Here’s the thing about art – it’s hard. It’s hard to create something that touches one soul, let alone millions. And art isn’t simply hard for the creators. It can be hard for the consumers. Any admirer of art – regardless of the medium – has, at one point or another, had to confront the reality that they loved the work of a horrible person. It’s an inescapable conundrum because people are deeply flawed. It comes down to the ol’ unanswerable question: Can you separate the art from the artist? One artist in particular has had this question looming over their work for the past 30 years – Woody Allen.
In the new four-part documentary series on HBO from directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, Allen v. Farrow, the complex questions that have swirled around the conduct and artistic legacy of Woody Allen are examined in depth, from the scandalous affair with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn to the accusations that he molested his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow when she was seven years old. Allen v. Farrow aims to recenter the question around Woody Allen: Is Woody Allen just a scumbag or an unrepentant monster? Dick and Ziering don’t leave their conclusion with any ambiguity, and while it’s true that the interviews conducted for the series favor one side of the story (the other side simply declined to be involved) the most damning parts of this story come from Allen’s own words, be they previously unheard audio tapes or excerpts from his recent memoir, Apropos of Nothing.
To be entirely clear, before watching Allen v. Farrow I was predisposed to sympathize with Dylan Farrow. After watching all four hours of Allen v. Farrow, I found the evidence and testimony presented as overwhelming. Allen has previously used his power and celebrity to avoid accountability for the crimes he’s accused of, but after Allen v. Farrow it’s doubtful that the once-admired filmmaker will ever be able to rehabilitate his legacy.
Over the course of its four episodes, Allen v. Farrow examines practically every angle of the complicated relationship between Mia Farrow and Woody Allen. Here was this glamourous movie star who was previously married to Frank Sinatra and this bespectacled, neurotic writer-director who didn’t exactly have matinee idol good looks. From the start of Allen v. Farrow, Dick and Ziering establish that the cultural climate that surrounds these ongoing scandal are just as important as the evidentiary facts.
Mia Farrow provided the filmmakers with hours of home video footage. These intimate family moments establish the domestic situation between Allen and Farrow, and the new interviews with Mia Farrow and her children paired with excerpts from Allen’s memoir present us with the somewhat unusual family dynamic. Allen maintained his own apartment throughout the relationship, among other details. When Mia Farrow wants to expand the family, Allen is pretty clear in his own words that he had no interest in parenting, though he claims that changed with the adoption of Dylan Farrow in 1985 and the birth of Ronan Farrow in 1987.
Allen v. Farrow goes to great lengths to establish the creepy obsessive behavior Woody Allen doted upon young Dylan; Mia simply thinking that Woody had shed his paternal apprehensions. The home video footage combined with Dylan’s own recollections illustrate what an unhealthy dynamic Dylan had with her adoptive father. At the same time, though, the documentary series is exploring the unanswered questions that have surrounded Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn. Allen v. Farrow posits that Allen was grooming young Soon-Yi, a practice often employed by sexual predators. Upon Mia Farrow’s discovery of nude photos of Soon-Yi in Allen’s apartment, the world these two Hollywood icons occupied would crumble in a media frenzy.
In the midst of the fallout of Mia Farrow’s discovery, young Dylan Farrow mentions to her mother that her father had molested her. Mia Farrow pulled out her video camera and got the child’s testimony on tape. This heartbreaking footage combined with contemporaneous interviews with Dylan Farrow presents a damning case against Allen. In newly released taped conversations between Mia Farrow and Woody Allen amidst this horrific situation (in which each side is recording each other while denying they’re recording), Allen comes off as practically sociopathic, remorseless and flippant. As the possibility of facing criminal charges looms over Allen, it was he who went public with his affair with Soon-Yi in a way to shift the eyes of the public away from the more horrific allegations against him.
Allen’s most vocal defenders have pointed to the fact that Woody Allen was never charged with molesting Dylan Farrow, often pointing to a report conducted by the Yale-New Haven Hospital that claimed Dylan was heavily influenced in her testimony by her mother. Allen v. Farrow employs court documents, interviews with prosecutors and forensic experts, and home footage to confront every angle presented by Allen’s defenders. The evidence is convincing for anyone on the fence about these accusations against Woody Allen, though anyone who has somehow invested themselves in proving Allen’s innocence will remain unmoved.
What makes Allen v. Farrow such a fascinating work is that it doesn’t just keep its focus on the allegation against Allen, but also how he employed his power and celebrity through the media to evade accountability. It’s surprising to revisit just how quickly Woody Allen was able to simply move on from a scandal that saw him in an affair with his partner’s adopted daughter as well as the heinous accusations of molesting Dylan. The nearly instantaneous rehabilitation of Woody Allen as presented only further illustrates how the wealthy and powerful are able to insulate themselves from ever truly facing the consequences of their actions. The public aren’t innocent bystanders. They also move on. They start buying tickets to his movies and honoring him with awards. All the while letting Allen off the hook with nothing in the way of actual consequences outside of lame jokes about his relationship with Soon-Yi.
Ronan Farrow has made his name as a journalist exposing the crimes of various powerful men in the wake of the Me Too movement. However, while Ronan might be more inclined to step into the spotlight, it’s really Dylan Farrow who is the hero here. She bravely stepped forward and put her pain and trauma front and center. This woman did nothing wrong. She was the victim of her adoptive father. The story told in Allen v. Farrow is a horrible one, full of disgusting details that are hard to stomach. For all the darkness in this tragic story, the bravery and resilience of Dylan Farrow is the beam of light to emerge from the darkness and I sincerely hope she can find the peace she so deserves.
I doubt I will ever watch another film by Woody Allen. I used to like a number of his films. But the weight of the accusations against him are too much. Then there’s that question of separating the art from the artist. I think its possible to do that in some cases. In the case of Woody Allen, it’s practically impossible because the artist is so front and center in his art. His obsessions and neuroses are central to his filmmaking, and that self-deprecating sense of humor has allowed him to meekly downplay the very grave accusations leveled against him. Allen v. Farrow won’t be the final word in this ongoing saga. There will always be those willing to stake their reputations to defend Woody Allen. As is made perfectly clear in Allen v. Farrow, Woody Allen left behind a fractured family full of pain and suffering. For all the pain and suffering he inflicted upon others, the worst Woody Allen has ever had to face was some hacky joke by Jay Leno. That’s not justice.
Allen v. Farrow
A comprehensive and damning documentary series about the alleged crimes of Woody Allen, Allen v. Farrow presents a compelling argument about the famed writer-director’s guilt as it examines not merely the alleged crimes but the culture that enabled Allen’s public rehabilitation.