is not hard to understand the appeal of Woody Allen's work to millions
of filmgoers. One has only to consider the competition. In a Hollywood
cinematic universe populated (from Clint Eastwood to Eddie Murphy) with
foul-mouthed macho men, where female characters are seldom more than physical
adornments and bed-mates for the men in their lives, Allen's films give
us a decidedly flattering picture of ourselves. His men are almost always
high-minded, good-mannered, well-groomed, and well-meaning (if usually
a bit klutzy), his women not only articulate but frequently downright
intellectual. It is obvious why anyone who isn't a member of the National
Rifle Association would rather imagine himself a character in one of Allen's
films than one in the other sort of movie.
In comparison with the gratuitous
violence, vulgarity, sexual innuendo, and general offensiveness in the
run of the mill Hollywood picture, "written and directed by Woody
Allen" is as reassuring as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,
as dependable a sign of high morality and clean language as the old Walt
Disney logo used to be or the Stephen Spielberg production credit still
is. When one adds in the fact that Allen wraps his projects in sumptuous
musical soundtracks, photographs them elegantly, and works into his characters'
dialogue high-toned allusions to masterworks of art, architecture, music,
film, and literature, it is not hard to see why going to an Allen movie
feels positively good for your cultural health. It's as emotionally uplifting
as a visit to an art museum–the next best thing to enrolling in a semester
of Contemporary Civilization 101–even as Allen's ubiquitous one-liners
make his films twice as much fun as a night course at the local community
college. Allen is a one-man Chautauqua; a Lyceum lecturer for the Eighties–and,
all the better, one with a terrific sense of humor.
The appeal obviously goes beyond
Allen's cultural grandiosities, however. While Hollywood creates dreamscapes
populated by mad slashers, gangsters, extra-terrestrials, and KGB agents,
Allen's films depict the unglamorous realities of ordinary people's ordinary
lives (if to live on the Upper East Side, weekend in the Hamptons, and
summer in Vermont can be called ordinary). They lay out the facts of life
for plain vanilla men and women living in the final decades of the twentieth-century:
the ritual humiliations of the contemporary dating game; the lies about
ourselves we tell others and sometimes fool ourselves with; our emotional
and physical infidelities to our true loves; our cycles of joy and pain.
It is indisputable that we
desperately need more filmmakers who chart this territory–more filmmakers
who make movies about adults for adults . I take for granted that–in
between the lines of his comedy, as it were–Woody Allen is one of the
most serious and high-minded filmmakers now working in America. If sincerity
and good intentions were the ultimate measure of the value of a work of
art, he would be one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. Yet, unfortunately,
good intentions are not enough. I would argue that Allen's films are disturbing
in ways that perhaps he is not fully aware of, notwithstanding all of
their undeniably high moral purposes. Those troubling aspects of Allen's
work are what I want to focus on in the following pages–not out of ingratitude
for what Allen uniquely gives us, but out of an awareness that even the
most sincere gift may sometimes subtly betray the intention of the giver.
The first tell-tale sign of
something potentially awry in Allen's cinematic universe is the extraordinarily
privileged condition of almost all of his characters. There is nothing
inherently wrong with living on the Upper East Side, of course, but it
is evidence of what might be called the imaginative embourgeoisement
of experience in Allen's work. (And I would emphasize that it is the
imaginative, and not the economic condition of his characters with which
I am concerned.) There is a nougaty softness at the center of the so-called
realities in Allen's films; even as they seem to want to be given credit
for being in touch with the nitty-gritty of life in the eighties, Allen's
"realities" seem strangely de-realized–subtly tamed and made
safe for the imagination.
Perhaps the easiest way to
see this is in terms of the Manhattan setting of many of his movies. Allen
is often praised for filming on location in the recognizably real world
of contemporary New York yet his Manhattan is as much a fantasy island
as any studio back lot ever was. It is hardly surprising that the Mayor's
Council on the Arts pitches in so enthusiastically to assist Allen's film
projects. His films depict a New York of the tourist brochures only. As
Ed Koch undoubtedly realizes, one Allen movie is worth a couple tons of
picture postcards–for everyone who makes the mistake of confusing postcard
shots with reality. His New York is the city of art courses and architectural
appreciation tours (both actual tours like the one on which David the
architect takes Holly and April in Hannah and Her Sisters, and
cinematic tours like those on which most of Allen's movies take a viewer).
It is comprised of beautiful bridges, wonderful museums, spectacular fireworks
displays, great restaurants, quaint bookstores, romantic cafÈs, penthouse
apartments, and grand historical associations.
What is left completely out
of Allen's account, of course, is the city authentic New Yorkers know.
His New York is denuded of almost all disturbing social, economic, and
political realities: no shopping bag ladies, no Donald Trumps, no AIDS,
no political corruption, no garbage, no noise pollution, and no blacks
or Puerto Ricans who are not polite waiters or cheerful doormen. Even
in a matter as trivial as pest control, it is significant that, in Annie
Hall, when Alvy (Woody) is called over to Annie's (Diane Keaton's)
apartment it is a spider and not a cockroach that she asks him to rid
her bathroom of. They might as well be in Kansas. Humankind–and Allen's
comic premises–cannot take too much reality, and an infestation of roaches
is a reality clearly outside the city limits of Allen's Manhattan of the
In summary, Allen's is a city
of the imagination in a double sense. Not only is it a place that exists
only in the imagination of the filmmaker and the susceptible viewer; but,
more importantly, it is a place that implicitly elevates the energies
of the individual imagination above all other forces. Allen's removal
of sociological and economic realities is a removal of anything that would
bring the power of the individual imagination into question. That is the
deeper import of the "art appreciation" aspect of the films.
To present New York as a collection of museums, art objects, and architectural
monuments (gift wrapped for the masses in the arty musical soundtracks
of the films) represents a privileging of personal imaginative energies
(those of the artist creating the work as well as those of the viewers
who contemplate it and the characters who appear in it) over recalcitrant
bureaucratic, political, or economic limitations on expression. Artistic
texts (both those within the films and the texts of the films themselves)
are cut free from potentially repressive contexts. What Allen's cultural
Cook's Tour induces us to forget is that even the buildings and paintings
that he wants us to admire are not imaginatively free-standing, but are
the products of an environment that everywhere mediates (and therefore
repressively shapes and limits) their individual expressions. The short-hand
names we give to those repressive mediations are politics, economics,
It is not only contemporary
New York that is made fairy tale-like in Allen's films. The Purple
Rose of Cairo attempts to contrast events in the "fantasy"
life of the main character, Cecilia (Mia Farrow), with those in her "real"
life; but the film breaks down when it becomes hard to tell one realm
from the other. Cecilia's "fantasy" life consists of trips to
the movie theater, while her "real" life is invoked by situating
her in a working-class neighborhood in the depths of the Depression. The
contrast would work if it weren't for the fact that, since the depressed
neighborhood has no dirt, garbage, or suffering, and not a single sign
of actual poverty, hunger, or deprivation, it is impossible to distinguish
where Cecilia's fantasy ends and Allen's begins. (One doesn't want to
be too hard on Allen, of course. If his Manhattan corresponds with some
reality outside of the movies about as much as Minnelli's Saint Louis
corresponds to the actual city of the same name, it argues that movies
derealized with a vengeance long before Allen came along. It does, however,
remind us that the audience appeal of a movie like Manhattan may
have more in common with one like Meet Me In St. Louis than is
On the other hand, I don't
mean to imply that an artist or his works must be held to a naturalistic
or realistic social agenda. There are many windows in the house of fiction,
in Henry James's metaphor, and admittedly naturalism and realism represent
quite narrow and stunted views of life's possibilities. James himself
showed how one could make great art out of entirely uptown settings and
characters. The absence of poor people or greedy venture capitalists in
Allen's work is only disturbing insofar as it is evidence of a more general
avoidance of imaginatively threatening depictions and scenes. The immaculateness
of the New York City streets in his films is only really troubling because
it is the sign of a larger hygienic project–one that extends beyond the
cleanliness of the sets to the squeaky-cleanness of the events, plots,
In this sense, the very qualities
that make Allen's main characters and scenes attractive to a middle-class
audience weary of the antics of Schwarzenegger or Stallone are what one
finds potentially most disturbing about them. Their charm, mildness, civility,
and geniality almost disarm criticism–one feels like a curmudgeon objecting
to such pointedly "nice" and well-meaning characters–but their
relentless gentleness, decency, and kindness is finally what prompts one's
most serious reservations about them. Sweetness, sincerity, politeness,
and good faith underpin everyone and everything, as surely as they do
in a Walt Disney or Alan Alda movie. A little like the figures of Wayne
Wang, James Ivory, or John Sayles, Allen's characters seem just too humane,
too decent, too reasonable to speak to our deepest confusions and fears.
