Talking about the recent scandals I’ve been saying that you should separate the art from the artist, but that’s kind of a simplistic statement and doesn’t say exactly what I mean. In viewing some art, knowing the context or something about the artist is important or necessary, and the artist might even be counting on it, or expecting you to know certain things in order to fully understand what he’s saying. In the case of Woody Allen, the question of how his art reflects his life, and the relationship in general between artists and their art, is a central theme that he returns to again and again.

Wonder Wheel is the latest in what we can refer to as his “Woman Unraveling” trilogy… Or, let’s be honest, his “Slightly bitchy portraits of Mia Farrow” trilogy. He made the link clear with the title of Blue Jasmine- Color and flower, meant to recall the title of Purple Rose of Cairo. Doing it a third time might have been a little on the nose, but in the movie it’s emphasized over and over that red is the color of the character Ginny, it’s the color of her hair, the color of her room, the color of how they light her when she’s feeling happy. She wears a green dress when she’s working as a waitress, and she explains that that’s not her, she’s just playing the role of a waitress, it’s acting. She wears red or white when she’s on her dates with Justin Timberlake’s Mickey, which is how she would like to see as her real self. Whether that’s actually a character that she’s playing and the clam waitress is who she really is is the question of the movie, but red is how she’d like to be seen. In one scene where she’s wearing a red dress, she’s telling Timberlake about a play she was in, and she says, “I was one of the whores.” In the movie, red is also importantly the color of the lights from the titular Wonder Wheel, and the color of the fires her pyromaniac son is obsessed with setting. As for the flower connection, that’s a little more tenuous, but her character is named Ginny, is also a secret drinker, and “gin blossoms” refers to the red capillaries that begin to appear on somebody’s nose if they drink too much as they age. The color of red in this movie combined with the blue of Blue Jasmine would of course make purple, and I think these movies are both obviously riffs on Purple Rose of Cairo.

When people are shocked about the similarities between Allen’s art and his life, they’re usually looking at it at in a pretty superficial way. If they would examine his movies in any depth, they would find that it’s actually much more revealing than they think. It’s not just that this movie features a man who falls in love with his girlfriend’s younger stepdaughter- Ginny in this movie is portrayed as a desperate failed actress who is clinging to Mickey because he’s an aspiring playwright and she’s hoping that he will write a part for her. If you’re looking at this movie for what it has to say about Mia Farrow, for whom Woody Allen wrote many roles when they were together, that’s not exactly a kind sentiment, and the specific parallels are far too many to be entirely coincidental. In Blue Jasmine, Jasmine is portrayed as a social climber with no real skills of her own who marries a successful man and then spends most of her time buying jewelry and lying around in bubble baths talking about how hard she works because she does a few trivial charities to make herself feel better. And the sacrifices she makes for those charities- why, one week, she even skipped yoga, she says as she’s bemoaning how much she has neglected herself. This kind of socialite woman who spends her days getting pampered and bossing around servants and then does a couple charity parties so that she can sleep at night is very similar to a character that Allen wrote for Mia Farrow to play in Alice.

But the biggest similarity is to the character which Allen wrote for Farrow in Purple Rose of Cairo, which is the story of a woman stuck in a bad marriage to an oafish man and who is obsessed with the movies, where she ultimately has to decide between fantasy and real life. Ginny has the same sort of oafish husband and movie obsession. In Purple Rose Farrow’s character goes back and forth during the movie, but seems to ultimately make the decision to choose real life, at which point the man she thought she was going to be going away with turns out to be more interested in her career, leaves, and her ideas about what “real life” would be all fall apart. The movie ends with her returning to a movie theater and a shot of her face with a smile creeping over it as she slowly loses herself in the movie and leaves reality again, maybe permanently this time. Jasmine makes similar efforts to deal with the real world, and also fails with the movie ending with a shot of her on a park bench, staring off and talking to herself, checked out possibly for good this time. And the penultimate scene of Wonder Wheel ends with Kate Winslett staring off, doing a third version of the shot.

The question is, what is Allen doing when he keeps returning to these themes and doing new riffs on them? Reviewers who can’t be bothered to think much about what they’re reviewing frequently complain that Allen is returning to the same well, that we’ve seen him do the themes in a given movie before. It’s a silly complaint, because writers will tell you that there are really only a handful of stories that have ever been told, what they’re doing is trying to do a different take on them. It’s natural and interesting for an artist to return to the material about which he’s most passionate, and talk about it again from a new vantage point in his life. But with Woody Allen, he specifically call attention to the fact that certain movies are a variation on a movie he has done before, as with the similar names of Purple Rose of Cairo and Blue Jasmine. That’s because it’s actually really interesting to compare the movies to one another, and in doing so they become something more together, and greater than the sum of their parts.

