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.

Love and Death- Finale

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.

Woody Allen's Perspective on Life

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.

Cheek to Cheek - The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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.

BLUE JASMINE - clip: Advice

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.

Hannah and Her Sisters - Favorite Scenes

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.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here:
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  1. Not that I’m not a fan of his work, but I never understood why some people consider him to be one of the best filmmakers of all time when most of his flicks have seriously indisputable flaws. His scripts seem to suffer from poor cohesion, and whenever there are blips of true greatness (ie. Annie Hall, Midnight in Paris), I can’t help thinking that if he took more time with each movie that he could make something that’s actually flawless. As it is, most of his film library plays like a never-ending TV series about his neurotic New York problems, and I have trouble understanding why any of these cinematic therapy sessions should have won Oscars, or how any of them could make anyone’s Top Ten film list in the next 20 years.

    With that said, I highly enjoyed ‘Manhattan’ and can watch that any time of the week and still find interesting things about it. I couldn’t say that for anything else that he’s done.

    • Monochrome_Night

      Flaws? Most movies have flaws. Some of the mostly highly regarded movies of all time have gaping plot holes. There probably won’t ever be a flawless film.
      As for Allen, I think the “unpolished” feel matches the films well, especially when it comes to movies like “Hannah and her Sisters” and “Husbands and Wives.” The fact is that few people do dialogue as well as Allen has. How many quotable lines has the guy written? His movies are often depressing and hilarious, almost simultaneously. They make you reflect on life. Almost like Zen lessons in film form, like what the Coen brothers did with “A Serious Man.” His movies aren’t full of awesome action sequences, or surprising twists or anything, but they don’t need to be. He has a style of his own, and what he does he’s done well many times.

    • Dr. Scrubbs

      It’s entirely a matter of personal taste. I love his movies for their wit, originality and that feeling I have that they often are somewhat of a labor of love. Watch Radio Days for instance, I think it’s charming and has a lot of little nostalgic glimpses of the stranger moments of someone’s youth. His movies are usually not very bombastic in tone, it’s more about the nuances and the strange appeal of his ambivalent vision of the world.

      But as I’ve said. It’s a matter of opinion, as always. It’s sometimes hard to tell exactly why you do or don’t love something. For Allen’s work, it essentially gets to me. Thought I can also see why some people wouldn’t enjoy his work, to each his own, as they say.

      As for him being a “genius”, that’s arguable. I’m never really comfortable with that label when it comes to art and entertainment. I guess he does craft some movies that I usually really enjoy, but I wouldn’t proclaim that his movies are masterpieces as if this was an indisputable fact. I don’t think that there is many cinematographers out there that would undoubtedly deserve that status.

  2. Best. Director. Ever. How many major American film directors of the 1960s are still working today? Precious few… it’s late, but I can’t think of anyone other than Allen. Actors, sure, but America doesn’t seem to tolerate ageing directors – particularly compared with Europeans.

    • CynthiaCunningham

      Speilberg did start in the 1960s.
      Polanski as well, on that border line for age, Ridley Scott etc.
      There are a few of them, who started in the 60s, who are major directors, although really their respective careers didn’t take off until the 1970s.

    • Chang-Wi

      Problem is Allen wasn’t a ‘major’ film director in the 60s, that all came in the 70s, his trajectory being quite similar to Martin Scorsese’s. Mike Nichols was became a major director in the 60s and he’s still the game though he’s been working in theater for a few years.

  3. Jay Garvin

    I hold Manhattan very close. It just astonished me. The story was meaningful without resorting to fantasy like I had seen in most Hollywood films, the characters were engaging without being caricatures or being over the top, the music was beautiful, the photography was outstandingly gorgeous – it opened my eyes to what cinema could be and really was. I’ve never been the same person since, having explored not only Woody’s oeuvre but the works of many other great film artists across the world.

    • Manhattan is a masterpiece of cinema – it combines all the elements and tools that cinematic storytelling has available to it in the most natural ways. Excellent acting all around, creative use of beautiful lush Gershwin music, Gordon Willis’ outstanding photography, a terrific script that functions very informally but never feels like an exercise in expository dialogue. No special effects required, just light and shadow, good writing and talented actors. Exhibit A of great natural modern cinema.

