Woody Allen Essay - Allen, Woody

Allen, Woody

Introduction

Woody Allen 1935–

(Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg) American director, actor, author, playwright, and scriptwriter.

In his films, Woody Allen has created a persona as distinct as that of Charlie Chaplin's little tramp. The Allen character is typically a maligned, confused adolescent who becomes an isolated adult; an observer who finds it difficult to participate. Sexually and emotionally inadequate, he is the quintessential schlemiel, or Jewish underdog. However, his experiences reflect aspects of everyone's lives. While Allen's earlier films are gag-oriented and reminiscent of Chaplin's tradition of a little man dealing with an overwhelming society, later works are more introspective. Initially, Allen attacked society as a whole. This attitude evolved into a more personal view of his failure to deal with emotions and intimate relationships.

Born in Brooklyn, Allen claims as his earliest memories rejection and harassment by his peers, a situation that figures prominently in his comic routines. While studying cinema at New York University, Allen mailed jokes to newspaper columnists who in turn passed them on to local celebrities. Consequently, an advertising agency hired him as a jokewriter. This led to writing for standup comedians, until he began writing and performing his own material. Allen also experimented with playwriting before turning to cinema. His first film, What's Up, Tiger Lily?, is actually a Japanese spy film that Allen re-edited and supplied with new dialogue. The result, while referred to as a "one-gimmick" film, introduced his leading character: the lovable klutz. Like the Woody Allen character that followed, he is alienated, an observer.

Take the Money and Run, the first film in which he both starred and directed, reflected the misadventures of an unsuccessful bank robber; it relied on a comic sense that compensated for any structural difficulties, as did Bananas, his next film. They consist of verbal and visual "one-liners." Both are simplistic forms of the parodies he created later. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex provided an innovative experiment for Allen. More than a comedy created from a sex manual, it not only parodied the book, but its concept and audience as well. Sleeper is a social satire as well as an amusing parody of futuristic science fiction. With this film, Allen began discussing his deprived childhood less while utilizing broader symbolism about man's blasé attitude towards life.

With Love and Death, Allen chose an even more ambitious topic: the satirization of classic Russian literature and cinema. He draws from other sources, too, reflecting in particular his great admiration for Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein. Love and Death is a black comedy of death, despair, and life in a godless universe. While still concerned with visual humor, Allen's films were developing thematic and visual sophistication.

Annie Hall is generally regarded as his masterpiece, and a landmark of his stylistic development. An autobiographical romantic comedy, Annie Hall examines Allen's failure in intimate relationships. For the first time, he consciously avoids excessive use of humor, so as not to destroy his tale's credibility. Significantly, this film was nearly called Anhedonia, meaning the inability to experience pleasure, a common failing of the Woody Allen character. By changing the name, Allen concentrates on the positive aspects of his relationship with Diane Keaton, his ex-girlfriend who costarred with him in the film, instead of emphasizing his ultimate failure. In this film, the schlemiel becomes more complex; he is beginning to search for permanence in the world, and finds it in art. Annie Hall met with resounding critical and popular success.

After the success of Annie Hall, Allen undertook his biggest challenge: writing and directing a noncomic film in which he did not appear. Although Interiors met with mixed critical receptions, some critics found it Allen's most outstanding work. An austere, somber film, it reflects his taste for Bergman. Interiors treats human frailty in much the same manner as Annie Hall; however, this time he did not have his familiar network of visual and spoken humor to fall back on. Manhattan combines elements of both Annie Hall and Interiors. The style is sparse and more confident, reflected by his use of black and white film. It is a drama with comedy, instead of a comedy with drama. While some critics labeled the film superficial, disjointed, and boring, others pronounced it Allen's most mature work to date. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Arthur Knight

[None] of [What's Up, Tiger Lily?] is precisely what used to be called boffo humor. No custard pies fill the air, and the climax contains no lunatic chase in break-away cars. Instead, Allen's sense of fun is at once low-keyed, far-out, and hip…. Allen's humor is without malice and without effort; and if some of his puns are terrible, there is an added fillip of fun in the realization that he is every bit as aware of it as we are.

