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Ed Driscoll

I think he lost me after ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’

March 31st, 2011 - 7:15 pm

As Kathy Shaidle writes, “Watching Annie Hall and Manhattan (and, yes, Interiors) as a teenager gave me a much needed glimpse into a viable alternative existence to life in my working class factory town:”

And seeing Allen’s character as a child, saying of his classmates, “Even then, I knew they were all idiots” was one of the most liberating moments of my life. I heard an audible “click” in my brain. Maybe everything was going to be OK, as long as I stayed alive long enough to get the hell out of there.

Naturally, I realize now that I would have been happier, sooner, if only my Hollywood-inspired ideal of adulthood had been the movies of, who? Shit, I dunno… Hal Needham?. (At least then I’d have learned how to drive.) But Allen’s films were the booster rockets that got me off the launch pad.

Then came the inevitable disillusionment. Allen’s bizarroworld affair thingie with his stepdaughter shattered my friends and I, who had also grown up hanging on his every word and film. This is true: they gathered at my apartment a few hours after the news broke that afternoon and we had a group freak-out that lasted well after the sun set. (I distinctly remember that a couple of us didn’t even sit down during this lengthy cathartic get together; we just stomped around angrily. Luckily, I lived on the ground floor.)

No group freak-out for me after reading the news of Woody and Soon-Yi, but there was certainly a huge sense of devastation. With Bogie, John Wayne and Cary Grant all long since gone, Woody was in a sense, the last Hollywood actor whom we believed — or wanted to believe — his onscreen persona matched what he was like off-screen. But then, welcome to the 1990s, in which Woody, OJ, and Bill Clinton were a trio of men leading charmed lives in front of the cameras, and hiding brutish personas offscreen.

Kathy links to a profile of Woody in Slate by Juliet Lapidos titled, “I’ve Seen Every Woody Allen Movie — Here’s what I’ve learned.” Lapidos writes, “One might detect in my behavior a trace of the repetition compulsion that animates Allen.”

Think of it as the Woodman’s version of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence; after all, so many of Woody’s movies were the original Shows About Nothing, something a perceptive Joan Didion profile of Woody from 1979 foreshadows. Written at arguably the apex of Allen’s popularity– post Manhattan but pre-Stardust Memories, doesn’t this sound like a warm-up for the writer’s guide for Seinfeld?

When Natalie Gittelson of The New York Times Magazine recently asked Woody Allen how his own analysis was going after twenty-two years, he answered this way: “It’s very slow…but an hour a day, talking about your emotions, hopes, angers, disappointments, with someone who’s trained to evaluate this material—over a period of years, you’re bound to get more in touch with feelings than someone who makes no effort.”

Well, yes and (apparently) no. Over a period of twenty-two years “you’re bound” only to get older, barring nasty surprises. This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career — something to work at, work on, “make an effort” for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s “relationships” — is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents. In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school. The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, “class brains,” acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life. (The one exception is “Tracy,” the Mariel Hemingway part in Manhattan, another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family.

Tracy’s mother and father are covered in a single line: they are said to be in London, finding Tracy an apartment. When Tracy wants to go to JFK she calls a limo. Tracy put me in mind of an American-International Pictures executive who once advised me, by way of pointing out the absence of adult characters in AIP beach movies, that nobody ever paid $3 to see a parent.)

These faux adults of Woody Allen’s have dinner at Elaine’s, and argue art versus ethics. They share sodas, and wonder “what love is.” They have “interesting” occupations, none of which intrudes in any serious way on their dating. Many characters in these pictures “write,” usually on tape recorders. In Manhattan, Woody Allen quits his job as a television writer and is later seen dictating an “idea” for a short story, an idea which, I am afraid, is also the “idea” for the picture itself: “People in Manhattan are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves that keep them from dealing with more terrifying unsolvable problems about the universe.”

And speaking of nihilism, in in a way, we probably should have seen Woody’s affair with Soon-Yi coming in at least one sense — 1989′s Crimes and Misdemeanors posits a morally nihilistic universe in which Martin Landau’s character can kill his former mistress with impunity, when she demands he leave his wife* for her. Or as Lapidos writes:

Allen divides the cast along moral lines: There are those who believe there is a moral framework to the universe (with or without God), those who reject notions of value and responsibility, and those who haven’t yet decided which side to take. The central character, Judah (Martin Landau), is in the third camp, but when his former mistress Dolores (Anjelica Huston) threatens to reveal their past to his wife, he ventures into the second. Not willing to accept the repercussions on his marriage, he has Dolores murdered, and manages to live without guilt. Occasionally heavy-handed—you can tell who’s who because (I’m not kidding) the moral characters wear glasses—the film’s refutation of the concept that murder will out is nevertheless affecting. I’m certain that any non-psychopath will feel positively disturbed when Judah embraces his wife in the last scene.

Here is a character just like so many others Allen created—rich, successful, Jewish, brainy—who, unlike so many others, finds contentment through nihilism. For the nameless woman at the museum in Play It Again, Sam, the logical response to “the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity” is suicide, and we’re asked to laugh. For Judah it’s murder, and we’re asked to despair.

In Woody’s worldview, a dead or at the least blind God (hence the ham-handed metaphor of the fading eyesight of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Sam Waterston’s rabbi character) is too exhausted to deliver retribution. If murder is morally permissible, what’s to prevent you from schtupping the adopted daughter of your sorta-kinda wife?

Incidentally, Lapidos describes Woody’s turn at parodying Humphrey Bogart, 1972′s Play It Again, Sam as “little seen.” Is she kidding? It was certainly on the late show and eventually cable channels in the 1970s and ’80s numerous times when I went through the inevitable Woody fascination, perhaps because it was one of Woody’s more charming and solid early films (perhaps because it was based on Woody’s play, he brought in an outside director, Herbert Ross, to lens the movie version) it was also one of the first laser discs I bought around 1986 or ’87, in-between seemingly singlehandedly keeping the Criterion Collection afloat.

* Played by Claire Bloom, shortly before marrying Philip Roth, whom Woody would later savage in Deconstructing Harry.

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