Title: Comment Woody Allen peut change votre vie
Author: Éric Vartzbed
Publisher: Éditions du Seuil
Price: 12 €
Title: Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy
Author: Saul Austerlitz
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
With over forty films to his name and a career that spans from 1965 to today, it is hard to pin down Woody Allen. He was born Allen Konigsberg in Brooklyn, 1935, a shabby New York Jew with too much intelligence, wit and neuroses. His career trajectory goes from writing wisecracks for NBC, then Sid Caesar, getting expelled from NYU, performing stand-up, writing screenplays, becoming a film-director, writing short-fiction - and he still finds time to play the clarinet! His current wife is Soon-Yi Previn.
In his films, Allen’s characters are burdened by the accompanying neuroses of their privileged position. In his world, the people who have a belief in some kind of faith seem better off then their atheist counterparts. His protagonists give a whole new meaning to the Hitchcockian character-type of the man who knew too much. And like one of Hitchcock’s wrong men they are born into a godless world where things eventually go awry. Everything and anything can happen, ranging from murder to finding love. And what is most emphasized is the role chance plays in our lives. The films are funny too.
As a filmmaker he has worked with some of Hollywood’s best actors and actresses like Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams, Anthony Hopkins and Naomi Watts, Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood, Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, just to name a few. Everybody wants to work with him. The cast of his upcoming Rome-set film The Bob Decameron includes Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig and Allen himself (who will be returning in front of the camera). Allen is not the only talented one; he has worked with some of the best cinematographers out there such as Gordon Willis, Carlo Di Palma, Sven Nykvist, Vilmos Zsigmond and Darius Khondji. He writes his own screenplays too.
“But what made Bergman great – and there were guys who were working the same side of the street but who were not great – was that he was show business, he was an entertainer,” according to Allen*, who like Bergman, is one a master entertainer-philosophers that have blessed the seventh art. Allen seamlessly blends pathos and comedy to magical results. For example, in his latest film Midnight in Paris – one of his most profitable films (eighty million dollars worldwide) – this middle-aged screenwriter (played by Owen Wilson) who wants to start writing serious literature is visiting Paris with his wife and her parents. At night he decides to wander off and mysteriously finds himself traveling back in time to the the 1920s and then to the belle époque. The lightness of touch, the ease of the actors, the magical mood all leads me to believe this is the high point of his late European period.
Allen has many supporters: Jean-Luc Godard** made a wonderful little documentary Meetin’ WA (1986), an interview between the two directors that Godard interrupts with jazzy inter-titles and film stills. And he has also starred in films by Paul Mazursky and Martin Ritt. Some smart people have written about him such as Robert Benayoun (Woody Allen, au-delà du language), John Baxter, Raymond Durgnat, Foster Hirsch, Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Richard Brody, Jean-Michel Frodon and Richard Schickel ; while real life intellectuals like Marshal McLuhan and Susan Sontag have also appeared in his films. In regards to the man himself voicing his thoughts, there is the Stig Björkman and Eric Lax interview books.
Allen’s films begin like novels: there is always that black screen set to soothing jazz music, punctuated by the credits written in Allen’s signature Windsor font. The experience of watching the credits change is akin to flipping through the pages of a book***. This technique builds excitement for a new Allen adventure within the viewer. And then the film begins…
* Woody Allen by Kent Jones, which included an interview, in Film Comment (May/June 2011).
** Godard also cast Allen as King Lear in his Shakespeare adaptation. Though Allen, overall, is not really a Cahiers-filmmaker (see Olivier Assayas scathing remarks on Everyone says I love you or Jones on Celebrity). On the other hand, Allen seems to have found a home over at the more generous Positif with his two latest films making it onto their cover.
*** This literary analogy is only made stronger as Allen is the author of a vast collection of short stories that can be found in The New Yorker and collected in books like Mere Anarchy, The Insanity Defense and Getting Even. Allen also recently contributed to The Guardian a piece on his five favorite books (The Catcher in the Rye, Really the Blues, The World of SJ Perelman, Epitaph of a Small Winner, and Elia Kazan: A Biography), which show the influence books had on him as a person.
