Woody Allen: Whine, Women and Song
Woody Allen loves to make, and remake, the same story--sometimes as a comedy, sometimes as a drama, sometimes as both. Joe Queenan (and just about everybody else) likes the earlier, funnier films.
In 1980 Woody Allen made an amusing but cynical film called Stardust Memories about a famous director who is sick of hearing his fans say, "We enjoy your films, particularly the early, funny ones." Master of understatement that he is, Allen was successful in conveying his middle-aged angst to his admirers. But he was not successful in persuading them to stop saying, "We enjoy your films, particularly the early, funny ones." The most that the folks who had been with him since Take the Money and Run were willing to do was award him a cultural Purple Heart for valor in a doomed cause (Interiors). But after the dismal failure of that 1978 hooterama, his first foray into "serious" cinema, most folks figured the guy would go back to his bread and butter, or, as he says in What's Up, Tiger Lily? to his "various breads, and various butters" for good.
But he didn't, and he hasn't. Though he occasionally makes fine, entertaining, funny movies such as Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo, If you take your eyes off the Woodster for five minutes he'll be right back to the suicidal interior decorators and the blind rabbis dancing with brides.
The sad fact is, those extraterrestrials in Stardust Memories had this guy pegged. "You wanna do mankind a real service?" they say. "Tell funnier jokes." You tell him, guys. What mankind needs is Howard Cosell broadcasting a live presidential assassination. What mankind does not need is a woman in a restaurant approaching Gena Rowlands to tell her that her lecture on "Ethics and Moral Responsibility" changed her life. What mankind needs are burglars being interrupted in mid-heist by a telephone call from "Name That Tune." What mankind does not need is Mariel Hemingway leaving a message on Woody's answering machine telling him that Grand Illusion is being shown on TV that evening. What mankind does need are jokes like "Don't knock masturbation; it's sex with some-one I love." And "Those who can't...teach, and those who can't teach, teach gym." What mankind does not need are lines like: "I accept your condemnation," and "Did you read my novel?"
In recent years, Allen seems to have agreed to com-promise, alleviating the Sturm und Drang of his melo-dramas like Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors with some high-octane comic material. These hybrids are amusing, but they don't quite pull it off be-cause while the comic material rings true, the dramatic material often seems stiff, rehearsed, self-conscious, faked. Woody Allen declaring that show business is "worse than dog-eat-dog; it's dog-doesn't-return-other-dog's-phone-calls" is hilarious. Michael Caine ruminating about marriage, pro-creation, or anything is not.
The bitter truth, which has been repeated time and again by critics far wiser and better dressed than I, is that none of Woody Allen's later movies is as clever, entertaining, or memorable as the early films--_Sleeper_, Love and Death, Bananas, and Take the Money and Run--because, like Jimi Hendrix, the Ramones, and even the Beatles, the more Allen learns about his craft, the less fun he is to be around. But, with the exception of the deadly Interiors, the claustrophobic September (Interiors II), and the dreary Another Woman, all of his films are worth seeing, if only because this is the age of John Hughes, John Milius, John Candy, Jo(h)n Peters, John Belushi's brother, and various people named Adrian. Woody Allen, whatever his failings, does not make movies for morons. Most directors do. Of course, most directors are morons.
A great writer, a great comedian, a great comic actor, and a great employer of great Swedish cameramen, Woody Allen is as good a director as a person can be without being great--like Bergman or Kurosawa or Fellini or Renoir or any of those other guys who never got to work with Diane Keaton. Because his films are literate, intelligent, visually opulent, beautifully played, and filled with some of the best jokes ever ("Sex and death. Two things that come once in a lifetime. But at least after death you're not nauseous"), Woody Allen's die-hard fans have been willing to gloss over the fact that he keeps making the same movie, with the same plot lines, the same soundtrack, the same settings, the same actors, the same jokes about postcoital nausea, and the same pretentious references to Kierkegaard for 25 years.
Woody won't let you forget the geniuses whose heights he aspires to: he has long exhibited a self-conscious need to refer in his films to the work of his betters, often showing snippets of their movies in his. Why? One theory is that Woody Allen has never outgrown his formative intellectual experiences at City College and at New York University, both of which he attended for one year. That's why one can say that his movies are, in the best possible sense of the word, "sophomoric."
The humorous but superficial conversations involving Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, McLuhan, etc., that occur again and again throughout Allen's films are not really the way grown-up pretentious people talk in New York, but rather the way pretentious college kids talk every-where. (This was particularly true in the '50s and '60s when students caught anywhere in North America without a copy of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha or The Glass Bead Game were abducted by the Weathermen, hacked to pieces, and buried in swamps.) There is no evidence that Allen has ever read the philosophers he cites, but even if he has, he certainly doesn't attempt to incorporate any of their theories into what are fundamentally commercial films. (I am certainly not suggesting that this would be a good idea.) The references are thrown out as jokes or, more often, as window dressing. This passion for the hifalutin resembles the healthy fascination with esoterica that many college students feel when they are first introduced to the great books and can stop reading Harlan Ellison. But the references have no other importance; they're simply there to create a mood of serious jejunitude and total heaviosity.