Printer Friendly

Confrontation and escape: Allen's meditations on tragedy and comedy before Match Point.

We begin with the dialectical frame of Melinda and Melinda (2005), the film some reviewers hailed for halting the decline in quality of Allen's twenty-first-century films and others regarded as a protraction of that descent. Two playwrights, Louise (Stephanie Roth Haberle)--who may be one of their wives--and another friend, Al (Neil Pepe) are discussing comedy and tragedy over a warmly lit dinner at a bistro on a rainy night in Manhattan. The film's twin "Melinda" narratives are the two playwrights' creations deriving from an episode that Al recounts, asking the two playwrights whether the story of Melina he's just told is comedy or tragedy. Sy (Wallace Shawn) turns the event into romantic comedy, while Max (Larry Pine) treats it as tragedy, or at least bleak melodrama. The debate that opens and closes the movie extends the continuing personal dialogue Allen has been conducting with himself in films like Stardust Memories (1980), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Deconstructing Harry (1997), and Sweet and Lowdown (1999)--a self-interrogation about the worth and value of his (or anyone else's) art. So close has he come to resolving the issue for himself in his fifth decade of filmmaking, however, that the debate as it gets played out in Melinda and Melinda is thoroughly rigged, over-determined. The two playwright disputants, Sy and Max, agree with each other on everything but audience affect: both affirm that life is basically meaningless, and while Max generates dramas of dark realism that address what he terms the "absurd," Sy writes more popular comic plays that seek to distract the audience from life's harrowing truths. Neither playwright, then, contends that life is constituted of anything other than desolating outcomes; they differ only in their responses to their shared pessimistic premise: as Sy delineates the distinction between their work, "tragedy confronts; comedy escapes."

Allen experimented with this distinctly hedged binary opposition in Anything Else (2003), the film preceding Melinda and Melinda and the one I would nominate for Woody redux honors. Anything Else distributes nihilism and humor in a manner anticipating the Sy and Max division: both Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) and David Dobel (Allen) are professional joke writers whose one-liners conceal deep pessimism. The novel Falk wants to write is about "man's fate in the empty universe--no God, no hope, just human suffering and loneliness." Dobel responds to his literary project, "Yeah? I'd stick to the jokes if I were you--there's more money in it." Dobel has earlier affirmed that "there's more insight in [jokes] into what I call the ... 'the great so what' than in most books of philosophy"; he prefigures the more belligerent nihilism of Boris Yellnikoff in Allen's 2009 bleak comedy, Whatever Works. Falk's pessimism is Modernist and traditional his lover, Amanda (Christina Ricci) gives him Sartre's No Exit and The Flies for their anniversary, explaining that she "couldn't decide whose nihilistic pessimism would make you happier." (1) Dobel's nihilism--his invocation of "the great so what"--is more cynical, postmodern and deconstructive of all values. He recalls years earlier pouring his heart out to a cabbie about "'all that stuff [Falk was] prattling on about a minute ago--life, death, the empty universe, human suffering, the meaning of existence, and the cabbie said to me, 'Well, you know, it's like anything else.'" The cabbie's wisdom, enthusiastically embraced by Dobel, is to dissolve all questions into an ultimate relativism that anticipates Sy's transformation of the tragic "Melinda" tale that Max delineates about Melinda and friends: "Okay, the situation is perfect!" Sy exults as in describing the terrible disappointment of Hobie (Will Ferrell) when Melinda tells him she's in love, but not with him. "He's despondent, he's desperate, he's suicidal--all the comic elements are in place." (2)

My point is that it is often impossible to determine which member of these split-protagonist teams is the most hopeless, but that in that difference consists a dramatic tension that makes Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda substantially more compelling films than the three Allen works which preceded them--Small Time Crooks (2000), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), and Hollywood Ending (2002). I will be making the probably none-too-contestable claim here that Falk and Dobel, Sy and Max jointly embody the conclusion that Allen has reached about art, and that the first three movies he produced in the twenty-first century suffer from an excess of Sy's / Dobel's bad faith commitment to comic escape for both filmmaker and audience, while Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda represent more dramatically effective balancing of the human impulses toward confronting dark truths and deliberately evading them through humor.

It may be that in making this argument I am only expressing a preference for what in The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen I characterized as Allen's mixed genre movies--films such as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), and Mighty Aphrodite (1995) in which grim reality and jokes are blended in unpredictable ways--as opposed to straight out comedies like Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). Were Allen to pay the slightest attention to my (or anybody's) criticism of his work he would certainly dismiss this argument as nothing more than a completely subjective response to generic differences. Admittedly, Allen's characterization of his career throughout his 2003 interview with Richard Schickel is one his filmography generously documents: he makes different genres of films at different times. "I wanted to do those films [Crooks, Scorpion, Hollywood Ending]," he told Schickel, "'cause I thought they were all amusing ideas, that I'd have a good time doing them and that people would enjoy the pictures, that they were perfectly respectable pictures" (169). Fair enough.

