Woody Allen’s morality plays — and ours

Today I read an article by Juliet Lapidos on Slate about the movies of Woody Allen.

Woody Allen is infamous for having begun a clandestine affair with the teenaged, adopted daughter (Soon-Yi) of his long-time partner, Mia Farrow, while he was still in a relationship with Farrow. His actions were incredibly destructive to Farrow’s family of adopted and natural children.

Allen’s biological son with Farrow, Ronan, has been quoted in a Wikipedia article on Allen as stating: “He’s my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression. I cannot see him. I cannot have a relationship with my father and be morally consistent… I lived with all these adopted children, so they are my family. To say Soon-Yi was not my sister is an insult to all adopted children.”

In the years since, despite Allen’s clear brilliance as a filmmaker, writer, and comedian, public opinion toward him has remained negative. I know, for example, of one person who will neither watch his films nor be in the room when someone else watches them.

In the comments section to Lapidos’ article, one reader, Jacob Cerf, noted, “I loved Manhattan at the time. Now I can’t watch it or Hannah without thinking of Soon-Yi.”

Cerf echoed the feeling I had in reading Lapidos’ article. Lapidos talks about Allen’s obsessive ruminations on various philosophical ideas, and I found myself thinking, “Well, I guess that ethics isn’t one of his philosophical preoccupations.”

However, I’m not sure that it would matter if ethics were his primary focus. One of the things that has long fascinated me about people is that a moralistic preoccupation does not correlate at all well with a person behaving in moral manner.

Doesn’t it seem as though every time you turn around there’s some fundamentalist preacher caught in bed with a hooker, a handful of drugs, a male prostitute — or some combination of all three? And it’s not just Christian or conservative clergy who do these things. In the world of western Buddhist practice, there have been more than a few cases of Buddhist clergy behaving very unethically in matters of sex or money.

My first experience of this paradox was forty years ago as an undergraduate, when I had a run-in with a distinguished professor of ethics that made it clear to me that it was a subject he studied, not a path he followed.

Picture of book cover of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Freud said many dumb and destructive things, but I don’t think this is one of them: “The fear is the desire.” If I remember correctly, he was talking about phobic behavior, but he was onto something. When we hear about conservative Christians closeting themselves with porn for hours at a time so that they can “study” it (the better to condemn it?), that’s what I think of.

I’m reminded of another, similar, insightful idea: “The subconscious does not understand a negative.” What does that mean? It means that when someone comes up to you at a party and says, “It’s not like I want to steal your spouse, but what a dreamboat,” you better find some way to get your beloved away from this would-be home-wrecker. Or when some salesman sales, “It’s not like I want you to spend any more money than you need to, but…,” hang onto your wallet for dear life.

I’m reading a fascinating book right now, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, that is not emotionally easy to read. It’s about all the ways that we color — or even fabricate — our memories to make them more consonant with our ideas (or fantasies) about who we are. As I read the book, I keep wanting to think that it’s about other people, not me, and that kind of urge is just what the authors are talking about:

Memories are distorted in a self-enhancing direction in all sorts of ways. Men and women alike remember having had fewer sexual partners than they really did, they remember having far more sex with those partners than they actually had, and they remember using condoms more often than they actually did. People also remember voting in elections they didn’t vote in, they remember voting for the winning candidate rather than the politician they did vote for, they remember giving more to charity than they really did, they remember that their children walked and talked at an earlier age than they really did… You get the idea.

So while a majority of people feel that Allen’s actions were morally reprehensible, I’m sure that if we asked him — or Soon-Yi, now his wife — we would get a much more self-serving slant on what happened. One of the public comments frequently attributed to Soon-Yi, namely that Farrow is “No Mother Theresa,” suggests as much.


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Copyright © 2011 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.


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I am a writer and an activist for people who are disabled by chronic illness. I also interested in issues related to the LGBTI community and to women making music.

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Posted in Ethics, Psychology
2 comments on “Woody Allen’s morality plays — and ours
  1. Tom Dollard says:

    Just checking to see if it works

  2. DonJindra says:

    OTOH, it doesn’t take a fundamentalist Christian to notice Woody Allen has escaped the moral universe. I’m no prude or Christian. I don’t mind watching morally ambivalent characters sweep through an imaginary world. But I can nevertheless distinguish between good and evil. I can notice immorality and amorality. It’s clear to me that Allen’s characters show no interest in morality – none of them. It’s as if the concept doesn’t exist. Behavior is regulated by circumstances, not principle.

    I just watched Allen’s “To Rome With Love.” It’s an awful movie. It’s awful because it’s boring, trite and humorless. To me it shows how superficial Allen has become over the years. He refuses to take a hard look at himself or at life in general. His characters have no integrity. If they’re tempted, it’s only a matter of time before they succumb. If we use Allen as an example, after a while those sorts of movies filled entirely with unprincipled characters just become boring predictable and irrelevant.

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