Download as PDF Download PDF

Woody Allen

Sitting with the Grown Ups

Is Woody Allen a masterful example of sublimating Jewish fears into comic perspective? There is a passage in Jewish/American Philip Roth’s 1990 novel Deception where the American novelist central character talks of running into an anti-Semite on the streets of London. Later at a dinner party nobody believed he had come across someone who really would have hated Jews. “They were all amused by me, by how I had, characteristically”, Roth’s narrator says, “misconstrued the meaning of his behaviour. He was just eccentric, they told me, crazy – ‘mad’ is the euphemistic Englishism – he was just some kind of lunatic, and the incident was utterly without meaning. Except for its proving, once again, what a paranoid I am on this subject.” In Kafka’s Letters to Milena, written in the early 1920s, the writer says “from the most improbable sides Jews are threatened with danger, or let us, to be more exact, leave the dangers aside and say they are threatened with threats.”

Each resembles the Woody Allen moment of comic paranoia early in Annie Hall, where Woody insists that someone who was saying do you want was really saying Jew–want pejoratively; his friend understandably thinks he’s being over-sensitive. Woody Allen, famous for his neurotic, paranoiac and persecuted persona is, taking into account Kafka and Roth’s comments, in a long lineage of hyper-sensitive Jews. Now long before the Holocaust, Nietzsche noted that the Jewish race was not one based on land but on thought, and his comments chime well with Kafka’s comment that “the insecure position of Jews, insecure within themselves, insecure among people, would make it above all comprehensible that they consider themselves to be allowed to own only what they hold in their hands or between their teeth…” (Letters to Milena) What we want to look at though is how rarely Allen has offered the sort of perspectival tension that Roth and Kafka reveal in their work, and how this has limited the psychoanalytic exploration that is partly what Allen’s comedy is all about.

Born Allen Stuart Konigbserg in 1935 in the Bronx, Allen initially made his living as a comic writer and stand up comedian writing for amongst others the culturally prestigious New Yorker magazine, the sort of well-heeled and well-written weekly that helps us understand the sort of viewer Woody Allen’s films are aimed at. If it is the case, as we’re going to propose, that central to Allen’s work is the idea of comedy on the couch, then both the comedy and the couch are equally significant. This needn’t always be psychoanalytic, and we might recall the scene in Allen’s finest work, Manhattan, where Isaac lies on the sofa and talks into a Dictaphone, listing all the reasons to be alive as he mentions philosophers, writers, artists and musicians. It is as though he doesn’t quite trust the ground he walks on, à la Kafka, and trusts if not quite in the word as Nietzsche would define it, then at least in art. This also helps explain Allen’s characters’ love for New York and distrust of the countryside or the culturally void. Manhattan isn’t so much a landmass as a city of cultural diversity that allows Allen’s characters to have an identity that, not grounded enough in the earth, finds it in the galleries, concert halls and bookshops. Whether it is L.A. or rural America in Annie Hall, Allen seems to see in each a cultural emptiness: LA because it is a city of entertainment and macrobiotic food rather than culture and cuisine, and Connecticut untamed nature. When he was asked by Stig Björkman in Woody Allen on Woody Allen whether he could function anywhere else but New York, Allen reckoned he could: “If it’s a big city, like Paris, London, Stockholm, a real cosmopolitan place, then I think I could think of living there for a while.” The necessity lies it would seem in the cultural possibilities the city offers.

But at the same time Woody whilst showing us the Manhattan comfort zone also wants constantly to make that zone precarious in other ways, and here the neurotic dimension comes in. This is the neurosis demanding the psychoanalytic plays against the comic dimension which sees such neurosis as the source for comic release. In one scene in Annie Hall, there is a split-screen moment where the titular Annie talks of her relationship problems with Allen’s Alvy Singer, while on the other half of the screen Alvy does the same. But where Annie insists that they’re having sex all the time – about three times a week – Alvy says hardly ever, and also reckons about three times a week. We may see the truth in the conflicting perspectives on sex, but it is also a comic perspective as Allen plays one character’s expectations off against the other.