One has to ask whether Allen's conception of experience is true to the
upheavals and conflicts of our psychological lives.
Oh, there are plenty of references
to confusion and threat in Allen's work; but the telling fact is that
Allen presents characters who are never too confused to be almost immediately
understood by an audience, and situations never so threatening that they
make an audience squirm. In this regard (though only in this regard),
perhaps Rambo and the Terminator are closer to telling the truth about
the craziness, the incoherence, the wild passionateness of our imaginative
lives than Allen's articulate, concerned, mild-mannered intellectuals
Consider Holly (Diane Weist)
and her so-called "drug problem" in Hannah and Her Sisters.
There we seem to see Allen grappling with "reality." Holly's
problem is mentioned in practically every scene in which she appears–yet
significantly it is never allowed to become really threatening or dangerous.
Her muddlement, her pleas for money, her dependence on others are almost
endearing, never truly exasperating. They are never allowed to become
horrid or frightening, or allowed seriously to complicate our feelings
about her. The only time we actually see Holly taking drugs is one evening
when she is out on a comical date with Mickey (Woody Allen), a date in
which she and he are hilariously mismatched in every respect, on a night
on which everything that can go wrong does. The comedy, funny as it may
be, is only one more way that Allen encourages his audience to avoid coming
to grips with Holly's problem. Insofar as Holly's drug taking is confined
to this nutty scene, Allen is insulating his film and his audience from
having to deal with real difficulties or pains. What could have been threatening
is transformed into mere zaniness.
Indeed, it is only because
Holly's problem is so softly and evasively presented in Hannah and
Her Sisters, that it can be made to disappear altogether in the final
scenes without a jarring effect. In the fairy-tale fantasy of fulfillment
that ends the film, not only is her drug dependence magically wished away,
but both she and Mickey are suddenly cured of their neuroses and married
off one with another in the most blatant of "they lived happily ever
after" endings. (In the final piling up of wishes granted, Allen
adds one more to the heap: Holly's pregnancy with their first child tells
us that even Mickey's earlier impotence has been magically cured.)
It might seem that these criticisms
apply only to the serious Allen films, but the humor in the funny movies
represents a comparable act of avoidance on Allen's part. Comedy is a
recurring problem in all of Allen's films–not the mere presence of comedy,
but the systematic way it is employed to minimize emotional threats to
his characters and his audiences. Every time a scene starts to get truly
interesting or complex, Allen is just too good at turning it into a joke
to allow himself or his viewers to explore it, to learn anything from
it. Comedy is not used to complicate our responses or to enlarge our perspective
on an event, but to soften our view of it, to protect Allen's characters
(and scenes) from becoming truly disturbing. Comedy is the wound through
which serious meaning bleeds out of Allen's work.
Consider another drug scene–the
brief cocaine scene involving Alvy, Annie, and two friends in Annie
Hall. It does a two-step that scene after scene in Allen's work performs:
token seriousness is proffered for a moment, only to be comically dismissed
just when things threaten to get really interesting. The scene begins
with a man and a woman trying to introduce Annie and Alvy to cocaine,
but whatever interest accumulates is both literally and metaphorically
"blown off" a few minutes later. Just as Annie is showing a
degree of interest in taking the drug, and a viewer is starting to feel
afraid that perhaps the film will take an unexpected turn toward even
momentarily embracing the drug culture, Alvy sneezes and blows the powder
all over the room. End of scene. End of all references to cocaine. Just
when we are starting to get seriously uncomfortable (and I mean that as
the highest praise), Allen's comedy short-circuits the emotional charge,
grounding it out, and we settle back comfortably in our seats. Again and
again in Allen's work, physical comedy, disarming one-liners, dodges into
mere silliness defuse the emotional time-bombs that actually tick for
a few seconds.
One wonders why Allen brings
drug use into these films at all. It is as if he wants credit for being
socially engaged and grappling with certain emotional complexities, even
as he also wants to be able glibly to resolve them and wish them away
whenever he chooses to. Potentially profound emotional and behavioral
disturbances are repeatedly mentioned and glanced at, only to be swept
under the rug with some wonderful comic fillip, witty reply or slapstick
event. His cuteness is his undoing.
I suspect Allen himself senses
this problem in his work, which is why he is so obviously dissatisfied
with being known merely as a comic filmmaker. But the problem is not comedy
itself, but the particular function of comedy in Allen's work. Comedy
is not necessarily a lesser form of expression than unremittingly "serious"
drama. In fact, comic expression is potentially the more complex and interesting
expressive achievement insofar as it encourages a multiplicity of perspectives,
a suspension of limiting judgments, and a provisional release from moral
and social categories of understanding that can be profoundly liberating
in a work. That is why the greatest dramatists–Chekhov or Shakespeare,
for example, in their most movingly tragic works, Uncle Vanya or
Antony and Cleopatra, for instance–seem to be functioning in an
essentially comic vein. But in those cases, one is talking about comedy
at its subtlest and most capacious, comedy at its best and finest: the
comedy of Barbara Loden, Elaine May, Paul Morrissey, or John Cassavetes.
I am, of course, taking for
granted that one doesn't really want to defend mere comedic cuteness,
silliness, and goofiness as ends in themselves. I only mention it because
there is a sizable group of American critics (such as those who praise
the work of John Waters, Susan Seidelman, David Lynch, Jonathan Demme,
or the Coen brothers)–who apparently ask nothing more of a film than
that a viewer be able to "kick back" and "enjoy'' it. With
their relish for genre picture trash and camp farces, Pauline Kael and
Vincent Canby are only the two best known such critics. I imagine that
they would tell me that I should simply "lighten up" and laugh
at Allen's scenes. But one feels sure that Allen himself would not have
so little respect for what cost him so much labor to produce. That argument
puts his work back on a level with the Beverly Hills Cop movies
to which it is clearly meant to be an alternative. In its refusal to treat
anything as being of more than so-called "entertainment" value,
the "lighten up" argument is the most cynical and dilettantish
one imaginable. Allen deserves better than such defenders. Whether one
of Allen's scenes succeeds or fails, one gives it credit as an attempt
at being more than merely "entertaining" or "funny"
in the Eddie Murphy way (if that's funny at all). For all of Allen's Marx
Brothers slumming, he is at least attempting to do something more interesting
and complex than the Marx Brothers farces did.
Yet the problem is obviously
larger than comedy. Or, to put it more precisely, the way Allen uses comedy
in his funny films parallels the way he uses drama in his serious ones.
Whether he is functioning in his comic or his dramatic mode, Allen relentlessly
schematizes and simplifies. He reduces potentially complex scenes and
behavior to forms palatable to his audience. He takes the danger, the
threat, out of figures and events–even while seeming to want to be given
credit for such qualities.
Consider the argument between
the old married couple, Norma (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Evan (Lloyd Nolan),
in Hannah and Her Sisters. Norma has been on a drinking binge and
has been flirting with a younger man at lunch. For a few minutes, as their
daughter Hannah (Mia Farrow) looks on, Norma and Evan verbally abuse each
other, dredge up horrid accusations of past sins and infidelities, and
generally indicate all of the dissatisfactions in their marriage that
we are meant to feel that they have kept successfully suppressed up to
this point in the film. There is a scene quite similar to this one in
each of Allen's serious films. It is a scene in which hypocrisies are
exposed, dirty laundry is aired, secrets characters keep from themselves
and each other are suddenly revealed, and the characters are radically
"deepened." But notwithstanding all of the raised voices and
agitated gestures, real danger is seldom present. (This is not to say
that reviewers don't know how they are expected to respond to Big Dramatic
Moments. This scene in Hannah and Her Sisters, to cite only one
example, was singled out for praise by almost every reviewer. The trouble
is that a reviewer is not supposed to take an artist at his intention,
but to judge whether he or she succeeded in realizing it.)
In the scene between Norma
and Evan, consider how Allen has worked to contain the threat by trivializing
the grounds of the argument: a sixty-year-old woman's tippling and flirting
with a young man constitutes a pretty trivial "crisis" for a
pair of old-marrieds, and one more silly than sad. A view of Norma's fatuousness
can hardly be said seriously to deepen or enrich our appreciation of her.
(If Allen had actually made her have a serious affair with a younger
man, or, better yet, a serious affair with a man closer to her age, then
there might have been something really interesting added to her character
and something really threatening added to this scene.)