Arthur Knight, "Fun Time," in Saturday Review (© 1966 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted with permission), Vol. XLIX, No. 5, November 5, 1966, p. 45.

Michael Shedlin

[Take the Money and Run] is a festival of [Woody Allen's] peculiar and prolific wit, a meld of ruthless satire, surrealism, and blatant absurdity…. The episodic nature of the movie is intrinsic and entirely suited to Allen's rapid-fire humor; the sight gags are numerous, unself-conscious, and are never allowed to perform as mere specula of the spoken jokes—an index of Allen's talent and promise as a director of comedy. Indeed, many of the most memorable scenes are purely visual…. The prevailing prison atmosphere in Take the Money and Run is effective, although a bit too benign and glossy…. Allen's comedy style, which is situational and considerably more sarcastic than slapstick, is a reflection of his favorite comedy films, "Seduced and Abandoned, and all of the Marx Brothers," and his highly regarded and influential stand-up colleague Mort Sahl…. [It] is altogether possible that Woody Allen will become the funniest filmmaker alive. (pp. 63-4)

Michael Shedlin, "Short Notices: 'Take the Money and Run'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1969 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Winter, 1969–70, pp. 63-4.

Richard Davis

We've seen countless comedies about incompetent crooks. In fact most screen comedians have used the format at some time or other; even the gags which turn up [in Take the Money and Run]—or many of them—aren't exactly new. But the measure of Woody Allen's talent is that he can impart an aura of novelty to even the most hackneyed situation.

Take the Money and Run is a joy. It's wry and sardonic….

There are few belly-laughs. Allen's humour, except in a couple of instances, is firmly anchored in the offbeat and the sly nudge. His scene in the prison laundry, where he wrestles with the washing and drying machine, is perhaps the only concession to the more obvious humour, and is reminiscent of [Jacques] Tati or of Chaplin's classic Modern Times sequence with the forcible feeder, in its depiction of the 'little man' against the fearsome complexity of the Machine Age. But Man against Machine, a classic situation, a priceless gift to comedians, is one which, far from losing its efficacy, becomes more and more relevant by the hour. Apart from this Allen the observer can still find new things to say even when character and situation appear to have exhausted all possibilities.

Richard Davis, "Reviews: 'Take the Money and Run'" (© copyright Richard Davis 1971; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 17, No. 4, January, 1971, p. 53.

Penelope Gilliatt

Woody Allen is deeply fascinated and affronted by the reign of jargon. Sociologists who write about the death of the word in America must have tin ears; American wits at the moment have the antennae for details of cliché that the English have for details of vernacular. In "Bananas," which is slightly about revolution in a banana republic, the plot is ropy and can seem flailingly right-wing when it probably thinks and means something reforming; the one-liners therefore run out of steam halfway through the picture, and too many scenes tend to come out on a bit of l'esprit de l'escalier when they would work better if the person on the staircase would shut up, but the film really is funny about automated...

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David Denby

Woody Allen is probably the best comic talent working in American movies today, but also about the most erratic…. [Bananas] has some ideas that are so bad we may laugh simply because he's really going through with them….

Much of his humor is intentionally "stupid," intentionally sophomoric; like an irrepressible college humorist who somehow never graduated, he is always freshly enthralled by the world's absurdity, always eager to prove the power of far-out humor to take the measure of that absurdity. Occasionally his stupid jokes have a rather sneaky force if you're aware of the reality behind them….

At his best Allen mocks the dead language of television, movies, and...

