A Kind of Slither

Michael Wood

  • The Unruly Life of Woody Allen by Marion Meade
    Weidenfeld, 384 pp, £20.00, February 2000, ISBN 0 297 81868 6

The films of Woody Allen are dedicated to the proposition that life is both alarming and boring. Is this possible? Surely alarms are at least interesting? Nothing is interesting in Allen’s imagined world except the nervousness of the mind observing the banality, the sheer invention with which the imagination pictures its cage. The comedy arises constantly from the gap between where we might have been and where we ended up. In the film Love and Death (1975), the hero’s idea of a miracle is that his Uncle Sasha should pick up a check. In one of Allen’s stories, the lack of a sense of humour is defined as believing that Zeppo was the most amusing of the Marx Brothers. When a man tries to rob a bank in Take the Money and Run (1969), he is foiled because he gets into an argument about the handwriting of his stick-up note. In Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) the Diane Keaton character has a wild idea and is advised to save some of her craziness for the menopause.

The style of joke Allen borrows so often from S.J. Perelman works in much the same way. A man disguised as a cat burglar is arrested by a couple of dogs dressed as dogs. ‘I loved him like a brother, only not my brother.’ ‘Do you find me attractive as a man?’ ‘I think that’s your best bet.’ ‘There is Alfonso, whose mother wanted him to be a matador. He was gored by a bull and then later gored by his mother.’ ‘Jenny married money. Not an actual human being – it was a pile of singles.’ No one understood the shallows of the human heart better than Perelman, and when Allen imitates him he underscores the tiny range of our options, where all thoughts risk flopping into tautology, and every idiom seems chained to its most literal meaning. Allen’s material is often local and provincial not because Allen is an inveterate New Yorker but because New York is an arsenal of reminders of what a shrunken habitat looks like. ‘There is no question that there is an unseen world,’ Allen writes in one of his prose pieces. ‘The problem is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?’ ‘Can we actually “know” the universe? My God, it’s hard enough finding your way around in Chinatown.’

It’s pretty hard to find your way around in Woody Allen, too. The outline of the life is simple enough, and has been laid out many times. Allan Stewart Konigsberg was born in the Bronx in 1935, although the family was living in Brooklyn, where he grew up. Dilatory and bored in school, he spent much of his time at the movies. He rose to unlikely success by writing gags for newspaper columns and television comedians, and then became a stand-up comic himself. The first movie he wrote was What’s New, Pussycat? (1965), and the first movie he directed was Take the Money and Run. The rest – notably Love and Death, Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) – is history, but perhaps only history, since all the appealing moments in the films made after 1985 look like allusions to earlier days. Allen wrote a series of comic pieces for the New Yorker and other magazines, collected in the volumes Getting Even (1971), Without Feathers (1975) and Side Effects (1980). He married then divorced Harlene Rosen and Louise Lasser; had a long-term and ultimately turbulent relationship with Mia Farrow. He lived for many years in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue; he now lives in a townhouse on East 92nd Street. He plays jazz clarinet at Michael’s Pub, and rarely misses a game of the New York Knicks.

Marion Meade’s new biography is judicious and independent-minded on all the important issues, even-handed without being bland. She hasn’t spoken to Allen – or he hasn’t spoken to her – but she has spoken to everyone who would talk to her about him, she has read all the interviews and articles, court transcripts, box office figures. She doesn’t have much to say about the movies, indeed doesn’t seem to care much for them, but she fills out the available details of the life with admirable patience and precision. But then the heart of her subject not only eludes her, it infects her writing with a kind of slither, as if her topic wouldn’t stay in place for the length even of a moderately short sentence.

I’m not thinking of her mild slippages of logic and fluffings of idiom, although in this context they do begin to sound a little like Woody Allen warming up. ‘Despite the couturier outfits, Jean was not popular.’ ‘Girl chasing seemed to go hand in hand with casual sex.’ ‘Giving up her virginity to the ex-husband of her father’s mistress was simply the sort of extravagant theatricality that had become second nature.’ What I have in mind are more elaborate uncertainties. Here is Meade’s picture of Allen’s picture of his childhood: ‘You could almost imagine he had spent 12 years deep in the Urals, in some forced labour camp, consorting with murderers and thieves, curled up with his comic books.’ That kind of labour camp. ‘Behind the charade of the perfect couple, as the delicate mechanisms of their relationship were quietly rusting, they continued to keep up appearances.’ And behind those appearances there was probably a pretty good charade. This is an account of the way things were with Woody Allen and Mia Farrow in the early 1990s, but it sounds like Allen’s mock-essay on ‘the great Scandinavian playwright Jorgen Lovborg, known to his contemporaries as Jorgen Lovborg.’ And when Meade reaches the custody hearing – Allen was petitioning for care of his and Mia Farrow’s three children, one of them his own biological son – the scene begins to look like Dickens’s Chancery rather than New York’s Foley Square. ‘Everything about the massive hexagonal structure promises a square deal for those unlucky enough to wind up there.’ The square deal in the hexagon is dizzying enough, even without the winding arrival. But why would the square deal be unlucky? And what would it be like to be cheated?

