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Allen v. Farrow

Art v. The Artist

Anyone arguing against the veracity of the claims made (or rather, restated) in Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s Allen v. Farrow by simply pointing out its one-sided nature is misguided to the point of delusion. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that Woody Allen and his cohort were given opportunities to participate in the production, which most certainly would have led to the film being much more of a media spectacle than it already is. Given the messy and already sensationalized nature of the topic, any straight back and forth reporting only would have served to increase ratings for HBOMax when they need them the most and to help soothe Allen’s apparently paper thin ego after a bad couple of years for his professional career. The second, far more relevant reason is that the evidence as it’s been presented, both here and in the public record for almost the past three decades, would only lead to the conclusion that there has only ever been one side to this story in the first place. 

So why do people continue to defend Woody Allen despite this? What’s behind this delusion? There’s hero worship, of course. There’s the fact that Allen has been a moneymaker for New York City and an icon for whole generations of audiences who have grown up with and loved his work. God knows why. But that still doesn’t explain the mechanics of any of this. The doc makes this plain enough. In any highly publicized celebrity accusation or investigation, there will be little things that, on the surface, seem to fulfill our need to paint our heroes in the best possible light. The biggest one for Woody Allen and his defenders has always been that, despite the mountains of evidence against him, he was never criminally charged. The second, only slightly behind the first, is that Dylan Farrow was found to have been “not credible” by a team of Yale child psychologists, who noted that there was a strong case to be made that she, along with “coaching” by Mia Farrow, had fabricated her version of events, thereby exonerating Allen. Allen v. Farrow goes to great pains to break down the more detailed and nuanced history behind these two points of contention and successfully eliminate them from the board. But again, this has all been out in the open for years. Anyone seriously interested in the case could easily have found this out on their own. They didn’t want to. 

Despite a seriously flawed first hour in which the filmmakers showcase a series of increasingly bizarre editorial choices, Allen v. Farrow may turn out to be one of the most crucial documentaries to come along in regards to how we navigate our long-overdue reckoning with the people and forces that control Hollywood and the culture of silence that protects them. As the film illustrates, it wasn’t any one accusation or instance of public scorn that hurt Allen’s career. It was artists finally speaking out against him in loud, large groups, his stars even going so far as to donate the salaries earned from his projects and renounce him altogether. This then led distributors to shelve his films and not even give them the requisite quiet releases usually afforded to even the smallest of films with more specifically problematic content. 

But this is all beside the point. The fact is that Dick and Ziering had the simplest and clearest path to presenting their case in giving Dylan Farrow the platform she’d been denied as a child. Going back to that question as to why Allen was never charged in any criminal case, the Connecticut district attorney chose to spare Dylan the further trauma of putting her through a trial of such size and scope that it’s possible she would have never fully recovered from it. There is also the added detail that her testimony still might not have won her the case. She was seven years old with only her mother on her side, and Mia Farrow had already been painted by Allen through the press as a scorned and deranged former lover who only wanted to defame Allen for her own personal reasons. Allen had high-powered lawyers and public opinion safely on his side. So giving the adult Dylan the opportunity to not only share her own story but to communicate to other people with similar histories that powerful people are not immune from consequences is a powerful statement to make. It’s safe to say that, on its own, this will be a once in a lifetime event. There will be other victims of abuse who will come forward, there will be other documentaries, and there will be other powerful people outed as the years go on. But this is a case that has shaped the way we look at all cases of this nature. 

The film also points out that Allen is not alone. His most obvious and direct parallel is Roman Polanski, whose presence in this story is an interesting one. We see some quick archival footage of him insisting that his 1977 rape of then thirteen-year-old Samantha Geimer was consensual. We then hear Quentin Tarantino backing up this claim for some weird reason or other to Howard Stern on Stern’s radio show. And we see the adult Geimer herself (also in archival footage) state that she was indeed raped. There’s a whole documentary right there. There are dozens of these cases. Hundreds. Thousands. But we are fans of Woody Allen and we are fans of Roman Polanski. You have to separate the art from the artist, after all.

