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The lost transcendence of Woody Allen: from "Divine Comedy" to Celebrity.

For more than a decade, Woody Allen achieved a special realm of comedic genius and greatness in film that the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas describes as "Divine Comedy." At least in American literature, humor, and film, few have gained such status over an extended period of time. Mark Twain's writings and Charlie Chaplin's great American film comedies immediately come to mind for comparison to Allen's work in our own time. So perhaps it should be enough for Allen's ultimate critical reputation in cinematic and comedic history that several of his films over a dozen years from Annie Hall (1977) to Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) qualify for this special category of achievement and success. However, in Allen's case, a comparison in terms of Levinas's idea of "Divine Comedy" of his classic films to his films made after 1990 offers important insight not only into his work in particular but film comedy in general, especially the comedy that either aspires to or disclaims a form of transcendence.

Levinas's notion of divine comedy appears in one of his most widely published essays, "God and Philosophy." The term constitutes another elucidation of his "first philosophy" of ethical metaphysics that established him as a key player in an expanding circle of thinkers that began in his youth as a student with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, went on to Jean-Paul Sartre during the post-war years of his development in Paris, and continued through the maturity of his discourse with Jacques Derrida. In his engagement with all of these thinkers, Levinas diverged from dominant intellectual trends and movements to carve out his own understanding of the relationship of ethical experience to modernism. He proposed to place a priority upon ethics over ontology, pluralism over totality, transcendence over empirical conceptualization. While Sartre expounded a philosophy of freedom based on the idea that existence precedes essence, Levinas proclaimed responsibility to the other takes precedence over one's self.

The divine comedy constitutes another articulation of this ethical philosophy. For Levinas, divine comedy suggests the paradox of the impossibility of the inescapable moral demand that responsibility and the other places upon the individual. This understanding dramatizes the incomprehensible gap between the finitude of human understanding and emotion and infinite moral demand and responsibility. Levinas maintains that "divine comedy--hollows out a desire which cannot be filled, nourishes itself with its very augmentation, and is exalted as a desire, withdraws from its satisfaction in the measure that it approaches the desirable" (139). For Levinas, the desire of divine comedy inherently connects to the infinitude of his ethical metaphysics. He asserts this relationship when he argues for the need for the return of the word "transcendence" which "has to be put back into the significance of the whole plot of the ethical or back into the divine comedy without which it could not have arisen" (141). Thus, the desire of divine comedy, as Levinas describes it, makes transcendence possible. As Derrida writes of desire in Levinas, "Desire is equal only to excess. No totality will ever encompass it. Thus, the metaphysics of desire is a metaphysics of infinite separation" (93).

Divine comedy helps to realize for Levinas an intimate expression of the difficult concept of the unfathomable infinite. It humanizes and personalizes this complex notion, putting it in tangible experience and making it accessible in ways that escape other forms of expression. Levinas writes, "That comedy is enacted equivocally between temple and theater, but in it the laughter sticks to one's throat when the neighbor approaches--that is, when his face, or his forsakenness, draws near" (141). The contrast and tension between the sanctity of the temple and the entertainment of the theater encapsulates the value of divine comedy to Levinas's philosophy. Divine comedy establishes a bridge between the freedom and license of dramatic expression and the search for transcendent signification in the temple; or, put another way, it dramatizes the connection of the mundane and profane to the moral and spiritual. It, therefore, also structures the interaction between these conflicting forces of the theater and temple. Theater and temple function in mutual dependence. The communication of the theater and the solitude of the temple work on and transform each other, so that the spiritual becomes a form of performance while drama stimulates and articulates the deepest and most profound depths of belief and hope.

Accordingly, divine comedy incorporates the tension and connection between the narcissism of the theater and the devotion of the temple into the psychology of social interaction. Divine comedy articulates the daily drama of social behavior and personal crisis. Levinas recalls how "Plato forces out of Aristophanes an admission which, coming from the lips of the master of comedy, is striking indeed: "These are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another'" (139-40). As opposed to suggesting the frivolous and the superficial, divine comedy actually constitutes powerful social criticism and action.