Allen’s achievement as a figure in contemporary cinema is to tap into Jewish insecurity, to play up the intellectual importance of culture in the characters’ lives, the significance of, and problems with, sex, and to provide a perspective on each that reveals a comic aspect that contains them. Though Allen has occasionally made ‘serious’ films, like Interiors, Stardust Memories and Another Woman, most of his work incorporates the comic. When we think of Allen we think of the perspective he adopts, and if we believe Manhattan to be his masterpiece it is because the perspective is if you like stronger than the comic, without at all quashing it. Where in numerous Allen films the comic means that the humour creates the perspective, in Manhattan it is the perspective which creates the humorous. If we compare for example Bananas with Manhattan this should become clear. In the earlier film Allen works basically with conceits. As he opens the film comparing a coup in a Latin American country with a sporting event as the commentator details the takeover as if it were a boxing match, so we’re amused by the incongruous but apt comparison of sports event and takeover scenario. While the defeated and shot former leader lies on the ground, the sports commentator tries to get a word out of the dying man as though he were interviewing the loser in a boxing contest. Later Allen’s character Fielding Mellish ends up joining the rebels as they try and oust the dictator who ousted the defeated leader at the beginning of the film. Mellish is determined to win back the girl he fancies in New York who left him partly because he had little interest in the radical chic politics that she supported.

Bananas offers the comic conceit but not quite a comic point of view, and this may be the difference between, say, Bananas and Annie Hall. However, Manhattan pushes beyond the comic perspective and arrives at an angle that doesn’t just allow for comedy, but that curiously subdues it. If Bananas wants the laugh and sets up a conceit to get it, Annie Hall sets up a perspective to generate laughs as we follow Alvy Singer’s life and relationship with Annie. As it opens and closes on a couple of gags that give an angle on the relationship, so Allen manages to offer up the comic and the serious in roughly equal measure as he frequently allows for asides that digress from the central relationship but gives space to comic punctuation. There is the Marshall McLuhan moment, the cocaine gag, the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs animated insert, all of which could be excised without damaging the exploration of the relationship that constitutes the story. Thus Bananas is a conceit to contain the gags and Annie Hall a romance punctuated by gags; but Manhattan contains the perspective that allows for the humorous. There are no extraneous scenes in Manhattan as Allen searches out a consistent tone that means humour can only come out of the perspective he sets in motion. This is really a question of dissatisfaction as Isaac decides to leave his lucrative job in TV for a career as a fiction writer. At the same time he is having an affair with a seventeen year old girl, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) he thinks should be out there enjoying life instead of hanging around with him, and all the other situations in the film seem to be variations on Isaac’s sense that life is unsatisfactory and people incapable of living simply and well. Whether it is Diane Keaton’s character, Mary, with whom he embarks on an affair, or his best friend, Yale, played by Michael Murphy, who is married but is also Keaton’s lover, characters are living messily.

Much of the humour in Manhattan comes out of this sense of dissatisfaction so that even reasonably broad moments are contained within this perspective. For example in one scene Mary and Isaac bump into Mary’s ex, and Isaac is flabbergasted. This was a man Mary had described as an astonishing lover, beautiful and fascinating, and all Isaac sees in front of him is a man even smaller than he is, with less hair and also a squeakier voice: and of course played by the decidedly diminutive and squeaky-voiced Wallace Shawn. This is amusingly comic, but it gains much of its delicate humour from the sense that one’s dissatisfaction in the present comes from falsifying the past. There is no reason why Shawn’s character isn’t possessed of many of the attributes Mary credits him with, and that it says much about Isaac’s projections as it does about Mary’s nostalgia when Isaac sees something rather less than a Greek God, but there is a sense that the grass elsewhere and in the past is usually greener. This scene like many other comic moments in the film reflects this; including Mary’s decision to start seeing Yale again, and Yale’s vacillation between his wife and Mary. If in Annie Hall the scene with McLuhan is funny, it is singularly funny and un-integrated. It is amusing because Woody can break with the diegesis, as he brings McLuhan in from off-screen and then, after having him disagree with the man in the cinema queue who was pontificating about McLuhan’s work, much to Alvy’s irritation, Alvy can simply look at the camera and wish if only life were really like this.