But why do we have to do that? Why should we? Where did this completely incongruous notion even come from? Artists by their nature can be volatile personalities or the loveliest people in any given group or society. Some art may bore us, but it’s rare to encounter a great artist who could be described as boring. Late in the final hour, we go down a list of some of the most celebrated artists of the last century and point out that Charles Dickens was an anti-Semite. Picasso put a cigarette out on a young woman. Bill Cosby’s crimes aren’t directly mentioned but his presence in this montage is immediately understood. The obvious reason for the film using these particular examples is that, while these are all horrific on their own, you don’t see these guys devoting dozens upon dozens of novels and paintings and hours of television to depicting their own more monstrous ideas and actions as clearly and explicitly as possible in the way that Woody Allen was not only known for, but on which he made his career. Allen never hid who he was until it benefited him to do so. And even then, he hasn’t stopped. But this idea of separating the art from the artist is also just disingenuous on its face. We create the art we want to make. It comes from inside of us. It may take the form of a child’s first drawing or a billion dollar tentpole studio film. Artists are their art, whether it be good, bad, hated, or adored. To ignore this fact not only demeans the art itself but disregards the artist altogether. But we pick and choose how we navigate that terrain because to do anything else would threaten to rob us of the art we might hold dear and break the cultural cognitive dissonance necessary for us to maintain the hero worship factor that powers so much of the artistic landscape. But the time has long since come for us to have to face these facts on a larger scale and recognize that artists rarely hide who they are. Some just take a little more digging to suss out. 

The filmmakers have not only presented a (more or less) straightforward accounting of the facts, but a path forward. It’s chilling to see so many faces scattered throughout all the footage of awards ceremonies, tv interviews, and newspaper headlines that form the bulk of certain sequences. We cut to the crowd and see Kevin Spacey, or Harvey Weinstein. All of these people who, at the time, lived in full luxury of their criminal anonymity. But that path cut by Allen v. Farrow is also depressing in the extreme. Because right alongside the jolt of these faces is the knowledge that they were also getting away with it all right out in the open, protected by the same insidious machinery that shielded Allen from having to take any responsibility for himself. So it’s no wonder that now, when we look at those seas of faces at awards shows or on red carpets, it’s impossible to know the full truth about anyone. How many of their victims sit at home watching, as Dylan Farrow did, dying inside as their abusers laughed and joked with journalists and co-stars? We know now, as the doc reminds us, that it was one such broadcast celebrating Allen that caused Dylan’s brother, journalist Ronan Farrow, to tweet out the spark that brought this all back into the public consciousness and made it so that the case against Woody Allen could no longer be ignored. And it was that support for his sister that gave her the motivation to write pieces asking why the #MeToo movement had “spared” Allen, despite it all.

It’s Ronan who ends up being the most integral piece of this whole thing. If Dylan was only a little girl at the time of Allen’s crimes and therefore dismissable, and she hadn’t spoken out publicly into adulthood, why should we believe her now? The film touches on how women are silenced or ignored by the criminal justice system, but does little in the way of expanding this idea to its obvious conclusion and outright saying that women – and victims, especially – are just as easily ignored by larger society. So it eventually took Ronan believing his sister, after years of not wanting it to be true or even fully understanding what had happened, to create space for her to finally tell her own story. Women will sadly have to fight for a long time to be heard, and in the meantime it will still take men to either amplify them or make a specific, strategic effort to just get out of the way. Dylan Farrow was lucky if only in that she had both a fiercely protective and resourceful mother as well as a brother who grew up to be her most vocal advocate. Millions are not so lucky.

Woody Allen abused his daughter. That is clear. But putting any notion to the contrary into the ground is only part of the film’s mission. What we see is a larger pattern of films being produced, with more and more money and press behind them, that seek to expose the cockroaches scurrying all around our feet. We will see more of these in the years to come. Some will get the same vitriolic backlash from their target’s defenders as Allen v. Farrow inevitably received, some will be welcomed by most as long-overdue and universally agreed upon in their aims, and some will come and go and be quickly forgotten. What will determine all of these films’ fates is how closely we pay attention in the meantime. Allen v. Farrow, if nothing else, tells us that there will always be powerful players in Hollywood who will abuse that power and privilege to commit unspeakable acts, either in the workplace or in the home. And if we truly love movies, if we actually care about them and want to enjoy them on their own terms, free from all the bullshit back and forth effort of having to “defend” our love for them, it won’t take any simple act of separating the art from the artist. When we identify the monsters in the crowds, we’ll instead have to separate those artists from ourselves. We have to throw them away. We don’t need Woody Allen. We don’t need any of these guys. People have been raped, assaulted, and killed in order for our precious little movies to be made. None of it was worth it. None of it. Dick and Ziering rub this in our faces, as they should. 

The most infuriating fact exposed by the film is that this is our fault. We allowed Dylan Farrow and her story to be dismissed because they got in the way of us enjoying some movies. That fact alone is almost astounding in its sheer absurdity and heartlessness. So in the end, Allen v. Farrow was the movie we were asking for. It was necessary, urgent, powerful, and horrifying. But it shouldn’t have been any of those things. It shouldn’t have had to exist at all.

Author: Francis

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