To Levinas, the source and the means for countering the alienation Aristophanes speaks and describes comes from his conception of the face. The face, as Levinas says, "draws near," introducing the unavoidable difference, humanity, and priority of the other.

Levinas insists upon "the summons which comes to me from the face of a neighbor" (145). Divine comedy makes the face-to-face relationship possible, tangible, and inevitable. The face-to-face turns all human connection into an "ethical moment" (148) of total responsibility for the other. As Derrida states, "Beneath solidarity, beneath companionship, before Mitsein, which would be only a derivative and modified form of the originary relation with the other, Levinas already aims for the face-to-face, the encounter with the face." Derrida further explains, "Without intermediary and without communion, neither mediate nor immediate, such is the truth of our relation to the other, the truth to which the traditional logos is forever inhospitable" (90).

At once thoroughly contrived and artificial, perfectly human, and powerfully suggestive, Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp" invariably conveys the sense of the face in Levinas's philosophy. In such Chaplin classics as The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), and Modern Times (1936), the face of the Tramp compels attention, not only for its surface eruption of sentiment and pathos but also for its suggestion of the recognition of a moral demand that exceeds mere physical appearance. The drama of the face tops off the physical action of the body in its defiance of opposition of all kinds. The impossibility of the body's achievements on rooftops in pursuit of the van taking abandoned Jackie Coogan away, on icy slopes and in a teeter tottering gold rush shack and on skates by a large, gaping hole in a modem department store's upper floor all confirm some kind of invisible force of spirit and will that sustains Charlie Chaplin. The acrobatics and gestures of Chaplin's Tramp regularly make the extraordinary the ordinary.

As the body of the Tramp invariably achieves the impossible and triumphs over overwhelming physical and human obstacles, the face takes the action to another realm. The physical and emotional turmoil of the Tramp as he plays a little David against armies of material and human enemies becomes a springboard for the drama of the face that insists upon imposing a moral and ethical dimension upon events and activity. The face in conjunction with the body turns Chaplin's adventures into a divine comedy. The overwhelming gap between the Tramp's intention and the object of his action anticipates the search in his personal drama for a meaning to experience that challenges final and total understanding. Thus, the desire enacted on the Tramp's face also informs each scene with the quality and intensity of the spiritual desire that Levinas characterizes as crucial to the divine comedy. Leaving aside the biographical facts of Chaplin's actual off-screen love life, the desire on screen of the Tramp and the abandoned child in The Kid, the blind flower girl in City Lights, and the lovely waif in Modern Times expresses the desire of the ineffable and inconceivable. (1)

The genius of Mark Twain's verbal and literary humor in suggesting divine comedy compares to the visual and performing achievement of Chaplin in film. Twain, of course, in "How to Tell a Story" (1897) articulated a provocative, persuasive, and highly intelligent theory of humor based on incongruities, absurdities, and exquisite timing. However, as Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill have shown repeatedly, Twain in practice exceeded even the brilliance of his verbal gymnastics in his greatest works, including what Blair characterizes as "Mark Twain's Other Masterpiece" (333), a short story entitled "Jim Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn" that appeared in A Tramp Aboard (1880). (2) Twain manages in this story to humanize and personalize a hermit and crazy bird into a community of souls who gain a special moment of contact and communication.

The classic films of Woody Allen also aspire to such excellence. Many writers and critics in the past have compared Allen with both Chaplin and Twain. Similarly, innumerable critics and reviewers have noted the mixture of tragedy and comedy in Allen's greatest work. In retrospect, such films as Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1983), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) grow in stature. The drama for most of these films--at least the best of them goes beyond the boundaries of the two rivers on the edges of Manhattan to a mise-en-scene of what I have been discussing as Levinas's divine comedy. Just as these films often exceed the repertoire of sight gags, jokes, and absurdities of classic Allen comedy to dramatize the development of character and relationships, they also engage serious questions of ethics and morality. The tension and interaction between theater and temple in such films open the stage of dramatic action to issues that challenge representation. To provide some examples from among these films, the desire at the center of Annie Hall vibrates with an awareness of the ethical meaning of time; Manhattan echoes the moral outrage of the jeremiad as Isaac points to a skeleton as a sign of our common destiny and our common moral responsibility; Hannah and Her Sisters shatters illusions of moral and existential certainty; Crimes and Misdemeanors remains a triumph in cinema of Allen's synthesis of both comic and tragic forms to express the perennial search for insight into an ethics of values and beliefs beyond ordinary, daily experience. The humor and drama in each of these films, and perhaps other Allen films of this time as well, achieve their special success by placing their characters on a stage that insists upon the drama of ideas and relationships.

