Woody Allen: 'A prisoner of his own persona'?
Even at the age of 77, Woody Allen continues to release films at an impressive rate. Although some of the more recent were not met with the critical acclaim that he's experienced in the past, his latest feature Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett has been labeled by some as his magnum opus.
However, some disagree. Mark Kermode notes that:
Despite the universal praise, Blue Jasmine is not Allen's most accessible (or likable) film, and some will find its fractured central figure too abrasive for empathy. The performances are however, worthy of stand-up-and-cheer ovations all round.
Kermode elaborates that Allen has a penchant for nostalgia particularly in Blue Jasmine; but also for his other 45 films. His trademark aesthetic often involves 'extravagant privilege with the dawning realities of a midlife meltdown'. These portraits of the upper middle class literati, conveyed through an elegant lens has earned Allen an incredibly loyal following. A following that has enabled him to enjoy a career arc that spans five decades.
It is decorated with 14 Academy Award nominations, three Oscars, eight BAFTAs for himself and six Academy Awards for his cast and crew. Senses of Cinema note that Allen was also given the prestigious Palme des Palmes and the Cannes Film Festival’s lifetime achievement award in 2002. Not only is Allen firmly established in the 20th century Hollywood film auteur canon, but Senses of Cinema also inform that his films are taught in European and Northern American University departments of philosophy and film.
You have no values. Your whole life, it’s nihilism, it’s cynicism, it’s sarcasm, and orgasm.
Allen is undeniably a revered auteur who, it seems, can do no wrong regardless of his own biography. It is a bemusing fact that when discussing Allen's dubious personal narrative with fans of his films, the subject seems to often be met with apathy. It is confusing as to why, in light of the recent inquiries into sexual abuse stories of powerful public figures, such as Roman Polanski and the Samantha Geimer case. Allen seems to have the ability to negate the focus from himself. It's a wonder if this has anything to do with the admiration which Allen has received for his films; thus exempting him from the firing line? If this is the case, then should the private life of a famed auteur have any bearing on how one views his work and vice-versa?
Almost two decades ago, Allen began a relationship with his daughter-Soon-Yi Previn whom he adopted with his then-wife Mia Farrow. Soon-Yi is the now estranged sister to Allen's other children: two adopted and one biological. The Guardian reported that with a 35 year age gap, it caused great scandal at the time, with Farrow alleging abuse against his other daughter Dylan. Allen and Soon-Yi have married since, however it is a stigma that his legacy will continue to be associated with. The question is though: to what extent?
In an interview with Vanity Fair's Special Correspondent, Maureen Orth, Mia Farrow and her eight children give an incredibly personal portrait of their relationship with Woody Allen. They touch upon the aforementioned sexual abuse case involving their adopted daughter Dylan: allegations which Allen still denies.
Dylan was remarkably candid when discussing her experiences with Orth, though refuses to speak Allen's name:
There’s a lot I don’t remember, but what happened in the attic I remember. I remember what I was wearing and what I wasn’t wearing. The things making me uncomfortable were making me think I was a bad kid, because I didn’t want to do what my elder told me to do.
I was cracking. I had to say something. I was seven. I was doing it because I was scared. I wanted it to stop.
This was how fathers treated their daughters. This was normal interaction, and I was not normal for feeling uncomfortable about it.
These comments alone are pretty alarming, but it's the characterization of his youngest female stars who offer the most stirring correlation between fact and fiction. More often than not Allen's on screen personas are seen to endure the emotional tumult of a beautiful, smart and complex female character. In an interview with The New Cinema Magazine, Mariel Hemingway- who plays the 17-year-old Tracy in Manhatten- discusses her on-screen relationship with the 42-year-old Isaac (played by Woody Allen).
I had never had a boyfriend. Then two weeks later my mother screams to me to come inside, that I have a phone call from Woody Allen. I had no idea who Woody Allen was.
In fact when Hemingway realized he was the director of the film Sleeper, her response was 'he's weird'. She admits that her opinion changed upon arriving at the New York casting session:
I remember that I was very nervous, because I had now discovered who he was and that he was important and all.
So when finally I read for him, I kept the script in front of my face the whole time, so he absolutely couldn’t see me. To this day I have absolutely no idea how I even got the part.