Secondly, as if to make doubly
sure that the scene doesn't get his characters or his viewers in over
their heads into deeper emotional water than he is prepared to navigate,
Allen inserts Hannah's voice in a voice-over choric commentary that
absolutely certain that we are never for a second in doubt about how
to understand and respond to her parents. The clichès about their "lost
possibilities," by means of which Hannah simultaneously excuses and
criticizes their behavior would be embarrassing on a daytime soap-opera:
"She was so beautiful at one time, and he was so dashing. Both of
them just full of promise and hopes that never materialized.... All the
fights and the constant infidelities to prove themselves . . . and blaming
each other. It's sad." Hannah's remarks are obviously meant to deepen
our sense of Norma and Evan, but the deepening process yields only aphoristic
Yet, as if this damage control
weren't enough, Allen hedges his bets one more time. Perhaps he fears
that an audience may regard Hannah, bland as her bromidic rationalizations
of her parents' behaviors have been, as being too smug about her parents.
He has her back down into a still less judgmental position. In her final
voice-over comment, she sums up the scene in a statement that is as good
an example as any of what I would call the relentless ethical and psychological
neutralization of hard judgments (and hard realities) in Allen's work:
"But it's impossible to hold it against them. They didn't know anything
else." Why is it impossible to hold it against them? Why do these
aphorisms suffice to justify Norma to us? Only because Allen's is an "I'm
OK–You're OK" cinema of moral emasculation and ethical neutralization
in which, as long as one is well-intentioned and sincere, one is justified
in one's actions. As this scene demonstrates, there may be occasional
arguments, but when the films are examined closely, there simply are no
recalcitrant, horrifying, or bewildering emotional realities in Allen's
The final thing to notice
about Allen's handling of the argument is that at the end of it the
abates, and is never referred to again. This sudden resolution of a scene
of disharmony is an almost formulaic event in Allen's work. Arguments
occur only almost immediately to be resolved or forgotten: compare the
argument between Diane (Elaine Strich) and Lane (Mia Farrow) in September.
In this instance, mother, father, and daughter gather together around
the piano as Evan plays and the two women listen. It is as if Allen and
his film couldn't risk having even this slight disturbance linger in
viewer's consciousness any longer. He turns the seriousness on and then
turns it off when it has served his purposes. If her creator (and indeed
her own daughter) doesn't take Norma seriously enough really to explore
her situation, but is satisfied first with offering up a pat series of
soap-opera bromides and clichès about her as her dramatic due
in her most serious scene, and then with glossing over her problems altogether
the end of the scene, who in the audience can take her seriously? In
final analysis, the real sentimental flirt, the real coquette going through
the motions of playing with others' feelings in this scene must be judged
to be not Norma, but her creator.
In the outright comedies, the
weird or strange characters are comically controlled by being turned into
kooks. Compare the treatment of Annie's brother Duane (Chris Walken) in
Annie Hall. As Walken plays him, Duane is, for a brief time, really
quite frightening as, in a scene with Alvy (Woody Allen), he narrates
a lurid psychopathic fantasy of being killed in an automobile accident.
To our surprise and discomfort, Walken momentarily propels us out of Woody
Allen territory and into another kind of entirely more horrifying movie
where real hazards lurk in wait for the unwary. As Duane rants on, the
audiences I have seen this scene with actually stir in their seats of
discomfort. Which is to say that there are real possibilities here, if
only Allen had dared to pursue them. But the time bomb is no sooner armed
and ticking than it is almost immediately disarmed by the witty put-down
from Alvy that closes the scene: "Well, I have to go now, Duane,
because I'm due back on planet earth."
Two scenes later, in his final
appearance in the film, Duane once again becomes momentarily threatening
and ominous (as he drives Alvy and Annie home in his car and we recall
his previous suicidal rant). But that is as far as the danger goes. First,
because nothing whatever happens and Duane is subsequently dropped from
the narrative. (The scene ends by dissolving into the state of reverie
that I have already called attention to at the end of the argument scene.)
And second, because the scary close-up of Duane's face that begins the
scene is replaced almost instantly with a comic shot of Alvy's, as the
camera pans from one figure to the other sitting in the front seat of
the car. Allen's comically exaggerated expression turns the potential
nightmare into a Marx Brothers comic "take." Duane's scene has
been transformed into farce. He has become a figure out of Gary Larson's
As these scenes suggest, Allen's
real nightmare is not characters like Duane or arguments between old-marrieds,
but leaving his audience in doubt for more than a few seconds about how
to feel in a scene. That way lies learning, exploration, and discovery.
But to get there one has to risk confusing viewers, pushing them into
unexpected emotional places, making them uncomfortable, moving them outside
of their accustomed categories of response.
That's what Allen's cinema
never quite risks. Just as Hannah's voice-over told us exactly how to
respond to her parents, Alvy's comically bugged out eyes and furrowed
brow at the end of the second scene with Duane tell us exactly how to
feel in order to be able to avoid dealing more seriously with him. Of
course, far from finding it evasive and objectionable, many viewers appreciate
such help. Some audiences, perhaps most audiences, want to be told how
to feel, and all the more when the message is comforting.
This is filmmaking by pushing
buttons, paint-by-numbers for the cinema. As the scene with Duane shows,
if there are indeed a few seconds of nerve-wracking stunts, there is always
a safety net of common expectations and normative understandings shoved
into place at the last minute underneath each one, a net which will reliably
prevent characters and viewers from going into more than momentary free
fall. That is probably one of the reasons Allen is such a dependably "safe
bet" for viewers. When was the last time he allowed (let alone encouraged)
an audience to get upset, confused, or angry with a scene or character?
When was the last time he (or the performances of his actors and characters)
truly outraged or surprised us (as opposed to merely tricking or teasing
for a few seconds and then reassuring us as the scenes with Duane, Evan,
and Norma do)? When was the last time we couldn't figure out, or make
up our minds about a character? Even more discouragingly, when was the
last time a starring character wasn't in a position to figure himself
out and explain himself by the end of the film?
The Duane character anticipates
the carnival of grotesques who populate Stardust Memories. The
common objection to Stardust Memories by the few critics who made
negative judgments of it was that it revealed a misanthropic impulse underpinning
Allen's work; but I'd reverse the judgment. The problem with Allen's depiction
of ordinary people (like the problem with his treatment of Duane) is that
he is unable to be contemptuous of them; he is too deftly, too cutely,
too humorously dismissive. He can't take either them or his contempt seriously
enough to make anything cinematically more interesting out of it than
comic eccentricity and kookiness. In Stardust Memories, Allen's
comic exaggerations (like Gordon Willis's short lenses) ensure that the
freaks stay freaks. Since they have no practical identities, no expressive
particularity, no authentic humanity, they can't be feared or hated. Their
weirdness stays in the side-show category, instead of being allowed to
become more human and more believable, allowed to become more disturbing
to the central character or to the film's audiences.
The scene with Duane and the
dream qualities of Stardust Memories remind us that many of the
scenes in Allen's cinema are forms of psychodrama which only masquerade
as realistic events. That is to say, Allen's films frequently locate their
characters (and their audiences) in a world less of actual events and
threats, than in one of imagined or hallucinated ones. That is why for
someone who knows the ropes in Allen's cinema, Duane is probably not threatening
even at his most demonic, because he is recognizable less as an actual
threat to life and limb than as an allegorical figure embodying Alvy's
insecurities when he visits Annie's family. It is not accidental that
when Sandy is shot by a fan near the end of Stardust Memories, it
is ultimately revealed to be not an actual event, but only a neurotic
hallucination. That is also why in Hannah and Her Sisters, anyone
who knows Allen's work realizes almost as soon as Mickey's brain tumor
is announced that it is destined to be revealed to be only a case of hypochondria.
Similarly, the freaks in Stardust Memories are more abstract representations
of Sandy's anxieties, than real characters in his life. They tell us how
harried he is and how preyed upon by self-doubt.
Allen's decision to make films
which possess much of the quality of psychodramas has subtle ramifications
in his work, many of which I am not at all sure that Allen is aware or
entirely in control. In the first place, it is one more way that Allen
imaginatively de-realizes the world, to prevent it from ever being truly
dangerous to his characters or seriously threatening to his audiences.
No one was ever killed in a car wreck by a self-projected neurosis. And,
unlike a brain tumor or a gunshot wound, an anxiety attack or a case of
hypochondria (or neurotic impotence) can be cured anytime the filmmaker
wants it to be (as the fantasy ending of Hannah and Her Sisters demonstrates).
If fantasy is the problem then counter-fantasy can be the solution. As
Holly's miracle drug-dependency cure demonstrates, where a character makes
all of his or her own problems, he or she apparently needs only to want
to be better in order to have all well again.
From this perspective, it is
not surprising that Allen is attracted to depictions of neurotics, psychotics,
and other figures given to states of obsession or delusion in films like
The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig, Interiors, and Stardust Memories,
since they give free reign to such psychodramatic or dream film representations.