    • Paul Harris

      I think Annie Hall will be remembered as his masterpiece. Although Manhattan continues to maintain a high reputation as well.

  4. Edwardo Minton

    Allen has created some of the greatest characters like:
    Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Sweet and Lowdown
    Gena Rowlands, Another Woman
    Sydney Pollack, Husbands and Wives
    Geraldine Page, Interiors
    Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
    For this, and much more, he should be recognized as an outstanding artist.

    • Jon Lisi

      Agreed and so many others. I marvel at how many great characters he created in Bullets Over Broadway alone.

  5. villanueva

    Woody’s movies of the 2000s are better than the ones he made in 90s, maybe except for HUSBANDS AND WIVES and SMALL TIME CROOKS there isn’t much to recommend in his 90s output.

    but in the 2000s he has been on a real purple patch ever since he made MATCH POINT in 2005. i havent watched SCOOP but that could be the only turkey in nearly 10 years.

    • 1990s has Husbands & Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry and Sweet & Lowdown, all amongst his very best films.

      The 2000s have Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona that rank amongst some of his good films, not great.

      The lows of the 2000s are much, much lower than the lows of the 1990s. If Alice was released in the 2000s, it would be considered one of his best films of the decade.

      Small Time Crooks btw was filmed in 1999, released in 2000.

      • Jon Lisi

        I think each decade he has a few clunkers and then a few masterpieces do I don’t know how you can choose.

  6. Kahlia Sankey

    As a rule, I tend to avoid Woody Allen films – I have never enjoyed his film style and I find his private life off putting.
    That being said, I was recently stuck on a cruise during some bad weather where they played Blue Jasmine on repeat and it was this clash between being a great movie and being overrated. I say overrated because the hype and marketing for the film was so overblown that I was turned away from watching the film. Then watching it, although it was a really interesting film (with some fantastic interiority from Blanchett) it seemed deflated, less that what it had been made out to be by media and critics alike. So it was like a weird reflective experience while watching the film that pulled me in two ways about how I viewed it.

    • Jon Lisi

      Interesting. I’d say give more of his films a chance, although if you find ‘Blue Jasmine’ overrated I don’t know what to tell you because most Allen fans consider it to be one of his best.

  7. I’m still an Allen initiate but I from the little I’ve seen I’d certainly say his work is swell. Like Kahlia said, the sordid nature of his private life isn’t pleasant to talk about but, in respect to this article, that isn’t what we’re talking about. When it comes to Allen’s films I find that I have a “respect but disagree” relationship with them. Sure they’re very witty, dramatic, and fun to watch but were Allen to meet me, I’d imagine he’d laugh at how naive and romantic I am mainly because I do believe life has a remarkable amount of meaning to it. That’s the disagreement aspect; the other part of me that respects and truly enjoys his work is able to acknowledge the themes that are being presented and, moreover, admire how thoughtful and eloquent the argument is. His body of work (as I have so far experienced it) is like debating with a good friend who has an outlook on life that is completely alien to yours. There will be disagreement and some heated words but in the end you find a way to live with one another. I certainly hope to see more of his films in the future; thanks for the recommendations Jon 🙂

    • Jon Lisi

      Yeah you should definitely check out more of his films as a lot of them are so inventive. Although, as you say, if you don’t agree with his POV, it might be more difficult to get into him. I think those who really love his work share his outlook on life and find humor and comfort in it. Others think he’s just complaining.

  8. What a great article, full of solid references, insightful videos and examples that perfectly illustrate your point! One must love the atmosphere and ambiance of Allen’s work to fully appreciate his work. It is all about his style: the constant use of jazz music in each of his films, the neurotic, paranoid characters built on Allen’s own psychology, the witty, flowing and never-ending dialogues/monologues/voiceover. He is also a master in capturing a city’s essence, whether it is his beloved New York or some European capital, demystifying its clichés. Not all of his work is good, that is certainly true, but his great films are truly worth watching. I feel you can understand his message about life, art and human psyche only if you watch the films over and over again, even the bad ones, they are great to analyse.