Repeatedly, we observe scenes in which Isaac reminds Tracy that she is 'only 17': just a kid who has no understanding of the world. From this we can extrapolate that Allen's Isaac is projecting his own anxieties onto her. We see that in fact Isaac is petulant and emotionally immature whereas the 17 year old Tracy embodies a maturity beyond her years.
The most discouraging parallels between Allen's blasé, albeit duplicitous casting of Hemingway and the expectations of her character, are further emphasized by her own lack of sexual experience:
I had never kissed anybody. So the kiss in the cab around Central Park terrified me. I was worried about it for weeks. Fortunately it was a long shot and I didn’t have to do much… he attacked me like I was a linebacker.
The kiss which takes place at the end of the above clip, does indeed seem as if Allen had been waiting for that moment since first setting eyes on the 13 year old Mariel in Lipstick. There's something almost predatory about the scene with a palpable sense of the 'Lolita' about it. When referring to Allen as the autonomous creator, the lines uncannily blur into his off-screen relationship with Soon-Yi Previn.
For me, the complexities of Allen's position of autonomy are problematic; specifically when considering his relationship with 'his muses'. Allen's persona is pervasive in many of his films, but what is most interesting about this, is the shift which takes place between the presence and absence of his persona; and how this impacts on his female characters.
His filmic personas- often conveyed by innumerable monologues and self referential scripts- are illuminating. They convey a certain exposure of the directors own philosophies, where his films enable him to vicariously live out his fantasies.
This is most noticeable in relation to his female characters: both in their portrayal and the shaping of the actors from the moment they enter the casting room which Allen has creative control over. The actresses that he casts are often referred to as his muses and famously include: Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Judy Davis and Alan Alda.
Allen is also in charge of writing, shooting and editing and is only answerable to himself when finalizing a script. Each of these roles thus create an unquestionable bond between the man and his art. Allen frequently uses the same crew: cinematographers Sven Nykvist, Gordon Willis, Carlo Di Palma and producer Jean Doumanian.
It's remarkable, given Allen's own relationship with his children, that his 1978 film Interiors conveys such a complex and stirringly honest portrayal of the family construction and the human condition. A personal favorite from the directors oeuvre, the film- in which Allen does not perform- is fueled by a compelling female-led cast. The transformation of the matriarch into a fragile other worldly figure is played by Geraldine Page where Diane Keaton, Kristen Griffith and Mary Beth Hurt play her three intellectual daughters.
Here, Allen's superb fashioning of three young women, tortured by their individual cerebral ghosts is incredibly moving. The tragedy which occurs in the films denouement, also propels the atmosphere into a profound state of mourning. Each sub-narrative wiles away in a twisted and confused plight, yet it is eventually one of the most brutal scenes that seems- for the purpose of this piece- contextually the most significant.
The scene in question occurs between the youngest, most glamorous daughter Flyn and her sister Renata's husband Frederick. During an evening of celebrations, the jovial mood plummets into darkness when Frederick becomes inebriated and announces to Flyn that he’s tired of making love to a woman he feels intellectually inferior to. That night, Frederick follows Flyn into the garage and in his drunken state, sexually assaults her.
With regards to the initial announcement, one can not help but see an aspect of Allen seep through yet again, bringing his omniscient persona into view. You could be forgiven for using this to read into Allen's relationships with highly intelligent women such as Mia Farrow and Dianne Keaton, through to his current relationship with a woman 35 years his junior. The aforementioned Guardian interview, quotes Allen as having resisted any autobiographical interpretation to his films, calling his experiences 'a useful plot mechanism'; but that in itself is subjective.
And it’s the same with the women in my films: I see them all through rose-colored glasses.
With regards to Woody Allen's personal narrative, is it important for the audience to consider this when watching his films and draw on it as a reference point? If not, then is it acceptable for auteurs and those in a position of power such as Allen to be exempt from consequence? When considering these concerns, I wonder if it helps us to see through the elegant, 'rose- tinted' aesthetic and understand the context with more clarity. This is specifically with regards to his female characterizations: are they really powerful, complex and sensitive portrayals or do they serve a more fetishistic purpose? As the opening line and caveat in Blue Jasmine states:
There are only so many traumas you can withstand before you start screaming.
The title is a quote from 'Senses of Cinema'