Meade can’t decide whether Allen is ‘unruly’ or a control freak, restless or sedentary. Could he be both ‘a master of irony’ and ‘a moral paragon’? Only just. And I’m sure he couldn’t, in the same decade, have ‘a pristine image in the popular imagination’ and symbolise ‘the single, kiddie-phobic, narcissistic male’ – well, not unless we do something about the meaning of ‘pristine’. Meade’s problem is interesting, though. She wants to centre her book on the supposed scandal of Allen’s relation with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi, and the formal accusation against him of molesting the six-year-old Dylan, another of Farrow’s adopted daughters, later adopted by Allen also. The story broke (and Meade’s book opens) in January 1992, when Farrow discovered some posed Polaroids of a naked Soon-Yi in Allen’s apartment, and everything escalated from there. This is where the pristine paragon comes in. Meade needs Allen to stand on a pedestal so he can crash. He was ‘America’s favourite comedy saint’; ‘the Ingrid Bergman of film comedians’. The allusion is to the American public’s surprise when it learned of Bergman’s affair with Roberto Rossellini, but the very idea of a Bergman among comedians is outlandish, in part, of course, because none of this is true: many people thought Allen was funny, but no one imagined he was a saint, or cared whether he was or not – and in part because you’re wondering whether you missed the wild comic streak in Joan of Arc or Casablanca. Meade also likes the criss-crossing effect of Allen’s popularity. ‘In the years between 1975 and 1979, his films were among the top ten box-office draws . . . By the 1990s, when he received the biggest box-office response of his entire career, it was for something else – his personal, offscreen drama, which, ironically, played to packed houses in big cities and small.’

But then Meade is too scrupulous to stack her story to fit this scenario, and her tale spills out into looseness and confusion. Allen didn’t get custody of the children, but he was cleared of the molestation charge – or rather the charge was never brought to court – and in 1997 he married Soon-Yi. Did the scandal alter the perception of Allen and his films? Yes, in the sense that many people thought about him differently. No, in the sense that the box-office damage had already been done by films like September (1987) and Alice (1990). It didn’t stop him from working, from producing a film a year as he has done since 1975, with the single exception of 1981. Everyone Says I Love You (1996) is full of charm, even lightness of heart, and the recent Sweet and Lowdown (1999), the biography of a legendary (and fictional) jazz guitarist, is both funny and engaging. It is also the movie where, perhaps for the first time, Allen gets the guilt of his central male character fully in focus, without allowing him to whimper, or slipping him a few extra excuses for his behaviour. Sean Penn is the guitarist, a breezy, self-admiring fellow whose vanity would be a weakness if it were not his defence against all other, more difficult feelings. He can’t settle down, he tells his women. He’s an artist. He has to move on. Then he moves on once too often, and watches his lifetime myth of himself fall apart. His other problem is that he is the second-best jazz guitarist in the world, and is haunted by the thought of the best, Django Reinhardt. When he finally meets Reinhardt, he faints.

One sequence in Sweet and Lowdown has all the speed and surprise of Allen’s earlier films. The Penn character is a great spender, and wants to buy a fancy car. His manager tells him he really can’t afford it. He has to ‘go on a budget’, as he keeps repeating. In the following scene, which seems simply to be part of the vaguely picaresque movement of the film, Penn’s friends, knowing his awe of Reinhardt, tell him the guitarist is in the audience at the nightclub where he works. Penn scampers off in fright, and appears to be making a successful escape over the rooftops when one of the roofs caves in, and drops him into a forger’s workshop, littered with banknotes. In the next shot Penn is driving off in the fancy car.