For me, the flaw emerges in Allen's contention about films like these "that the simplicity of the idea will be winning to people, that they'll just go in and have a good laugh" (Schickel 168). What he has always admired most about Bob Hope's films is this very simplicity: "Part of what I like about him," Allen said in a 1979 Time interview with Frank Rich, "is that flippant, Californian, obsessed-with-golf striding through life. His not caring about the serious side at all" (69). Deserved as this encomium might be, I would argue that Bob Hope never appeared in movies dramatizing "the serious side" in the way that Interiors (1978), Stardust Memories (1980), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Shadows and Fog (1992), Another Woman (1988), Husbands and Wives (1992) do, nor did he ever write a number of other films in which human psychology is depicted as too complex and multifaceted to be reducible to comic types. What I am acknowledging is that I am never completely convinced by Allen's attempts to pretend that he can return to the simplicities of comedic representation without risking committing a form of cinematic bad faith. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, Tom Baxter implores Cecilia, "Life's too short to spend it thinking about life. Let's just live it" (Three Films 440), but, as appealing as the idea of life without reflection might sometimes seem to be, we must consider the source of this advice--its proponent is an exile from a cinematic romantic comedy. Baxter's sentiment gets articulated often enough in Allen's movies to suggest that it is an ideal to which, given the bleakness precipitated whenever Allen ponders life, he is often attracted, but I will suggest that something false and shallow emerges when sexagenarian Woody tries to make the kind of movie calculated to let the audience "just go in and have a good laugh" because he has so thoroughly proven himself, especially in recent years, to be someone for whom not much is funny. Unless Allen is confronting some significant tension within himself--between the possibility of magical intervention and the disappointments of ordinary life, say, or between comic representation and tragic revelation--the route of escape constantly threatens to transport the viewer not to joke heaven but to somewhere like the garbage dump of hopelessness and cynicism to which the train of grotesques conveys Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories.

This conflict is not a new one in Allen's head or in his work. It emerges in Stardust Memories, in Sandy Bates's complaint, "What do you want me to say? I don't want to make funny movies anymore.... They can't force me to ... I, you know, I don't feel funny. I-I look around the world, and all I see is human suffering" (Four Films 286). When asked in 1993 whether humor makes his dark view of the world more bearable, Allen responded, "No, humor is involuntary with me. It doesn't make it bearable. It's just something I do. I do it for a living. I don't feel, you know, that feeling of, 'Heck, what can you do but laugh at it?' I feel it's terrible, and one wants to say: 'why are we laughing? Does nobody realize what's going on out there?'" But, later in the same interview, he wonders whether, given that "I've always had a very pessimistic view about everything," comedy may be the best thing he can offer other human beings:

Sometimes I've had the thought that to try to make movies that say something, I'm not doing my fellow man a service. I would be better off abandoning asking the audience to try to come to grips with certain issues because those issues always lead you to a dead end. They're never going to be understandable, they're never going to be solvable. We all have a terrible, fierce burden to carry, and the person who really does something nice is the guy who writes a pretty song or plays a pretty piece of music, or makes a film that diverts. (Rolling Stone 50)

Testimony of Allen's nihilism, then, pervades his interviews early and late. When asked by Schickel about the audience affect of his films, Allen admitted that some viewers have found them "pessimistic, gloomy ... [or] cynical, but I never see it that way" (Schickel 138). He perceives himself instead as realistic: "Because as long as you're mired, as we all are, in everyday reality, we're all going to come to the same nasty end, and have the same grim lives.... So unless something comes along that, that we don't know about, that is truly magical, I don't see any real way out of a sad situation" (Schickel 141). That such a bleak perception of the human condition is likely to inspire films possessed of "amusing ideas," movies to which "they'll just go in and have a good laugh," seems small, and it may be telling that, in Anything Else, nihilist joke writer David Dobel hasn't given up his day job as a high school teacher in order to attempt to become a fulltime funny man. Ellie, the ex-wife of film director Val Waxman in Hollywood Ending, could be obliquely characterizing Allen's twenty-first-century films in describing the end of their marriage: "You know, one day you look up and realize that laughs are not enough." One doesn't want to make too much of a single line from one of Allen's forty plus movies, but of the films that Allen released after Hollywood Ending, only Scoop (2006) and Whatever Works (2009) could be labeled comedies, albeit very dark ones; otherwise, his recent output--Match Point (2005), Cassandra's Dream (2007), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) in particular--could be said to be embody Ellie's view that laughs aren't enough.

