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Woody Allen: Man and moviemaker

How much bearing does Woody Allen's personal life have on the filmmaker's award-winning body of work?

Last updated: 14 Feb 2014 09:01
Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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The question boils down to the legacy of Woody Allen as a filmmaker, writes Dabashi [AP]

The continued saga of Woody Allen and his stepdaughter Dylan Farrow has turned a nasty family feud into a critical social concern.

Upon Allen's receiving of a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award, Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter published in the New York Times in which she accused her stepfather of having molested her. In a rebuttal, Allen has categorically denied any such misconduct and blamed his estranged former partner, Mia Farrow, for this vindictive act of publically defaming him, using their daughter "as a pawn for revenge".  

So far as the issue is a family trauma contested between a father and a daughter, no one, in clear conscience, can take sides without a sense of doubt that the other might also be telling the truth. But the vast publicity that the case has generated is not predicated on this moral dilemma.

It is because Woody Allen is a prominent filmmaker, and in the most recent round of publicity because he had been recognised for his lifetime achievements. For millions around the world, the question boils down to the legacy of Woody Allen as a filmmaker, and perforce the next Woody Allen film that comes out. Should, or would, they go out to see it or not? Is Woody Allen the man - thus accused, thus defamed - different from Woody Allen the moviemaker? 

Who is "Woody Allen"?

So what do we do, as those interested in his cinema, come the next Woody Allen movie? Do we denounce and dismiss him as a filmmaker, stop watching his films, use the accusation of his having abused his stepdaughter as an indication that he is no good as a filmmaker, or even if he were, we cannot bring ourselves to spend two hours or so in the company of a filmmaker who is also a man, a partner, a husband, a father, and precisely in those capacities he has presumably or allegedly failed? 

The fact is that the name that appears in front of Woody Allen's films does not refer to him as a man, a father, or a husband. It refers to the author and creator of a body of work that would have needed a signature at the bottom of their authorship.

The fact is that the name that appears in front of Woody Allen's films does not refer to him as a man, a father, or a husband. It refers to the author and creator of a body of work that would have needed a signature at the bottom of their authorship.

Woody Allen may be an entirely unreliable friend, an abusive husband,  - and yet again he might be a picture of propriety, fidelity, the exemplary father - but none of these things have anything to do with the signature, the citation, that appears at the top of his film credits. These are two different signifiers: Woody Allen the man and Woody Allen the moviemaker share a name but not a nomenclature. The name matches, even the persons, but not the personae. 

Woody Allen's films (and thus "Woody Allen") are a body of work, a collection of cinematic signs, and as such a critical component of who and what and where we are, in the latter part of the 20th century and after. His hypochondriac paranoia, his self-conscious paralysis, his uncensored access to his (and thereby our) subconscious, and his uncanny ability to verbalise, stage, and film them are all the quintessence of understanding our fragile humanity. As a person, Woody Allen, the author of these works and the maker of these films, could have been the devil incarnate or the proverbial Mother Teresa and it would have made no difference. 

A body of work such as Woody Allen's demands, exacts, and produces an authorship, and that authorship is rooted in the body of work itself, produced by a working hand between a proverbial nine to five - and what that author has done before that nine and after that five is entirely irrelevant to that body of work. 

Allen may or may not have perpetrated such a crime - but that suspicion is held on a realm diagonal to the site of a cinema we call "a Woody Allen movie". One of the greatest actors in history, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, just died because of drug abuse, with a heroin needle in his arm. Does that fact subtract in any shape or form from the ingenious moment when he stood in front of a camera and crafted some of the most memorable characters in cinema? 

I just saw Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" (2012) on a flight thinking to myself Woody Allen has been making this film over the last four decades. As an auteur filmmaker, he continues to make the same film, narrated around the filmic persona he has made of himself: self-conscious, paranoid, verbose, the very verisimilitude of anxiety personified. When we see Cate Blanchett in the lead role, she is a feminine version of the "Woody Allen" of his films, and not Woody Allen, the father, the partner, the alleged child molester, the innocent man, and the subject of controversy. 

A different creature comes out of us when we write, create, craft, act. 

We have an old story about a brilliant Persian prose stylist who was in the middle of the composition of a magnificent writing, when his wife walked in and said: "We ran out of butter". He was so lost in his composition that he wrote down, "We ran out of butter" in his prose. The story has been preserved in the annals of Persian literature precisely because the prosaic of an impoverished life has entered the sublime frivolity of art. 

Rabid racist philosophers

Today we know for a fact that major European philosophers, chief among them Immanuel Kant, was a rabid racist who thought non-Europeans were incapable of thinking. Emmanuel Levinas follows him in that thinking convinced that only Europeans were capable of philosophy. Martin Heidegger was a horrid Nazi, Richard Wagner a repulsive anti-Semite, E. M. Cioran a self-confessed "Hitlerist".

Now what? Do we extract them from our library, stop reading Kant, Heidegger, or Cioran, or listen to Wagner? There is a Dr Jekyll dwelling in every Mr Hyde - isn't that the superior lesson of that frightful story that should make a coward out of any abstract, absolutist, moralist?   

Such disconcerting facts do not prevent us from reading them, listening to their music, learning from them, trying to account for (but never excuse) their racism or sexism, and yet continue to have their books in our library, their music on our listening list. There is no hermetically sealed moral space on which we can live and learn. Our learning curve passes through some nasty trajectories of human follies. To live in this world, our morality dwells on the crooked topography of contravening reality. The task, and the challenge, is not to become a hermit and feign a moral sublimity from which high horse we judge the world. We must dwell in the world, in and through its nastiness, learn the good from the evil, and do our best to be on the side of one and not the other, thereby charting the path ahead. 

As a father, my immediate sympathies are for Dylan Farrow, as a man I hope and pray that Woody Allen did not do what she accuses him of having done. But as a cineaste who grew up with his cinema, I will not have the slightest hesitation to go to see his next film and bask in his anxiety - without which I would not be able to tell myself from another neurotic nerd! 

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York, and the author, most recently, of The World of Persian Literary Humanism (Harvard, 2013).  

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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