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The Art of Monstrous Men

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I’ve been debating how to handle the great art of horrible men. There are many ways to handle this. If you don’t want to watch any Polanski films again, that’s certainly one’s right, but I am not going to stop watching Chinatown once a year. Where it gets more tricky is when the art itself represents the moral nightmare of these men. And that leads us to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I maintain this is completely brilliant film. It is also one deeply complicated by Allen seeing no problem with old men having sex with underage girls. Claire Dederer has a really great essay on this problem, where she draws a sharp line between that film and Annie Hall. The whole thing is well worth your time, but here’s an excerpt:

Here’s how to have some complicated emotions: watch Manhattan.

Like many—many what? many women? many mothers? many former girls? many moral feelers?—I have been unable to watch Manhattan for years. A few months back, when I started thinking about Woody Allen qua monster, I watched nearly every other movie he’s ever made before I faced the fact that I would, at some point, have to watch Manhattan.

And finally the day came. As I settled in on my nice couch in my comfortable living room, the Cosby trial was taking place. It was June of 2017. My husband, who has a Nordic flair for quiet drama, suggested I toggle between watching the Cosby trials and Manhattan so as to construct a kind of meta-narrative of monstrousness. But my husband’s austere Northern European sense of showmanship came to naught, for the Cosby trial wasn’t in fact televised.

Even so, it was out there happening.

The mood that summer was one of extreme discomfort. Just a general feeling of not-quite-rightness. People, and by people I mean women, were unsettled and unhappy. They met on the streets and looked at one another and shook their heads and walked away wordlessly. The women had had it. The women went on a giant fed-up march. The women were Facebooking and Tweeting, going for long furious walks, giving money to the ACLU, wondering why their partners and children didn’t do the dishes more. The women were realizing the invidiousness of the dishwashing paradigm. The women were becoming radicalized, even though the women really didn’t have the time to be radicalized. Arlie Russell Hochschild first published The Second Shift in 1989, and in 2017 the women were discovering that shit was truer than ever. In a couple of months would come the Harvey Weinstein accusations, and then the free-fall pig-pile of the #MeToo campaign.

As I wrote in my diary when I was a teen, “I don’t feel great about men right now.” I still didn’t feel great about men in the summer of 2017, and a lot of other women didn’t feel great about men either. A lot of men didn’t feel great about men. Even the patriarchs were sick of patriarchy.

Despite this bolus of opinion, of feeling, of rage, I was determined to at least try to come to Manhattan with an open mind. After all, lots of people think of it as Allen’s masterpiece, and I was ready to be swept away. And I was swept away during the opening credits—black and white, with jump-cuts timed perfectly, almost comically, to the triumphal strains of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Moments later, we cut to Isaac (Allen’s character), out to dinner with his friends Yale (are you fucking kidding me—Yale?) and Yale’s wife Emily. With them is Allen’s date, seventeen-year-old high-school student Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway.

The really astonishing thing about watching this scene is its nonchalance. NBD, I’m fucking a high schooler. Sure, he knows the relationship can’t last, but he seems only casually troubled by its moral implications. Woody Allen’s character Isaac is fucking that high schooler with what my mother would call a hey-nonny-nonny. Allen is fascinated with moral shading, except when it comes to this particular issue—the issue of middle-aged men fucking teenage girls. In the face of this particular issue, one of our greatest observers of contemporary ethics—someone whose mid-career work can approach the Flaubertian—suddenly becomes a dummy (I always hear this word in Fred Sanford’s voice: “dummeh!”)

“In high school, even the ugly girls are beautiful.” A (male) high-school teacher once said this to me.

Tracy’s face, Mariel’s face, is made of open flat planes that recall pioneers and plains of wheat and sunshine (it’s an Idaho face, after all). Allen sees Tracy as good and pure in a way that the grown women in the film never can be. Tracy is wise, the way Allen has written her, but unlike the adults in the film she’s entirely, miraculously untroubled by neurosis.

Heidegger has this notion of dasein and vorhandensein. Dasein means conscious presence, an entity aware of its own mortality—e.g., almost every character in every Woody Allen movie ever except Tracy. Vorhandensein, on the other hand, is a being that exists in itself; it just is—like an object, or an animal. Or Tracy. She’s glorious simply by being: inert, object-like, vorhandensein. Like the great movie stars of old, she’s a face, as Isaac so famously states in his litany of reasons to go on living: “Groucho Marx and Willie Mays; those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne; the crabs at Sam Wo’s; uh, Tracy’s face.” (Watching the film for the first time in decades, I was struck by how much Isaac’s list sounded like a Facebook gratitude post.)

Allen/Isaac can get closer to that ideal world, a world that has forgotten its knowledge of death, by fucking Tracy. Because he’s Woody Allen—a great filmmaker—Tracy is allowed her say; she’s not a nitwit. “Your concerns are my concerns,” she says. “We have great sex.” This works out well for Isaac: he gets to hoover up her beautiful embodied simplicity and he’s absolved of guilt. The women in the film don’t have that advantage.

The grown women in Manhattan are brittle and all too aware of death; they’re aware of every goddamn thing. A thinking woman is stuck—distanced from the body, from beauty, from life itself.

For me, the most telling moment in the film is a throwaway line delivered in a high whine by a chic woman at a cocktail party: “I finally had an orgasm and my doctor told me it was the wrong kind.” Isaac’s (very funny) response: “You had the wrong kind? I’ve never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money.”

Every woman watching the movie knows that it’s the doctor who’s an asshole, not the woman. But that’s not how Woody/Isaac sees it.

If a woman can think, she can’t come; if she can come, she can’t think.

I was just a child when Manhattan came out, so I don’t really know much about how reviewers dealt with the problem of Mariel Hemingway’s age. Obviously things changed with the Soon-Yi relationship. For me in 2017, I see Manhattan in the same category as Birth of a Nation and The Searchers. These are movies of great moral monstrousness. They are also brilliant films. Each of them go deep into the sick heart of America, not in terms of seriously critiquing it (some try to defend The Searchers, but I see it is an exercise in nearly unabashed racism, even in Ethan Edwards can’t fit into this new society that does welcome the redeemed captive back) but rather simply exposing it because the director believes in it. But here’s the thing–I will gladly watch any of these three movies on any given night, even as I shake my head at the horror of it all.

And I guess that’s going to be my way of dealing with this going forward. Sometimes it’s easy. Trust me, boycotting the films of Brett Ratner and James Toback is not a real sacrifice! And I am surely not going to miss Charlie Rose sucking up to Henry Kissinger and his condescending contempt for anyone left of center. But when it hits closer to home, it gets harder. I’ve never been one to shy away from this nation’s dark side and that’s what watching Manhattan requires. Woody Allen is a moral monster. It’s part of his art and you can’t critique his art without that being front and center. But there is more to good art than politics or personal behavior, whether that’s because we admire or despise the individual.

Of course, this is a question each of us has to deal with individually and there are no wrong answers except for excusing the behavior. That would be wrong.

…..Since commenters are already questioning my opinion on The Searchers, I will link to the essay I wrote about it a few years ago.

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