Is Woody Allen a Great Filmmaker? Discuss

Mia Farrow and Woody Allen in "Husbands and Wives."

I would not swear to it, but it seems likely that the first time I heard Sigmund Freud’s name, when I was around 11, was in a monologue in “Annie Hall,” when Alvy Singer cites Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious” as the source of a joke often attributed to Groucho Marx (a name that was only a bit more familiar). The reference is a meta-joke and a declaration of influences. Marx and Freud! What would the 20th century have been without them? Or without the synthesis articulated by Alvy Singer’s creator, Woody Allen.

The name-check sets up a later scene in which Alvy and Annie — played, of course, by Mr. Allen and Diane Keaton — are shown, via split screen, in contrasting therapy sessions. Like good Freudians, they call it “analysis,” and Alvy’s is of a notably orthodox variety. While Annie sits in a brightly lit space in an Eames-ish chair, an abstract painting on the wall, Alvy lies on a couch in a somber room with heavy drapes and dark wood paneling. His doctor is stern and silver-haired. They are talking about sex, and about the fact that Alvy is paying for his girlfriend’s treatment.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Allen helped inject certain Freudian notions into the pop-cultural vernacular, and gave a particular cachet to the notoriously tricky concept of neurosis. Or to put it another way: The anxious, self-conscious, perpetually dissatisfied persona Mr. Allen projected in his films of the ’70s presented neurosis not as a mental disorder but as a style. His alter egos were not case studies; they were role models.

In several of his writings, Freud associates neurosis with ambivalence, a word that, to him, signifies the simultaneous presence of two antithetical, equally strong emotions. Love and hate. Sympathy and hostility. Admiration and revulsion. This is not only a personal or private matter. Societies can be ambivalent, too. In “Totem and Taboo,” Freud describes how in certain tribes a revered elder can also be remembered as an evil demon. Perhaps you see where I am going with this.

The culture right now is in a state of acute ambivalence about Woody Allen, which is to say that, as in so many other matters, the public conversation is defined by conflict, polarization and the exclusion of the middle ground. Love and hate occupy opposing camps, and reconciliation of their claims seems impossible, at least when those claims involve the allegations that Mr. Allen molested his daughter Dylan Farrow when she was a young child. He adamantly denies the accusations, and his most passionate defenders insist that to doubt it is to be a latter-day McCarthyite, a witch hunter.

But relitigating the abuse charges is a way of avoiding the real work, which is the endless, not always pleasant task of interpreting Mr. Allen’s work. The movies and what they have meant to so many of us will not just vanish. The ambivalence needs to be acknowledged and analyzed, which is why I’ve spent much of the past few weeks rewatching movies that I used to count among my favorites.

That is an analysis that Mr. Allen’s most vociferous detractors and his most ardent partisans share a wish to terminate. Dylan Farrow’s allegations and the other episode they bring up — the demise of Mr. Allen’s 12-year relationship with the actress Mia Farrow and his affair with her daughter Soon-Yi Previn, who is now his wife — are to many people, especially young people, a deal breaker, evidence of a creepiness they find impossible to see past. For others, including myself for most of my career as a film critic and for those who stuck with Mr. Allen for the last 25 years, seeing past it was nearly a reflex. It seemed to be the more mature, the more reasonable, the less hysterical stance to adopt.

I’ve already written about why I no longer find that an ethically or intellectually tenable stance. Not everyone was persuaded, of course, and some readers helpfully sent along lists of Great Artists Who Have Done Terrible Things. What about them? Should we judge their work by their actions? Should we banish it because these men treated women badly, or represented them in ways we now consider misogynist?

The fact that bad men make great art tends to be asserted as if it were the solution to, rather than the statement of, a problem. It also supposes greatness to be a fixed quantity, rather than the subject and result of perpetual argument.

So why not have the argument? Is Woody Allen a great filmmaker? On what evidence might that conclusion rest? The accumulated body of critical opinion is helpful, partly because it shows that there has never been consensus. Mr. Allen had a great champion in Vincent Canby, The New York Times chief film critic from 1969 to 1993 — an appreciative note from the director was read at Canby’s memorial service at the Museum of Modern Art in 2000 — and also his share of skeptics, among them Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, who ran hot and cold on his films.

