quote a play I dislike, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, it assumes that the accuser is always holy now, but mainly because it’s obnoxiously sanctimonious and despicably self-serving. The actors in Allen’s unreleased new movie who have made a big show of donating their salaries to various organizations that support abused women are making sure that, in this cultural climate, they look like they’re on the right side, just as in the 1950s actors who were worried about their careers made sure to distance themselves from anyone who was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. What makes Rebecca Hall so positive that Dylan Farrow is telling the truth and Woody Allen is lying? When Diane Keaton spoke up for Allen, she had to endure Judd Apatow’s insults. Who the hell is Judd Apatow to put down Keaton, a close friend and colleague of Allen’s for half a century, for standing up for him? Apatow’s merely trumpeting his own virtue – and, I’m sorry to say, so is A.O. Scott. An acknowledgement of betrayal and shame? Scott ought to be ashamed of himself.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


  1. In the same vein, Richard Brody's article in early January (I think) was an abberation of sick opportunistism. Thank you for your great approach.

  2. Well done Steve. One overarching issue is that too many of us mix up characters (and their fiction) with the fact of the real person. As for me, I'll take my hypocrisy straight up: John Lennon screaming "Daddy come home!" when he did the same abandonment trick to his kid Julian. And yet, I'd be loathe to throw out Lennon's work. Further, as you so well put it, reading between the lines to make psychological/criminal conclusions is very, very risky (or even reckless) business that borders on self-righteousness.