Few of Small Time Crooks' reviewers found many laughs in the "funny idea" Allen had for the film: four guys "rob a bank, and, you know, the cookie store [which is only a front for the robbery] becomes a success" (Schickel 168-9). That reversal happens largely because Frenchy (Tracey Ullmann) is so much brighter than is her husband and mastermind of the bank job, Ray Winkler (Allen), that while she is creating a huge clientele for her cookies, Ray and his dumb guy conspirators are excavating their way from the bakery not through the floor of a bank but into a boutique. Potentially a "funny idea," this one-liner falls flat because the punchline is too long in arriving, which means that the ensuing plot--Ray and Frenchy dealing haplessly with the fabulous wealth her cookie business brings them--emerges a half hour into the movie, which is at least fifteen minutes too late. Rather than being undergirded by a debate Allen is having with himself, Small Time Crooks has for subtext Allen's insistence, registered in numerous interviews in the early 2000s, that he is less a grand American auteur than an ordinary guy who- happens-to-make-movies-but-who-halts-production-in-order- to-get-to-Madison-Square-Garden-for-the-tipoff-of-Knicks-games. (3) Ray is the incarnation of this position, someone whom sudden wealth turns into America's worst-dressed man, and who late in the movie asks his wife's sister, May (Elaine May), a collaborator in Frenchy's cookie success, "Are you happy being rich?" She's not, so they go out for working class fare: pizza. It's fortunate, then, that Frenchy's accountants defraud her, wiping out her cookie empire, restoring her and Ray to their working class condition--save for her retention of a costly cigarette case, once owned by the Duke of Windsor, the sale of which will assumedly render the happily reunited couple solvent again. Small Time Crooks, with its fine cinematography by Zhao Fei, probably is a "perfectly respectable picture," but it is also a film whose laughs are so dependent upon caricature (of wealthy art connoisseurs in the last quarter of the movie, but in the consistent witlessness of the principal characters, too) as to make the movie pointless to watch a second time. Allen may share a proletarian background with Ray Winkler, but his adult life has been so different as to make it impossible for him to effectively imagine such a character in any other terms than condescendingly satirical ones, and Small Time Crooks keeps giving viewers the impression that, if Allen was identifying with Ray Winkler at all, it was from the vantage of a telescope perched on his Central Park penthouse terrace.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Whereas Small Time Crooks allowed Allen to reside for ten months in the shallow habitats--working class tawdry to nouveau riche ghastly--reflecting the Winklers' rise in the world, the late-1930s setting of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion imposed a visual discipline on the director, cinematographer Zhao Fei, and set designer Santo Loquasto that makes the film look and feel more like a Woody Allen movie. The dominant burnished woods and yellow wash lighting of the North Coast Casualty and Fidelity Company where C.W. Briggs (Allen) and Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt) work and feud lends them a measure of substance that the Crooks characters lack, even if the erotic trajectory of Scorpion (Briggs and Fitzgerald loathe each other as prelude to loving each other) feels simply derivative of screwball comedies. Scorpion was not the return to form Allen fans wanted, but the presence of a pervasive dramatic tension between ordinary life and magical transformations of it renders the film more resonant and satisfying than the Allen movies that precede and follow it.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Briggs, an insurance investigator with years in at the firm, is being threatened by Fitzgerald, a newcomer efficiency whiz who wants to modernize the place by outsourcing criminal investigation to a detective agency. "Look, I recognize the value of intuition to a point," she tells Briggs, "but we're moving into a decade of scientific innovation. You're a dinosaur with your street ways and disorganized hunt and peck methods." He depends on instinct, she on intellect, and the movie is well-supplied with not unfamiliar Allen one-liners castigating the human penchant for overvaluing the brain. Predictably, then, Briggs's streetwise informants help him solve the mystery: he and Fitzgerald have been psychically manipulated into perpetrating robberies by a magician who hypnotizes them during a night club floorshow at the beginning of the movie. Voltan Polgar (David Ogden Stiers), the wielder of the "magical" jade scorpion, initially uses hypnotic suggestion to convince Briggs and Fitzgerald that they're deeply in love, so that each time he utters a specific word ("Constantinople" for him, "Madagascar" for her), they fall under his power, becoming helpless to resist his suggestions that they perform criminal acts and re-experiencing as well the affection he'd compelled them to feel. As he prepares to bring Briggs and Fitzgerald out of their trances, Voltan tells the nightclub audience, "Unfortunately, every dream must turn to reality." Then he instructs his subjects, "You will return to your ordinary lives as they exist, and let us hope that they are pleasant ones." Delivered from his susceptibility to Voltan by an amateur magician co-worker (Wallace Shawn), Briggs echoes this speech at the end of the movie after Voltan has been arrested for the jewelry thefts. As the entranced Fitzgerald affirms her undying love for him, Briggs muses, "You know, everyone ought to have someone they feel this way about. It's such a shame that you're going to have to wake up from this fabulous illusion." Moving in for a final kiss before her trance is broken, Briggs pleads, "Once more, before the ugly curtain of reality drops on both of us."

In Melinda and Melinda, Allen has musician Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor) express less tentatively the same comment on magic that Allen offered in his interview with Schickel: "Well, I believe in magic; in the end, I think it's the only thing that can save us." In the comedic ending of Scorpion, it's difficult to tell how much the romantic union of Briggs and Fitzgerald owes to their trance-inspired affections; that is, perhaps "ordinary life" retained enough residue of magic for them not to have to suffer the "dropping of the curtain" of actuality or the surrendering of the "fabulous illusion" of erotic love. In the final scene of Scorpion, Briggs asks Fitzgerald, whom he believes--mistakenly--to be in her "Madagascar" trance, to rehearse his virtues, and once she has showered him with praises, he declares that, "Someday, I'm gonna make you feel those things, just really feel them." "Anything's possible," she responds, "I made you feel that way, and I didn't even have to say 'Constantinople.'" Briggs does not know where he is once Fitzgerald has said this, but we've been here before: the only magic Woody Allen really believes in is romantic love, and even he implies that it may only be the detritus of a hypnotist's mental prestidigitations.

