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?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Public Libraries

There seems to be so much interest in terms of books as “objects” that one can practically have a blog devoted to that subject alone!  I have received heaps of email on the subject.  (Strictly speaking, email doesn’t really come in “heaps” – but it really felt like it!)  It’s quite an interesting subject, to be sure, and I will revisit it from time to time.

My blog post, What Makes a Good Personal Library, prompted a wide range of opinions, from “how fabulous to have a personal library,” to “how pretentious,” to “save trees by reading eBooks,” and everything you can imagine in between.

But there’s something about walking into a room full of books – whether it’s a library or a bookstore or a friend’s living room – that feels wonderful:  the scent; the muffled silence (as many sounds are absorbed into the walls of books); the colors and patterns of the book-filled shelves; the enticing anticipation created by all those beckoning spines….

While some libraries fill you with a sense of ease and comfort when you walk into them, others fill you with wonder – and awe. 

Public libraries are a luxury that all of us can enjoy.  In New England, every tiny village was built around its own library.  One might think that this creates an unnecessary redundancy, but local libraries can give you a very homey, welcoming feeling; it’s a place where you see familiar faces and know exactly where to look for the books you want.  It can be so welcoming a place that you are drawn to visit it more often than you might a larger and less intimate one.

But there are other libraries that offer a completely different experience.  When you step inside one of those, you often find that you need to pause for a moment, look around, survey the scene, and drink in the room’s  “landscape” before you venture further inside.

I recently stumbled upon a website which featured “The 35 Most Amazing Libraries in the World,” and the libraries are – amazing!  Each of the 35 libraries is photographed and described so as to explain why they were chosen.  It’s an informative list, and although I’ll be posting some photos here, I urge you to visit the site and look at them all.

I have been fortunate enough to have been in some of these libraries – Trinity College Library in Dublin, the Bodleian in Oxford, the British Museum Reading Room in London, the Vatican Library, the New York Public Library, Yale’s Beinecke Library, the Boston Public Library, the Morgan Library in New York, the Peabody Library in Baltimore, Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire, the Library of Congress – and I can say that every time, my experiences exceeded my expectations. 

No matter how august the setting, how precious the books, how steeped with history the building, you can always find a friendly-faced librarian who is eager to show you around, to share the library’s treasures with you.  (And what treasures there are!)  Book lovers seem to love book lovers, wherever they appear. 

In a few of these libraries, I was given special, behind-the-scenes tours, and while that was, indeed, exciting, it’s the reading rooms – the rooms everyone has access to! – that gave me the most pleasure.  You can view and even touch unimaginable treasures in these repositories of civilization and history; you can do research; you can even read!  (I have to admit, though, that just looking and wandering around is what I most enjoy.)

When in such libraries, I feel much as my children did when they looked at our [temporarily owned] copies of the 2nd and 4th Shakespeare Folios; I feel the magic, the wonder, the awe.  I tread softly and touch slowly, carefully.  And I feel lucky.

Here are photos of some of the libraries featured on that website which I found particularly interesting.

The Stockholm Public Library was built in 1928, and I’m surprised at how modern it looks.  I love the way the visitor is surrounded by books, and that the books on the balconies are also open to view and are accessed by an open staircase.  Such balconies remind me of one of my “dream” libraries:  the one belonging to Henry Higgins in MY FAIR LADY!

Stockholm Public Library

Jose Vaconcelos Library

How’s the Jose Vaconcelos Library in Mexico City for modern?  While this  architecture can be considered impressive, I prefer the books to take center stage rather than the architecture.  Here the books don't beckon to me adequately, but perhaps it feels different when you're actually inside the building.

 The Library of Alexandria, Egypt, is another modern space.  If you’re wondering where the books are, at the moment there are only 500,000 books in a space that is meant to hold over 8,000,000!  
Library of Alexandria

It is hoped that this library will recreate the library that was known as the “greatest library in antiquity” before it was destroyed.

Phillips Exeter Library

Famed architect Louis Kahn designed the modern Phillips Exeter Academy Library.  The building won many architectural awards, and it was even used as a  commemorative postage stamp!  While this photograph emphasizes the architecture and looks rather cold, this is one of the libraries I visited, so I can tell you that it doesn’t feel that way when you’re inside.  There are many intimate spaces in which  small groups can gather, the collection is notable, and the books are very accessible.  

When I worked as a reference librarian and book purchaser for the  Howard County Library in Maryland, we got all of our inter-library loans from the George Peabody Library in Baltimore.  Howard County is midway between Baltimore and Washington D.C., and Columbia, a modern, “planned” city – the first of its kind in the U.S. – was built there.  With all the competitive people working in that cosmopolitan government and business corridor, it's easy to forget that Maryland is a Southern state and fought for the Confederacy during 
The Peabody Library
the Civil War; but when you step into the Peabody, you're quickly reminded:  those ornate iron railings on the balconies almost shout "New Orleans and the South!  It's a wonderful library.

The Trinity College Library Long Room has become something of a tourist attraction.  Those roped-off bays are a bit off-putting, but if you really want to do research, you can arrange an appointment and work there.  I love libraries that have such open “bays.”

The Long Room at Trinity College Library
The Morgan Library

The Morgan Library is also a museum, and the book shelves are gated so that you can’t really get at them but can only look at them as a kind of permanent exhibit. But the rooms are magnificent and the exhibits are always worth seeing.  Here, too, you can ask for permission to actually use the books.

The Chateau de Chantilly Library: what can I possibly say other than "WOW!"

Abbey Library of Saint Gall

I’ve never been to the Abbey Library of Saint Gall, but one 
of my favorite books is the exquisite 3 volume monograph of 
THE PLAN OF ST GALL published by the University of 
California Press in1979.  The original plan was drawn on vellum between the years 820 and 830 CE - and survived!  Astonishing that the public is welcome to use this library!

The New York Public Library

Sometimes I feel as though I spent a third of my life at the New York Public Library.  I lived and went to school in New York, and this was my library of choice.  It was a great and inspiring place to study - and a wonderful place to meet people, too!

The Boston Public Library was the first public library in the U.S. and is my current library of choice.  You can see from this photo what I mean when I say that some libraries are hushed, dreamy, and magical….

Boston Public Library
Beinecke Library
In addition to being beautiful and having an amazing collection of rare books and manuscripts, Yale’s Beinecke Library is also extremely high-tech. That central air-tight column of glass which houses and preserves the most rare of the books is a modern marvel; it’s even been featured in novels and film as the place where the good-guy gets locked into and must find his way out before he stops breathing – or where the bad guy finally stops breathing!

Reading Room at the British Museum
The relatively new Reading Room at the British Museum does not have the charm of its predecessor, but it has an impressive collection of books; and I love that such a wonderful museum has a library as its centerpiece.


For me, Oxford University’s Bodleian Library is the very definition of what a library should be.  One of the oldest libraries in Europe, it has everything:  impressive history, important works, and great beauty – inside and out.  It consists of several buildings, with the Radcliffe Camera Science Library the most beautiful among them.  I love this building so much that I actually bought a paper construction kit of it and made myself a small replica that now sits on my desk.  I love to look at it.

Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian Library

The Library of Congress really does have everything:  it is the largest library in the world, “as measured by shelf space and number of volumes.”  And just think:  it belongs to us!  

Library of Congress

Wouldn’t it be great to travel to all the great public libraries in the world?  And in each of those libraries, you’d probably find a fellow book-lover eager to show you around….

But in the meantime: visit, support and enjoy your local libraries!