Libel, Satire, and Woody Allen

Libel is defined as a type of defamation that is written and published. It is a false attack on a person’s character which damages a person’s reputation, and it is punishable by law. By this definition, The Onion, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, and similar shows and publications should all have been buried in law suits long ago. So what exactly is going on here? Why haven’t these TV shows and publications been shut down by the cohorts of powerful people they regularly attack?

For the purpose of this blog post, I will discuss a delightfully clever Onion article published January 14, 2014 entitled “Boy, I’ve Really Put You In A Tough Spot, Haven’t I?”

A sharp-witted satire, this article examines the controversy around Woody Allen. At the beginning of this year, Allen was nominated for and won the lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. When word of Allen’s nomination came out, his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, spoke out against him. Farrow brought up old accusations against Allen, saying he molested her when she was seven-years-old. While Allen has been legally cleared of all charges, Farrow insists that the abuse happened. Her statement, which was published in the New York Times, caused quite a stir and suddenly Americans had to make up their minds. Could our beloved Woody Allen have done such a thing? And if so, what bearing–if any–does it have on his work as an artist? Can we love the films of a child molester?

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It is a delicate issue, one to approach with caution. News sources worked to report the story without assuming guilt; The Onion was under no such obligation. Similarly, other news sources dealt with sensitive ethical and philosophical issues about the value of an artistic work in relation to the artist’s personal life. The Onion did not. In short, The Onion does not operate under any sort of obligation to be politically correct.

While the rest of the world was treading lightly, The Onion published a satirical commentary in the voice of none other than Allen himself. The article addresses America’s struggle to reconcile these two conflicting Woody Allen personas: the Woody Allen who gave us Manhattan and the Woody Allen who (allegedly) molested a seven-year old. In one fell swoop, The Onion summarized the debate and tore it apart:

Oh, sure, you could try to defend me in an argument by saying, “Well, he was never convicted, and it’s possible that this little girl just made all that stuff up,” but, c’mon, anyone who says that is bound to sound like kind of an asshole, right? [...] No, obviously you can’t do that. But then again, what are you going to do? Never watch Annie Hall again? [...] You know you don’t want that.

We began by defining libel. This Onion article is certainly an example of written and published defamation of character. It is a very personal and very direct attack and there is no way to prove its validity. So, why isn’t Woody Allen suing? Because the article is satire, and there is not much anybody can do about anything said in the form of satire.

In 1988, the supreme court made a ruling in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell that essentially gave all satire a golden ticket. Basically, as long as it is clearly a satirical article, anything goes.

Satire has a long, rich history. For centuries, satire has been the security blanket of freethinkers everywhere. While there is certainly a time and a place for thorough, factual, and sensitive reporting, there is also a time for outrageous, offensive, and crude satire. In sixteenth century France, François Rabelais published harsh critiques of society and French government in the form of satire. His book, Pantagruel, which is crude and irreverent even by today’s standards, was banned shortly after its publication by the Sorbonne. Today, after more than 480 years, it is regarded as a literary work worthy of our consideration because of the unique insights it provides into the politics and religion of sixteenth century France.

There is something magical about satire. A portion of the official supreme court ruling for Hustler Magazine v. Falwell states, “Nothing is more thoroughly democratic than to have the high-and-mighty lampooned and spoofed.”

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I could not agree more thoroughly. The right of satirists everywhere to deal irreverently with delicate issues is essential to greatness. It essential to freedom of thought, ideas, and expression. Tina Fey was born to impersonate Sarah Palin. Matt Stone and Trey Parker had every right to come out with The Book of Mormon musical. Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert are not low culture. Rabelais’s Pantagruel is worthy of being read in French literature classes the world over.

To take away the opportunity to be crude and irreverent is to lose ourselves walking on egg shells. Satire stomps forward and holds a mirror to  society. It is almost never flattering, but it is almost always necessary.

Paris: Part One

For Christmas my mother surprised me by getting me a book I’d mentioned. It’s Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton. It’s one of these blogs that got reformatted into a book and published; the book has been wildly successful, and while I wish the author had pushed the boundaries a little more, I still connected with and enjoyed the book immensely. I think this is because the author and I both know what it is to love a city. The dedication reads,

“To the city of New York.

