#433rds Day 3

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(See a description of the #433rds project here.)

April 3

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I finish a good book coasting on a triad of virtue: relieved and exultant and—because most endings tilt down in an elegant droop—sad. When a good show ends I’m just embarrassed. I get goosebumps. It’s involuntary like a blush, and I do tamp them down, but there’s a cost to that, a long flatness of response that needs time to rise more sensibly, like dough.

Then come the giant notions, ungainly as jet-sized grasshoppers: Is Doll and Em the Key to Friendship? I’ve never liked Amish friendship bread very much: too saccharine an offer, too broad and glad a hope. But there goes my brain, haplessly baking, hunting and pecking. I’ve spent today wanting to tear off pieces of this show and mail it to people in plastic bags for them to ferment in their kitchen corners. (With a note: Grow it into Dolls of your own!) It’s so weak, isn’t it, to feel passionately about a tv show? Weaker still when you’re forced to say. Explaining why without explaining why (oh my Doll) means tailoring the chills out, and that’s delicate mathematical business and my feelings are more like wasps hurling themselves at the front window. Hard to coax a swarm like that.

Populate your life with scenes from a show: at night you write about this show instead of your day because you spent it panicking quietly because good shows bleach out their borders until they get translucent and bleed through because they give rise to fantasies (did I tell you I got a digital pen?) like maybe, if I write exactly the right thing, I can punch through, put the cold shoulder on ice, make an offer. Hard to see Caliban liking Miranda, but let’s drink in a hot tub wearing old photos, see if the thing develops.

#433rds Day 2

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(See a description of the #433rds project here.)

April 2

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my grain

When a gray day breaks out of its dark
and toasts into a warm brown spot
the moves seem safer. But then you sprout
new lenses.
They open too wide
no matter how fast the shutter snaps
and down it all goes like a squall in porn, like soup.

#433rds Day 1

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(See a description of the #433rds project here.)

April 1

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the gossip

Sir Thomas Browne’s friend described him as “answerable to his name”. He meant his hair and complexion were brown. (Get it?) The friend in question was named—it seems worth mentioning—Mr. Whitefoot. Thomas kept warm, though he wasn’t excessive about it—Mr. Whitefoot reassures us that “he never loaded himself with such a multitude of garments, as Suetonius reports of Augustus, enough to clothe a good family.”

I might describe a friend of ours as a lincoln log cobra or maybe harder and shinier: a fluorescent sequoia. It’s a bad description. It lacks Mr. Whitefoot’s hot-under-the-collar anxiety. It’s not defensive or competitive enough by half. It evokes nothing. (Remember when you listed your friends’s mimickable behaviors while we ate banh mi? The ones you might mimic if you mimicked? You remembered the hands and the angles of their squints.)

Thomas had a good memory. He “remembered every thing that was acute and pungent” about the Latin poets, Mr. Whitefoot says.

He, Thomas, blushed uncontrollably (according to Whitefoot).

Samuel Johnson didn’t know Thomas, but he wrote his biography, and it’s affably barbed. He, Samuel, thought Thomas’ writing on things like ancient burial practices was unhelpful but self-aware: “Of the uselessness of these inquiries, Browne seems not to have been ignorant.”

Browne liked the number five.

I’ve forgotten the names of the two actresses of Broad City, but Annie blogged about their show today.

(Thanks to Samuel Johnson, I worry about blog posts:

“Some of the most pleasing performances have been produced by learning and genius exercised upon subjects of little importance … it is a perpetual triumph of fancy to expand a scanty theme, to raise glittering ideas from obscure properties, and to produce to the world an object of wonder to which nature had contributed little. To this ambition, perhaps, we owe the Frogs of Homer, the Gnat and the Bees of Virgil, the Butterfly of Spenser, the Shadow of Wowerus, and the Quincunx of Browne.”)

I introduced Annie’s Broad City post to my friends with a story about Amy Poehler told by her friend. Amy Poehler produces Broad City, which is about two friends perennially describing each other to each other. It made me think of how Tina Fey describes her friend Amy Poehler in Bossypants. Amy Poehler did something Jimmy Fallon found obnoxious. When he said he didn’t like it, she turned to him and hissed, “I don’t fucking CARE if you don’t like it.” My friend Heather remarked that it was the only really risky thing in Tina Fey’s book. She’s right. Amy Poehler’s qi lives in that description.

I’d like to think six degrees separate the Broads from the Wife of Bath, with time measured in shoes. Broad, narrow, spiked. Push harder and your white feet ache, squeezed into the cisternae.



For the month of April, my pal beenepon and I are doing a project called #433rds.

  1. At 3 pm every day, no matter what you’re doing, stop for a sec and take a photo. Doesn’t have to have any aesthetic value whatsoever—it’s just a record. Post on Instagram.
  2. At some point during the day, take 30 Bananagram tiles and arrange them into words as fast as you can–3 minutes or less.
  3. Write something that day based on those two inputs. (Or, if you’re feeling Cage-y, don’t.) Ideally, you’ll use all your words.

April=4  plus  30 Bananagram tiles  plus  3 minutes to arrange them  =  433rds.

(We came up with this one boozy night during a hard-core Bananagrams match when our respective Bananagrams turned out sort of dream-like. They seemed like accidental x-rays of our days. Feel free to join—hashtag #instabanana for the bananagram thing, #433rds for it all.)

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7

Day 8
Day 9
Day 10


Brainwashing Woody

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Well, Woody Allen’s statement is out. As expected, it aims to depict Mia Farrow as a deceitful, manipulative, hate-mongering witch who brainwashed his children. His case, as he frames it, rests largely on the assertion that she is a liar and he tells the truth. To prove that he is not a liar, he cites the fact that he took a lie detector test (though not the one the Connecticut State Police asked him to take). Mia, he says, refused. The implication is that one is a liar and the other is not.

I’ve avoided writing about this case because it’s so terribly sad, and plenty of good stuff has already been written (I recommend this and this). But I’ve been driven to add yet another piece to the flood by something that seems to me to have been overlooked so far, namely, the surprising fact that Mia is constantly accused of brainwashing and Woody is not.

We’ve all watched everyone become an expert on false-memory syndrome overnight—happens all the time! It’s easy to do! Allen’s defenders say. Totally mythic! False epidemic! say Dylan’s supporters. I’m not an expert, so I’m going to leave that alone, though I suggest we make a habit of implanting happier memories into children with traumatic pasts if it’s really that easy. What I do know a little about is polygraphs, and given that Allen resorts to using one to prove his credibility—which is easily disproved using other means—I think it’s worth mentioning that polygraphs are junk science. The American Psychological Association notes that “there is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception. An honest person may be nervous when answering truthfully and a dishonest person may be non-anxious.”

I submit that, rather than accept Allen’s own framework for what proves his honesty, we should examine his credibility by looking at his own record.

One last thing about polygraphs: the theory behind polygraph tests is that you get nervous when you’re lying. But if we’ve learned anything from watching this awful case unfold over the past 21 years, it’s that Woody Allen wouldn’t be nervous because he doesn’t believe himself to have done anything wrong—not with Dylan, and (this is where this becomes relevant) not with Soon-Yi. When asked whether he destroyed a family, his response is matter-of-fact. From The Baltimore Sun:

Q: But Soon-Yi is the sister of all those kids.

A: Yes, but it’s not that they’re really sisters.

That’s all right then. Note the narrative Woody tries to propagate here—one far more pernicious than the distortion Dylan’s defenders resort to when they accuse him of incest. (True, he was not Soon-Yi’s legal stepfather.) Woody’s story, which he has doubtless passed on to Soon-Yi, is this was never your real family.

Or this, to Time Magazine:

Q. Did you talk to your analyst about how this would affect a child?

A. It wasn’t so complex. It doesn’t have that quality to it that you think.

Q. What about how it would affect her siblings?

A. These people are a collection of kids, they are not blood sisters or anything.

“These people are a collection of kids,” he says. They’re not a family. They’re not related by blood. (One wonders why he bothered to adopt four times, if blood was the precondition to family.) To hear Allen tell it, his three children and Mia’s other children are a “collection” of people that happened to include Soon-Yi. Yes, that group happened to live in a house he visited every day for the better part of twelve years, but who’s to say—he really said this in that same interview—he might not have met Soon-Yi “at a party or something”? Yes, Mr. Allen, it’s true that in another timeline you might have met your wife as an adult at a party, but you didn’t: you met her when she was nine years old and—this is the important thing— ignored her for a decade.