Throughout Allen’s early work the gag was stronger than the comic angle, and so when a character in Stardust Memories tells the comedian filmmaker that he preferred his earlier, funnier films, we’re saying that Manhattan is Allen’s masterpiece because the comic is contained by a deeper sense of understanding that we’re calling perspective: it is the balancing act between those early, funny films and a ‘serious’ work that doesn’t have the alibi of the comedic to allow for gratuitous digressions: the perspective is so deep that the humour must come out of the poignancy of the situations, the characters’ bad faith and misunderstandings. There is no place for the gag or digression. When we invoked Roth and Kafka at the beginning of this piece it was partly to say they were both like Allen clearly interested in a perspective on the issue of Jewishness, with hints of the humorous (Roth) or not (Kafka), where Allen’s ‘did you’ joke in Annie Hall offers no perspectivism at all. It is simply absurd that Allen believes someone saying ‘did you’ to him was the other person’s way of saying Jew, where in Roth and Kafka’s examples we should feel they have a point even if we’re not sure whether we agree with them. There is tension in the perspective.

If we’re proposing that Manhattan is Allen’s most mature work of the period we’re doing so because the film is constantly working with this sense of perspectivism over the unequivocal elements of the immediately comic. When for example at the end of the film Isaac tries to win young Tracy back just as she’s about to fly off to Europe, and after spending much of the film telling her that she’s too young for him and trying to push her away, we need to understand why Isaac feels the way he does, why Tracy is absolutely right to go ahead with her trip, and equally sense sharply the sadness of this parting. The comic could have played up Isaac’s breathtaking opportunism as he doesn’t want to be left alone and is willing to take full advantage of Tracy’s feelings for him to keep her in the States, while Tracy could have put him in his place by cruelly taking off. But there is no cruelty in Tracy’s leaving, and nothing but pain in Isaac’s acceptance that she must. This isn’t the victory of Tracy over Isaac; more the paradoxical maturity of Tracy wiser to the event than the much older man. “You’ve got to learn to have a little faith”, she says in a moment of great wisdom that the film has moved towards. It isn’t interested in the accumulative or digressive comic set-piece, but the perspectival appreciation that everybody has their reasons, even if few have much faith.

Throughout Manhattan, the film plays up the idea of point of view. Isaac’s wife has written a book about their marriage that Isaac strongly thinks isn’t fair, while early in the film before Mary and Isaac get together they argue over the merits and otherwise of certain art works in a gallery. It is true that such moments are as much comic as perspectival, but they’re also integrated enough (unlike, say, the McLuhan moment in Annie Hall) to add to the film’s wise sense of perspective by the conclusion. This isn’t to say there is no perspective in Annie Hall, and we can see evidence of it in the scene quoted where they’re both in psychoanalysis: a scene that plays up different points of view without one character being right and the other wrong, while this moment also very much connects to their later parting. But if it is strongest in Manhattan, it is also because the film visually evokes different points of view, different possibilities. At the beginning we have Isaac wondering what sort of angle he ought to take on New York as Allen films the city in a montage to Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in different seasons and at different locations. Later in the film when Mary wants to finish the relationship, we’re left with Mary off screen saying she needs to talk with him, while Isaac busies himself getting a glass of water. Our feelings are complex partly because the shot is not predictable. We feel that Mary will end it before Isaac knows that she will, as though her off-screen presence hints at her impending absence from his life. But though she is offscreen we sense her awkwardness in the telling; that she would rather not be there, and in the frame she happens not to be. Annie Hall may be a masterful examination of relationships and shows Allen moving away from the skittish comedy of Bananas and other films like Take the Money and Run and Sleeper, but it still feels caught between the comic and the wise, the comedic situation, and the wisdom of the perspectivist.

But how does all this fit into our idea of Allen being the master of comedy on the couch, as surely nobody more obviously allied comedy to psychoanalysis in cinema in the seventies than Allen? Central to it of course was neurosis. Even in Bananas, Fielding Mellish gets a scene where he goes to his psychoanalyst, while Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask was shot through with Freudian fetishism. It wasn’t really until Annie Hall, Manhattan and Stardust Memories, though, that Allen utilised it less for comic effect than emotional impact. The humour was still there, but increasingly sublimated into an indeterminate irony that didn’t leave a character at the mercy of the comic, but an agent of his own point of view.