In these films, Allen relies on the importance and the relevance of the implications of divine comedy. In his best works, the characters engage issues greater than themselves. The humor derives at least in part on the gap between their own lives and the moral and existential issues they confront. In Hannah and Her Sisters, Mickey Sachs (Allen) contends with more than impotence and possible cancer but literally with the meaning of his life and the value of his personal relationships. The distance between the triviality and finitude of individual lives and the enormity of their quest for significance defines the humor of the film. Moreover, in these Allen classics, aspects of film construction and art tend to sustain the narrative and psychological drama of the moral and ethical battle. Time, memory, space, fantasy, reality all operate to question ontological certainty. The most stable and confident of characters prove themselves to be divided entities who function in the midst of complete moral confusion and psychological insecurity. Through it all, the skeleton of Manhattan haunts the present with the promise of future moral reckoning, while "the eyes of God" in Crimes and Misdemeanors look in judgment upon everyone's insouciance over their individual and collective wrongs, failings, and limitations.

Even a relatively neglected, somewhat minor film of this classic Allen period, Broadway Danny Rose, ultimately derives its meaning from an assumption of a living ethical discourse from which all Allen characters generally work in these films. A rather light-hearted romp between Allen as Danny, a nebbishy, nerdy loser of an agent and Mia Farrow as Tina, a bleached-blonde Italian woman with a New Jersey accent that grates and a philosophy to match. She says to Danny, "You know what my philosophy of life is?" and then tells him: "It's over quick so have a good time.... You see what you want, go for it.... Don't pay any attention to anybody else. And do it to the other guy first, 'cause if you don't, he'll do it to you." Stupefied, Danny responds with characteristic wit and sarcasm. He says, "This is a philosophy of life? This s-this-s-this sounds like the, the screenplay to Murder Incorporated." (Broadway 254). Danny answers her with the philosophy he learned from his uncle Sidney, "Acceptance, forgiveness, and love" (254), and from his "father, may he rest in peace, the man would say maturity ... a little tolerance, a willingness to give that's all" (189).

When Danny first appears in the film, he wears a "checkered sports jacket, clashing shirt, and Jewish chai dangling on his neck" (151). The crassness of the clothes and the ostentatious religious jewelry all identify Danny's class, role, and place in life with a sweep of good-humored mockery. At the same time, the chai signifies the pervasive religious theme in the movie. According to Sandy Baron, the Jewish comic and the story's outside narrator, Danny "has faith" (166) in his clients and by implication in life and people in general as well. Danny repeatedly calls to God to make a point, saying to one client, "After Sunday night, my hand to God, you have me, I'll be yours exclusively" (182). To gangsters who think he is dating Tina, he says, "My hand to God, I'm just the beard" (261), after he similarly had indicated the same thing to Tina, saying, "That's it, it's the emess.... My hand to God" (213). He fails to resist using God's name to refer to people he meets such as the tropical fish lady. He says, "God bless you, sweetheart. God bless you" (196).

References to Jews and Jewishness abound in the film. When Tina mentions that a neighborhood fortune teller predicted she would marry a Jew, Danny nervously asks, "Did she, did she happen to say which Jew?" (214). Caught "in the middle of nowhere" with Tina, he speaks Jesus's name and says= "Oh, God, I never saw so many reeds in my life. I feel like Moses" (234). Afraid of one possible escape route by boat, he proclaims, "f don't travel by water. It's against my religion.... I'm a landlocked Hebrew. I don't go by water" (237). He summarizes his understanding of dealing with suffering as a kind of ghettoized notion of the need for guilt, pain, responsibility, and learning. He tells Tina, "You know. It's very important to be guilty. I-I'm guilty all the time and I-I never did anything.... You know? My, my, my rabbi, Rabbi Perlstein, used to say we're all guilty in the eyes of God" (224). Admitting that he actually does not believe in God, he finds solace in feeling "guilty over it" (224). Later, he repeats to Tina, "You know, you know what my philosophy of life is? That it's important to have some laughs, no question about it, but you got to suffer a little, too. Because otherwise, you miss the whole point of life. And that's how I feel" (254).


