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Stop Philosophizing, Woody Allen!

If it’s a new year, it’s a new Woody Allen movie. And if it’s a new Woody Allen movie, it’s a new round of Allen treating us to his philosophy of life. One need not have studied The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious to understand that behind all of Allen’s jokes about how we are all going to die is a decidedly un-funny fear of death, because he is all too happy to spell it out, explicitly, ponderously, pretentiously, insufferably, in his films and in interviews surrounding his films. While this portentousness has been the engine of his best films (and has probably driven his entire, 60-year career as a comic, writer, and director), it now drags down an otherwise accomplished late period that should be an unmitigated triumph and capstone.

Allen’s latest, released last month, is Blue Jasmine. It is about the vagaries of fortune and the rest. It is receiving critical raves. It is on pace to be among his highest-grossing movies ever (although as BuzzFeed’s Peter Lauria helpfully noted, adjusted for inflation his most successful movie is, as you would expect, Annie Hall). And this Esquire interview is making the rounds with approbation. Some of Allen’s responses are fun, and even slightly original—I particularly enjoyed his disclosure that funny things he says occur to him spontaneously, such that he hears the joke as he delivers it and laughs along with it; he also says, “If you’re born with a gift, to behave like it’s an achievement is not right,” which is poignant and wise.

But inevitably we get to the overdramatic bullshit:

It's just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don't have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.

I could find you roughly a billion different instances of him spouting this stuff. 2012: “Life is a terrible trial, and very harsh and very full of suffering … [Film] is a different kind of pain. Making a movie is a great distraction from the real agonies of the world.” 2011: “The job of the artist is to show why life, despite all its horror and brutality, is worth living and is a valuable thing. But one could also take the position that it’s not the job of the artist to do anything at all—just to make the best art that he can, because art gives pleasure and pleasure gives distraction, and distraction is the only thing that gets us by.” 1995 (in The Paris Review to interviewer Michiko Kakutani): “What interested me were always the unsolvable problems: the finiteness of life and the sense of meaninglessness and despair and the inability to communicate.” And so on.

It’s extremely boring. And yet, it is also the impetus for his best films. Annie Hall opens with perhaps the most famous of his jokes (which he actually calls an “old joke”), which sums it up perfectly: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort,” he goes, “and one of them says, ‘Boy the food at this place is really terrible,’ and the other one says, ‘Yeah, I know—and such small portions.’” You get it, right? Well, in case you didn’t, he immediately adds: “That’s essentially how I feel about life: Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness—and it’s all over much too quickly.” (His funniest version of this joke, by the way, is how he freaked out when he turned 65 because he realized he was almost one third of the way through his life.1)

Allen’s solution to the problem of mortality is most famously elucidated in Manhattan’s climax, when he lists the things that make life “worth living,” including Groucho Marx, Sentimental Education, Cezanne still lifes, and the face of his girlfriend. This viewpoint is given the concreteness of parable in Hannah and Her Sisters when Allen’s character, about to kill himself, misfires the rifle, goes out, stumbles into a movie theater, and proceeds to take in a film—never expressly identified, but it’s the Marx Brothers masterpiece Duck Soup—and realizes, “I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never going to get, and just enjoy it.”

Annie HallManhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters are three of my all-time favorite Allen movies—my all-time favorite movies. Yet, I find this way of viewing the world almost impossibly facile, unbearably and self-evidently simplistic. I might even call it “so Scandinavian—it’s bleak, my God, I mean all that Kierkegaard, right? Real adolescent, you know, fashionable pessimism. I mean, the silence. God’s silence. Okay, okay, okay I mean I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but you outgrow it.”

There’s the secret. That last quote comes from Diane Keaton’s character in Manhattantelling off Allen’s character. We are meant to think her pretentious and wrong—“I mean I loved it when I was at Radcliffe”—but the point is that Manhattan, like Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters and Allen’s other great movies, contain the antibodies to this annoying side. (The rule-proving exception is Love and Death, maybe Allen’s very best, which parodies the depressing nihilism and futility of Ingmar Bergman films and great Russian novels, at once espousing Allen’s viewpoint and undermining it by making it non-stop hilarious.) Just listen to what Allen’s character’s ex-wife in Manhattan (played by Meryl Streep) writes about him: “He was given to fits of rage, Jewish liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, and nihilistic moods of despair. He had complaints about life, but never any solutions. In his most private moments, he spoke of his fear of death, which he elevated to tragic heights when in fact it was mere narcissism.” Amen! But the point is not that Allen was capable of self-criticism (or even self-awareness). It’s merely that such self-criticism was the natural result of making movies about characters with ideas rather than movies about ideas.

He has largely stopped doing that. I don’t quite share most Allen fans’ enthusiasm for the string of serious movies (punctuated by really bad “funny” ones) he has made since 2005’s Match Point, including Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the massively underrated Cassandra’s Dream, and Blue Jasmine. The directing is phenomenal, but the writing feels programmatic and didactic, dedicated almost entirely to conveying Allen’s ideas rather than the conflicts of his characters. (In a rave, The New Yorker’s David Denby perceptively described Blue Jasmine as “curt and decisive—a ‘late’ style, if there ever was one.”) Allen’s last truly great film, I think, was 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, where the pathos comes not from the injustice of the universe (although that film more obviously portrays the injustice of the universe than perhaps any other one of his films) but from how the characters react to that injustice.

I think I know why Allen’s good movies now only include Allen’s ideas: They no longer include Allen. His two massive shifts as a filmmaker came when he chose to make a movie exactly about himself, Annie Hall (which is about a comedian who, like Allen, dated Diane Keaton, née Diane “Annie” Hall), and then, after close to three decades of making movies either featuring himself or an obvious alter ego (whether played by John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh, or Will Ferrell in the dreadful Melinda and Melinda), he made Match Point. That and his most successful movies since, including Blue Jasmine, have been bereft of stuttering, neurotic, sexually insatiable Jewish men. It is a good thing he made this shift, given the movies he was making in the years before Match Point (good God, do you remember Anything Else?), but it should be clear by now, as we dutifully tell each other that Blue Jasmine was excellent while secretly wishing for another classic, that something has been lost.

Of course, I sound like the guy on line at the movie theater, extolling La Strada’s technical brilliance as Allen wishes for a horseshit-filled sock. Allen’s late period has been a gift, in no small part because the constraints of old age and financial contingencies paradoxically free him to experiment, for instance by setting his films in London, Spain, Paris, Rome, and San Francisco. But if I may propose one more experiment: Allen should toggle back and write about himself again. His late period should concern his old age. It seems a waste for Allen to make films that include his deep thoughts but omit his indelible character. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is fine, but, as The New Yorker’s film critic Richard Brody recently put it on Twitter, “Woody Allen already created a great—and his greatest—character 40 years ago: Woody Allen.” 

  1. Yet another version: “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” And another: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my art. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

An earlier version of this post identified a movie as Anything Goes, not Anything Else.