Sex Crimes and Misdemeanors

It’s Thanksgiving week, folks.  For me, that means several things will most definitely happen, as they always do:  I will eat half my body weight in pie.  I will listen to “Alice’s Restaurant” on the radio.  I will go to the TD Garden for a Celtics game (16 in a row, baby!).  And at some point, I will re-watch Hannah and Her Sisters.

In years past, none of those things was the least bit problematic.  (Particularly the pie.)  This year, however, I am faced with a moral dilemma that has hit the country like a tidal wave over the last couple months:  If a movie is made by someone who has committed a mortal sin, am I duty-bound not to watch it ever again?

Hannah and Her Sisters, released in 1986, has ranked at or near the top of my favorite films list from the moment I first saw it in the early 2000s.  A “Thanksgiving movie” of sorts—the holiday is observed at three different junctures in the story—I never miss it during the latter days of November, much like It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve or Jaws on the Fourth of July.

The trouble is, Hannah was directed by (and co-stars) one Woody Allen, the beloved New York and Hollywood institution who, in 1992, allegedly sexually assaulted his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was all of seven years old—a crime for which he has never been punished, either legally or financially.  Despite years of wide public knowledge of his possible—if not probable—predatory behavior toward prepubescent girls, he continues to churn out a film a year—invariably starring A-list actors—most of which turn a healthy profit and occasionally snag a stray Oscar or two.

Prior to the Age of Weinstein, Allen was able to get away with this through benefit of the doubt:  He would deny all accusations of impropriety and it would become his word against Dylan’s.

Then, in 2014, Dylan dispatched an open letter to the New York Times detailing the horrifying—and apparently ongoing—physical and mental trauma she has suffered from the incident in question, and the tide of public opinion began to turn—sort of.  (Allen’s response, also published in the Times, was a master class in condescending bitterness, clarifying nothing except how much he loathes Mia Farrow, his former partner and Dylan’s mother.)

Smash-cut to today—with one predator after another falling by the wayside, from Harvey to Cosby to Spacey to Louie—and it seems only a matter of time before Woody is evicted from polite society once and for all, and I would say good riddance.  Better 25 years late than never.

And yet the movies remain, and with them the question that will continue to plague us until the end of time:  As a consumer, is it possible to separate the art from the artist in one’s daily life?

For me, the answer has always been yes, and the #MeToo movement has done nothing to alter my basic view on this subject, which is that compartmentalization—i.e., the willful disregarding of certain facts at certain moments—is an essential component of one’s appreciation of the arts.

We might agree the world would be a better place if millions of men were not disgusting, power-hungry pigs who systematically treated women like their own personal playthings.  However, it is equally true that great ugliness can occasionally yield great beauty, and it does society no favors to cast out every film, TV show, album, painting and idea that was borne from a morally repugnant source.  Knowing what we know about the Founding Fathers, I would offer America itself as Exhibit A:  Are you prepared to renounce “all men are created equal” just because the man who wrote those words didn’t seem to believe them himself?

Of course you’re not, because great works transcend the context from which they arose and can be considered and appreciated anew with each passing generation.  We can condemn the man without condemning the work, because in the long run, we will forget the man altogether while the work will endure indefinitely.  That’s what art is all about.

As it happens, Hannah and Her Sisters is a perfect illustration of how minimally a film director’s faults extend to the final product—particularly when the former happens to be a prodigy and the latter happens to be a masterpiece.

The great irony of Woody Allen (assuming the assault allegations are true) is how generous his films are toward women—how he so frequently casts first-rate actresses in strong leading roles and draws out some of the finest performances of their careers.  It’s no wonder Hollywood starlets keep knocking at his office door:  Allen’s films have produced more Academy Awards for acting (seven) than those of any other living director, and all but one of those Oscars were won by women.

In short:  If Woody Allen the man believes in treating women like crude sex objects, Woody Allen the writer-director has not received that memo.  Apparently he can compartmentalize even more profoundly than his audience.

For that consideration alone, Hannah and Her Sisters deserves to retain its place high up on the Mount Olympus of cinema.  Beyond being an absorbing, warm, complex, funny, nuanced, ironic and economical tale of New York sophisticates living at the intersection of ambition, lust and existential dread, Hannah is also the rare male-directed film that repeatedly passes the Bechdel test—the feminist rule of thumb that asks, “Does this movie contain at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man?”

Boy, does it ever.  Indeed, the people in this movie talk to each other about pretty much everything sooner or later—love, sex, death, God, suicide, Bach, Caravaggio, E.E. Cummings, The Marx Brothers, architecture, opera, quail eggs, infidelity, artificial insemination and what Jesus might think about pro wrestling if he came back tomorrow.  (The film’s answer to that question is among Allen’s gut-splitting-est punch lines.)

What is finally so remarkable about Hannah and Her Sisters—alongside Allen’s other top-tier achievements like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Annie Hall and the notorious Manhattan—is how deeply it understands human desire and why we behave the way we do.  Why, for instance, a happily-married accountant would betray his wife by fiddling around with her emotionally vulnerable sister.  Or why a frustrated actress would subject herself to one rejection after another before deciding to try her hand at screenwriting.  Or why a successful TV producer would quit his job to go search for the meaning of life.  Or why a reclusive painter would refuse to sell his work to a man who will pay top dollar for it.

Of course, the answers to these mysteries can take years in therapy to sort out—which, in Allen’s own case, they famously have—but one imagines it has at least something to do with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—another timeless, irreplaceable concept first articulated by America’s most hypocritical founding father.

As a two-hour treatment of this material, Hannah and Her Sisters is on par with Ingmar Bergman in its seriousness of purpose and depth of thought, while somehow incorporating the same riotous, neurotic humor that has characterized virtually every film Allen has made since he began in the late-1960s.  It is a nearly perfect movie that enriches my mind and soul every time it plays—particularly on or around Thanksgiving—and I don’t require Woody Allen himself to uphold high (or, indeed, any) ethical standards for himself in order to enjoy the artistic and intellectual gifts he has bestowed upon the world—past, present and future.

When it comes to cinema, the heart wants what it wants.

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