For one example, Allen has now done several variations on the idea of a murderer who gets away with his crime- Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream, and Irrational Man being the most prominent examples. They almost tell the same story, but each one adds a new “What if?” wrinkle to it. Crimes and Misdemeanors asks the question, “What if you get away with it?” and then comes to the disturbing conclusion that, eventually, you’d stop torturing yourself over it, and life would be fine. You could kill somebody, and without a god to punish you, you might not really suffer for it. Match Point comes to a similar conclusion, but we don’t have the speech at the end that we get from Martin Landau’s character in Crimes… we’re left with a much more ambiguous ending where we don’t know how the murderer feels about it. By killing his girlfriend, he achieved the life and marriage and success he always wanted, but is the murder going to taint that? The shot of his blank face that ends the film asks the questions, but lets you decide on the answer, including the possibility that he’s a sociopath that’s hardly bothered by it at all. Cassandra’s Dream goes in the opposite direction and, when the killers get away with it, one of them can’t live with the guilt and ends up doing them in.

In Irrational Man, the killer actually feels good about the murder, he’s decided that he did something good, and when somebody threatens to expose him, he’s willing to kill her, too, to cover it up. This explores what happens if, as suggested by the first two movies, the killer doesn’t feel guilt for what they did. What does that lead to? Then, when he’s attempting the second murder, he’s killed by pure chance, by a very symbolically loaded item: a flashlight he had bought previously on a date with the woman he’s attempting to kill. The first time I saw Irrational Man, I struggled with this ending. Why, after the moral ambiguity of the other three films, has Allen now decided to have the killer seemingly struck down by the hand of God to save his victim? But when I watched it again, I realized it’s exactly that kind of facile conclusion Allen is undermining. If God is willing to strike somebody down to prevent one murder, then why did he allow the first murder to happen? Does he step in sometimes, but not both others? To assume a meaning to the second murder being thwarted implies that God condones all the murders that he doesn’t thwart, which is far, far more disturbing than to think that he just doesn’t get involved either way. You can’t apply intentionality to some events but not others, otherwise God is a monster and a sadist for all the awful things that do happen. This is why it’s so ridiculous to thank God over a football game, but assume that the Holocaust must have just been out of his hands. So what’s the symbolism of the character slipping on a flashlight then, and one that he had given her? Had he, inadvertently, shown her the light and led to his ultimate downfall via her decision to report him? Was the light from God? What is the flashlight illuminating? The answer is that it’s not illuminating anything. Any symbolism to the flashlight is the symbolism that you give it. What it represents is that it was a thing in her purse and it happened to fall out at that moment, just like in the moment of the other murder there was no accident that happened to stop it. It’s a coin flip, or a match point.

The interesting thing is that all the meaning you can get from Irrational Man isn’t just from that one movie. Allen explicates his views on the role of chance in Match Point and in other movies (He talks about it again in Wonder Wheel) and from that context you can find new layers to what he’s talking about. Intentionally having the films and scenes mirror each other is his way of showing that one movie is meant to talk about another, that one scene is a possible answer to a question from another scene. He’s doing jazz riffs on these ideas that he’s been playing with for over 40 years and it creates this incredibly rich body of work.

The key theme that he keeps returning to in the murder movies is the question of guilt, confession, and punishment. The name of Crimes and Misdemeanors is of course a joke on Crime and Punishment- Crime and Punishment also being a book the killer is shown reading in Match Point. This all comes back to the autobiographical nature of his work.

Allen insists, of course, that none of the movies are autobiographical, just like Bob Dylan insists that Blood on the Tracks wasn’t about his divorce, when it was obviously about his divorce. This insistence isn’t just them being evasive or disingenuous, though. The reason is that, while the songs on Blood on the Tracks were obviously written about his marriage and other romantic relationships he had, Dylan doesn’t want the album to just be seen as a diary entry, or a tabloid look into his life. He wants the songs to be about the larger themes of love, marriage, loss, and so on, and saying it’s just about HIS love, marriage, loss, and so on, removes the broader applicability.

Woody Allen would point out that the movie Husbands and Wives, which he was filming when Mia Farrow found out about his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, was written before their breakup occurred and also that they were in a long term relationship, but not husband and wife. It’s still a movie, though, in which Allen plays a character married to a character played by Mia Farrow, and he destroys their marriage because he’s developing feelings for a 20 year old college student. He even wrote a scene where he has Farrow looking at him and asking him if there’s anything he’s hiding from her, if he ever lies to her. He wrote for her the questions she would have been asking him had she known what was going on. After she found out about his relationship with Soon-Yi, they still had filming to do and she was convinced to come back to film a scene in which her character sits with Allen’s and he tries to remind her of the good times, that their relationship wasn’t all bad. She says, “Don’t do that…” he asks, “Why?” and she replies, “Because it’s over, and we both know it.”

