Saturday, August 8, 2009

How Much Is Woody Allen's Good Name Worth? American Apparel Replies, "What Good Name?"

"What is this," Woody Allen asks in Love and Death after receiving a couple of hard pats to the cheek, "Slap Boris Day?" Almost 35 years since writing that deathless scene, Allen may be feeling a little slap-happy himself. As we reported here a year ago, Allen is suing American Apparel for having used his likeness in its advertising without his permission. The case is only now coming to a boil, and in court papers filed yesterday, representatives for Allen complained that American Apparel has “adopted a ‘scorched earth’ approach”, threatening to drag his name through the mud, bringing up details of the disastrous, tabloid-friendly end of this relationship with Mia Farrow back in 1992. At worst, the company is clearly intent on doing its best to reward Allen for dragging them into court by making his left absolutely miserable. (Little do they know: he seems to kind of like it that way.) At, well, other worst, their official position appears to be that Allen is such an unredeemed slimeball that he has no rights at all, either as a human being or a marketable image. "“Certainly," says American Apparel lawyer Stuart Slotnick, "our belief is that after the various sex scandals that Woody Allen has been associated with, corporate America’s desire to have Woody Allen endorse their product is not what he may believe it is.”

Nasty comments about Woody the person are nothing new; once upon a time, Woody himself made his living as a chief dispenser of them. (Did you hear about the time he beat up the toaster?) But harsh judgements of the artist, though not unheard of, have a weird tendency to build to a sort of crescendo, then to fall away when he has an acclaimed international success big enough to count as a "comeback" (such as 2005's Match Point), only to rise up again, fiercer and more unforgiving than ever. A couple of weeks ago, in the course of lamenting the difficulty that Abel Ferrara's Chelsea on the Rocks has had finding a distributor, Danny Leigh in the Guardian really stuck the knife in: "[Ferrara] and we are left with the exact inverse of the fate of that other New York institution, Woody Allen: a veteran director making films that deserve to be seen, but which no matter how good simply can't get into cinemas." No offense to Ferrara, who is one of our favorite New York street crazies with a camera, but if Vincent Canby were to rise from the dead, the discovery that anyone in the English-speaking world could get away with suggesting that anything his beloved Woody made might have less reason to be shown than anything from the director of New Rose Hotel would only kill him all over again, just so he could spin in his grave. (Vincent Canby is dead, isn't he? I'm trying to cut back on the number of times a day that I have to go running to Wikipedia.)

Another Guardian writer, Andrew Pulver, ain't having it. Pulver writes that "what really makes me sad is that it's now so easy, and so acceptable, to give Allen a hard time. His faltering output in recent years has coincided with a general perception that he's foolish (at best) and a sleazebag (at worst). Of course we can advance arguments that an artist's life shouldn't be confused with their work, but Allen didn't help himself by regularly casting himself opposite nubile young actresses. (Thank God he seems to have packed that in.) He seemed wilfully to want to confuse the two himself; just like, in his 'early, funny' period, he used to get tetchy at people who seemed to think the nebbishy little characters he played on screen could be anything at all like the real Woody Allen. (How could anyone have got that idea?) I prefer to remember the glory days."

It is an honorable sentiment, and it perhaps speak well to the dense variety of Allen's output in the last forty years that we will be able to spend forever arguing about which days those were. (Pulver thinks that Allen's hot streak fell between 1979's Manhattan and Husbands and Wives, his last film with Farrow, which was released into the teeth of the media flare-up over their domestic messiness.) "Now, as the likes of Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood (his direct peers) have put their rowdy youth and questionable escapades behind them, and are relaxing into elder-statesmanship, Allen is heading the other way" in terms of his reputation and public image. That may be a bit much. (And it definitely fails to acknowledge that so many people felt betrayed, and therefore comfortable to judge Allen's morality, back in 1992 because he fell from such a high place in terms of personal reputation: however he compares to Scorsese or Eastwood as a filmmaker, he was, at his peak, an intellectual culture hero of a kind that they never were.) Ultimately, Allen's reputation, like that of every prolific major filmmaker, shifts a little with every new movie he turns out. Which way will it shift after his new Larry David picture sees the light of day? We've got our fingers and toes crossed.

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