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Robert G. Michels

Woody Allen's movies have been so disorganized as to defy description and so hilarious as to merit them. The link between his free-associational wit and his casual manner of presentation has not been adventitious, as Play It Again, Sam, his extended excursion into nostalgia, conclusively demonstrates. Although Allen again stars in his own scenario, in leaving the directing to Herbert Ross he has chosen the wrong man at the wrong timing. Ross cannot capture Allen's humor. He can only contain it…. In Play It Again, Sam Allen has returned to gag writing. He has transferred rather than translated his play to the screen. The one-liners are integrated into a coherent story, but it suffers by comparison with...

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Richard Schickel

Woody Allen is a walking compendium of a generation's concerns, comically stated. At every stage of his career he has demonstrated himself to be uncannily in touch with the things that are on the minds of the vast majority of his contemporaries. (p. 33)

"What's Up, Tiger Lily?" was … so modest that it passed very nearly without notice except among [Woody Allen's] devotees, though it is among his choicer lunacies…. There is in any of these Oriental imitations of American genre films a delicious element of unconscious parody, verging on the surreal, and thus there was a matching of visual material with the sensibility of the new soundtrack that seemed near miraculous, perhaps the best example of...

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Richard Combs

For all the panache with which Woody Allen dashes off sight gags and cinematic puns (everything from Potemkin to Casablanca), his visual and verbal humour have always jostled for space on the screen. Allen's comedy is joke-oriented, and almost devoutly Jewish joke-oriented. His maladroit hero stumbles through life expecting social and sexual humiliation, and is usually rewarded with disaster. The world crashes about his ears with each mishap, and each gag seems to begin from scratch rather than building from previous situations.

Confessing his unfitness for survival in a constant, self-deprecating monologue, Allen's little man has neither the never-say-die spastic energy which inspired...

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Gary Arnold

Woody Allen's Sleeper is fast, inventive and delightful: a slapstick chase comedy set two centuries in the future, the better to satirize the present. (p. 126)

Sleeper has some of the acceleration and momentum of a Mack Sennett comedy. The situations and gags accumulate and snowball for stretches of ten or fifteen minutes, usually climaxed by a renewal of the chase. Then Allen seems to take a breather for a few minutes before resuming his all-out, headlong comic attack. His machine doesn't have a classic, smooth-running hum, but it gets you where you want to go, and I think the brief rest stops are necessary in feature-length slapstick.

Despite occasional...

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Pauline Kael

Woody Allen appears before us as the battered adolescent, scarred forever, a little too nice and much too threatened to allow himself to be aggressive. He has the city-wise effrontery of a shrimp who began by using language to protect himself and then discovered that language has a life of its own. The running war between the tame and the surreal—between Woody Allen the frightened nice guy trying to keep the peace and Woody Allen the wiseacre whose subversive fantasies keep jumping out of his mouth—has been the source of the comedy in his films. Messy, tasteless, and crazily uneven (as the best talking comedies have often been), the last two pictures he directed—Bananas and Everything You Always Wanted...

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Leonard Maltin

There are critics who have suggested that Woody Allen be named a national art treasure, and I certainly would pledge my support for such a designation. In America's barren wasteland of comedy, he stands out like a Coke machine in the Mojave Desert. Yet two of his latest films, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, which he wrote and directed, and Play It Again, Sam, which he wrote but Herbert Ross directed, provide an interesting contrast in exploring the strengths and weaknesses of his comic talent.

Sex, a multi-episode film, is for the most part brilliantly directed…. Sex is quite clearly the work of a talent laced with genius. Yet it is not nearly so funny...

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Leonard Fleischer

For all of its borrowings from silent film and Keystone Kops harum scarum, Allen's art is often very private and parochial, emerging paradoxically out of a clearly-defined cultural context. What Allen has done then is to blend the autobiographical elements that form so great a portion of his comedy with the more accessible allusions to mass culture, the result being an engaging amalgam of parody and confession, satire and sentiment, hostility and affection.

Consider Allen's use of his Jewish middle-class origins. In three of his films we hear voices of what obviously are a New York Jewish middle-aged couple nagging and whining about their son. (pp. 51-2)

I suspect it is no accident...

