Saturday, December 24, 2011

What Readers Can Learn from Woody Allen

I’ve always liked Woody Allen.  Not so much the slapstick stuff – I usually can’t get into slapstick – but the wit, the insights, the ease with which he demolishes long held beliefs which few dare question:  he’s willing to say that the emperor is naked....

And he is funny.  Very funny.  Even some of the slapstick films have flashes of this wit, of comedy that’s not physical, but verbal.  In SLEEPER, one of his more slapstick films, a man goes into the hospital for an easy surgery; something goes wrong, and his body is “frozen” until he can be cured.  When he awakens in the year 2173, he’s told to reflect on the miracle of science he's been privileged to experience.  But he is not appeased:  to him, a miracle of science would have been to leave the hospital after a few hours and not have gotten a parking ticket!

And no one who has listened to the discussion of the dietary value of eggs – sometimes good for you, sometimes not – can help but be both amused and satisfied to learn that 200 years from now, it becomes a “well known” fact that things like wheat germ and honey are bad for you, while “tobacco is one of the healthiest things there is.”  And deep fat.  And hot fudge….

Satisfying, too, is the way he creates wish-fulfilling experiences we can relate to, as in this memorable scene from ANNIE HALL featuring Marshal McLuen:

I also love  -- and envy! -- the way he can “define” complicated concepts in one short sentence.  In STARDUST MEMORIES, he tells us that he took a course in existential philosophy.  On his final exam he was asked 10 questions he couldn’t answer; so he left them all blank – and got a 100% !

In the same way, he can define a decade – the sixties – in a sentence, tracing a person’s trajectory from hippy-dom to a career in advertising or finance.  And in ANNIE HALL, we see him describe an upper west side New Yorker in one spot-on sentence:

With ANNIE HALL, Allen began his more “serious” period of film making:  that is, while many of these films are still very funny, there is much less physical comedy, and there’s an increasing effort to deal with more serious subjects:  the state of the universe; the difficulty of interpersonal relationships, of preparing for the future, of knowing what one wants; the struggle to understand the purpose of one’s life; and the moral imperatives that must guide one’s actions.

Nowhere is that better stated than in the film MANHATTAN, and in particular, in the scene in which Allen talks to his friend while standing next to a schoolroom skeleton. 

Woody Allen in a scene from MANHATTAN

Allen confronts a friend who betrayed him, and his friend tells him not to “turn this into one of your big moral issues…. I’m not a saint, OK?”
Allen:  “But you’re too easy on yourself!  Don’t you see that?  That’s your problem….you rationalize everything; you’re not honest with yourself.  You cheat a little [on your wife], you play around with the truth a little with me:  next thing you know you’re in front of a Senate Committee and you’re naming names, you’re informing on your friends.”

Friend:  “You’re so self-righteous!  We’re just people!  We’re just human beings.  You think you’re God!”

Allen:  “I gotta model myself after someone!  …what are future generations going to say about us?  It’s very important to have some kind of personal integrity.  I want to make sure that when I’m [dead] I’ll be well thought of.”
You watch a scene like this, you hear these words, and you can’t help but think that Woody Allen, the creator of them, has admirable moral standards; that he is someone worth emulating.

And then:  he has an affair with the daughter of Mia Farrow (his “significant other”).  He has an affair with a young girl whom he helped raise.... 

What?!?  Really?!?

PBS TV’s AMERICAN MASTERS series recently devoted two nights to Woody Allen.  Here, he’s shown as the creative genius that he is; as the highly prolific and imaginative filmmaker; and one of the very few filmmakers to have complete control of the content and production of his films;

Here, he is shown to be more egocentric than collaborative – he won’t discuss film roles with his film's actors because he doesn’t like talking to them! – and one who seems to realize a great deal of what he wants in his films during the editing process;

Here, Allen tells us that his film collaboration with Mia Farrow went well “until things suddenly started to fall apart in our relationship…." (Talk about understatement!)

Here, in the very few minutes devoted to the subject in a 4 and 1/2 hour documentary, we are told that Woody Allen’s work did not suffer as a result of the sensational trial and custody battle that ensued:  that [like any narcissist], "Woody was able to compartmentalize” the different parts of his life.  And to rationalize: rationalize and ignore any unpleasantness.  "What was the scandal?" he asks in one interview.