When you’re watching that scene, it’s a gut punch, because it is, in just about every way, real. I think it’s telling that, a few years later, when Allen made Deconstructing Harry, he chose to almost exactly repeat several scenes and incidents from Husbands and Wives. Deconstructing Harry is a movie that he wrote about a writer who ends up turning everybody he knows against him because he uses their lives as raw material in his art, and then in that movie he reused things from Husbands and Wives, a movie that was made during his breakup with Farrow that he knows full well everybody thinks is about his breakup with Farrow. The advertising campaign for Husbands and Wives even deliberately played up the similarities, showing the two of them together, because it came out while the scandal was still raging and the studio knew that people’s interest in the tabloid stories would be what was on their mind when they heard about the movie.

Husbands and Wives has a great scene where Judy Davis’ Sally, recently separated from her husband, is on a date but keeps excusing herself to go and call her ex to scream at him on the phone while her date sits awkwardly waiting and can hear every word. Deconstructing Harry does almost the same bit with Kirstie Alley’s Joan, a therapist who works from home and who has just found out her husband (Allen) was cheating on her (With a younger woman, of course) and she repeatedly excuses herself from a therapy session to go scream at Allen while her patient sits awkwardly waiting and can hear every word.

In Husbands and Wives there is a scene where one character meets a new lover when they’re in a stalled elevator together- in Deconstructing Harry there’s the same scene where Allen’s writer character, Harry, meets somebody in an elevator, and he tells her that if it was a story he was writing, he would have the elevator stall and they would end up becoming lovers. This is intercut with a scene from a story that Harry did write, where that’s exactly what happens. The movie keeps jumping back and forth between Harry’s “real” life, and the lives of his characters- but it’s also deliberately jumping back and forth between “imaginary” scenes that Allen wrote in other movies that might or might not be based on his real life.

In Deconstructing Harry, Allen writes himself as a boorish and selfish character. It had some of the most profanity of any of his movies at that time, Harry is a misogynist and calls women cunts on multiple occasions, and Harry is also a pretty terrible father who kidnaps his child when he doesn’t have custody of him and takes him off do spend the day with him, a hooker he just met, and a casual friend who dies on the trip. When Allen writes something like that, is it a confession, or is he making fun of the way people see him, or is it some of both? Later in the movie, somebody asks Harry what he’s writing, and he says his new book is thinly veiled autobiography, and then he says, “It’s me, thinly disguised. In fact, I don’t even think I should disguise it any more. It’s, you know, it’s me.”

Immediately after he says that the story he’s writing is true autobiography, they cut to a scene from that story and on the surface it’s the most purely fantasy scene in the film. Harry is in another elevator, which would seem to point back to the earlier scene that cut between the imagined elevator scene and the “real” elevator scene and most deliberately played with the difference between the fiction in the movie and the real events it was based on, only the elevator he’s on this time is going down to Hell, which would seem to bring back the theme recurring through all this- guilt and punishment, and confession.

The Hell he shows in Deconstructing Harry is a cartoonish fantasy Hell with fire and brimstone and it’s played for laughs. “Here, is this what you think should happen to bad people? Is this the punishment you think awaits me?” you could, possibly, see him to be asking. He’s damning himself, or at least his fictional avatar. Mea culpa. But of course, it’s in a movie where the character of Harry has already said that he doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife, so it’s a fantasy, because the character who just told you this was autobiography was also a fantasy, so stop trying to make what happens in the movies real events. A piece of art about those things is not the same as the things themselves, and it trivializes both to confuse them.

In Wonder Wheel he frames the movie by having Mickey the writer speak into the camera and explain to you that this is all just a story that he’s telling, and that he loves drama. You could see the characters of Jasmine or Ginny as cheap shots at Mia Farrow, but, if you watch the movies independent of that, the characters are flawed and largely bring about their own doom (Mickey says as much about Ginny), but Allen also makes them both entertaining and likable, and he finds empathy with them. In Deconstructing Harry, Harry meets all of his characters at the end of the film and he tells him all that he loves them, and that they saved him. He ends the movie with Harry mulling over a story about a writer who can’t function in reality, so he makes his own reality in his art. If you view Purple Rose of Cairo, Blue Jasmine, or Wonder Wheel as him indicting Farrow for retreating into fantasy, in the way he depicts Harry and Mickey, the authors of the tragedies in his fictional world and obviously avatars for himself, he’s indicting himself for the exact same thing- and in these stories, the Farrow stand-ins are his creations, so he’s the one that actually guilty of it.

