Sure, we all know the festering family drama of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. But do we actually know what we think we do? Or why it matters after all these years?
“No” on both counts, propose Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick in their new HBO docuseries, “Allen v. Farrow.” The filmmakers present the disturbing possibility that, for decades, the public has been groomed by a master storyteller and his PR machine to accept the unacceptable and blame the victims of sexual abuse.
The filmmakers suggest that not only has Allen the celebrated filmmaker devastated one family, his intrigues have rippled through our entire culture.
The filmmakers suggest that not only has Allen the celebrated filmmaker devastated one family, his intrigues have rippled through our entire culture to reinforce patriarchal power structures that block survivors of abuse from attaining help or justice.
By detailing Allen’s deft manipulation of a narrative that the public had long accepted, the HBO series questions the familiar “yes-he’s-gross-but-Mia-is-a-crazy-liar” storyline until it dissolves before our eyes. What emerges is a ride on the Gaslight Express, conducted by a narcissistic celebrity-genius with vast resources who leads us far off the track from terrible truths.
We see Allen’s perfected storyline — that he’s just a guy caught in the snares of fate and the machinations of crazy, lustful and vengeful females — set up early on in his films. That line has been unfortunately and insidiously bolstered by one of Allen’s key influences, Sigmund Freud, who theorized about children’s supposed desire for sexual involvement with their parents.
Allen’s wealth and fame explain a lot about how his career has continued despite allegations of child molestation and claims that he has long pursued teenaged girls. (Allen has steadfastly denied any molestation allegations.) But his showbiz talents helped, too. Consider, as a teen, he was already skilled at performing magic tricks — working audiences so they would see what he wanted them to. Later, he finessed a style of conceal-by-revealing semi-autobiographical storytelling in his films and his carefully constructed public persona.
A magician can turn darkness into light. He can transform a cunning misanthrope into a lovable nebbish and, as “Allen v. Farrow” suggests, female victims into hysterical liars. He can make people believe that his allegedly inappropriate relationship with his girlfriend’s daughter Soon-Yi Previn (then a teenager, according to the docuseries) was just a happy adult love story. With the wave of a wand (and a gullible press), he can turn his partner of more than a decade into a Medea willing to sacrifice her children for revenge. In the process, he made his daughter-accuser appear the unreliable witness to her own life.
Most impressive, the filmmakers assert, Allen convinced multitudes that he has never been the aggressor, but always the innocent victim. Presto!
Most impressive, the filmmakers assert, Allen convinced multitudes that he has never been the aggressor, but always the innocent victim.
To pull off this audacious trick, it helps to have the audience properly primed. “Allen v. Farrow” claims the artist conditioned fans to pathological behavior by performing a narrative sleight-of-hand in his movies. In “Manhattan,” for example, it isn’t the balding, 40-ish Isaac, portrayed by Allen, who pursues a high school girl, but the teenage Tracey, played by Mariel Hemingway — just 16 during filming — who chases him.
In real life, Hemingway says she was alarmed by Allen’s aggressive behavior in a kissing scene and his attempt to seduce her after the film wrapped. But in Allen’s fantasyland, Isaac resists while Tracey insistently comes onto him.
Once you’ve swallowed this, it’s easier to digest “Stardust Memories,” where Allen’s character, Sandy, flirts with girlfriend Dorrie’s 13-year-old cousin and gets aroused by suggesting that Dorrie seduced her own father: “Long lingering breakfasts with Dad? Is this getting nauseating?”
We should be vomiting by now. We’re talking about incest. But hey, it’s just a movie. And Allen’s so endearing! He channels our romantic longings and makes us feel OK about our insecurities. He gets us. So, we have to be understanding back, right? That’s the contract audiences signed without realizing it.
Allen has another ace up his sleeve. Let’s call it the Freudian switch-a-roo. The filmmaker has spent decades undergoing extensive Freudian psychoanalysis. He is the bard of the couch — populating his work with analysts and the analyzed.
Significantly, Freud developed a highly controversial view of childhood sexuality that can provide cover to abusive adults. In a now widely criticized shift, the Viennese doctor abandoned his early revelation of how often kids are sexually abused and offered instead a theory about how they wish to have sex with their parents — a.k.a. the Oedipus complex.
In the mid-1890s, Freud presented papers on cases of patients, mostly female, with hysterical and neurotic symptoms, finding one thing in common: damaging childhood sexual experiences, often at the hands of fathers. These patients, in his opinion, were so traumatized by the pain and stigma of what they’d gone through that they could only “speak” about events unconsciously through symptoms.
Later, however, Freud flipped the script. These patients were troubled, he decided, not by real experiences, but by fantasies — forbidden desires for their own parents. Some speculate that Freud changed his position because as creepy as the Oedipus complex is, it was still better than imagining so many upper-middle class adults preying on their own children.
Freud wrote his colleague Wilhelm Fliess of his discomfort with the notion that there could be “such widespread perversions against children.” Freud was particularly nervous about the charge against fathers — including his own, whom he described as a pervert who abused Freud’s siblings.
In rejecting his earlier theory, Freud upheld a patriarchal power structure that placed the father above any questioning. Consequently, the child’s reality would have to be abandoned — along with those who corroborate it. Like mothers. Or adult survivors of abuse.
This theme of wiping away predation and blaming victims comes through not only in Allen’s films but in his real-life efforts to discredit Mia Farrow and their daughter, Dylan, when they reported his alleged activities. In media appearance after appearance, Allen questioned their sanity and motives. He painted himself not only as a model father, but a savior, only seeking to rescue Farrow’s children from their evil mother. Male psychoanalysts provided powerful ammunition.
“Allen v. Farrow” highlights a highly contentious theory known as “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” promoted by psychoanalyst Richard Gardner in 1985 to describe mothers who brainwash kids into turning against fathers in custody disputes. Though Gardner’s work is rejected by the scientific community, U.S. courts still sometimes use it to punish mothers and award sole custody to fathers accused of abuse. During Allen’s custody battle with Farrow, Gardner spoke to the press in favor of the filmmaker. Though the judge rejected Allen’s custody bid — and even ordered him to pay Farrow’s court fees — the theory took hold in the public imagination.
The patriarchy has been maintained.
The public stayed aboard this runaway train of confabulations, rolling over reported victims of abuse and the people who stood by them.
Allen continues to be admired as both man and artist. Even when he acknowledged his “amorality” and demonstrated his proclivities in everything from hooking up with teenage girls to taking “erotic” Polaroids of his girlfriend’s daughter.
The public stayed aboard this runaway train of confabulations, rolling over reported victims of abuse and the people who stood by them. Today, Allen’s narrative rushes full speed ahead with his claim that documentarians Ziering and Dick “had no interest in the truth.” Truth, as we have seen, is what he says it is. All else is a lie.
In “Stardust Memories,” Allen’s Sandy boards a train to stop a girlfriend who has caught him in lies from fleeing. “I’m not evil,” he says with a wily grin. “Just ridiculous.” He kisses her, the train takes off. Away they go.
“Allen v. Farrow” blows what perhaps will be the final whistle on Allen’s Gaslight Express. It’s time for all of us to get off.