Arriving at a screening of Annie Hall on May 31st, I felt more like I was walking into a porno theater than the venerated Film Forum. I could feel my sweating begin as I tried to nonchalantly hand the usher my ticket and hurry to the sweet anonymity of the darkened theater, where no one could see my face and report my illicit behavior back to the other Barnard students. You can imagine my horror when the usher stopped me.
“You’re here for Annie Hall?”
I could have died on the spot. All my worst nightmares became real in an instant. Twenty years of atheism vanished in a flash, and I found myself praying. “Dear God: Save me from this and I’ll be a good feminist. I’ll go home and watch a Jane Campion movie. I’ll reread The Second Sex (and I won’t even Spark Note it this time)!”
“This ticket is for 2 pm. You’re two hours early.”
Two hours later, after a lengthy wander through Greenwich Village, I finally seated myself in the theater (fourth row, dead center) and began preparing for Annie Hall. This would not be one of my typical rewatches of Annie Hall, but rather an attempt to rise above nostalgia, and think critically about this film through the lens of Woody Allen’s actions in his personal life. I had realized recently that I often found myself thinking about my favorite director so devotedly that he had become superhuman. But Woody Allen was just a man. And not a very good one at that.
I had realized recently that I often found myself thinking about my favorite director so devotedly that he had become superhuman. But Woody Allen was just a man. And not a very good one at that.
The previews did not last long, and, soon enough, Woody Allen’s face—huge, iconified—looked down directly at me. Even fidgeting his way through a Groucho Marx gag, he took up every inch of room in that theater. I stole looks at those around me, and found their glassy eyes turned up towards Woody’s face. Some of their mouths hung open. Others smiled. The audience was small, bearing witness to someone larger than life, and absolutely loving it.
Recently, I read Claire Dederer’s newest book, Monsters. It’s a captivating work about infamous artists and the modern consumer’s relationship with them. Many familiar faces make appearances in Monsters; Roman Polanski leads the way (as Claire’s personal favorite), but the reader is also met with the likes of Michael Jackson, J. K. Rowling, Pablo Picasso, Doris Lessing, and, yes, Woody Allen. Of course, everyone Claire speaks to has an opinion about Woody Allen, and so she is left with the difficult task of navigating passions on both sides of the divide.
Claire Dederer’s book is delicately crafted—it has to be. In her words, “Everyone alive…is either canceled or about to be canceled.” Therefore, by giving voice to both sides of the “problematic” art debate, Claire is endangering herself. However, Claire very carefully toes the line, and, so far, has ended up unscathed since the book’s publication. This very fact makes me wonder if perhaps she did not probe far enough in the work’s construction.
I will not spoil its ending, but it is a bit anticlimactic. If Claire had picked a stronger side, there would undoubtedly be more backlash, which would perhaps make my own recommendation stronger. Backlash, after all, follows great art (and great artists), as we are reminded time and again in Monsters. Still, the idea behind Claire’s book is intriguing, particularly as in the last five years “cancellation” has taken up so much of the public’s mind.
Still, the idea behind Claire’s book is intriguing, particularly as in the last five years “cancellation” has taken up so much of the public’s mind.
So, with help from Claire, let’s get into it. Think now of your favorite artist. Not the one you mention at parties or in class, but the one you would never say out loud, yet whose work you think of so often. The one you love. Look, I’ll even go first. My name is Reese Alexander, and I love Woody Allen movies.
But why? First, my love for Woody Allen’s work began with my parents, who haven’t missed the release of a single Woody Allen film since they were in high school. Much to their dismay, my parents haven’t seen a movie of his in a theater since Café Society, and they now must wait, along with the rest of his fans, for his films to be released onto Amazon (his punishment, in lieu of, you know, an actual punishment).
Growing up, we watched Woody marathons on TCM late into school nights. When we could find his movies in theaters in Birmingham (not an easy task), we were there. In 2012, I got a DVD of Midnight in Paris under the tree from Santa. During quarantine, my parents and I went through a phase of watching a Woody Allen movie together every night. A year later, the week before I left for college, we rewatched Annie Hall and Manhattan to prepare me for the wonders of New York City.
It’s obvious from this alone that my love for Woody’s films is deeply connected to my love for my parents, as well as nostalgia for my childhood. However, I will admit that it goes deeper than that. My family felt the same way about Finding Nemo, but I don’t find myself obsessively rewatching that movie three times a year (only once, thank you). Additionally, my older sister (the film major) was raised in the same house that I was, and she hates Woody Allen movies. She, like many others, cannot look past the allegations of child molestation from Woody’s daughter—Dylan Farrow—not to mention the very disturbing fact that Woody Allen had an affair with—and then married—his step-daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. When she watches Annie Hall, my sister sees only a monster, and, in her opinion, a monster who does not make very good films.
Woody Allen’s personal history is terrible, but even if you are someone who insists on the separation of art from artist, then his recent contributions to the canon are more than enough reason to refuse to watch his movies altogether. His twenty-first century films are repetitive, uninspired, imbued with the existential dread of a fading star, and I have liked them all. When I think of my obsession with his work, I am reminded less of a film buff, and more of a groupie. Why am I so attached to Woody Allen? In Monsters, Claire explains that Woody Allen’s on-screen persona overwhelmingly appeals to young girls. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony). He’s awkward, and not outwardly “leading man material,” but, through his wit, Woody always bests those around him. Even when he is showcasing his own neuroses and faults, it is still on his terms, so his character flaws never necessarily become alarming to the audience. “When I was young, I felt like Woody Allen,” Claire writes. “He was me. This is one of the peculiar aspects of his genius—this ability to stand in for the audience.”