How Can Woody Allen Change Your Life?
I first discovered Allen in my early university years. I was studying Psychology and Film Studies at the University of Ottawa. On my summer off, I stumbled upon Annie Hall where in it Allen represented what is commonly known as an auteur: he was the star, director, and screenwriter of the film and it was clear that this Alvy Singer character was loosely autobiographical. That month I watched Annie Hall maybe five or six times, making sure to scribble down on a little notepad all of the cultural references that I was not being taught in university. Over the summer I tried to see all of his films, which coincided with a blossoming interest in cinema, where I was also discovering the films of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. Since then I have gone to see all of Allen’s new films during their first-run releases, starting with Vickie Christina Barcelona (2008). I was also fortunate to go to Lyon, France that summer for some French language and culture classes. Where coincidently the Hangar Lumière (the birthplace of European cinema) was having an Allen retrospective. I didn’t need anything else…
The psychoanalyst Éric Vartzbed in his wonderful little French-language book Comment Woody Allen peut changer votre vie? talks about the way certain films seen at particular, and impressionable, times in ones life can influence someone personally, and that these small realizations and pleasures should be acknowledged and cherished. For Vartzbed, one of those occurrences happened to be when he saw Allen’s Another Woman*. Being a practitioner of psychology (at the Réseau Santé Valais) Vartzbed better understands the difficulty that Hope (Mia Farrow) is going through and the difficulty of confessing intimate and repressed thought. Allen in Another Woman and throughout his career proves to be a director of anxieties. Not only of presenting characters with anxieties but in how they can be debilitating in certain situations and what coping mechanism people come up with**. This is one of the subjects explored in the book, with particular characters from different films being used as case studies for the psychoanalyst to examine as he dissects the unconscious of Allen and his films through quoting other theorist like Sigmund Freud, Eric Fromm and Jacques Lacan.
Just as Allen has changed the lives of many people (Vartzbed’s, my own), Allen too was affected by the movies. The director? You’ve guessed it: Ingmar Bergman. Allen’s thoughts on Monika: “I came away reliving only the moment Harriet Andersson disrobed.” On The Naked Night, “Although the story was not totally focused, the work was directed with such immense talent that I sat forward for an hour and a half, my eyes bulging.” On Wild Strawberries, “I still recall my mouth dry and my heart pounding away from the first uncanny dream sequence to the last serene close-up.” On The Seventh Seal (“always my favorite”), “The flagellants, the burning of the witch (worthy of Carl Dreyer) and the finale, as Death dances off with all the doomed people to the nether lands is one of the most memorable shots in all movies.”***
* This first section of the book Comment Woody Allen a changé ma vie [How Woody Allen changed my life] is part self-analysis, while in the next section Comme Woody Allen peut changer votre vie [How Can Woody Allen change your life] Vartzbed tries to tease out life lessons and particular morals from the films themselves, and he is quite good at it.
** The role of the analyst in the films is also analyzed. Vartzbed sees complacency on their part where the session’s goal is no longer psychological progress but that of a routine, which would become a reoccurring gag for Allen. Like the wisecrack in Sleepers, “I haven’t seen my shrink for two-hundred years. If I had been going all of this time then I would almost be cured.”
*** From Woody Allen’s review of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography The Magic Lantern.
Vartzbed prose is fun. It isn’t too academic, though it is smart and well written. Vartzbed knows how to translate cinematic gags and jokes onto the page; there are a lot of exclamation marks. The title of the book makes it seem like it is one of those goofy self-help books, which it isn’t. How Can Woody Allen change your life is a serious look at Allen’s films, who for Vartzbed, are in the same league as the work of the great European writers and philosophers like Marcel Proust, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Le Petit Prince), Molière and Emil Cioran.
