(ALLEN V. FARROW premieres on HBO Nordic 22.2.)
Since publication, this review has noticably picked up steam online. As with any case as mired in controversy and heated opinion, I’ve received already a number of messages about it. So a reiteration, right up front, is in order. I make no claims to the innocence or guilt of Allen and it’s not my place to do so. I also steadfastly condemn anyone blaming, attacking, or victim shaming Dylan, Ronan, Soon-Yi, or Moses Farrow. My interest lies only in the analysis of how their story is told. If you’re here for confimation bias, I won’t be the one to give it.
There is no benefit in talking about Woody Allen or Mia Farrow. It’s a minefield where the conversation soured years ago, and there is no gain in defending or deriding either one.
Only some facts remain undisputed and deserve repeating. In 1993, during an acrimonious split brought on by Allen’s affair with Soon-Yi Previn, Mia and Dylan Farrow accused Allen of sexual assault against seven-year-old Dylan. During the hearing and next year and a half, the accusations received incredible scrutiny from both the media and government agencies. Two teams, one from Yale-New Haven Hospital and one from New York Social Services, concluded that no assault took place. Yale-New Haven went as far as claiming that Dylan’s story and troubled behavior suggested coaching.
The court, citing Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi, granted custody to Mia Farrow, and the story faded from memory.
In 2014, as Allen received a lifetime achievement award for his work in film, Mia, Dylan, and Ronan Farrow re-appeared in the public eye with a first-person account from Dylan about how Allen “got away” with his crime. At the cusp of the #MeToo movement, it reignited interest in a whole new way to the story. In 2016, Ronan filed his article in support of Dylan.
When discussing HBO’s series ALLEN V. FARROW, it’s important to emphasize that it doesn’t matter if you think Allen is guilty or not. Nor does it matter do you like either one of them. What matters is that words and images mean things, and ALLEN V. FARROW trades exclusively in manipulation.
It rightly expects that any rational, empathetic person will recoil at the thought of a child suffering at the hands of an abuser. So it leans into an emotional plea built on purposefully selected images, edited video clips, and supposition with little basis on anything resembling honesty.
Some filmmakers like Werner Herzog built their careers on subjective and often embellished narratives. But as with filmmaking, a documentary builds on not just what you include but what you leave out. And what ALLEN V FARROW leaves out is every single dissenting voice, opinion, and fact.
A cynical person would also point out that Ronan just signed an exclusive three-year deal with HBO, and Dylan has a fantasy book coming out, both news released in conjunction with the series announcement.
THE KULESHOV EFFECT
ALLEN V. FARROW is a series of talking heads and animated images. It strives for validity through minimalism but comes off clumsy and slight instead. At four hours in length, it’s hilariously too long, and the limited amount of interview subjects stands out before the first episode ends.
The series knows this and attempts to hide the lack of material behind storytelling that relies heavily on emotional manipulation. Most notably, the Kuleshov Effect.
The Kuleshov Effect is an editing technique discovered and demonstrated by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov in the 1910s. In short, it’s a mental phenomenon where viewers draw meaning and personal interpretation of two sequential images.
The most famous example of this is the shot of an expressionless man filmed in isolation. On its own, the image is nondescript. But shown in conjunction with pictures of soup, death, or the opposite gender, it gave audiences the feeling the man in question displayed either hunger, sorrow, and desire.
Storytelling has come a long way from then, but the foundations remain the same. In the opening credits, ALLEN V. FARROW projects images of Allen’s face looming over a children’s bedroom inside a playhouse. As the camera glides over other rooms, we see Mia in angelic light cradling her pregnant stomach in a nursery and, finally, Allen and Soon-Yi Previn together in a bedroom.
All the images are from entirely separate instances, most edited in drastic ways. But shown in conjunction, they paint a powerful picture the subconscious connects with darker undertones.
A modern example of this is in FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, where a character stares at a painting, with The Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” playing in the background.
The series employs a handful of critics and commentators to voice their couch psychology opinion on Allen based on his films. They insinuate that Allen has consciously built his persona to cultivate trust and sympathy throughout half a century in film. This, naturally, is so he can get away with being a serial child abuser.
It doesn’t matter that Allen’s neurotic on-screen antics are the source of endless parodies, mockery, and belittlement and have never had the impact the series now attempts to rewrite into history. Nor the fact that Allen hasn’t before or since been accused of anything.