This is so contrary to the dialogue he wrote for MANHATTAN (and for so many of his other films) that it's no wonder that Allen says in this documentary that he didn’t like MANHATTAN and was sorry that it had been released…!

But if Allen understands neither his misconduct nor the "scandal" it caused, his biological son, Rowan Farrow, clearly does. This is what Rowan said of his estrangement from his father:
"He's my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression.  
I cannot see him. I cannot have a relationship with my father and be morally consistent... I lived with all these adopted children, so they are my family. To say Soon-Yi was not my sister is an insult to all adopted children.”
So:  What can readers learn from Woody Allen?  

Well, readers can learn that the writer is NOT the same as the tale he tells.  Or that he is ALL parts of the tale: the good, the bad; the moral and the immoral.  The reader can learn that, perhaps, studying the lives of writers and artists does not help in understanding the work; that the work must be examined on its own merits..

Woody Allen tried to tell us this himself in his film, SWEET AND LOWDOWN, which Netflix describes as a “fictional biopic about a jazz guitarist…that separates an obnoxious man from his heavenly musical ability.” 

You simply can’t interpret the art by using what you know of the life of the artist.

But on the other hand:

All those many, many films that feature betrayal and deception, like HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, in which Hannah’s sister has an affair with Hannah’s husband;

All those many, many films like CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, MANHATTAN, WHATEVER WORKS, which pair old men with young – sometimes very young – women;

And all those many, many films that display a dilution and finally an abandonment of the moral standards he’d originally expressed in dialogue like the one in MANHATTAN. 

In 1989's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, the “hero” has his young mistress killed; it’s a crime he unable to bring himself to do by himself, and it is a crime he gets away with.  But the immorality of his actions and the fact that he is not punished for them changes him:  his belief in God is shaken; his understanding of the meaning of life is lost; and he is distraught, worried, distant, and filled with guilt and despair.

By the time we get to 2005's MATCH POINT, the “hero” is not only perfectly capable of killing his mistress by himself, but thinks nothing of killing her innocent next door neighbor so that the killings will seem the result of random robberies.  And after a short bout of sleeplessness and worry that he'll be caught, he becomes perfectly happy to have gotten away with it; perfectly happy to enjoy the good life he gained through murder; perfectly happy to move ahead and not give his heinous actions a second thought.

Why hadn’t we noticed this tendency of Allen’s?  Perhaps because it did not neatly fit our image of him; perhaps because this is not funny stuff….and we expect funniness from this "master" of film.  And the documentarians excuse him by never giving any of this more than a passing glance – even expressing admiration of him for being able to “compartmentalize” so well….

It’s hard to know how and if a writer’s life informs his work; it’s hard to know whether or not we do a disservice to the work by delving into the life. 

So:  Do we really know anything much about William Shakespeare?  And does it matter?

What do you think?


Marash Girl said...

Food for thought, for sure. Is it important to know ANYTHING about the life of an author or creator? Is his work simply a reflection of his inner strife, his outer actions, his struggles with mortality or with the EVIL ONE?

Woody Allen performed at Boston University in a one-man show, stand-up comedy, long before life (his and ours) got complicated, way back in the early 1960's. I remember laughing non-stop. No torture then. Not sure if that was because of me or Woody...

P. J. Grath said...

Helen, you’ve given me so much to think about that my head is spinning. “Manhattan” has always been my favorite Woody Allen movie. It has such bittersweetness—like life! There is sadness but beauty, too, and contentment and small—yes, that’s it! When he is lying on the sofa enumerating the good things in life! Isn’t that just GREAT?

“Match Point” I hated, and I’ve seen it three times, and now that you put Allen’s lifetime oeuvre (so far) together like this, I do see something like what an earlier age called “The Rake’s Progress,” all going—I’m sorry to say—morally downhill.

Compartmentalizing different parts of his life is a gentle way to put it, but isn’t compartmentalizing also what allows the greatest crimes to be committed? I’ve tried not to think about or explore the personal, seamy side of Woody Allen’s life, because I don’t want to lose my great delight in “Manhattan,” in particular, but your bringing in his own son’s take on it makes a strong statement.