Why does he keep returning to these themes of guilt and punishment, and why does he keep returning to stories that he knows full well his viewers will take as confessions of the worst things they suspect of him? Wonder Wheel ends with a shot of Ginny’s son, the pyromaniac, on the beach staring into another fire that he has set. Earlier in the movie Mickey, the writer, wonders in voice over what her son sees when he stares into the fires, and speculates about whether he sees the tragedy of life, the horrors of the universe- all the big themes Allen returns to. He sees the same red as the lights from the Wonder Wheel that fall over Ginny’s face when she has moments of passion in the film. Setting the fires makes him feel alive, just like the thrill of a dangerous amusement park ride does. Allen knows these topics are a live wire, and that’s exactly why he can’t stop himself from grabbing for them.

Which I guess brings me back to what I mean when I talk about separating an artist from their art. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t be aware of, or not consider, their personal life. What I mean is that what sort of person they are and the quality of their art are two separate questions. Whatever you do or don’t believe Allen has done, he’s transmuted it into vital, fascinating art. Without the questions of guilt and punishment around which he constantly circles, his films wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. I’m not going to rehash my opinions on what I think happened with Soon-Yi or Dylan Farrow, because just like anybody else I can’t claim that I know, I can only state my opinion. But ultimately it’s irrelevant to my point here, which is about the art.

Sometimes bad people make great art. Not every artist is a murderer or a sex predator, but if you’re looking for ones that have led completely perfect lives, you’re eventually going to learn that there aren’t any because artists are people and they have flaws.

Just to use one example that comes to mind- I love William Burroughs. I think he’s a genius writer, he wrote several of my favorite books, and also a fascinating character who I love to read about On top of that, he’s a very important figure in gay history, writing books with titles like Junky and Queer, when being a queer junky was something that you simply didn’t talk about.

He also killed his wife, was an unapologetic pederast, a terrible father whose abandoned son ended up dying very young from complications related to drugs and alcohol, a gun nut (Which you would think most people would get over after accidentally shooting their wife in the face), and (Worst of all) a Scientologist.

Does that mean that we can’t enjoy his art? If anything, I don’t think you really can appreciate his art until you delve a little bit into the complexities of his life. But does that mean if you like his books you’re somehow condoning wife murder, pederasty, absentee fathers, the NRA or dumb cult religions? Of course not. Because whether you enjoy his art and whether you endorse his actions are two completely separate questions.

I think the problem we’re having now is that the internet is giving people unprecedented access to the celebrities and artists whose work they enjoy, and I don’t think in decades past if your average person liked a movie or a novel, they also read a biography on the director or novelist. The art and artist were the same thing to them. As we go through a cycle of daily scandals- I don’t just mean sexual assault claims, I mean the constant scandals over whether this or that celebrity said something dumb or used a bad word or told a joke that the audience didn’t think was funny- some people are complaining about “outrage culture” and saying that people are just too sensitive now. Other people are saying that what’s happening isn’t that people are more sensitive, it’s that minorities and other groups that didn’t have a voice before now do, and these things have always been offensive, but now people are just finally able to say so. If we’re learning to recognize genuine problems, that’s a good thing, but I don’t think it’s as simple as either view. As much as minorities and oppressed groups are now getting a voice, scumbag alt-right morons and the like are getting a voice too. What’s happening now is that EVERYbody is getting a voice. Everybody obviously includes a lot of people who have little to no formal education on art, but don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to comment on it. People don’t see actually learning about a topic as a prerequisite to voicing their opinion on it.

The gatekeepers of the past unfairly kept certain groups from having a voice, but they did also serve a function. Before, if your opinion on a movie was going to be in a forum where thousands or millions of people would see it, you had to demonstrate that you knew something about movies. Now, if it has the right hashtag or gets retweeted by the right person, anybody can mouth off about something and have what they said validated by millions of people reading it. I think that some of the discourse that results is very immature. Opinions on a piece of art can vary, but there are such things as wrong opinions, and opinions from people that simply didn’t understand what they’re commenting on.

A fundamental misunderstanding that I think is happening a lot now is people who thought that art and the artist were the same thing are now suddenly learning all these personal things about artists who made art they like, or even talking with these artists through Twitter. So they take it personally when they find out that that person isn’t perfect, and they don’t see that the art is the same art as it was before. So, they read that Joss Whedon wasn’t a great husband, and now somehow they think that means Buffy isn’t a great TV show. This is a fallacy. For one thing, I don’t think Buffy was ever a great TV show, but that’s a separate discussion. You can like Buffy and not like how Whedon treated his wife. You’re not condoning one by liking the other. You can be revolted by what Louis CK confessed to doing, but still think that Louie is a better show than one Mississippi. Like, way better.

So, that’s what I’m trying to say when I say separate the artist from the art.