The Films of Woody Allen: All for Nothing
I was wrong about Woody Allen.
After Cassandra’s Dream (2007), I gave up on him. “Match Point (2005) is a fluke,” I told my friends. “This guy’s done.”
To a certain extent, I had a point. Match Point was hailed by critics and fans as Allen’s comeback after a string of disappointing films beginning with Celebrity (1998) and ending with Melinda and Melinda (2004). Not that these films didn’t have their merits, especially Sweet and Lowdown (1999) which is an underrated gem, but there was something off about Allen’s work during this period. Celebrity is overlong and doesn’t have anything original to say. Small time Crooks (2000) is funny but feels slight and forgettable. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) fails to deliver on an interesting premise. Hollywood Ending (2002) is just plain awful. Anything Else (2003) comes off as an inferior version of better, earlier romantic comedies by Allen. And Melinda and Melinda (2004) is an intriguing experiment that doesn’t quite work.
Seven films in seven years and not one of them can rival Allen’s earlier work. At this point, even die-hard fans like myself had written him off. So when Match Point emerged out of nowhere, it only made sense that cinephiles around the world would classify this London set thriller as the New York filmmaker’s comeback.
For one, Match Point is an excellent film. It is sexy and suspenseful, sublimely acted, and offers profound insights into the human condition. In short, it’s the kind of Allen film fans hope for. Then came Scoop (2006) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007), two misfires that more or less squandered the promise of Match Point. It was at this point that I threw in the towel and vowed never to be excited for an Allen film again.
Recently, however, I’ve begun to rethink this position. Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream may be cringe-worthy, but all of his films since have been brilliant, with his most recent Blue Jasmine (2013) being one of his best.
The thing that keeps me coming back to Allen’s work is his point of view. Namely, that life is random and meaningless, that people are cruel and irrational, and that whatever we do in life is undermined by the constant threat of death. Unlike arguably any other filmmaker, Allen’s films live or die by the viewer’s association with the filmmaker’s perspective. There’s no Brechtian distanciation effect here. You’re either with Allen or you’re not; you get him or you don’t. This is why Allen is such a divisive filmmaker, and why some people think he’s a genius and others think he’s overrated. At some point, you watch Love and Death (1975), Annie Hall (1977), and Interiors (1978) and decide whether or not you’re into it. If you are, you become obsessed, and if you’re not, you don’t understand the big deal.
In an attempt to provide insight into this seemingly confusing phenomenon--why we love Allen’s films--I’ll provide an in-depth investigation of his films with a particular emphasis on his thematic inquiries into the human condition.
Whether comedy or drama, farce or thriller, period piece or contemporary slice of life, Allen’s films are grounded by different variations of the same theme: the meaning of life. In fact, all of his work is rooted in this subject, including his early stand-up comedy. Consider, for example, the following scene in Love and Death, a spoof of the Napoleonic Era.
On the one hand, this scene showcases the place from which Allen’s humor stems. In this case, Allen finds humor in the absurdity of life, and he is humorously paying homage to his idol, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, who is known for his somber films. As Diane Keaton’s character says:
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. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you’re getting this down.
Here, Allen is satirizing philosophers who go to great lengths to explain the meaning of existence and the human’s purpose in life. He is critical of those who claim that there is a reason for why things happen. Keaton’s meaningless rant is Allen’s way of illustrating the absurdity of it all, and to undermine philosophical conceptions of rationality.
While funny, this scene from Love and Death finds Allen facing his fears of death and his constant contemplation of his role in life. In a sense, Allen’s final monologue suggests that human existence is all for nothing, and as hard as we try to explain our presence on this earth, the best we can do is delude ourselves into thinking that there’s meaning to it all.
The above clip finds Allen confirming this belief during a press conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). As Allen says:
I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience and that the only way you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself….One must have one’s delusions to live. If you look at life too honestly and clearly, life does become unbearable.
Just as this theme runs through You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, it also features prominently in earlier Allen films like The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). The film is set during the Great Depression and tells the story of Cecilia (Mia Farrow), an unhappy married woman who finds pleasure and escape in the movies. In a brilliant conceit, one of the fictional characters Farrow has fallen in love with literally comes out of the screen and develops a romantic relationship with Cecilia.