The Hollywood ending of Scorpion is relatively more compelling than the similar resolution of Hollywood Ending, which should have paid more attention to Judah's dismissive admonition at the close of Crimes and Misdemeanors: "If you want a happy ending, see a Hollywood movie." Having been complicit in the killing of his lover, Judah speaks from the perspective of one who got away with murder, and he assumes that knowledge in insisting that reality isn't subject to the neat moral/ethical resolutions of Hollywood films. Rather than, as Allen's movie's title seems to promise, parodying Hollywood endings, Hollywood Ending perpetrates one in the reunion of Hollywood producer Ellie (Tea Leoni) with filmmaker Val Waxman (Allen). There is certainly running satire of Hollywood throughout the film, especially in the portraits of oleaginous Galaxie Pictures studio head Hal Yaeger (Treat Williams) and a nameless but omnipresent studio functionary (George Hamilton) who seems to have no function. (4) The biggest surprise the film offers, however, is that the Hollywood movie, The City that Never Sleeps, directed by Waxman while suffering psychosomatic blindness, is lambasted by critics and viewers alike, rather than--as in The Producers (1968), for instance--being so incoherent and execrable that the mindless American audience loves it. What saves Waxman from devastating failure is a compensation that Allen has often claimed for himself when US audiences for his films are miniscule: the French love his movies. ("Here I'm a bum," Waxman tells his agent; "there I'm a genius." (5)) So he and Ellie (who tells Yaeger, her fiancee, that she's never stopped loving Waxman, her previous husband) set off to France together (they'll always have Paris) against a backdrop of lovely but not quite believable dogwood blossoms.

Allen is said to have directed cinematographer Wedigo Von Schultzendorff that the film should contain "No negative, no dark. This is romantic comedy--people have to glow," (6) and the movie is remarkably brightly lit, as if in imitation of sunny California where not a scene of it was shot. What Hollywood Ending has for theme are Ellie's explanations for having left Waxman in the first place: "You were so busy playing the American artist, and that's what you were doing--playing," she tells him. "You felt it was important to be uncompromising and temperamental and difficult. God--difficult! To starve, and to suffer. I'll tell you, you had all the symptoms, but not the disease." (To compensate for that lack, Waxman imagines himself to be suffering from black plague and elm blight.) Earlier in the film, Ellie offers Yaeger a different reason for leaving the marriage: "You know, one day you look up and realize that laughs are not enough," she tells husband-to-be in making the case that she can work productively with her former husband on The City that Never Sleeps: "I can handle him, Hal--I just got tired of having to all the time."

This much is clear in this film of mixed messages: The City that Never Sleeps counts for next to nothing to Waxman, who reserves a part for his bimbo girlfriend and is indifferent to the film's quality because perpetrating the hoax that his artistic vision is directing the film's production despite his blindness is more important. The audience of Allen's film never gets to see a frame of Waxman's, ruling out any possibility that the viewers can perceive him as an auteur genius; accordingly, the director seems to have thoroughly abandoned his pretensions to being the "great American film artist," thereby mirroring the very same renunciation of auteurism that Allen has expressed in numerous interviews. (7) Whether Ellie has chosen in reuniting with Waxman to believe that "laughs are enough" is unclear, since what humor he displays with her is usually aimed at her infidelity with and subsequent engagement to Yeager. Hollywood Ending closes with a not completely credible marital reunion, then, and perhaps to that extent mimes the cinematic conclusion that gives Allen's movie its name; nonetheless, it is difficult not to regret that the movie too faintly dramatizes the point Allen made in his interview with Anthony DeCurtis: "My idea of romance came from movies. I mean, I speak to adults my age, and they're constantly telling me that they're still hurt in life because they can't get their mind around the fact that things were not the way they were led to believe when they were growing up" (Rolling Stone 50). In Hollywood Ending, Allen indulges himself in that movie-inspired illusion of closure rather than, as he did in The Purple Rose of Cairo, critiquing it while revealing the human necessity for it.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Romance is central in Anything Else as well, but so outrageously neurotic is the union of Falk and Amanda that it makes the Allen film it constantly recalls--Annie Hall (1977)--seem the narrative of two completely sane and reasonable lovers. Falk's elderly mentor urges him to break it off with Amanda, who has, among a spate of anxieties, "commitment issues," and therefore hasn't slept with him in six months. (Billie Holiday's song, "You'd Be So Easy to Love," plays repeatedly underneath the Amanda scenes, providing ironic commentary.) Falk, however, has canceling commitments issues, and therefore he stays with her, as well as with his Danny Rose-like agent, Harvey (Danny DeVito), and with his shrink, whom he believes to be as uncommunicative as God, until the movie's close. What's most significant about Anything Else is the relationship between Falk and Dobel, making it the first Allen film since Manhattan in which a male-to-male relationship is dramatically pivotal.

