Thursday, March 11, 2021

Does emotional detachment equal guilt? Apropos Woody Allen

Now that HBO has finally closed out its in-depth airing of the grievances of the Farrow clan against Mia’s ex/Soon-Yi’s husband/Dylan’s alleged rapist, it might do some good to let said villain speak at length. Since the only discussion Woody Allen has engaged in about the charges made against him (besides a “60 Minutes” segment) was included in Robert Weide’s Woody Allen: a Documentary (2011), we must look instead to Woody’s 2020 autobiography Apropos of Nothing, in which he devotes about a fourth of the 392-page book (easily) to the issues surrounding the accusations made by his ex and their adopted daughter.

Portions of the audio book version of Apropos are present in the HBO doc, apparently used without clearing the rights. Although the book is most definitely comprised of Allen’s own opinions (no ghostwriting here), it also does reflect oddly on him, since it includes jokes and statements that underscore his blasé indifference to what the public thinks of him.

I have already written about the Farrow-Allen case at some length here, outlining both of their positions. I eventually reached the verdict that, after one considers all the evidence (and the very deeply disturbed state of their daughter Dylan/Eliza/Malone), that whoever you are (however complicated you are), that you would never want to date either Woody or Mia. As for the accusations of rape, they seem to be (after reading scores of articles, documents, and interviews) a very pernicious “gotcha” by Ms. Farrow that irreparably injured her own daughter’s mind.

For those who are interested in Mia’s own words, I refer you to the link I provided in a previous blog entry to a 2006 interview with Farrow where she says she could forgive Allen “in an instant” and wanted to  “move on” from the Soon-Yi affair, with no mention at all of Dylan or the rape — can one move on when one’s daughter has been raped by an ex?

Back to Woody in print: Apropos is a compulsively readable book, although it has no chapters (just line spaces to indicate the end of a segment) and no index, never mind a photo insert section. Woody’s published work to date has consisted entirely of Perelman-esque humorous short pieces, so one isn’t surprised he’s a breezy memoir-writer, although one could’ve wished he gave a tiny bit more weight to his standup career, which is recounted here, but mostly as a step between his gag writing and filmmaking, and mostly as something he was repeatedly forced into by his manager Charles Joffe.

He does offer much info about his films, but more about that below. What he first wants to do is to disabuse the reader of the notion that he’s anything they’ve thought he was. He goes on for several pages (and returns to the topic several times) to convince us that he’s not an intellectual, his horn-rim specs to the contrary. He wants us to know that he hasn’t read many of the great works of fiction, hasn’t seen many classic films, and it goes without saying that he would probably rather die than listen to popular music from the rock ’n’ roll era onward.

In the first of many contradictions — if we learn anything from Apropos, it is that he thrives on being a contrarian and isn’t afraid of making emotionally distant remarks about people and events — he demonstrates a bizarrely arcane grasp of English vocabulary, which he shows off at several points. Including this lovely puzzler: describing the joys of Fall when he was young, he mentions that “although the nightmare of books and classes loomed, at least there would be some sigmoid anatomy to hasten the blood.” [Allen, Apropos of Nothing, 2020, New York: Arcade Publishing, p. 285]

It turns out that, despite the many famous authors he hasn’t read, he did have a period of auto-didactic reading of classics, so he could chat with the brainier girls at school. At this point he must’ve begun gathering arcane terms to sling around for comic effect.

So once he’s gotten past the laundry list of “things I don’t like/don’t care about,” he is firmly in autobiographical mode – but he still does want to challenge the reader’s assumptions about him, at times exhibiting a side of himself that is both self-confident (to the point of being brazenly ballsy) and self-loathing. That is the most remarkable thing about the book — that it is both his single most detailed denial of guilt and his ultimate statement about what went on before, during, and after the accusation that he raped Dylan, and it is also a personal memoir that includes his reflections on his life, none of which are “polished” in any regard. Some are downright brutal.

There’s an odd balance throughout the book of him both acknowledging his luck and his privileged position in society, and him still whining about things that bother him. This will be no surprise to his fans (open admission: I’ve been a fan I was a child when I discovered the “earlier, funny films” while he was still crankin’ them out), but it might seem an odd tack to take in a book in which one wants to proclaim one’s innocence of a heinous crime.

This side of Woody has already appeared in two of his grimmer films, Stardust Memories (1980) and Deconstructing Harry (1997). As noted above, his work in print has always been light-hearted. Thus, encountering the “real” Woody writing a book is already a shock, but then finding out that he’s *such* a contrarian in real life (and willing to put it right out there, even when mounting a defense against the accusations) is the real surprise of Apropos.

