A Modern Existential Hero

BY JAMES ATLAS
FOUR FILMS OF WOODY ALLEN
by Woody Allen.
Random House, $19.95; $9.95 paper.
THERE IS A PERSISTENT pressure on artists in America, where such a high value is placed upon novelty, to satisfy an impatient public. In order to maintain their reputations—or is it just their celebrity?—they have to be innovative; the people demand it. But once they have made it new, then what? They’re faulted for having forsaken the very qualities that made them famous. “He’s not funny anymore,” complains a producer in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, dismissing the celebrated director’s new film. His fans declare their passion for his movies, but always single out “the early funny ones.”
It’s not only the audience that hungers for the new. The artist, too, eventually tires of what he has perfected, feels confined by his style and eager for new challenges. Why should he go on doing what he already knows how to do? This is Woody Allen’s predicament. Having established himself as one of the comic geniuses in the history of film, he made a serious film—Interiors—only to have critics dismiss it as pretentious, wooden, a poor imitation of Bergman (which it was). “You’re a comedian,” a creature from outer space reminds him in Stardust, Memories. “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes”— the same advice Pauline Kael dispensed in The New Yorker. Since then, in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Allen has more or less obeyed his bullying critics, retreating to a whimsical, ironic style that is far from the pure comedy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex and those studies of contemporary New York manners, Annie Hall and Manhattan. But it’s clear that he hasn’t resolved in his own mind whether what he does is art or entertainment—a distinction that matters more to him than to anyone else.
Allen is such a vivid comic presence that he often vitiates his own serious intent simply by showing up on the screen with his glasses and his Brooklyn accent. He is funny whether he wants to be or not. Reading the four screenplays Random House has just issued (Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories) without the distracting spectacle of Allen himself cavorting before the camera, one comes away with a clearer sense of how serious a writer he is. Like many great humorists, Allen has made self-doubt a comic theme, but the perpetual dissatisfaction of his familiar screen persona acquires in his written work a poignance it doesn’t have in his movies, where Allen is just, well, Allen—an actor whose bewilderment and anguish, however brilliantly depicted, are simply a sophisticated routine, a shtick. (It’s notable that he doesn’t appear in Interiors, his only “serious” film, as if he sensed that being on camera would spoil the mood.)
The screenplays Random House has published are shooting scripts—that is, exact transcripts of the films, with the action supplied in italics by the publisher. They reproduce every stammered syllable (and, given the willfully tentative poses of Allen and Diane Keaton, that’s a lot of stammering), every adlibbed “yeah” and “oh.” Even so, they reveal a faultless mastery of our contemporary idiom in all its equivocation and defensive irony—the style of the seventies. “Photography’s interesting, ‘cause, you know, it’s—it’s a new art form, and a, uh, a set of aesthetic criteria have not emerged yet,” Allen babbles in Annie Hall, trying to impress the girl he has just picked up. “You don’t know what love means. I don’t know what it means,” he says, berating Tracy, his seventeen-year-old girlfriend in Manhattan. “Nobody out there knows what the hell’s going on.” The jargon, the blurry grammar, the groping declarations of uncertainty: this is the language of our time, the way people actually talk, and it’s a good deal harder to write than it looks. Ann Beattie has mastered it in her stories, and John Updike in Rabbit Is Rich, but Allen has made this nervous, bantering vernacular a dominant motif; his movies are about people’s failure to express themselves, to say what it is they really want. The scene in Annie Hall where Allen and Keaton trade cliches while subtitles supply their innerthoughts is a perfect illustration of his theme.
Of course, Allen’s cinematic version of himself is more than just another inarticulate New Yorker bumbling through life; his wit is inexhaustible, his gift for the one-liner an innate ability, like perfect pitch. When Annie haphazardly parks her car, he says: “We can walk to the curb from here.” When his friend Rob suggests they move to Los Angeles, he protests: “I don’t wanna live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.” And so on, scene after scene, film after film. So natural is this impulse that it’s as if Allen can’t avoid making jokes, even when he wants to be serious; in Interiors, the Jewish housewife who marries into a proper WASP household boasts that her son runs an art gallery “in the lobby in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas”—and invariably breaks up the audience. It’s the only authentic line in the film.