Because Dobel has reached his sixties, the only role he can play vis-a-vis Falk is that of a psychospiritual advisor. It is the psycho part that causes Falk trouble, ultimately sending him off on a fool's errand that earlier Allen films have clearly established as precisely the wrong thing to do, the worst choice to make. At the end of the movie, Falk is dubious about the advice Dobel has given him, although he acknowledges that Dobel is not wrong all the time, comparing him to a broken clock since "Even a clock that's broken is right twice a day." (The problem with such postmodern instruction is determining when the clock is right.) Throughout most of Anything Else, Falk responds positively to his mentor's wisdom, which effectively blends the nihilism Allen expresses in interviews with a paranoia constituting the reductio ad absurdum of that stance. In one of his more persuasive monologues (which sounds very much as Allen does in responding to DeCurtis and Schickel), Dobel explains, "Since the beginning of time, people have been, you know, frightened and, and unhappy, and they're scared of death, and they're scared of getting old, and there's always been priests around, and shamans, and now shrinks, to tell 'em, 'Look, I know you're frightened, but I can help you. Of course, it is going to cost you a few bucks ...' But they can't help you, Falk, because life is what it is."

The closing clause is typical of Dobel's pronouncements in that it could be a senseless tautology or an example of profound postmodern incisiveness. Whichever the case, Dobel offers this speech in support of his central message to Falk: "it's very important that you have to learn to depend only on yourself." If Anything Else were read as a bildungsroman on the model of Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," the gentleman who ushers young Robin away from his kinsman's tar and feathering would say, because "you are a shrewd youth, you may rise in the world without your kinsman, Major Molineux" (17), and then send the youth to the moon. Because of his paranoid vision of the world, the advice Dobel gives to Falk is more damaging than Hawthorne's gentleman's lunar recommendation could ever be.

What "depending only on yourself" ultimately means to Dobel is having a loaded Russian surplus rifle in every room of his apartment, being hypersensitive to anti-Semitism, and putting together a "survival kit" consisting of pellets that desalinize water, fish hooks, and a match box that floats. This philosophy also prompts Dobel to smash the windshield and headlights of a car owned by someone who takes a parking space he'd been waiting five minutes to occupy, and he ends up shooting a highway patrol officer who makes "remarks" about his ethnicity. "There are always some people who will resist," Falk says early in the film, invoking Camus in praise of his mentor, but by the end, he types into his computer, "Dobel is a lunatic--he proved that today when he bashed that guy's car." That lunatic is responsible for dictating the course of Falk's life as he sets off from Manhattan acting upon Dobel's admonition, "depend only on yourself."

Dobel summons Falk to an isolated spot in Central Park so that no one will see them talking, and explains that Falk must "now depend only on himself" because Dobel, who had arranged for the two of them to travel to California to accept a job as team writers for a TV comedy show, has to pull out of the deal because he's being pursued by the police for shooting a cop. To an extent, Falk gains from Dobel's plan, liberating himself simultaneously from Amanda, from his agent, and from his shrink. ("I did it," he tells Dobel via cell phone, "I cut all the ties! I feel free and exhilarated and like I'm falling through space.") Thus does Falk take a cab to the airport en route to California in the film's final scene, fully aware now that he must rise in the world without his mentor, David Dobel.

Perhaps only Allen afficionadoes will recognize the substantial ironies implicit in the culminating scene of Anything Else, most of which young Falk can't possibly appreciate. One point he should apprehend is that if his neurotic girlfriend believes heading west is a great idea, it's not: "Idiots who are total losers in New York," Amanda tells Falk none-too-complementarily, "go out there and become millionaires." Her endorsement of the plan has much to do with the fact that she's just taken up romantically with a Manhattan doctor. Beyond this advice that Falk should know must be cockeyed, what he can't know is that, throughout Allen's films (in one of which he is a character), the ultimate self-betrayal is writing comic dialogue for TV. Both Ike Davis in Manhattan and Mickey Sachs in Hannah and Her Sisters begin their journeys toward self-redemption by severing their connections to TV comedy shows, while Alvy Singer's friend, Rob / Max (Tony Roberts), moves to California to write comedy for TV, and when he comments how clean Los Angeles is, Alvy responds, "It's that they don't throw their garbage away. They make it into television shows" (Four Films 84). West Coast media hypocrisy is epitomized in Annie Hall by the fact that, because Rob's jokes aren't funny, he employs a machine which fills in laughs when the live audience watching contributes none. Lester, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, is probably the best exemplar of the shallowness and self-absorption required to be a success in Hollywood, and the Galaxie Studio executives and crew in Hollywood Ending have no interest in the artistic element of films, keeping in sight only cash receipts. Hollywood is responsible, as well for foisting an "upbeat, commercial" "jazz heaven" conclusion onto the "train to the dump yard"/"nobody is saved" ending of Sandy Bates' movie in Stardust Memories, because, as a studio exec insists, "Too much reality is not what the people want" (Four Films 335). Nowhere in Allen's oeuvre is the West coast ever celebrated, and going there to write humor for TV or the movies is a nitwit scheme and a recipe for compromising personal integrity. Falk cannot know, either, that the car that the originator of the California plan drives him around Manhattan in is a Porsche, the same vehicle that represents the selling out of Yale's literary ambitions to American commercialism in Manhattan. The point is that Falk is acting out Dobel's ethic of "depending only on himself" by taking the advice of a lunatic whose plan for Falk's self-liberation violates crucial values consistently projected in the world of Woody Allen's films. Falk can't know that, but the viewer can. (8)