Vartzbed quotes Allen from an interview with Robert Benayoun from Positif (which can be found in the Grand Interview issue) on Manhattan, “It isn’t New York that I am attacking, it’s the root of evil. It’s not a film that is happy to say: “Clean Central Park.” It is a film that is saying: “Clean up your emotional lives, or else you will never be able to clean Central Park.” Another insightful quote from the interview is, “My hero Isaac Davis prefers to think of the time past then the terrible things that are ruining the city today, he misses the time when New York looked like how you see it in the old sepia photographs, when it was as simple and romantic as Gershwin’s music.”
Vartzbed sees Allen humor as a defensive-mechanism - a way to make the people around him happy - while the sources of frustration is not coming from the exterior but the interior. For Allen, “desire and counter-desire is the same thing,” like the Julia Roberts character in Everyone Says I Love You who, “seems to prefer the dream of a potential happiness then the “closure” that comes with it’s realization.” This self-defeating impulse goes quite well with the famous Annie Hall* quip, “I would never be a part of a club that will have someone like me as a member.”
Vatzbed sees Zelig as Allen’s most political film, “Allen describes the mimetic passion that is central to in all the totalitarian phenomenon.” As well on Allen’s politics, “In the Allen universe, politics as they are are placed onto the second-plane ; the point of view is psychological and existential.”**
Allen shows the gap between what people say and what they mean, “with his style, he expresses the essence of the human life: our condition of the denatured animal, exiled in a landscape of signs, lost into language.” There is too much justification of bad behavior through a mise-en-mots, like the ‘natural’ and ‘happy’ divorce at the beginning of Husbands and Wives. And there seems to be an emphasis for Allen on capturing the complexity and contradiction of human feelings*** like when Isacc is running to meet Tracy at the end of Manhattan. One would want the two to get-back together but there are so many factors against that from happening. Even so we are still cheering Allen on.
* Annie Hall’s original title is Anhedonia, which means the inability to experience pleasure.
** Which makes Allen different then a more left-wing actor-director like Albert Brooks whose most recent film Looking for Humor in the Middle East (2005) is very critical of America’s foreign policy, which might have caused the films minor distribution and reception. Brooks also has a new fictional novel about a futuristic dystopian society 2030.
*** The subject of emotional validity is important to Allen which he highlights, as well as the disparities of critical reception, in the Eric Lax interview book:"But the criticism that can be made of any film can be refuted from another point of view and, in the critical community, often is. So I'm not really interested in these analyses and discussions because I feel they're all rationalizations to justify an emotional response to the work. Two critics can see the same film and write opposite reviews and both are completely correct in their reasoning. So what do you have? Two conflicting intelligent points of view. So when I show my film to two or three friends in my screening room before I put it out, I'd like to hear their emotional response and not their cerebral analysis."
What’s Up, Tiger Lily (1966) – Love and Death (1975) /
Annie Hall (1977) – Husbands and Wives (1992) /
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) – Melinda and Melinda (2004) /
Match Point (2005) – Midnight in Paris (2011)
With over forty films to his credits it is hard to pin down Allen, but to make an attempt, one can see view his films in four distinct periods:
(1) The early funny ones: these films have a loose structure – the comparison to a stand-up sketch is frequently brought up - and include more physical comedic gags and non sequitur one-liners. This stage starts with What’s New Pussycat (1965 ; he wrote the original screenplay though didn’t direct the film) and What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966; a re-dubbing of a Japanese action film) and ends with Love and Death (1975). As Saul Auterlitz brings up in Another Fine Mess, “Nonethless, Allen’s yearning for gravity is hardly unfamiliar; we have already borne witness to similar ambitions from Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis and numerous others. To penetrate deeper into comedy one must grow more serious.” This brings us to Allen’s second period.