So, while he states that his mother was a no-nonsense disciplinarian, he also depicts her as very supportive. (His dad, whom he reveals to be a bit of a wannabe-crook-who-never-was, was also fully supportive of his efforts.) And so, we know he was spoiled in many ways — this is underscored by the fact that he acknowledges openly that he’s achieved all that one could want in his chosen field (except making “the perfect movie,” but more of that later), but he then will whine about a beach house he bought, did massive construction on, and then stayed one night in. Or the fact that his glamorous Fifth Avenue “penthouse” (he never refers to it as anything but that) had constant leaks in the ceiling.

Woody walks with
Tamara Dobson in NYC.

Or that he has had incredibly lovely experiences all over Europe, but then will whine about having to leave NYC and miss a Knicks game. I mean, the longtime Woody fan *knows* this is his shtick, but you figure he might just go with the flow and say, “I’ve been very lucky” and leave it at that. He’ll also slide back into his standup mode and be self-loathing about his appearance (or, over and over, how badly he plays clarinet), then let us know how many gorgeous women he’s dated — when Mia showed up in his life, he was busy dating the wonderful Jessica Harper and he notes he didn’t just live with Diane Keaton, he also at different times regularly dated her two sisters.

Thus he’s an artist who’s perpetually down on himself but also always very certain that all he does is totally right. He notes he got this attitude about his comedy from Danny Simon (Neil’s elder brother, who wrote for Sid Caesar and "Bilko"), who told him the most important thing for a comedy writer is to believe what they wrote is funny and sell it as such (and never alter it). The first attitude is one that endears the public – and most certainly “sold” Woody back in the Sixties and Seventies — but the second attitude can be off-putting. (And also explains his moviemaking — but, again, below!)

He both believes life to ultimately meaningless (that is a common refrain in the book), yet there are things to love and live for. One of these things, he emphasizes quite often in Apropos, is that he finally met Soon-Yi, whom he depicts as his ultimate soulmate. (Although the repeated references to Louise Lasser as a sexpot define her as his best bedmate; by comparison, the woman he refers to repeatedly as “Keaton” is just a very close friend.)

The constant paeans to Soon-Yi seem to be legitimate — after the truly bizarre way their relationship began (and yes, awkward and bizarre, and to be avoided in most every case, unless you’re a successful artist working on his own dime in this own time), he hails her every few pages as the single most important person in his adult life. He loves her so much he mocks her in print — this does seem to be the spoiled-kid, colder side of Woody — noting that her raising of their two daughters is akin to the discipline of certain Third Reich officials, and that she would no doubt prosper if she ever found herself in a Nazi-run society.

Woody likes to speak honestly (to a fault) about his favorite people — he tells us an incredible amount about the severe psychological problems suffered by his object of sexual obsession, Louise Lasser. To the point where you want to go, “Woody, she’s an 81-year-old in very bad shape medically – you can let her give away her own secrets in her own book!”

Woody Allen and Louise Lasser.

Soon-Yi, of course, is the linchpin of L’affaire Farrow for Woody. Here his troubles began (to paraphrase Spiegelman), since public opinion changed when he began his relationship with her and it clearly became the pivot for the accusations later made against him. One of the colder-blooded moments of Farrow’s was her phone call to Allen’s sister Letty Aronson, to whom she said, “He took my daughter, now I’ll take his.” [p. 252]

What Woody does in the book is what more than likely spawned the HBO documentary. He offers an “everything and the kitchen sink too” approach to the case, outlining all of the negative aspects of Mia’s child-rearing life, the darker secrets about her family history, the many odd things he witnessed and that were witnessed by two nannies, and the disciplinary “rituals” that Soon-Yi and her brother Moses have told Woody about (and which Moses wrote about on his blog).

Before this point, Woody was holding back, while Mia was the more vocal about the atrocities he allegedly committed. Clearly, Allen saw Apropos as the chance to clear the decks, so he hauls out all the dirty laundry. Some of it is stuff we’ve heard before — Mia beating her children, rehearsing them to apologize to the whole family when they did something wrong, treating her Asian children as lesser than the white ones.

But some of the material he includes is exclusive to his legal encounters with her — for instance, the fact that her initial charge against him was that he had molested *both* Satchel/Ronan and Dylan/Eliza/Malone (he also notes how she changed the kids’ names more than once, often on a whim, when there well past pre-school age). And the odd moment where she said in front of three Yale investigators that, after Dylan was molested, that she ran into the arms of her sister Lark. Woody thought he had trumped her by saying that Lark wasn’t at the Connecticut summer house where this occurred but was back in NYC. Mia’s response? “I know that Lark was in New York but Dylan embraced her spiritually.” [p. 275]

There are moments in Apropos where Woody asks us what we think of what went on — surely, the reader is either in his camp already or is leaning toward him. (Perhaps a few people on “Team Mia” would sift through the book to find out his side of the situation, but probably not very many.) He outlines his relationship with Farrow, stating as he has in the past that it was for all intents and purposes over by the time she was pregnant with Satchel/Ronan.