Soon-Yi and Woody insist that he barely spoke to her the whole time he and Mia dated. This has been offered to excuse Allen from charges of impropriety with Soon-Yi while she was underage, and Allen’s charisma and powers of persuasion have kept many of us from noticing that it’s actually incredibly strange. (Almost as strange as Allen defenders who refute charges of moral incest by repeating that Soon-Yi had a father—as if the existence of a live father made stepfathers and father figures impossible.) It’s hard to imagine a situation in which you ignore your children’s siblings but consider yourself a “model father,” which Allen does. He has some corroboration: Allen’s pal Dick Cavett testified to his good parenting: “He completely rearranged his man-killingly busy life so that he could lavish time and money and attention on the children, probably more than many orthodox parents do. He’d get up at 5 and religiously make it over there seven days a week,” he said.

Ah, but what children?

Here’s how Soon-Yi describes it:

I was never remotely close to Woody. He was someone who was devoted exclusively to his own children and to his work, and we never spent a moment together. We rarely ever spoke, and were polite but uninterested in one another. The fact is I really had no interest in knowing him better, nor he me.

What’s emerging from these descriptions that are intended to defend Allen is an incredibly sad environment, especially for a child like Soon-Yi, who’d only been in the US two years when Woody entered her mother’s (but not her) life. It’s an environment in which the only father figure with a daily presence in the house routinely favored his children over the others and regarded them as a “collection” and not a family. Allen said to Time that he “was not a father to [Mia’s] adopted kids in any sense of the word.” He visited the house daily, he says, but “the last thing I was interested in was the whole parcel of Mia’s children.”

He just wasn’t “interested”. We might ponder the extraordinary narcissism that explanation (and word choice) betrays, but as it happens, I’m not particularly interested in analyzing Allen. My object in writing this is to see what’s on the record—what he has actually said. Given these straightforward admissions of indifference and Judge Wilk’s assessment that Allen favored Dylan but “remained aloof from Ms. Farrow’s other children except for Moses, to whom he was cordial,” it’s rather remarkable that Allen’s camp charged Mia with treating the adopted children differently from the biological ones. (“There was a definite difference in the way she treated the adopted children and her own children, he says, recounting Soon-Yi’s alleged problems with Mia.) It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that if this behavior hurt Soon-Yi coming from Mia, it might also have hurt her coming from Allen.

But the larger point—the point worth making at a moment when Allen is accusing all and sundry of magical malice—is that the accusation above is unbelievably cynical. He pretends to value an egalitarian ideal in which all siblings are treated equally in order to make Mia look bad, even as he openly withheld his affection from the other children.

It’s a damning record that makes it much easier to imagine how Soon-Yi may have come to fall for him. Ignoring someone—a child—over a period of years spent in her company amounts, given the outcome, to an extreme form of negging. According to the judge’s decision, of all Farrow’s children, Allen “had the least to do with Soon-Yi. ‘She was someone who didn’t like me. I had no interest in her, none whatsoever.’” After they went to a basketball game he started saying hello to Soon-Yi, “which is something I never did in the years prior, but no conversations with her or anything.” This is slightly unclear, but if I’m understanding it correctly, he had never even said hello to Soon-Yi prior to her timid overture.

I hope Soon-Yi has found happiness, and it seems she has, but this is a completely devastating portrait. A painfully quiet, socially awkward girl comes of age with a stepfather figure who never showed any interest in her or acknowledged her presence. Instead, he lavished his attention on her mother and her blond little sister. She develops, and suddenly this man who has been in her house for years but seemed not to see her notices her! Her!

Soon-Yi went to college. Judge Wilk describes her as unhappy there: “she was naïve, socially inexperienced and vulnerable. Mr. Allen testified that she was lonely and unhappy at school, and that she began to speak daily with him by telephone.” And so the grooming progressed.

No, this isn’t child molestation. It is, however, predatory. Did Allen recognize that this might be an incredibly fragile person with a tortured past who came of age in an environment she found hostile thanks in part to the family dynamic he himself created? That in constructing a reality where only he, Mia, and their three children constituted “the family,” he might have made her feel inferior and excluded? That by withholding affection from her throughout her entire childhood and adolescence, he’d created a power differential where she craved some of the validation and love she’d seen him lavish on her mother and sister? That in calling her daily when she most needed emotional support, he muddied that support by making it conditional, sexual?

Who knows? He’s happy, anyway:

The very inequality of me being older and much more accomplished, much more experienced, takes away any real meaningful conflict. So when there’s disagreement, it’s never an adversarial thing. I don’t ever feel that I’m with a hostile or threatening person. It’s got a more paternal feeling to it. I love to do things to make her happy. She loves to do things to make me happy. It just works out great. It was just completely fortuitous. One of the truly lucky things that happened to me in my life.

It is nice to be free of any “real meaningful conflict.” For Allen, the ideal relationship is one in which he is the dominant paternal figure. This militates against his assertion—offered to contradict the fact that they were ever family—that they could have “met at a party or something.” He’s admitting here that his ideal romantic role doesn’t start with equals at a party; he prefers a power dynamic that’s essentially parental.

It’s typical of Allen’s distortions that he accords Soon-Yi full agency—she fell in love with him of her free will!—while insisting that his own children have none; they are brainless, dim-witted vessels for Mia’s revenge. “If Mia did not keep them whipped up and enraged these days, telling them how to react,” he says, “I don’t think they would have cared two seconds.”

It might behoove Mr. Allen to entertain the possibility that children do sometimes have feelings of their own—feelings that were not necessarily “implanted” by evil mothers out to destroy the psyches of the beings they went to extraordinary lengths to nurture. But for the moment, his story is that the children wouldn’t have minded in the least that he cheated on their mother with their sister, secretly, for six months. It’s Mia who’s responsible for their anger.

This is a pattern. The most egregious example is when Ronan (né Satchel) cried as an infant whenever Allen held him: this too, according to Allen, was evidence of Mia’s brainwashing: “Mr. Allen attributes this to Ms. Farrow’s conscious effort to keep him apart from the child,” Judge Wilk writes. (If Mia Farrow can brainwash babies into crying and stopping on command, she needs to write that How-To guide right quick.)

As for Mia herself, Woody claims she “would have thought more or less the same thing if it had been my secretary or an actress.”

These are worrying levels of self-delusion. This is the behavior of a man so unaccustomed to thinking outside his own frame of reference, so amazingly narcissistic, that he genuinely thinks Mia Farrow’s response to finding pornographic photos of the daughter she adopted from Korea and painstakingly raised would have been “more or less the same” as if he’d cheated on her with a secretary. This reasoning only makes sense in a universe where Woody Allen is the only thing that matters. The single emotion he imagines Farrow to be capable of is jealousy. Allen appears unable to imagine that either Mia or her children had a relationship with Soon-Yi that was irreparably damaged. (The other possibility is that he doesn’t genuinely believe any of what he says here–in other words, he’s either dangerously deluded or he’s lying.)

Judge Wilk goes a step further—in his estimation, the divisive force in the home wasn’t Mia, as Allen would have us believe. It was Woody:

Mr. Allen’s response to Dylan’s claim of sexual abuse was an attack upon Ms. Farrow, whose parenting ability and emotional stability he impugned without the support of any significant credible evidence. His trial strategy has been to separate his children from their brothers and sisters; to turn the children against their mother; to divide adopted children from biological children; to incite the family against their household help; and to set household employees against each other. His self-absorption, his lack of judgment and his continuation of his divisive assault, thereby impeding the healing of the injuries that he has already caused, warrant a careful monitoring of his future contact with the children.