Broadway Danny Rose perhaps lacks the ethical extremes, emotional depth, and cultural range of Allen's best films of the period. However, the self-deprecating humor in fact nourishes the ethical credibility and power of Danny. It gives a Jewish face and urban vernacular to a religious position in the world. Without promoting or preaching a religious creed or moral doctrine, the film's humor engages these religious issues, thereby strengthening them through dialogue and exchange. Danny's belief ultimately triumphs in a convincing way over Tina's cynicism, negativity, and hostility. Too light for divine comedy, Broadway Danny Rose works as a kind of introduction to the tensions of belief and ethics that his other films dramatize. The film still makes an ethical statement about how to treat and regard others, and it justifies a moral stance m a corrupt environment.

Also, even in this rather whimsical tour-de-force for Allen and Farrow, Allen's artistic form sustains the film's ethical significance. Broadway Danny Rose works like a classic Twain frame story with real Jewish comics at Carnegie Delicatessen in New York City relating and framing Danny's story in their own time, story, and setting. As noted above, Sandy Baron introduces and tells the story and moderates the commentary of the other pastrami-and-corned-beef-loving comics. In effect, this puts Danny and Tina in their own time zone, different from the time of the outside storyteller and narrator. It creates a special ethical dimension for them, one that effectively mythologizes Danny, an idea validated by the story's conclusion when Sandy announces that the Carnegie has "named a sandwich after him. The Danny Rose special" (309), thereby installing him in a legendary pantheon of Broadway figures and characters. Like one of Twain's amazing stories or articles, the film becomes yet another if a minor masterpiece of Allen's art and imagination as a comedic filmmaker.

By not taking Danny and his crises and misadventures too seriously, Allen makes him believable. He takes him seriously enough, however, to engage his character and ideas and feelings. In spite of Danny's schlemiel-loser quality, Allen's story and dialogue develop a meaningful exchange of values and conflicts with him. The difference between his naivete and the corruption of others provokes the film's humor. The structure of this difference provides cohesion but also establishes a lower order of tension than occurs in Allen's other films that emphasize the gap between the search for moral clarity and the reality of psychological need and devastation. Nevertheless, Danny's moral stance in the film and within the body of Allen's work at this time makes his story significant as part of the pattern in the films of the late 1970s and 1980s of articulating and dramatizing the world of divine comedy.

Allen's overall failure in the films since 1990 to create credible and workable moral drama has radically diminished the style and success of his art. The classic films depend to a degree on a version of Broadway Danny Rose's gamble on the importance of the moral challenge to meaningful existence. Elsewhere I endeavored to discuss this transformation in Allen's work after 1990 as being at least in part a result of the scandal that surrounded him during this time. (3) The so-called aura Allen had created about himself as a director, actor, and public figure made it impossible to separate his public and private identities. Crippled by the damaged public image, it became impossible for him to sustain his typical role in film as the eccentric, endearing, brainy, and neurotic New York artist his public adored and admired.

However, as important as the change in his own role and situation in his films, the end of the moral gamble as a living option in his films weakens the structure and tension of his effort. In effect, after 1990 the scene shifts in Allen's movies from divine comedy and moral drama to settings of despair and loss that foreclose on the option of transcendence. Instead of comedies about the drama of ultimate moral forces of desire, love, and renewal, Allen replays stories and situations for the purpose of simply continuing. He lives his worst nightmare in Hannah and Her Sisters of "Nietzsche with his, with his Theory of Eternal Recurrence. He said that the life we live, we're gonna live over and over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I, uh, I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again" (Hannah 109). Only as it turns out, in his films of the past twenty years, he primarily revisits himself and sits through his own inferior revisions of earlier successes.


