Oh good, you said, clicking on this. Another essay about the Woody Allen situation. That is just what we needed. Another six pieces by people who know nothing of the actual circumstances involved and we’re bound to have a breakthrough! Please, everyone weigh in on this as loudly as you can.
The function of this is not to go unraveling the threads of the actual events. There are people who know what happened then, and I am not one of them. There is little I can say that will change the lives or the Google results of anyone involved. The court of public opinion has no statutes of limitation or rules about double jeopardy.
The question that seems relevant: What do we do going forward when it comes to what we do know about and can control — that is, our relation to Woody Allen’s art? Anything? Nothing?
I should preface this by saying that I’m a fan of Allen’s work — at least, his written comedy and early stand-up, which I adore. “Without Feathers,” “Side Effects” and “Getting Even” all occupy prime real estate on my shelves. I’m less versed in the movies. I even missed “Annie Hall” on the grounds that it robbed Star Wars of Best Picture.
I have argued before — and will, I expect, keep arguing — that you have to judge the work by the work. Judge the sandwich by the sandwich. Judge the book by the book, the film by the film, the thing made according to its own merits or demerits, not those of the person who fashioned it. I believe this is the way to a world in which you have better sandwiches, books, films and art in general. If you start punishing things for coming from imperfect places, for coming from artists of whom you disapprove or with whom you disagree, the world loses out on whole mines of potential loveliness, and you might as well throw in the towel on art right now.
The one difficulty in applying this rule is that Woody Allen is not just an artist, he’s also a brand. Liked the movies? Buy his books! Read his “New Yorker” articles! He was a brand before it occurred to absolutely everyone that what you had to be was a brand. You could go movie by movie and make a case for each of them as independent works of art, but why would you? They’re an oeuvre. What sends you to see them or keeps you out of the theater is that they have the Woody Allen name attached.
Anyone so prolific for so long has this going for him — it’s not a book about a detective; it’s a Tom Clancy book. It’s not a horror story about a bad hotel; it’s a Stephen King book. By right of having come from this familiar mind, an individual piece of work stops having to leap over the hurdle of justifying itself on its merits.
But this is a little imprecise. You could well point out that the kind of brand you build by making things differs from the kind of brand you find everywhere else. The name might as well be a pseudonym. These people are famous because you like the things they made, not vice versa. But after long enough, the two bleed together.
But does this ask too much of the people who make our beautiful things? It’s not just characters who have to be likable. Now everyone does. Writers are notoriously bad at being likable, but if you want to write, you have to know how to shill for yourself, too. On Twitter. On Facebook. The public is polite about it, of course. Be as eccentric as you like, we say. If you want to retire from prying eyes to a cottage and hiss at your neighbors, that’s fine. Just tweet about it. It’s part of the beauty and the harm of the Internet, which puts a thin porous membrane between you and the people who make the things you love.
And there’s a certain irony in the fact that the other side in this wrenching family drama rose to prominence by doing just that: tweeting, inviting us in. None of this fallout would have happened — starting with the Golden Globes and cascading onto the pages of newspapers and into this week — if Ronan and Mia Farrow weren’t big on Twitter. And the trick of the part of Twitter where they excel is the same basic trick as being a good dinner guest. Be someone your listeners would like to have around, to comment on the passing scene. Be charming. Make us feel as though we’re a part of it all. It helps if you actually are charming, by nature, witty and warm and effervescent, but that is also a requirement of the medium.
If you like having these people around, new logic goes, you’ll also like the things they make. Here, check out my new TV show!
But what if you don’t? What if they disappoint, or horrify you?
So here we are back where we started, with that uncomfortably vivid image of trains in an attic, however far it takes you.
“On principle,” the poet W. H. Auden wrote in an essay on a biography of Wagner, “I object to biographies of artists, since I do not believe that knowledge of their private lives sheds any significant light upon their works.” It might, Auden continued, explain how a marital incident worked its way into, say, an opera scene, but it would not explain why that opera scene was good. Many people, he noted, had marital squabbles; not all of them produced “Die Walkure.”
Mere infamy doesn’t make art, even though a strange subgenre of art is bred by it — Hitler’s drawings or John Wayne Gacy’s clown paintings, for example. You wouldn’t want to buy them, in all likelihood, unless you knew they had been painted by John Wayne Gacy, which is the very reason you shouldn’t buy them.
Maybe in an ideal world, there are no bylines, only pseudonyms.
But of course there are bylines. Everyone’s a byline. You can’t read a series of GIFs about the State of the Union without being begged to follow its author on Twitter.
And Woody Allen, he of the prolific career of tremendous longevity, has thrived on the strength of his for a long time.
In an essay by Margo Rabb in the New York Times on the disappointment of meeting a literary idol, Justin Cronin noted, “When you read a book, you spend hours in intimate contact with the mind of another person — it’s an intense, but one-sided relationship. If any reader knew who we really were, it’s guaranteed they’d find us disappointing. The experience of a book is so much better than the experience of a person.” And, in the same paragraph, Elizabeth Gilbert concurred: “When I meet readers, I feel a responsibility not to disappoint them. But how do you not disappoint someone who’s invented you?”
What have we invented, in this case? How far are we willing to keep inventing? How much more intimate contact do we need — or want? This is where you have to decide. You love what you love. But you keep following on Twitter or heading to the movies because you want to know what else a particular mind contains. It’s a fair question: what would it have to hold to make you stop?