Woody Allen, Aziz Ansari and the crucible of public judgment: A reel versus real analysis

Baradwaj Rangan

Jan 22, 2018 16:19:20 IST

Ever since stories about sexual harassment and abuse of power/privilege began to tumble out of Hollywood’s closets, some of us have begun to wonder if we have any business commenting at all. It’s vital to come out against systematic predators like Harvey Weinstein, but what about some of the shades-of-grey cases (say, the controversy around Aziz Ansari)? Shouldn’t we leave them to courts of law? Of course, that’s not how we function in this age of social media, because we have to have an opinion. We turn into armchair judges. It’s the court of public law.

It’s not an exact comparison, but The Crucible comes to mind. Arthur Miller’s play is about the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, but the story about a hysterical community that tried and executed people they thought to be witches was an allegory for how the US government hounded people for being communists. “The Crucible was an act of desperation,” Miller wrote in The New Yorker. “I was motivated in some great part by the paralysis that had set in among many liberals who, despite their discomfort with the inquisitors’ violation of civil rights, were fearful, and with good reason, of being identified as covert Communists if they should protest too strongly.”

The Crucible was first filmed as Les Sorcières de Salem (1957), which was directed by Raymond Rouleau from a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre. The clip above (soundless, unfortunately) shows the hanging of the protagonist, John Proctor (Yves Montand), and two others. The scene is unnerving because of Proctor’s robotic acceptance of his fate. (We don’t hear it, but behind him, his accuser, stricken by guilt, is screaming that she lied.) But what makes it even more chilling is what the judge says a little earlier: “There is no law that judges are infallible. But their sentences must be upheld. If you are innocent, forgive me.”

Daniel Day-Lewis’s take on Proctor, in the 1996 version of the play, is more emotional – understandably so. This is, after all, an innocent man, forced to sign a confession of guilt. (See clip below.) He refuses. “God does not need my name nailed to the church,” he says. “Tell them Proctor broke to his knees and wept like a woman. But my name I cannot sign.” When the judge asks why, Proctor says (though “says” is too mild a word for the anguish Day-Lewis brings to these words), “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! I have given you my soul. Leave me my name!”

The point is simply this: What if someone is innocent? This isn’t to suggest conspiracy theories, with spurned (or simply ignored) admirers ganging up to bring down Hollywood royalty. This is just a reminder of what’s at stake: a reputation, a name. The latest celebrity to fall from grace is Woody Allen, though there’s always been a “did he or didn’t he?” air about the circumstances – relating to child sexual abuse – surrounding his separation from Mia Farrow. Last week, his daughter, Dylan, appeared on television for the first time, and repeated her allegations. “He instructed me to lay down on my stomach and play with my brother’s toy train... And he sat behind me in the doorway… he touched my labia and vulva with his finger.”

Her trauma is undeniable, but is it real or imagined? The doctor who headed the investigation, in 1993, said, “We had two hypotheses: one, that these were statements that were made by an emotionally disturbed child and then became fixed in her mind. And the other hypothesis was that she was coached or influenced by her mother... We think that it was probably a combination.” Again, this isn’t a plea to the public to reconsider Allen’s guilt. Some believe him. Some believe Dylan. And those of us who believe that the art is separate from the artist just wish the whole sickening thing had never happened in the first place.

But this is exactly the premise of Jagten (The Hunt, 2012), the Danish drama by Thomas Vinterberg. The clip above depicts how the community ostracises Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a kindergarten teacher accused of abusing one of his students. We are shown that the accusation is false. In an interview, Vinterberg said, “Can you imagine being a child and being interrogated, being sent to the gynaecologist, seeing your mother cry, seeing your father getting into fights, or a person you really like being sent to prison? You actually end up believing that this happened to you, that’s what we called ‘added memory’.”

Elsewhere, speaking to the Guardian, the director provided an aside, a much-needed reminder of how circumstances (and also, changing times) shape the way we view things. Vinterberg grew up in a commune in the 1970s (his 2016 film, The Commune, is based on these experiences), “a naked infant amid a herd of naked adults... Genitals here and genitals there; children climbing on to undressed laps; the whole place full of generosity and love.” In third grade, when the kids demanded a sex education class, their teacher obliged by pulling down his pants. “Today he’d get 15 years in prison,” Vinterberg said. “He would never work again.”

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Jan 22, 2018 16:19:20 IST