Copy-Editing the Culture: The Rise and Fall of Woody Allen, as Experienced Through His Punctuation

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 14 2010 12:10 PM

Copy-Editing the Culture: The Rise and Fall of Woody Allen, as Experienced Through His Punctuation

When Copy-Editing the Culture has visions of death—which, thanks to the grammar apocalypse of our times, has been happening a lot lately—they go something like this: The room gets dark. A beam of light slices across the ceiling to illuminate a distant wall. Classic jazz begins to play at a modest volume. And across the room appears a vision of brilliant people living, with gorgeous companions, in a state of productivity and affluence.

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Needless to say, Copy-Editing the Culture is a great fan of Woody Allen films.  

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One reason for this fandom has been Allen's early mastery of the rules of punctuation in his titles. After the apprentice effort What's New Pussycat? (missing, like the song it references, a direct-address comma), Allen redeemed himself and reached some measure of creative maturity with What's Up, Tiger Lily? , a charming and, more to the point, brilliantly punctuated feature. From there, he was borne forward on a wave of good comma-ic energy. The year 1972 brought another direct-address victory in Play It Again, Sam , shortly followed by the creatively but rigorously punctuated Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex*/ *But Were Afraid To Ask . From there, the triumphs of Annie Hall , Manhattan , Hannah and Her Sisters , and Crimes and Misdemeanors , all beautifully and necessarily unpunctuated, seemed inevitable.

At some point in the mid-1990s, though, curious things began to happen. First, Allen made a musical film called Everyone Says I Love You , using a title that shifts, with no punctuation, from third-person citation to first-person direct quotation. It also required Julia Roberts to sing. By 2000, the director had inflicted on the world something called Small Time Crooks —not, in fact, a film about dwarf ne'er-do-wells who steal time, although Copy-Editing the Culture might have found that premise more rewarding. Soon, the comic auteur had turned his Gotham-loving lens to Europe; recent years have brought such Continentally styled, bafflingly mispunctuated works as Vicky Cristina Barcelona . The golden age of Allen—for the grammar-minded moviegoer, at least—was over.

Still, when Copy-Editing the Culture heard that a new Woody Allen movie would be released this fall, he felt a modest thrill. The film was said to feature Naomi Watts, an actress who, with her icy poise and austere demeanor, has always struck Copy-Editing the Culture as the sort of individual who knows just where to put a semicolon. At home, in the kitchen, he prepared his favorite indulgent cinema snack, kale chips , and packaged them in modest Tupperware to carry in his attaché. He left. He bought a ticket. He was horrified. Not only did the new movie seem a hash of previous Woody Allen themes; it was called You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger . Tall and dark ought to be coordinate modifiers, separated by a comma: They both describe, equally and independently, the state of the stranger. The title, as Allen wrote it, instead suggests a hierarchy: a stranger who is chiefly and crucially dark and only secondarily tall. It is difficult to imagine what sort of movie might be premised on that distinction.

When punctuation disappears in one place, though, it often turns up elsewhere. Some readers of the work of Canadian pop star Justin Bieber recently wrote to Copy-Editing the Culture to note that the underage celebrity's memoir, Justin Bieber: First Step 2 Forever: My Story , doubles up its colons. This is indeed quite perverse. Not even in cases of highly irregular, morally suspicious colon deployment (e.g., John Updike—who, incidentally, shared the Bieber hair —"Ah: runs. Runs," etc.) can Copy-Editing the Culture recall seeing a  double  mark employed in quite this way. The substitution of 2 for to , moreover, reminds Copy-Editing the Culture of some obscure Lettrist conceits. Perhaps, for all of his mainstream popularity, Bieber is a short and un-dark agent of the avant-garde.

Spot a grammar clunker in the cultural limelight? Send it to  copyeditingtheculture@gmail.com .

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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