(2) The films of the first period were made away from Allen’s beloved Manhattan. So when Allen finally returned to make a movie in Manhattan, the results were astounding [cf. Annie Hall (1977)]. Through the help of his cinematographer Gordon Willis, Allen learnt to be a more stylistic and resourceful director, as well he learnt more about narrative cohesion from his editor Ralph Rosenblum. But drama then began to take precedence. The attempted suicide in Interiors (1978) through carbon monoxide poisoning created one of the most haunting images in Allen’s cinema. Who can forget Eve (Geraldine Page) turning the oven on high and sealing the cracks in the door with masking tape? With such a bold shift in tone Allen was detaching himself from his early ‘funny’ films. He was not going to continue to conform to expectations and simply make comedies, which would be the subject of Stardust Memories (1980). On a whole, this period is marked more by its dramas even though there are moments of humor in them. But even though some of the films were fluffier the overall tone is more pessimistic, which seems ingrained in the design of the films black-and-white cinematography - which Allen used more in this period then any of the others - that gives off a darker atmosphere. The mood is one of social oppression that recalls the anxieties of the post-WWII crime thrillers (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep). This period also coincides with Allen’s relationship with his wife Mia Farrow who they collaborated together in thirteen films. Starting with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) and ended in January 1992 when she discovered sexually explicit photos of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi in Allen’s room. Their final film together is Husbands and Wives (1992). Farrow is now more concerned with humanitarian concerns, which was the subject of Alice.
(3) The end of the Farrow-Allen relationship brings us to Allen’s next period: “From comedic genius and New York icon to sleazeball and degenerate: Woody Allen’s fall was precipitous,” says Austerlitz. These post-Farrow films seem like a return to a more crowd-pleasing fare, even though they are pretty adventurous for Allen in terms of both content and form: starting with the noir Manhattan Murder Mysteries (1993), to a musical Everyone Says I Love You (1996) to the last film in this period the bifurcated Melinda and Melinda (2004). In these films Allen is exploring his interest in the writing of creative fiction as well as his ideas pertaining to chance and faith. There is also the European jazz tour documentary Wild Man Blues (1997) by Barbara Kopple, which is a striking project as it anticipates Allen’s next period.
(4) The final period, which brings us to today: the death of Allen’s longtime producer Jean Doumanian led him to take European financing. This move expanded the scope of the Allenian universe to Barcelona (Vicky Christina Barcelona), to London (Match Point) and to Paris (Midnight in Paris). The tennis metaphor in Match Point of a ball hitting a net relates to faith because one can never possibly know whether the ball will go over it or not. This indelible image of a round neon-yellow tennis ball hitting a net and spinning upwards as it almost floats in mid-air plays an important role in this latest period as the uncertainty of fate will lace all of Allen’s next films. Moving onward Allen shows himself to be more interested in open-endings and capturing people in indecisive moments. Though even amidst all this chaos and contradictions some people can still find meaning and happiness, which is a thought worth cherishing.
Film Comedy Scholarship
Gerald Mast’s The Comic Mind (1979), for me, is the foundation of film comedy scholarship. It looks at the subject of film comedy beginning with the breed of clown that “translated comedy into cinematic terms” and tries to figure out what is the structure of film comedy in cinema, what are it’s roots, what is the goal of comedy, and who were the individuals that had the largest impact on it. While someone like Andrew Sarris was building upon James Agee’s The Golden Age of Comedy* (1949) when he compiled the comic section Make Way For The Clowns! in The American Cinema (1968), on the other hand, Mast’s pantheon is reserved for strictly comedians of the world that defined the seventh art in its formative years: Mack Sennet, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Ernst Lubitsch, René Clair and Jean Renoir.
One of Mast’s points is that, “There has been little attempt to draw comic films into this mainstream of twentieth-century artistic thought.” Mast places Film Comedy alongside New Comedy and Aristophanic Old Comedy as well with purely ‘cinematic’ forms by, for example, creating parallels between Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Charlie Chaplin (e.g. the bowler hat, the comic business) or by comparing Renoir to Shakespeare. Arguing with and against people like Wylie Sypher, Elder Olson and Henri Bergson, Mast’s argues for film comedy to be discussed seriously and lays the foundation scholarship in discussing it at the birth of film as medium by emphasizing silent-films and the works created at the transition to the talkie and afterwards. As well, Mast’s adds, “And so this book is evaluative, not just descriptive. It begins with the intention of revealing serious thought in the comic film form. And it assumes that the best comedies (even the funniest comedies) are those which achieve something that is more than simply funny.”