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Molly Haskell

[Woody Allen] has encouraged a "just fun" attitude toward his films while stealthily adding more elaborate sketches to his repertory in order to invite comparison with the great comedians of the past….

But Allen's sense of his own identity is too strong and too obtrusive for him ever to successfully camouflage himself as a mechanical man, the way Chaplin does in The Circus, the way Keaton enters animistically into harmony with other organisms. Nor can he quite envision a world of "normal" people as Lewis does in The Nutty Professor. Allen clings tenaciously to the worm's-eye view which is the source of his humor and of his success, and which defines the limits of his vision. It is the...

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Penelope Gilliatt

Woody Allen's imperially funny new picture is named "Love and Death," a coupling of big concepts that says at once where the story is set. We are obviously going to be in the land of "War and Peace," of "Crime and Punishment," of "Fathers and Sons," though we turn out to be not really so much in Russia as in Russian literature. It is a literature seen through Woody Allen's unique prism of the grandiose but hesitant, as if it were being read by a student racked by anxieties about both the afterlife and the common cold. (p. 104)

For such a recklessly funny film, the impression is weirdly serene. The feeling comes not just from the photography and the editing and the stately Prokofieff music but, more...

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John Simon

"Love and Death" is a curious olio of nightclub patter, revue sketches and one-liners, most of them quite funny but uneasily stitched together. What comes out resembles a movie only as something midway between a crazy quilt and a potato sack resembles a suit of clothes. Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that: like anything else, film can accommodate a great many forms or lacks of form of a madcap, one-shot, sui generis kind. But there is a grave problem with "Love and Death," hilarious as much of it may be. This sort of film wears thin too easily, laughter that is largely pointless becomes in the end exhausting. This does not necessarily happen within a single Woody Allen film, which, kept wisely short,...

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Penelope Gilliatt

"Annie Hall" perfects a sort of humor that can best be described as psychoanalytic slapstick. It has a Geiger-counter ear for urban clichés…. (p. 137)

"Annie Hall" goes further than any earlier Woody Allen film in the purity of its romanticism. This is a love story told with piercing sweetness and grief, for all its funniness…. In "Annie Hall," Woody Allen technically pushes far ahead of anything he has done in the cinema before, playing with ideas in film which he has been experimenting with in prose. His ear for metropolitan speech has never been finer, his approach to character never so direct, his feeling about hypocrisy never so ringing, his sobriety never so witty. (p. 138)

...

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Andrew Sarris

Annie Hall is by far the most brilliant Woody Allen movie to date…. For the first time in his career Woody Allen has acknowledged his own power and eminence as a condition of his existence. The old Woody might have gone to a shrink, but he would not have had the wherewithal to pay for his girl friend's analysis. He would never have shown himself making hordes of people laugh. He would never have begun to reveal in himself all the ruthlessness any reasonably successful urban adult must exercise to survive. For the first time Woody Allen is telling it like it is—almost. And that almost seems to be the key to my persistent yes-but feelings about Allen.

It is nothing I can put my finger on...

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M. J. Sobran, Jr.

He who despises himself, Nietzsche says somewhere, nonetheless esteems the despiser within himself. Woody's soliloquies (and Annie Hall teems with them) address that despiser, trying to charm, appease, and outflank him. He treats the audience the same way, as if to anticipate its presumptive contempt for him. Why does he expect contempt? Because, apparently, he is a man of humble origins…. Sometimes he kids his anxiety by making Alvy paranoiacally touchy about antisemitism, and sometimes he indulges it by making Annie's family really antisemitic. Either way, Annie Hall expresses his own self-absorption: you never know whether you are seeing reality à clef, or Allen's perception of reality, or...

