THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
The Unchanging Face of Woody Allen
It was once unkindly said of Antonio Vivaldi that he did not actually compose 500 concertos, but wrote the same concerto 500 times. This observation comes to mind after seeing Woody Allen's latest movie, "Midnight in Paris", which, for all its charm and cleverness, is so much like his previous movies that we cannot shake off the feeling that we have already seen it. In a sense, of course, we have. Allen's 40-plus movies to date are best understood as a protracted theme and variations, like a situation comedy presented in annual installments, in which the same characters are rearranged in a new setting where they explore the very same themes that have obsessed the author/director for decades. That a sufficiently numerous cohort of fans continues to go to Allen's movies faithfully is testament to his ability to amuse and entertain, but that this group of followers continues to comprise primarily New Yorkers and select city dwellers elsewhere in the country is a sad commentary on the narrowness of his appeal and the static nature of his vision.
After the early farces of the late 1960s and early 1970s (including "Take the Money and Run", "Bananas" and "Sleeper"), in which Allen seemed content to write very, very funny send-ups of society and popular culture, his work suddenly coalesced into a more mature and fully realized form in "Annie Hall" (1977). Many of his fans feel that it is his best work. In many ways, this superlative comedy about an on-again, off-again relationship between two thoroughly incompatible neurotics, shows Allen at his very best: funny, touching, thoughtful, wistful, urbane. But virtually every movie he has made since has been, in some way, a variation on this one early success, with every protagonist a close relation to Alvy Singer, the movies' central character. The leads of his movies have been played mostly by Allen himself, though a series of younger actors have assumed these roles in recent years. (They utter the same lines that he used to write for himself, sometimes with eery effect.) In every movie, the "hero" has some combination of an unvarying selection of Alvy Singer's qualities: surpassingly neurotic, self-absorbed, filled with sexual anxiety, hypochondriacal, simultaneously self-deprecating and self-righteous, and thoroughly confused about his own identity. Jokes about sexuality, death, psychoanalysis, philistinism and anti-Semitism infuse almost every script (except the deliberately un-comedic ones). One of Allen's singular achievements, when he is at his best, is rendering this morose figure an object of both ridicule and sympathy.
The protagonist's inability to sustain a relationship with a woman, and the infidelities, break-ups and reunions that ensue, most frequently drive the story. Another constant theme is the main character's frustration with a lack of success in his chosen field. As in his most recent release, in which the hero (Owen Wilson) is an aspiring novelist who is transported in time to the Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, he is most often depicted as a struggling writer, filmmaker or other would-be creative artist. Very often he is portrayed as a hapless victim of other people's manipulations, someone who falls unwillingly into plots of someone else's invention (for example, "Broadway Danny Rose", 1984, or "Manhattan Murder Mystery", 1993), as though he had no will of his own with which to resist. The stock characters that surround him are foils for all of his weaknesses and pet peeves: the overbearing know-it-all (originating with the pompous professor on line at the movies in "Annie Hall", and played most recently by Michael Sheen in "Midnight in Paris"), the successful person of little talent (think of the obnoxious television producer played by Alan Alda in "Crimes and Misdemeanors", 1989), but most of all the female romantic lead, who is usually as insecure and misguided as the protagonist himself.
Allen's on-screen heroines have paralleled the relationships in his real life: first Louise Lasser in a few of the early romps, but mostly Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. Like the male leads played by Allen, it is difficult to find much difference among the characters these actresses played in his various movies, as they (unsurprisingly) reflect his vision of them. His screenplays have come perilously close to his actual experience, which became painfully obvious during his break-up with Farrow over Allen's romantic involvement with one of her adopted children, and the subsequent public struggle for custody of the son they had together and two other adopted children, involving sordid allegations of abuse. (Children are conspicuously absent from his movies until after the birth of his son, lending even more credence to the theory that his entire oeuvre is one long meditation on his own anxieties.) In "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986), one of Allen's most beautifully crafted and touching movies, Farrow plays a woman whose husband (Michael Caine) has an illicit affair with her sister (Barbara Hershey). Farrow is portrayed so unflatteringly, as a control freak whose spouse and siblings suffocate under her overbearing judgments — as Allen must clearly have seen her in their life together — that it is hard to imagine how she could have read the script and still agreed to make the picture. While the film is a wonderful, unsentimental exploration of relationships, and one of the few occasions in all of these many attempts when Allen managed to fashion something original from his familiar mold, it is also too close to reality for comfort. Ironically, that may be what gives it more of a creative edge than most of his other work.
Occasionally, in his incessant rearrangement of familiar plots and characters, he shifts the role of the insecure seeker onto the female lead. Judy Davis, in "Husbands and Wives" (1992), plays a woman who is, astonishingly, as neurotic and lost as the men usually played by Allen. In "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008), Scarlett Johansson portrays the character who is uncomfortably pulled into a situation of others' making and cannot come to terms with who she is, why she is there, or where she is going. The other very obvious shifts in the balance of relationships reflect other changes in his life, notably the Allen alter ego (and others) engaging in frequent marital infidelities, and increasingly pursuing much younger women. These preoccupations begin early with "Manhattan" (1979) and are repeated in any number of later movies, including "Husbands and Wives", "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors". It is difficult to think of many couples in his movies who are not clearly tired of one another, cheating on each other, and/or on the verge of breaking up.