The eight comic film plots and basic structures, according to Mast, that are central to Film Comedy are as follows:
(1) The young lovers finally wed despite the obstacles to their union, and the amorous conclusion grows directly and exclusively from amorous complications.To expand on Mast’s study on film comedy there is Professor Emeritus from Harvard University Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981) – or one can look towards James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges** (1987) for a similar study of screwball comedies. Though my examination will focus on Cavell who in Pursuits of Happiness takes a long hard look at seven films or as he calls them “spiritual parables”: Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941), Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Adam’s Rib (1949), and Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937). These Hollywood talkies made between 1934 and 1949, for Cavell, constitute a particular genre: the comedy of remarriage - an inheritor of the Shakespearean romantic comedy (The Winter’s Tale). Cavell describes this group of films as, “the principal group of Hollywood comedies after the advent of sound and therewith one definitive achievement in the history of the art of film.”
(2) The film’s structure can be an intentional parody or burlesque of some other film or genre of films, the parodic plot is deliberately contrived and artificial.
(3) The reductio ad absurdum where a simple human mistake or social question is magnified, reducing the action to chaos and the social question to absurdity.
(4) An investigation of the workings of a particular society – usually through multileveled plots – comparing the responses of one social group or class with those of another, contrasting people’s different responses to the same stimuli and similar responses to different stimuli.
(5) A structure unified by a central figure (pícaro) of the film’s action, also known as the comedian comedy, which is built around the comedians persona.
(6) The “riffing” or “improvised and anomalous gaggery” plot that takes an initial situation, an object and then runs off with a series of gags that revolve around this central situation where pace and motion become unifying principles in themselves.
(7) The central character either chooses to perform or is forced to accept a difficult task, often risking his life in the process within a “comic climate” (built signs that let the audience know that he is watching a comedy).
(8) The story of the central figure who eventually discovers an error he has been committing in the course of his life, also within a “comic climate.”
Here is Cavell explaining what exactly is at heart of this comedy of remarriage genre:
“[T]he achievement of human happiness requires not the perennial and fuller satisfaction of our needs as they stand but the examination and transformation of those needs (…) [Which] applies only in contexts in which there is satisfaction enough, in which something like luxury and leisure, something beyond the bare necessities, is an issue (…) This is why our films must on the whole take settings of unmistakable wealth; the people in them have the leisure to talk about human happiness, hence the time to deprive themselves of it unnecessarily (…) It is as essential for the settings of our films to be such that we can expect the characters in them to take the time, and take the pains, to converse intelligently and playfully about themselves and about one another as it is essential for the settings and characters of classical tragedy to be such that we can expect high poetry from them (…) it will be a virtue of our heroes to be willing to suffer a certain indignity, as if what stands in the way of change, psychologically speaking, is a false dignity; or, socially speaking, as if the dignity of one part of society is the cause of the opposite part’s indignity, a sure sign of a disordered state of affairs (…) The conversations of what I call the genre of remarriage is, judging from the films I take to define it, of a sort that leads to acknowledgment; to the reconciliation of a genuine forgiveness; a reconciliation so profound as to require the metamorphosis of death and revival, the achievement of a new perspective on existence; a perspective that presents itself as a place, one removed from the city of confusion and divorce.”Cavell focuses on the heroine and places them in their historical-cultural-social context. This woman is a continuation of the feminism that is rooted in the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and women gaining the right to vote back in 1920. As Cavell puts it,
