The re-examination of the allegations against Woody Allen that have peppered media headlines in the last few weeks have given us plenty to think about and even more to debate with each other, particularly among fellow cinephiles or fans of his work. In case you’ve been living under a rock or you simply haven’t been caught up in Hollywood’s latest scandal (which is, by all means, an entirely legitimate position to be in – if not an admirable one), here’s the scoop. Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen’s daughter with Mia Farrow, publicly came forward with accusations that she had been molested and sexually abused by Woody as a child. Woody responded in suit, denying the charges and drudging up a collection of evidence that he claims refutes any such claims, from the lie detector test he took years ago when the accusations were first brought to a judge, to the fact that elements of Dylan’s testimony had been inconsistent and potentially manipulated by Mia Farrow.
Ultimately, the case has snowballed into a he-said-she-said barrage of outrage and humiliation. Defenders of Woody Allen point to the suspicious timing of the case, arguing that its proximity to the Academy Awards ceremony at the end of this month is more than coincidental. Meanwhile, his detractors reinforce his unorthodox relationships (including his controversial marriage to adopted daughter Soon-Yi, at least twenty years his junior) and highlight the necessity of speaking up against sexual violence.
It can be difficult to avoid picking sides in the debate, particularly when the history of the case is so extensive and Allen has become such a prominent director, often considered one of the foremost American auteurs for his perceptive characters and thumbtack-sharp writing. Naturally, as much as audiences can speculate about what happened and public opinion can shift in one direction or another, none of us will know the bottom-line truth. But rather than bask in the apathy our millennial generation has often become known for, maybe we should take this as an opportunity for food for thought and another example of the ever-pervasive tie in of art and ethics.
Ethics and morality are inextricable informants of art, but does that mean we can’t separate them entirely? Can we really dismiss a work of art or an artist that we consider brilliant if we find that their ethics diverge from ours, or are otherwise in direct confrontation? And if so, where do we draw the line? If we condemn one artist for their dubious morality how can we take others in good faith? If Woody Allen deserves to be outcast for his deeds, how can we exonerate Charlie Chaplin, to name but one? It goes back to the old Clinton-Lewinsky debate to some extent, though the comparison is naturally less controversial and potentially despicable in their case. The baseline issue can be summed up in a similar manner, however: does the president’s sex life have an impact on how he runs the country? Does it paint him in ways that are politically pertinent? Similarly, does Allen’s torrid past reflect upon his ability to connect to an audience through film? Is it possible to separate the artist from the art at all, particularly when one so blatantly informs the other?
And if it doesn’t, if we can set them apart, are we in danger of making excuses for art? Is artistic inspiration and an astute commentary on society acceptable if they were propelled by behavior that is at best criminal and which essentially stems from the most disturbing abuse of power imaginable?
These questions aren’t formulated for straightforward or cookie-cutter actions. Rather than scrutinizing the mismatched evidence, picking a side and debating the consequences of the case to Woody Allen’s star persona or Dylan Farrow’s personal life, perhaps it is more useful to see this case as a way for us to ask ourselves about our own beliefs about the intersection of ethics and art. If nothing else, it stands as a testament to the fundamentally hazy distinctions between what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and forces us to draw boundaries that themselves are wavering and uncertain.