Woody Allen: Whine, Women and Song

What is one to do in a world where it is so hard to achieve artistic success? Well, you can always try sleeping with your best friend's wife or lover (Play It Again, Sam_; Manhattan; A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy; September). If that doesn't work, try sleeping with your wife's sister (Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Alice/i>). And if that still doesn't work, you might consider suicide (Interiors, Crimes, Hannah). Or, in a pinch, you could always take in a flick. After attempting suicide in Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen is restored to what passes for sanity by going to a Marx Brothers movie. Allen, who grew up in the 1940s, belongs to the first generation of Americans to regard films as something other than mere diversions. (This is an idea imported from France, and like most ideas imported from France, it is basically stupid.) "You've seen too many movies," Martin Landau says in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Seen too many movies? Hell, he makes too many movies--21 and counting.

The movies about movies, the quotations from movies, the parodies of movies, the obsession of characters in the movies with movies (usually The Sorrow and the Pity) make Woody Allen seem more like an archivist or a rap sampler than a director. What, after all, are his movies about? In the great films by Renoir, Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Ford, Godard, and Satyajit Ray, the characters are concerned with such issues as war, fate, fascism, injustice, poverty, deceit, betrayal, and having one hell of a good time with another human being. They are not obsessed with getting to the Bleecker Street Cinema's 2:35 showing of Grand Illusion so they'll still have enough time to screw their neurotic sister-in-law before schlep-ping uptown to see the 6:45 showing of Rules of the Game at the Thalia. One of the major differences between Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen is that Ingmar Bergman's characters have never seen Kurosawa's films.

In one sense, what we've got on our hands here are Lite Foreign Films: pretentious but witty fare leavened by pleasant music and some good jokes. In another sense, we've got the world's highest-class nostalgia act. With its sex-without-genitalia-or-even-under-wear and its lack of political conviction, the Woody Allen universe makes Fred and Ginger's look like Hiroshima. Consider Woody Allen's Manhattan. Although New York is one of the most ethnically rambunctious cities in the world, there are virtually no blacks or Hispanics in his movies, and those who do appear are maids, doormen, masseurs, convicts or Bobby Short. There's virtually no violence in Woody Allen movies: the murder in Crimes is carried off with such taste and civility it looks like Noel Coward broke in and brained Anjelica Huston; and the botched assault on Kristin Griffith in Interiors still gets my vote for Least Successful Cinematic Rape/1970-79 Division.

Attempts to deal with more serious matters are often jarring, as in the thoroughly unconvincing scene in Crimes when Allen reacts to the news that a man his sister met through the personals has tied her up and defecated on her. It is fair to say that Allen, a kindly, gentle soul, has no real appetite for unpleasantness, which is why comparisons to Bergman are so ludicrously inappropriate. Bergman is all about toads in the bread loaves, defiled virgins, flogged schoolchildren, guys in black cloaks who want to play chess. When push comes to shove, Woody Allen can never pull the trigger, which is why Broadway Danny Rose forgives the two-timing Tina Vitale; which is why Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo ends up smiling at the movie screen like an idiot. The only thing Woody Allen has in common with Ingmar Bergman is Sven Nykvist.

Woody Allen's problem is that he is trying to make movies with a message when all he really has to work with is an attitude. Woody Allen's idea of serious filmmaking is to pose the big questions, then turn around and admit that he really doesn't have any answers. He has done this time and again, and he's not getting any closer to being Tolstoy. A century that has lived through Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Pol Pot doesn't really need any smart-ass New York film-maker to tell it that life isn't fair. And a society with AIDS, crack babies, and institutionalized poverty could care less about women in furs who want to meet Mother Teresa.

Woody Allen is a big New York Knicks fan, but the Knicks suck, so let's finish up with an anecdote about the Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan, captain of the Bulls, is the greatest basketball player to ever play the game, a man who can literally do anything with a round ball. Is Michael Jordan satisfied with being the world's greatest basketball player? Of course not; he wants to become golfer. Fine. But when Michael Jordan does hang up his jock and starts slicing the ball into the water trap, he shouldn't be surprised or offended when people say, "We liked you better when you played for the Bulls," or, "Go back to doing what you do best."

Woody Allen is the Michael Jordan of comedy. When he makes a funny film (this includes The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, and Zelig) nobody does it better. When he makes the stuff with the women gazing out the windows and rearranging the minimalist vases, it's time to fetch the sand wedge. And he should stop blaming his fans for reminding him. After getting that early fix from Sleeper, Bananas, Love and Death and Take the Money and Run, we are always waiting for the robot clothiers named Ginsberg & Cohen, for the giant banana peels. We are always waiting for the one-liners about "weird and futuristic" creatures with "the body of a crab and the head of a social worker."

We are always waiting for the Woody Allen who declared that he could never get involved with any religion that advertises in Popular Mechanics, waiting for the "teleological existential atheist" who believed that "there is an intelligence to the universe, with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey." We are always waiting for the cellist in the marching band, for the convict with the soap gun trapped in a thunderstorm, for the man who observed that although "sex without love is an empty experience, as empty experiences go, it's one of the best." The Woody Allen the world needs is not the man who asks "Why are we here?" and "What is the meaning of Life?" but the one who asks, "If Christ was a carpenter, what does he charge for bookshelves?"

And will he take Diner's Club?


Joe Queenan is a New York-based freelance writer. He wrote about "Young Gums" in our March issue.

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