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...
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a noncomic film in which he did not appear. AlthoughInteriors 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.)
[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.
[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.
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.
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 language. (pp. 127-28)
But still, for all the odd glories of the film, it has to be said that the Castro jokes are often miles out of control, that the blackout lines get lame, and perhaps that the use of a comic personality dependent on being humbly distraught and henpecked may be holding back this wit from the soaring and fearless lunacy that he can sometimes flight to. (pp. 128-29)
Penelope Gilliatt, "Woody Allen," in The New Yorker (© 1971 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLVII, No. 13, May 15, 1971, pp. 127-29.
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 advertising by placing the clichés in an absurd context or by gleefully exaggerating them…. Most of his ideas, however, are closer to free-flying nonsense humor, exhilarating and undisciplined, but without the aggressive force of the film's opening. One has to speak of separate ideas rather than an overall conception because Allen hasn't bothered to impose a unified style or theme on his material. Satire, burlesque, slapstick, and parody are all jumbled together. (p. 93)
Allen is so impatient that he can't sustain or develop anything, and his movie keeps darting off in odd directions or pausing demurely for little interludes. Some of the gags are linked by a kind of comic free association, and the plot … is so casual and intermittent that it seems to be there mainly to tease our assumption that a movie needs a plot. (pp. 93-4)
As a satirist, Allen is not without the diffidence of his screen character. It's good that he's not protecting any of the conventional pieties (he's free, for instance, to attack Castro and the CIA), and he has the originality to change an old emphasis or shift a familiar target (in a spoof of psychoanalysis he makes fun of the patient's revelations rather than the analyst's jargon). With the whole of American culture as his province he'll probably never run out of absurdities to work up into sharp little bits, but on the other hand, the lack of any moral or political position whatsoever prevents his work from having much bite. He has the sophistication for a truly cleansing American satire, but at present, not the guts. (p. 94)
David Denby, "It Only Hurts When We Laugh," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1971, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 228, No. 2, August, 1971, pp. 92-4.
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 the previous films, which became mired in non sequiturs whose very randomness evinced a certain fatalism…. With each successive film Allen has insisted upon specifying the ramifications of sexual frustration at the expense of developing his initial theme of social inadequacy. By doing so, he inevitably turns from contemplation of society to self, thus widening his appeal … while limiting his scope. Allen has not lost his comic vision, but he has blurred it perceptibly. The character he has created always was numbered among the walking wounded. In Play It Again, Sam the injuries seem to be self-inflicted. Of course, they remain incurable…. [To] survive is an accomplishment. To comprehend is an impossibility. It is this inarticulated assumption which provides the manic intensity that animates Allen's work and the resignation that informs it. His ever improbable sense of the ludicrous rescues him from the occupational hazard of repetitiveness, but his interest in a laugh a minute precludes raising his horizons noticeably beyond the next punch line. Within these bounds Allen's efforts can be no different than they have been. They cannot be any funnier than they already are. (pp. 57-8)
Robert G. Michels, "Short Notices: 'Play It Again, Sam'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1972 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Winter, 1972–73, pp. 57-8.
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 found art we've yet had in any medium….
[In] fooling around with this ridiculous, throwaway project Allen for the first time tapped that great mother lode of a generation's sensibility—media memory. "Tiger Lily's" immediate reference point was the Bond subgenre, but it was also, in its little way, part of what can only be termed a tradition. Our tradition: some 30 years of slumping farther and farther down on our spines while the great screen before us flickered with uncounted tales of crime and espionage. College may have made us appreciators of literary modernism, but the matinees of childhood maddened us with movies—and were first on the scene. We have known from the start that we mustn't take them seriously. At the same time, of course, we have inescapably taken them seriously.
Which has led some into camp. And some to the auteur theory. And a few into satire and parody of these and other film forms—the only intellectually respectable way to resolve the contradictions inherent for us in this subject. "Tiger Lily" must have shown Allen what he could do in this vein; in a way it's his easiest, gooniest picture. But not, of course, his most delicious or subtle stuff….
[Allen] does confine himself to the easy targets. "Take the Money and Run" is, to be sure, a full-length parody of a heist film. But in "Bananas" he takes on Ingmar Bergman … and Sergei Eisenstein…. On the other hand, he makes no big deal of this. Indeed, the basis of his visual style, like that of his verbal style, is understatement—very often in the form of the practical question intruding on the cosmic speculation….
These, then, are his two basic tools—parody and the devastating understatement, the latter functioning as a sort of lightning rod, grounding the wild comic flashes of the former, conducting them back to earth, to the absurd reality we share. But they are, in his hands, marvelously versatile tools….
[In] the course of these cheerful assaults he has managed to attack, in his oblique way, such major issues as mortality ("It is impossible to experience one's own death objectively and still carry a tune"), organized crime (Mafiosi "usually can be recognized by their large cufflinks and their failure to stop eating when the man sitting next to them is hit by a falling anvil")….
By these quotations I don't mean to suggest that Allen's reputation must stand or fall on his one-liners. It is true that, excepting "Play It Again, Sam," his plays and movies are a bit raggle-taggle in organization, but then, what isn't these days, given the widespread belief that Donald Barthelme was right when he called the collage the basic art form of our time. (p. 36)
It is no accident, then, that so many of us should—without consulting one another (a thing we never do anyway)—choose Allen as comic culture hero. Like him, we have a peculiar sense of our individual worth, a kind of selfishness, really (which may account for his obsessive joking about food; the concern with being comfortably fed is a basic signal of egocentricity). Like him we are not merely apolitical, but in many cases antipolitical, at least partly on the grounds that politics is one of the most constricting metaphors ever embraced by man…. Like him, we find the characteristic quality of eclectic attention to be "a certain humorous remove from our experience," with media and literature, all intermingled, being one of the largest stores of that experience. And there is no doubt in our mind that an Allen parody of a Bergman or an Antonioni is, like our familiar laughter at it, a proper form of homage. Above all, however, we retain sensibilities which "seem to see the world still in words, as writers, arguers, archivists—even, perhaps even especially, those who do not write."
Truer words than these never having been spoken about my generation, his generation, the rise of Woody Allen seems to me inevitable given the simultaneous rise of his contemporaries in the tastemaking hierarchy. Or, as he himself puts it: "All of literature is a footnote to Faust. I have no idea what I mean by that." (p. 37)
Richard Schickel, "The Basic Woody Allen Joke: Not Only Is God Dead, but Try Getting a Plumber on Weekends," in The New York Times Magazine (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 7, 1973, pp. 10, 33-7.
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 the visual contortions of Jerry Lewis' best comedies, nor the affected 'cool' of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, skating with a certain bumbling style over the thin ice of total incompetence…. Allen is not so much a man pitting his wits against impersonal forces as a physically inept creature going down under another onslaught. His comedy has little conventional timing and acrobatic inventiveness. The styleless, graceless collision of situations is precisely the point, and in defeat the hero always retreats with humility, almost gratefully.
Visual parody and throwaway gags follow rather limply in the train of Allen's wisecracking philosophy of frustration, and the parodies and the monologue have yet to meet in a complete movie. Play It Again, Sam … is perhaps the least inventive of his films, but it is the most consistent and developed in its humour. Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex … has been filmed in the direct and unfussy way that Allen has evolved since the first messy camera rovings of Take the Money and Run. It is a technique which quickly sets up and makes the most of each gag, but which only lends itself to very plain social satire when the verbal humour dries up….
In other instances, Allen's parody is too straight and literal (the 'What's My Perversion?' TV panel game; the sexual research centre which looks like Frankenstein's laboratory) to be more than intermittently effective. The best episodes gain a lot from Allen's own presence….
[Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex] undoubtedly has an advantage over his two previous features in that it lacks the inconvenience of a plot. But even in an episodic framework, his comic gifts are too wayward to escalate a joke with the convulsive intensity and visual surprise of Jerry Lewis at his best. The classically put-upon little man that is Allen's own screen persona never seems to develop as far as it might, for want of a consistently appropriate context.
Richard Combs, "Film Reviews: 'Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex …'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1973 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 42, No. 3, Summer, 1973, p. 178.
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 lapses—Allen shortchanges a few sight gags after setting them up quite nicely—Sleeper impresses me as the most incisive and consistently funny Woody Allen comedy to date. (p. 127)
If Woody Allen continues to leave certain segments of the mass audience cold, it won't be because he's seriously deficient as a funnyman but because his sense of humor offends some conventional tastes. On his part, Allen has reached out to a large public and met it more than halfway—symbolically, by slipping on a giant banana peel. Sleeper is a hip popular comedy, uniting broad slapstick gags with a tart, satirical, up-to-date point of view. (p. 128)
Gary Arnold, "'Sleeper'," in The Washington Post (© 1973, The Washington Post Co.), December 19, 1973 (and reprinted in The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy, edited by Stuart Byron and Elisabeth Weis, Grossman Publishers, 1977, pp. 126-28.