When you look again at films like Annie Hall or Love and Death, or reread some of the pieces in Without Feathers, like ‘The Whore of Mensa’ (‘I’m fuzz, sugar, and discussing Melville for money is an 802. You can do time’) or ‘If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists’ (‘Sometimes I wish I had listened to father and become a painter. It’s not exciting but the life is regular’), you see at once why the later work looks faded. It’s not just that the early work is full of spritely gags and devices, alert to every possibility of the medium – the films within film, fictions within fiction, the literalised imagination, the parodies of everyone from Eisenstein to both Bergmans, Ingmar and Ingrid. It’s that the Allen persona is himself bursting with energy, stuttering with impatience to tell his next story, formulate his next phrase, with its characteristic mixture of hyperbole and collapse. ‘I am distressed, because my first novel, Proud Emetic, has been coolly received by the critics. Its one favourable notice, in the Times, was vitiated by the last sentence, which called the book “a miasma of asinine clichés unrivalled in Western letters”.’

Allen hasn’t lost his talent or his wit since then, or simply gone serious; and the polish of his later films can hardly be held against them. What has gone is the urgency of the project, the need to keep up the chatter as the world revolves in its stupid and expensive circles. As Meade says, Allen ‘managed to reinvent the little schnook genre’, but his little schnook was not that of Chaplin or Keaton – the analogies always trotted out. Allen’s schnook wasn’t lovable or dignified, he was closer to Groucho Marx than to anyone else, a man seeking victory over the world through language, laughing last because he always had the last wise-cracking word, whatever disasters befell him. But Groucho exuded a seedy confidence and scorn, and expected to survive. Allen looked as if a skyscraper was about to bury him, and he wanted to get a gag in before the end. Psychoanalysis was the perfect prop for him, because, in his version at least, it mingled angst and money. And when he tells Diane Keaton, in Manhattan Murder Mystery, that she doesn’t need to go back to analysis because she isn’t suffering from anything that couldn’t be cured by a combination of Prozac and a polo mallet, you feel he is saying goodbye to his old kingdom. A good joke but a sad one; or rather a sign that sadness was taking over, ending its brilliant pact with energy.

And yet. There is a wonderful, illuminating gag in the otherwise rather desultory Deconstructing Harry (1997). A character, played by Robin Williams, has blurred features and soft edges, which are at first attributed to a faulty lens, but then turn out to be just the way he is. A temporary condition, he hopes. His initial response is to get some rest. Later his wife and children equip themselves with glasses to bring him back into focus, thereby reversing and underlining the crazed premise of the gag. Anyone can look unfocused if the viewing instruments are off. Anyone can feel unfocused, whatever the optical conditions. But if you were unfocused as a matter of somatic fact, no amount of lens correction would set you right.

A large part of the pleasure of this joke is its multiple impossibility. Not only is one person’s hazy vision converted into someone else’s clinical condition, but the condition can be represented only by the very technology that is not supposed to be in play. The man looks out of focus while his wife, alongside him, is sharply rendered. But of course the man isn’t out of focus, only a piece of the frame is – and I’m not even mentioning the fact that he’s fictional. Triply fictional, as it happens: an actor playing a character within a story written by a character in the film. This effect is enhanced by the language of the film, where other characters discuss the man’s appearance as ‘soft’. As if this visual term were just a name for a familiar state, like sleepy or worried. ‘You look strange,’ the man’s wife says, squinting, and his small son starts to chant ‘Daddy’s out of focus.’ ‘Did you eat anything strange at lunch?’ the wife asks. ‘Maybe shellfish?’ Allen’s films are full of comic images of social anxiety, of the dissolution of the self in the measurements of others. But the character in Deconstructing Harry has gone, or been sent, further. We don’t know whether he has internalised the gaze of others or created it. All we know is that he has become a blur.

Technology produces a metaphor here, but the metaphor returns us to technology, to the fact of film and the celebrity industry, the life of the actor. Is Allen, through Williams, telling us how he feels, or telling us we haven’t understood him? Telling us he has arranged for us not to understand him, and twiddling his fingers at us? Or telling us nothing, having decided to take the money and run? There’s a poem by Alfred Brendel in which a woman asks him if he is Woody Allen. He says he’s Charlemagne, but the woman doesn’t believe him. Marion Meade tells a similar story about Allen himself. Someone she calls ‘an elderly dowager’ asks him if he is Woody Allen, and he says no. Perhaps he’s right. These days you have to be a real nobody, a creature of print and tape and celluloid, if you want to be mistaken for somebody.