Tony Norman: Play it again, Woody

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Woody Allen has meant more to me over the decades than just about any other American filmmaker. Coming of age in the late 1970s, Mr. Allen's comic masterpieces "Love and Death," "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" directly influenced my view of the world and its tragicomic possibilities.

While I don't share Mr. Allen's atheism, I've always admired his willingness to reckon with whatever an impersonal universe (as he imagines it) deigned to throw at him. His characters, thinly disguised aspects of himself, were always nebbishy intellectuals, pretentious sad sacks, deluded artists or alienated city dwellers searching for a standard of morality everyone could agree on. There was always something gallant about his existentialism and his sense of humor.

It has been exciting watching someone with Mr. Allen's comic sensibility and philosophical derring-do struggle with the most important questions a person in a secular society can ask -- how does one do the right thing in a morally ambiguous universe that ultimately doesn't care about shifting standards of morality?

You can't watch Woody Allen films like "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Interiors," "Broadway Danny Rose," "Stardust Memories," "Match Point" or "Blue Jasmine" (his most recent film) without being shaken to the core. Mr. Allen is light years ahead of most of his colleagues in delineating the existential dread that alternates with the banality and irony of modern life. Sometimes his films make you laugh, but he's more than willing to make you endure, like Diane Keaton's character in "Annie Hall," endless screenings of "The Sorrow and the Pity."

Like most fans of Woody Allen who continue to patronize his movies and seek out his work, I've been dismayed by the allegations that he molested a daughter he adopted with the actress Mia Farrow when they were paramours in the early '90s. Authorities in New York and Connecticut investigated the allegations at the time, but failed to find corroborating evidence.

Charges were never brought against Mr. Allen, whose life was complicated enough thanks to his consensual relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, Ms. Farrow's oldest adopted daughter. Mr. Allen and Ms. Previn married shortly after their affair came to light, raising the "ick" factor many degrees since it was only a bare notch above incest.

Though Mr. Allen is not a blood relative and was never Soon-Yi's adopted father, an inappropriate relationship with a young woman he once baby-sat was enough of a moral taint to turn a lot of people off of his movies for a long time -- including me.

Of all the women in the world who were of legal age to date or marry, why did Mr. Allen, who was in his mid-50s at the time, romance the daughter of his longtime girlfriend knowing that disregarding such a powerful social taboo would make him tabloid fodder forever? Resorting to the standard line from one of his movies "The heart wants what it wants" is an unconscionable dodge given everything that has resulted since his act of betrayal, including irrevocably broken relationships with his children with Ms. Farrow.

Still, short of an indictment or clear evidence of pederasty, I couldn't justify a boycott of such an important filmmaker -- especially someone whose work has spoken so eloquently to me in my youth about our very strange universe. I began going to his films again around the time of "Deconstructing Harry," though none of them connected with my gut again until "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Match Point."

By the time "Midnight in Paris" and "Blue Jasmine" came along, I could barely remember why attending Mr. Allen's films was considered a morally dubious act by so many. I have colleagues and friends who visibly recoil at the mention of his name and are completely unimpressed when I insist his films have returned to a consistent level of excellence last seen in the late '70s and early '80s.

When Ms. Keaton accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award on Mr. Allen's behalf at the Golden Globes recently, his son, Ronan Farrow stirred up a tempest on Twitter by accusing his father of molesting his sister. Recently, Dylan Farrow, now 27, published an open letter at The New York Times reiterating her charge that she was sexually assaulted. She accused Hollywood of enabling Mr. Allen's predatory behavior. The director strongly denied the allegations calling them "disgraceful." He faces no legal jeopardy.

So here we are again facing two irreconcilable stories with no reasonable way to ascertain the truth short of a confession. If it weren't so tragically ironic, it would be a story worthy of a Woody Allen movie. If there's one thing we've learned from watching his films over the years is that a conscience is always inconvenient, but it is the only option -- other than suicide -- worth having in a morally indifferent universe.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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