The absence of the impulse toward transcendence, the lack of an articulated consideration of an ethical dimension beyond everyday empirical and mechanical needs force his work into a closed and self-serving circle of limitation. A reconsideration of one of Allen's major films of this period, Celebrity (1998) with a classic from another era, Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) should help dramatize the artistic and ethical dilemma of Allen's current phase of work and career.

Several influential critics and commentators have noted the remarkable parallels that connect Allen's Celebrity to La Dolce Vita to the point of seeing Allen as imitating Fellini as he often acknowledged studying and emulating Ingmar Bergman. (4) In a review that was later rerun in excerpts under the headline "Eying the Glitter-Crazed In Manhattan's Dolce Vita," Janet Maslin noted the "string of neo-Felliniesque encounters" that occupy the time and attention of the film's main character, Lee Simon, as played by Kenneth Branagh. She says Branagh "assumes the corduroy mantle of Mr. Allen and takes on the full panoply of self-effacing nervous mannerisms ('Really? Great, great, 'cause I don't wanna be, uh ...') as assiduously as if he were tackling Richard III" (B1). Describing Branagh's work as a surrogate for Allen in the film as "an exceptional feat of mimicry," she calls "this character a dolce vita hanger on lacking anything like the Mastroianni magnetism," an appropriate reference to the acting skills and personal charm of Marcello Mastroianni, the popular Italian star of Fellini's qualified masterpiece (B1, B16).

In London the headline of the review of Celebrity in The Independent sounded a similar connection: "Fellini did it rather better." In the review, Gilbert Adair emphasizes what he considers to be the film's blatant homage to Fellini. He writes," A Woody Allen film is a palimpsest. Hack away at the surface and you'll always find, just under it, another film, its referential model." He goes on to assert, "Now, with his latest film, the model is flaunted once more. Celebrity is Woody Allen's La Dolce Vita." Adair details some of the most salient examples of crucial similarities between the films. He writes,
   Both films, Fellini's and Allen's--set, respectively,
   in the Rome of the 1950s and
   the Manhattan of the 1990s--are satires
   on the voracious cult and industry of
   fame. Both are episodically structured.
   In both we're guided through a squalid,
   glitzy netherworld of models, starlets,
   journalists, movie stars, and perennial
   hangers-on by a sympathetic anti-hero,
   a failed writer reduced to moonlighting
   as a gossip columnist: Marcello Mastroianni
   unforgettably in La Dolce Vita; Kenneth
   Branagh just as unforgettably (alas)
   in Celebrity. In both there's an extended
   set-piece featuring a statuesque stunner
   of eyeball-distending sex appeal, Anita
   Ekberg chez Fellini and the mannequin
   Charlize Theron chez Allen. In both, too,
   our anti-hero's unattainable ideal of
   purity and integrity is personified by a
   dark, doe-eyed beauty (in Allen's film,
   it's Winona Ryder). And both, finally,
   are in black and white. (3)

With all of these similarities between Celebrity and La Dolce Vita, both reviewers for The New York Times and The Independent agree on the stark differences concerning the quality and degree of success of each film, Adair quipping that "Fellini's film is a near-masterpiece; Allen's isn't even what could be called a near-missterpiece" (3). While both writers clearly tend to agree on Allen's misstep in the film, neither has the time nor space in these reviews to analyze the causes behind the failure. They both also seem somewhat bemused and befuddled by the irony of the failure to amuse and entertain in a film so packed with celebrities who theoretically should be entertaining and amusing just by virtue of being themselves, stars and celebrities. Maslin writes, "Though Celebrity is filled with beautiful and famous faces, it has plenty of opportunity to bog down between star turns, and some of the episodes about the Simons are astonishingly flat" (B16). Adair tentatively suggests at the end of his review that the problem with the film may rest in the nature of its use of satire. He writes,
   Now Allen patently believes that the
   characters in Celebrity are worthy of
   his satire; he believes, in other words,
   they they're relevant; even that they're
   important. And that's what renders the
   film totally inoffensive: one's conviction
   that, for all his raillery, he's actually in
   love with this neurotically posturing
   rift-raff. He is, and he knows he is, one
   of them. Celebrity, ultimately plays like
   a celebration. (3)

To a certain extent, Adair seems correct, but only to a degree. Allen's inability to separate himself from the characters in the film becomes obvious with Branagh's failure in short time to sustain the illusion of being Allen. In fact, the ultimate collapse of Branagh as the Allen character proves the point of Allen's inexorable immersion in and connection to the film. His presence in the film becomes even stronger in his absence. (5) The problem, therefore, involves Allen's own crisis of identification. Allen requires but does not acquire a means for establishing distance from his characters. In spite of his off-screen place as director and observer, he lacks a distinct position from which to judge and evaluate this self-indulgent, self-obsessed tribe of attention seekers. Loathing them rather than loving them, as Adair suggests, becomes his problem, an issue made worse by his place as one of them.