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Harry M. Geduld

[Woody Allen in Annie Hall] is—delightfully—in top form exposing the cultural stereotypes and clichés, the pretensions, fatuities, and hangups, and above all the jargon, of urban American pseudo-intellectuals…. His Alvin Singer brilliantly expresses the absurdity of a contemporary Everyman trying to enact the role of l'homme moyen sensuel in the form of an inadequate, self-deprecatory paranoid runt. ("I'm the only guy I know who suffers from penisenvy.") Woody repeatedly reminds us that the modern American male is a reductio ad absurdum quivering helplessly under the combined weights of Sigmund Freud and Women's Lib….

Annie Hall's satiric barbs lance a...

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Geoff Brown

In some ways, Annie Hall … is Woody Allen's first film;… his technical and narrative assurance has reached a new level, and there has never before been so much concentration on the comic's own personality, outlook and phobias….

Allen's concerns and comic apparatus have been drastically simplified. The elaborate parody mechanisms of Sleeper and Love and Death are here abandoned…. The setting in Annie Hall is largely Manhattan, its apartments, sidewalks, bookshops, tennis clubs, analysts' offices, restaurants, park benches and cinemas—all of which provide mainly neutral backgrounds for the verbal gymnastics of the leading couple…. Outside Manhattan, however, the...

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Owen S. Rachleff

Woody Allen's somber Interiors is unlike any other of his films and accordingly does not poke fun at Jewishness. It may, nevertheless, concern modern Jewish dynamics evident in the lives of a very urbane, arty family that forms the nucleus of this film. Theirs is the kind of supposed Jewish struggle with sexuality, venality, creativity, and psychoneurosis that appears in specifically Jewish characters described by Roth, Potok, and Bellow. (p. 59)

[The] almost stereotypical characters, usually grist for Woody Allen's pulverizing mill, are in no way reduced to the usual antics. Although it owes much to Ingmar Bergman, something to Chekhov, and a great deal more to Woody Allen's untapped...

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Ted Whitehead

For two years, reviewing theatre and cinema, I've managed to avoid the use of the word 'Art', because I believe that the word has come to signify little more than some vague cultural blessing and that there are other more specific criteria by which we can judge what any particular play or film is actually doing. But there's no avoiding Art with Woody Allen's new film Interiors…. After moving from the first phase of satiric farce with the poignant comedy of Annie Hall, Allen now strips off the joker's mask completely and reveals the face of the tortured artist beneath. But the face is not Woody Allen's, but Ingmar Bergman's. The debt to Bergman shows not only in the film's formal qualities, its austere...

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Tim Pulleine

The increasing directorial ambition evinced by Sleeper and Love and Death probably made it only to be expected that Woody Allen would seek to direct a movie not centred on himself as performer, and the elements of psychodrama in Annie Hall similarly made predictable a venture outside the realms of comedy. The evidence of Interiors …, however, may call into question his wisdom in attempting both aims at once.

As the title implies, Interiors is chamber drama…. The film's essentially theatrical construction … heightens the suspicion that the condition to which Interiors aspires is that of Long Island Chekhov, and that the three sisters at the heart of the...

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Vernon Young

Woody Allen, since 1971, if no farther back, had thirsted to make what he thought of as a "European" film, preferably in the monastic style of Ingmar Bergman. Finally he has made it, and contingently it resembles (at least in outline) the particular Bergman number [Autumn Sonata] which arrived almost at the same hour of release. (p. 60)

Impressed by the austerity of Bergman's style and by what he reads as Bergman's tragic view of life, he endangered his project at the outset; he was faced with the problem of imposing a Swedish ethos on urban American material. Bergman, since The Virgin Spring, has as often as possible shut out not only the world of nature but also the world of things...

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Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Allen's association with [Interiors] has distracted the critics. We read essays wondering why a great comedian should make a movie without a laugh in it or why a Jew should make a drama about a WASP family. All this is surely irrelevant. Interiors deserves, like any other movie, to be considered on its intrinsic merits.

Let us therefore purge Woody Allen from our minds and approach Interiors as if it had been written by the unknown but gifted X. For the real test is what one would say about it if one never knew that Woody Allen had any connection with it. And the first point a reviewer might well make is that it is a movie about a divorce….

