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from: A Man of Sentiment:
Modernism for the Millions
The Films of Woody Allen
It 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 imagination.
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, and sociology.
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 usually acknowledged.)
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, and characters.
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 are.
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 makes 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 shallowness.
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 work.
The final thing to notice about Allen's handling of the argument is that at the end of it the crisis magically 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 a 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 at the end of the scene, who in the audience can take her seriously? In the 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 Far Side.
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" thoughts:
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 Hershey):
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 one?
(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.
PAST–ALVY'S MOTHER: 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.
PAST–ALVY'S MOTHER: She was once a great beauty.
PRESENT–MAX: Tessie, 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 them.
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 them.
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 and beliefs.
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 Sam 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 moments.
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" preceding it.
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 another essay.
–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.
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