But this category does not take one far enough toward understanding the
vast bulk of Allen's work, since so many of his scenes are not neurotically
induced or hallucinated and so many of his main characters are not especially
psychotic or neurotic. The psychodrama or dream film quality of much of
Allen's middle work should be viewed as being only a limited manifestation
of a more pervasive aspect of Allen's oeuvre: what might be called
the essentially non-dramatic nature of experience in his films. No fact
is more significant, or takes one further in understanding his work, I
believe, even as no aspect of his films is less generally appreciated.
The non-dramatic nature of expression in Allen's work takes us to the
very heart of his vision of experience.
What I mean by calling expression
non-dramatic is that, rather than being realized in terms of practical
social and verbal interactions between characters, meanings and relationships
are rendered abstractly and schematically. Scenes present not the time-bound
working-through of meanings between characters, but the comparison and
contrast of essentially fixed positions and abstract attitudes. Meaning
is declaimed in Allen's work in a double sense: it is brought into existence
by characters in their abstract statements to and interactions with other
characters, and it is established for the audience by means of essentially
non-dramatic forms of cinematic presentation. For each other as well as
for a viewer, characters exist schematically and abstractly. Their positions
and situation are brought into existence in the same static way that one
might render them in an essay or monologue. In Allen's work a character
(or the film the character is in) needs only state (or in theatrical terms,
to "indicate") an abstract position in order to establish it
as a reality. No acting out of it is necessary. No complex, social expression
of it is required to bring it into existence. (In the sense in which I
am using the word, there is indeed very little "acting" at all
in Allen's cinema–however much posturing, declaiming, and "indicating"
there may be.)
Looked at in this regard, Zelig–a
film with virtually no dialogue, no on-camera personal interaction between
its principal characters, no enacted dramatic give and take of a developing
relationship in its entire length–is not at all a fluke in Allen's oeuvre,
as it is sometimes regarded, but is rather the systematic elaboration
of tendencies implicit in all of his other films. Voice-over narrations,
static visual tableaus, interview scenes, and extended passages of exposition
take the place of personal interactions. (Compare Allen's earlier comedies:
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex and Love and
Death, for a similar effect.)
Indeed, the essentially non-dramatic
nature of expression in Allen's films is, paradoxically, probably the
reason that his later work and characters are given credit for so much
dramatic complexity by most audiences. The principal characters so insistently
keep telling us about the dramatic complexity of their situations and
relationships that it is easy to overlook the fact that the scenes they
are in more often than not show the opposite. They present relationships
that, far from being dramatic, are relentlessly schematic–as essentially
abstract and static as Alvy's relation to Duane or Sandy's relation to
his fans. They five us interactions so non-dramatic as to border on the
cartoonish. (If calling them cartoonish seems too harsh, I would remind
the reader that at one point a scene in Annie Hall actually switches
into a cartoon format, and not the least interesting thing about the switch
is that during the cartoon sequence the interaction of Alvy and Rob continues
at just about the same level of simplicity and abstraction as it does
in the live action sequences preceding and following it.)
The most common device by which
Allen has his characters declaim their feelings and attitudes into existence
is through a voice-over narration (the presence of which in Allen's work
can be traced back to his first film: What's Up Tiger Lily?, a
kung-fu flick he dubbed with dialogue comically inappropriate to the action).
Voice-overs allow a scene to suggest the existence of dramatic complexity
without actually having to show it in terms of the performances of the
characters. An excerpt from a scene in Annie Hall that is a favorite
with Allen's fans illustrates the basic device–though this particular
scene uses subtitles rather than voice-overs. It is the conversation between
Annie (Diane Keaton) and Alvy (Woody Allen) in their initial meeting.
As they speak with each other, the subtitles reveal their "real"
ALVY: So, did you do those
photographs in there or what?
ANNIE: Yeah, yeah, I sorta
dabble around, you know.
ANNIE'S SUBTITLE: I dabble?
Listen to me–what a jerk.
ALVY: They're... they're...
they're wonderful, you know. They have... they have, uh, a quality.
ALVY'S SUBTITLE: You are a
great looking girl.
ANNIE: Well, I would, I would
like to take a serious photography course soon.
ANNIE'S SUBTITLE: He probably
thinks I'm a yo-yo.
The encounter continues in
a similar vein for a few more lines. The subtitles have all the subtlety
of the balloons in a newspaper comic strip. The important point, however,
is not how easy the comic ironies are, but how schematic the interaction
between Alvy and Annie becomes by virtue of its essentially non-dramatic
presentation. It is pseudo-drama, lite theater.
A good example of an actual
voice-over narration is the moment in Hannah and Her Sisters at
which Elliot (Michael Caine) finally professes his love for Lee (Barbara
ELLIOT: Did you ever get around
to the poem on page a hundred and twelve?
LEE: Yes, it made me cry it
was so beautiful . . . so romantic.
ELLIOT'S VOICE-OVER: I want
so badly to kiss her. Not here, you idiot. You've got to get her alone
someplace .... But I've got to proceed cautiously. This is a very delicate
situation. Okay, ah, ask her if you can see her for lunch or a drink tomorrow,
and be ready to make light of the offer if she's unresponsive. This has
to be done very skillfully, very diplomatically.
LEE: Did you ever read this
(The action of the film at
this point has Lee show Elliot another poem in the book, at which, in
contradiction to everything Elliot has been telling himself in his voice-over,
he suddenly throws himself on Lee and kisses her passionately.)
LEE: Elliot, don't!
ELLIOT: Lee, Lee, Lee, I'm
in love with you!
Rather than communicating how
dramatically complex a particular scene is, such a device actually tells
us the opposite. The fact that Allen needs to use inter-titles, subtitles,
voice-overs, and flashback narrations to complicate a scene tells us that
it is not very dramatically interesting or complex in itself–as
it is actually acted out between the principals.
It is because Keaton and Allen
(in the scene from Annie Hall) or Caine and Hershey (in the one
from Hannah) don't communicate the delicate, fragile instabilities
of a courtship dance in their actual tones, gestures, and glances that
the director and editor have to insert complexities into the scene by
relying on the titles and voice-over narration. If there was any really
complex acting going on, if Caine and Hershey or Keaton and Allen were
communicating the small fears, hesitations, and tentative explorations
of budding sexual and romantic relationship in their eyes, faces, bodies,
and voices, we would be too busy paying attention to that to be able to
entertain such a glibly ironic perspective on it.
The simplicity of the characters
and attitudes rendered within such scenes raises even larger questions.
Characters in both Allen's comedies and his serious dramas can almost
always explain themselves and their actions. By the ends of their films,
Allen's main characters–Marion Post in Another Woman, Elliot in
Hannah and Her Sisters, Ike in Manhattan, Alvy in Annie
Hall, or the title character in Broadway Danny Rose–ominously
understand themselves almost as well as a viewer does. They are as lucid
and articulate about themselves and as knowledgeable about their own motives
as the shrewdest film critic in the audience. That may simplify the critic's
job of accounting for a character's behavior, but can it possibly tell
us the truth about our emotional lives? Can we ever be as sane, as perceptive
about ourselves as that? Is such an abstract understanding of ourselves
possible–outside of the movies, that is? Can our problems be interpreted
that clearly and our motives be explained that schematically? Are the
masses of our emotional lives as easily understood–by ourselves or by
others–as Allen allows them to be?
How confused can a character
be when he at least knows he is confused? In this respect as well, there
is all the difference in the world between Allen's characters and those
of Elaine May or John Cassavetes. Their characters embody muddles of contradictory
impulses far beyond their capacities to articulate them. Not only do they
not know why they are unhappy or confused, they often do not even know
when they are, and they (or their films) certainly cannot theorize
about their emotional states or verbalize their doubts, dilemmas, and
problems the way Elliot does in the above quote.
That last observation hints
at another problem with Allen's work: the fundamental simplification of
dramatic experience that merely verbal formulas and statements
represent. Allen has often been called (by Vincent Canby among others)
America's most literate and literary filmmaker. The problem, however,
is not that the compliment is undeserved, but that it is true. Allen's
characters' doubts, hesitations, fears are verbally articulatable
(which is why his films are almost completely comprehensible from their
written screenplays). What the praise of Allen's literateness forgets
is that the transformation of feelings into words represents an enormous
act of dramatic simplification. In being verbally abstracted in this way,
problems are already well on the way to being controlled.
By way of contrast, one notes
that that is probably why the films of Elaine May and John Cassavetes
absolutely decline to analyze their characters or to offer verbal formulas
for their behavior. Unlike Allen's, the performances of their characters
stay too multivalent or too deeply muddled to be verbally analyzed, to
be brought to consciousness, to be known abstractly. Their characters'
confusions are buried under layer after layer of performative obliquity,
indirection, and subterfuge. But that is only to say that characters in
their films, unlike those in Allen's, court disaster in the movie theatre
as much as they do in the worlds they are imagined to live within. They
no more yield themselves up to an audience's formulaic understanding of
them than they lend themselves to being understood by other characters
within their works.