So far, the discussion of this mess has revolved around the question of whether or not Dylan’s allegations are true, with most Allen defenders (and Allen himself in his latest) claiming that of course Dylan believes what she’s saying but that doesn’t make it true. Mia Farrow’s veracity has been repeatedly impugned. She’s been called crazy, unstable, out of touch—or a witchy mastermind who implanted memories in her daughter so robust that they’ve lasted two decades. I’ve seen Dylan Farrow called a liar, or crazy, or brainwashed. What I haven’t seen, to my amazement, are what to my mind are the two more likely possibilities:

1) That if there’s a “brainwashed” party here (and I’m not convinced there is, but if we’re all performing thought experiments that strip the Farrow daughters of agency, let’s at least be rigorous and thorough about it), it’s far more likely to have been Soon-Yi, whose “lover” ignored her throughout her childhood, preyed on her as soon as she went off to college, and proceeded to isolate her from her entire support system, and/or

2) that if anyone’s crazy here, or unstable, or out of touch with reality, it’s clearly Allen. He may not even be lying as we understand the term. As George Costanza famously said, “Just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”

How is it possible that—given the foregoing levels of self-delusion—we’re applying the logic of the person-who-believes-their-own-lies to Dylan and not to Woody? Everyone keeps talking about the lack of evidence in this case. We’ve been looking at it from the wrong point of view. There is evidence EVERYWHERE. Not that Mia lied, but that Woody did. Over and over.

Let’s count a few lies, some big, some small:

Lie #1: Mia never complained about his parenting

Woody Allen says in his response to Dylan Farrow’s letter that

“I was a 56-year-old man who had never before (or after) been accused of child molestation. I had been going out with Mia for 12 years and never in that time did she ever suggest to me anything resembling misconduct.”

This is factually untrue. Farrow did express concerns about his misconduct, and luckily for her, it’s documented: Dylan’s therapist Dr. Coates testified that Farrow was concerned over Allen’s treatment of Dylan. She raised the issue in 1990 and Dr. Coates worked with Allen to get him to discontinue some of his inappropriate behaviors:

I understood why she was worried, because it [Mr. Allen’s relationship with Dylan] was intense, … I did not see it as sexual, but I saw it as inappropriately intense because it excluded everybody else, and it placed a demand on a child for a kind of acknowledgment that I felt should not be placed on a child.

Lie #2: The Nude Photos Were For Modeling!

Woody Allen has repeatedly said that the famous nude photos of Soon-Yi were taken at her instigation because, he says, she wanted to be a model.

Suppose your extremely young, inexperienced lover—who both you and others in her family describe as so shy, withdrawn and correct that you all thought she might become a nun—told you she wanted to model. You’re in the entertainment industry; you know something about it. Would your response—drawing on your years of wisdom and experience—be to take some Polaroids of her naked with her legs spread wide apart? One wonders about the next step; was Allen going to send those photos out to fashion agencies? Would Soon-Yi paste them on her resume in hopes that Anna Wintour might call? It seems unlikely, but the fact remains that Allen claims he took those photos to further Soon-Yi’s career.

It could be argued that he’s a filmmaker; maybe he doesn’t know how modeling works. Perhaps he did his best with limited information. Unfortunately that doesn’t hold water either: Allen did once hire a professional photographer to take glamor shots of Soon-Yi, so he knew enough and was capable of actually helping her model in an appropriate way.

The truth is probably quite a bit simpler. The full-frontal photos Allen took of his lover’s daughter were likely not about modeling. That Allen said it was, that he insisted that it was her idea and done to help her, suggests he has a habit of making himself seem better than he is. There’s nothing wrong with taking sexy photos of your lover. There is something wrong with pretending that a kinky photo-session of your partner’s daughter posing naked for you—while you kept your involvement secret from your partner of twelve years—was just a helpful act intended to advance the former’s career.

I’m dwelling on this relatively small lie because it’s particularly rich: these little details show how a master manipulator works.

Woody’s story about the photos isn’t even consistent in the space of a single interview. Here’s what he told The Baltimore Sun about the incident:

Q: What about those nude photos? How did you come to take them?

A: We were sitting around in this room, as a matter of fact, talking about her modeling career and she said would I take some nude pictures of her. I’m not a person that knows much about cameras; I mean I’m not good at that. And I, I took a small amount and left them out, and . . . and that was the, um, the origin of . . . I mean, there’s nothing more to say about that.

Q: Some people have characterized them as pornographic.

A: That’s too absurd for words. There are no sexual acts depicted, there’s nobody else in them . . . I mean, I think you know, one man’s lascivious pose is another man’s . . . I would say, you know, they were pretty sexy pictures. But what Soon-Yi and I do in our private moments is nobody’s business; we’re two grown-up people.

I’ve emphasized what seem to me to be problematic statements.

Does pornography demand that sexual acts be depicted? The definition is famously vexed, but one dictionary, for what it’s worth, says pornography is “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” To the extent that they have been described (”a naked woman with her legs spread wide apart”), sexual organs were certainly on display. These are not generally required for a career in modeling. The fact that the judge famously refused to even look at them suggests that the photos err on the side of the erotic over the aesthetic. Most damning of all to Allen’s case, though, is the fact that Allen himself blamed Mia (and called her an unfit parent) for showing her children the pictures he took.

This is what Allen keeps doing: he establishes one set of highly conventional rules for Farrow while he himself is bound by none. It’s a dizzying double standard. Does it make sense to fault Mia for showing her children photographs that innocently depict their sister “modeling”? It doesn’t, unless you’re trying to simultaneously insist on your total innocence (your intentions were pure and helpful—you just did what Soon-Yi asked) and Farrow’s total guilt (she is a harpy bent on destroying you by … showing her children what you did).

I suppose it’s theoretically possible that one of the most famous directors in the world doesn’t know much about cameras and “isn’t good at” taking pictures.

This is a minor point and an irrelevant one; it’s unclear why he even mentioned it. But there might be something behind it: the fact is, it can be useful to seem less capable than you are. Allen is famous for making himself out to be impotent, passive and fearful (he cultivated the legend of his claustrophobia so successfully that Weide used it in his Daily Beast article as an alibi for why he wouldn’t have gone in the attic). He likes to say that Soon-Yi is “more mature” than he is—he is the child, the scatterbrain incapable of being a mastermind or (of course) a predator. He’s so good at it that he almost makes you forget how potent, bold, organized, goal-driven, ambitious, skilled, and egomaniacal you have to be to make it as a world-famous director.

Is it consistent to maintain, in the space of six sentences, that you took nude photos of someone that are intended for public consumption (a career in modeling), and that the content of the photographs is out of bounds because those photos document your “private moments”?

I submit that it isn’t. Those photos were probably taken for purely erotic purposes, and that’s fine (if we’re regarding them as two consenting adults, which is how Allen and Previn say we should regard them, ignoring the attendant context). But again, I’m lingering on this little episode because it demonstrates Allen’s talent for manipulating the truth in order to minimize his own responsibility.

Lie #3: I Was a Great Parent! Mia Says So!

“Be logical,” Woody says in this video when asked whether he indeed molested Dylan, and I suggest we take his advice. His case is that molesting her under the circumstances wouldn’t be rational; it wouldn’t make sense! He says in that same interview (at 4:42) that Mia wrote a “glowing affidavit” in support of his adopting Dylan in December.

That was, in hindsight, an unfortunate misstep. He’s appealing to Mia’s authority—he’s saying that because Mia testified that he was a good parent, he was.

The trouble is that, by December, when Mia wrote that affidavit, Allen was five months into secretly dating mother and daughter simultaneously. Mia, of course, didn’t know. Would she have written that affidavit had she known? Is it logical to claim that Mia’s opinion of his parenting carries any weight given that he admits he was taking extraordinary measures to conceal the truth from her? Mia’s affidavit is worthless precisely because Woody was lying to her about everything—he’s citing a source that he himself rendered useless. And yet—and yet!—when it’s convenient, the man uses the very woman he persistently lied to—but accuses of being a malicious, pathological liar—as a character witness! One can admire this for its astuteness—he’s trying to prove that she had not yet entered Woman Scorned Mode, that she still professed to think he was a good parent—but if she’d known the truth, she’d have condemned his parenting in the strongest possible terms. While we’re on the subject, is it “logical” to apply to adopt a child with your partner of twelve years when you’re conducting a secret affair with her sister? Is that kind? Is that sane? The mind, it reels.

