Revering the Art of a Monster
I have never been a Woody Allen fan. I have never been charmed by the neurotic affectation, nor recognized his alleged brilliance. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed some of his work. Bullets Over Broadway is probably the closest he’s ever come to brilliance in my opinion, although that is at least as attributable to Dianne Weist and Jennifer Tilly as it might be to Woody Allen. For a hot second, I was tempted to reconsider my opinion with Midnight in Paris, but my original opinion was cemented with To Rome with Love.
There is a genre of theatre I call “Why Does Daddy Touch Me?” They’re therapy pieces, critical for the writer to process trauma, but almost never essential for an audience to experience. The reason for that is because most often the focus of the piece isn’t to entertain or enlighten and audience, or to educate other trauma survivors, but for the writer to either express overwhelming emotion, or document in some way the traumatic event. Only when a trauma is unique does it carry the potential for value to an audience. Sadly, child molestation and incest has been well-traveled ground since the Greeks and rarely does a modern writer have anything new to say on the subject. That doesn’t diminish the importance of the work for the writer, but I question the need for anyone to buy a ticket for such theatre. And I say that as a writer who has written a “Why Does Daddy Touch Me?” play. I learned a lot from the process, and have regrettably inflicted it on an audience, so I know of what I speak.
When I heard that there was going to be a four-part documentary on the accusations of molestation against Woody Allen, I was less than enthused. I’ve read Ronan Farrow’s book on the Weinstein assaults, which is an excellent work not on the assaults themselves, but on the struggle women face in being believed. His sister’s story is part of the book. Story told. Told well. Do I need to experience it in a four-hour documentary?
As it turns out, yes.
There is an undeniable element of revenge in the piece. That’s a perfectly natural, understandable, and even respectable goal. But the documentary transcends those pedestrian motivations and captures the agony this family suffered because of the events in the attic. The first two segments are structured in such a way that the viewer is allowed to question the credibility of the claims. Many accusations have been made against Mia Farrow and the possibility of her coaching her child to make these accusations and watching these segments, it’s not hard to see the logic behind those accusations. Any woman who witnesses her lover seduce her daughter and then marry her has ample motivation to ruthlessly strike out against that man. See Medea, Clytemnestra, et al.
But the third and fourth segments erase all doubt. They meticulously not only build the argument for the plausibility of the allegations, they then present evidence for their veracity and of the powers that were in play to destroy the credibility of a child and her protective mother.
And it’s all there in Allen’s work.
In an attempt to reevaluate my artistic impressions, I decided to give Allen another chance to convert me from an artistic point of view. Does the work of a monster still have artistic value? Reviewing a film I had appreciated on some level would not do. I need to see one that I had loathed at the time of the first viewing. There are several, especially his early work, but I settled on Interiors.
Much is made of the recurring tropes in his films. There are many films, but few ideas. What’s first striking about Woody Allen is that he was a pioneer in personal branding long before that term became a cliché, playing the same character alleged to be some version of himself in every film. That’s how Allen posed the pieces, so it’s more than fair to accept the work on those terms. Of course the trope most under scrutiny is the older man/nymph-like younger woman trope. And with reason. It’s one Allen repeats ad nauseum surpassing the point of wish fulfillment and diving headlong into the realms of fetish. If Life didn’t imitate art, it sure did an excellent job of echoing it when Allen, who functioned in a parental role for years, seduced and then married Mia Farrow’s daughter.
Allen’s chief defense against the molestation charges are that a man in his fifties doesn’t suddenly become a child sexual predator. Yet look no further than Mia Farrow to question that assertion. At the time Farrow’s most acclaimed role was as a delicate waif tormented by Satan. She’d even famously pioneered the pixie haircut, making herself look as childlike as possible. She was a fully consenting adult in her relationship with Allen, but it’s not hard to see how her persona might appeal to a pedophile.
And then he seduced a teenager. Soon-Yi Previn was technically barely a consenting adult when Farrow found nude Polaroids of her in Allen’s apartment. Previn has always contended that a physical relationship did not happen until after her eighteenth birthday, and that may be true. But the paternal role Allen played in her life, no matter how peripherally still makes the relationship…icky.
I’d heard that Manhattan is damn near a confessional if not downright prescient, so I decided that probably wouldn’t be a fair piece to try to assess the quality of Allen’s work. But I thought Interiors would be safe. It drips with pretension. Artfully austere, dialogue so crisp it snaps from the screen. There’s not an ounce of the trademark Allen dithering in any of the characters. But the first time I watched it, I had to take a break of a couple of days to finish it. It is a film with a capital F.
Much of that opinion survived my second viewing. Geraldine Page is, in fact, brilliant in the Film, and almost singlehandedly earns that capital F. Sam Waterstone is serviceable, but rest of the cast is best described as self-conscious. I didn’t hate it to the degree I did upon the first viewing, but I also wasn’t anywhere near declaring Allen an American genius. So, after the viewing I went online to try to understand the contemporaneous thoughts.
I found an article, probably on VanityFair.com that talked about Interiors being Allen’s homage to Chekhov. With that insight, I could see the Chekhovian themes and influences at work: the aging woman at sea over her place in the world, the three sisters dissatisfied with their lives and wanting more, the bleak cinematography. It all made sense. I maybe had a notch more respect for the film, but I’d still rank it as a sophomoric mediocrity.
In light of the revelations made by Allen’s daughter, there is one scene in the film that stands out. And viewed through the current lens, it’s disturbing. The youngest sister is peripheral to much of the film, as is the husband of the main character. Allen has the two meet in a garage, whereupon they play out a version of the first Trigorin/Nina scene in The Seagull. Only in this version, Trigorin makes a pass at Nina and when rebuffed proceeds to attempt a rape. Stylistically it is incongruent to not only Chekhov but the rest of the film. No other character, for any reason, takes such aggressive action. The whole point of Chekhov is that the characters are incapable of taking action. Yet Allen felt the need to include a scene of sexual assault that’s also almost clinical in its realism. To be clear, this scene cannot be dismissed as being reinterpreted through a modern lens as sexual assault. It is unambiguous. There’s no artificial ennui. It’s not played for laughs. Much of it’s shot in the front seat of a car, which requires a tight two shot, a framing I don’t think is utilized anywhere else in the film. It’s the only moment in the film that elicited any emotional response from me, if you consider revulsion an emotional response. This scene takes place between two minor characters and does nothing to advance the plot, give insight to any of the characters, nor even entertain. At the end of the scene, the only new information we have is that a minor character is a sexual predator. And it has no impact upon the story in the slightest. The scene could very easily be removed from the film and not damage the narrative in the least.
Allen wrote, directed, and edited the film so that the scene was included.
Now, it should be noted that both the character and the actress portraying her were twenty-five at the time and she looks and behaves like a fully functioning adult. There’s no helpless waif in her. And there’s absolutely no reason to think that this event represents anything even close to an actual event from Allen’s life. That said, given the male/female dynamics in the rest of the Allen canon, this scene does raise disturbing questions.
I won’t be seeking out another Allen film. Not in support for Dylan Farrow, although I do support her and am relieved to know she seems to building a happy and healthy home life. I’m not protesting what I consider to be an unearned reputation for brilliance.
I won’t be seeking out another Allen film because watching them makes me feel dirty. There’s a phrase currently in use which I loathe but is appropriate here. Watching an Allen film now like listening to Allen say the quiet parts out loud. His films are not just confessions, they’re braggadocio. The scene in the garage may not memorialize an actual event, but there’s no denying that taken as part of an overall body of work it’s at least a fervent wish.