A look at the archive of reviews, and a sampling of his prolific body of work, reveals that his reputation as a major artist — as something more than a comedian or an observer of the social mores of New Yorkers, a prisoner of his own mannerism and preoccupations — rests on the movies he made in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the years of his involvement with Mia Farrow.

This isn’t to say that his only interesting work belongs to this period, or that his movies from “The Purple Rose of Cairo” through “Husbands and Wives” can be watched today without queasiness or qualm. On the contrary, Ms. Farrow’s presence in most of them — and the glimpses of her household, including some of her children — make it impossible not to think about Mr. Allen’s personal life, and challenges the notion that it can be easily separated from his work.

“Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Husbands and Wives” in particular draw on the nearness of that life to create a sense of intimacy and warmth even amid the harsh, cynical elements of some of their plots. In those films, Mr. Allen and Ms. Farrow enact scenarios of romantic failure, either splitting up or missing the chance to connect. They are often playing the smartest characters on screen, but also the saddest and least sympathetic, occupying a reality that is drabber and less dramatic than that of the more reckless souls with whom their fates are entwined.

Think of Michael Caine in “Hannah” (1986), a sympathetic sinner animated by lust, envy and pride, and one of a gallery of semi-suitable suitors — along with Max von Sydow’s imperious artist and Mr. Allen’s spiritually anguished television writer — who surround the title characters. (It is worth noting that Mr. Allen’s character undergoes an epiphany while seeing “Duck Soup,” perhaps a signal of resurgent Marxism.) And those women, played by Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest as well as Ms. Farrow, are examples of the kind of complex, serious women who would eventually disappear from Mr. Allen’s films, replaced by romantic foils and melodramatic fantasies.

Another Woman” (1988), starring Gena Rowlands as a professor and Ms. Farrow as a patient seeing an analyst in the adjacent apartment, is perhaps Mr. Allen’s most sustained and successful effort at imagining women who function independently from a man like him (though Ian Holm shows up playing a version of that). You can say that Mr. Allen borrowed a lot from Ingmar Bergman — in this period the Bergman influence is overt and unavoidable — but also that his empathy and curiosity were engaged as never before.

During those years, his imagination ranged freely across the popular culture of the past, with charm and verve and, more often than not, with the benefit of Ms. Farrow’s comic poise and emotional grace. In the timeline of his career, those Bergmanesque explorations of emotional upheaval and metaphysical despair are bundled up against sweetly nostalgic (if also metaphysically gloomy) comedies: “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985), “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984) and “Radio Days” (1987). The first two can be called his valentines to Ms. Farrow, but they are also, indelibly, Mia Farrow movies, demanding, like the classic Hollywood pictures they evoke, to be identified with their star at least as much as their auteur.

Which doesn’t necessarily make them easy to watch. That Mr. Allen’s creative partnership with Ms. Farrow was so fruitful and that their personal relationship ended with such public bitterness is a fact that offers little comfort to either Mr. Allen’s apologists or to those who would condemn him. But it is a fact that can induce a kind of wishful thinking, a magical desire to erase the ugliness that came afterward, to pretend that none of it ever happened, to build a barrier between the filmmaker and his themes.

What do you make of the homicidal misogyny of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), in which Martin Landau murders his inconvenient mistress, played by Anjelica Huston? (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers does the same to Scarlett Johansson more than 15 years later in “Match Point.”) Does the philosophical despair that surrounds it offer an explanation or an excuse for amorality? Whose? What about the almost-romance between Mr. Allen’s character in “Husbands and Wives” and a 21-year-old college student, the failure of which causes the man to regret ruining his marriage to a woman played by Ms. Farrow? Is the regret a pre-emptive attempt at apology? An act of denial? Completely irrelevant?

There are still those would insist on the last answer, which has been a critical shibboleth for a very long time. And so it may remain. The argument about Woody Allen is far from finished. Critical neurosis may not be curable. But it is useful to remind ourselves, via Freud, of what clinging to it can cost. Neurosis, he wrote, involves the “flight from an unsatisfying reality into a more pleasurable world of fantasy.” The real world, he went on, “is under the sway of human society and of the institutions collectively created by it. To turn away from reality is at the same time to withdraw from the community of man.”

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