Sunday, February 11, 2018

at Jewish Currents David Klion on the subject of "unlearning Woody Allen", considering the ways that Allens' work was taken to provide a template for adulthood for his fans and how that should be reappraised

The more time goes by the more it seems that film critics who venerate cinema from the 1970s and those directors who found a place in the cinematic canon from that time, rather broadly speaking, are coming to a point of reckoning in the post-Weinstein period.  Specifically Polanski and Woody Allen are coming up, though Bergman comes up, too.  We're living through an era I which the kinds of filmmakers who from the lens of 1970s arthouse film interest seemed impeccable seem, as decades pass along, to have been ... nasty sorts of people.  I've blogged a little bit about this before.
What might be more puzzling is that if Woody Allen were to now be subject to disapproval why it would have taken decades for this moment to have arrived.  There are things to be said about the cult of the male genius whose work is so compelling it allows critics to overlook what would conventionally be regarded as mortifying character flaws.  This cult of the genius would not necessarily be strictly applicable only to men but its most vocal adherants can often seem to be men.  It doesn't have to be strictly so, since somebody once opined that every word Lillian Hellman wrote was a lie ... but perhaps that's just a distracting side recollection.
There was a piece I saw recently about Woody Allen, and about how in a sense fans of Allen's work have to reckon with what they felt Allen's filmography meant for them.  One of the more memorable thinkpieces on that came from Claire Dederer, whose essay was, I think, wildly misunderstood and thus misrepresented in a piece published over at Mockingbird not too long ago.  That piece of misunderstanding is over here.
I don't think it will do to claim that separating the art from the artist is a particularly masculine or patriarchal flaw.  It might be more plausible to say that in the last century we have come to define heroism in a somewhat strange way in which in Anglo-American imperial/cultural contexts we assume that heroes are virtuous men or women whose virtue gets rewarded rather than proposing that heroes can and often have been monstrous people whose monstrous actions were done in the service of providing a social stability through which other people could benefit.  Now, sure, some films did bring up the idea that people who can be identified as heroes are monsters at some level and even know it but ... those films don't tend to win the approval of the sorts of people who write at The New Republic, for instance. 
But, to get to Dederer's comment about Allen's films, she loved them because she felt that Allen was in some sense her.  Allen's films emerged a time and place in which the Woody Allen protagonist had flaws but was not as bad as the conventionally masculine bro athlete sort against whom Allen might at some point be in conflict with in one of his films.  The nerd would get the gorgeous girl that the jock felt should have been rightfully his and ... yes ... I did just conflate Woody Allen's films with Revenge of the Nerds there.  The older I get the less convinced I am that the boundaries separating the highbrow from the middlebrow and lowbrow art forms are as impermeable as film critics and academics keep wanting them to be. 
So ... with that preliminary in mind, here's another piece about a fan of Allen's films wrestling with the realization that in important ways Allen's films celebrate men who don't grow up and don't have to deal with the consequences of their own self-absorbed and unethical lives.
For a certain kind of person – highly educated, often living in New York, often Jewish – with certain values and tastes, Allen’s most clearly autobiographical films from the 1970s and 1980s define a lifestyle, a sensibility, and, most vexing, a script for adult relationships to follow. They are in the DNA of every significant romantic comedy of the past 40 years, and in the real lives both reflected and informed by those comedies. And for many non-observant American Jews, they form (along with Seinfeld reruns and Philip Roth novels, both topics for other essays) a kind of secular Talmud.

For some American men, the cultural role models are obvious – the athlete, the soldier, the action hero, the real estate tycoon. For others, maybe especially those of us who attended liberal arts colleges and live in trendy neighborhoods and eke out precarious creative class existences, a different set of archetypes is available. The men of critically acclaimed romantic comedies and sitcoms are our most popular fictional guides for how to behave around women. All of them owe a debt to Allen. [emphasis added]

Maybe you are this second kind of man, or you’re friends with him, or you’ve dated him. As an archetype, he is funny and self-deprecating, intelligent and witty, neurotic and vulnerable, gentle and non-threatening, awkward and sexually frank. If he’s often rude or irritating or pretentious, he’s also genuinely interested in and engaged with women. Sometimes, the interest is motivated by kindness, empathy, and respect. Other times, it’s a mask for something more sinister.

