Like Ian Fleming and P.G. Wodehouse, Woody Allen returns compulsively to the same creative ground. In Allen's case, it's ground trod by anxious, well-to-do white people, who swap partners and drop cultural references in an empty, godless universe. The extent of the similarities from one film to the next is remarkable. It's not just that he recasts actors or that he revisits the themes of domestic boredom and cosmic insignificance. He reuses the same font, EF Windsor Light Condensed, for his titles and credits. He recycles character types: the neurotic Jewish New Yorker (the filmmaker's spit and image), the adulterous intellectual, the hypochondriac intellectual. He recycles plot lines. He even recycles punch lines. In Celebrity (1998), a model says she's "polymorphously perverse … meaning every part of my body gives me sexual pleasure." That should sound familiar: In Annie Hall (1977), Alvy tells Annie that she's "polymorphously perverse … you get pleasure in every part of your body when I touch it."
Given the redundancy of Allen's work, it might seem like a waste of time to dig into it deeply and get beyond his top-tier comedies and dramas. Yet attending "the new Woody Allen" is, for me, an annual rite. The worrisomely prolific auteur has written and directed 40 feature-length films, and has a 41st scheduled to premiere at Cannes in May. I have seen them all, as well as the early movies that he wrote but did not direct (What's New Pussycat?, Play It Again, Sam), the shorts Oedipus Wrecks and Sounds from a Town I Love, and the TV movie Don't Drink the Water. I've even watched Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story, a 25-minute mockumentary that satirizes the Nixon administration. Produced as a television special for PBS, it was pulled before airing, reportedly because the programmers feared antagonizing government officials. (I tracked it down at the Paley Center for Media.) Lots of cinephiles can quote the best lines from Love and Death. Sonja: "Sex without love is an empty experience." Boris: "Yes, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best!" I can cite jokes from Take the Money and Run: "I think crime pays. The hours are good, you meet a lot of interesting people, you travel a lot." Or from Stardust Memories: "To you I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the loyal opposition."
One might detect in my behavior a trace of the repetition compulsion that animates Allen. In my defense, and in his, consider this: Though he returns to the same themes, I've found significant differences in how he treats those themes—variations not attributable to basic shifts in genre (comedy versus drama) or to fluctuations in quality. (Sadly, I must admit he is far from consistent in this regard. Celebrity and Hollywood Ending belong in a bonfire.) There's also diversity in the way Allen's characters grapple with the ideas that preoccupy him, particularly in the way they handle the likelihood that we live in a godless universe. Allen answers the question of what we should make of nothingness differently in different movies. Sometimes nothing means everything, sometimes nothing much.
When an Allen character is in a particularly morose state of mind, he may feel moved to announce that life is meaningless. I call these "void moments," because the declarations often contain the word void. Despite the bleak moniker, the void moment doesn't always have the same function. Play It Again, Sam (1972), for instance, has a particularly lighthearted one.
In this little-seen comedy, the recently divorced Allan Felix (Woody Allen) tries to get the hang of dating. Trouble is, he's romantically self-destructive: Felix (I'll use his surname to avoid confusion) says he's attracted to "emotionally disturbed women," and that's not an exaggeration. The depth of his perverse inclination becomes clear when he approaches a woman looking at a Jackson Pollock drip-painting, and asks what it means to her. She answers: "It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous, lonely, emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos." She's just the kind of woman Felix has been looking for, and he asks her what's she's doing Saturday night. "Committing suicide," she responds. Unfazed, he counters: "What about Friday night?"
This nameless woman seems to articulate Allen's world view exactly. (After the 2009 release of Whatever Works, he told NPR that filmmaking "distracts me from the uncertainty of life, the inevitability of aging and death and death of loved ones; mass killings and starvation, from holocausts—not just man-made carnage, but the existential position you're in." Inspiring!) But in Play It Again, Sam, we're clearly meant to find her approach ridiculous. The depressive despairs: Because there is "nothing," she longs to return to that state. Felix, by contrast, moves forward blithely: If existence is lonely and hideous, why not go out on Saturday? Or Friday, whatever, he's not busy. By letting Felix win the volley, Allen also endorses his protagonist's resigned epicurean sensibility.
The takeaway from Stardust Memories (1980), the fourth title in the more serious, less slapstick-driven period that began with Annie Hall, is more ambiguous. If it's always tempting to conflate Allen with the characters he portrays, it's almost impossible not to see him in filmmaker Sandy Bates, who travels to a festival at the Stardust Hotel as the guest of honor. Like Allen himself, Sandy has abandoned comedy for drama, much to the chagrin of his producers. A studio exec asks, "What does he have to suffer about? Doesn't the man know he has the greatest gift that anybody could ever have? The gift of laughter?" His fans have the same questions, telling Sandy insistently that they like his "earlier, funny movies." These appeals don't move Sandy; he won't go back to his old style because "I don't feel funny. I look around the world, and all I see is human suffering."
The studio execs are shallow, his fans pesky. And yet, when the void moment arrives, it suddenly seems as though they might be onto something. Job, of the Hebrew bible, takes his complaints straight to God; Sandy gets the modern equivalent: a close encounter. He asks a group of space aliens: "Why is there so much human suffering … is there a God … If nothing lasts, why am I bothering to make films, or do anything for that matter?" Echoing Sandy's fans, the aliens say they enjoy his films, "particularly the early, funny ones," and shrug off his anguish. Sure, the human condition is discouraging, but "there are some nice moments, too." No, Sandy shouldn't "stop making movies and do something that counts" (as he suggests). If he wants "to do mankind a real service" he should "tell funnier jokes."
