FILM FEBRUARY 6, 2014
Fatty Arbuckle was never convicted of raping a woman with a wine bottle, causing her death from internal injuries. In fact, the jury that acquitted him wrote him a formal letter apologizing for the charges having been brought in the first place. But almost one hundred years later, the only thing anybody knows about Arbuckle—once a leading silent film comedian—is that he was a rapist and a killer. Similarly, we know that Joan Crawford beat her daughter with wire hangers; and that Bing Crosby was a cruel father who hit his children with a belt; and that Robert Wagner had something to do with Natalie Wood's drowning; and that Alfred Hitchcock sexually manipulated and abused his blonde leading ladies. None of these charges were ever proved in a court, and all have had their fervent deniers. But it is precisely the unresolved Hollywood scandals that are most famous, because they allow the audience to indulge the pleasures of speculation and partisanship. An undoubted crime is much less interesting. No one gossips about the undisputed fact that Busby Berkeley killed two people in a drunk driving accident.
Woody Allen is destined to take his place on the legendary list of Hollywood creeps and monsters, precisely because the truth about the charges against him can never be definitively proved. Dylan Farrow's open letter, renewing the charge that he molested her when she was seven years old, has not technically added anything to the public record. We knew as much about Allen's alleged crimes in the early 1990s, when his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn brought them to light, as we do today. But in the intervening years, the accusations have been draped in polite silence, so that people in Hollywood can continue to work with Allen and the public can continue to enjoy his films.
For the time being, Dylan's letter has made that much more difficult, because she took the bold step of calling on Allen's stars and collaborators by name, demanding that they condemn him. But Dylan's letter does not just demand a response from Hollywood figures. It is equally addressed to all of us, the whole moviegoing public. "What's your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know," it begins, and goes on to detail Allen's alleged acts of sexual abuse. The implication is that, once we know these things about Allen—to the extent that we can know them—we will be unable to enjoy his films. Every time we see Allen's famous face, we will be thinking of what happened in the attic. The goal of Dylan's letter is to add Allen's name permanently to the roster of Hollywood evildoers, and its premise is that it is impossible to enjoy art made by a bad person.
Coincidentally, the same week that the letter was released, the Times Literary Supplement carried a long article about a new edition of the complete works of Ben Jonson. Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was one of the greatest English poets and dramatists; the Cambridge edition of his works, which runs to seven volumes, is a sign of how much he is still revered, and enjoyed, after 400 years. Jonson was also a murderer: In 1598, he killed an actor named Gabriel Spenser in a duel, and while he escaped hanging, he was marked for life with a brand on his thumb. Many readers of Jonson's work know this fact about him, but I imagine that no one has ever refused to read Jonson out of respect for the memory of Gabriel Spenser.
Likewise, I doubt if anyone has refused to watch The Birds because Alfred Hitchcock was cruel to Tippi Hedren, or turned off the radio when Bing Crosby came on because of what he did to his children. The truth is that, in our dealings with art, human beings are fundamentally selfish. If a movie or a book or a painting gives us pleasure, we enjoy it, without stopping to ask if the person who created it was good or evil. Reading Jonson does not mean that we condone Jonson's crime—any more than we approve of murder because we admire the work of François Villon, who killed a priest in a street brawl, or Caravaggio, who murdered a pimp by cutting off his testicles. Rather, we are able, in this as in so many areas of moral life, to rationalize our pleasures. And the farther in time we are from the crime in question, the easier this rationalization becomes. Jonson's murder is 400 years old, but his books are alive today; refusing to read them would be a punishment for us, not him.
We are not necessarily wrong to defend our pleasures in this way. For one thing, it would be logistically impossible to run a moral background check on every artist whose work we encounter. More important, however, is the fact that an artwork is not simply an emanation of its creator, a direct reflection of his or her moral substance. It is more like a tool designed for a certain purpose—to illuminate the world, to communicate beauty and truth. It would never occur to us to demand a character reference for the maker of a tool we use for more practical purposes. (What kind of person made your refrigerator, or the websites you visit?)
How could someone understand love yet act hatefully, create beauty yet make the world ugly?
The difference, of course, is that art is a tool of and for the spirit, and making it requires more than manual skill. It requires a kind of insight that we would like to believe is incompatible with evil actions. How could someone understand love yet act hatefully, create beauty yet make the world ugly? Unfortunately, the history of art shows that it is entirely possible for the artist to achieve a deep understanding of truths and values that he fails to live up to. (No one wrote more movingly about familial love and loyalty than Charles Dickens, yet when he grew tired of his wife, he cast her off in a brutally public fashion.) An artist is not like a priest, who claims to live his truth; the artist's job is only to find a form for his truth.
But if an artist's life can't detract from the strengths of his work, it can sometimes help us to understand its weaknesses. Ezra Pound's anti-Semitism, for instance, was not just a private vice; it was a central organizing principle of his imagination, and it is very much present on the page, even in some of his most celebrated verse. Likewise, a case could be made that some of Allen's films—the prime example is of course Manhattan—display a pedophilic imagination, fetishizing innocence and sentimentalizing exploitation. In this case, Allen's personal image would not disqualify his art; rather, it would draw attention to aspects of his art that were already objectionable in themselves. The problems with his films would remain even if Dylan's charges were proved false.
Does all this mean that we should keep on watching Allen's movies with a good conscience? For the time being, many people will find that impossible; a visceral negative reaction to him and a desire to deprive him of honors and profits, will likely lead part of his audience to desert him. But time will lessen that reaction—if the public could forget about the charges in 1992, they can forget again in 2014—and if people are still watching movies a century from now, there’s no doubt that they will be watching Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Perhaps they will think as they watch that Allen was supposed to be a child molester, and that it's too bad such good movies should come from such a depraved character. But they will not feel it personally incumbent on them to reject the director—any more than we feel it's a crime to listen to “Billie Jean” or “Thriller.” Dylan Farrow's letter asks more from us than any audience has ever been willing to grant.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.