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Why Woody Allen makes us feel uncomfortable

Published: Thursday, January 16, 2014

Updated: Thursday, January 16, 2014 02:01

 

With everyone and his uncle — and in Woody Allen’s family’s case these two may very well be one and the same — crawling out of the woodwork to throw in their two cents on whether the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s decision to present the filmmaker a lifetime achievement award was prudent, the ruckus that has been stirred seems to have less to do with Allen than with the untouched elephant in the room — our comfort levels. 

The issue once again arises: Is it OK to appreciate positive contributions of an individual mired in a life of actions and choices that flagrantly violate the values we, as individuals, hold close to us?   

Allen, whose troubling personal life includes a marriage to a former wife’s daughter and allegations of molesting his 7-year-old adopted daughter, is hardly the first to have raised this issue. Others include filmmaker Roman Polanski with his arrest and charges of five counts of sexual abuse, Walt Disney and his widely-acknowledged anti-Semitism and even Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi and their extramarital affairs have forced us to consider that those we respect are indeed multidimensional characters. 

Yet while most of us wouldn’t consider each above transgression on the same scale of depravity, to the involved individuals the actions would have been earth-shattering and much of the discomfort stemming from the Woody Allen conundrum likely arises from our own decisions of where we draw lines to empathize with a victim of injustice. 

It seems that when positive contributions are made at a societal level, it is much easier to accept and reconcile within ourselves our feelings for these figures: allegations of Gandhi’s sleeping with pre-pubescent naked girls and King Jr.’s alleged lothario side can be palmed off as part of their “personal lives,” struggles that only those directly involved with them would have to bear, while their public crusades for social justice have altered the course of history, allowing future generations of people to be free from the struggles and troubles they once may have been pre-destined to — a history that each of us, regardless of background, have come to learn and be conditioned to empathize with. 

The reverse is true as well when the contributions are negative: It seems obvious that it would be foolish to speak of Hitler as a poet who was able to touch one deeply, when the horrific atrocities he committed directly inflicted such ruthless pain on such a huge number of people and generations of injustice. 

But when these contributions take place at an individual level, this concept seems harder to grapple with. 

Is it OK to admit that perhaps Annie Hall or Isaac Davis or any other characters born from Allen’s creativity have influenced, for the better, the way we as individuals feel or experience things in our daily lives?  Are we thus in someway implicitly condoning actions of someone who may be guilty of ruining lives of his own family members by giving value or importance to our individual desires for entertainment? 

Aside from the vainest and most self-deprecating outliers of society, most individuals are able to accept that as humans we are multi-faceted beings who can be appreciated for the good we do and loathed for the bad.  Yet when looking outside ourselves at figures we most respect, this issue is far more complex than any of Allen’s neuritic characters. 

Divya Kumar is a senior majoring in economics and mass
communications

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