“The genre it projected, on my interpretation, can be said to require the creation of a new woman, or the new creation of a woman, something I describe as a new creation of the human. If the genre is as definitive of sounds comedy as I take it to be, and if the feature of the creation of the woman is as definitive of the genre as I take it to be, then this phase of the history of cinema is bound up with a phase in the history of the consciousness of women (…) Our films may be understood as parables of a phase of the development of consciousness at which the struggle is for the reciprocity or equality of consciousness between a woman and a man, a study of the conditions under which this fight for recognition (as Hegel put it) or demand for acknowledgment (as I have put it) is a struggle for mutual freedom, especially of the views each holds of the other.”In his textual analysis Cavell provides examples of possible interpretations for the motivations of the characters behavior as well as the directors intentions and then decides on the choice that appears the most rational. The important philosophers for Cavell that he references are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. And this radical juxtaposition of Immanuel Kant (philosophy) and Frank Capra (film) is part of Cavell’s uninhibited rejoice of Classical Hollywood films (à la Robert Warshow) mixed with his university context. Cavell articulates the reasons for why he writes*** and that, for him, “philosophy is to be understood, however else, aesthetically.” He provides other Depression-era fairy tale films that could have been examined as well he provides other contemporary ‘remarriage’ films like Starting Over, An Unmarried Woman and Kramer and Kramer. And to posit some more recent titles: Eyes Wide Shut, Hall Pass, and Certified Copy.
* The comedians highlighted by Sarris were W.C. Fields, Jerry Lewis, Harold Lloyd, The Marx Brothers and Mae West. Though as Gregg Rickman notes in the introduction to The Film Comedy Reader: “Agee also established a starring comedian’s talents and personality as the major factor by which to judge screen comedy,” and that there were “[s]ilent comedians dismissed by Agee, meanwhile, such as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Charley Chase, have taken years to find new partisans.”
** On this period James Harvey writes, “Nineteen thirty-four was the turning point, the year when it first began to seem as if the Hollywood movie had invented the romantic comedy. Suddenly in The Thin Man and It Happened One Night and The Gay Divorcee, in actors like Dunne and Lombard and Grant, Powell and Loy and Astaire – all the familiar, borrowed elements came together in combinations so new and fresh, so eclectic, and so intrinsically movielike that familiarity became revelation.”
*** Cavell, “one learns that without this trust in one’s experience, expressed as a willingness to find words for it, without thus taking an interest in it, one is without authority in one’s own experience.” He also uses really ordinary language to describe complex ideas by renowned philosophers.
What are the well-researched and well-written film-comedy books of our time? Which ones are the most up-to-date and insightful? And which ones are the most likely to teach you about a comic-director or -star that one is unfamiliar with? Or make you re-appraise a personality originally viewed as fluff?
If The Comic Mind and Pursuits of Happiness (and/or Romantic Comedy in Hollywood) lay the foundation of film comedy as a field of study in book-form, then it is in The Film Comedy Reader and Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy that the subject as a whole is brought into the twenty-first century*.
One thing that The Film Comedy Reader (2006) edited by Gregg Rickman is interested in is “how ideas develop over time,” as it anthologizes essays about film-comedy from the beginning to the present day. Some examples include: James Agee’s Comedy’s Greatest Era and Buster Keaton's What Are the Six Ages of Comedy moving forward with Raymond Durgnat on Vincente Minnelli's Bells Are Ringing and Robin Wood on Gays and '90s Comedy. Rickman points out differences in the writing about film-comedy, “Some further background on the different schools of film theory which inflect our readings of cinema follows. To briefly summarize, a divide exist between those who define the comic film in terms of its narrative pattern, and those who define it in terms of its goal, the physical act of laughter,” which is worth considering.
Rickman personal entries are on Some Like It Hot ("Wilder's characters more often than not are con artists, manipulators of other people's emotions, usually through their skilled use of language."), Bamboozled ["That Bamboozled indulges in a "rhetoric of blame" (Edward Said's phrase) cannot be doubted. Yet Spike Lee can be thought of as a critic of blackface minstrelsy in line with Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)."], The Producers [""Putting on a show" has been sufficient plot justification for many a great musical comedy and it may perhaps be in this particular subgenre (rather than as a satirist or performer) Brooks may ultimately best be remembered."] and Runaway Bride ("This reduction of a privileged moment in film history to a plot device, a gimmick, is just another reason It Happened One Night will still be debated a hundred years from now, while Runaway Bride will be little more than a footnote to its star's career.")