That Allen is less than gratified by this gift is painfully evident in Stardust Memories, where he protests vehemently against the comic role to which he’s been condemned. When an envious childhood classmate, now a cabdriver, complains about his lot, the director says, “We live in a—in a society that puts a big value on jokes, you know?” It’s no big deal. What Allen really wants is to be considered a director in the tradition of Bergman and Fellini—whom he emulates with self-conscious embarrassment, forgetting that imitation is a crucial component of art. He is tormented by the distance between their art and his, between what he considers the serious and the frivolous.
Yet this incessant self-deprecation masks a resentment of the very seriousness to which he aspires. Like every disciple, Allen isn’t content simply to admire his masters; he wants to conquer them. The ambition to be serious contends in him with a hostility toward such contemporary embodiments of seriousness as academics and intellectuals. “What have you got against intellectuals?” an aggressive young woman de-
mands in Stardust Memories. “You really feel threatened by them.” Eager to display his familiarity with the lexicon of cultural allusions that show one to be “up” on the important subjects, he refers glancingly to Kafka and Kierkegaard, Strindberg and Thomas Mann, yet disparages those who specialize in such matters. There is an edge of malice to his jokes about Dysentery (the merger of Commentary and Dissent), the professors with chairs in history and philosophy (“two more chairs and they got a dining-room set”), Annie’s “incredible crap course, ‘Contemporary Crisis in Western Man.’ ” “It’s all mental masturbation,” Allen snarls.
What’s strange about this attitude is that his own characters are right out of the personals column of The New York Review of Books. In Manhattan, Ike— played by Allen—gives up a lucrative job in television to write a book about “decaying values,” his lesbian ex-wife is a novelist, Diane Keaton plays a literary critic, and Ike’s friend Yale (there must be some significance in that name) is at work on a biography of Eugene O’Neill. And in Interiors, Keaton plays a wellknown poet married to a failed novelist. Somehow, though, these characters never come through as writers, especially the poet, who complains to her psychiatrist, “Do I really care if a handful of my poems are read after I’m gone forever?” and comforts her blocked husband with “Who cares what the critics think?” When her sister compliments her on a poem she read in The New Yorker—“A poem called ‘Wondering.’ It was very beautiful”—Keaton dismisses it as “much too ambiguous.” The scene where she sits moodily at her desk writing a poem is about as convincing a portrayal of the act of composition as the one in Julia where Jane Fonda pecked feverishly away at a typewriter. These writers are so earnest that they’re unreal; does Woody Allen think that poets and novelists are different from everyone else? The writers I know are intensely interested in gossip and money; they read Page Six of The New York Post more avidly than Partisan Review. You don’t hear them dropping Jorge Luis Borges and Isak Dinesen into their conversation.
And it’s not only his characters who display a penchant for easy literary references; Allen himself is unfailingly facile about the writers and terms he employs. In Manhattan, both Allen and Keaton refer to “negative capability”— Keats’s phrase for the state of being “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—clearly without the faintest sense of w’hat it means. Maybe this is the point, but even if it is, such jokes seem superficial and easy. And there is something disheartening about his jocular references in Annie Hall to Sylvia Plath— an “interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic, by the college-girl mentality.” (This is supposed to be funny?)
WELL, NO ONE expects Woody Allen to be Lionel Trilling (except maybe Woody Allen), and he has clearly read enough to exploit his talent for mimicry. His stories (collected in Side Effects, Getting Even, and Without Feathers) are masterly satires of Ibsen, Beckett, Camus, the Bible, philosophy, detective fiction, mysteries, literary memoirs, and the letters columns of highbrow journals. “Why go through with this hollow charade called life?” asks a brooding character in one of Allen’s existential spoofs. “Why, except that somewhere within us a voice says, ‘Live.’ Always, from some inner region, we hear the command, ‘Keep living!’ Cloquet recognized the voice; it was his insurance salesman. Naturally, he thought—Fishbein doesn’t want to pay off.” “Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer,” recalls the author of “A Twenties Memory.” “In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she said, ‘No.’ ” “I keep wondering if there is an afterlife,” confesses Allen in a Dostoevskian mood, “and if there is will they be able to break a twenty?” He has an exact ear for the styles he parodies: the terse, solemn parables of Kafka (“A man approaches a palace. Its only entrance is guarded by some fierce Huns who will only let men named Julius enter”); the compulsive skepticism of philosophy (“Can we actually ‘know’ the universe? My God, it’s hard enough finding your way around in Chinatown”); the enigmatic notations found in writers’ notebooks (“Should I marry W.? Not if she won’t tell me the other letters in her name”).