The third way Allen simulates
dramatic complexity without actually providing it, especially in much
of his comic work, is by using an ironic choral commentary in which outside
observers humorously comment on the actions of others, as in the many
Fellini-influenced scenes in the films of the late Seventies, in which
a character flashes back to his childhood and comments upon it from the
perspective of the present, while the action goes on in the past. I quote
an example from Annie Hall again–the scene in which Annie, Alvy,
and their mutual friend Max (Tony Roberts) go back and make fun of Alvy's
homely Aunt Tessie. The scene alternates between present and past perspectives
on the homely Tessie who is visible on camera in all of her painful plainness
while they mockingly comment on her appearance. To call the irony not
exactly subtle is an understatement:
PRESENT–ALVY: The one
who killed me the most was my mother's sister, Tessie.
I was always the sister with good common sense. But Tessie was the one
with personality. When she was younger, they all wanted to marry Tessie.
PRESENT–ALVY: Do you
believe that, Max? Tessie Moskowitz had the personality. She's the life
of the ghetto, no doubt.
She was once a great beauty.
they say you were the sister with personality.
PAST–TESSIE: I was
a great beauty.
Though I have heard individuals
in an audience laugh at Tessie in this scene, the comedy borders on the
heartless and it is probably only the non-dramatic nature of Allen's work
that allows him to get away with it at all. If Allen had imagined a dramatic
scene in which Tessie could have expressed the true ironies of being a
"ghetto beauty," there would, of course, have been no need for
such choric commentary, and no place for it. But more importantly, if
Tessie had been given such a scene–one in which she could (either comically
or seriously) communicate the passing of youth and beauty and the coming
of age, one in which she could express some of the petty vanities and
self-deceits by means of which even truly attractive people delude themselves
about themselves–the ironic commentary would have been revealed to be
too smug, narrow, and cruel to be used.
The superficiality and occasional
brutality of the comedy is only a kind of accidental side effect of Allen's
indifference to the expressive particularity of individual characters
and their expressive interactions (especially his minor characters). If
they were allowed to be more complexly human, they could not be put down
or patronized with such easy ironies. The humor depends on a radical simplification
of experience. If his characters and their interactions were less cartoonish,
his audiences would not laugh so easily at his treatment of them, and
might actually at times resent it.
The illusion of dramatic development
during the course of a film is created by having characters shuttle between
contrasted positions and abstract emotional stances, but the actual dramatic
adjustments and practical interactions are almost always left out. Indeed,
Allen's scenes and characters are able to hop from contrasting position
to position, only because each position exists, both for him and his characters,
as an absolute, an abstraction. One gets ironic undercuttings and comic
or dramatic reversals of position, but no real dramatic progression or
working-through between characters.
That aspect of Allen's work
helps one to understand the miraculous or instantaneous changes of relationship
that so many of his characters undergo at various points in their films.
The magical metamorphoses and resolutions are possible precisely because
his cinema side-steps practical expressive hurdles and limitations. With
nary a transition, in Hannah and Her Sisters, Holly can leave behind
her drug problem, her neuroses, and her anxieties, merely by choosing
to. She and Mickey can be entirely incompatible in their interests and
personalities in one set of scenes, and then entirely sympathetic and
in love with each other a few scenes later. In a cinema in which intentions
and ideals must be labored into existence through practical forms of expression,
either of these problems would require the most complex and potentially
painful series of expressive readjustments on Holly's or Mickey's part,
but for Allen none is necessary, since in his non-dramatic vision of human
experience the wish is as good as the deed. Holly wants to be a successful
writer, a fulfilled mother, a good wife, so she is. No pain, no strain.
It's expressive weightlessness self-taught.
But the cheapness of the comic
shots about Tessie, or the quick-change artistry of Holly and Mickey is
ultimately less important than what such passages tell us about the fundamentally
undramatic nature of Allen's vision of life. Allen's cinema embraces a
radically unmediated view of expression. A character's most profound attitudes
and beliefs are not–difficulty, painfully, tentatively–mediated through
imperfect, repressive, practical forms of social expression. Rather, intellectual
or emotional positions exist in the work as abstract states, unsullied
by the messiness of expressive compromise and the inevitable repressions
of realistic social interaction–which is why they can be ''spoken"
in voice-over passages, or in characters' declarations of their ''true"
feelings for each other. The existence of the voice-over in and of itself
postulates the possibility of unmediated expressions of oneself.
Emotional states exist in Allen's
work in a distinctively pure state. Elliot is "in love" with
Lee, then out of love with her just as rapidly in Hannah and Her Sisters,
just as in Manhattan Ike is first "in love" with
Tracy, then out of love with her, then back "in love" with her.
In September Peter "makes love" to Lane one night, then
the next morning tells her best friend, Stephanie, that he is really "in
love" with her. The feeling becomes as free-floating as the words
that express it. That is why Ike can flip-flop so readily back and forth
"in love" then out of love with Tracy in Manhattan (culminating
with the cloying profession of love that ends the film). But what does
"love" mean when it does not emerge out of, and express itself
in terms of particular, nuanced, expressive interactions between characters?
What does it mean when it is a pure, abstract feeling, as it is in these
films? States of feeling replace the work of socially expressing them.
In Allen's expressively unmediated
universe, where a character's statement of feeling takes the place of
a dramatic enactment of it, the only relevant question one can ask is
whether the character's feelings are pure, honest, true, or sincere. To
be able to answer in the affirmative is all that is necessary to justify
a figure's position. It is another way the audience is allowed to avoid
hard judgments or ethical problems. Insofar as Elliot's feelings for Lee,
or Ike's feelings for Tracy, are sincere (as indeed they are), they can't
be faulted or judged adversely. Saying (or feeling) that one is "in
love" (or out of it)–either in a voice-over or directly to another
character–replaces the difficult and vexed project of complexly expressing
the feeling (however grand or sincere the feeling may be) in the compromised
and repressive forms available in the world. Abstract states of sincerity,
honesty, truth, love are enough.
The essence of drama, on the
other hand, is relentless and unavoidable mediation. Insofar as dramatic
presentation imagines a world of unavoidable expressive frustration and
compromise, drama (like the most interesting moments in life) is made
not out of moments of emotional purity but of scenes of expressive impurity.
Since, in Allen's cinema, one's expression of oneself is essentially unmediated
and therefore unproblematic, it is not surprising that there are no performative
obliquities, indirections, mysteries, or depths to Allen's characters'
existences. How much simpler King Lear could have been if the existence
of "love" as a pure feeling were accepted, instead of asking
that it be expressed practically and dramatically by the characters. How
much simpler life would be.
What one wants in Allen's cinema
is fewer easy ironies and glib reversals of abstract positions; and more
expressive mediation, more complex expressive in-betweenness for his characters.
One wants characters who do not shuttle between static moods and states,
but who rather live in conditions of continuous expressive muddlement,
compromise, and disturbance, however slight or great it may be (and yet
who continuously make something dramatically and humanly interesting of
that state of mediation both for themselves and for the audience watching
them). Let's have two characters be "in love" with each other
and still have major problems of practically expressing their relationship.
Let's have characters be completely sincere, well-meaning, and devoted
to each other and still have a film's worth of expressive difficulties
that need working through. Let's have a world in which expression is recognized
to be so problematic and compromised that good intentions, fine motives,
high ideals don't count for everything–a world where perhaps they don't
count for very much at all. Though it sounds perverse to say it, Allen's
films–when viewed from this perspective–are as expressively slack and
simplified as Eddie Murphy's. They imagine a world not all that more expressively
demanding from that of an Eastwood or Stallone action movie. There too,
the will and the deed, the wish and the act are almost equivalent.
Allen's cinema misses the point
that all of life and drama that is of interest is lived in a state of
expressive compromise and mediation. Its interest is not figured in our
shuttling between harmony and disharmony as Norma and Evan, Annie and
Alvy, Danny and Tina, Elliot and Lee, Ike and Tracy do, but in our living
constantly in the middle of expressive muddles as Vanya and Lear do, and
making something of that condition.
The logical extension of this
state of affairs is a work like the recent Another Woman, which
comes as close as a narrative film can to eliminating dramatic give and
take altogether and turning itself into pure psychodrama. (An extended
hallucination/fantasy/reverie scene actually constitutes the conclusion
of the work.) To the degree that there is the semblance of dramatic interaction
between characters in Another Woman, it is largely made up of abstract
statements of one figure's feelings or analyses of another's. The film
largely abandons dramatic interaction between characters as the means
of presenting material, to replace it with stunningly direct statements
of dramatically unmediated feeling. Characters meet and talk with each
other, but what they say could have originated on their analyst's couch.