Lie #4: Mia is crazy. Evidence: She still wanted to do our movie.

Woody talks about how unhinged Mia was at 5:40 in the video above, citing as a telling example the fact that she asked about their new movie together after she’d accused him of child molestation. “What happened was crazy behavior … terrible rage. Death threats … she accused me of child molestation on August 4, right? That I molested my daughter, and August 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, the week after, she’s fully saying, ‘When do we begin our new movie?’” I said, “Are you kidding? You’re accusing me of child molestation, and you think we’re going to just go on with the movie?” “This is insane!” Woody says. He marvels at how ludicrous this was, how insane Mia must have been to suggest it.

By this definition, he’s crazy himself, as he admits to the exact same thing in a 2005 interview with Vanity Fair. “The height of compartmentalization was when I was making Mighty Aphrodite, right after. We couldn’t think of an actress to play my wife. I needed someone who was slightly older, like in her 30s, and sophisticated … I said to her, ‘Let’s get Mia.’”

According to Allen, the rest of the conversation went like this:

Taylor: “What are you, nuts?”

Allen: “Why not? She’s perfect for this.”

Taylor: “You must be kidding.”

Allen: “No. You know, it won’t bother me at all. I mean, this is work. One thing has nothing to do with the other.… She’s a very good actress. She’ll be very professional. She’ll know her lines and give a good performance, because she’ll want to. I don’t have to socialize with her. I don’t talk to the cast, usually, anyhow.”

Here’s how he explains the idea:

Now, to me, I want to get the best casting. The fact that Mia and I had been terribly contentious and had a terrible experience—yes, that’s true. But, you know, that doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t play the part. I’m just not the kind of person that thinks, Well, you did a terrible thing to me in my life, and so I’m not working with you. I’m not going to cut off my nose and spite my face. I mean, there’s a line that you draw. I wouldn’t put, you know, Hermann Göring in a part, but short of Nuremberg crimes …

To review—when Allen does it, it’s professionalism, broadmindedness and dedication to his art. When Mia does the exact same thing—plans to honor professional commitments in a movie he’d already cast her in—it’s evidence that she’s mentally unbalanced.

Lie #5: Mia is a Publicity-Hungry Attention Whore; Woody is Private

Allen has always insisted that Farrow is the indecent, publicity-hungry party, and yet Allen, by his own admission—was at least as guilty of using publicity as a weapon:

[Allen] also said Farrow called him five times Friday, wanting to negotiate an end to the publicity.

IANAL, but that doesn’t sound like someone who wants publicity at any price.

“She said, ‘Can we stop this grotesque publicity circus?’ And I said, ‘You have hired a lawyer, you’re parading relatives and the kids on television, you leaked this videotape of Dylan unconscionably.’ She said, ‘Can’t we negotiate this?'” Allen said.

“And I said, ‘First you must clear my name unequivocally. And if you do that, and we can agree to give Dylan some real therapy to get over the dreadful scars of this thing, and I am part supervisor of that therapy, then OK, we can talk and see if there’s a way of toning things down.’ “

Again, the person trying to end the publicity in this scenario is not Woody. He’s the one setting conditions and threatening that if they’re not met, the publicity he so deplores will continue.

Lie #6: He Just Plain Lied, A LOT. (For Mia’s Own Good, Though.)

One of the curious things about the charges of infidelity is that—in the interests of respecting the privacy of consenting adults—we forget how many different “sins” get lumped in. This is a case where the credibility of the people involved matters; the two women, Dylan and Mia, have been constantly scrutinized for inconsistencies in their stories. The fact that Allen cheated appears to have given him a free pass—we think of him as a cheater, not a liar. There’s a seventies sensibility to Allen’s narratives of himself. We’re all adults, he seems to say, and if I fall in love with someone and then out of love, well, that’s life. It’s unfortunate, but it would behoove us all to behave maturely.

There’s an intelligent passivity to this formulation. It’s true, of course: when consenting adults have an honest and open relationship, there’s nothing wrong with ending things in just this way. The trouble is that the passivity Woody insists on here—“the heart wants what it wants”—disguises what he did to get what the heart gets. It obscures the extraordinary dishonesty he was guilty of for at least six months, calling Soon-Yi multiple times a day, poisoning her against her mother, even as he continued to see Mia daily and was ostensibly in a relationship with her. Given how obsessed he’s been with impugning the credibility of his ex-lover and his daughter, we’d do well to remember that Allen himself lied constantly.

But even here, he insists that his lies were acts of charity:

Testifying under sharp cross-examination, Woody Allen said Monday that at one point he told Mia Farrow he had ended his affair with her 22-year-old adopted daughter while he really was “in constant contact” with her “five or six times a day.”

Allen said he used the ruse in an attempt to calm Farrow, who was in a rage over Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Farrow Previn, the adopted daughter of Farrow and her former husband, conductor Andre Previn.

The Sunday Herald Sun reported that “Allen also admitted two-timing Soon Yi in a bid to ‘placate’ Farrow. On a couple of occasions, after he started dating Soon Yi, Allen slept with Farrow to ‘calm her down’ because she wouldn’t let him see the children.

At times, the waif-like Farrow had tears streaming down her face as she listened to Allen tell the court they had a ‘joyless, sexless’ relationship for the last five of their 13 years together.”

Lucky Mia, to be so calmed. He was thinking only of her.

We might wonder, since everything else about this case is out in the open, how Allen planned to make this mature, adult transition from one relationship to another? In a 1992 interview with Steve Kroft, Allen seems a little less thoughtful about his romantic partner of twelve years’ needs, let alone her emotional wellbeing.

Steve Kroft: “I mean, she found out about it by finding some rather embarrassing pictures.”

Woody Allen: “Yes.  Correct.  I mean, what is the question?”

Steve Kroft: “I presume that’s not the way you wanted her to find out, or did you want her to find out?”

Woody Allen: “I never—I never really thought that—I never really thought about it.  I mean, I—you know, I don’t know—I don’t really know.  I think eventually as that situation got more and more serious, I would have told her about it.”

You know. Probably.

Woody wants it both ways: he wants to insist that Farrow should have behaved differently, maturely, like an “adult,” while he did everything in his power to keep her in the dark. So accustomed was he to an infantilizing romantic paradigm where he has all the information and power and she needs none, that it didn’t even occur to him to consider how or when she might be told so they could “maturely” part ways.

There’s a lot of irrationality to go round, but most of it is Woody’s. Concerning the allegations that Mia broke a chair and sent a valentine with a knife in it, I don’t know whether they’re true, but I humbly submit that the person who was emotionally blindsided probably deserves a little more leeway for emotional outbursts than the man who for six months abused her trust and calculatingly deceived her.

Lie #7: Mia Poisoned Me Against My Children. Her Children. Those Children.

In that same article, Allen describes how Mia was the one really inflicting psychological pain on her children:

Farrow told “terrible things” about him to the children, he said.

“She said I was the devil. She said, ‘Your father did a terrible thing to Soon-Yi.’ She took a picture off the wall and broke it. The kids did not know what that was about,” Allen said. “There was one horrific incident after another.”

The concept here is that for the children, watching “horrific incidents” like seeing their mother break a picture or a note on the bathroom door was far more confusing than watching their sister leave their home and family to marry their father.

(Actually, Moses Farrow’s statement is similarly odd:

My mother drummed it into me to hate my father for tearing apart the family and sexually molesting my sister,” Moses, 36, tells PEOPLE in the magazine’s new issue. “And I hated him for her for years. I see now that this was a vengeful way to pay him back for falling in love with Soon-Yi.”

It’s a perplexing accusation. Woody did tear apart the family—pretty unambiguously, even without taking into account Dylan’s alleged molestation. Soon-Yi is not part of the family any more. It seems eminently reasonable to dislike the man who tore apart your family. Why would you experience those feelings at one remove, “for her”? It’s hard not to pity Moses, who of course has no way of knowing whether or not his father molested his sister. It may be that this poor family has just lost track of what normal feeling is; Allen’s insistence that all his children’s emotions are tainted by misbegotten loyalties and/or maternal manipulation could easily have that effect.)