I had this crazy, juvenile idea that you were going to make all my dreams come true, and you did.”

Upon reading this, I cried. Not because I love New York, but because I love Paris. I cry a lot when it comes to Paris. I could try to explain––we could delve into the complexities of my love for the city and people I knew there. We could talk about the things Paris taught me that I could have never learned anywhere else. I could try to explain how I feel like Paris was this one bright moment in my life where everything seemed right. But I usually just shake it off, mumble something about my raging hormones and continue on with daily life.

I’m here today to fulfill an assignment, but more than that, I’m here to take you through Paris as I know and love it.

A Walk in the Park: Montparnasse, Jardin du Luxembourg

It was on an unseasonably warm day that Morgan and I took this walk. We were perhaps a bit sluggish getting going. I hate to admit this, but even when you live in Paris, it can be hard to work up the motivation to leave the house. Still, it was a nice day and we knew we would regret not taking advantage of it.

When we began our walk, our hearts were perhaps not all the way in it. The directions were poorly worded and confusing, but after a careful reading and rereading, we made it to one of the destinations on the map that greatly intrigued us. It was a little café called La Rotonde. I ordered a milkshake, Morgan had some tea, we took lots of photos, the waiter made fun of us, and everybody had a good time. Here are some of the photos that were produced that afternoon.

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After that, we made our way over to the Jardin du Luxembourg, which was already one of my favorite spots in Paris. I week or two before this walk, I spent an afternoon in good company at the Jardin du Luxembourg watching some friendly tennis matches. I decided that day that this garden was magical.

This day in the garden was no different. Morgan and I sat by the pétanque courts eating decadent chocolates we’d gotten at a place along the walk. Suddenly, a man started speaking to me in French, asking me if I knew the rules of pétanque. I didn’t, he explained them, and suddenly Morgan and I had made a friend. He wouldn’t let us take his picture and I don’t remember his name, but we wasted a whole afternoon with him and for that I am grateful.

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Morgan looking classy with her decadent chocolate.

Paris: Part Two

Playing Hookey in the Latin Quarter

The Latin Quarter is one of the best places in Paris for two reasons: street performers and cheap food. Morgan and I emerged from the metro onto Place St. Michel to find a man playing what I can only assume was some sort of flute. I can offer no explanation beyond that. He was dirty; his clothes looked like they’d been collected in some bizarre backwoods scavenger hunt. He was making beautiful music with his mouth and I found him weirdly irresistible. I didn’t take any pictures of him because I thought I would probably be obligated to give him some money if I did. I did however take this crappy picture of the fountain.

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Then we walked the streets of the Latin Quarter which were all at once bustling and picturesque.

ImageThere we saw the narrowest street in Paris and got artsy in a church.

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Rue du chat-qui-pêche. Or, street of the fishing cat.

Then Morgan did some window shopping and we hit the bouquinistes (the book stands along the Seine).

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“The Journal of an Unemployed Intellectual”

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We briefly admired all the love locks on the bridge and then kicked it on the Seine. It was a good day.

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Paris: Part Three

Montmartre Walk

Montmartre is home for me. Walking the streets of my old neighborhood, there would be times when you would look up and the buildings would part to reveal Sacré Coeur. On one of our first days in the city, Morgan and I walked there by ourselves without any directions. We simply continued walking uphill until we reached the top. It was a beautiful view of the city and a great day.

Weeks later we did the sanctioned walk–– the one that was mapped out for us to do. I was grateful we did because we saw many more things the second time, including some quaint little houses and Picasso’s house. We were with our NYU Paris friend, Maeve. Here are some photos from those days. P.S. Most of these photo creds go to Morgan, who forgot her own camera that day.

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Morgan and Maeve in front of Picasso’s place.

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St. Denis

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Street performer at the top of Montmartre. Dude had skillz.