  9. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    I’ve always thought that Love and Death was the key to his oeuvre…it’s such a weird little film.

  10. I saw Take the Money and Run first and thought it was absolutely hilarious. That got me hooked to watch his “early, funny” stuff. Annie Hall was a major eye opener, though, that he had actually make movies that were more than just funny. So many of his movies since then has solidified for me that no one is better in creating stories about relationships and trying to find out what’s important in life.

  11. Here are my three personal favorites:

    Manhattan – as perfect in every way as a film can be. Pure cinema in the modern era, which is hard to find. Music, acting, photography, editing, writing, everything – flawless.

    Deconstructing Harry – the opposite in every way of the film above, but equally as perfect in doing so. As a result, it’s slightly less popular a choice.

    For third it would either be Another Woman or Crimes & Misdemeanors or Stardust Memories. But because I know SM and AW have their flaws despite having tremendously powerful strengths, I’ll go with C&M because it is impossible to find a flaw in that film in any sense. Only way that film could have ever been improved is if Gordon Willis and Woody were still professionally friendly enough to do one more film together. Not that there is anything wrong with Nykvist’s photography, I just think all the dark scenes were straight out of Willis 101 handbook and would’ve been outstanding in his hands. He never got to do that kind of film with Woody.

  12. my favorites of his:
    Stardust Memories
    Love and Death
    Deconstructing Harry
    Whatever Works
    Take the Money and Run

    • Jon Lisi

      Those are all great choices. Mine would be Husbands and Wives, Hannah and Her Sisters, Blue Jasmine, Bullets over Broadway, and Purple Rose. Which shows how many great movies he’s made.

  13. I quite liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I like how he plays with the themes of unabashed honesty on the one hand and dishonesty and deceitfulness on the other. I thought the threesome was an interesting addition to the film as this isn’t something you see in film a great deal.

  14. StevenMichels

    I am a fan–a big fan.

    Art is never perfect, especially if an artist has such a large catalog. Not everything can work. (The Beatles are the best band in rock history, but you could easily put together a compilation of ridiculous clunkers.)

    Mr. Allen has also been knocked for covering the same ground. But I defy anyone to say so much and so little at the same time and still make it entertaining.

    It can’t be easy.

  15. Recently I have been struggling with the idea that people dislike Woody Allen because of his personal choices, and because of these possibly immoral life choices, people tend to ignore his films. I believe that exact ignoring of the work he has done in film as frankly ridiculous. Woody Allen has made some extraordinarily poignant and powerful films and we as the audience are supposed to escape falling into the trap that is the “intentional fallacy.” An artist, unless designated, is separate from their work and we MUST remember that. I do not condone, nor do I advocate for the decisions Allen has made in his personal life but I do not, and will not ever, openly disregard the man’s talent. He is a film visionary, and we must not forget that.

    • Jon Lisi

      I agree with you but I don’t think it will have a real impact. It provided people with gossip to fill their days but if it didn’t hurt his career initially I doubt it will do the same now. Most people don’t care.

  16. Art Posocco

    Nice work! This is a well-written and thorough analysis. I like that you don’t immediately discount “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” as most critics have done. It’s very bleak, and perhaps cynical, but it probably expresses most clearly Allen’s philosophy of life. Also, it’s really not that bad in my opinion!

    As for why Allen makes a film a year, he is definitely not hoping to find any satisfying answers to his questions about existence. He has expressed in interviews that he maintains this work schedule only to keep himself occupied (i.e., to lessen the time that he actually has to face his impending demise).

  17. VinceMoran

    Great article! This really sums up my own opinion of Allen as well. While I agree that some of his films are quite bad, I even found aspects of Cassandra’s Dream interesting enough to make it better than the majority of films released throughout the year. But with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, and now Blue Jasmine he has shown that he is back to form. I too dread the time when there is no longer a yearly Allen film.

  18. Thank you so much for your article. So much to unpack here. I have seen as much of Woody Allen’s early work as I possibly could, I especially like, his early funny ones.

  19. “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.”

    That would be an accurate summation of philosophical nihilism and its conclusions.

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