Nor does his attitude towards his own children from that relationship seem particularly parental. From a March 2011 interview with the Observer Review:

So do you have any contact with your children with Mia now, then?

“Oh. Contact with those children? No, no. I don’t have contact with those children. I just have contact with my children.”

Those children. Dylan, Moses and Satchel are not “my children.”

Is this attitude consistent with someone who insists that only Mia is to blame? Many have accused Mia of not having a close relationship with Soon-Yi since—if she was a victim—it wasn’t her fault. Has no one remarked that if Allen truly believes Mia to have laundered the brains of his children, then he certainly should consider them his, not “those”?

Can you ever get over something like that?

“No, sure, that was a sad thing.”


The brainwashing allegations have gone on for far too long, which is why I’m taking pains to show here that if brains were washed here (and to be clear, I think this is magical thinking), Allen is at least as guilty of it as Farrow. Many people have pointed out that Soon-Yi’s statement of her independence uses language awfully similar to Allen’s, even repeating his extraordinary assertion, verbatim, that Mia would have been just as upset if he’d dated an actress or secretary. Robert Weide’s defense of Allen, that it’s “illogical” for a man to walk into a house full of people that hate him and climb into an attic as a claustrophobe, echoes Allen’s own defense almost word for word. Even Moses’ language for Mia’s “brainwashing” mimics Allen’s. Despite what he’d have you believe, Allen is not without potential mouthpieces.

Our choices are few: we can either accept that everyone in this case—Moses, Dylan, Ronan, Mia, Soon-Yi, and Woody—are of sound mind and able to speak competently, OR we can decide that Mia and Woody are masterminds who use their children and the press as pawns and puppets. What we absolutely cannot do, as a culture, is unthinkingly accept Allen’s premise that only Mia is capable of being manipulative, that only Mia uses powerful magic to make all her children (including Satchel when he was a subverbal infant) hate the other side. What we can’t do as a culture is scrutinize the testimony of a seven-year-old for minor inconsistencies while a rich and powerful man who admits to an organized pattern of lying over a period of six months and routinely contradicts himself—on the record, no less—goes unexamined.

I want to conclude with two statements of Allen’s. The first is from his interview with Michael Parkinson (at 32:40):

There is some mysterious thing—we are programmed—we have certain instincts, and we’ll never understand them, the animal instinct to live, to procreate, the will to power, the desirability of women is just an amazing, amazing thing. When a desirable woman passes, she may be beautiful, she may be intelligent, she may be charming, whatever contribution she’s making… whatever the source of her desirability originates from, you catch onto it and it’s like some catnip or something, it’s just amazing, and you do the most foolish things, you, you know, you commit crimes, you go crazy, you just do anything, you look like a fool …  the men are more frantically berserk with desire. I’m speaking for myself now…

And finally:

I hate when art becomes a religion. I feel the opposite. When you start putting a higher value on works of art than people, you’re forfeiting your humanity. There’s a tendency to feel the artist has special privileges, and that anything’s okay if it’s in the service of art. I tried to get into that in Interiors. I always feel the artist is much too revered—it’s not fair and it’s cruel. It’s a nice but fortuitous gift—like a nice voice or being left-handed. That you can create is a kind of nice accident. It happens to have high value in society, but it’s not as noble an attribute as courage. I find funny and silly the pompous kind of self-important talk about the artist who takes risks. Artistic risks are like show-business risks—laughable. Like casting against type, wow, what danger! Risks are where your life is on the line.

I agree wholeheartedly. And the person with her life on the line in this case is not Allen.

(NB: This post has been slightly edited since it was first published.)

BLACK THURSDAY (Guest Post by Matt Maki re: Ukraine)

(Matt Maki is a writer living in Ukraine. He occasionally writes about the political unrest there. Today he wrote this account of the passage of Law #3879 as a FB post; I asked if I could post it here with his permission. If you want to get in touch with him, please let me know.)


January 16, 2014 at 3:06pm

*note that this post is now illegal*

A disturbing turn of events in Ukraine today. (Why is every turn here disturbing? Can’t there be one heartening turn? An uplifting turn? An enjoyable turn?) Parliament gathered simply to vote on the 2014 budget, but the 2,000 riot police standing guard should have been a hint that more was secretly on the agenda.


Without prior notice to the public or politicians of minority parties, Law #3879 was introduced for a vote. Rather than the customary electronic system of voting—which can be used for accuracy and proof of how each member voted—it was conducted by a show of hands, and too quickly for anyone to actually count, immediately followed by a predetermined declaration that it was passed with a vote of 235 in favor among the 450 lawmakers. The law introduces a number of measures directed at silencing dissenting voices against President Yanukovych and his dictatorial regime.


Many items in the law make the physical reality of protesting punishable:

  • A sweeping declaration that protests in the city center, parks, squares, streets, or other public spaces are illegal (opening the door for riot police or military to legally attack protesters).
  • Unauthorized installation of tents, stages, or amplifiers punishable by a fine of $640 or 15 days in detention (nobody can hear protest leaders or sleep on-site).
  • People or organizations providing facilities or equipment for unauthorized meetings punishable by a fine of $1,275 or detention of 10 days (cannot even meet in a privately owned space, even someone’s livingroom!).
  • Wearing a mask or face-covering punishable with 15 days (scouring video to identify protesters for university expulsion, imprisonment,confiscation of money and property, etc. is a real concern, so many protesters—particularly students—wear a scarf or medical mask). Wearing a helmet (to protect against riot police) or uniform is punishable with 10 days.
  • Anyone attending a protest/demonstration without police permission can be arrested for up to 15 days.
  • Blocking government buildings is punishable by up to 5 years (including picketing/protesting in front of such a building, or the clever lying-down protest symbolizing how lawmakers are walking over citizens).
  • Cars in a convoy of more than 5 vehicles can be confiscated for up to 2 years (which includes the mini-parades of cars adorned with Ukrainian flags driving around the center honking).


  • Libel punishable by a fine of 50 x minimum wage income, or 200 hours community service.
  • Defamation punishable up to 2 years.
  • Dissemination or production of extremist materials (protest posters, internet memes or postings, flyers, pamphlets, graffiti, art displays, etc.) punishable by $1,600 or 3 years.


Use of the internet to share news in opposition to the government is now forbidden (which thus includes this note and much of what I have posted on FB in the past couple of months). There was specific attention given to social media, which was characterized as a dangerous tool being used to spread anarchy, immorality, and the production of weapons of mass destruction. (Americans have learned that the person warning about WMDs is the corrupt and crazy one, not the one they are vilifying.) Specific punishments include the following:

  • Distributing news without government-approved registration is punishable by 600-1,000 x minimum wage income, with seizure of produced goods, means of production, and funds received for or earned from production. (This includes “UkrainskaPravda” and hromadske.tv, the two main news sources that are notgovernment-owned nor –controlled.)
  • The government can force internet providers to limit or block subscribers’ access to any online sources of unapproved information, essentially censoring/filtering any websites or information the government chooses. Providers’ failure to comply is punishable by 200-400 x minimum wage income.
  • Telecommunications operators and internet service providers will be required at their own expense to procure and install equipment for “investigative operations,” maintain such equipment, and facilitate said “operations” when ordered.


  • Collecting personal information about policemen, judges,and other agents—such as records/proof of them lying under oath, accepting bribes, etc., can lead to arrest up to 6 months (not court-sentenced imprisonment, but police-decided arrest and detainment).
  • NGOs (non-profits) that receive any grants from any foreign state/fund/organization/individual and that take part in ANY kind of political activity in Ukraine are now officially considered “foreign agents” and must register as such; they are stripped of their non-profit status and taxed by a new, complicated procedure.
  • Members of parliament can be instantly stripped of legal immunity and arrested during a parliamentary session (particularly helpful if they start saying anything opposed to the opinion of the President’s ruling party).
  • Riot police or other officials who commit any crimes against protesters—including murder—are exempt from punishment.