Interiors is...

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Andrew Sarris

Woody Allen's Manhattan has materialized out of the void as the one truly great American film of the '70s. It tops Annie Hall in brilliance, wit, feeling, and articulation, though it is less of a throbbing valentine to a lost love, and more of a meditation on an overexamined life. As a carnival of the sexes, it can be mentioned in the same breath with such previous masterpieces as Max Ophuls's Madame de …, Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu, Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, and Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story….

Manhattan is comparable to such epiphanies of my movie-reviewing career as Luis Buñuel's...

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Robert Asahina

Like most gagmen who earn their living by making fun of people, Woody Allen can recognize the ridiculous in everyone but himself….

Allen's strained seriousness and inadvertent humor are … on display in his latest film, Manhattan…. As always, his writing and directing are aimed at marketing his own virtue, or rather that of his familiar persona, here christened Isaac Davis….

Allen's persona was appealing in the past because he was such a loser; he reassured audiences about their own inadequacies—that nothing succeeds like failure. Beginning with Annie Hall, however, the filmmaker—perhaps sensitive to the declining status of "losers" and "victims" in our...

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Stuart Byron

Manhattan is ice cold—on the rocks rather than straight up. It is a movie about cruelty and betrayal among contemporary urban intellectuals, but I've yet to meet a c.u.i. who has flinched at any of it. And it is a movie that is flinchable or nothing; Woody Allen is incapable of the sculptural precision and timing which justify emotional distance in Dreyer or Bresson or even Lubitsch. Allen means to confront us with unpleasant truths—but there is no confrontation, only exposition.

Other recent c.u.i. films have succeeded where Allen fails. There were moments so raw and real in Mazursky's Blume in Love and Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage that friends of mine had to escape to...

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John Simon

Manhattan is a profoundly and multifariously dishonest picture. It can be read in both directions, as if it were written simultaneously in English and Hebrew. As Manhattan, it is the story of a decent little fellow who shakes off TV commercialism, moves into a more modest apartment, and tries to authenticate his life as an artist….

Read backward, however—and the continuous flip humor demands that it be read thus—Nattahnam is all tongue-in-cheek cynicism. Isaac is a bit of a shnook, redeemed only partially by his wisecracks; Mary, though dazzling, is also a fool and a sickie; Tracy has previously had three affairs with boys and is, for all her extolled precocious...

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Joan Didion

Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be dressed in "real linen," cut by Calvin Klein to wrinkle, which implies real money. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be served the perfect vegetable terrine. It was a summer in which only have-nots wanted a cigarette or a vodka-and-tonic or a charcoal-broiled steak. It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen's Manhattan, a picture in which, toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. "Groucho Marx" is one reason, and...

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James Monaco

As a filmmaker, Woody Allen has had to confront many of the same problems as Mel Brooks. There has been an element of spoofery in all his films except Annie Hall. In general, he's been able to keep it under better control. His films are about people and ideas as well as movies. Like Brooks, too, he has had to deal with his own comedian's persona. But he started as an actor, and he has appeared in all his films so far (except What's Up Tiger Lily?, a success, and Interiors, a failure). As a result, his films are not only more cohesive than Brooks's but also—at least in my view—more authentic. (p. 240)

His first directorial outing was Take the Money and Run (1969), in...

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Maurice Yacowar

[What's Up, Tiger Lily?] abounds with clichés about Orientalism that relate to Allen's Jewish, sex, and loser jokes. All four patterns constitute a central theme: a narrow perspective is being imposed on an alien reality. (p. 116)

[Two] jokes converge when Wing Fat and Shepherd Wong argue over whether Wong looks Chinese or Japanese: the tradition of "But you don't look Jewish," and the Occidental's inability to distinguish among Orientals. All these Western-bias jokes about the East emphasize the fact that this film imposes an outsider's perspective on the action, and that such a perspective can only distort its material.

As though further to distort perspective, the...

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