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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Euthanize Your Idols (Complete)

 Two things about this: It's depressing to write, and it was inspired by this article. Oh, and a third thing: abuse of any kind is awful, and we are all horrible in our toleration of it. And we all tolerate it in ways we don't understand--in our shopping, our entertainment, our scholarship, our conversations. We should not be too easy on ourselves. We should not settle for--and not serve up--small portions of humanity.


The thirty thousand square foot Parisian home sits atop a hill and peers down, like Vanna White's ex-husband's ghost, upon a landscape of chaos and failure. Its new inhabitant has added some personal touches, but the house is silent, organized, and exactly three stories with the promise of a cupola when necessary.

I meet Woody Allen on the second floor, having been given a tour of the first by a funny personal assistant who kept making Dostoevsky jokes.

"We're currently in France," I said after a particularly tart Notes from the Underground riff.

"I am within the Allies," was the response. Fair enough.

On the second floor, Allen approaches me. He is a small man, bent to be smaller, and wearing a simple ensemble: sport coat, fisherman's cap, plaid shirt, a tie, large-cord corduroys, argyle socks, a standard breathing facilitator, four vein tenders (his one luxury), and blue Keds. For a man of 236, he looks healthy, if a bit tired.

For a moment we just stand. I'm told that one must let Allen speak first. When conducting interviews, it is customary to be polite to the subject and make sure the subject is comfortable. So I wait. The personal assistant smiles at me, bows to a corner of the room where no one is standing, and exits the room.

Allen and I are alone. Staring. Waiting.

The room is elaborately austere. Parisian sun spills in at a deceptive angle, resulting in a pool of sunlight that glances off the wood floor and bounces off the skylight, which lingers above us like a cat with narcolepsy. There are rubber plants denied a chance to bounce, and real plants so confused by the room that they have turned their leaves toward the bright white walls. A television hovers above a peach couch with a Fatty Arbuckle film playing less-than-silently.

"I, you know, didn't expect you. Didn't expect you so early. I was." Allen gestures to his breathing facilitator. "I was snorkeling earlier."

It is his first joke. The rubber plants shake a bit, and I know this will be an easy interview.

This was not an easy interview. When it was first assigned to me, I attempted to get out of it. After all, I remember what the 1990s were like. Sexual crimes were popular then. There were only two sexes. "I'm nearly 300 years old," I explained to my editor, who reminded me he was pushing 500 and that his prostate was now a corsage on his shoulder.

"Marc. I know this is tough. But it's an interview, it's rare, and it's on. You're going. You've always wanted to go to France, right?"

"But he... did things I don't want to discuss. With him. And if I'm asking him questions, I'll have to ask. And I don't want to ask."

"So talk about his house. I just need three columns and a picture."

So I'm talking about his house. It is three levels. It is in Paris. I have not yet seen Soon Yi, or their children, or their famous 32 tiny horses that roam the premises. There are a few Oscars on a mantle, several thousand film posters on the walls, and a very disconnected elderly man pointing at rubber plants.

"So. Mr. Allen." I smile. "Can we sit down? Is it okay if I sit down?"

Mr. Allen, as you would expect--as you've seen him do since his 2123 blockbuster 'Bullets Over My Attic Couch'--gestures to the one open window. "Have a, you know. Tsch. Have a seat."

Confidently, I move to the open ledge of the window, and the air pushes into my back like a hundred hands, holding me aloft, scented with the scent of a thousand Frenchmen. I sit on the narrow threshold of window/not-window, and ask my first question.

"It's been nearly 200 years since the Dylan allegations. How do you think it has affected your work?"

Allen moves to the couch, bumping his head on the television floating above it. His contact with the TV immediately shuts off the Arbuckle film. The television floats above him like a blank abyss.

"It's. Tsch. You know, I haven't thought about those things in centuries." One of the four vein tenders digs deep, turns bright red, and is expelled. He replaces it with a flourish worthy of Alvy Singer. "To this day, I'm not sure what to think. It's like death, and my, you know, my fear of death. Who knew you could not die? That was a century and a half ago."

