Every so often, I find myself having the same discussion about separating art from the artist. I find it generally unfulfilling, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a conversation to be had on the issue. One such exchange happened a few weeks ago, in a bar on Shattuck with a visiting Norwegian friend from back home. The issue came up naturally, and they expressed the sentiment that they’d be more comfortable consuming problematic media once the author was dead and gone.
This viewing choice, considering the well-known death of the author theory in cultural criticism, seemed to me a bit on the nose.
In his essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes outlines his stance that literary criticism should not be limited by the notion of authorial intent. He writes that the “unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination.” To Barthes, meaning lies in the reader’s interpretation of a given work.
But who even is the author? In a TV show, one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the name listed under the ever-present “Created by” title card. In a film, the title of “auteur” is often bestowed upon the director. But outside the realm of literary fiction and fine art, works are generally collaborative. They resist the application of consistent theoretical frameworks. This ambiguity is not a bug, but rather a feature of media studies. It is inherent to the poststructural frame Barthes’ work exists within.
And the above self-indulgent tirade on the implications of art criticism brings me to Woody fucking Allen.
Hollywood’s continued acceptance of Allen is a testament to just how much the industry will let you get away with if you are a white man with the right kind of capital. He was accused of sexually assaulting his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992. Rather, the self-described “poster boy for the #MeToo movement” has seen minor career setbacks in that publishers are no longer interested in publishing his memoirs.
Discussions of Allen must, first and foremost, be distanced from the trend of “cancellation culture,” which has entered the zeitgeist of media consumption and calls out or “cancels” figures perceived to be problematic on a dime. Hot takes abound on shorthand platforms. Of course, a certain degree of upheaval is necessary for positive transformative change to occur, and holding people in power accountable for their actions remains a necessary and useful strategy. The rise of carelessly “cancelled” figures, however, has prompted some soul-searching in consumers as an ultimatum is seemingly presented. We either remain complacent, or we act.
But outside the realm of literary fiction and fine art, works are generally collaborative.
The internet moves quickly, and that willingness to act has been weaponized by bad actors like right-wing media influencer Mike Cernovich, who sicced his “manosphere” fanbase on “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn. Cernovich dug up offensive tweets the director had publicly apologized for before he was even a Disney employee. After the tweets came to light, there was widespread willingness on the political left to abandon Gunn despite him being open about his mistakes and articulating his regret in making them. This wholesale rejection of an individual based on their past regrets is an unfortunate development in mob justice, one which moves hastily and often unreasonably.
Allen, unlike Gunn, genuinely merits wholesale rejection. His 1977 film “Annie Hall” is still lauded as a defining moment in film history. As a teenager, I found myself enraptured by it. The school year from 2013 to 2014 was a bad one for me. It was my sophomore year in a music conservatory high school that left me with very little free time. A four-year romantic relationship had just ended, and I was plagued with insomnia. (As it turned out, sleeplessness is something that would follow me into my college years, to the surprise of no student at UC Berkeley.)
During those high school nights, I would watch movies most weekdays. “Annie Hall” was one of those movies. With the movie concerning the minutiae of doomed relationships, I watched it at the exact time I thought I needed it. I understood my unhealthy willingness to sacrifice sleep for “culture” to be a cultivation of myself. Looking back, I cringe at the thought of having related so deeply to the main character and Allen self-insert, Alvy Singer.
I do not see the utility in my continuing to sing this film’s praises. I have grieved the personal significance it had to me and suspect that I’m not the only one. But the fact remains that when I pursued my minor in film and creative writing, the short film I directed for my final exam mirrored the last few minutes of “Annie Hall,” both thematically and emotionally. The scene sees Alvy reflecting on a chance encounter he had with the eponymous Annie Hall, portrayed by Diane Keaton, years after their breakup. Keaton’s voice soars sweetly, if ever so clumsily, over a gentle piano. We are treated to images of everything the two have been through together, and it is all unapologetically sentimental.
His 1977 film “Annie Hall” is still lauded as a defining moment in film history.
Unapologetic sentimentality is one of my defining features. Having not watched the film in years by the time I made my own short film, mirroring its emotional beats seemed to just come naturally. Even then, the sheer impact this film had made on my work was not yet apparent to me.
That changed last week.
In the basement of the Berkeley Student Cooperative’s Cloyne Court, what used to be a stage for various East Bay punk bands in the 1990s is set up as a small TV lounge. I had planned on watching “Annie Hall” again for an article, and my friend Izzy was there for moral support. Some of our friends dropped in every now and again out of curiosity, but the mood was ambivalent.
Part of me wishes I could hate the film. But it remains an intimate and honest representation of the life and death of a romantic relationship. The degree to which it has been tainted is put into stark relief, with references to child molestation that almost make you think Allen is self-aware. But not quite. “Think of the mathematical possibilities,” Alvy’s best friend says. He is describing sex with 16-year-old girls. It was not a fun film to revisit.
“The author” may or may not be dead, depending on your perspective. But the survivors of Allen’s abuse are very much alive, and my relationship with his art is defined by the paratext — everything outside the boundaries of the film itself. I am not interested in divorcing the work of Woody Allen from the person Woody Allen, as his work is so inherently tied to his person. With Allen’s work, there is no question who is the author, the auteur, even by modern collaborative movie-making standards. His 1979 film “Manhattan” sees a character written and portrayed by himself as a 42-year-old writer dating a 17-year-old. It’s so darkly reminiscent of his later life, it’s uncanny.
Even then, the sheer impact this film had made on my work was not yet apparent to me.
We, as savvy media consumers, have the power to decide who we want to canonize. The work of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl is still taught in film schools around the world. To me, it is arguable whether she was the great documentarian she is often made out to be. She had the good sense to make use of effective imagery that had been pioneered by prior filmmakers. She was on good terms with a fascist power on the rise and similarly well-acquainted with an immense production budget. Implying that craft is rewarded over spectacle is disingenuous flattery. We can choose not to canonize Riefenstahl. And we can choose not to canonize Woody Allen.
In the final moments of “Annie Hall”, Allen’s character neatly sums up what he wants us to take away from the film:
“This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’
“Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships, y’know. They’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd. But I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.”
The experience of rewatching “Annie Hall” made me realize just how much I have changed since my sophomore year of high school. I see glimpses of Allen’s monstrosity in the film that I didn’t see back then. And my interpretation is based almost entirely on what I already know to be true about the author. It’s inconspicuous. We go through all of the heartbreak and the madness, again and again, in order to feel close to someone.
As notes on the piano descend rapidly and the screen inevitably fades to black, I am struck with grief that a film that has held such a special place in my heart could have come from such a vile man. I am simultaneously confident that my decision is the right one.
I think it’s time to break some proverbial eggs.