He does acknowledge that there were countless “red flags” he saw in Mia’s behavior — her being capricious, petty, and making sudden statements that stunned him. But she was a beautiful actress who found him interesting, so he says he ignored any and all signals that she was someone to be wary of. As I noted in the earlier pieces I wrote on their thoroughly bizarre romance, Woody clearly seemed to have continued the relationship with Mia because it was so oddly laissez-faire: How often do you become involved with someone who lives across a park from you, yet never really move in with them? (A: When they’re addicted to accumulating children and anywhere they live will be an emotional powder keg.)

Thus, he admits he should’ve known better but was besotted with Mia, until such time as their relationship seemingly became a habit and little more. Then they shared two children — Dylan, who was adopted to be the child of both of them (with Moses, one of the earlier adoptees whom Woody himself wanted to adopt) and Satchel/Ronan. At that point Woody notes he felt pangs of fatherhood — but of course, given the crazy living situation, he still never wanted to live with Mia and the brood. (As Woody is prone to say in Apropos, “I’ll ask you — what would you think if this happened to you?”)

He recounts the burgeoning romance between himself and Soon-Yi as a sort of experiment that took hold and blossomed into the romance of his lifetime. One could easily speculate and say that he felt he needed a woman who could be a girlfriend, a daughter, and a mother figure to him — he does talk about how lovely it is to spend time with her (gf), to spoil her and give her things she never got as a child (daughter), and how she keeps his life running smoothly, anticipating his problems and getting rid of them (mother).

Once Mia had unleashed her anger and Soon-Yi was basically disowned, her lot was cast — she was either with Woody or conducting her life entirely on her own from that point. Woody had her live with him and their relationship became what it remains today — a successful marriage that began in a very odd way and consists of (from Woody’s description of her in Apropos) a very capable, business-like woman and her much-older husband, an internationally known and respected comedian/filmmaker/actor/writer, whose direction in filmmaking has found him making somewhat whimsical character studies with techniques borrowed from European masters, but whose personal sense of humor ranges from Perelman verbal sophistication to far grimmer dark humor that makes Brother Theodore seem like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

That is one of the hands-down strangest aspects of this memoir. Woody offers a very eloquent defense of himself, running dozens of pages at a time. He skillfully rebuts Mia’s accusations and statements made by Dylan (and her very protective and very livid-at-his-original-father younger brother, Ronan). He wanted to clear the air and put all the evidence exonerating him in one place, and did so very well (despite, yes, the lack of chapters and any tight organization of the book besides a general chronological flow, which is often scuttled when necessary).

At the same time, he keeps intact the darker side of his humor. Again, I’ve been watching, reading, and generally following Woody since my kidhood when he was in his “earlier, funny films” mode, and even I was a bit surprised that he chooses in Apropos to bemoan the fact that, concerning his supervised visits with Satchel, the poor kid was “packed off to ride an hour and a half to New York from Connecticut to be with the predatory old man.” [p. 278] He notes the supervisor was present “to be sure I don’t rape the poor kid.” [p. 281]

And perhaps the most stunning joke in the book, when he mockingly refers to the public perception of Soon-Yi (which he spends several paragraphs disproving) by mentioning that people ask them what they talk about. “Everything. For instance, I may ask, as someone underage who’s been raped and is retarded, what are your views on the economy?” [p. 321]

If one is a fan of Woody’s humor, they “get” that the preceding lines are intended only as jokes. (He made a quick, pitch-black, joke in public many years ago about his first wife that resulted in a lawsuit from her.) Although, again, it’s kinda weird to include them in a book intended to mount an articulate defense against what one maintains are made-up charges. But this ties in with a general laissez-faire attitude that Woody has about how he is perceived by the public. Toward the end of the book, he openly admits he doesn’t care what his legacy ends up being, taking a truly downbeat line and (he’s still a gag writer, after all) adding a humorous coda: “Not believing in a hereafter, I really can’t see any practical difference if people remember me as a film director or a pedophile or at all. All that I ask is my ashes be scattered close to a pharmacy.” [p. 382]

This sense of the push and pull between interest and disinterest seems manifested most clearly in his statements about filmmaking. Clearly, he loves to make movies (or at least write them and work with actors) and that compulsion has sustained him for the last half-century. He makes it clear, though, that he is a director who shoots “carelessly and irresponsibly” [p. 328] and leaves the technical side of his films to his collaborators.