Allen goes silent. His assistant, sensing a lull, enters the room, gives us water, and leaves.

"The water is good." I say this honestly. I say this gratefully.

"It's a luxury. I know." Allen seems almost embarrassed. "We ship it in off-planet. Don't worry. It is filtered. We filter it first."

"So you once did a movie where your love interest was 17 years old. I believe you were 40 at the time."

"Yes. And she was in such small portions."

"I'll just ask. It's been 200 years."

"Small portions... I meant my vein tender. Tsch. Give me a second."

As he changes his tender, I take a moment to review my notes, which are mostly blank. My butt hurts--a window frame is less comfortable than it appears.  Also a lot more narrow. Small portions.

"Changed." Allen  leans towards me. "So you were asking."

"Yes. You're a child molester, right?"


A century ago, I heard a story on the long-running radio program (remember radio?), "This American Life." It was a simple story of a man undergoing a two-week fast--not because of political reasons, but to shift himself into a higher consciousness. Or something. It has been well over 100 years since I heard the story and despite the memory upgrade, the details of the story are lost on me.

"Fasting," then--in the early years of the new millennium--meant a removal of food from oneself. It was believed that to fast was to become pure either in ideology or in body, and is not unlike vein tenders, but without the technology and scientific approval. Anyway, the man doing the fasting was named David Rakoff, and at one point--this I vividly recall--he is sitting at a desk, contemplating a banana, and discussing the presence of the banana with the host of 'This American Life,' who happens to be Ira Glass, current narrator of so many of our lives. Then, Glass was a simple radio host; now, he speaks to all of us, letting us know what our minds are thinking and what our eyes are seeing.

These were the days when an interior monologue was boring. Now, thanks to Ira Glass, all of us have self-contained, fully-produced interior monologues, and our lives have certainly been made all the richer.

Rakoff contemplates the banana, compares it to Chekhov's famed gun on the mantle. "If there is a banana on your desk in the first act," he says, "you must eat it by the third act." Then he mentions a little-remembered Woody Allen movie from the late 20th century called "Manhattan."

"All this fasting reminds me of the woman in that movie who says, 'I've finally had an orgasm but my analyst tells me it was the wrong kind.' I just feel like how come all the other kids are getting enlightened and I'm not."

Sitting in the window of Allen's Parisian home with the wafting breeze pressing against my back, this is how I feel. I have asked the question I came here to ask, of course, but there's a history behind that question stretching back to my proto-youth, when I was having my first 20th birthday and hearing about the scandal. Allen's last film with Mia Farrow was to be released soon, and tabloids--newspapers filled with exclamation points, if you recall--were stuffed with stories about Woody Allen. It was the most people had paid attention to him, and they were not discussing his films but his sex life and his relationships. And all I could think, then, was that someone in charge of marketing the film had a terrible lapse in judgement in how to promote the film.

My question lingers a bit, like the floating television with the former Fatty Arbuckle silent film suddenly removed from its screen. Allen, sitting neatly on the peach couch with his hands on either side, touching but not gripping the couch cushions, and his breathing facilitator slightly slumped out of his nose, stares me down. Gently. It is a gentle stare.

"The, you know, the interesting thing is that I've, tsch, I've been answering that question for decades and no answer. Like, it's. No answer I give is what, tsch, is what keeps the question from coming up again." Allen leans forward and takes a glass of off-planet filtered water from the table before him. Sips. As he drinks, his assistant comes in and speaks.

"You have a five o'clock meeting at four o'clock, Mr. Konigsberg," he says.

Allen raises a hand. "It's okay. We can--we can reschedule to three o'clock."

I can't help but think this is code for something--some mysterious communication between a loyal employee and employer. It is currently 12:20. The assistant disappears again, leaving me alone with my thought of Allen.

"But the question is there because you haven't done much to satisfy the answer."

"Wh-what is the answer?"

Good question.