While Saul Austerlitz's book Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy (2010) is one of the broadest in scope and up-to-date books on the subject. For Austerlitz the important film is Preston Sturge’s Sullivan’s Travels. To make comedies or to make dramas? Now that is the question. In the book Austerlitz posits thirty pantheon personalities that have been important to film comedy. From Chaplin to Judd Apatow by way of Laurel & Hardy and Katharine Hepburn and Jerry Lewis**, Mel Brooks and Albert Brooks and Richard Pryor, Steven Martin and Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller. As well there are one-hundred-and-five shorter entries on oddities, one-shots and newcomers: Nora Ephron, Jim Jarmusch, Robin Williams, the Farrelly’s, Whit Stillman, Paul Rudd, John Belushi, Jayne Mansfield, Mike Nichols, Tyler Perry et cetera.
What else does Austerlitz have to say on Allen (who receives a longer entry): Well that he sees Allen as a hybrid child between Bob Hope and Ingmar Bergman. On Allen’s early routines, “Allen was modeling himself after satirist Mort Sahl, but rather than Sahl’s didja-see-this-article shtick, Allen was punching above his intellectual weight, providing his own freewheeling annotations to Freud and Dostoyevsky.” And that with Annie Hall, “Allen created something entirely new: a somber comedy,” where “the humor, ultimately, is inseparable from the sentiment.”
Allen bridges the long-standing tradition of nonsense in film history that begins with the Marx Brothers (whose Duck Soup appears in a segment in Crimes and Misdemeanors) and passes through Charlie Chaplin, Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards and Robert Altman. Allen’s oeuvre has variations of all of Mast’s eight comic plot structures and his best characters reach Cavell’s criteria of, “the achievement of a new perspective on existence.” With each new film – a reliable Woody every year - the connections and links between the works are getting denser. As Allen creates continuity between the films and different career periods there is also an evolution and maturation where he places different emphasis on certain behavior and ideas. Where his work was once more parody and slapstick, it has evolved going into light-hearted jest, drama and philosophical exploration. Geographically going from the micro to the macro. Allen is creating his own Infinite Jest, to use a David Foster Wallace expression. The somber comedy*** that Allen popularized with Annie Hall has been the mise en abyme of his carreer and its influence on contemporary auteur film comedy (Apatow, Solondz) might just be his legacy. - David Davidson
* Though I should bring up here Laurence Maslon and Michael Cantor’s Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America (2008) whose focus is more multi-disciplinary as it looks at comedy from the position of stand-up, talk-shows, Saturday Night Live, comedians, television series, and film. And to include an eccentricity in film comedy scholarship, I am going to suggest, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s catalogue for a series he programmed for the Viennale, The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S. (2009), which includes a long introduction (where he explains his selection criteria), eleven re-published essays, and capsules for fifty-five films from Owen Land’s On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmmund Freud in Wit and its relation to the Unconscious, or Can the Avant-Garde Artist be Whole (1979) to John Waters’ Hairspray (1988).
** There was a time, I believe, when the cinephilic debates were over Jerry Lewis or Woody Allen. Just as, I imagine, there was a time that you have had to prefer Chaplin or Keaton. Whil now the directors you have to align yourself with are Todd Philips, Judd Apatow or the Farrelly’s. My response: I just don’t know why some people can’t just get a long. From the above list, the only director that I have a serious problems with is Todd Philips whose Old School I liked but I thought the Hangover is abysmal with its two-dimensional characters, racism and homophobia - I could not be bothered to go watch the sequel.
*** And two unlikely directors have recently pronounced their appreciation of Allen’s films: Monte Hellman and Francis Coppola.