Is this not part of the purpose of the psychoanalytic: somehow to turn the potentially absurd from the social angle into the justifiable from the personal one? Is psychoanalysis not only about having one’s past excavated, but also one’s day to day neuroses explained as justifiable? A good example would be Freud’s idea of the slip of the tongue, or parapraxis. From the comic point of view it is of course a moment of humorous embarrassment; from the analytic one an opportunity not to laugh at the social error, but enquire into the personal nature of the person who made the slip: “the most usual, and at the same time the most striking kind of slips of the tongue, however”, Freud says in Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, “are those in which one says the precise opposite of what one intended to say.”  In Annie Hall Allen offers up the Jew comment as a variation of the Freudian slip, but uses it chiefly for comic effect over the sort of analytic disturbance explored by Roth and Kafka, as Alvy takes it in the most offensive way possible, while we obviously see his interpretation as idiotic and consequently singularly funny.

Now Allen has always been suspicious of comedy, and even American films more generally;  often rating works by Bergman, Fellini and others high above his own. “The American cinema was basically entertainment and escapism” he says in Woody Allen on Woody Allen. “The European cinema – or at least those European films we saw here – was much more confrontational and much more grown up.” If he is right to elevate Bergman, Fellini and others, though, it shouldn’t be that there work is a priori better than Allen’s because it is serious and his is lighter; more that its seriousness is coherent, that moments of humour and meaning are intricately connected. Frequently in Allen’s films this isn’t the case, and so Bananas merely takes from the political what it needs to pursue the comic, while in the much more integrated Annie Hall there are still plenty moments that could easily have been excised and many that were, according to his editor Ralph Rosenblum. “As the movie evolved [in the editing suite], we struggled, twisted, stretched, and pulled in order to build a story rationale into the transitions” he says in When the Shooting Stops.

What we’ve been arguing here is that Allen occasionally manages to achieve both integration and perspective and never more so than in Manhattan, and to a lesser degree in Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, and also perhaps later in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives and one or two others. Frequently, though, the gag undermines the coherency of perspective. For example in Annie Hall there is a scene where Alvy blatantly contradicts himself – earlier he reckoned it would be a really great idea for Annie to go to adult education classes and improve her education; later on when he reckons she might be having an affair with one of her teachers, he insists adult education classes are pointless and phony. In such a moment we’re too readily aware of Alvy’s contradictoriness and not enough of a person’s internal contradictions. A perspective on Alvy could have shown why he possesses such ambivalences, and, while still funny, wouldn’t have put Alvy at the service of the joke, but the joke at the service of the character. Out of this respect for perspective can also of course come a higher degree of coherence: a sense that a character has his or her reasons, and that the comic comes out of these rationales. A scene like the one in Annie Hall where Alvy and Annie have different gripes based on exactly the same sexual information puts that perspective into context, even if Allen by juxtaposing the scenes in a split screen plays up the ease of their differences. When Jonathan Rosenbaum in Placing Movies says that Allen’s heroes remain fundamentally stand-up personalities this is perhaps another way of saying the comedy isn’t sustained through character but to the detriment of it. A good joke is worth more than a consistent characterisation.

We wouldn’t necessarily agree then with Allen himself that comedy is a lower form than drama, and we wouldn’t even necessarily agree that incoherence is an a priori lesser mode than coherence – from the Marx brothers to Buñuel, incoherence has been a narrative strategy – but that only some comedies achieve the consistency of the dramatic, by making the lines, the story and the characters coherent, and their perspective complex. What we’re suggesting is that Allen’s often fail to cohere (where the Marx brothers and Bunuel are working quite deliberately with the possibilities of incoherence): a point Allen more or less makes in the Björkman book when saying he “just runs out of story impetus after a certain time”. Allen’s reputation as a ‘serious comedian’, then, shouldn’t rest on his numerous cultural references (Kierkegaard, Garcia Marquez, Van Gogh etc.), but in the sustained coherence of the film’s vision. If Allen so often sat at the children’s table of comedy, it was because he often couldn’t find the stamina to produce the sustained work that could justify a place at the adult’s. There was a certain skittishness that made sustained narrative difficult. Allen’s background in stand-up comedy and his New Yorker style sense of comic caricature may have allowed him an impressively consistent career (pretty much a film every twelve months), but it has produced at the same time relatively few sustained narratives. However, to produce even one of Manhattan’s quality, and a handful of other significant works, surely allows him an occasional meal with the grown-ups, in between bouts, perhaps, on the psychoanalyst’s couch.


©Tony McKibbin