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 to Know About Sex—had wild highs that suggested an erratic comic genius. The tension between his insecurity and his wit makes us empathize with him; we, too, are scared to show how smart we feel…. At his top, in parts of Bananas and Sex, the inexplicably funny took over; it might be grotesque, it almost always had the flippant, corny bawdiness of a frustrated sophomore running amok, but it seemed to burst out—as the most inspired comedy does—as if we had all been repressing it. We laughed as if he had let out what we couldn't hold in any longer.
The surreal is itself tamed in Woody Allen's Sleeper, the most stable and most sustained of his films. (It also has the best title.) Easily the slapstick comedy of the year—there hasn't been any other—Sleeper holds together, as his sharpest earlier films failed to do; it doesn't sputter and blow fuses, like Bananas and Sex. It's charming—a very even work, with almost no thudding bad lines and with no low stretches. I can't think of anything much the matter with it; it's a small classic. But it doesn't have the loose, manic highs of those other films…. Allen's new sense of control over the medium and over his own material seems to level out the abrasive energy. You can be with it all the way, and yet it doesn't impose itself on your imagination—it dissolves when it's finished. (pp. 240-41)
[So] far in his movies he's the only character, because his conception of himself keeps him alone. (p. 241)
When we see his films, all our emotions attach to him; his fear and his frailty are what everything revolves around. No one else in his pictures has a vivid presence, or any particular quality except being a threat to him, and even that quality isn't really characterized. Maybe the reason he doesn't invest others with comic character (or even villainous character) is that he's so hung up that he has no interest in other people's hangups; that could be why his stories never really build to the big climactic finish one expects from a comedy. His plots don't tie a gigantic knot and then explode it, because the other characters aren't strong enough to carry the threads. The end of Sleeper is just a mild cutoff point—not bad but unexciting…. (p. 242)
[One] might say that Sleeper is a sober comedy; it doesn't unhinge us, we never feel that our reason is being shredded. It has a businesslike, nine-to-five look about it, and a faint nine-to-five lethargy. For a comedian, the price of stability may be the loss of inspiration. (p. 243)
Pauline Kael, "Survivor" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. XLIX, No. 45, December 31, 1973), in her Reeling (copyright © 1973 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1976, pp. 240-47.∗
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 as Play It Again, Sam….
The humor in Sam falls into two categories: monologue and sight-gag. Woody spends a good deal of the film talking, either to himself or to his friend's wife … machine-gunning a non-stop series of Allenisms (e.g., he remembers the girl's birthday because it's the anniversary of his mother's hysterectomy). Other major comic sequences are built around slapstick type of material: an uproarious scene has him trying to act nonchalant when his friends bring him a blind date. (p. 42)
The film teeters on the edge of truth, managing to be poignantly real when it wants to be, and outrageously unreal when the situation calls for it…. (pp. 42-3)
What is it about Sex that, with all of its innovations, makes it less funny than Sam, a thoroughly enjoyable but more conventional film? Well, in Sex, Allen tosses off all conventions and lets his imagination run wild. In doing so, he comes up with devilishly clever material—but strays so far from reality that there is nothing tangible for the audience to grab onto and feel. Most of the humor is derived from shock value. In other scenes, Allen turns around and hits so close to home that the line between truth and satire becomes hopelessly blurred, for equally ineffectual results. (p. 43)
These problems stem from the fact that Woody Allen is still essentially a gag-writer trying to adapt his brand of humor to film. Try to picture Henny Youngman making a short subject out of "Take my wife—please," and you have the basic conflict of Allen's films.
A rare and happy exception is What's Up Tiger Lily?, a large-scale extension of a one-joke idea…. [Because] the Japanese footage was so engagingly bad, and Woody's ideas so consistently ludicrous, it all seemed to click….
Allen's first directorial effort, Take the Money and Run, suffered from an excess of "limbo" humor, neither verbal nor visual. More than any other Woody Allen film, one suspects that Money must have been an excruciatingly funny script to read. It's just that much of it doesn't play out on-screen….
Bananas has a firmer grip on screen comedy technique, although it has its share of "clever" gags which don't pay off—as when Miss America, testifying at a trial, bursts into a rendition of "Caro Nome," as if she were back at the talent trials of the beauty contest….
Another of Allen's problems is that he can't resist a gag, even when it intrudes on the situation. In the opening medieval segment of Sex, he plays a court jester and does a sidesplitting impression of Bob Hope delivering a monologue which gets no laughs. Then, ignoring his own spoof, he clutters the following scene with throwaway lines which only detract from the impact of the sequence….
Sex has at least one sequence which defies criticism, perhaps the only one in the entire film that succeeds on every point. It is the final segment, depicting the activity inside the male body as it engages in sex. Beginning with a fanciful premise …, Allen builds on it with clever dialogue, incredible visual ideas (a work team turning a giant wheel in order to effect an erection, eventually knee-deep in liquid), and the omnipresent gag lines (with Woody himself as one of the sperm about to take off into the "unknown"). The foundation of this delightful segment is a funny idea; with this as a starting-point, Allen's large heaping of comic ideas creates a richly funny episode. (p. 44)
Leonard Maltin, "Take Woody Allen—Please!" in Film Comment (copyright © 1974 by Film Comment Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved), Vol. 10, No. 2, March-April, 1974, pp. 42-5.
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 that we never see the faces of Allen's parents, that we merely hear their nagging voices, their pained disappointment over their son's failures. Allen's portrait of them is devastating, but stops short of being malicious or cruel. Perhaps it is enough that the college drop-out has had the last word! Allen's reference to his Jewishness extends beyond these parental allusions. He seems fascinated—almost obsessed—by the rabbinate and appears to delight in mocking the solemnity and dignity of the rabbinical image. (p. 52)
[Though Allen comes] close to offensive caricature in [his] broad treatment of recognizable Jewish types, [he is] at the same time asserting the freedom to employ such ethnic material in non-ethnic situations. The Jewish comic may be exorcising personal dybukks through these routines, striking back against a Jewish background that may have been unfulfilling and restricting. Yet at the same time these comic bits are a joke on the gentiles who don't quite get the point. (p. 53)
Allen is not always on target in blending the obvious and the bizarre. At times his nervous imagination causes him to move too quickly from one bit to another, neglecting the careful rhythms that structure comic genius. The courtroom sequence in Bananas—a segment with some of his zaniest moments—is cut short before its comic possibilities have been exhausted. (This is the scene in which a large black woman, in taking the stand in the Federal government's loyalty case against Allen gives her name as J. Edgar Hoover.) His films tend to have a disjointed effect, with transitions missing and pieces dangling…. His films suffer from the absence of comic foils, for when his own inventiveness lags, there is no one else on screen to pick up the ball. Finally, the latter portions of the films inevitably are a let-down after the early hilarity. (pp. 56-7)
Leonard Fleischer, "Getting Even: The Comic Art of Woody Allen," in Midstream (copyright © 1974 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), Vol. XX, No. 4, April, 1974, pp. 51-7.
[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 humor of a stand-up comic, wit that plays off a given world, rather than inventing it. It is a verbal, parochial, ratty, ethnic, bargain-basement humor, sexist, conservative, self-centered, and the funniest lines in Sleeper are hangover lines, when the "morning after" happens to be two centuries later….
In alien territory, Allen can just about survive. He lacks the ability of a Chaplin or a Keaton to turn expediency into poetry, and his overconcrete personality—Jewish ethnic, New York—is a cross he brandishes with bravado…. In this, Allen is very much in tune with the contemporary Zeitgeist, the vision of the alien as insider, the underdog as top banana. Whereas most comedians suggested, by their smallness or obesity, the plight of outsiders looking in, longing to join the beautiful people (and thus were universal), Allen, to his disadvantage and advantage, comes at a time when little of the decorum and ritual of an elitist society remains for the comedian to sabotage, and when the WASP establishment has been demoted, in movie mythology, with the ethnic occupying centerstage. (p. 130)
At the same time, Allen—and this is the source of the reactionary side of his wit—wants in. Like the traditionally upward-mobile Jewish kid, part of him wants to join the dumb goyim, the smiling blond middle-Americans whose surrogates are the lobotomized futuristic race of Sleeper who say "Green-witch Village" and never heard of Norman Mailer. But Allen never develops the tensions, and contradictions, inherent in this situation beyond showing a disinclination to become involved in a radical plot, by a group called Aries, to overthrow the government, and by showing a marked contentedness once he has been reconditioned as a member of the Establishment. He tries to have it both ways—the vernal paradise of the revolutionaries recalls Fahrenheit 451, but it also plays on the negative image of carnivores in Godard's Weekend.