Are the aliens, and by extension the studio execs and fans, correct in thinking Sandy should stick to comedy? That when confronted with depressing facts about the universe, the best solution is to distract yourself with humor? Or is that a shamefully insufficient response to suffering? The movie doesn't provide a sure perspective—it raises these questions, but doesn't answer them.
It's this sort of earnest handwringing that leads some critics to hail Allen as a genius and others to wish, like Sandy Bates' fictional fans, that he'd go back to banana-peel gags. Naturally, I count myself in the former category, and further deny the common accusation that his "serious" films are intolerably self-indulgent, pleasing only to viewers who majored in Comparative Literature and believe in the curative powers of psychoanalysis.
The proof, for me, that Allen's obsessing represents a smart—and evolving—examination of the Big Questions lies in Crimes and Misdemeanors(1989), which contains not just one but several sustained void moments, of the howling variety, liable to make any critic with an ironic sensibility blush with embarrassment. I might blush, too, if the scenes weren't so affectingly done.
Allen divides the cast along moral lines: There are those who believe there is a moral framework to the universe (with or without God), those who reject notions of value and responsibility, and those who haven't yet decided which side to take. The central character, Judah (Martin Landau), is in the third camp, but when his former mistress Dolores (Anjelica Huston) threatens to reveal their past to his wife, he ventures into the second. Not willing to accept the repercussions on his marriage, he has Dolores murdered, and manages to live without guilt. Occasionally heavy-handed—you can tell who's who because (I'm not kidding) the moral characters wear glasses—the film's refutation of the concept that murder will out is nevertheless affecting. I'm certain that any non-psychopath will feel positively disturbed when Judah embraces his wife in the last scene.
Here is a character just like so many others Allen created—rich, successful, Jewish, brainy—who, unlike so many others, finds contentment through nihilism. For the nameless woman at the museum in Play It Again, Sam, the logical response to "the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity" is suicide, and we're asked to laugh. For Judah it's murder, and we're asked to despair.
There's a sort of corollary to "void moments" in Allen's films, which, for the sake of parallelism, I call "art moments." These address whether or not creative work is an antidote to emptiness; and over the many hours—conservatively, 120—I've spent watching and rewatching Allen's movies, I've looked out for them keenly. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), for example, contains an art moment that makes my 120 hours seem like a rational use of time. After a medical false alarm, Mickey Sachs (Allen) has a crisis—he quits his job and nearly commits suicide, but then he wanders into a showing of the Marx Brothers'Duck Soup and finds it funny. He thinks, "What if the worst is true? What if there's no God, and you only go around once and that's it? Well, you know, don't you want to be part of the experience?" Art allows Mickey to rediscover pleasure. Not long after his Duck Soup epiphany, he falls in love and gets married.
As with the void moments, the message of the art moments varies. Deconstructing Harry (1997), which considers the merits of art from the artist's perspective, presents creative work as a consolation of last resort for those too pathetic to hack it in reality. Here, art doesn't help you appreciate life; it walls you off from its disappointments.
Like Stardust Memories, Deconstructing Harry follows an artist attending a ceremony in his honor and reminiscing over past relationships. Like The Purple Rose of Cairo(in which a character steps off a movie screen and falls in love with an audience member), it knocks down the wall between fiction and reality—Harry (Allen), a writer possibly modeled on Philip Roth, meets several of his creations. And, as in any number of Allen's films, the protagonist worries about his place in the cosmos. Nevertheless, Deconstructing Harry feels distinct from the rest of the catalog, because Allen plays a character who is not just annoying or neurotic but actually hateful. Harry borrows story lines from his real life for his fiction and in the process alienates his friends by revealing their secrets and portraying them as ridiculous. He is stubborn and refuses to apologize for his misbehavior, even when he sleeps with his psychologist-wife's patient. ("I'm as much a victim as you! You think getting a blowjob from a big-bosomed 26-year-old is a pleasurable thing for me?")
Harry is funny, but not good or appealing. He is self-indulgent and repetitive. His friends and family see these flaws, and most of them abandon him. What keeps the film from seeming entirely tragic is that Harry's characters, at least, appreciate him. In the final sequence, they mill around his apartment and thank him for his efforts. "You've given me some of the happiest moments of my life. You've even saved my life at times," Harry says to them. Art has made his depressing personal life somewhat meaningful.
That last scene of Deconstructing Harry would have made a fitting final beat to Allen's career—what does public opinion about Soon-Yi Previn matter to someone who created Harry Bloch, Sandy Bates, and Alvy Singer? Since then he's released 14 feature-length films, a lifetime's output for many writer-directors, and notwithstanding my commitment to Allen's films, I'm with the majority in deeming these rather careless imitations of his earlier works. It's not just that Allen is posing the same questions—he's now repeating the same answers. 2005's Match Point, considered by some a return to form, knocks off the guiltless murder ending from Crimes and Misdemeanors and tries to compensate for the sense of déjà vu, and for the weaker actors, with more sex. It's a bad trade-off.
Because I've already invested so much time into Allen's films, I'll keep making my annual pilgrimage without regard to quality, holding out for the possibility of a swan song. At his latest, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, I saw a hint of a way forward in the plotlines dedicated to Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones), who worry about senescence and death not simply because these are facts of life, but because, like their creator, they've reached old age. A film that broaches the regular lot of preoccupations from the deathbed perspective rather than the needlessly-anxious-middle-age one could—here's hoping—bring poignancy back to the Woody Allen experience.
Click here for my ranking of Woody Allen's films. Click here for a video slide show of the scenes discussed in this essay.