Some time ago, there was a man named Bill Cosby. Obscure, yes, but you may recall his hectic sweaters and desperate expressions. Once he stood atop the world like Ozymandias or Donald Trump the Fifth, a man of infinite benevolence pointing the world toward a kinder, smarter place. His death in 2025, however, went unnoticed except by the most quiet of news journals. His death was a footnote rather than a period at the end of a sentence.

"The answer, Mr. Allen, is that I don't know what to think. But I keep thinking of Fatty Arbuckle and I keep thinking of Bill Cosby. And then there is you."

Wind again. It occurs to me that if someone opens up another window, the wind will shift direction and push against my chest, and I may let the wind carry me out of the window.

"I've said all I, you-you know. It's. I have said everything."

"You've said your work is not autobiographical."

"True. Yes. No. It isn't autobiographical."

"But you once cast your lovers in your films. Louise Lasser. Diane Keaton. Mia Farrow. And a lot of your films have bits of echoes from your life. 'Stardust Memories' is quite literally about how you transitioned from light funny comedies to more serious films."

"I'm not --tsch, not an intellectual. I'm not, tsch, you know, I-I-I just make movies. If you see connections it, tsch, it's like in Dickens when Scrooge sees Marley's ghost. He says--and I'm paraphrasing by delivering the direct quote, 'You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.  There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are'. Whoever I am, I'm not the person on the screen."

"Did you just echo, literally, my 'bit' comment? You're suggesting your experiences and your views of life don't inform who you are as an artist."

"Craft. It's a craft, not an art."

Another vein tender falls from his flesh. He plucks it from his neck and inserts another one.


When first given this assignment, this interview, I had been on a long fast. Like David Rakoff, I'd starved myself for years of Woody Allen's works, hoping to reach a fictional Nirvana of acceptance and peace. Also like Rakoff, I'd said to myself, "How come all the other kids are enlightened and I'm not."

I'm nearly 100 years into my second life cycle. Every few months, I go in for vein calibration and artery maintenance; my skin has been rejuvenated many times, and my memory has been upgraded enough to recall the smallest detail. Except I don't recall anymore what I saw in Woody Allen. I no longer remember why he was important to me.

True, I once had a dog named after a dog in one of his films. And I lived, for a time, in a city he romanticized. (Not that one. And no, not that one either. The other one, which sank in 2089.) But why I once loved his films and short stories and stand-up routines, I can't remember.

"I need three columns," my editor told me upon assigning me the interview. So these are those three columns. This is the last one.

There's an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of them says, "Boy, I wish I could remember why I liked reading Nancy Drew." And the other one says, "It is a mystery."

Allen and I talk for a while. The hour grows late, and the light grows dim. The sirens outside signal the end of Safe Egress, so I know it is time to leave. He stands, as do I.

"One more question." I say this as I take one more glance around the room, which has shifted into a night sanctuary for Mr. Allen. The rubber plants have gone away. The real plants have turned away from the walls to peer inward, toward the couch. The couch, oddly, has become a bed.

"Okay." Allen pauses mid-gesture, his hand extended for a final handshake. His hand remains in mid-air, extended but not touching.

"So. Your films were--and are--all about relationships and connection, and you did--and still do--write for women in a way that's rare for men. You have empathy in your work. So why, then, do you seem so indifferent in your life? When your daughter wrote about her experience, why were you so dismissive? If it had been a plot-line in one of your films--"

"It wasn't a film. Movies are where you get to be god. I write and direct because I don't believe in God. If I were God in my life, I'd be a better person."

"But, don't you see? You're letting yourself off the hook." The assistant appears again, holding a hat and coat I hadn't given him. "You can't be moral in your work if you're not moral in your life. I mean, you can be moral in your work, but you have to at least admit your immorality in your life. You rationalize everything. You write about how awful it is for a man to cheat on his wife, or beat his wife, then you have an affair with your long-time girlfriend's adoptive daughter."

"The heart wants what it wants." He adjusts his glasses. The breathing facilitator falls from his nose.

"The heart may, but the brain is in charge."

"I'm not God."

This is why it's best to have dead idols. They can't continue justifying themselves.

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