Allen is too much a product of his own biography to make the leaps of association of which the great comedians were capable, or—and this is a more serious failing—to envision an adversary as a worthwhile opponent. Allen's vision of a futuristic society, despite the elaborateness of the sets under Dale Hennesy's art direction, makes one appreciate the authority of a Stanley Kubrick. The comedian lives in a symbiotic relationship with his enemy, and this is where we appreciate the genius of Chaplin and Keaton, not just in the sublime grace (or deliberate gracelessness) of their mimetic art, but on the conceptual level, in the instinct for investing the opponent with strength—the towering mass of the bully in Easy Street, the numerical advantage of the cops or the army of women in Keaton's films, which give rise to feats of grace and ingenuity and intimations of the spirit's immortality that are beyond the considerable talents of Woody Allen. (p. 131)
Molly Haskell, "'Sleeper'," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), 1974 (and reprinted in The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy, edited by Stuart Byron and Elisabeth Weis, Grossman Publishers, 1977, pp. 128-31).
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 fundamentally, from the cast of Woody Allen's mind. He is the only wit alive who could manage with such easy style the skiddy topics of some of the movie's best jokes. Comedians who deal in sexual uncertainty can be dire, like comedians who trade on pretending to be cowards, because both sorts profit by affecting to have qualities that they secretly despise; but Woody Allen makes haplessness about love seem one of the conditions laid down for loving, much as he makes fear of death seem one of the conditions laid down for living. No one who wasn't petrified by mortality could make a comedy that was so palliatively funny about the straits we inhabit. God, if he exists, is described as an underachiever, presumably because of the Deity's failure to put an end to the anguish that comedy tries to see us through…. [Boris' dance with death is a] scene of peculiar carnival respite, like the experience of watching the whole movie. "Love and Death" strikes me as majestically funny: the most shapely piece of cinema that Woody Allen has yet made, and one of comedy's hardiest ripostes to extinction. (p. 109)
Penelope Gilliatt, "The Current Cinema: 'Love and Death'," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LI, No. 17, June 16, 1975, pp. 104, 107-09.
"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, can generally squeeze by without our realizing until later that we have been exercising our jaws in a vacuum—that we could have gotten roughly the same effect from laughing gas, sneezing powder or a mutual tickling session with a friendly prankster. (pp. 1, 15)
[For] the more discriminating viewer a certain, as it were, postcoital depression sets in even earlier: say, midway through the film. It is in the nature of gags not to be all as funny as the best of the lot: a set of perfectly matched jokes is infinitely harder to come by than a necklace of perfectly matched pearls…. What put "Sleeper" above Allen's other films so far is that it really was about something besides gags—about what was wrong with present-day society revealed in terms of a grimly caricatured but all too plausible future.
In "Love and Death," however, the joke is everything; if it misfires, we promptly begin to wonder what it is that we have been laughing at, anyway. The film starts out as a vague satire on Russian novels (do we need that?), but soon scatters toward all kinds of targets, from anti-Semitism to Jewish sexuality…. "Love and Death," says the title, and we think that the film may work its way up to some comic insights into these two big subjects or, better yet, about how they interrelate. Yet while it boasts gags galore about both, it has nothing much to say about either, let alone about the two of them together….
This is particularly saddening because Woody Allen is more than merely funny: at his best, he exhibits a penetrating intelligence—indeed, intellect—well beyond the mental means of our run-of-the-mill farceurs. Such intelligence can uncover, ridicule, and perhaps help laugh out of existence genuine evils, and a little, a very little, of this elixir survives even in the anomic laugh-fest of "Love and Death." But the movie stoops far too often to such things as a facile sight gag about a convention of village idiots which, when you come right down to it, yields laughter that leaves you with a bad taste in the soul. (p. 15)
John Simon, "Our Movie Comedies Are No Laughing Matter," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 29, 1975, pp. 1, 15.
"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)
Penelope Gilliatt, "Woody at His Best Yet," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 10, April 25, 1977, pp. 136-38.
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 exactly, and I have no advice to offer on the subject. It just strikes me from time to time that Allen is all nuance with very little substance, that much of what he says is not very original, and that he tries to play both ends against the middlebrow….
In years to come Annie Hall may be fondly remembered as the Romeo and Juliet of the analysands. Allen uses the most outrageously literal devices to distinguish the past from the present, the conscious from the unconscious, the physical from the spiritual, the id from the superego, the drama from the essay. He manages to be so boring on the subject of death that he makes Bergman seem lighthearted. Yet, the whole movie hangs together through the power of its reminiscence.
Andrew Sarris, "Woody Allen's Funny Valentine," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), Vol. XXII, No. 17, April 25, 1977, p. 45.
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 his perception of his perception of reality. But the jokes are funny even when it's not clear who their butt is. He traps you inside his quirky consciousness and unscrupulously tickles you to death. (p. 622)
Annie Hall is frequently funny; but not integrally funny. The slight story of a vapid affair is heavily festooned with mots and gags that run on without adding up; after a while they seem ad hoc, defensive, timid, merely tactical self-depreciations even when Woody is trying to lure us, as Alvy lures Annie, into his language-field. (pp. 622-23)
The whole movie, one feels, is his last word: it should have been called Alvy Singer. If Woody couldn't make the kind of chivalrous homage to a woman that (say) Truffaut or Rohmer might have given us, he should at least have had the courage of his neuroses and given us a comedy of miscegenation…. What it finally comes to is ninety minutes of coitus interruptus, fun but fruitless. Annie Hall may look like a comedy or a romance, but it's really a tsuris trap. (p. 623)
M. J. Sobran, Jr., "On the Screen: Boy Meets Shiksa," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1977; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), Vol. XXIX, No. 20, May 27, 1977, pp. 622-23.
[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 multiplicity of contemporary targets, but the film's essential concern is with the reworking of the old myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. At first, Annie forces a relationship with the reluctant Alvin; but gradually, despite his evident inadequacies, he assumes control and begins to transform her into an educated and self-confident woman. Soon the increasing success of the transformation produces a crucial dilemma: love or independence?…
The film offers some novel and topical variations on the old myth…. Woody Allen's "Pygmalion" is a divorcee who makes absurdly fumbling efforts to pass himself off as a latter-day worldly-wise Casanova. And while Alvin Singer is not destroyed by his "creation," his involvement with Annie Hall does, in fact, reveal his many weaknesses in contrast with her growing strength. Shaw's Pygmalion shows the gradual elevation of Eliza to equality with Higgins, but Annie Hall offers us instead a new Galatea nonchalantly turning her back on a Pygmalion who seems too ridiculous even to be pathetic. (p. 54)
Harry M. Geduld, "Woody Allen and Galatea," in The Humanist (copyright 1977 by the American Humanist Association; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, July-August, 1977, pp. 54-5.
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 environments are seen through more satirical eyes: Alvy's Brooklyn home, beneath a roller-coaster; Annie's home in Wisconsin, straight from a Norman Rockwell painting; and, especially, the scenes in Los Angeles. 'It's like living in Munchkinland!' Alvy tells his friend and manager Rob…. And so it seems all is fakery and sunbaked glitter….
There is a simple reason for these changes in treatment: Manhattan is the home ground of Allen's humour, and under its inspiration the verbal gags completely dominate over the visual. The topics, however, are all as before: like his forerunners Alvy is haunted by love and death, depression and psychoanalysis, the fact of being a Jew, the importance of literature and learning …, the cultural hogwash talked in cinema queues and at parties. But these topics have never been so clearly centred round Allen himself. For the rise of the bespectacled, slight, nervous comedian Alvy Singer directly parallels the rise of Woody Allen…. Indeed, the concentration on Allen and the daily round of a New York Jewish comic makes one fear for the film's communicability, both now and in the future. (p. 256)
Yet behind this top layer of dazzling quips and their accompanying stylistic flourishes (ranging from a cartoon fantasy and thought-revealed subtitles to Alvy and Annie revisiting their past like characters out of Arthur Miller) there lies a solid foundation—the trials and tribulations of the comic outlook and its effect on human relationships…. When comedians mirror their own habits and frustrations without the customary distortions of invented characters and plots, the results are usually more embarrassing than funny. Woody Allen, however, has miraculously made his most personal film his funniest. (pp. 256-57)
Geoff Brown, "Film Reviews: 'Annie Hall'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1977 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 46, No. 4, Autumn, 1977, pp. 256-57.
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 sensitivities, the film does not belong in any way to the comedian's well-known satirical genre. As some have lamented, indeed, there are no jokes in the entire picture…. In fact, there is a great deal to mark this movie as a beautiful landmark, particularly in the way Allen—like a spider spinning a web—captures the fragile truth of the psychoanalytical seventies. True, there may be no jokes (there are some laughs, to be sure), but there are enough droplets of brilliance … to give the web a shimmering as well as delicate appearance. And there are subtle undercurrents as well, one of which, the possible Jewishness of the characters, still intrigues me.
Woody Allen is obviously very much affected by his Jewishness; it is an inevitable leitmotif that surfaces in all his work—literary, cinematic, on the nightclub stage. Even when it's clearly uncalled for, there it is…. So long as Woody is being jocular, Jewishness per se will emerge and range from charming and telling references to hints of offensiveness and scorn…. The Jewish tonality [in Interiors] is so subtle it might even be missed. Mostly it shows itself with Eve, a formidable character….
