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Woody, Mia and the new age of digital kangaroo courts

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow in Allen’s 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters.

It's been an interesting, if not pivotal, season in the history of heckling.

On Jan. 13, Armond White, the former critic for The New York Press, was expelled from the New York Film Critics Circle for allegedly yelling obscenities at director Steve McQueen when he stepped to the awards podium Jan. 6 to accept an award for 12 Years a Slave. Although White has contested the allegations and claimed whatever remarks he made were sotto voce, many present at the event claim to have heard him call McQueen "an embarrassing doorman and garbageman," followed by a variety of obscenities. It was not the first report of public vocal belligerence on the part of White, who has a history of proud critical contrarianism.

Then, on Jan. 12, the evening of the Golden Globes ceremony, Mia Farrow hit Woody Allen. It wasn't physical, it didn't even occur in the same physical space, but it was a strike that landed with sufficient force to be instantly felt around the world, or at least that part of the world where tweets fly.

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As Diane Keaton, another former companion and collaborator of Allen's, accepted the Cecil D. DeMille lifetime achievement award on the 78-year-old writer-director's behalf, Farrow used her Twitter account (with some 400,000 followers and counting) to remind the world of the hottest tabloid scandal of the early 1990s, when she and Allen split over the revelation of a love affair with Farrow's then-teenage adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, and the even uglier accusation that Allen had sexually molested his seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan.

"Time to grab some ice cream and switch over to #Girls" Farrow tweeted as the Allen formalities began, followed by this from her son Ronan (whose own paternity as Allen's son has recently been compromised by his mother's suggestion to Vanity Fair magazine that Ronan's real father might be Frank Sinatra): "Missed the Woody Allen tribute – did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?" The next day, Farrow's Twitter feed dropped the previous evening's tone of glib dismissal: "A woman has publicly detailed Woody Allen's molestation of her at age 7. GoldenGlobe tribute showed contempt for her & all abuse survivors [sic]."

The issues raised by these two incidents of angry intervention at public events – both awards shows with a particular investment in movies – may be myriad and complex, but they do make one thing abundantly clear: In the age of social media, when anyone anywhere can say practically anything and be heard (if they're famous enough) everywhere, there is no escaping the wrath of the angry, the indignant or the wronged. Twitter splatters anyone, and no tuxedo can avoid the spray. Indeed, it's interesting to note that neither of the principal combatants in the sad and ugly affair – Farrow and Allen – were even at the awards, but thanks to social media, their battle trumped the actual event.

When compared to the Farrow-Allen incident, the Armond White expulsion from the NYFCC was a decidedly old-school, almost quaint occurrence: White actually expressed his objections (as rude and unreasonable as they might have been) in person, you actually had to be there in order to hear them, and the consequences of his behaviour had a literal physical consequence: His presence is not welcomed by the organization any more. He has lost his seat at the table.

But what if you don't need to show up to crash and burn the party? What if all you have to do is tweet from the comfort of your home to do an even worse kind of damage?

What if Armond White had simply tweeted his profane objections to Steve McQueen's award for 12 Years a Slave? I doubt he'd have been expelled from the Critics Circle. More likely the tweets would have generated an internal social-media tempest among the members and their followers, and that's probably as far as it would have gone.

Or imagine if Twitter had existed when the legendarily controversial Elia Kazan was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences back in 1999? Or when Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to the podium in his stead in 1973? These were events whose controversies were largely contained by their public rituals and the pre-Internet press that covered them. The fact is, this new medium, notwithstanding its 140 character limitation (or, considering the emphasis on bluntness that limitation commands, because of it), has delivered us to a new era in public social discourse.

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Where once one might reasonably have asked whether Woody Allen deserved the award – a profitably debatable question, and one that engages the perennially relevant discussion of whether and the artist and art can or ought to be distinguished – one now is more likely to wonder whether he deserved the Twitter treatment, or whether tweeting itself marks an odious devolutionary step in the public airing of gripes.

None of this is said in defence of Woody Allen, who, it must be remembered, was never brought to court on charges of child molestation, but whose work up until the scandal was conspicuously rife with references to older men having sexual relations with considerably younger women – think of Tony Roberts's crack about sex with 16-year-old twins in Annie Hall ("Imagine the mathematical possibilities!"), the Allen character Isaac's relationship with the 17-year-old played by Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, or the ugly separation played out by no less than Farrow and Allen themselves in Husbands and Wives, shot a year before the scandal broke, when she discovers his affair with a woman some 30 years his junior.

No, I do not question that Allen's work has displayed a rather consistent fascination with questionable, generationally staggered sexual relationships, nor do I question that that fascination has often expressed itself in unnervingly uncomplicated ways. (Ever wonder where the Hemingway character's parents were in Manhattan, especially after Woody's Isaac jokes about being older than her dad? Or why Allen's Alvy isn't horrified by Roberts's only incidentally mentioned carnal cavort with teenage twins?) What is under question here is the implication of this new form of digital kangaroo court, where an accuser can reach out and publicly slap someone silly from the comfort of their home, then go for ice cream, snuggle back on the couch and change the channel. Of all the creepy messages that circulated in this ugly affair, Farrow's final sign-off for the evening struck me as a leading competitor: "Nite all."

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