Just before entering the cab in Anything Else's final scene, Falk's voiceover narrative acknowledges that he never saw nor heard from Dobel again following their last meeting in Central Park. Somewhat nostalgically, he recalls Dobel's three final pieces of advice, the first of which is the most valid he offers Falk in the film. "As you go through life, Falk, there'll be no shortage of people telling you how to live," Dobel explains. "They'll have all the answers for you--what you should do, what you shouldn't do. Don't argue with them. You know, you say, that's a brilliant idea, and then do what you want." For Falk to disagree with this advice, he would have to do what he doesn't want to do, and perhaps in heading off to California, he is doing just that. What makes Anything Else a thoroughly watchable film is the fact that the naif so badly in need of direction in life chooses a mentor whose ideas are paranoid, lunatic, and self-contradictory. Rather than having Dobel represent him as a sage of the ages, Allen makes his Anything Else stand-in font of wisdom a crackpot who could not possibly be trusted by anyone except someone as needy and value-challenged as Falk. The pair of split-protagonists, then, comprise projections of our own postmodern directionlessness and confused amorality; only the confrontation between Dobel's crazed pessimism and Falk's desperate naivete could result in one of them leaving the place where Falk "likes to walk the city streets to clear his head" to head out for someplace far more emblematic of postmodern dislocation, valuelessness, and cultural incoherence.

The cabbie driving Falk to the airport allows Dobel to have the last word in the movie: after Falk has suggested how "strange life is, how full of inexplicable mystery" the cab driver responds, "Well, you know, it's like anything else." If "It's [what's?] like anything else," how does anyone make choices? How does anyone discriminate between good and bad, right and wrong? Dobel's babbling relativism (the second final piece of advice is "Don't steal, but if you have to steal, steal from the best") and moral bankruptcy catapults young Falk off to the West Coast to encounter the hypocrisy, vanity, shallowness and professional cynicism of the movie/TV industry, and the viewer feels badly for the rude shock that awaits this young quester-after-meaning, but s/he nonetheless wishes that Dobel had just one more piece of advice to offer before the trademark Allen credit crawl closes Anything Else.

Melinda and Melinda closes with the two playwrights wrapping up their Melinda narratives, to which Louise provides a snap review. In Max's tragic version, Melinda has tried to "go out the window," and is restrained by Ellis on the balcony of his building. Her college friend, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), calls another friend of hers and Melinda's, telling her, "Let's face it, Cassie, [Melinda's] one of those people who will always need help." She needs help at the moment because she's just learned that her legal attempt to gain custody of her children has failed, and she has just discovered that Moonsong is now her ex-lover because he and Laurel are in love. In addition to ending darkly, the tragic Melinda narrative is permeated by consequences and the impossibility of reversals: throughout this version, the characters repeatedly invoke irremediable circumstances, immutable realities. Laurel's husband, Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), tells a drama student of his he has started to seduce, "It's funny. Life has a malicious way of dealing with great potential"; the three girlhood friends agree with the assessment of Cassie (Brooke Smith) that "the days are gone when the three of us thought we called all the shots," and Ellis Moonsong wonders "Why is it that things that begin so promisingly end up in the dump?" Melinda gets the tragedy-clinching line: "Life is short--that was a discovery I made when my mother killed herself. Short and not about anything but what you can touch and what touches you."