This issue of identification and immersion exacerbates another difficulty. The film fails the Broadway Danny Rose test. With his situation of being both in and outside of the film, Allen does not gamble on a moral dimension for the film. He simply presents the characters as wallowing in their own emotional greediness and writhing in their accumulating anxieties, insecurities, and aggressions. He cannot presume to uphold a personal Danny Rose challenge to them of moral exigency because that would impose upon them a language they do not speak or recognize. An appeal in the vernacular of Danny Rose would be as meaningless to the characters in this film as a suggestion to avoid the limelight or an appearance on The Larry King Show or an evening with Geraldo Riviera. They live in a different world, with different concerns and values, and different codes--a world created of course by Allen himself.


Put another way, Celebrity fails not only because the celebrities themselves frequently fail to ignite enthusiasm or because Allen fatigues and his imagination and energy falter. It fails ultimately because it operates on a limited stage of experience and belief. The challenge of transcendence and the opportunity for "divine comedy" become sedulously avoided, hidden, and repressed, only to return yet again in the steady flow of films that continue to follow it.

Comparisons, similarities, and differences of Celebrity with La Dolce Vita also help explain Allen's dilemma of recent years that Celebrity represents and advertises. The relationship between the two films illustrates the nature of the transformation of Allen's work from its earlier articulation of divine comedy. The opening scenes of both films suggest in dramatic ways how Allen's crisis of moral imagination impedes and obstructs the acuity of his artistic creativity. Celebrity begins with what has become something of a convention now of the making of a film within a film. Lee (Branagh) attends and observes the opening scene of the film within the film to write about the movie and its star Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith). As part of this interior film, enormous underlined letters are being skywritten by an airplane above spelling out the word "HELP." The camera in Allen's film, however, also tilts up to the word in the sky as do ordinary people on Allen's larger New York City scene who look up from the street, from offices, from a sightseeing bus, and from a construction job with men jack-hammering into the city's pavement. The symbolism of the word gets even more obvious when the frenetic director of the interior film exclaims "Let's go people, the letters are fading" and explains to Griffith that in her walk from a car and across the sidewalk she should "project like you know despair" and make him "feel the whole human condition."

Even before the many other parallels between the films become obvious, this opening scene in Celebrity immediately calls to mind the famous beginning of Fellini's La Dolce Vita. The skywriting, the cameras, the chaotic atmosphere recall how Fellini begins his film with all of Rome looking up to the sky as a helicopter transports a statue of Jesus across the city. A chopper with Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni ) follows to record the event for posterity. However, a reexamination of both films suggests how from these opening scenes they also radically differ from each other in important ways.

The anomaly of the sight of the Jesus statue in transport over Rome and the curious reaction of people to this vision seem to suggest disrespect and mockery of the worst sort. At the same time, the vision also conveys a contradictory and counter notion. In spite of the unseemly and awkward circumstance of the scene, an exalted Jesus in the sky above Rome constitutes a sign of moral awareness and consciousness. The image of an overarching religious sensibility watching over Rome persists throughout the film. It establishes a mood and tone of a moral imperative that grows increasingly strident and severe. In fact, the symbolism of the flying Jesus immediately introduces a serious division in the film that separates the film from itself. Celebrated and condemned at the time for its exposure of the wild nightlife and lifestyle of a segment of Roman, Italian, and international culture, the very title of the film has come to suggest decadence and depravity. Throughout the film, Fellini shamelessly sensationalizes and exploits the sexuality, promiscuity, homosexuality, race mixing, degradation, and wantonness of the characters while at the same vituperating them. Mastroianni's moral impotence actually serves his role as the film's moral observer and prism. His usual inaction feeds his self-hatred as a weakling but frees him to merely record and judge others. Indeed, in retrospect, much of Fellini's moral positioning in the film seems truly harsh, hypocritical, and prejudiced, especially against people of color or with a different sexual orientation.

