James Lileks looks back today on his days as a Woody Allen fan, to the point where at the beginning of his career as a journalist, Allen “was everything I wanted to be:”
[S]omeone who could puncture the pretensions of the Intellectuals while staking his own claim to membership, witty, self-deprecating, absurdly egotistical, able to direct a movie, write a movie, star in a movie, and dash off New Yorker casuals in between. Now he is dead to me. I know, I know, it’s a he-said / little-girl said situation, and it’s ridiculous to think that a guy who made a huge romantic movie about a 42-year-old man sleeping with a high-school student and expected everyone to go along because he was the lech, and hadn’t he been playing the amiable wonderful lech all his life, the one we indulged and excused? And we did.
I hated “Stardust Memories” and it was never the same afterwards, and when he made a movie I liked it felt like a great drunken lunch with a friend you’d had a falling-out with. Radio Days, Purple Rose. “Hannah” made you remember how good you felt about “Annie Hall,” I think, even though it had horrendous dialogue and another old-dude-sleeping-with-young-woman theme we accepted because, hey, New York. Also, artists.
I just remember the scandal that broke in ’92, and I was in Manhattan at the time. Which was nothing like the Manhattan of the movie, since it was in color and Gordon Willis and Gershwin weren’t pitching in. “The heart wants what it wants,” he said at that press conference, and he meant that as a justification, not a confession of fallibility. I’m not going to hold it against the guy because he leaves his sort-of-kinda-not wife, but most men who stray have the decency to hook up with someone who’s at least on a different floor of your lover’s apartment building, to say nothing of her actual residence.
Every interview I’ve ever read has him as a Serious Man – oh, no quips, no jokes, aside from a mordant observation that fits in with the conception of good ol’ funny ha-ha Woody throwing out some high-falutin’ existential japes about the meaningless of it all, but that is who he is. There’s the Art, and there’s the Heart, and that’s all the justification the Ego and Id require, right?
Lileks concludes his article with a precrime confession of sorts from Woody in a 1976 People magazine article, which foreshadows both 1979’s Manhattan, and the Soon-Yi debacle. Similarly, an Esquire article today titled “Re-Watching Woody Allen” explores “The newly-chilling themes that you can see throughout his movies,” which is coming from an awfully ironic source. I remember very well in the 1980s, after Woody blew up his career as an American superstar with Stardust Memories. His domestic box office really was never the same afterwards, and fancy that: flipping the bird to your entire audience can have a punitive impact on your income — who knew? But New York-based media such as GQ, Esquire and the New York Times continued to heavily promote Woody as a cinematic artist worth seeing. Worth admiring. Particularly now that those Reagan-voting hicks in flyover country weren’t cool enough to watch his movies, completely forgetting who it was who blew up the bridge out of Manhattan and into the rest of America.
At the beginning of The Revolt Against the Masses, Fred Siegel writes:
The best short credo of liberalism came from the pen of the once canonical left-wing literary historian Vernon Parrington in the late 1920s. “Rid society of the dictatorship of the middle class,” Parrington insisted, referring to both democracy and capitalism, “and the artist and the scientist will erect in America a civilization that may become, what civilization was in earlier days, a thing to be respected.”
For Woody, it’s a chance to practice a sort of sexual Nietzschianism, along the lines of the chilling confession at the conclusion of 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors from the wealthy optometrist played (brilliantly) by Martin Landau, who has just had his mistress murdered, when she threatened to wreck his marriage:
JUDAH: Now he’s scot-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.
CLIFF: Yes, but can he ever really go back?
JUDAH: Well, people carry sins around with them. I mean, maybe once in a while he has a bad moment but it passes. With time it all fades.
CLIFF: So then, you know, his worst beliefs are realized.
JUDAH: I said it was a chilling story, didn’t I?
CLIFF: I don’t know. I think it would be tough for somebody to live with that. You know, very few guys could actually live, you know, live with something like that on their conscience.
JUDAH: People carry awful deeds around with them. What do you expect him to do, turn himself in? This is reality. In reality, we rationalize. We deny or we couldn’t go on living.
CLIFF: Here’s what I would do. I would have him turn himself in. ‘Cause then you see your story assumes tragic proportions. In the absence of a god or something, he is forced to assume that responsibility himself. Then you have tragedy.
JUDAH: But that’s fiction. That’s movies. I mean, you’ve seen too many movies. I’m talking about reality. If you want a happy ending you should go see a Hollywood movie.
But that was the problem — we thought we were. By the early 1990s, we knew that John Wayne the actor was never as heroic as the Panavision John Wayne who seemed to singlehandledly win World War II and settle the American Frontier in the movies. We knew that Cary Grant offstage was a terribly confused, LSD-experimenting man with feet of clay, compared to the always-suave, confident, perfectly attired man on the big screen. And the generation of actors who replaced those original superstars were to a man, much smaller still than the characters they played. Except for Woody, who prior to staring down his self-created abyss in the late 1980s, seemed to be the last actor to merge on and off-screen personas into one.
And as such, earned an enormous pass from his audience, as John Podhoretz wrote in 2009:
It is clear from the context of Manhattan that we are never to question Ike’s character. In fact, the movie suggests he is a person of vastly better character than his friend Yale, because later on in the movie, after Ike has dumped Tracy and broken her heart, Yale steals a girlfriend from him. “You think you’re God,” Yale says when Ike upbraids him. “Well,” says Ike, “I’ve got to model myself after somebody.”
In the end, Ike returns to Tracy. He is upset that she is going to Paris for a few weeks. She tells him not to worry, she will be true: “You have to have a little faith in people.”
It is inconceivable that such a movie could be made today, in which a middle-aged man commits statutory rape-and is considered a moral exemplar to boot. And yet there was not a peep in 1979.
After his forensic deconstruction of Woody’s oeuvre, the Esquire author is quick to remind his readers that he’s no square. “Dylan Farrow’s letter, not anything said by Sarah Palin or any other Fox News commentator, is the most stinging indictment of Hollywood I have ever read,” he adds as an aside.
But Palin and Fox News and its viewers — AKA, you and I — saw through Barack Obama long before anybody at Esquire ever did, and gave up on Woody Allen far more quickly than anybody at Esquire ever did. So why does the magazine and its brethren keep getting things so wrong?
As an artist who is required to be loathed by anyone who writes an article for Esquire liked to say, “Check your premises.” The premises that power the collective Esquire worldview are over a century old. The premises that power Woody’s personal worldview are even older. When will they ever review theirs?