Renouncing Woody Allen is painful for many of us not just because we enjoy his work, but because it feels like renouncing a part of ourselves. It also feels cheap, because there’s no point in renouncing him if we can’t also renounce the part of us that finds his characters relatable. We need to take a closer look at the films that taught us to be this way, and to consider what else they taught us.
I’ve known the worst stories about Allen for years and rationalized my enjoyment of his movies, partly by insisting on separating art from artist (as if, with art this self-referential, the two can possibly be separated) and partly through my conviction that the relationship in Annie Hall is healthy, realistically depicted, and fair to both parties. [emphasis added] Annie is no Tracy; she is a fully realized character, with a wide range of emotions and moods, a fleshed out back story, and complex, believable feelings about her relationship with Alvy. Moreover, Annie grows and changes. She begins the film as a naive, adoring Midwesterner in New York, goes through relatable good and bad experiences with Alvy, and emerges by the film’s end as someone with the confidence and worldliness to realize she’s moved beyond him, to reject his attempt to get back together, and, in a bittersweet coda that I’ve always regarded as the model of a mature reconciliation, to befriend him, just as Keaton befriended Allen.
“I realized what a terrific person she was and how much fun it was just knowing her,” Alvy says in the closing narration, which is about the best anyone can hope for after meeting an ex for lunch.
What have I learned from watching this movie again and again since middle school? Most of all, I’ve learned what a relationship is supposed to look like: two consenting adults meet cute, awkwardly banter, fall for each other, share happy memories together, fight over stupid things and make up, go on trips, meet each other’s friends and families… and then, more often than not, they outgrow each other, agree to part ways, backpedal for a time, and eventually settle into a stable friendship. I know, short of a happy marriage, this is as good as most relationships get.
I added the emphasis in red to highlight the script inherent in the film as described by Klion.  It's fascinating to see that thumbnail sketch of what the perceived paradigm is in Annie Hall.  To cast the hero's journey, the heroine's journey in a Campbellian monomyth, Woody Allen's films were perceived as the smart, literate, sexy rumination on the rites of passage that define what it means to become an educated adult with grown up understandings about sex and death and men and women.  Short of a happy marriage, this is as good as most relationships get and for a set of fans of Allen's films (of whom I am, by now, probably obviously not one) his films define what could be regarded as a realistic depiction of being an American and an educated grown up as distinct from those people who watch Star Wars movies and don't truly grow up.  While the likes of Spielberg and Lucas have been lambasted for creating the blockbuster adventure films that trap the mind in adolescence and juvenilia Woody Allen's films were urbane and presented ... wait a minute ...
and thus David Klion reaches a moment in which he asks ... is that really how we should now understand Woody Allen's work.  Annie Hall, as Klion noted, beat out Star Wars for best picture in the pertinent Academy Awards, so the juxtaposition is particularly pointed forty years on--if people who can't abide Star Wars would turn to Woody Allen's films as a more adult and sophisticated understanding of the human condition then it might seem all the more salient to ask ...
But is that really what Annie Hall depicts? How could a predator who has pursued inappropriately young women and girls throughout his career with no apparent remorse have made a film that so many seemingly healthy, functioning adults find relatable, even hopeful? Only two years separate Annie Hall and Manhattan. Woody and Alvy and Isaac are all the same guy, the guy who could date Diane Keaton and Stacey Nelkin in succession.

And how old is Annie, anyway? If we assume she is meant to be Keaton, then we can pin the age gap between Annie and Alvy at 11 years, which seems about right. That makes Annie Hall, filmed in 1976, a movie about a man who is roughly 41 dating a woman who is roughly 30 – hardly an indecent gap, but a perhaps meaningful one.

It’s not just that Alvy is a decade older than Annie; he’s also better read, more established in his career, and a “real Jew” who’s spent his life in the city where a pretty shikse from Wisconsin is still getting her bearings, and he wields this authority over her. He condescends to her, pretending to make intelligent conversation while imagining what she looks like naked, pushing her to take college courses and then getting mad when she flirts with her professor, scolding her (rightly, but still) for reading the National Review, paying for her to go to therapy and then getting upset that it doesn’t improve their sex life. He blames a bad mood on her period. He encourages her to read books with the word “death” in the title. He discourages her from enjoying Los Angeles even though it makes her happier than New York. “And you know something?” Annie says after Alvy nails a stand-up performance for undergrads, “I think that I’m starting to get more of your references, too.” It’s an easy line to miss but it speaks volumes about how he treats her, as a vessel to be filled with his insights.