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Paris: Part Four

Parisian Necropolis: Père Lachaise Cemetery

“I don’t ever think about death. It’s alright if you do, it’s fine.” – Glory and Gore by Lorde

I had that one line of that one song stuck in my head during this whole walk. This was one of my few Parisian expeditions I did alone, but that seemed appropriate; you don’t need a whole lot of company to explore a necropolis. Père Lachaise is the biggest cemetery in Paris, and it’s full of the rich and famous. I went on Halloween– the only really Halloweenish thing I did that day. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and even though I tried to deny it, I thought about death a lot.

Victor Noir. Rumor has it, rubbing a certain part of this statue brings fertility to women. For those of you wondering, yes. I did.

The Grave of Victor Noir. He was a journalist, but what’s he’s really famous for is the legend surrounding his grave. Supposedly rubbing his junk brings fertility to women. Yes, I did rub his junk.

Flowers at the Monument aux Morts.

Flowers at the Mounument aux Morts.

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Monument aux Morts, or Monument of the Dead.

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The grave of Heloise and Abelard. Worst love story ever.

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Jim Morrison’s grave.

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Oscar Wilde’s grave

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Paris: Part Five

Saint Ouen’s Labyrinth: World’s Largest Flea Market

I did not take any photos in Saint Ouen’s labyrinth for two reasons:

1. There are a lot of rare items and cranky shopkeepers.

2. I was on a date.

Technically, BYU has a policy that says students on a study abroad shouldn’t be dating. So, sue me. It’s really none of the university’s business who I go to the flea markets with.

My date, we’ll call him Michael, was tragically late. He texted me to let me know that in addition to getting a late start, he had been going the wrong direction on the metro for several stops. Generously, I said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I have the patience of Job. Not to be confused with Gob,” which you would get if you were an Arrested Development fan.

He replied and said, “Thanks, Hermano,” which you would also get if you were an Arrested Development fan. And just like that, he redeemed himself from being late. What can I say? I’m easy to please.

When Michael finally arrived, we had a Pride and Prejudice moment. You know, where you can see Mr. Darcy walking across the field for a solid three minutes. It was just like that, except less romantic, more awkward, and it ended in a hug we both weren’t all that sure about. Then it was off to the flea markets.

They were, in a word, incredible. Once we fought our way through the lesser shops with their aggressive owners, we were in flea shop oasis. Any hopes I had of buying my mom a souvenir here were quickly dashed, as most everything was upwards of 300 euros. Still, Michael and I had fun spending the morning looking at all the curious objects there. We even found a sort of device designed to pick up a sugar cube, so that one need not deign use their fingers for such a thing.

Soon our morning turned into a Parisian flea market version of the Ikea scene in 500 Days of Summer. We considered all sorts of art and furniture for our imaginary home. Michael asked the shopkeepers thoughtful questions in his impeccable French. I became a connoisseur of chandeliers. We ran into Michael’s old boss three times, and I accidentally led Michael into a shop full of antique porn which ended in a lot of loud, embarrassed apologies coming from me. Michael told me about the time he accidentally threw a huge house party and got the cops called on him. I wondered if he would ever hold my hand, but it was only our second date.

The rest of our day consisted of a lot of good food and good-natured debates. We saw Diana and taste tested macarons. I came down with an eye infection and we had ramen for dinner. Fourteen hours after our Pride and Prejudice moment Michael took me home, and I didn’t have a single photo to show for it.

Paris: Part Six

The Anti-Walk: A Midnight in Paris Adventure

I, like everyone else in the world, love Midnight in Paris. If you haven’t ever seen it, you should make that a priority. And if you haven’t already been to Paris, you should do that too. These two things are priorities in life. Trust me.

In the movie, Owen Wilson takes himself for a long walk in the streets of Paris and ends up sitting on the steps of a church. Somewhere in the distance, a clock strikes midnight and Owen Wilson is swept in an old car and into the 1920s.

It turns out the steps in that movie are at St. Etienne du Mont, which is right behind the Pantheon and not far from the Seine. One day, Morgan and I set out to find them and recreate the scene as best we could. It was a walk to remember.

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