Some of the conflicts and contradictions of La Dolce Vita are reflected in critical discussion of the film. Thus, Peter Bondanella writes, "'Dolce vita' became synonymous even in English with the hedonistic and superficial pursuit of pleasure in reconstructed Europe, thereby acquiring a specifically negative or moralistic connotation that Fellini never intended" (136). Nevertheless, in spite of such putative misunderstanding about Fellini's moralistic intentions, Bondanella also notes that "Fellini's concern with spiritual poverty lay at the heart of his trilogy of grace or salvation. [La strada, Il bidone, Le notti di Cabria] La Dolce Vita therefore continues a theme that was already familiar in Fellini's films" (146). (6)

Accordingly, organized institutional religion, religious and sacred doctrine or creed, and even religious ritual fail in the film. As Bondanella says, "Religion, once offered to Fellini's characters as a possible means of escaping the meaninglessness of their anguished lives, is now represented by a series of empty images and activities and provides no solutions" (147). Bondanella immediately includes the statue of Christ at the beginning of the film as one such empty image. However, it also can be argued that in spite of the expressed failures of religion in the film as a panacea for existential anguish, anxiety, and despair, the religious sensibility in Levinasian terms of the desire for the infinite persists and even pervades the consciousness of La Dolce Vita. Such desire consumes Marcello's psychology, behavior, and frustration. It saturates the screen with the point of view of moral condemnation and judgment even without supplying easy answers to human unhappiness. Perhaps such desire also helps explain one example of the inexplicable in the film with the family suicide-murder by the sensitive intellectual, Steiner (Alain Cuny). Steiner chooses death for himself and his beautiful children in part out of fear seeing them grow up in a world without love based on true human and spiritual values and relationships.

Of course, the film's strongest suggestion of such religious desire centers around the image of virginal purity and innocence of the young girl, Paola (Valeria Ciangottini), whom Marcello meets by the ocean and beckons to in a famous long take at the end of the film. As Bondanella says,
   Paola, the naive and innocent Umbrian
   angel Marcello meets at the beach, never
   represents a possible means of escape
   from Marcello's meaningless existence
   but serves, instead, as an image of
   his own lost innocence. The film does
   conclude with a long close-up of Paola,
   underlining Fellini's belief that such
   innocence is a state of grace well worth
   seeking, but Marcello's decline by the
   end of the film makes it impossible
   for him to believe in any possibility of
   spiritual renewal for himself. As Paola's
   words to him are drowned out by the
   noise of the ocean's waves, Marcello is
   clearly set apart from the protagonists
   of the trilogy of grace or salvation.

Bondanella's discussion of Paola and Marcello highlights the film's problematic notions about the relationship between salvation and grace and the conditions of society and culture. Thus, La Dolce Vita literally undermines the very desire and transcendence that Marcello seeks. Marcello becomes both a reflection and extension of the corrupt world he inhabits. Similarly, in Celebrity, Lee also cannot achieve distance and separation from his society. They both, therefore, only can wallow in self-pity. Yet in contrast to La Dolce Vita, Celebrity fails even to consider or convey a moral dimension or position that can propose an alternative point of view. Adair's equation of Paola in La Dolce Vita to the Winona Ryder character, Nola, in Celebrity, therefore, falls short. Adair forgets that Ryder ends up in the film as simply another neurotic projection of rootless, narcissistic self-centeredness.


At the end of Celebrity, Lee sits in a theater for a movie premier and once again sees the film that began his story. The call for "Help" reappears on the movie screen and clearly speaks for his own mental state of desperation. Like Marcello, Lee thinks that help can be offered or given by someone or something. They both forget that the help they seek not only cannot be given. It cannot be found when offered. The transcendence of the divine comedy that Marcello seeks occurs only in the relationship with the other. It depends on the irony of a form of desire that must fail in order to be felt and continue. An awareness of this paradox emboldens and invigorates Allen's films of divine comedy. However, La Dolce Vita reduces such transcendence to the need for social reform while it disappears completely in Celebrity. In both films, difference degenerates into stereotypes. Felt experience deteriorates into cliches and platitudes.

