Woody Allen Redux: The Blame Game

I started my Woody Allen piece last week with a tie-in about Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose shocking overdose on the same day of Dylan Farrow's harrowing (Farrowing?) NY Times' piece caused me to ponder just how much the private lives of our favorite artists should affect how we feel about their art and legacy.  

PSH in Doubt
In writing my blog, though, I may have missed  a more obvious connection between the late Mr. Hoffman and the scandalous Woody Allen: doubt. Doubt is the name of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play and movie, the latter of which starred Hoffman as a priest accused of molesting a young boy.  The gimmick of the show is that the audience never finds out for sure whether Hoffman touched the kid -- Hoffman's Father Flynn is personable and likeable and believable, but also lonely and, of course, a member of a profession long notorious for such crimes.  You want so badly to believe sweet, good-humored, doting, kind Father Flynn could never do such a thing, but the whole time, there's part of you that feels a gnawing...doubt.

Doubt -- this word, this concept, more than anything, has permeated discussions about the renewed sexual abuse allegations leveled at Woody Allen.  My post last week on the subject incited a raging hot debate on my Facebook page, not so much about the questions my piece posed (how to reconcile deploring a person with adoring his films), but rather about how we wrestle with our doubt, and to whom we give the benefit of it.  The question that erupted from all this was: when accusations are made and evidence is sparse, who gets our presumptions and who gets our blame and who gets our belief?

Since this lengthy, impassioned, worthwhile debate happened on Facebook, and not in this blog's comments, I wanted to share some of it here. The first side boiled down, crudely, to "Team We'll Never Know," a contingent of who-are-we-to-say-what-happened film fans who think dredging up a decades-old he-said/she-said is pointless at best unfair to Allen at worst. Their centerpiece is this Daily Beast article, written by Robert Weide who produced and directed PBS's two-part Woody Allen: a Documentary. I'll be the first to acknowledge that Weide's article is persuasive, well-written, and grounded in personal anecdotes and observations of Woody himself -- which is more than I or many of the heated commenters on the internet can boast. Weide's article argues that amid a nasty divorce and a bitter, brutal custody battle, a scorned Mia Farrow "planted" the molestation idea in her daughter's head. In this narrative, Dylan Farrow is still a victim, but a gullible, susceptible, naive victim of a crazy, manipulative mother.

"Team We'll Never Know" argues that in the absence of evidence -- a conviction, a confession -- there's just no way to confirm the truth or who's telling it, and in that big chasm of uncertainty we can all still love Woody Allen because hey, who knows, right? What this side misunderstands, though, is that implicit in the "not so fast, we don't know" analysis is a presumption, a choice, that favors Woody Allen, that favors the accused.

That's why the opposing side is not "Team Dylan," it's "Team Why is That Your Reaction?" The crux of their argument is touched on in this piece, but nowhere better said than by my old friend and a great writer, Matt Sailor, who wrote:
 . . . .The point that you [prior Team Woody commenter] don't address, in the interest of blaming some larger imaginary media conspiracy, is that a woman has publicly shared her story of abuse and rape at the hands of her former guardian, and you're choosing to side with the abuser. Why? Why is that your reaction? Why is the word of Weide, a man who, as much as he claims to be objective, has spent months of his life studying Allen's work and very much has a vested interest in the continued celebration of Allen as an autuer...why is that man's word more credible? Why? Why are the considerable jumps to conclusions and logical acrobatics that he does more persuasive than a woman's simple story: I was abused? 
I mean, that's it, right? That's what the uncertainty breaks down into, isn't it?  So, why? Literally, why is that our reaction? Well, the foundation seems to be that our society holds up this "presumption of innocence," doctrine, dating to Blackstone and before, where we've long subscribed to the notion that it's better for 10 guilty men to go free than one innocent man to suffer.  But, this article, which is hotly written and somewhat meandering, turns that doctrine on its head (in a social way, not a legal way): what happens if we re-frame exactly whom we're presuming to be innocent? The article posits: in a he-said/she-said like this, isn't presuming Allen is innocent necessarily presuming that Dylan is lying? Where there's no proof, why does the accused deserve our presumption over the abused?
Mia Farrow in Purple Rose of Cairo

It may all bring us back to this question: are we selective in our condemnation of people we like? In the absence of proof, do we project guilt and innocence onto parties as it is convenient for us? Based on liking them, or identifying with them, or their gender, or our privilege issues, or it fitting into a narrative that makes us comfortable? Or the fact that we want to watch their damn movies? If we presume Dylan Farrow is lying, isn't it easier for us to avoid the whole sad, confusing, inconvenient questions I posed in my first piece? If she's a liar, can't we all watch Annie Hall again?! How great is that?

. . . But if Dylan is lying, then isn't Mia Farrow lying, and what if we want to watch Purple Rose of Cairo (an Allen film starring Mia as an abused wife, hah.)? Do we have to boycott Farrow's movies if she's the liar? Can anyone on any team ever watch Hannah and Her Sisters ever again ever?

You guys, did Allen molest his daughter? I don't know. But I do believe that the way we hold that question in our heads, the things we (secretly, involuntarily, innocently, invisibly) weigh when we consider it, the priorities and presumptions we dole out when we decide for ourselves, say something about who we we are, and what type of mistakes we're willing to make.

"If my films make one more person miserable, I'll feel I've done my job." -- Woody Allen
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