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Woody Allen: where are we at?

Illustration by Emily Knapp

When I was asked to write an article about Woody Allen for the paper following my showing of the maestro’s ‘Stardust Memories’ at Film Society, I have to confess the task seemed like an alluring yet overtly poisoned chalice. Even the name seems to have become bracketed with those of Mephistopheles and Beetlejuice where if one says them too often, they might just pop out of the ether and corrupt your soul. Of course, Woody Allen isn’t a malevolent ghoul but a human being. A flawed human being, certainly [and this article would like to get as far away from the maelstrom of that court case as quickly as possible], but nonetheless one of the most visionary and interesting directors in the history of cinema.

I nearly considered writing a kind of meta-article. A sort of: how does one write about the problem of writing about Woody Allen. The man undoubtedly has an incredibly influential, certainly intensely referential and critically acclaimed oeuvre. But he also suffers, especially in the contemporary generation, from an image crisis. Even in the film ‘Weiner Dog’, released last year, his name is held up by an alternative, experimental film student as the defining frumpy character trait of the ageing Danny DeVito’s character as their dolorous pedagogue [‘ew, he probably has the Woody Allen box set’]. The peanut butter coloured outfits and cavernous slacks, stalwarts of the obsessively un-sexy costumes of both Allen’s life and films, don’t help to ease the problem in any way.

However it is here that we have just come to an interesting insight: that of the relationship between Allen’s films to his life. One might call it narcissism, but then we compare Allen to a director such as Federico Fellini and we start to see that maybe this image crisis is one of the things that gets in our way of seeing the real Woody Allen. Fellini is, in mine and a lot of other people’s opinions, the greatest auteur of cinema ever: ceaselessly inventive, decadent, self-referential, able to discuss neuroses and the problems of the human condition in such wonderfully elaborated, and, also, briskly economical terms. Allen also does these things. They are actually, cinematographically rather similar with their love of flashbacks and the constant innovations they make to describe how the world of the inner mind plays itself out in that external to oneself [think of the subtitles during Annie Hall and Alvy Singer’s first conversation in ‘Annie Hall’]. Both are also obsessed with self-image and frequently rely on the same actors to play themselves; in Fellini’s case: the wonderful Marcello Mastroianni, in Allen’s case: himself.

The difference between the two directors, however, is their relationship to culture in the more general sense. Allen is a compulsive parrot, his films peppered with quotes, paraphrases and namedropping everyone from Mozart to Freud, Balzac to Beethoven to name four of the entire pantheon encompassed in the invisible footnotes of Allen’s films. Here we get to the real crux of the genius of Woody Allen’s film making. The world of his films is an aggressive middle class one where an Ivy League degree is mandatory and most people wear glasses from having spent their life peering at the pages of untold numbers of books. The genius, however, is that Allen’s films are actually about the joy of life. Once one has read x number of books, one is equipped with lens upon quote upon paradigm by which to view realty but what Allen is saying is that those moments when one can’t quite find the right Stendhal line or the exact Liszt concerto to describe sensation are real and tangible. Allen’s films seem pessimistic, but they serve to teach us that life is about living and having lived, where the tissue of citations and quotations serves only as armour to protect us from feeling.

This is the fundamental misunderstanding of his films and the reason he is closest, cinematically, to Fellini than any other director. Life is lived in the simple cracks in-between moments of clarity and these are the precious, elliptical points that make it worth living and are worth a thousand Jung quotes.

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