Was Eve a rather more elegant but nonetheless hysterical version of Sophie Portnoy, the proverbial Jewish mamamonster of Philip Roth? The "television scene," with its unctuous evangelist, seems to hint at this and more, and consequently imputes Jewishness to the rest of the film….
Interiors, as the title suggests, requires blueprints and much studying of corners and curves, for in those places lurk subtle symbols and shadows and old leitmotifs, newly lit. (p. 60)
Owen S. Rachleff, "Leitmotifs," in Midstream (copyright © 1978 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), Vol. XXIV, No. 10, December, 1978, pp. 58-62.
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 composition and self-conscious elegance, but in its themes of personal isolation and death, and crucially in its attitude to art, which is seen as something refined, exquisite and in a sense inhuman. The story concerns a well-heeled WASP family in New England…. Arthur is a quiet, decent, responsible sort of man, while Eve is the perfect wife and mother—a little tense and introverted, perhaps, but then she's an artist. If Arthur provides the loot, she provides the aesthetic sense that makes their home a model of gracious affluence. (pp. 38-9)
The contrast between Eve and the new wife, Pearl … is at the heart of the film, Pearl is described by Joey as a 'vulgarian', and I suppose she is in the sense that her responses are simple and uncomplicated, more sensual than cerebral, and taste to her is a function of the tongue and not of the sensibility. She likes eating and drinking, and music and dancing, and she wows the boys with card tricks—in other words, she's a lot of fun, and that's something Arthur has had very little of. If for Arthur she represents an escape from bourgeois respectability, for Woody Allen she seems to offer an alternative to the neurotic, self-conscious, obsessive figure of the artist—or at least of his type of artist.
Her role as life-force is symbolised in the melodramatic finale….
[If] the clouds that gather over the Long Island house seem peculiarly Swedish, the theme of the tension between the vulgar and the fine is authentically American and authentically Allen, now in the costume of tragedy. (p. 39)
Ted Whitehead, "Art Movie," in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 241, No. 7849, December 9, 1978, pp. 38-9.
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 picture represent a Chekhovian legacy as much as did the trio in Cries and Whispers. But where Bergman is able to use this as a starting point for his own inimitable concerns, it is by no means certain where Allen is headed (though it is clearly not in the direction of laughter). (p. 60)
Dramatically and thematically, it is with our response to Renata and Joey that the essential stumbling block to the movie presents itself. Involvement with them is crucially hindered by the fact that the family background is not elaborated in enough detail to let us judge for ourselves the validity of, for instance, Renata's claim that Joey feels guilty for rejecting her mother, or Joey's that Renata is wary of her (Joey) as a competitive threat. And more damagingly still, Allen's delineation of these literary-artistic lives sometimes verges uncomfortably close to unwitting parody. When Renata constantly seeks to convince her husband of his talent as a novelist, or declares that she is preoccupied with death but 'the intimacy of it embarrasses me', or when Joey voices 'a need to express myself, but I don't know what I want to express', we seem to be only a small step away from the memorably pompous culture-vulture of the cinema foyer scene in Annie Hall.
We may deduce that what links these characters is a preoccupation with a way of living rather than with living itself…. Joey fears that a job she has been offered would cause her to be 'swallowed up in some anonymous lifestyle'. But the implications are never worked through, and it seems significant that one has to turn to the movie's dialogue to evidence such concerns….
[If] Allen has already appeared to stack the deck by making Eve something of a traditional Hollywood monstre sacrée,… he is guilty of sentimental condescension if he is seeking to posit Pearl as a life-enhancing antidote to the hermetic dilettantism of Renata, Joey and their mother….
Interestingly enough, the themes adumbrated around Pearl are more succinctly developed in the treatment of Flyn, who—patronised overtly by her odious brother-in-law and implicitly by her sisters—proves not only to be more genuine in relating to them but also possesses, judging from her remarks about her career, a more practical and unresentful capacity for ironic self-awareness. This is one of the incidental felicities in Interiors. And, as well as the pleasure afforded by Gordon Willis' glowing images, there is in the film—however much it must be accounted a failure—a modesty and a refusal of the fashionable that leave scope for optimism about Allen's future in serious as well as comic movies. One must only hope that in future forays he will not, so to speak, wear a straight face so patently on his sleeve. (p. 61)
Tim Pulleine, "Film Reviews: 'Interiors'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978–79 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1978–79, pp. 60-1.
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 and the world of society at large, so that his agonists can battle nakedly with each other (or with a surrogate God), undistracted by the alternative points of view or the cultural frivolities which tempt the commonality of mankind. Allen's film is far more populous than Autumn Sonata or any late film of Bergman; our comprehension of it is not delayed by a level of symbolic reference; it can be summarized as a story line that holds together. Motivation, however, is another matter. If Autumn Sonata is ambivalent because Bergman is playing a game with appearances, Interiors is eventually ambiguous because the calamities represented are in excess of the cause alleged.
Interiors should have been the tragedy (or even the comedy) of a man's attempt, alternately assisted or opposed by his three daughters, to win his own soul by ridding himself of their mother, his wife. I say "should have been" because Allen's conception of that man is so feeble (in the Bergman tradition of the ineffectual male) … that he emerges far less sympathetically than the compulsively meticulous wife…. (p. 62)
[The] whole embroilment is distorted by Allen's insistence on telling his story in a style alien to the milieu he provides, transposing the key of an American metropolitan setting into that of the hushed and claustrophobic atmosphere of Bergman's Baltic…. [Too much of the dialogue is] the sort of talk which, in earlier Woody Allen vehicles, would have speedily led to a verbal pratfall.
Allen tries harder—perhaps too hard—to keep his settings from becoming as cluttered as his language, staging crucial scenes at the dining table, in the bedroom, in an empty church, at a beach house, as a means of exiling the everyday world….
With every sequence he appears to have asked himself, not "How can I best shoot this?" but "How would Bergman shoot it?" And he ends his film with a strict reversion to the Bergman format which, at the same time, summons a whole repertory of understated curtain tableaux, post-Chekhov and Ibsen. (p. 63)
It has been said that the smothering family atmosphere in certain Bergman films appealed to Allen by reason of his special Jewish vulnerability to comparably oppressive parents in his own environment. I would not wish to pronounce on this probability, if probability it is, but I suspect that the driving force behind Allen's wistful Bergman-worship is rather a (Jewish?) love of perfection and a confusion of it with the Less-Is-More aesthetic of Scandinavian reductionism.
Be that as it may, the truth is that it takes more independent imagination, greater cinematic scope, a more vital sense of life-poetry to make Bonnie and Clyde, Mean Streets, or Badlands than it does to make Interiors. Centrally, what is Allen's film about? Certainly not about "the meaning of life"—a silly predication for any work of art. And though the rejected wife and mother kills herself, the film is in no awesome way about death. The people involved are not tragic, although some of them would like to be; they tend to be hysterical, obtuse, or pathetically abusive…. Is this what makes the film, for Allen, "more personal"?
Interiors is an embarrassing episode in Woody Allen's career, a feeble struggle to escape from his more authentic self, an incredible concession to the snobbish misgiving that comedy is an inferior art. (p. 64)
Vernon Young, "Autumn Interiors," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 67, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 60-4.
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 certainly the first in a long time to take a hard, close look at this nerve-wracking chapter in so many American lives….
The movie is occasionally too pat, as when the most hostile daughter is saved from drowning by her stepmother's kiss of life. But it is generally superb in its exactness of observation and its breadth of sympathy. I have seen no movie that explores the impact of divorce with such sensitivity to the dilemmas of everyone involved….
Nor has Woody Allen—that name can't be excluded altogether—lost his satiric touch. The pseudo-intellectual cant he has used before to comic effect he uses to dramatic effect here, and his ear is as precise and devastating as ever. Of course his direction has been influenced by Ingmar Bergman. Why not? No one objected when movies were made, for example, in the manner of Lubitsch; and Bergman is a pretty good influence if your object is to render presumably civilized adults under acute emotional stress. Interiors seemed to me a remarkably intelligent movie. The unknown X has a considerable talent for high seriousness.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "Days of High Seriousness," in Saturday Review (© 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted with permission), Vol. VI, No. 1, January 6, 1979, p. 46.
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 Viridiana in 1962, Richard Lester's and the Beatles's A Hard Day's Night in 1964, and Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's in 1970. At a time when even the most discerning film critics seem to be mesmerized by gaudy, growly, weepy, inarticulate firework displays masquerading as movies, Allen has returned us to square one with an authentic talking picture about recognizably motivated human beings. I now suspect that Interiors, far from being a detour, was a necessary step in Allen's artistic progression from Annie Hall to Manhattan. Never in Manhattan does Allen compromise his mise-en-scene by enslaving it to a transient and thus ultimately disorienting sight gag. Instead, an ironic counterpoint is established from the outset between the verbal and the visual, between the satire and the romance, between the intellectual perception and the emotional projection. For once, Allen's jokes do not jump off the screen so much as they remain embedded in the mise-en-scene. And yet the jokes are funnier than ever, though the loud guffaws of the past may be replaced by a rippling merriment now that the intervals of nonjokes are so much more engrossing psychologically and dramatically….