The common element here is the juxtaposition of the portentous, or “literary,” phrase and the ordinary one (“Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends”), which suddenly deflates it. And for Allen, nothing is more deflating than his own New York Jewish milieu. It is enough to invoke a name (“Nat Zipsky,” “Moses Goldworm”) or to imagine Van Gogh as a dentist, to mention corned beef, sour cream, or herring, for the joke to work. As the book reviewers say, I laughed out loud. But there is something empty about this sort of humor, a manic, repetitive note that recalls the insistent, self-deprecating patter of a stand-up comic. After a while, the ironic turn becomes monotonous, predictable; is there anything that can’t be made fun of? one wonders, reading “The Schmeed Memoirs,” a Nazi barber’s recollections of Hitler and the Third Reich.
Allen has written one flawless story in a different voice: “The Shallowest Man,” in which one of his typical New York characters visits a dying acquaintance every day in order to seduce a nurse who works on the floor. Debating the morality of his conduct, his cardplaying cronies offer their various interpretations— that he was an opportunist; a man whom love had taught to overcome his fears of mortality; a source of comfort to the dying man despite his selfish motive—until one of them puts in: “Who cares what the point of the story is? If it even has a point. It was an entertaining anecdote. Let’s order.” Even the most obvious behavior is unfailingly complicated, in both its motivations and its consequences. “Iskowitz experienced a closeness,” says one of the cardplayers. “He died comforted. That it was motivated by Mendel’s lust for the nurse—so?” No interpretation is certain to be the right one; good and evil are ambiguous: simple truths, to be sure, yet Allen’s parable illustrates them in a plain, direct style reminiscent of Chekhov or Isaac Bashevis Singer.
But Allen is essentially a dramatist, a writer of dialogue, and it is in his plays that he achieves his best literary effects. There is little of the stammering, inarticulate dialogue characteristic of his films in Play It Again, Sam and The Floating Light Bulb; they have a fluent clarity necessary for the stage. The Floating Light Bulb, about an awkward, gifted boy intent on practicing his magic tricks amid the squalor of his family’s Brooklyn flat (a situation treated in several of Allen’s films), owes a great deal to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, but the predicament of this forlorn boy is pure Allen. The sardonic mother, afflicted with dreams of a great career for her son and memories of her own illusory promise; the ineffectual father, a petty gambler who tries to salvage his dignity by pretending that his number is about to come up: these parents are more plausible, more realized as characters, than any of the neurotic New Yorkers in Allen’s films.
Pathos is a mood Allen generally confines to the stage; his films have become increasingly bitter and abrasive. The famous director in Stardust Memories is full of contempt both for his audience, depicted as a gallery of grotesques right out of Fellini, and for himself. “Hey, diddid anybody read on the front page of the Times that matter is decaying?” he says, hectoring his coterie. “There’s not gonna be anything left . . . I’m not talking about my stupid little films here. I’m—Uh, eventually there’s not gonna be any, any Beethoven or Shakespeare, or ...” One is tempted to answer the way Alvy Singer’s mother does in Annie Hall when he refuses to do his homework because the universe is expanding: “What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!”
Like the universe, Allen’s ego seems to be expanding. An unpleasant arrogance has crept into his films. The motif of being besieged by fans becomes relentless in Stardust Memories, where he is forever signing autographs, fighting off women, and playing to a wildly appreciative audience. But this disturbing megalomania is just another symptom of self-doubt and insecurity. Terrified that he is only a frivolous entertainer, Allen dwells on others’ misery (“Why is there so much human suffering?”; “I-I look around the world, and all I see is human suffering”), assuming that to mention it is enough to establish his credentials as a serious artist.
But what really troubles Allen, I suspect, is his success, which he can atone for only by insisting that he’s not just a consummate entertainer, a director of great social comedies—as if that weren’t enough—but a modern existential hero haunted by the prospect of nothingness. What Allen wants—or what he professes to want—is intellectual respectability. The author’s notes to The Floating Light Bulb and Allen’s three collections of stories all end: “His one regret in life is that he is not someone else.” I believe it.