Sy's more comic version is by no means permeated by assertions of blue skies and happy endings, (9) suggesting once again how thoroughly Allen's view has tilted toward pessimism (10); it differs from Max's most markedly in the presence of a few comic scenes, the absence of fatalistic remarks, and in the fact that its characters carry little baggage from the past determining their present possibilities. Max's Melinda, by her own account, renounced her marriage to a surgeon because she, as her mother had done before her, got bored with the perfection of being mother to his two beautiful children. She gives divergent versions of her recent past to Laurel and Lee and to Ellis: in the former version, she was institutionalized for attempting suicide; in the version she imparts to Ellis, she was hospitalized after a trial in which she convinced a jury that her killing of the lover who had betrayed her by finding another lover was accidental. Sy's Melinda has only a broken marriage in her past, one for which she carries no guilt because she found her husband in bed with a model and one that generated no children from whom she is legally separated and to whom she must remain unhappily committed. She manages to inhabit her own apartment, whereas Max's Melinda imposes herself on Laurel and Lee because she needs a place to "settle in and restart her career"; Max's Melinda seems not to be capable of gaining employment, whereas Sy's manages to hold down a job in a museum while she ponders what to do with her life. "I'm one of those heroines too high strung for life on this planet" is how Max's Melinda defines her condition, and her attempt "to go out the window" confirms Laurel's sense that she will always need help, if not therapeutic supervision; in Sy's version, it's a sexual Amazon named Stacey (Vinessa Shaw)--think of Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite, though maybe Stacey isn't quite as thick--a political conservative who appeared in a Playboy spread, "Girls of the Republican Party," who tries to go out the window instead of, as he'd fervently hoped, sleeping with Hobie. The narrative of her failed relationship that sends Stacey out the window is a broadly comic replication of the painfully tense meeting between Laurel Ellis, and Melinda we have just watched. It lacks the same drama because it is a summary narrative, and its speaker has been presented to us as an incarnation of female sexuality whose attempt to take herself so seriously as to go out the window can only culminate in a comic scene in which Hobie hauls her bodily away from the window, her "melons"--as George says in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf--"bobbling," from Hobie's perspective, most fruitlessly. Some time later that night, Melinda knocks on Hobie's apartment door, and Sy's/Hobie's happy ending evolves as the two characters discover or admit they've "had feelings for each other" all along.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A fair question a viewer might ask about Melinda and Melinda is whether the contrasting plots reveal anything we didn't already know about the genres of comedy and tragedy / dark melodrama. Comparing King Lear and As You Like It would be more profitable, certainly, but Allen's script is nonetheless carefully constructed enough that even small details resonate effectively on each side of the generic divide. Sy's Melinda explains that she and her doctor husband never had children because he didn't want to have to sleep with a fat woman for nine months. No harm, no foul--it is actually positive that that this doomed couple never produced children to battle over in court. The issue takes on an uglier cast in Max's narrative, in which Lee, having drunk too much at Laurel's friend Cassie's dinner party, practically begs Cassie, who is expecting a child, to sleep with him because he imagines that making love to a pregnant woman would be terribly erotic. She responds to his inebriate entreaty with one of tragedy's emblems of trains having left stations: "It's too late--the ball was in your court [when, in college, she expressed her attraction to him], and you ran in another direction." She suggests that Lee get Laurel pregnant so that he "can sleep with her in all three trimesters," but Lee's and Laurel's once promising marriage is also about to "end up in the dump."

What, then, is the conclusion that Louise's review draws about the two narratives we've just watched? "So you see," she expounds, "it's all in the eye of the beholder. We have a little story with a few hearsay details. You [Max] mold them into a tragic tale: a woman's weakness for romance is her undoing, and that's how you see life. Whereas you [Sy], you take those details and put them into an amusing romance, and that's your take on life. But obviously there is no definitive essence that can be pinned down." That last line seems to mean that there is nothing in the narrative itself that makes it inherently comic or tragic, but that we bring to it our suppositions of the way life works, and mold it in the direction of those conclusions. We're close to ending with a dramatic affirmation of relativism, situationalism, postmodern who-knowsism. But then a very Allensque thing happens, one recalling the Nurse in Stardust Memories who admonishes Sandy Bates that "All those silly magic tricks you do couldn't help your friend Nat Bernstein [who died of cancer]" (Four Films 364). Back at the comfy bistro table, Al reminds his friends that Phil Dorfman's funeral is next week, and the Melinda narratives dissolve as completely as Sandy Bates's magic tricks when juxtaposed with the reality of death. In Shadows and Fog, Kleinman argues that "My theory is that nothing good is going to happen until we catch [the killer in the fog, or Death]," and although Irmstedt the magician's magic tricks "checked his reigns for a moment," a roustabout in the movie's closing scene articulates a central Allen belief in confronting Irmstedt by asserting, "Looks like he's a greater magician than you."

A magician's illusions or playwright's dramas can only seem to hold off death's finality, and debating comedy and tragedy has nothing to do with the inexorable march towards extinction that Phil Dorfman has taken. So this is how Sy, recalling the healthy cardiogram Dorfman had received just before dropping dead, closes Melinda and Melinda in one of Allen's most inspired endings: "Let's drink to good times. Whether comic or tragic, the most important thing to do is to enjoy life while you can, because we only go around once, and, perfect cardiogram or not, when you least expect it, it can end like that." Sy snaps his fingers, and the warm, bustling bistro cuts to black and that blackness takes a telling second or two longer than in most Allen films to fill up with credits.

The dialectic frames of both Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda are testimony to the fact that Allen has moved from being a moviemaker who "does something nice" by being "the guy who writes a pretty song or plays a pretty piece of music, or makes a film that diverts" to once again being one who makes his audience "come to grips with certain issues ... [that] always lead you to a dead end." It's very good to have a resurrected Woody back, confronting rather than escaping, interrogating rather than Bob Hopefully joking, but that doesn't mean that Kleinman isn't right in thinking that "nothing good is going to happen until we catch [the killer]," and Allen still thinks doing that would require a form of magic that has nothing to do with magic tricks or Melinda narratives.

WORKS CITED

Allen, Woody, dir. Anything Else. DreamWorks, 2003. Film.