Such a strong and sudden move is assumed to be a precursor to a final crackdown on the EuroMaidan protest. In anticipation and support, thousands of people have flooded into Kyiv today from around the country to occupy Maidan Nezelezhnosti, the central square and home of the protest. Kyiv hospitals have prepared to accept an unprecedented amount of patients tonight. A number of human rights groups and foreign government representatives have declared that Ukraine became an official dictatorship today, which has been named Black Thursday.

Sources, links, and updates:

(repeated in The Guardian and The New York Times)

On Mourdock’s God’s Gift

[Updated to include Mr. Mourdock’s clarification re: his remark.]

I’ve been thinking about Mourdock’s remark that rape is–to quote my writer-friend Stefanie Kalem–“just some kind of unfortunate wrapping paper that the gift of life comes in sometimes.” He shared his account of his personal struggle and his epiphany at the Indiana Senate debate on Tuesday:

“’I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,’ Mourdock said at the debate, explaining his position that women who are raped should not have the right to an abortion. ‘And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.'”

Once the rage cleared (and it took some time) I got interested. I work on the early modern period, so I’m never not steeped in the complex torsions Christian thinking requires (especially when it becomes necessary to denounce Lutheranism in favor of Zwinglianism and some aspects of Calvinism). And it seems to me that Mourdock deserves some credit for being—at first glance—internally consistent. I’m not alone. Many people have noted this, and say Mourdock’s position “makes sense,” and if you take issue with it, it’s because you disagree with his religion. The logic is right if you agree with his premises. This is nonsense, and it’s dangerous nonsense, because it gives people like Mr. Mourdock credit for being logical where they are in fact being extremely sloppy. The (theo)logic breaks down on its own terms when you do it the favor of giving it a second look:

  1. If you believe life begins at conception—that an egg and sperm are a human being—then you can allow no exceptions: not for rape, not for incest, not for the 9-year-old in Brazil who got pregnant with twins after her stepfather raped her, and was in danger of dying because her body couldn’t handle it. So far, logic and Mr. Mourdock are in agreement.
  2. He clarified thusly after the debate, horrified that his remarks had been taken to mean that God pre-ordained rape: “What I said is that God creates life.” But here’s the thing: if life is in God’s plan, being divinely created (and intended) in the 9-year-old’s body while her father rapes her, so is the 9-year-old’s death when her body gives out. Life and death are not separable concepts. Ask anyone who’s worked in a maternity ward. Ask anyone who’s worked in a church.
  3. If that’s your logic, you need to take your belief in God’s plan all the way. God’s plan is not purely creative, however sunnily Mr. Mourdock’s portrayal of it in #2. The context in which he mentions God’s creation is, inescapably, rape; suffering and adversity are important aspects of Christian faith. Even if your branch of Christianity holds that death is the result of the Fall, and entirely attributable to human sin, you also believe A) that death is a step toward everlasting life and B) that death, as experienced by humans, is part of God’s plan. If a loved one dies, the line is not that God was unjust or even that we are being punished, but rather these things are sent to try us. It is part of God’s plan.
  4. We’ve established that Mr. Mourdock is particularly interested in God’s plan as it applies to life, reproduction, and (as I’ve shown in #3) death, yet he seems singularly uninterested in legislating other violations of that divine plan. What of erectile dysfunction? Infertility? God doesn’t think you should have children. Treatment should be outlawed. Cancer? Disease? It’s in God’s plan–after all, death brings you that much closer to everlasting life. Abolish chemotherapy. For every medical intervention that deals with the foregoing subjects, the question must be asked: why, if you believe in a divine organizing principle that expresses itself in the biological functions of the body (and this is Mr. Mourdock’s argument) are you interfering?
  5. You can’t. If one takes this line to heart, it needs to be followed with rigor. I can respect that view (and do–I have friends whose beliefs tend this way). But God’s plans aren’t to be trifled with, and they’re not half-baked. You don’t get to cherry-pick such that rape victims bear the brunt of your theology.
  6. If you persist in this kind of selective thinking, you are not a hero of the Christian right standing up for divine truth in a sea of heresy. Quite the contrary.  You are a nattering hypocrite who mistook a shallow exercise in juggling abstractions (conveniently stripped of their humanity) for integrity. Only where your “realization” touches your own life—your own life—does it bear truth or relevance, and there its transcendence ends. Do not attempt to speak of a divine plan, as you are a poor theorist. Instead, realize the monstrosity of your belief that your feeble, moth-witted “struggle” somehow authorizes you not only to legislate your personal theology—in a country founded on the separation of church and state—but also to force women (and women alone) to accept these “gifts” from your bleak and misguided idea of God. You are un-American, sir, and it is not God’s fault that you are a bad philosopher. Have the piety to let the blame for that lie squarely on your shoulders.

“The Mineral Marrow from the Hardest Bones of the Mountains”: Why Italians Don’t Mine

I have never wondered why Italians don’t do more in the way of mining for valuable metals. It’s not the sort of question anyone in this day and age would think to ask, but it reminds us that there was a time when mining wasn’t the sort of industry it is today, wherein investors can count on certain countries to happily exchange their copper for a hit of foreign investment and a song. Still, from a 1942 volume on mining called The Pirotechnia Of Vannoccio Biringuccio comes this really beautiful meditation on Italian sloth and anti-entrepeneurship:

VERY intelligent and practical investigator of minerals says that copper ore is found in various regions of the world and that among others Italy is very rich in it. But very little is mined there, perhaps because of a cowardly Italian avarice which has the power to make us lazy and indolent in carrying out those lofty and fine designs which should reasonably make us proceed swiftly, or perhaps because we are not prone to attempt extraordinary profit but only undertake those enterprises in which we are certain of a return on our investment. The reason for this might also be found in the meager possibility of success, which, since these things are not easily attempted because they are enormous undertakings of doubtful outcome, cools the spirit of men and in place of enthusiasm introduces the fear of loss, the fear of having to sacrifice not only time but also the work and money invested; then they think of the difficulty of discovery, of the impossibility of full ownership, and of the necessity of excavating the mineral marrow from the hardest bones of the mountains with the brawn and efforts of men. To this is added the fear common to many that in attempting such things they may be called fools by certain ignorant and dissolute persons, and it seems better to them to be praised for becoming rich through usury and by many other infamous and illicit methods than to lay themselves open to the danger of censure from such as these. But there are those who deserve still greater censure, particularly princes and all rich and powerful persons, and theirs is an even more useless error than that of those who refrain for the above reasons. If the occasion and means present themselves for both attempting and continuing such a profitable and laudable affair as mining ores and if they hesitate solely because of cowardice or because they give ear to the bayings of ignorant hounds, or if because of their own willfulness they wish to remain prisoners of a detestable and ugly avarice, then this is their own loss.

Animating (and Reanimating) Debussy, or, The Artist (and Hugo)

Listen to and look at this lovely thing:

This animated score of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 [h/t Nathan Pensky] is the most compelling visual illustration of musical voicing I’ve seen since—well, since Fantasia. I loved Fantasia as a kid, but it had the formal disadvantage of layering on, not just a visual component to an aural experience, but an entire narrative* over a non-narrative form.

*I had written “silent film” where now it says “narrative” until it dawned on me that “silent film” might be an unforgivable misnomer. The Artist popped into my head as a fresh reminder of how stylized the sounds of “silent” film really are. I just saw it, thanks to  Virgin Atlantic’s movie smorgasboard. I chose it groggily on the plane because it was “silent” and would spare me the strain of trying to hear dialogue over the airplane’s ambient noise without blasting my eardrums. And if it put me to sleep—well, there are worse things that can happen on a ten-hour flight.

If you’ve seen it, you know that The Artist‘s “silence” is loud. Loud with what we perceive on the one hand as the absence of eliminated voices, loud on the other with constant, attentive, anchoring music that substitutes melody and harmony for the hyperreal sonic landscape we’re used to in movies. It does this so effectively that by the end you forget you ever missed the talky minutiae of inessential dialogue.

When I was in elementary schools, a group of sound engineers came to talk to us about how they used jello to make the sounds of ET’s footsteps. It took them an eternity to figure out how to make the crunchy sound of biting into a potato chip. I can’t remember how they finally did it, but I left the assembly wanting pretty desperately to be a sound engineer, making a living on the weird fact that random things sound more like everyday sounds than the sounds themselves.

The Artist makes a point of highlighting, in a scene when the main character suddenly hears a door slam in the way we do, the extent to which “silent film” strips out the disruptive footsteps and door-slams of the physical world. But it manages to make the protagonist’s inability to speak a critical plot point that collapses seamlessly back into the conventions of silent film. In this sense, The Artist does what Hugo failed to do: it captures the nostalgia of another time, not by bludgeoning the viewer with bleeding-edge technology, but by inhabiting the technological limits of that past and creating, within those limits, an experience powerful enough to engage an audience so supersaturated with sensory stimuli that it fidgets and bores in the absence of screamy shiny things.

Again, take Hugo. People were amazed by Melies’ films; this is a key point the film wishes you to understand. It instructs you, not by amazing you with the films on their own merits, or the stories they told, but by insisting (pedantically, one feels) on the wonders of film production. It shows you clips, but they function less as objets d’art in their own right than as the finished casseroles television cooks pull out of their ovens after showing you how to combine the ingredients. There’s both too much and not enough of the process that turns a set into a film.

There being several ways to skin a cat, an easier way of putting this is to say that Hugo gets obsessed with the director’s story while The Artist focuses on the obsessions of its actors and audience.

While Hugo goes nuclear with technology Melies didn’t have, The Artist commits absolutely to the technical limitations of the period it explores, rendering those limitations not only engaging and productive in their own right, but central to the film’s aesthetic and narrative concerns. The Artist shows us the crowds adoring silent film and souring on it, but those crowds don’t model the appropriate reactions the way they do in Hugo. Instead, the film positions us as the anachronisms, enjoying a genre the audiences within the film have outgrown. This is how it pulls us into Valentin’s tragedy.

Not that Hugo is a one-trick pony. (It’s more of a billion-trick pony.) Having amused you with the steampunk charm of Melies’ film production, the film communicates his legendary popularity by showing—not the films—but the delighted faces of a rapt audience. Those delighted faces are in 3-D so as to amaze and move you, the contemporary viewer. The project here is not quite to elicit that reaction from you afresh, but rather to encourage you into it by offering models of old amazement in a flashy new format. Hugo doesn’t inhabit Melies’ form; it leaves it flat and drums up nostalgia from the outside by adding bells, whistles, laugh tracks and applause signs—all beautifully shot.

And it is all incorrigibly retrospective, even as it clumsily points to the future of film. The hint at the end that the whole film was the girl’s journal manages to both acknowledge Brian Selznick and perform a kind of technological tokenism: remember, Melies‘ techniques weren’t enough to hold your interest without 3-D. What should we conclude about the sudden fifth-act appearance of a relic like a book? Especially since it’s implied that the film is the natural endpoint of that book: it sees the book as an early (and less sophisticated) progenitor.

It all strikes this reader as peculiarly condescending. And it creates a telos where none need exist: just as Melies’ charming but archaic moviemaking techniques paved the way for Scorsese’s 3-D extravaganza, the technology of the printed book gets a nod as a point of origin, a distant and even more archaic product that made Melies’ movies possible. It’s as if Scorsese slipped into that 19th century mindset that mistakes evolution for progress and genetic change for the moral improvement of the race. “Fitness” and goodness, despite their frequent overlap, are different categories.

But the clearest difference between Hugo and The Artist is this: both end with the resurrection of the fallen hero. But The Artist ends with the silent film protagonist and the talkies actress resisting the tyrannical narrative that provoked their split. They aren’t doing the new thing—talking—they aren’t doing the old thing—not-talking. Instead, they dance!

And this is purely at the level of plot. More interestingly (at the level of form) is the fact that the film ends with the two main characters tap-dancing “silently”. Their tap-dancing is the perfect compromise: the sound of their shoes has been subsumed into the music that constitutes silence: it’s audible, it’s a sonic expression of physical events. They are footsteps, but they are also music. Silent tap-dancing occupies the same hybrid non-space as the video animation of Debussy’s Arabesque, which was the point of this post, and to which I will shortly return.

But then, suddenly, distractingly, you hear Peppy and Valentin breathing. And voices break out, and you hear Valentin speak (!), but before you can delight in the sound of his voice, the absence of which has motivated the whole film, the noise of production takes over on set. It’s not silent and sweet and fascinating; it’s not the triumphant apex Scorsese would have made it; it’s a throwaway line swallowed by noise, refreshing and ugly and disruptive.

To belabor this a little: you don’t see Valentin finally recognized and remembered for all he’s done. He isn’t resurrected in the minds of his audience, he isn’t adored for what he was. He doesn’t get to take a bow. There are no adoring crowds. “Perfect!” the director says as Georges and Peppy try to catch their breath. And the director asks for another take, and the start walking to their marks, and the camera pans out to show actors and crew and the whole mess of humans trying, over and over, to get “perfect” right, again.

That’s a poem to movies.

But they’re both poems, in their way, and they’re certainly both trying to do similar things with similar meta-narratives about film history. It’s worth trying to understand why one manages with grace and subtlety what the other achieves with bombast. The best way to understand the difference between the two, in my opinion, is to listen to and watch these two animations of Debussy. The first is the one I started with, Arabesque No. 1:

The first time I watched it I got just a whiff of what synesthesia might be like: the blue notes on top are the longer, more languid voices, and the animation reflects this, making them constrict and expand as if each was a tiny ephemeral musical heart.

I used to spend hours and hours rehearsing the various voices of a piece by drilling them separately, then trying to bring them together. This was essential for Bach, of course, but I tended to do it for other composers to. I can’t explain why it was hard to get a grip on—I imagine that for musicians more natural than I am it must come naturally. But for me there was a missing link.

I listened to recordings of artists I admired to see how they voiced the pieces, and it helped, but something just a little more tangible. I tried watching video of various performances, and that didn’t help either, particularly.

Watching this video was exactly what I’d been wishing for all along. It takes the concept of a score and makes it fluid. The colors separate the strands, the voices become clearer—you can see the blue notes linger, languidly. You can watch the runs run.

I was about to declare this amazing technology the miraculous solution for piano teachers trying to teach students like me, when I came across this animation of Claire de Lune, by the same creator:

Same composer, same animator, but the effect is drastically different. The Arabesque animation confirms and extends the languor of the piece; the notes appear and fade, some bigger than others, depending on the intensity of that particular musical line. The movement through the notes is liquid. Chord ideas carry over into each other, notes exist as suspensions and gentle flurries.

The Claire de Lune animation is made up of colored bars or blocks. The bars light up when it’s their turn to be played. It’s very clockworky. The blocks used in the animation tick and tock and sever and chop a piece known for its mellifluous unbrokenness and seas of fermatas. The notes that should linger on and blend are represented with right angles.

No temporality of Debussy’s has anything like a right angle.

I don’t know whether this is an earlier version of the same technology used to animate the Arabesque. I imagine it probably is, but I’m wary of reproducing, in musical animation form, Scorsese’s triumphalist book–>silent film–>3-D narrative. Knowing nothing about the production of either animation, all I can observe is that while both get the job done, and animate a score, one is so right, and lovely, and miraculous, while the other makes a production of showing all its work.

Conditioning, Or How Traveling London Leads One To Slather Mayonnaise in One’s Hair

Fresh off the plane from England, I went to the grocery store for the express purpose of buying conditioner.

I had left my half-empty bottle in Stratford-upon-Avon because I’d filled my suitcase to bursting and had two separate nightmares about hauling it up and down the Tube’s liftless stairways. (That the Tube had no lifts was not part of the nightmare; it was just, to borrow a phrase from the Royal Society, whose correspondence I’d been reading, a “matter of fact”.)

My friend and host Will walked in just as I was zipping up the last piece of luggage to ask whether the bottle he’d found in the bathroom was mine. I made a virtue of oblivion and said why yes, it was, but I’d decided, very sensibly, to leave it. “They have conditioner in the States,” I said, in that obnoxious way people do when they’re new to England and pretend that “the States” is how they regularly refer to home.