When he is confident of his comic footing and not taking himself too seriously, he has created a number of memorable movies, albeit always close to the "Annie Hall" framework of theme and character. Along with "Hannah and Her Sisters", "Radio Days" (1987) and "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994) stand out among those that combine Allen's sharp satirical wit with a humane concern for his characters. However, when he decides to take on weighty subjects directly without the countervailing force of comedy, the results are disastrous. In "Interiors" (1978) and "September" (1987), he revealed himself as a sufferer of a syndrome that afflicts certain creative people, who inexplicably feel like failures because they haven't created anything that is, in their view, "real" art (an affliction shared by many of his on-screen characters). Perhaps the most famous exemplar of this phenomenon is Leonard Bernstein, who, not content to have composed some of the most glorious music ever written for the stage, felt compelled to write symphonies and other "classical" works in order to be considered a "serious" composer. Though evidently a reader of literature and an admirer of great writers, Allen seems not to have noticed that even the most serious fiction usually contains elements of wit, if not outright humor. His unconcealed and bloodless imitations of Ingmar Bergman are utterly devoid of humor, a fatal flaw in a writer for whom discovering the absurdity of life is his greatest strength. An even deeper flaw is the cast of characters, the sort of emotionally distant WASPs who are ruthlessly caricatured in his other films. It is hard to feel empathy for characters when you are constantly imagining the funny lines with which Allen would skewer them in one of his comedies. Once, he attempted to pay homage to Bergman in a comedy ("A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy", 1982), with predictably unsuccessful results. Sexual immaturity and aimless philosophy are not exactly a good match with Bergman's dark but humane vision of life.
Some of Allen's deviations have been more successful, though usually because they remain within the orbit of his standard set of obsessions. Perhaps the most unusual is "Zelig" (1983), a mock documentary on the shallowness of our celebrity culture. (It was an obvious precursor of "Forrest Gump", which turned Allen's withering satire into sentimental pablum.) It is a very funny riff on the oft-quoted line frequently attributed to him, that half of life is just showing up. But even here, Allen's central themes protrude. In "Zelig", Allen's insecure, self-effacing everyman is taken to such an extreme that he loses his identity completely.
Allen's obsession with death, which in his early years was the source of hilarity, devolved into absurdity in some of the later movies in which he attempts, poorly, to study criminality and murder. (This time it is Dostoevsky who serves as Allen's literary model.) This led him, once again, to remake basically the same movie several times, starting with "Crimes and Misdemeanors", in which he veers awkwardly and unconvincingly between drama and comedy, then later in "Match Point" (2005) and "Cassandra's Dream" (2007). In all of these movies, he portrays individuals who have never shown any previous inclination to hurt anyone but who somehow come to consider murder as a solution to their problems. He seems disinclined to depict outright depravity, choosing instead to dwell upon moral confusion. Only when he treats this material as comedy, as in the riotous "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), does he strike the right balance. His style is completely unsuitable for profound internal anguish. Only when the killers are shown to have no moral ambiguity whatsoever, while artists steal one another's ideas and spouses without compunction, is he in his element.
In a college journalism class in New York in the late 1970s, I was given an assignment to write an obituary of Woody Allen. (Each student was given a different famous person to write about, some living, some dead.) Even in that early stage of his career, he was an enormously popular figure. But, strange to say, my recollection of him then is little different from my impression now. This brings to mind an unpleasant comment aimed at another composer, Mozart, about whom the pianist Glenn Gould said that his tragedy was not that he died so young, but that he lived so long. That Allen has seldom equalled the achievement of "Annie Hall" in any of the roughly 35 movies he has written and directed in the intervening years is both his tragedy and our loss. His career seems like a severe case of arrested development. The unvarying black and white opening credits, the jazz theme music (sometimes the very same music in different movies), the elegiac images of the urban landscape (originally New York, more lately London and Paris), and his revisiting the same ideas over and over, only confirms the conclusion that he hasn't grown much in the last 40 years, either as a man or as an artist. His self-indulgence has hardly abated, his moral confusion has found little clarity, and the relationships he portrays are still built upon flimsy foundations. Like a petulant schoolboy, he continues to harbor resentment over the success of lesser artists (as if he had labored all this time in obscurity). Some of the lines that Michael Sheen is given to speak in "Midnight in Paris", as the insufferable intellectual bore, make the experienced viewer wince, not because they are not funny or well-delivered, but because they could have been uttered by dozens of similar Allen characters over the decades.
For someone who has never seen one of Woody Allen's movies, most would undoubtedly comes across as highly polished and sophisticated entertainments. Allen has always had a penchant for the hottest stars of the day, which usually adds a superficial appeal to his films. But for those of us who have seen almost all of his movies, in the vain hope of a breakthrough, the absence of genuine character development or new thematic interest after all this time is profoundly disappointing. Whatever innovations there have been — like the characters on a movie screen mingling with the audience ("The Purple Rose of Cairo", 1985), a Greek chorus commenting on the action ("Mighty Aphrodite", 1986), people dancing on the air along the Seine ("Everyone Says I Love You," 1996) or tragic and comic versions of the same story ("Melinda and Melinda", 2004) — are strictly in aspects of stagecraft. Allen can still make a very good movie, and when he hits his stride he can still be remarkably funny. But one thing he has not shown in a desperately long time is originality. If this were really a comedy series, it would have been cancelled long ago.
June 12, 2011
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