It's possible to be even more brutally distill this observation into a statement that Woody Allen's Alvy values Annie, at every level, because of what he can fill her with, himself and everything about himself and his interests, ideas, and class associations.

Klion continues

What I see more clearly as an adult than I saw as a teenager is that Annie grows but Alvy doesn’t. Annie is a stronger and more independent person at the end of the film than she was at the beginning and Alvy is still Alvy, the guy who could just as easily be Isaac pining after Tracy. We’re meant to feel good about this outcome, at least as good as it’s possible to feel about the existential joke that, according to Allen, is life

But what was the point of their relationship? We never get Annie’s verdict, just Alvy’s smug assurance that he turned Annie into a woman who would voluntarily introduce another man to The Sorrow and the Pity. But as far as Alvy is concerned, relationships are “totally irrational and crazy and absurd… but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.” We know he’ll be okay, because he’s satisfied with how things worked out for Annie and he can always find new eggs.

Forty years on it's curious to consider that Annie Hall and Star Wars were both up for best picture at the Academy Awards.  As popular as it has been to claim that the latter film sparked a franchise that has at some level kept people from really growing up it would seem that the fans of the Star Wars franchise have, at least, grown up enough to bankroll, produce and direct new installments in the franchise, however polarizing those installments may be.  Allen's legacy, as described by Klion, has been an influence on the romantic comedic genre of film. 

Now it may just be that neither Woody Allen nor George Lucas should be trusted to tell us what functional adulthood is supposed to mean ... but then I've never gotten the sense that fans of the Star Wars franchise have really operated under the understanding that those films offer a template for navigating adult life the way Woody Allen's fans have advocated that his films somehow actually have done.

We could probably benefit from a reappraisal of the cultural influence of both these guys, but in light of what Allen has been accused of, the reassessment can seem more badly overdue in his case because George Lucas' detractors have had plenty of decades to explain how he ruined cinema. Klion gets at part of what makes a reappraisal of Allen challenging.
Even as many of these women are now abandoning Allen, Keaton stands by him. On January 29th, she tweeted “Woody Allen is my friend and I continue to believe him.” She also linked to a 1992 interview Allen gave on 60 Minutes in which he denied molesting Dylan Farrow (watch and draw your own conclusions).

I’m reminded of Leon Wieseltier, the long-time literary editor of the New Republic, whose new project was torpedoed last October following revelations from multiple former TNR staffers, including the aforementioned Ruth Franklin, that he sexually harassed women in the office over decades. Another former colleague, Michelle Cottle, wrote about how this was complicated by Wieseltier’s role as one of the few men at TNR to show any interest in women at all:

At the same time, many women longed to be in what one called “the sunlight” of Good Leon. Complicating matters, the owner of the magazine during my tenure, Martin Peretz, had a reputation as a scorching sexist (a tale for another day), and the magazine was seen as something of a boys’ club. Leon always presented himself as a champion of women, which in many cases he was
This is what makes men like Wieseltier or Allen so insidious. Much of the male-dominated culture dismisses women entirely, but in doing so it leaves an opening for those men whose interests in women range from condescending to predatory to present themselves as sensitive. There is a sense of betrayal when men like this are exposed, and they make the task of any man attempting to be genuinely sensitive that much harder. [emphasis added] 
Events are unfolding quickly, but here are some predictions. Allen’s career is over; he will not make another significant film, and he will die a disgraced figure. Most younger audiences will never find his work relatable. Defending him will increasingly be seen as a reactionary stance. And even those of us who love his best films will find it harder and harder to watch them without wincing. But we shouldn’t be wincing at Allen. We should be wincing at ourselves, at all we’ve learned and all we’re only beginning to unlearn.
According to Allen, the culture and the women that men consume are the reasons to stay alive in a bleak and meaningless world. But there are ways to engage with both culture and with women – with people – without consuming them, and there is richer meaning to be found in this world, if we can learn to see beyond our neuroses. It’s a cop-out to say that the heart wants what it wants. We have to ask ourselves who taught the heart what it wants, and whether it’s capable of wanting something more. [emphasis added]
There's no shortage of literature and thought about the human condition that has mulled over how so often what the heart wants is something that, if said or done, is bad.  If Klion's assessment of Allen is accurate then Woody Allen's films declare that culture and women are what men can consume as reasons to stay alive in a bleak and meaningless cosmos.  Forty years after Annie Hall and Star Wars it would seem that if that's the best summation we can be given about Woody Allen's legacy then there's no point in pretending that Woody Allen's cinematic legacy is less juvenile and detached from plausible human relationships that George Lucas' vision in Star Wars