("I began to feel anxious." "He hates you." "He's
a prig. He's cold and unfeeling." "I've had odd feelings about
my marriage." "Maybe this conversation is scaring you.")
What scares a viewer about
the conversation in which the last remark is made, is less the content
of the conversation than its form: the implication that characters can
really know each other and express themselves in terms of such abstract
formulas, and that a viewer can understand them in such abstract terms.
In this film, as in all of his work, Allen clearly is caught on the horns
of a dilemma: on the one hand, he wants to criticize the states of abstraction
he presents, to indicate the limits of the intellectualism of his figures;
yet, at the same time, his work offers no escape from it. His scenes,
the scripted dialogue he gives his figures to say, the interactions he
establishes between his characters participate in the same abstracting
process that he apparently wants to condemn. The abstraction is not simply
a quality of a character's life and expressions; it is a structural principal
of the work which brings the character into existence. Characters abstractly
embody abstract states. All too often in Allen's work, one feels that
they might as well wear signs around their necks reading: "neurotic,"
"flighty," "sensuous," "takes himself too seriously,"
"hypochondriac," "angst-ridden." And scenes abstractly
compare and contrast abstract positions: passionate characters meet chilly
ones; emotionally expressive characters confront withdrawn ones. The film
proceeds at least as abstractly as the characters within it.
In short, even as the Another
Woman wants to criticize Marion's intellectual formulas, it only offers
its own intellectual formulas, its own presentation of abstract positions,
to replace hers. One form of abstraction supersedes another, but abstraction
itself is left in place. Abstract analyses of Marion's problems (her aloofness
from others, her withdrawal from experience, her fear of emotion)–as
embodied in voice-over passages and conversations like those from which
the previous quotes come–are obviously intended to represent critiques
of the character's states of abstraction; but Allen is unable to break
out of the abstracting process itself.
The abstractness of the philosophical
debates is what gives Allen's work–both the dramas and the comedies–its
adolescent quality. Like teenagers tackling "ultimate questions,"
the films almost never touch down to contact messy life. The issues stay
up in the clouds, suspended in a sea of abstractions. It is also why Allen's
cinema is also so independent of nuances of acting for its effects. Positions
are declaimed–not performed–into existence. Allen's films really are
largely reducible to their scripts. The spoken words carry so much of
the meaning that the expression on a characters face, the feeling in his
or her eyes, the instrument of the body are largely superfluous to the
meaning. Which is to say, even when there is interesting acting going
on in a scene in Allen's work, the actors performance only repeats, emphasizes,
underlines the meaning of the spoken words. In an actor's cinema–like
that of Cassavetes or May–the acting not only is often more important
than the spoken words, but frequently communicates meanings at odds with
These moments reveal a fundamental
paradox at the center of much of Allen's work. On the one hand, Allen
seems to be criticizing characters for being too intellectual, too abstract,
too removed from their feelings–which is the clear criticism he launches
at the central character in Another Woman. Yet on the other, the
very structure and form of his films seem to outdo his own characters
in their reliance on the same enervating abstractions he deplores in them.
In brief, even as Another Woman wants to criticize the intellectualism
of Marian Post (Gena Rowlands), it only offers other intellectual formulas
to replace them.
Insofar as Allen's art privileges
states of unmediated consciousness in the absence of any possibility of
converting them into practical dramatic forms of interaction, it is no
accident that virtually all of his recent films ask a viewer to accept
the moments of silent vision or private reverie that occur in their conclusions
as the supreme achievement of life. The epiphany near the end of Stardust
Memories is repeated in one form or another in film after film generally
in their concluding moments. As is usual at such moments, the character
played by Woody Allen speaks sentiments that are clearly endorsed by Woody
Allen the filmmaker:
SANDY: I was reaching for
something to give my life meaning and a memory flashed through my
mind.... It was one of those great spring days. It was Sunday, and
you knew summer would be coming soon. I remember that morning Dorrie
and I had gone for a walk in the park. We came back to the apartment.
We were just sort of sitting around. And I put on a record of Louis
Armstrong, which is music that I grew up loving. It was very, very
pretty, and I happened to glance over, and I saw Dorrie sitting there.
And I remember thinking to myself how terrific she was, and how much
I loved her. And, I don't know, I guess it was the combination of
everything. . . the sound of the music, and the breeze, and how beautiful
Dorrie looked to me. And for one brief moment everything just seemed
to come together perfectly, and I felt happy. Almost indestructible
in a way. It's funny that that simple little moment of contact moved
me in a very, very profound way.
This is essentially the dream
of a Pateresque connoisseur. It's "Complacencies of the peignoir,
and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair," but without any
of the bracing Stevensian ironies. Allen's formulation makes the cultivation
of an exquisite sensibility the "meaning" of life. Allen's work
not only tolerates, but favors such releases from dramatic interaction
and relationship for a character. That is why Sandy's meaning for life
exists not in terms of the play of dialogue or interaction between characters
(and could not even conceivably be converted into a social passage), but
strictly as a self-absorbed soliloquy spoken by the writer, director,
and star of the film (at a moment at which all three roles collapse into
each other) Note two points: First, if Allen's films were more truly dramatic,
in the sense in which I am saying they fail to be, their own narrative
structure would prevent such an abstract "meaning" from congealing
within them; and, second, it would prevent one from taking this passage
as "straight" and uncritically as Allen obviously wants a viewer
to take it.
The expressive slackness of
Allen's work can be seen as a byproduct of this acceptance of private
states of feeling as ends in themselves. Allen imagines a quasi-Renoirian
world in which everyone has his reasons, but unlike Renoir's expressively
energetic and robust world, in which reasons are required to be complexly
worked through in terms of social expressions, Allen's is an expressively
undemanding world in which it is only necessary to have good feelings
(as opposed to laboring to live them in the form of complex and demanding
social expressions). Good intentions, good dreams, and good visions (like
the one above) substitute for good acts, good expressions, good relationships.
Yet even this is perhaps not
to put Allen's cinematic position strongly enough. For Allen, not only
are a character's most important feelings generally expressed as abstract
ideals and statements, but, on the evidence of the films, Allen feels
that his characters' truest and most adequate expressions of themselves
exist in their voice-overs and their direct statements of their feelings
to other characters. One's ideals are all the better for not being sullied
by the inevitable mess of worldly expression. It is important to acknowledge
that Allen frequently gestures in the direction of suggesting that a character's
state of abstraction can be shared by the members of a group and thus
implies that it can be converted into a kind of social event. In this
particular instance, the fact that Allen has Sandy speak these lines to
a lecture room audience is an effort to deny their asocial nature. But
simply to speak such a reverie out loud in front of an audience doesn't
alter the non-dramatic nature of the reverie itself. It doesn't represent
the translation of Sandy's dreams and desires into the forms of practical
social involvement and expression. To shift examples, in Radio Days,
the community of sentiment formed around the child trapped in the
mine shaft is another attempt to constitute a real society of shared sentiment
in the film out of states of essentially private and socially unexpressed
feeling. The society of mediation in Radio Days is no less imaginary
than the one formed around Sandy in the scene from Stardust Memories.
Both moments are retreats into visionary stasis that only masquerade
as social events.
Now all of this talk about
the nature of expression in Allen's work may seem merely academic; but
aesthetic matters always have social ramifications. The aesthetic premises
that inform Allen's work (which admittedly may seem so rarefied in my
account) implicitly authorize the social and ethical disengagements and
de-realizations I began this essay by noticing. The "de-realizing"
or "romanticizing" tendency within Allen's work is only the
superficial manifestation of a larger narrative project implicit in them:
a willful social and ethical disengagement from expressive realities that
place checks on the individual imagination. Social interaction is invariably
embarrassing for Allen's characters. It lets them down and discourages
Allen's cinema of abstraction
(and about states of abstraction) implicitly instructs us to renounce
the attempt to convert our finest impulses into practical forms of social
expression. There is a fundamentally world-denying, world-forsaking impulse
at the heart of Allen's work. Notwithstanding all of their surface humor,
Allen's films are really quite dark and sad if we understand this world-renouncing
aspect of them. At their most resigned and sentimental, his films tell
us that experience is comprised of misty states of good feeling and acts
of connoisseurship, and not of practical, ethical involvements with others
and of complex acts of dramatic interaction.
Ponder the ramifications of
Elliot's final voice-over in Hannah and Her Sisters in which, looking
at Lee, he apparently absolves himself of everything he has done in the
whole preceding film by saying: "Everything that happened between
us seems more and more hazy" All of life exists only to contribute
to the enrichment of consciousness. Similarly, Marian Post's attainment
of a moment of ''peace" at the end of Another Woman is entirely
comparable to Elliot's quietistic vision in Hannah or Ike's reverie
at the end of Manhattan. Ethical issues cease to matter; good feelings
take the place of dramatic expressions.