--, dir. Crimes and Misdemeanors. Orion Home Video, 1989. Film.

--, dir. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. DreamWorks, 2001. Film.

--. Four Films of Woody Allen. New York: Random, 1982. Film.

--. "An Interview with Woody." Interview with Frank Rich. Time (30 Apr. 1979): 67-9. Print.

--, dir. Hollywood Ending. DreamWorks, 2002. Film.

--, dir. Melinda and Melinda. 20th Century Fox, 2005. Film.

--, dir. Mighty Aphrodite. Miramax, 1995. Film.

--, dir. Shadows and Fog. Orion, 1992. Film.--. Three Films of Woody Allen. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

--. "Woody Allen: The Rolling Stone Interview." Interview with Anthony DeCurtis. Rolling Stone (16 Sept. 1993): 45+. Print.

Bailey, Peter J. The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2001. Print.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales. Ed. James McIntosh. New York: Norton, 1987. 3-17. Print.

Schickel, Richard. Woody Allen: A Life in Movies. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003. Print.

Travers, Peter. "The Woodman: Can He Still Cut It?" Rolling Stone (8 Sept. 2003): 89. Print.

Notes

(1) Falk's existentialism is almost a carbon copy of Sandy Bates's in Stardust Memories, one that trusts that interrogating the empty universe for hints of significance ("I've gotta find meaning," complains Bates) will lead the quester to something other than a dead end or irresolvable mystery, which is Dobel's position.

(2) Such cynical/comedic inversions appear elsewhere in Allen films: Lester in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) characterizes the tragic recognition of Oedipus that he is the murderer of Laius he has pursued as "the structure of funny." In Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Lenny Weinrib (Allen) not only ignores the tragic chorus's injunction, "Turn back don't meddle any further!" in the fate of porn queen Linda Ash (Myra Sorvino), but he manages to both change her life while transforming the chorus into a chorale who delight in singing "When You're Smiling (the whole world smiles with you)."

(3) "Films are not my first priority ... When I make a film, if I don't have it too great, but could make one more shot, and it's six o'clock at night and I've got to be at Madison Square Garden for the Knicks at seven, I blow off the shot and go to the Knicks game, all the time. I mean films are not a religion to me" (Schickel 146-7).

(4) In fact, there seems more satire of Allen's own moviemaking unconventionalities than Hollywood's: Waxman suggests to Yaeger that the urban drama they're working on should be shot with a hand-held camera (Husbands and Wives) to convey a character's inward anxiety; then he offers the opinion that the film be entirely shot in black and white (Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Shadows and Fog, Celebrity), an idea Yeager rejects because the audience wants color, and he also makes his case for the use of a Cole Porter or Irving Berlin score. Later, he urges the use of a foreign cameraman (Zhao Fei, Wedigo Von Schultzendorff) for the sake of achieving "texture," and argues for a cast of "talented young kids" like the one Allen and casting director Julie Taylor assembled for Melinda and Melinda.

(5) Allen's greater popularity in Europe is a prominent theme, for instance, in the Barbara Kopple documentary of Allen's jazz band's European tour, Wild Man Blues (1998).

(6) "Production Notes," Hollywood Ending.

(7) "So I just want to say that I myself am very critical of my films. I feel I've failed every time out of the box with my films. There have been very few that I feel are successful, and I don't make any claims for any of them.... You know, if you've never seen any of them, you might get the idea, 'Hey, gee, this sounds like it is interesting and profound and deep, and this film is about something. Then you see the film and you think, 'What were they talking about?' So I just want to guard against that" (Schickel 162-3).

(8) Peter Travers could, too--he anticipated part of my argument about the ending of Anything Else: "You recoil when David tells Jerry to leave Manhattan and join him in Hollywood to write sitcoms. You go where the money is. It's like anything else. Not for Allen" (89).

(9) One exception: Max's Melinda is cautioned against rubbing a lamp and making a wish by Laurel, who admonishes Melinda, "Be careful--you can't go through life rubbing and wishing. Take it from me--it doesn't work." In the comic version, Hobie rubs a lamp in an antique store, intoning, "I wish I could be with Melinda without hurting my wife." He goes home, finds his wife Susan (Amanda Peet) in bed with her film's benefactor, and by the end of the movie he is with Melinda without hurting the wife from whom he is amicably separated.

(10) Given his increasingly darkening mood, it's very difficult to imagine Allen ever making another movie as relentlessly cheerful as Everyone Says I Love You (1996), a romantic comedy that completely earns its wackily happy conclusion by presenting two-dimensional characters who are nonetheless likeably human and by drawing from the Marx Brothers' movies' capacity to never completely satirize characters so completely that the movies nullify them.
COPYRIGHT 2012 Post Script, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Woody Allen
Author:Bailey, Peter J.
Publication:Post Script
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Words:7930
Previous Article:Falsifying the fragments: narratological uses of the mockumentary in Husbands and Wives and Sweet and Lowdown.
Next Article:Fabulous illusion: The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and the conventions of romantic comedy.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters