With the understanding that Louis C.K.’s career and legacy pale in importance to the suffering of his victims, I’ve found that conversations about him these days inevitably lead to a familiar question: is he really finished? Can he find a way back into the public’s good graces through one of his Brutally Honest™ stand-up specials? If a man as toxic as Mel Gibson can stage a comeback, why not Louis? Surely he’ll be the next example of how a rich, powerful man will skirt the consequences of his actions, right?
I’ve been wrong before, but I doubt he can recover. For one thing, unlike Mel Gibson, Louis C.K. plays himself. For another, C.K.’s brand was built on his supposed honesty: he was the Comedian Who Told Truths About Himself That Most Would Be Too Afraid To Admit™. In revealing these things, and asking his audience to identify with them, he built an unusually intimate relationship with his audience. He promised to guide you by the hand into taboo territory—often involving issues of sex and consent—and help you confront the bad ideas and impulses in the dark corners of your mind, with the tacit understanding that illuminating darkness is not the same as endorsement. A joke like “How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men?” depends on both a shock of recognition, and our faith in C.K. that he has successfully recognized and tamed his worst impulses. His comedy ventured into dangerous and potentially painful territory, which is why C.K.’s betrayal of his audience feels like such a betrayal. Now that the trust has been broken, I don’t see how it can ever be regained.
I was once an admirer of C.K. (who wasn’t?), but I felt myself disconnect from him after Gawker (R.I.P.) first reported on the rumours of his sexual misconduct. C.K.’s much-celebrated “honesty” started to seem calculated, selective, and self-serving. His implication that everyone deep-down is a sleazy began to feel like self-justification. His celebrated self-flagellation began to seem like self-regard: “I am the most honest comedian; I am mining my darkest thoughts and turning them into art; I am an artist.” I think a lot of people had a similar feeling of disenchantment with C.K. around the same time. When the New York Times posted its reportage about C.K.’s sexual misconduct, most of the people I saw sharing it on Facebook and Twitter wrote some variation of “Finally!” or “We all knew this was coming!” His misconduct was such an open secret that even as recently as September he was smugly telling the New York Times, “I’m not going to answer that stuff, because they’re rumors. If you actually participate in a rumor, you make it bigger and you make it real.” The interview coincided with the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of I Love You Daddy—a film that, considering what it was about and who it was by, got a shamefully easy ride through the festival circuit.
The filmmaker Adam Curtis took the title for his documentary HyperNormalisation (2016) from Alexei Yurchak, a theorist who used the term to describe the decline of the Soviet empire: “Everyone knew the system was failing, but as no one could imagine any alternative to the status quo, politicians and citizens were resigned to maintaining a pretense of a functioning society. Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the ‘fakeness’ was accepted by everyone as real.” Curtis transferred this idea to the United States under late capitalism. If I can attempt to make a wobbly parallel, there was a similar sense of fakeness to Louis C.K.’s public persona: a sense that everyone knew who he really was, even as he and his business partners continued as if everything were normal. It has been funny to watch the big companies suddenly be shocked—shocked!—that gambling is going on in this establishment.
For the last few years, there has been a similar feeling of unreality around one of the definitive problematic artists, Mr. Woody Allen. Unlike C.K., Polanski, Toback, Weinstein, and Ratner, Allen has not been accused of using his position to prey on less powerful people in his industry. His problematic status rests on a horrific though unprovable accusation of sexual abuse from his estranged daughter. Because he has plausible deniability, he has been able to continue making movies with big stars and Amazon money, and has been able to, for example, peddle his old neurotic shtick in Crisis in Six Scenes or roast Diane Keaton at her AFI Lifetime Achievement, and his actors can appear on talk shows to tell funny stories about working with an eccentric legend who, by the way, may or may not be a child molester. There is no new information about the allegation, and Allen is unlikely to ever be charged with a crime, so there may not be anything left to say about it, and yet it is so obviously the first thing most of us think about when we think about Woody Allen that anything about him doesn’t acknowledge it is bound to feel a little surreal.
I’ve been an obsessive Woody Allen observer since my adolescence. Since old habits die hard, I recently found myself reading Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking, the latest hagiography by Allen’s Boswell, Eric Lax. The book chronicles the production of one of Allen’s movies from conception to release, with chapters on financing, casting, cinematography, shooting, editing, music, and mixing. It is Lax’s bad luck that the film turns out to be 2015’s Irrational Man.
The book opens in February 2013, when Allen is struggling to choose between “The Boston Story” and Magic in the Moonlight as his next project. It then cuts to January 2014, when—the Emma Stone/Colin Firth romp out of the way—Allen sets his sights on the darker tale. Lax depicts Allen’s career as a smoothly-functioning machine: once the finishing touches are put on one project, it’s quickly onto the next one, and the whole process repeats itself. However, you wouldn’t know from Lax’s book that a massively significant event occurred in Allen’s life during Irrational Man’s early stages. Any guesses what it was?
Lax addresses Dylan Farrow’s open letter exclusively in a 12-page section in the middle of the book that feels like a tacked-on interlude. Predictably, the section is heavily slanted in Allen’s favour. The foundation of this section is an interview with Moses Farrow, the eldest of the three children who Allen officially parented with Farrow, who is now estranged from his mother and reconciled with Allen. The rest of the section is less compelling: Lax elides the most inconvenient of the “10 Undeniable Facts About the Woody Allen Sexual Abuse Allegation” (no mention of Allen having been in therapy for inappropriate behaviour towards Dylan; no mention of his refusal to take a polygraph by the Connecticut state police), engages in some casual smearing (“The judge, who to some observers seemed sympathetic to Farrow during the proceedings…”), and quotes a dubious-sounding story from unnamed sources about young Dylan confessing to lying (“A person who went often to the Farrow home found Dylan crying one day. The story has been confirmed with someone else who often visited…”).
This section strikes an awkward chord in the middle of a book that otherwise feels like it could have been written by one of Allen’s publicists during the height of his popularity. We learn that “actors are willing … to be paid as little as they are, because they know an Allen film most likely will give them a great part to shine in,” and that, “He does not undertake the project he thinks will make the most money but rather the one he most wants to do.” Lax has enormous access to Allen’s creative process and gleans many valuable insights, but he doesn’t tell us how many actors turn Allen’s offers down because they’d prefer not work with an accused child molester, or how Allen’s regular collaborators (like casting director Juliet Taylor or set designer Santo Loquasto or cinematographer Darius Khondji or star Emma Stone, who all figure prominently in the book) rationalize the allegations, or whether the allegations ever complicate Allen’s attempts to secure filming locations, financing, or distribution. Perhaps Allen never faces any resistance—maybe he gets every actor he wants, and maybe his personal life is a complete non-issue at every stage of production. Somehow I doubt it. In the last two months, two of his actors (Griffin Newman and Ellen Page) publicly expressed regret for working with him, and Allen himself admitted in a 2016 Guardian interview, “I get harassed all the time about it.” Regardless, these are the questions that anyone reading a book about Allen’s filmmaking process in the year 2017 wants answered, and Lax fails conspicuously.