It has often been observed
that much of the comedy in Allen's early films was derived from his use
of ineffectual males as his central characters. But, from this perspective,
Allen's attraction to such figures can be seen to be more than a convenient
way of generating laughs. Allen apparently does think of our place in
the world in terms of our essential passivity, weakness, and expressive
impotence. Indeed, Allen actually attempts to celebrate this aspect of
his characters' existences. Zelig, Danny Rose, Ike, Mickey, and many other
Allen characters are actually held up for our admiration, not in spite
of, but because of their inability to function in the practical world.
To be expressively weak and ineffectual becomes positive evidence of one's
superiority to the expressive compromises of the world. It is a profoundly
despairing expressive position, and one that leads Allen to impose stunningly
sentimental endings in his films, in which the nebbish is actually intended
to justify his state of powerlessness. The endings are fantasies of fulfillment
that actually extol the virtues of expressive weakness, passivity, and
disengagement for the sake of maintaining the purity of one's feelings
Allen's privileging of states
of feeling above and beyond the messiness of practical social expressions
and involvements encourages one to consider his general attitude toward
artistic expression. Insofar as his films quote endlessly from other works
of art, it is a question Allen invites a viewer to ask. The range of available
culture in Allen's work runs the gamut of post-romantic popular and high
art–from the music of Porter, Gershwin, and Mendelssohn, to the masterworks
of 19th-century literature and 20th-century painting, film, photography,
and architecture. All are enlisted into the service of a cult of artistic
appreciation which Allen clearly endorses.
Ike's art appreciation reverie
on "what makes life worth living" near the end of Manhattan
may be compared with the passage I quoted from Stardust Memories,
and be taken as a summary of this aspect of Allen's work:
IKE: Well, all right, why
is life worth living? That's a very good question. Um. Well, there
are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh, like what?
Okay. Um, for me. . . oh, I would say, what, Groucho Marx, to name
one thing. . . uh, and Willie Mays, and, uh, the second movement of
the Jupiter Symphony, and uh, Louie Armstrong's recording of "Potatohead
Blues"...ah, Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education
by Flaubert . . . uh, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra . . . ah,
those incredible apples and pears by Cèzanne . . . uh, the crabs at
Wo's . . . uh, Tracy's face.
Just as Sandy's hymn to Sunday
morning did, this passage represents a largely uncritical presentation
of Allen's own beliefs about what does "make life worth living."
Allen almost always attempts to insulate such passages from direct criticism
by giving them to bumblers like Ike (and in this scene in particular by
having Ike ham up his delivery of this list by comically hemming and hawing
and making funny faces as he goes through it); but my point is that, notwithstanding
Allen's comic hedging of his bets, the films ask us to take such an itemization
of "what makes life worth living" very seriously indeed. The
proof of that, if it were in doubt, is that the passage epitomizes the
allusive, quotational method of the films themselves. Just as characters
like Ike and Sandy browse among the great works and performances of the
past, so do the films, with their eclectic soundtracks and their culturally
allusive range of references. Allen may protect himself from the charge
of over-earnestness by giving a comic accent to Ike's soliloquy; but we
are assuredly not meant to laugh when Gershwin blares on the soundtrack
underneath the shot of a Louis Sullivan building, or when a Mozart symphony
backs a shot of the 59th Street Bridge. If we snicker at Ike's mention
of Cèzanne and Louis Armstrong in the same breath, we are meant to take
seriously Allen's own cinematic zeugmas: his breathtaking editorial and
acoustic enjambments of New York City skyscraper panoramas, jazz
and swing syncopations, Mendelssohn or Mozart, and beauty-shots of landscapes,
seascapes, and characters' faces. Even the most uninformed audiences know
that they are meant to sit in silence and take Allen straight at such
It is by foraging among the
great art works and performances of the past that one defines oneself
and pieces together one's cultural traditions, Allen is telling us. The
man on the street–both the ideal character in Allen's movies, and the
ideal viewer of them–actually lives the sort of life of imaginative allusiveness
and connectedness with the masterworks of the ages presented in works
of literature by writers like Eliot and Yeats. It is a heady prospect,
and is, undoubtedly, one of the secret appeals of Allen's work to the
culturally anxious or insecure viewer.
This is modernism for the masses,
but one notices how Allen softens and tames the modernist project, precisely
as he softens and tames so many other emotional and intellectual stances
in his work. Note the enormous difference between the modernists' sense
of the difficult, arduous relation of tradition and the individual talent
and Allen's altogether blither rendition. His is modernism without tears.
Where the great modernists from Hawthorne and Melville to Joyce and Pound
told us how the heritage of the past "heaps" or "burdens"
us, the easy allusiveness of Allen's films (like the passages spoken by
Ike and Sandy) implicitly tells us the contrary: how available art is
to uplift us. Where the modernists offered difficulty and complication,
the complex entailments of tradition, mazes of allusiveness, Allen's quotations
from Mozart to Gershwin, his beauty-shots of architectural and historical
landmarks, his cocktail party allusions, give us a legacy more accurately
described as easy listening and easy viewing.
It's no wonder Cole Porter
is preferred to Melville as a portable inheritance. Nor is it any wonder
that Allen's conception of our relation to works of art (as in his reference
to "those incredible apples and pears by Cèzanne") is almost
indistinguishable from the most effete sort of dilettantism, notwithstanding
the presence of figures like Willie Mays and the Marx Brothers on the
list. This is art appreciation with no homework, inheritance with no entailments,
appropriation with no resistance on the part of the work itself to our
cozy use of it for our private emotional sustenance. This connoisseur's
sense of experience as a relaxing stroll among the masterpieces, represents
a conception of the relation of tradition and the individual talent that
neither Eliot, Lawrence, Joyce, nor Leavis would have understood.
How would Eliot–T.S., that
is, not the character played by Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters–respond
to the implication that the high aristocratic culture of the past–Flaubert
and Mozart, for example–is as accessible as the Marx Brothers farces
or the appearance of Tracy's face with which Allen lumps them? I would
emphasize that the issue here is not a reprise of the dreary debate about
the alleged difference between so-called high and popular art. There is
nothing in itself wrong with Louis Armstrong, for example, being on Ike's
(or Allen's) list. Armstrong is at least as great an artist as Flaubert
(far greater in my mind, in fact), and represents a healthier and more
interesting expressive tradition upon which to build a life or a work
of art. What is at stake is the implication that works of art are instantly
and easily available to console and uplift us.
On reflection it is perhaps
not so surprising that it is intellectually bounded by the aestheticism
of Flaubert on the one side and the goof-ball farcicality of the Marx
Brothers on the other. Like Willie Mays's playing or Tracy's face, works
of art are available to cheer us up, to save, to enlighten, to uplift
us. That is why the cultural scavenging and acts of bricolage in
Allen's work are always essentially comforting and not anxiety inducing.
They do not raise fundamental questions about our values. The legacy of
culture, the grand inheritance of the past, never disturbs Allen or his
characters, but rather comes to their aid at moments of crisis, as here,
to soothe them.
The unsettling implication
of Sandy's and Ike's and Elliot's final soliloquies (and Marian Post's
in Another Woman), and of the easy allusiveness and artistic gorgeousness
of Allen's own films is their clear implication that works of art (and
"artistic" effects and allusions within Allen's films themselves)
exist to generate emotional states that allow their characters and their
audiences to rise above the complications of ordinary expressive life,
not to encourage us to plunge into it more profoundly. Works of art (and
the elegant photography and lush soundtracks within the films themselves)
are available to comfort the viewer (and the principal characters), and
to induce states of self-sufficient sensibility.
That is the ominous function
of the Tin Pan Alley show tunes on the soundtrack, and of the "beauty
shots" of skyscrapers, lights, bridges, trees, and water in the films.
If states of aesthetic reverie or contemplation repeatedly allow characters
temporarily to detach themselves from the expressive demands of practical
dramatic relations or the complications of ethical involvements, Allen's
films themselves attempt to induce comparable states of aesthetic reverie
in their audiences. As I pointed out in my discussions of several scenes,
it is not accidental that Allen "resolves" difficult scenes
over and over again by cutting in a beauty shot, or by laying swelling
music in on the soundtrack at the end of them. States of reverie or meditativeness
are induced as alternatives to, escapes from, expressive complications.
What is it to cite "Tracy's
face" as a reason for living, or for loving her? I'm afraid that
it tells us more about Ike's relation to her and to experience than Allen
is aware. It is not accidental that when Ike does return to Tracy in the
sentimental ending of Manhattan, he has almost nothing to say to
her. What does one say to a face–or to Cèzanne's fruit?