The film is one of Allen’s best, and although it is charming and delightful, the ending is quietly heartbreaking as Cecilia realizes that fantasy (i.e. movies) is more fulfilling than real life (i.e. her marriage). Allen has said in numerous interviews that The Purple Rose of Cairo is about the choice individuals make to live in delusion because the real world is too unbearable. The final scene of the film beautifully represents this idea, and implies that Cecilia’s only happiness and fulfillment comes from retreating back into the fantasy and escaping into the movie once more.
And can’t we say the same about Blue Jasmine? The film depicts the downfall of Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), a high society New Yorker whose life falls apart when her husband (Alec Baldwin) is incarcerated for financial crimes. Jasmine loses all of her money and is forced to move to San Francisco and live with her working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Blue Jasmine is Allen’s best film since the 1980s, and in many ways it serves as a companion to The Purple Rose of Cairo. Jasmine’s reality--that her husband deceived her, that her reputation is ruined, that she is isolated and alone--is less bearable than her fantasy--that she’s a victim, that everyone’s out to get her, that she’s still high status--so she chooses to live in denial and accept the delusion as reality. Below is an example of the lies Jasmine tells herself to cope with her existence.
The final scene of Blue Jasmine is powerful and poignant, as Allen leaves Jasmine muttering on a park bench. It’s clearly one of the greatest film endings in history, and knowing Allen’s perspective on life, it’s cruelly, almost cynically funny. This is what happens, Allen suggests, in the real world. Why would anyone want to deal with that?
“Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends,” Allen once said. While comic, the quote illustrates Allen’s dissatisfaction with life. How can there be any meaning, he wonders, when the wrong people are rewarded, when bad things happen to good people, and when cruelty trumps kindness. Perhaps no other film portrays this vision as clearly than Deconstructing Harry (1997).
In the film, Allen plays a writer who is haunted by his past, not unlike the main character in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). In one scene, Allen’s character is sent to hell, and we are presented with perhaps Allen’s most brutally honest view of the world. Among the members of hell, according to Allen, are book critics, the media, right-wing extremists, lawyers who appear on television, TV Evangelists, and the NRA. If he were to update this film for the 21st century, I imagine he’d throw Twitter users in there as well.
The above “hell scene” is bitterly funny, but it’s also incredibly truthful. Here, Allen offers a glimpse into why he finds the modern world so miserable. He encounters the Devil played by Billy Crystal, and is given some harsh words of advice: “It’s like Vegas. You’re up, you’re down, but in the end, the house always wins. It doesn’t mean you didn’t have fun.” The dilemma for Allen is coming to terms with the fact that the house always wins. How can you have fun, Allen asks, when it all ends in death and it’s completely out of your control?
This question permeates through most of Allen’s films, and he doesn’t offer any easy answers. I believe this is because Allen doesn’t have them. Perhaps the reason why he makes one film a year is to subconsciously tell himself that he will find the answers one day. Perhaps Allen believes that if he spends his entire career searching, he may eventually reach a comforting solution.
To date, the closest Allen has come to peace is through acceptance. In Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), for example, Allen’s character spends the entire film trying to find a reason for why things happen in life, but is left with this feeling:
I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get and just enjoy it while it lasts. And after who knows, I mean maybe there is something, nobody really knows. I know maybe is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have. And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.
I came to a similar realization a few weeks ago about Allen’s career. Maybe his films will never be as good as Annie Hall, and maybe he will never be given the respect that he deserves, but so what? As far as I’m concerned, he’s the greatest living filmmaker we have, and his work speaks volumes to me about my presence on this earth.
There are some days when I, like Cecilia and Jasmine and many of Allen’s other characters, prefer to live in delusion than to face reality. This is comforting for a while, but as each year passes, I’m confronted with the fact that at some point relatively soon Allen will perish. I don’t know when this will happen--none of us do--but when it does, I’m going to have to deal with it and live in a world where a new Allen film isn’t released once a year. You see, all of this time I took Allen for granted without comprehending that at some point he will stop making films and there will never be another filmmaker like him.
I haven’t yet figured out how I’m going to live with this when it happens, and I still can’t begin to imagine what a summer will be like without a new Allen film. I guess the only thing I can do is enjoy it while it lasts.
What do you think? Leave a comment.