Is my dependence on Woody Allen characteristic of the ultimate parasocial relationship? To not only want to know someone, but to fuse your two identities into one? As I read Claire’s words, before me on the page appears my younger self—unsure, trepidatious, brimming with anxiety about her place in the world. “I felt closer to him than seems reasonable for a little girl to feel about a grown-up male filmmaker,” Claire says to that girl. “In some mad way I felt he belonged to me.” And he did, didn’t he?
On my very first viewing of Annie Hall, when the film had only just begun and young Alvy found himself in a doctor’s office depressed over the end of the world, it was as if the movie reached out and grabbed my hand. I also felt so much anxiety and existential dread as a kid. And, growing up in a religious family, I felt alone in that dread. But I was not alone. I had Woody Allen!
Earlier this year, when Ned from The Try Guys was caught cheating on his wife and the entire internet exploded, I felt so superior to everyone that cared. But the thing is, by being a consumer of art and entertainment in the modern age, I am just as guilty of, well, caring. We all are. Claire questions these parasocial relationships by exploring the place of biography in modern society, which is, in my opinion, by far the most interesting section of her book. She argues that in today’s age, biography is ever-present. Even if you are a sharp critic of “fan behavior,” you are in a parasocial relationship the minute you identify with someone else’s work. The internet makes this inescapable. And if The Artist belongs to you—like a pet or a small child—then you are in charge of their discipline, are you not?
Claire questions these parasocial relationships by exploring the place of biography in modern society, which is, in my opinion, by far the most interesting section of her book.
It is revealed your favorite painter did something unforgivable decades ago, so it is your duty to punish him, to slap him on the wrist, to put him in a time out for seven to eight months before he unveils his newest, apologetic exhibition, and then you forgive him. As it is only in your power to do. Because he is yours. However, in reality, there are few ways to truly discipline someone in such a privileged socio-economic position, which I know is something we have all heard echoed time and again during debates on the topic of cancellation and problematic artists, but it continues to be true.
And yet I still find myself searching for Woody’s films on streaming or in bins of dusty DVDs at the back of thrift stores (which are all basically Woody Allen film graveyards at this point—each one has at least four copies of Crimes and Misdemeanors). I do this as if it makes my consumption of his work any better. It does not.
In the end, I do think reading Monsters has changed how I approach Woody Allen. As I’m writing this, I’m looking at the framed Manhattan poster that hangs on the wall opposite my bed (which I picked up from a thrift store earlier this year). Maybe saving my ticket to Annie Hall in my memory box still feels right. And maybe the Manhattan poster makes me a little more uncomfortable than it did before. But I haven’t taken it down yet.
I believe that Claire’s point in Monsters is not to change your opinion of your favorite artists, but to make readers uncomfortable. The danger of comfort is its tendency to bring with it complacency. And, when it comes to art—and consumption at large—we should never become complacent. Claire herself writes that “under capitalism, monstrousness applies to everyone.” This is just a slightly altered version of the phrase your roommate shouts at you as she drops more Shein items into her shopping cart—“there is no ethical consumption under capitalism”—but Claire is right.
You are one person. If you want to refrain from renting Woody’s Rifkin’s Festival this weekend, then I encourage you to do so. If you believe in the long run it doesn’t matter, and it will bring you happiness to watch Wallace Shawn throw his hands up in the air for 90 minutes, then do it. The thing about capitalism is that you are not going to make it better by refusing to watch a Woody Allen movie. You are going to make it better by helping to dismantle it entirely.
Capitalists are throwing smoke over your eyes if they say that this—whether or not we can still watch Annie Hall—is the most pressing question. It is not. No, that does not justify my watching Woody Allen films. He is a predator. When I give him attention, I lend support to a predator. And boycotts of people and brands have been shown to work. But that is only a temporary fix for a systemic issue. Through resigning yourself to the workings of capitalism, you lend support to a million predators. Capitalism is a predator’s ideal environment, and so it makes sense that these geniuses we adore leave paths of destruction in their wake.
Claire Dederer’s Monsters is a great book, and I encourage anyone who consumes art (so…everyone) to read it. These are the questions we must ask ourselves more and more in a digital age. Hopefully, one day we will have unanimous answers to them all.
Maybe soon Woody Allen, his lengthy filmography, and his personal history will drift into the land of the forgotten. But Annie Hall will not. And neither will the way it makes me feel.
Should I give up Woody Allen? I don’t quite know the answer to that question. But giving up art I love—something necessary for my ability to thrive—will always feel wrong. I wish they wouldn’t, but Woody Allen’s films might always be the most crucial part of my collection. All I can say at this point is the obvious: I need the eggs.
© Reese Alexander (7/7/23) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE / DO MORE:
Order Claire’s book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma here.
Learn more about Claire on her website.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS:
Featured Photo: Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma book cover. Credit: Courtesy of Penguin Random House.
Middle Photo: Claire Dederer portrait. Photo Credit: Stanton J. Stephens.
Bottom Photo: Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977). Ronald Grant / ROLLINS-JOFFE PRODUCTIONS / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: DXP4WT.