The ending of The Purple
Rose of Cairo, in which Cecilia is left sitting in a movie theater
staring into space, entranced by the beauty and elegance of Fred Astaire,
wrapped up in her enraptured vision, is only a literalization of the secret
subplot driving most of Allen's work, even when he is not trying to be
deliberately Felliniesque. Art, for Allen, doesn't repeat in its forms
and structures the complexities and expressive intricacies of the world
we live in. It provides an escape from them. It provides a world elsewhere
of order, clarification, and harmony. Even Stephen Daedalus eventually
moved beyond such a view, and realized the cultural morbidity and irrelevance
of such a Pateresque stance.
Allen's cultivation of sensibility
as an end in itself ultimately results in the creation of films that implicitly
tell us that we can cut our ethical ties to others and withdraw into the
cocoons of our cultivated consciousnesses (while we read The Times
and listen to Louis Armstrong, I guess). It is easy listening for
the eyes, art appreciation at its most slack and dilettantish. It might
be called the new New York decadence, except for the fact that it has
been available on the cheap in the bargain basement of post-Romanticism
anytime these last two hundred years, and available in Hollywood films
long before Allen came along.
Now, the last ditch defense
of this whole world view is to say that Allen is not a realistic filmmaker
at all, and that therefore all of the standards of expressive complexity
and social engagement that I am requiring of his work are merely irrelevant.
He is, at least in his best known semi-comic work–Annie Hall, Manhattan,
Hannah and Her Sisters–it is argued, essentially a maker of "romances.
" The problem with that is that a work's sentimentality, evasiveness,
and withdrawal into states of self-sufficient feeling are what they are.
Dignifying them with a fancy genre designation doesn't change the fact
or make them suddenly better or different.
Moreover, the comparison of
Allen's work with classic romances simply breaks down when one considers
actual examples. So-called romances by artists from Spenser and Shakespeare,
to Hawthorne Melville, and James don't at all display the expressive slackness,
disengagement, and the cultivation of states of reverie as ends in themselves
of Allen's work. A "romance" like The Scarlet Letter doesn't
avoid emotionally dangerous territory, but plunges into it. The House
of the Seven Gables doesn't retreat from historical complications
and psychological entailments of cultural inheritance, but embraces them.
The Blithedale Romance doesn't gloss over the complex relation
of abstract ideals and practical forms of expression, but explores it.
James Fenimore Cooper's or Mark Twain's "romances" expose us
to immense complexities of feeling and expression. The comparison of Allen's
films with Shakespeare's romances and romantic comedies that has been
popularized by Vincent Canby and is now common in critical essays on Allen's
work only holds up if one has no real grasp of what Shakespeare is doing
in those plays.
Even if we stay strictly within
the realm of popular film, the romance comparison doesn't hold up. I take
the two great bodies of classic romance in Hollywood film to be the Thirties
films of Frank Capra, and the musicals in which Fred Astaire and Ginger
Rogers danced together. Yet in that work too one finds not expressive
slackness and escapism, but the contrary: demands that the individual
romantic rigorously negotiate the obstacle course of social expression
and dramatic relationship. These are tough films. Only a sentimental misreading
of Capra's or Astaire and Rogers' work turns it into swoony, dreamy, unrealistic
"romancing" in the sense in which Allen's defenders invoke the
term to rally round Radio Days or any of the "masterpieces"
On the other hand, there are
many romances that are as expressively limp as Allen's films–the "romances"
of Walter Scott, for example–romances that allow us to escape into a
golden world of nostalgia. But why not avoid a needless multiplication
of terms and drop the word romance to describe such work? Invoked as a
general purpose justification in this way, "romance" becomes
a synonym for bad art. So let's simply call it bad art.
This is not to blink at the
fact that in his own day Scott was an immensely popular artist. It is
not too hard to understand the appeal of slack romanticism. The nostalgia,
the social, ethical, and dramatic disengagements, the moods of infinite
resignation and bitter-sweet sadness, and the easy artistic exaltations
of Allen's films are apparently very seductive to a certain kind of viewer
who wants to believe in his simultaneous worldly disenfranchisement and
imaginative empowerment. If Chuck Norris' or Arnold Schwarzenegger's films
tell certain viewers what they want to hear about themselves and their
relation to the world, no less do Allen's films' languorous acts of connoisseurship
and meditative detachment tell others what they apparently want to hear.
Though I am arguing that Allen's
work is a cinema of expressive pessimism and defeat, it is undeniable
that it represents a comforting stance towards expression for many viewers.
If good desires and acts of abstract connoisseurship of one's own experience
are sufficient, then (both as a filmmaker and as a character) one is spared
the inevitable awkwardness and embarrassment and pain that translating
intentions into social expressions necessarily entails. The only awkwardnesses
allowed into life are those (like Elliot's in the scene with Lee that
I quoted from, or those that Allen as a character displays in most of
his scenes) that comically indicate how social expressions just can't
be trusted. Our ethical ties to others, our interpersonal expressions
of ourselves, are not terribly important. Our pure consciousnesses, our
good intentions are. Between the lines, as it were, Allen tells us that
our powerlessness is inevitable. His films extol wistfulness, nostalgia
for the past, and quietism in place of passion, social activity, and expressive
engagement. Most ominously, his aesthetic of expressive disengagement
and meditative contemplation borders on being anti-social.
Needless to say, alternative
conceptions of experience, and of the relation of life and art are possible.
A cinema more committed to interpersonal dramatic expressions of feelings
would be predicated upon the necessity of an act of translation of our
dreams into public, social expressions, however flawed and inadequate
such translations may ultimately be. A different kind of filmmaking would
demonstrate that good intentions and exalted emotions are not sufficient.
It would tell us that it is in the almost insuperably difficult translation
from desires to practical expressions that truth is brought into existence
in life and in art.
A cinema premised on these
painful expressive imperatives would ask its viewers and its characters
to function in a world entirely different from that of Allen's. They would
have to learn to live in the middle of irreducible conflicts, obliquities,
and confusions of expression. Unlike Allen's, such a cinema would tell
its viewers and characters how much (sometimes, it seems, not less than
everything) is always lost in the translation from desires to practical
expressions, even as the act of translation must still go on. It would
show us that life (and art) is not a matter of visions and feelings, but
of unceasing expressive work and interpretive uncertainty.
In short, it would be a kind
of filmmaking that has never found favor with critics and viewers, a kind
of filmmaking that could not possibly appeal to the mass audiences that
Allen's work does. As I have been suggesting throughout this piece, I
believe there does already exist a model for this alternative cinema in
the work of both John Cassavetes and Elaine May. However, the other kind
of filmmaking pays a heavy price with audiences. The performances of its
characters demand labors of attention and interpretation that those in
Allen's cinema do not. Its characters can never remove themselves far
enough from the confusions of their own experiences to articulate them
verbally. Since their deepest problems are hidden even from themselves,
they can clue a viewer into them no more than a person in real life can.
Expression in such films is always troublingly mediated and contextualized,
never freestanding, which is why such a cinema does not allow us any of
the grand, meditative expansions or the artistic gorgeousness of Allen's
work. The work of May and Cassavetes does not propose to comfort us, but
rather to worry and disturb us out of our accustomed patterns of response.
It does not present us with the well-intentioned kooks and sweet bumblers
that one finds in Allen's work, but with characters as imaginatively assaultive
and threatening as Lear and Hamlet. Rather than yielding up readily available
sublimities of sight and sound, it exposes us to what Yeats might have
called "terrible beauties"–sights and sounds which can wound
us, force us out of our states of comfort and complacency, and perhaps
ultimately suggest new ways of knowing ourselves and our lives. But to
describe that other kind of filmmaking adequately one would have to write
–Excerpted from: "Modernism
for the Millions: The Films of Woody Allen," The Alaska Quarterly
Review, Vol. 8, No. 1 and 2 (Fall and Winter 1989), pp. 139-169.
For a positive view of independent
film, see the pieces on "Charles Burnett" and "Mark Rappaport"
and the interviews in the Independent Vision section.
To read more about fads
and fashions in criticism, click on "Multicultural Unawareness"
and "The Functions of Criticism" in the Carney on Culture
section, the essays "Sargent and Criticism" and "Eakins
and Criticism" in the Paintings section, "Day of Wrath:
A Parable for Critics" in the Carl Dreyer section, "Capra
and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, all of the other
pieces in this section, and the essays "Skepticism and Faith,"
"Irony and Truth," "Looking without Seeing," and
other pieces in the Academic Animadversions section.
This page only
contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To
obtain the complete text of this piece as well as the complet texts of
many pieces that are not included on the web site, click