Even if all the allegations made against Allen somehow turn out to be unfounded, I don't think that Allen's films need to be taken as a kind of meta-cultural script for American intellectual adulthood any more than The Empire Strikes Back would be. But then, pertinent to Klion's piece, the salient point here is not so much Allen's films themselves as what his admirers have made of that filmography.  The core question in Klion's piece is, should they have taken Allen's films as a template for intellectual American adulthood?  As a non-fan of Allen's work I would have thought the answer "no" would have been obvious over the last forty years but experience and mileage vary. 


1 comment:

Cal of Chelcice said...

I'm acutely sensitive the way shows and films leave residue of alteration, changing not necessarily what you believe, but how you think and your imaginative landscape. But these things only can become operational and functional when given an opportunity to be utilized, receive positive feedback, and become reinforced. Thus, Allen's films get an actual outlet, as well as the Newspaper superhero films, because normal people have mundane bourgeois lives, meet and interact with women, or find themselves reading news paper reports about insidious Russia-gate. But for the Star Wars fan, well, I suppose there are some who try to apply the Galactic Empire as something that is happening today, but not most. In fact, most folks will recycle and refurbish the movie's tropes and modify them for their basic purposes. That's why Star Wars and Peterson are just shades of Jung, which was his post-Freudian therapeutic strategy. But since these symbols are so detached from the content, they're easily malleable. Star Wars becomes a tale of growing up, finding your purpose, and beating back the forces of chaos and evil in your life (whatever that is).

So, in a way, you could say, from a Jungian view, Star Wars has actually helped people grow up, because its provides an imaginative land-scape that is so flexible and so at home in an American context. In other words, the trope of the importance of individuals, good guys winning at the end of the day, and values of growing up and having good friends, get constantly reinforced everywhere and all over the place. There's a jargonny and technical Sociology book by Illouz on the success of Freud. She documents how a charismatic teacher-professional, with a band of disciples, essentially recreated America, and she does a good job. She shows how professional influence move across the sea from German universities to American ones, how the training filtered into professional literature, how it became popular, and how the popular ideas instantiated themselves, and became self-reproducing, at the ground-level. Freud believed psycho-therapy was a new form of religion for the modern world and the modern man. And it's pretty clear, in retrospect, how he was right; even though much of his actual thought has been discarded, the apparatus of his ideas has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

If Jung is a variation of Freud, and perhaps certainly more amenable to Anglo-Americans through his interpreters, then it's interesting to chart how Moral Therapeutic Deism is not just some offshoot bad theology from comfortable, middle-class, Christians. Rather, it is because America's civil religion has remarkable changed over the past 60 years, adjusting postmillenial Social Gospel, full of receptors open to Modernism, to a brave new world.

So, I'm thinking a bit too big for my britches here, but it's interesting to see how Allen's type was much stronger than Star Wars, but that was its downfall. Like material science, strength means better structural integrity, but it also means that too much will lead to material snapping. Allen's model mapped on too well for a certain sub-culture of people, and when Allen turns out to be a predator, the whole model collapses. Star Wars is a part of a much bigger structural force, its weakness in molding behavior, through its fantasy landscape the vagueness of character archetypes and tropes, has much greater survivability. In someways, it's better, because it's weak enough to leave little tangible influence. But in some ways it's worse, because it is a part of a much larger behavioral reinforcement.

Food for thought,