Halfway through the movie Allen utters a devastating line that must take its place in film history alongside of Jean Renoir's "Tout le monde a ses raisons" from La Regle du Jeu. After Diane Keaton has turned out the lights to have sex, she asks Allen what he is thinking, and he replies that he is bothered by the fact that he has never had a relationship that lasted as long as Hitler's with Eva Braun. This is a blackout line of sorts, and we are not primed for a belly laugh, but as the idea sinks in, the ethical configuration of Manhattan emerges in broad relief, and the desperation of the characters finds its comic correlative.
Allen, like many contemporary directors, is obsessed with death, and he does not hesitate to do a Yorick number with a skeleton in a moment of crisis. Like a self-proclaimed Hebrew prophet, he endows his persona with both a theological and teleological dimension. He courts Keaton in the counterfeit lunar surfaces of the Planetarium. At times he is too much the tour guide to an ultra-touristy New York in which all the fashionable landmarks pop up too conveniently without any spatial logic. But by and large he gets away with the most self-conscious camera conceits imaginable because of the force and strength of the characterizations in their somber setting. (p. 51)
[Manhattan] has become a film for the ages by not seeking to be a film for the moment. It is universal by virtue of its being resolutely provincial. (p. 54)
Andrew Sarris, "'S Wonderful," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), Vol. XXIV, No. 17, April 30, 1979, pp. 51, 54.
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 egocentric age—changed his formula. Now, winning seems to be all there is for his one-time schlemiel, who is unchanged in other respects. (p. 21)
[Davis scores with Mary Wilke] …, the on-again off-again mistress of his married best friend…. Because Isaac and Mary hate each other at first sight, we know they will presently fall in love. The reasons for their initial dislike, though, are an important clue to the hidden message of Manhattan.
When they first meet at an art gallery, Mary—a vaguely "literary" journalist—derides Isaac's preference for plexiglass sculptures she considers "purely derivative"; she also praises some minimalist steel cubes that he had found incomprehensible, expounding on their "negative capability." Later, she mocks what she calls "The Academy of the Overrated"—a group that includes Kierkegaard, Ingmar Bergman, Heinrich Böll, Isak Dinesen, and others who are all heroes to Isaac (and to Allen). It is clear we are supposed to regard her—at least at the start—as irritating or even downright unpleasant; her opinions are expressions of snobbery, rooted in cultural and psychological insecurity. But why should the director take pot shots at his own beliefs—especially by using as a mouthpiece a woman his persona ultimately loves?
A decade ago, when mores were rapidly changing, Allen successfully began to exploit his audiences' social insecurity by giving them someone to condescend to—his lovable and "nonthreatening" schlemiel. In the post-"New Sensibility" era, when artistic standards are in disarray or nonexistent, Allen is catering to the widespread cultural insecurity by providing—a target. Because the shnook has in the meantime been transformed into a "winner," he can hardly assume the role. The only possible solution is to create a pretentious, trendy intellectual who on the one hand is unsympathetic—so that the Allen persona and Allen himself are spared being labeled pretentious or trendy—and on the other hand speaks in properly highbrow rhetoric—so that Allen cannot be accused of philistinism. To top it all off, Isaac gets to bed Mary, thus establishing his superiority by conquest.
In other words, Allen is an anxious middlebrow. He wants to reassure both his audience and himself that it is really all right to be square, that one should not be intimidated by the highbrows. To this end, the best defense is a good offense—reverse snobbery (like the reverse chic of wearing fatigue jackets). For what counts is not genuine understanding, it is having the right attitudes—as prescribed by Allen, of course, who has a reasonably bright undergraduate's knowledge of art, literature and philosophy.
No wonder the inhabitants of his Manhattan are a homogeneous crowd of upper-middle-class, graduate-school-educated writers, critics, professors, and other middlebrows on the fringes of the literary world. These are the people who make it possible to read reviews instead of books, who predigest experience for vicarious intellectual thrill seekers. These are the people Allen pictures in his film because they are also the audience—and will therefore love this movie about themselves. (pp. 21-2)
At one point, Isaac-Allen describes himself perfectly: "He longed to be an artist but balked at the necessary sacrifices." Until he stops selling out by flattering his audiences, and until he can be serious without undercutting himself a moment later in a paroxysm of middlebrow anxiety, Woody Allen will continue to be a pathetic clown. (p. 22)
Robert Asahina, "Woody Allen's Rotten Apple," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 12, June 4, 1979, pp. 21-2.
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 the lobby for a few minutes. Yet watching Manhattan, not once are we moved to look away from the screen. To take one example: Has anyone who's ever broken with a best friend over a mutual lover experienced the matter as bloodlessly as Woody Allen and Michael Murphy do? Here is a film about passion which is wholly devoid of it….
Manhattan's "liberalism" functions only so long as that word is defined along traditional lines, which have come to include "equal rights for women." In the ways that seem important to me in 1979, Manhattan is a profoundly conservative movie. In its sexual politics, it is shockingly conservative. In its understanding of women, in its view of the possibilities of man-woman relationships, in its attitudes toward sexual viewpoints different from Woody Allen's own, Manhattan is more than old-fashioned; it is reactionary. Which would be fine if one could feel that Allen's position on these matters was hard won. But his way of dealing with challenges to his stance is obtuse and superficial—prejudiced, really. And unless you're Griffith making Birth of a Nation, great art is unlikely to emerge from prejudice….
From Take the Money and Run to Manhattan, there is a consistency in the Allen persona. Whether shy with women, as in the early films, or aggressive with them, as in the recent ones, the character Allen portrays always represents common sense. He is correct, morally virtuous, sensible; the others are selfish and ridiculous….
One has only to compare Robert Altman's recent, and very underrated, A Perfect Couple, with Manhattan to see the difference between the generosity of a great artist and the mean-spiritedness of a petit maitre. Altman, while expressing his commitment to serial heterosexual monogamy, tries to understand the other options…. Allen, by contrast, appears to believe that his way is the only way.
There is a word for Woody Allen's world-view. The word is "provincial."
Stuart Byron, "He'll Take Dubuque" (reprinted by permission; copyright © Stuart Byron, 1979), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIV, No. 23, June 4, 1979, p. 50.
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 perspicacity, also childishly uncomprehending—as when she comments about aging TV performers with face-lifts, "Why can't they just age naturally?" Jill and Connie are clever, cold women, obviously created during a milk-of-human-kindness strike; Emily is a cipher—of the kind, incidentally, that no true artist would allow in his film….
Look at that closing speech of Tracy's, in response to Isaac's fear that she will lose her innocence and her love for him: "Six months isn't so long." Very sensible. "Everybody gets corrupted." Is that to be taken at face value—truth from an angel: Tracy's kind of corruption would be merely a civilizing old-world polish on her honesty and wisdom? Or as wry irony: even the cherub looks forward to the world, the flesh, and the devil? In which case, her "You must have a little faith in people" (this to Isaac, who has always had too much faith in people) is the final sardonic twist. Or is it?…
Art, to be sure, does not have to provide answers; indeed, the greatest art is probably always ultimately ambiguous, leaving us finally with a question mark. But it also leaves us with insights, epiphanies, a climate of elation in which it is easier to breathe in the perennial problems, more possible to live with them according to our individual lights. Manhattan, however, is two-faced rather than ambiguous: both a self-serving exaltation of Allen and his values, and, if one were to challenge them, a perfect set-up for Allen and his collaborator, Marshall Brickman, to snap back: "You simpleton! Don't you see that it's all satire, all a put-on?"
But is it? When Yale and Mary play a cocktail-party intellectuals' game of smirkingly nominating members for "the Academy of the Overrated" …, we are clearly to side with Isaac, who makes fun of this nonsense. But later, when Isaac himself dictates to his tape recorder the things that make life worth living …, we are patently invited to take this absurd hodgepodge seriously….
Or is Isaac-Allen also a figure of fun? We are, for instance, constantly told about his successes with women, his good looks, his great amatory technique. This is meant partly in jest, but partly also, I am sure, as truth….
But if the film and its hero are a joke, why all this self-adulation and Manhattan-boosting? And if the film is a "serious" comedy, why must Isaac, even at the height of his jealous grief and rage, wisecrack with Yale ("You think you're God!" "I've got to model myself after someone!")? Why must even semi-virginal Tracy accept universal corruption? Why must there be ludicrous dung in the enchanted lagoon? Because Allen is insecure, as no true artist is, but as a fellow who wants to be both Groucho Marx (or Woody Allen) and Bergman (or Mozart, or Cézanne's apples and pears) will be. Having it both ways is not having it at all. (p. 819)
I am not ambivalent. Manhattan and Nattahnam are bad movies both. (p. 820)
John Simon, "Nattahnam," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1979; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), Vol. XXXI, No. 25, June 22, 1979, pp. 818-20.