“You get the feeling that Allen is using these films to get us acclimated to the idea of these relationships, this power dynamic – you could say he’s grooming us,” critic Alissa Wilkinson says. How she draws this conclusion without training and from the four films picked as examples (in a career of over 50) is beyond me.
The series draws parallels between Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, and Roman Polanski. The insinuation is that Allen is part of yet another power cabal keeping him away from justice.
At this point, Mia Farrow is notably absent, possibly as she is one of the most staunch defenders of Polanski.
None of these people are psychologists or trained experts in any field relating to it. But their opinion comes presented with weight and importance. It sounds reasonable, and the person telling it is wearing smart clothes and appear amiable. You’re barraged with information that superficially feels right but is as worthwhile as gossip around the dinner table.
Dr. John Leventhal, head of the Yale-New Haven Child Abuse Program and one of the foremost experts in evaluating child abuse, isn’t in the series, which is weird, as he’s not exactly hard to find. Similarly, Dr. Susan Coates, who treated Dylan in her youth, is also notably absent. She also testified against Mia Farrow.
More overt are the illustrations of Allen’s old notes and unmade works. Not once does the series show the real material, but instead uses animated text, complete with a typewriter clicking in the background, to suppose what Allen meant when writing. “She had good legs,” a snippet begins, only to quickly delete itself and rewrite: “great legs.”
It doesn’t matter what the final product is because the connection is made. Allen is a screenwriter, and the format looks right. The typewriter sound makes for a good distraction. It’s an old relic from another time, much like Allen. All of it sounds probable, right? He wrote something like this. He could have meant something else entirely.
There’s little care as to how true any of this is. It doesn’t matter if it ever happened, just as long as it invokes an emotional response.
Similarly, in instances where people speak of personal assumptions, private fears, or even entirely disconnected situations, the filmmakers post pictures of Allen from birthday parties on screen. Suddenly, an image of a man captured mid-turn or sentence starts looking sinister.
If that sounds familiar, it’s the same kind of fear-mongering made famous by Nancy Grace.
Only the Farrow’s take part in the documentary. The other children of Mia’s clan, those who’ve spoken out publicly against their mother, are absent. Most notable of these is Moses Farrow, who was fifteen during the time of the accusations and is a vocal opponent of Farrow’s narrative. His memory of their childhood is drastically different.
The series paints Moses as hysteric, devastated, and inconsolable by grief that never went away. His picture appears often, but it’s one from his youth, not of his teens as he was in 1993. Using his younger image serves only to undermine him and his testimony, effectively silencing one victim to empower the other.
Not content with just attacking Allen, the series lashes out at his now-wife, Soon-Yi, as well.
Once Farrow’s adopted daughter, in 2018, Soon-Yi spoke at length about life with Mia. In an interview, she speaks candidly about the abuse, both emotional and physical, at the hands of her mother. Soon-Yi is not interviewed in the documentary, though Mia paints a vivid picture of a dumb, ungrateful, and innocent child accosted by Allen.
In one instance, the series accuses Allen of grooming Soon-Yi by offering her a part in his films. A clip plays and helpfully zooms heavily into the background, where an unrecognizable Soon-Yi sits as a background extra with a group of friends at a mall.
The moment passes too fast register, only for Soon-Yi’s face to linger in slow-motion, leaving a feeling like we’ve witnessed something momentous.
The smear campaign against Soon-Yi is surprising only in how total it is. Mia and her friends all guess, pontificate, and insinuate what Soon-Yi felt, did, or knew. The somber music plays. Allen appears, and the mood turns sinister.
Meanwhile, Ronan and Mia describe their former family in the worst ways possible. They are unreliable, the Farrows claim, and the series helps this image to thrive.
Allen does not take part in the series. He’s only heard through select snippets of his biography’s audiobook, which, while removed from context, do him no favors. When he’s on-screen, it’s through incidental photographs and edited home videos, most accompanied by ominous synth music intended to make the viewer feel at unease.
The filmmakers slow down home videos to imply malevolence, while low-frequency sound effects increase tension. It cannot be overstated how disingenuous this kind of manipulation is, especially under a documentary’s guise.
Because in the end, there are real victims to this tragedy that has continued for thirty years. They are all the Farrow children. Even if the assault never happened, Dylan still believes it decades later. And every year, it’s dredged up again for cheap sensationalism. Keeping Dylan the victim.
ALLEN V. FARROW is just another pack of vultures in a long line of them feeding off the misery of others. It offers no insight, no revelations, no healing. Instead, it chews on cheap emotion and scandal to make a mark. I can’t recommend it to anyone.