This was the bottle in question:

My fellow-traveller Irene had abandoned me the day before, just as I was now abandoning the bottle of conditioner. Of the two of us, the conditioner was better equipped to navigate the streets and undergrounds and overgrounds of London. As long as Irene had been with me, I would nod emphatically as she pointed out a route to me on the London A to Z. I hadn’t the heart to tell her that the series of looping pink and yellow lines punctuated by Underground logos was experientially identical to staring at a Jackson Pollock painting. If she really wanted me to understand, I would have to spend at least 45 minutes staring at the map trying to figure out how the damn thing worked. Some people learn to read maps as children and find that the skill transfers to other maps. For me, there’s no crossover between a world map and a road map. Every map is an completely alien syntax that I have to learn from scratch.

Having pulled up the tfl map, I refused Will’s kind invitation to go to the Shakespeare Institute’s library in order to stare for two hours at my computer screen, which showed me this:

What I see when I look at this is a bewildering intersection of colored lines with alternating grey and white patches whose thicknesses vary according to no discernible principle. Those areas marked with numbers–5,4,3–had something to do, I knew, with these “Zones” Irene kept talking about, but I had no grasp of what those zones referred to, or why they existed, or how many I needed to cross. They were the stuff of science fiction—a weird series of concentric amoeba or Russian dolls that we were somehow supposed to instinctively understand.

If the London A to Z was a Jackson Pollock Choose Your Adventure, the Tube Map reminded me of those movies where Harrison Ford has to stop a bomb from detonating, except that if someone said “cut the blue one” to him, there were at least four different wires they could mean. “Cerulean or sky-blue?” he’d snap. “Navy-teal,” Anne Heche would reply, sexually.

By the time Will got back, my screen was badly smudged from my efforts to follow the Piccadilly and Northern lines with my fingers.

But I managed, and determined that there were two different ways to get to the airport the following day. By “determined,” I mean that—unconvinced I’d gotten anything right—I ended up consulting Will and Google Maps for directions.

There seemed to be two routes that would work, once I managed to get myself out of Stratford-upon-Avon and to London. (This is as far as you get when you’re built like me—there seem to be two routes, true, but ultimately it’s a leap of faith.) One was taking the Tube, the other was taking the train.

Knowing I would forget them the minute I needed them, I wrote them down on some old train tickets.

I labeled the first leg of my journey A. Here is what the front of the ticket containing route A looked like, just so you can get a feel for the thing:

Then I labeled the two possible routes to the airport B:



People with an innate understanding of public transit and/or the vaguest sense of direction will fail to understand the anxiety that motivates a lost soul to write distances in minutes. (My directions to A were written in feet: “walk on Long Lane for 127 ft., then turn right.”) Tube natives don’t need to note that a line is (NW) or (SW) because they carry maps in their head and—this is the most important part—they’ve learned not to take cardinal directions so literally. They aren’t flummoxed by that fatal crossroads where the Tube splits, perversely identifying a line that is clearly traveling in a southwesterly direction as either Southbound or Westbound.  (Or, worse, when the same southbound line splits into TWO southbound lines, colored identically, but with different destinations—those are the moments that really confirmed me as a map-atheist.)

Anyway, I left my conditioner at Will’s and made it to the London Marylebone station, where I decided to scrap route B and just buy a train ticket to Heathrow because I couldn’t take the combined strain of another set of tube stairs and another set of tube transfers.

In the last three weeks, Irene and I had brought train tickets from the machines on no fewer than five separate occasions. I took one look at the machines and went straight to the information window, where I sweatily consulted one of the station attendants.

“You’re from San Francisco,” he said.

“How did you know that?” I asked, genuinely amazed. Was it my accent? My hair? My free-spirited West Coast je ne sais quoi?

“You said you wanted to take the BART to Heathrow,” he said, handing me my train ticket.

The next day I woke up at 6:15 a.m. with a sense of indefatigable will. I would make it to the airport! Only two sets of stairs on the BART! I had my train ticket in hand!

I navigated the underground with ease; at both transfer points, just as I was halfway up the stairs, rather proud of my progress, two different people took pity on me and carried my suitcase the rest of the way up. This proves it: anyone who says Londoners are cold and unhelpful is just insufficiently pathetic.

The next theater of battle was Paddington Station. Everywhere you look there are signs for the Heathrow Express. HEATHROW EXPRESS! say the arrows at all the coffee places. Heathrow Express: one every minute! says the screen directing you to various platforms.

I had rather cannily (I thought) avoided paying fifteen pounds for the Heathrow Express in favor of taking the Heathrow Connect, which takes fifteen minutes longer but is seven pounds cheaper.

The trouble was, I couldn’t find a single reference to the Heathrow Connect on any of the computer screens.

Once again I consulted a station agent, who pointed to the very last platform, all the way on the other end of the station, behind some construction work. “Platform 12,” he said. “It’s on the screen.”

Platform 12 had none of the accoutrements of the other platforms: no sign displaying when the next train would come, no people waiting for the same train. Just a number, 12, next to a deserted bit of track. I gnawed nervously at an apricot Danish.

Eventually two women joined me, and we watched from our dim distant corner as eighteen Heathrow Expresses came and went. One of the women, an American, had done this before, so the German woman and I followed her like baby ducklings to where she was waiting. It was only fifteen feet away from where we’d been standing, but it seemed infinitely more official.

The train finally pulled into the station. A tidal wave of people poured out, flooding the hitherto abandoned platform. My earlier smugness came back: clearly these were the natives, the travelers who knew what’s what and refused to pay a silly extra seven pounds for the privilege of fifteen minutes.

The German woman, the American and I got on the train and settled comfortably into our near-empty carriage. I put my train ticket on my right thigh so that it would be ready to hand the ticket inspector with a minimum of fuss. I felt composed, capable. I had even had the foresight to buy a cup of tea.

When the train inspector came, I watched the others digging in their bags for their tickets. When he got to me I calmly handed him my ticket.

“What is this?” he said.

I looked up.


“This,” he said, handing it back to me.

This is what I saw:

“Oh!” I said, and started to rummage desperately through my bag. The German and the American stared. The inspector stared.

I pulled out one train ticket after another. Plans A and C were in evidence, but there was no sign of the train ticket to Heathrow.

“There is a fine for not having a ticket,” the agent said.

“I have it! I bought it yesterday!” I rummaged frantically. I was trying hard not to remember that I had managed, in the last month, to disappear both my passport and my Oyster card.

He sighed. “I’ll come back.”

I found it, and arrived home, triumphant, and went, jet-lagged but happy to the grocery store, for the express purpose of buying more conditioner so I could wash the airplane out of my hair. This was worth it, I thought—I should always leave half-used toiletries behind. It’s silly to carry something so replaceable with you. Yes, it’s wasteful, but maybe this is what responsible travelers do: acknowledge the fact that waste is intrinsic to traveling, and prepare accordingly.

I realized, in the shower, after shampooing, that I’d forgotten to bring in my new conditioner with me. I called for my partner to bring me my conditioner.

“Where is it?” he asked.

“Right there,” I said, pointing to it on the bathroom sink. “Just hand it to me.”

“That’s not conditioner,” he said.

“Oh, yes it is,” I said, condescendingly. “The white bottle. The same conditioner I always get. I left the one I had in England.”

He handed it to me, the nice new bottle I had paid a little too much for.

I stared at the words “ultra-whipped egg white” and “shampoo,” unable to reconcile them. “But it’s exactly like my bottle of conditioner!” I said. “They probably make both,” my partner observed, sagely.

My hair was an intractable tangle in need of something to help me pull a comb through it. I thought of eggs, and of that girl from the Noxzema commercial who said in an early 90s issue of YM that she used some sort of condiment in her hair. “Bring me a knife!” I said.

He did. And that’s how, despite the best-laid plans, however many bottles you abandon and train tickets you deface to better navigate an unforgiving world, you will—if fate decrees it—end up unconditioned in the shower, with liters of shampoo and a greasy butterknife, slathering mayonnaise on your head.