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 "Willie Mays" is another. The second movement of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony. Louis Armstrong's "Potato Head Blues." Flaubert's A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d'etre go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen's is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.
What is arresting about these recent "serious" pictures of Woody Allen's, about Annie Hall and Interiors as well as Manhattan, is not the way they work as pictures but the way they work with audiences. The people who go to see these pictures, who analyze them and write about them and argue the deeper implications in their texts and subtexts, seem to agree that the world onscreen pretty much mirrors the world as they know it. This is interesting, and rather astonishing, since the peculiar and hermetic self-regard in Annie Hall and Interiors and Manhattan would seem nothing with which large numbers of people would want to identify. The characters in these pictures are, at best, trying. They are morose. They have bad manners. They seem to take long walks and go to smart restaurants only to ask one another hard questions. "Are you serious about Tracy?" the Michael Murphy character asks the Woody Allen character in Manhattan. "Are you still hung up on Yale?" the Woody Allen character asks the Diane Keaton character. "I think I'm still in love with Yale," she confesses several scenes later. "You are?" he counters, "or you think you are?" All of the characters in Woody Allen pictures not only ask these questions but actually answer them, on camera, and then, usually in another restaurant, listen raptly to third-party analyses of their own questions and answers.
"How come you guys got divorced?" they ask each other with real interest, and, on a more rhetorical level, "why are you so hostile," and "why can't you just once in a while consider my needs." ("I'm sick of your needs" is the way Diane Keaton answers this question in Interiors, one of the few lucid moments in the picture.) What does she say, these people ask incessantly, what does she say and what does he say and, finally, inevitably, "what does your analyst say." These people have, on certain subjects, extraordinary attention spans. When Natalie Gittelson of The New York Times Magazine recently asked Woody Allen how his own analysis was going after twenty-two years, he answered this way: "It's very slow … but an hour a day, talking about your emotions, hopes, angers, disappointments, with someone who's trained to evaluate this material—over a period of years, you're bound to get more in touch with feelings than someone who makes no effort."
Well, yes and (apparently) no. Over a period of twenty-two years "you're bound" only to get older, barring nasty surprises. This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career—something to work at, work on, "make an effort" for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one's "relationships"—is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents. In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school. The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, "class brains," acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life. (The one exception is "Tracy," the Mariel Hemingway part in Manhattan, another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family. Tracy's mother and father are covered in a single line: they are said to be in London, finding Tracy an apartment. When Tracy wants to go to JFK she calls a limo. Tracy put me in mind of an American-International Pictures executive who once advised me, by way of pointing out the absence of adult characters in AIP beach movies, that nobody ever paid $3 to see a parent.)
These faux adults of Woody Allen's have dinner at Elaine's, and argue art versus ethics. They share sodas, and wonder "what love is." They have "interesting" occupations, none of which intrudes in any serious way on their dating. Many characters in these pictures "write," usually on tape recorders. In Manhattan, Woody Allen quits his job as a television writer and is later seen dictating an "idea" for a short story, an idea which, I am afraid, is also the "idea" for the picture itself: "People in Manhattan are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves that keep them from dealing with more terrifying unsolvable problems about the universe."
In Annie Hall, Diane Keaton sings from time to time, at a place like Reno Sweeney's. In Interiors she seems to be some kind of celebrity poet. In Manhattan she is a magazine writer, and we actually see her typing once, on a novelization, and talking on the telephone to "Harvey," who, given the counterfeit "insider" shine to the dialogue, we are meant to understand is Harvey Shapiro, the editor of The New York Times Book Review. (Similarly, we are meant to know that the "Jack and Anjelica" to whom Paul Simon refers in Annie Hall are Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, and to feel somehow flattered by our inclusion in this little joke on those who fail to get it.) A writer in Interiors is said to be "taking his rage out in critical pieces." "Have you thought any more about having kids?" a wife asks her husband in Manhattan. "I've got to get the O'Neill book finished," the husband answers. "I could talk about my book all night," one character says. "Viking loved my book," another says.
These are not possible constructions, but they reflect exactly the false and desperate knowingness of the smartest kid in the class. "When it comes to relationships with women I'm the winner of the August Strindberg Award," the Woody Allen character tells us in Manhattan; later, in a frequently quoted and admired line, he says, to Diane Keaton, "I've never had a relationship with a woman that lasted longer than the one between Hitler and Eva Braun." These lines are meaningless, and not funny: they are simply "references," the way Harvey and Jack and Anjelica and A Sentimental Education are references, smart talk meant to convey the message that the speaker knows his way around Lit and History, not to mention Show Biz.
In fact the sense of social reality in these pictures is dim in the extreme, and derives more from show business than from anywhere else. The three sisters in Interiors are named, without comment, "Renata," "Joey," and "Flyn." That "Renata," "Joey," and "Flyn" are names from three different parts of town seems not to be a point in the picture, nor does the fact that all the characters, who are presented as overeducated, speak an odd and tortured English. "You implied that a lot," one says. "Political activity is not my interest." "Frederick has finished what I've already told him is his best work by far." The particular cadence here is common among actors but not, I think, in the world outside.
"Overeducation" is something Woody Allen seems to discern more often than the rest of us might. "I know so many people who are well-educated and super-educated," he told an interviewer for Time recently. "Their common problem is that they have no understanding and no wisdom; without that, their education can only take them so far." In other words they have problems with their "relationships," they have failed to "work through" the material of their lives with a trained evaluator, they have yet to perfect the quality of their emotional consumption. Wisdom is hard to find. Happiness takes research. The message that large numbers of people are getting from Manhattan and Interiors and Annie Hall is that this kind of emotional shopping around is the proper business of life's better students, that adolescence can now extend to middle age. Not long ago I shared, for three nights, a hospital room with a young woman named Linda. I was being watched for appendicitis and was captive to Linda's telephone conversations. Which were constant. Linda had two problems, only one of which, her "relationship," had her attention. Linda spoke constantly about this relationship, about her "needs," about her "partner," about the "quality of his nurturance," about the "low frequency of his interaction." Linda's other problem, one which tried her patience because it was preventing her from working on her relationship, was acute and unexplained renal failure. "I'm not relating to this just now," she said to her doctor when he tried to discuss continuing dialysis.
You could call that "overeducation," or you could call it one more instance of "people constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves that keep them from dealing with more terrifying unsolvable problems about the universe," or you could call it something else. Woody Allen often tells interviewers that his original title for Annie Hall was "Anhedonia," which is a psychoanalytic term meaning the inability to experience pleasure. Wanting to call a picture "Anhedonia" is "cute," and implies that the auteur and his audience share a superiority to those jocks who need to ask what it means. Superior people suffer. "My emptiness set in a year ago," Diane Keaton is made to say in Interiors. "What do I care if a handful of my poems are read after I'm dead … is that supposed to be some compensation?" (The notion of compensation for dying is novel.)
Most of us remember very well these secret signals and sighs of adolescence, remember the dramatic apprehension of our own mortality and other "more terrifying unsolvable problems about the universe," but eventually we realize that we are not the first to notice that people die. "Even with all the distractions of my work and my life," Woody Allen was quoted as saying in a cover story (the cover line was "Woody Allen Comes of Age") in Time, "I spend a lot of time face to face with my own mortality." This is actually the first time I have ever heard anyone speak of his own life as a "distraction." (pp. 18-19)
Joan Didion, "Letter from 'Manhattan'" (reprinted by permission of Wallace & Sheil Agency, Inc.; copyright © 1979 by Joan Didion), in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXVI, No. 13, August 16, 1979, pp. 18-19.
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 which he played the archetypal Allen bungler as crook. The film had a fresh, semidocumentary approach which set it immediately apart from the general comedic stream. Allen's films still benefit from this visual realism, much richer and more engaging than Brooks's glossy, glassy set constructions. Take the Money and Run worked as a showcase for the Allen comedy with which audiences had become familiar through his television appearances, but he was just beginning to discover how to translate the monologist's style into cinematic language. Again, the difference is between telling and seeing. During a prison sequence in Take the Money, our hero is sadistically sentenced to three days in a sweatbox, with an insurance salesman. Listening to this, you laugh; watching it, you say, "That's Funny."
Each of Allen's next three films had its experimental aspect. Bananas (1971 …) took the Allen schlemiel out of his native habitat, making him the unlikely hero of a South American revolution. Now the tenuous balance between visual and verbal jokes was further complicated by Woody's newly discovered interest in the art of film. He began sticking in parodic shots and scenes, such as the recreation of the famous Potemkin baby-carriage-on-the-steps sequence. Again, whatever laughter the scene elicits depends on recognition. Brooks moved further in this direction as his career progressed. Allen, conversely, discovered that the spoofery very often worked against the basic tone of his comedy. "Many times I've filmed terrific gags," he told an interviewer, "in a kind of arty way, but you always screw up the gag and you always cut it out of the picture." As a result, he developed a strictly functional visual style, to focus attention on the gags. (pp. 241-42)
Allen's film work is carefully thought out, and a close study of his films in sequence would make an excellent course in comic film technique. Each film has been measurably more efficient than its predecessor.
Sleeper (1973 …) is Allen as sketch comedian in top form. By now, he had developed some elaborate ideas about what he could and couldn't do with the medium. There are still visual gags (the giant fruit, for example), but most of the comedy depends on the concept. The framework of futurism—Miles Monroe wakes up in 2173, wrapped in aluminum foil—allows him to build a rapid-fire string of comments on the world of 1973, each of which has added humor because it's phrased in the past tense. (p. 243)
The most surprising fact about Annie Hall … is that it took Woody Allen so long to make it. It is the most obvious and effective solution to all his esthetic problems; it's much closer in spirit to Allen's monologues and prose humor than any of his previous films; and it marks a quantum jump for him as a filmmaker. Comedy as style is rightly superseding comedy as genre, and Allen's performance shtik—the persona he built on television and in night clubs—is neatly integrated into a classically structured, yet refreshingly contemporary narrative. (p. 244)
[We] need comedy, even from a schlump like Woody, who doesn't own a car, or a mantra. Somebody has to be in charge of keeping things in perspective, and Woody Allen does the job exceedingly well.
And this is why Allen's long-threatened "serious" film, Interiors (1978), is so heartbreakingly disappointing. Coming from another filmmaker, Interiors might just have some mild excuses to make for itself. But coming from Woody Allen it looks like a violent act of self-mutilation, and those of us who greatly value his other films, books, plays, articles, and performances react instinctively against the rigid—nearly catatonic—strained seriousness of Interiors as if to a personal betrayal. We have depended on Allen for more than ten years now as a champion against just this particular sort of bad-faith artiness and the midcult bourgeois sensibility from which it stems. Now, it seems, not only has Woody gone over to the enemy, but he's apparently been secretly enamored of the opposite camp during the very time we trusted him. (p. 245)
Even if it had been made by someone else—if it were, for example, Ingmar Bergman's first American film (and it is in a way), Interiors would be cause for concern. Allen's study in "beiges and earth tones" is the ultimate midcult American movie of the 1970s; it shares all of the failings of that bourgeois sensibility. For these reasons it has considerable historical significance. Fifteen years ago, when the reigning American cultural set was Philistine, Interiors wouldn't have been given a second thought by most critics, who would have dismissed it out of hand as some "egghead" nonsense. Now that the dominant cultural sensibility has reached the level of midcult—now that we all know about gourmet cuisine, study "films" rather than "movies" in college, and go to Europe regularly—now Interiors is not only acceptable, seeing it is a sign of our own seriousness (and therefore, our class). (pp. 246-47)
On a technical level, Interiors is clearly well made, and this is a primary criterion of midcult criticism. More important, it is full of allusions and symbolism of the sort dear to every English teacher's heart. All the colors are muted browns, tans, and grays, see, except this one lady, Pearl, the life force in the film. She wears red. Get it? And her name, too, see, that's symbolic: she gleams, like, among the rest of these tortured people. And there are three sisters…. There was this play this Russian writer wrote about these people who could never get to Moscow, and that was called Three Sisters. And at the end there, where the three sisters, so nicely composed, are staring out the window at the sea (please be ready to talk about Sea Symbolism on Tuesday's exam), and one of them says, "The water's so calm," and the other replies, "Yes, it's very peaceful," and that's the last line of the play—I mean film … well, that's an allusion to … well, I know it's an allusion to something. I'll think of it. Just a moment.
In the age of midcult, this is what we are taught is art, and no doubt Interiors will get steady play on the high-school and college circuit. (p. 247)
No doubt such people as the writers Allen concerns himself with in Interiors do exist. All sorts of people exist. The question is, why choose to build a movie around such characters? There is an ethical problem here, too. Except for Pearl …, Allen is merciless with his characters. He has designed them as perfect, finished neurotics. He gives them no room to act, to breathe. They can only think, and in thinking suffer. There is no sense of politics here; in fact, politics as a possibility of action is expressly denied: we hear that Fred is a filmmaker working on a film about politics, but the subject intentionally never comes into play.
Yes, Interiors is very much like a Bergman film, but in this case, imitation isn't the sincerest form of flattery. Allen's movie is so close to Bergman that it's eerie…. Allen's deathly clone has the net effect of making it difficult even to treat Bergman with respect again: we'll always hear the ghosts of Interiors murmuring just off-screen. (p. 248)
James Monaco, "The Importance of Being Funny: Comics and Comedians," in his American Film Now: The People, the Power, the Money, the Movies (copyright © 1979 by James Monaco; reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc., New York, New York), The New American Library, New York, 1979, pp. 215-48.∗
[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 film often refers to the fact that it is a film by offering film parodies. For example, Cobra Man not only speaks in a Peter Lorre voice but at one point complains, "Oh, my throat. This Peter Lorre imitation is killing me."…
This formal self-consciousness works in several ways. It is another example of the film's disjunction. Just as the soundtrack is always at madcap odds with the action, so the film references undercut any lingering pretense to realism. Furthermore, the obvious disparity between character and role is a variation on the basic point of the film's structure, which is the imposition of an Occidental viewpoint on the Oriental world. (p. 117)
Allen stands apart from the material which he presents in What's Up, Tiger Lily? Moreover, he transforms everything he shows by what he says. This interplay between the serious image and the reductive tone is the basic element in all his work—in his parodies, his mock-heroic pretenses, and his ironic persona projection. Seen in this light, almost everything in Allen's later comedy can be found in embryonic form in his first film. (p. 118)
Woody Allen's first complete feature film, Take the Money and Run, derived from the style of his monologues. It comprised a series of absurd skits depicting a nebbish's comic attempts to become a master criminal….
More specifically, the film parodies the cinéma-vérité documentary film form. Popular in the 1960s, it characteristically attempted to convey the impression of recording life as it happened, without staging or distortion by editing. (p. 120)
[Although] Virgil Starkwell is Allen's familiar loser, the central tension in Take the Money and Run derives from Allen's juxtaposition of the supposed realism of cinéma-vérité with the romanticism of the gangster-film tradition. Allen contrasts the glories that his hero wishes to emulate with the failure that is his lot. The fact that Virgil may be vulnerable because he wants to be what his myopic eyes see may explain the running gag in which various people—urchins, an iceman, hoodlums, a judge, and finally Virgil himself—smash his glasses….
In its structural similarity to the monologues, this film suggests that Allen was feeling his way into the medium. His parodic themes enable him to exercise the language of film rhetoric and conventions while he learned how film works. (p. 127)
Many of the comic turns [in Bananas] are variations on a single theme—the contrast between Inside and Outside. Allen plays his usual role of an outsider who wants to come in from the cold, but here this motif is varied and amplified to become the film's dominant theme. Thus Mellish is much concerned with doors and doorways, symbols of admission/exclusion. (p. 129)
The In and Out metaphor is most explicit in the scene in which Mellish regains consciousness in the rebel camp—"Blood! That should be on the inside"—but the motif occurs everywhere. (p. 130)
[The] film depicts a lunatic world, a world gone bananas. Thus President Mellish and the United States Ambassador converse in clear English but they accept the intercession of an awkward, accented translator—afterward identified as an escapee from an asylum. In addition to implying a general madness, the title relates the film to the noble tradition of banana-peel slapstick comedy.
The most important implication of the title, however, is its association with exploitative politics. San Marcos, a nation of marks or victims, is a banana republic. As the film details the political machinations between America and San Marcos, and between the mutually exploiting factions within the nation itself, this aspect of the title is the most important unifier. For Bananas satirizes different kinds of imperialist exploitation. The most obvious kind is political: the cyclical tyrannies of Vargas and Esposito; the American government's abuse of the nation's citizenry; and American interference in San Marcos affairs. Although Allen claims that "Bananas was coincidentally political," it has very clear political implications. From Mellish's first appearance in a red-white-and-blue striped shirt, he functions as the muddled, idealistic American citizen. For the bulk of the film he is manipulated and victimized by his own government and that of San Marcos. (pp. 132-33)
The nebbish hero of Bananas would like to live by [the idealism of loving, giving, and sunshine], but the bananas world does not nourish those values. Bananas satirizes the variety of ways that man conspires to exploit others—politically, religiously, culturally, and romantically. The sense that this exploitation is a lunatic waste of life gives this chaos of comedy its remarkable and sober cohesion. (p. 135)
[Sleeper] provides a hilarious slapstick adventure story with a serious underpinning. As the title alerts us, Allen's central metaphor is sleep, which can be taken to represent non-commitment either in one's political or emotional life. (p. 152)
In the tradition of negative utopias, the world to which Miles awakens in 2173 is a cautionary extension of our own; the country is called the Central Parallel of the Americas. The central parallel between Miles's new world and ours is its hedonistic apathy. Lost in the stupor of pleasure, Luna's society literally has a ball (large and silver) on drugs. Sex has been reduced to a mechanical convenience—the orgasmitron—to which a character can repair in midsentence for an orgasm—partner optional. As the characters are lost in their pursuit of pleasure, the joke about the cloning of the leader quite literally posits a society that is led by the nose.
Luna's pleasure-seeking friends are contrasted to the rebels and to the activists who revive Miles. While they do not convert Miles to political commitment, they do awaken him to the realization that his own survival depends on awareness and activity….
Sleeper warns against the loss of human personality, individuality, and vulnerability, by positing an age of imposed equality, technological dominance, and the replacement of human responsibility with the debasing efficiency of the machine. (p. 153)
The Dostoyevskian opening [of Love and Death] dwindles into bathetic comedy. This device, bathos, is the primary source of unity and meaning in the film. Throughout Love and Death, an elevated expectation is established only to be comically deflated. As a result man seems too small a creature to assume the mantle of heroic philosophy woven by the great writers. (p. 159)
[The] film's title promises the profound ether of the Russian novel but Allen's literary expressions in the film are reductive….
Allen's major theme in Love and Death [is that] philosophical and literary speculation are essentially irrelevant to the business of living. To this end Allen continually introduces philosophical passages only to turn away from them in favor of man's basic appetites—food and sex—the drives by which man ensures his survival both individually and generically.
Allen's deflation of profundity often involves religious subjects. Thus Boris demands that God prove His existence with a miracle, like the traditional parting of the seas or—more practically, perhaps—by making "my Uncle Sasha pick up a check."… What begins as a traditional statement of religious quest is deflated by the practical concerns of the modern, urban intellectual's struggle to reconcile old faith with his present education and needs. As in Bergman's work, the voice of God cannot be heard; but Allen fills the silence with one-liners. (pp. 162-63)
Annie Hall seems more fruitfully located in the myth of Pygmalion than in Allen's life story. It is the story of an artist who falls in love with his own creation and loses her when she blossoms into full life. (p. 172)
The power of art to compensate for the limitations of life is the primary theme of Annie Hall. This concern happens to be central to the first book that Alvy buys Annie, Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death…. Alvy's gift … raises the specter of man's death, of his inability to resist the processes of time and loss.
That Annie has not contemplated death is dramatized in her emotionally uncertain story about the old man who died in a fit of narcolepsy while waiting in line for his free war-veterans' turkey. In this anecdote, death is an amusing, puzzling, vaguely unsettling continuation of the sleepy, passive life. As Annie does not see death as a unique and overwhelming problem, she is confused by her own story and uncertain both as to what it means and why she feels compelled to tell it. (p. 179)
Even as a boy, Alvy was aware of man's doom. The lad's sense of not just man's mortality but the limited life of the universe resisted Dr. Flicker's advice that "We've got to try and enjoy ourselves while we're here, huh? Huh?"—he laughs, smokes, and coughs. Allen cuts to the Singer home, which quakes under the impact of hedonists blithely enjoying a roller coaster ride, while Alvy ponders his blood-red and quivering bowl of tomato soup. Alvy's consciousness of death prevents his enjoying the pleasures known by simpler souls. For Allen, the unexamined death is not worth living. Therefore he contemplates death and loss, and reaffirms the values of life, art, and love.
This theme is supported by the striking liberties that Allen takes with narrative convention in Annie Hall. As if to demonstrate man's need to control and to reshape reality, he violates various principles of film rhetoric. For example, his opening direct address denies the usual gap between film-image and audience. (pp. 179-80)
Alvy's statement on the fluid state of photographic rhetoric may also justify Allen's liberties with form: "The medium enters in as a condition of the art form itself." Both as he confronts death and loss, and as he contemplates his art form, Allen exercises the freedom of a life and art in flux. Alvy's young classmates admitting their adult failures, Annie's recollection of narcoleptic George, Alvy's closing montage of scenes with Annie from earlier in the film, Annie and Alvy revisiting scenes from their past, indeed all Allen's liberties with film rhetoric assert the power of art in the struggle against the transience of love and life. All are denials of death. (p. 180)
Alvy literally uses movies as a means of avoiding problems in his real life. A tension with Annie is deflected into a quarrel over whether or not to enter a theater showing Bergman's Face to Face … once the screening has begun. Later he prevents a useful opportunity for her to see Tony Lacy by going yet again to see Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity….
Indeed one could take all the film references in Annie Hall as the coordinates of Allen's relationship to film. If the Snow White sequence expresses Alvy's infantilism, it also expresses the abiding influence that art has on one's life. The Ophuls film relates to the hero's Jewish sense of alienation, but also represents one function of film: to confront issues of political and historical significance, and to provide an understanding of the past. The Bergman references represent the use of the medium to explore the artist's psychological nature. (p. 182)
More generally, the Snow White and Ophuls inserts represent the artist's social function, in which he speaks to and for his community, while the Bergman and Fellini context represents the use of art to express and to explore the artist's private tensions. These four coordinates embody the balance between personal experience and general metaphor that makes Annie Hall the culmination of Allen's work, especially in its inflection of his persona. The film references also confirm the self-reflexive stance of the film: "the medium enters in as a condition of the art form itself."
Annie Hall deals with the use of art as a means of confronting man's helplessness before time, loss, and death. (pp. 182-83)
Allen's use of art as a means of confronting death is consistent with Becker's argument [in The Denial of Death] that the artist's work "justifies" him by "transcending death by qualifying for immortality": "he lives the fantasy of the control of life and death, of destiny, in the 'body' of his work."…
As Becker defines it, Annie would represent Alvy's "romantic solution" to his anxiety about death. Man fixes "his urge to cosmic heroism onto another person in the form of a love object" and looks to that love partner for "the self-glorification" that he needed in his innermost nature. (p. 184)
[The Becker context is confirmed by Allen's choice of title. We can read it as Alvy's dedication to Annie.] Alvy's treasuring homage to his lost love becomes Allen's melancholy but affirmative homage to lost life and time. Annie Hall is a character as charming, as absurd, and as elusive as life itself. She embodies Alvy's denial of death through romantic love, and Allen's through art. (p. 185)
[Manhattan is Woody Allen's] most lyrical and emotional film to date. Although it may not be as complex as Annie Hall, Manhattan is a magnificent film, subtle both in expression and feeling. (p. 197)
[The] film details the professional and romantic compromises by which man avoids confronting his insignificance in the cosmos and his inability to control his fate. Both concerns are familiar from Allen's earlier work.
The film's dominant theme is man's need for personal integrity in a decaying culture. (pp. 197-98)
In Manhattan Allen continues his satire against man's foolish applications of logic and culture. Hence the skulls when Yale rationalizes his betrayal of Isaac. Often there is a comical discrepancy between what the characters know and what they can effectively use in their lives. As Isaac admits, "When it comes to relationships with women I'm the winner of the August Strindberg Award." Although he still wants her himself, he warns Yale that Mary is "the winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity Award." Both quips combine intellectual knowledge with emotional deficiency…. Man's culture is no defense against his greatest dangers. Greater truths are told by the heart and the senses than by the mind…. Tracy's last line [to Isaac], "You have to have a little faith in people," is really a call to trust his instincts. Tracy's own faith in her relationship with Isaac overrides her sense that "maybe people weren't made for long relationships," but for a "series of relationships with different links."
Though unconventional, Isaac is a character of exemplary integrity. (pp. 200-01)
The theme of integrity relates to the feel of the film. As Isaac describes himself as "a non-compromiser" who is "living in the past," the film assumes a rigorous, classical spirit from its straightforward romantic narrative, its resolute black-and-white photography, and its George Gershwin score. (p. 202)
Manhattan opens with a three-minute abstract sequence…. In describing the city, Isaac's hero—and so Allen's—projects his various moods and conceptions of himself onto the setting. When in the mellow dawn Isaac tells Mary "This is really a great city. I don't care what people say, I'm really knocked out," this is a tribute not to any real Manhattan but to the mood between Mary and Isaac, which the city at that point seems to embody.
Similarly the setting offers both elegant beauty and the rough streets, with a citizenry "desensitized by noise, music, drugs, and garbage." The city is in constant change, as one scene of a demolition crew at work reveals. But which of the innumerable and contradictory aspects will characterize the setting is the individual's choice. (p. 203)
As an emblem of moral and aesthetic choices, Manhattan means something rather different in Manhattan than it meant when Annie Hall compared the insular Alvy Singer to it ("this island unto yourself"). In Manhattan Allen's hero reconciles a compromised, new Manhattan with his old idealized one and extends his rigorous ethics into a romance that exceeds logical and conventional limits. Despite the familiar Jewish, sexual and paranoia jokes, Isaac is Allen's most competent and confident role. (p. 205)
Maurice Yacowar, in his Loser Take All: The Comic Art of Woody Allen (copyright © 1979 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1979, 243 p.