Gordon Willis' memorable signature
image from Manhattan

This has always been apparent – Woody is a writerly filmmaker and never has had a visual style of his own. His top-notch cinematographers (Gordon Willis, Sven Nykvist, Carlo Di Palma, and many others) have crafted the visuals in his films, and their imprint is strongly felt. It’s as if various painters had essayed their versions of Woody’s chatty, neurotic, uncertain characters.

This lack of interest in “polishing” a film isn’t exactly a new discovery — the 2011 PBS documentary by Robert Weide about Woody let us know that he writes one draft, one draft only, of each script. (True to Danny Simon’s rule and his upbringing, he clearly believes whatever he commits to paper is the best it can be, and that’s it.) This, of course, makes his great films even more impressive — Hannah and Her Sisters is a first draft?  Incredible achievement, truly.

But one can always sense when something is wrong with the lesser or uneven films. Thus, when one hears him proudly tout in that documentary that he never does rewrites, and in Apropos that he considers himself “careless” and never takes time to rehearse, block, or go through other basic steps before shooting, one realizes why a number of his films since the mid-Eighties are mildly charming but forgettable. (A number of them from different periods run together in one’s memory as one Big Woody Allen Movie that finds famous faces in very similar situations.)

The one piece of philosophy he offers about filmmaking in the book is “hire good actors, and get out of the way.” He does take the time in the book to acknowledge nearly every one of his features with at least a sentence or two. As is usually true of artists, he has incredibly skewed taste and looks back fondly on truly minor efforts but will take some space to put down the ones that are major achievements. (Every time one of the features has received great reviews or awards, true to form, he begins to think that something was drastically wrong with it.)

Thus, for cinephiles who have followed Allen’s films for a few decades, the most eye-opening passages of Apropos are not the large swaths of the book related to the Soon-Yi and Dylan incidents, but instead to the fact that Allen’s filmmaking philosophy has been to take care (once) in writing a script, hire some really fine actors, and then just instigate a film shoot with them, letting the crew handle all the technical details while he works almost exclusively with the actors.

“...I find technical details [about filmmaking] a bore and don’t know any more about lighting and photography now than when I started, as I was never curious enough to learn…. My filming habits are lazy, undisciplined, the technique of a failed, ejected film major.” [pp. 389-390] “When I direct, I know what I want, or more important, I know what I don’t want.” [p. 390]

He does note that he works personally with his editor on each film, but also adds that his loathing of filming “coverage” (he states resolutely that he wants film shoots to end at a normal hour, usually 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., so he can go home) has made it difficult to assemble certain scenes and can cause great difficulty when he reaches the editing phase.

He also has one big exception to his rule about changing his scripts — he asks the cast that, if they feel certain lines sound phony, to restate them in their own words. Thus, there is some part of him that knows a script can and does require polishing, but he is not going to be the one who does it. Of course, Robert Altman (among a scant few others) used to encourage ad-libs during shooting (while Cassavetes wanted the actors to come up with new dialogue during a lengthy rehearsal period). Altman, though, also had a very identifiable visual style he developed over his five decades of working in movies and TV.

The oddly self-loathing passages in the book do indeed back up this weird pattern of contrarian behavior — be compulsive about something (keep putting together film projects year after year, continue to perform in a band playing clarinet) but don’t go too crazy about it. He notes that Bergman (naturally) is his favorite filmmaker, but when the Master of Melancholy asked Woody if would like to visit him on Faro Island, Allen turned it down because, while he might worship Bergman’s films, “I’m not that dedicated.” [p. 303]

So when he begins to wonder what went wrong with a particular film — his usual reason being “there must have been something wrong with the writing” — one wants to simply respond to the book (as he does encourage us to actually think about and engage with this tome), “You know what it was? You didn’t actually sit down and do a second draft of the script! That’s why it was so lopsided or inconsistent, or just so damned ill-conceived.”

In any case, despite the dispiriting information that he most definitely spends more time practicing his clarinet playing (which he says he does pretty much daily) than he has ever done refining his directorial technique, Apropos does lay out his personal defense rather eloquently, although he does perhaps undercut his case a bit by not holding back on his utterly blasé (some would say unemotional, or more simply, “cold”) attitude toward what people end up thinking about him.

As noted above, some of the jokes in the book are so dark as to appear gruesome. But the man began as a joke writer and always has had a very honed sense of how to craft a comedy line. Perhaps that’s why one of the better bits in the book is this short summation of his awareness that he has become a very unloved character among certain segments of the populace.

He lists all his achievements in one paragraph, elaborating them one by one. Then: “If I died right now I couldn’t complain – and neither would a lot of other people.” [p. 339]

And, 52 pages later, the line that should perhaps be put on his gravestone: “… being a misanthropist has its saving grace — people can never disappoint you.” [p. 381]