Woody Allen: Whine, Women and Song

The influence of the writers, artists, and composers a student is exposed to in those first two years of college surfaces again and again in Allen's films: the Emily Dickinson verse-trading in Crimes, the Edna St. Vincent Millay volume poised on Mia Farrow's nightstand in Alice, the e.e. cummings balderdash in Hannah, the two-credit Classical Music Appreciation selections Allen uses in Crimes, Hannah, and Love and Death. The idea of having a character escape from a film (The Purple Rose of Cairo), thought by others to derive from the old Buster Keaton film Sherlock, Jr., in fact comes directly from Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, a staple of those Introduction to Western Drama courses you get in your second year of college (maybe this is where Keaton got it, too). The scene where Allen recovers from a suicide attempt by going to see a Marx Brothers movie is a direct lift from the first part of Albert Camus' The Stranger, where the protagonist Meursault, after returning from his mother's funeral, goes to see a movie by the French Charlie Chaplin, Fernandel. (Camus' role in Western Civilization is largely to serve as a bridge over which confused teenage boys can pass from the adolescent sass of J.D. Salinger to the mature full-blooded nihilism of Franz Kafka.) Camus, like Woody, was a master of Posing the Big Questions, as if this were the same as Presenting the Big Answers. He was French, of course.

This use of other people's material as a crutch runs through-out Allen's work, from excerpting famous movies to showing photographs of landmark buildings to the incessant use of established Jazz Age classics on his soundtracks. Allen's whole obsession with George Gershwin and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and the rest of that crew is a trifle unsettling. Maybe he's a snob or maybe he's too cheap to hire Maurice Jarre, but after 17 virtually interchangeable soundtracks the joke is starting to wear thin. Instead of commissioning a brand-new soundtrack that would seek to evoke emotions related to the images on the screen, Allen uses enormously famous pieces of music that already have their own emotional connotations, and then seeks to hitch a ride on them. Although this may be more sophisticated than using Bon Jovi's Greatest Hits or the Best of the Temptin' Temptations, it's still cheating. It's borrowing from other people's battle-tested, well-established work to achieve artistic objectives through the loudspeakers that you're supposed to be achieving through the lens.

And it's incredibly anachronistic. A musician himself and a big-time Louis Armstrong fan, Woody Allen's most profound musical influence is probably the rhumba. (His only experiment with hip music was The Lovin' Spoonful in What's Up, Tiger Lily? The Lovin' Spoonful were never hip.) Allen is clearly one of those people who was born longing for the good old days, hearkening back to the music of an earlier, simpler era (when folks only had the Depression and the Gestapo to worry about). But unlike Martin Scorsese, who fills his films with music that was popular when he was young, Woody Allen fills his movies with music that was popular when his parents were young.

Moreover, you're not allowed to be in a Woody Allen movie unless you're the sort of person who always goes over to the turntable to put on an Art Tatum record. The rare characters who express any interest in music recorded more recently than Benny Goodman's "Stompin' at the Savoy" are treated as hopeless buffoons: Shelley Duvall as a starstruck Dylan fan in Annie Hall, Dianne Wiest as a less-than-believable punk rock enthusiast in Hannah. It's worth noting that Wiest eventually undergoes an intellectual conversion from the Duke of Earl to the Duke of Ellington, hooking up with Allen in the jazz section of Tower Records (though she's carrying a copy of "Pagliacci"), while Allen abandons Duvall in bed so he can go kill a giant spider at Diane Keaton's apartment. A fitting fate for anyone who would rather listen to Bobby Dylan than Bobby Short. Barbarian slut.

Don't get me wrong. I find Allen's films enormously appealing, and one of the reasons Allen's fans like him so much is that in his own films he gets to fire off all the snappy comebacks we wish we could uncork in real life, but never can because we don't have him as our scriptwriter--and because the people we wish to insult have tattoos. Allen, like Groucho before him, gets to mercilessly tee off on his victims, and they just have to sit there and take it. Of course, Allen's victims do not have tattoos. Like Tom Wolfe, the only other great American satirist of the past quarter-century, Allen is one of the most accomplished hypocrites of our time, earning his living by pillorying the social milieu in which he is clearly most comfortable, eviscerating people who are obviously his dinner companions.

The logical result of this two-facedness is the absurd finale in Alice, where the wealthy Mia Farrow abandons her Upper East Side penthouse life to visit Mother Teresa, then chooses to raise her kids in the slums. One anxiously awaits the moment when Moishe's Movers pull up in front of the Allen-Farrow Central Park East digs to effect their decampment to the more spiritually uplifting environs of the Lower East Side. One anxiously awaits that. One also anxiously awaits the moment when Woody and his lefty uptown buddies abandon their Park Avenue apartments, grab some baseball bats and go over to Jersey to break up a Neo-Nazi rally instead of writing scathing satirical Op-Ed pieces in The New York Times. One very anxiously waits that.

One of the greatest shocks caused by the interminable Interiors was the public's realization that Woody Allen, the Ingmar Bergman Imitator, could show such compassion for the very same people that Woody Allen, the Satirist, had torn to shreds in his earlier films. How could we have known while watching Sleeper that when Diane Keaton played an airhead poetess so dumb she had to be told that butterflies do not turn into caterpillars, she was really only rehearsing her role as a pretentious poetess in Interiors? And how could we have known when Allen was heaping abuse on self-centered artists in his early films that in Interiors he would introduce us to the dominant theme in most of his subsequent work: that the greatest torment a human being can suffer is not death or blinding or the loss of a child or leprosy or even eviction from one's co-op, but not being able to express oneself artistically.

Characters afflicted with this horrid curse include Sam Waterston, the aspiring novelist of September, and Dianne Wiest, who, in addition to being a failed actress in Hannah, is also a failed screenplay writer in that same dull movie. Then there's Woody himself as a failed documentary filmmaker in Crimes, as a frustrated TV show writer in Manhattan, and as a frustrated stand-up comic in Annie Hall. We also have a failed writer (Diane Keaton) in Manhattan, a frustrated singer (Keaton again) in Annie Hall and a failed TV writer (Farrow) in Alice. New York is in fact a city filled with failed writers, dancers and musicians, but most of them have the good grace to die or go to work for Merrill Lynch or something. In Woody's universe, they simply hang around the Museum of Modern Art and whine.

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