But can’t every human idea or tool be used for good or evil? Was Heidegger’s basic philosophy evil, or did he, later in life, use it in immoral ways to evade responsibility?

Anonymous said...

I watched the PBS times I really did think he was funny and quite a genius, for someone who was apparently to inherently shy...but in the end, the compartmentalized 'bit' left me thinking what I thought before I read your blog, or saw the show...he's more 'funny' as in peculiar than 'funny' as in amusing me. Great blog. :-)

Anonymous said...


I just want to thank you for your wonderful blog

I read the post "Public Libraries" and then I spent another hour on your blog by reading your posts with pleasure :) Every article is interesting and easy to read. I really like the "Guest Post: Reading "Rules"".

Thanks again for your nice blog. Write more! Thanks!

P. J. Grath said...

Helen, I was thinking again, not in connection with Woody Allen but for the umpteenth time in general, that not only does art imitate life--life imitates art, too. That's why it means a lot to me to see characters who struggle against their worst impulses rather than simply shrugging and saying, "Hey! That's who I am!" I don't mean to sound prissy and moralistic, and I'm not asking for nothing but saints and heroes. Okay, here's one I love: "Kiss of the Spider Woman." (Do I have that title right?) It's never too late for a human being, real or fictional, to--I don't even want to finish this sentence. Don't want to overwork the thought.... said...

I agree, Pamela: "characters who struggle against their worst impulses" often make the best characters in fiction. Thanks for this thought. said...

The point I was trying to make in this post was not so much about Woody Allen, but about the tendency of criticism in the arts to focus on the life of the artist. That is certainly a valid approach, but my question is whether it's the "right" approach, or whether it does more harm than good in the analysis of the work.

I loved MATCH POINT, Pamela. For me, with all of it's dubious morality, it makes the point that life is not fair.... (It was certainly not fair that the protagonist got away with murder and went on to live [what seems on the surface] a wonderful life!)

The writing is complex, the acting is wonderful, and it is visually interesting and varied. And it's "true:" Life is NOT fair -- but it's what we've got....

I think you're right, Marash Girl, in that we were all more "innocent" in the 60's, more hopeful and filled with belief that the world would get better and better. Perhaps Allen's film trajectory adequately reflects aging and more experienced views of the world, of life.

And finally: as in all "art," it is open to many possible interpretations, and we bring ourselves into those interpretations -- but more about that in a subsequent post!

Marash Girl said...

Or as my father would say, do as I say, not as I do! said...

EXACTLY, Marash girl!

Ester said said...

I have seen the program on PBS, and saw most of His films, I am amazed how you analized Woody and his films. I enjoyed your blog and your description him and the films.

Thank You.

Steven L. Johnson said...

Great essay--right on the mark. Frequently wish I knew less about my heroes. Also loved her post about the world's greatest libraries. We visited the spectacular philosophical and theological libraries in the Strahov monastery in Prague last summer. Wow--almost made me want to become a monk.

Freckles said...

Great post - lots of food for thought. My first reaction is this: actors, writers, musicians, sports figures, etc. are lauded for their talents and then burdened with their public's need to like them. Why? Why do I need to like Woody Allen and approve of his personal life choices in order to enjoy his films? ONLY because he has been successful. Because he is famous, I am exposed to "inside information" that would otherwise be none of my business. I may not like the information, but the facts themselves do not detract from his talent - just my ability to enjoy his talents. Then it's a matter of my own judgements. For me, Allen's"scandal" does muddy the waters of what used to be crystal clear enjoyment. It sneaks up on me and puts a damper on things. I have however, made a conscious decision to continue enjoying his films.

Mel Gibson, not so much.

That is my choice. I guess it says: I don't have to like you and all of your decisions but don't be a complete a**hole or I will make a conscious effort to boycott your career.

Do yourselves a favor and don't watch the Paul Simon Graceland documentary.

I'm glad Shakespeare didn't have to contend with tabloids and documentaries. He would have never made it. said...

That's exactly my point, Freckles. Literary Criticism often takes the author's life into account, and my question in this post is whether or not that's a valid approach to literary analysis. The case of Woody Allen indicates that the answer to this question is not so clear....