The transmogrification of Allen's humor from the classic comedies that strive for transcendence to the repetition of his own and others conventions represents more than just a mere change in popular and aesthetic comedic styles. It also involves a change in ways of thinking and believing. For whatever reasons, starting at about the time of his personal and family problems in 1990, Allen's work moved from a deeply-felt commitment to experimentation and innovation to utter predictability based on barely disguised repetition of his earlier themes, story lines, and characterizations. Jokes and gags that depend for their success and effect upon surprise and originality turned into deflated exercises in humor that had been heard before in similar situations. What at first seemed like serious variations in his usual style and formula in such films as Mighty Aphrodite (1995) or Everyone Says I Love You (1996) turned out to be incomplete attempts to convince his public, and perhaps himself, that something new was underway. For many reviewers, critics, and observers, the problem seemed to rest on basic exhaustion and overuse. The material had gone stale so that not only the comedy seemed second hand, but the force behind it seemed to be running on automatic.

A reconsideration of Allen's work over the years, and through the several phases of his artistic and personal development, suggests a compulsion on his part during the past twenty years to restrict the boundaries of conceptualization and execution. What could be termed the potential for creativity and innovation in thought and practice encounters new restriction and limitation. In such films as Celebrity and Deconstructing Harry (1997), Allen appeared ready to include and exploit language and sexuality that reflect current popular taste and standards. However, he also seemed to construct new boundaries to ideas that previously had generated exciting artistic and intellectual engagement. The stultification of a yearning to explore and express the transcendent and to dramatize moral potential through extreme situations produced work after work that focused on the immediate and the obvious. As a shift in thinking and practice from moral sensibility and consciousness to sensuality and immediate experience, the change in Allen and his work raises questions about how his failures and successes over time constitute possible reflections and manifestations of his audience and culture in a new time and place.


Adair, Gilbert. "Fellini Did It Rather Better." Independent on Sunday (20 June 1999): 3. Print.

Allen, Woody. Broadway Danny Rose. Three Films of Woody Allen. New York: Vintage, 1987: 145-316. Print.

--, dir. Celebrity. Woody Allen. Mirimax. 1998. Film.

--. Hannah and Her Sisters. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.

Blair, Walter. "Mark Twain and the Mind's Ear." The American Self: Myth, Ideology, and Popular Culture. Ed. Sam B. Girgus. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1981. 231-39. Print.

Blair, Walter, and Hamlin Hill. America's Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. Print.

Bondanella, Peter. The Cinema of Federico Fellini. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

Derrida, Jacques. "Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas." Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978. 79-153. Print.

Girgus, Sam B. America on Film: Modernism, Documentary, and a Changing America. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

--. The Films of Woody Allen, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. "God and Philosophy." Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings. Ed. Adriann T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. 129-48. Print.

Maslin, Janet. "Jostling and Stumbling Toward a Fateful 15 Minutes." New York Times (25 Sept. 1998): B1+. Print.

Twain, Mark. "How to Tell a Story." (1897). Great Short Works of Mark Twain. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. 182-87. Print.


(1) For my summary of biographical sources about this aspect of Chaplin's life, see my "Documenting the Body in Modern Time" in my America on Film: Modernism, Documentary, and a Changing America (155-73).

(2) See Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill (333-48) as well as Blair's "Mark Twain and the Mind's Ear."

(3) See my "Introduction" and "Conclusion" in The Films of Woody Allen, 2nd ed.

(1-19, 148-173).

(4) For Allen's regard for Bergman see, The Films of Woody Allen (132-35).

(5) See The Films of Woody Allen (14).

(6) Bondanella discusses Fellini's trilogy: "Following the trilogy of character, Fellini's subsequent trilogy of salvation or grace--La strada, Il bidone, Le notti di Cabria--marks an even sharper break with his neorealist heritage" (100-01).
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Author:Girgus, Sam B.
Publication:Post Script
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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