Woody Allen, Philosopher-Fool

Movies Features Woody Allen
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At the end of Love and Death, Woody Allen’s 1975 parody of Russian literature, sexy intellectual Sonia (Diane Keaton) counsels a friend on romance: “To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer. Not to love is to suffer. To suffer is to suffer.”

Back then, Woody Allen remained a servant to the laugh, so Sonia’s advice continued and became increasingly incomprehensible. The excerpt above, however, offers some snappy insight into the human hunger for companionship. If you’re going to suffer either way, better to choose the path that has the potential for sex. Love and Death marks the last of the silly satires that established Allen as a hit filmmaker, but first revealed the overtly philosophical streak that he never abandoned.

Beginning with 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, a redubbed Japanese spy flick, Allen launched his screen career with genre parodies overflowing with one-liners and sight gags, showcasing himself as a stammering, wisecracking neurotic hero. Allen’s screen persona borrowed from the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx, but by the beginning of the 1980s, he revealed himself as an “auteur” inspired by directors Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Allen aptly summed up his aesthetic dilemma in 1980’s Stardust Memories, where he plays a filmmaker patterned after himself, hounded by fans who won’t let him forget how much they prefer his “early, funny movies.”

At 76, Allen may be the most prolific major American filmmaker alive and still working, with more than 40 feature films to his name as writer and director. In retrospect, a paradox snakes through his body of work, as the inveterate joke man keeps returning to the big questions of life and how to live it. Allen seems possessed by a tension between his serious ambitions and his reflex for great gags, and most of his best films bring both sides together.

Allen’s film career made its first major turn with 1977’s Annie Hall, which he initially conceived as a sprawling, semi-autobiographical account of a comedian and his neuroses. In the editing bay, Allen reshaped the film to emphasize his big-screen alter ego’s relationship to aspiring singer Annie Hall (Keaton). Annie Hall won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress for its generous, bittersweet account of a love affair from beginning to end. It also features nearly as many laughs as zanier fare like Bananas or Sleeper, breaking the fourth wall with subtitles, split-screens, an animated interlude and other playful gimmicks. (Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer pays tribute to Annie Hall in the same way that Allen pays homage to Fellini movies with Stardust Memories and many others.)

Allen made a radical change of pace the following year with Interiors, an icy drama about three intellectually formidable but profoundly unhappy sisters. In retrospect, it’s one of his more successful attempts to explore people’s proclivity for self-destruction, but Interiors also sets the humorless tone of his subsequent dramas. Allen seems convinced that a film cannot have jokes if it takes on tragic themes, even though his peer Martin Scorsese can make heavyweight dramas with huge laughs.

In 1979, Manhattan found possibly the perfect tone in its account of brainy New Yorkers falling in and out of love and each other’s beds. A subplot of Allen’s TV writer wooing a teenage Mariel Hemingway anticipates the director’s public scandal to come, but it remains a mature, confident comedy about how to make the most of the time allotted you. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) takes an even more sprawling approach to family, romance and mortality, with a light-hearted take on Interiors’ three sisters and Allen playing a hypochondriac grappling with a genuine health scare. Both films celebrate life’s abundance, and you leave them feeling wiser than when you went in.

During his middle period, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Woody Allen’s every movie felt like an event for film fans, like the latest album from a zeitgeist-defining hit musician. It was easy to defend his misfires and minor fare because something new and different would be just around the corner. The Purple Rose of Cairo of 1985 offered one of his best mixes of humor and pathos, as Jeff Daniels’ dashing film character walks off the screen to romance Mia Farrow’s put-upon Depression-era moviegoer. The Purple Rose of Cairo’s downbeat ending demonstrates the escapist power of cinema and possibly hints at a reluctance of film buffs to live in the real world.

More often, Allen keeps comedy and drama rigidly separate, like a finicky eater who doesn’t want different kinds of food to touch on his plate. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) ingeniously presented two stories in parallel, with Martin Landau’s eye surgeon considering murder to avoid blackmail, while Allen’s documentary director makes a profile of a fatuous TV producer (Alan Alda). Both stories hold up on their own terms, and the audience becomes particularly interested to see what will happen in the final scene when the two storylines intersect.

Allen made a similar stab, to poorer effect, with 2004’s Melinda and Melinda, which opens in the midst of an agonizing-seeming chat between two writers (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) over whether tragedy or comedy more accurately reflect the human condition. One imagines a similar argument constantly going on in Allen’s head. The ensuing film cuts between two different takes on the same premise as a free-spirited young woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) shakes up the lives of a married couple. Will Ferrell makes a likable comedic surrogate for Allen, but Melinda and Melinda only proves that an adequate comedy trumps a lousy, unconvincing tragedy.

Allen delivered his most raw and uncomfortable drama in 1992 with Husbands and Wives, about two failing marriages. The film hit theaters at roughly the same time that Allen broke off his long-term relationship with Mia Farrow to take up with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, despite their 35-year age difference. “The heart wants what it wants,” Allen explained at the time. As the 1990s continued, Allen became more marginal as both a public figure and an artist, with his big-screen preoccupations—New York City, jazz, infidelity, stage magic—feelingly increasingly narrow and disengaged from the real world. Despite such gems as the screwball comedy Bullets Over Broadway and the jazz homage Sweet and Lowdown, two Depression-era stories with insight into being a true artist, Allen began to deliver more misses than hits.

The problem with Allen’s dramas isn’t that they’re not as funny as his other films, but that they’re not as human. Even when he’s not onscreen, Allen seems more connected to his comic characters. He may be fascinated by people at moral crossroads or intellectuals who fail to live up to their ideals, but they often come across as unreal, the actors forced to mouth stilted dialogue. His dramas can be like contests to find the most phony-sounding line (mine’s “You really know your Stravinsky!”).

Ironically, the quintessential New Yorker found a creative revival by working abroad. Of Allen’s past eight films, To Rome With Love is the seventh shot in a major European city. Match Point (2005) unfolded like a compelling feature-length expansion of Crimes and Misdemeanors’ murder plot. Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) explored the combustibility of love and sex with more passion than any of his films since Husbands and Wives. The Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris (2011) marked a comedic return to form through a time-travel gimmick that warned against overdosing on nostalgia. Perhaps Allen feels refreshed in new surroundings, or maybe his confidence enjoys a boost with greatest proximity to the more appreciative European film audience.

Allen’s 2008 New York Times humor piece “Excerpts from a Spanish Diary,” a tongue-in-cheek account of the production of Vicky Christina Barcelona, reveals that he has more savvy about his image and contemporary culture than you’d ever imagine from watching his films. You get the impression that on some level, Allen realizes that his strengths lie with laughter. In Stardust Memories, a Martian tells him to his face: “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.” Granted, that was more than 30 years ago, so Allen may never fully take that advice for his films. Woody Allen’s art wants what it wants.