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Tightrope-Walking Cynical Humanist: On Recent Woody Allen

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Tightrope-Walking Cynical Humanist: On Recent Woody Allen

There have been complaints that the Woody Allen of the ’00s does not live up to the Woody Allen of the ’70s or ’80s. But there are four moments (thematic footfalls) that prove him to be just as he’s always been—the rarest and greatest of tightrope-walking cynical humanists.

The Dueling Tongues

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is set in 1940 (the same year that His Girl Friday and its faster-than-bullets/sharper-than-knives dialogue was released) and contains some of the outwardly meanest dialogue Allen has ever written. C.W. (Allen) and Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), warring employees at an insurance firm, trade insults set to a rapid metronome that sometimes falters when it comes time for C.W. to shoot. The slight pauses and stutters between retorts offer light into the crevices of his personality. It’s the central condition of the Allen character (be it played by Allen or a surrogate), the quick-witted egoist who, when it really comes down to it, is shivering with insecurity. Whereas Grant and Russell’s dueling tongues send confident and strident sparks, Allen’s words are reluctant, gripping onto his vocal cords for an extra moment before being forced out. His is a cinema populated with men who wince as they unload the barrels of their mouths.

The Indefatigable Warmth, Present from Shot to Shot

Match Point

Being immersed in Bergman’s cinema—when he’s at his darkest, as in Winter Light—is like taking an ice-bath in the middle of a snowstorm; God’s silent, polite standards of interaction no longer exist and people express the ugliness they feel toward one another, resulting in the complete spiritual breakdown of the human being. But, Allen, although owing a lot to Bergman, takes more after Chaplin—a naked run in the snow into the open embrace of a warm coat. Allen, like Chaplin, neither denies the fallibility of man, nor is afraid to show ugliness. For Allen, life is brutal, love doesn’t last and sometimes you have to kill to get your way to the top. People are mean and cruel, and God doesn’t exist. But there’s still a warm glow of amber light—from lamps, streetlights, the actual hue of the light in the air—to the physical images themselves, and to the characters. In recent years Allen’s cinema has been populated by more than a few murderers and thieves, but despite such dubious occupations his people always resemble actual human beings, saints and sinners both—understandably so. For Allen it’s a philosophical choice: he acknowledges and disapproves of their faults, but doesn’t hate or condemn his characters’ actions. A rare sort of tolerance. Match Point’s Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), one of Allen’s most despicable protagonists, is too caught up in a trap of his own making, fueled by desires of greed and lust; too pathetically, terribly human to not be understood, or sympathized with just for a moment. The characters are often accompanied by visceral warmth—Allen’s films are always hued shades of amber, even in the darkest moments. In Match Point, when Chris shoots Nola, he’s backlit by a glass door of orange-brown squares of light. And in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, when C.W. and Fitzgerald meet in a bar to sort out their differences, the air is redolent with the smoke of hostility. But they’re seated at a private booth, and in between them, at the center of the shot, stands a small lamp, sheathing their anger with its sweet orange glow.

The Fissures of Relationships

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Vicky and Cristina are introduced in voiceover, having just arrived in Barcelona. The narrator moves from quick background sketches to discoursing on each woman’s approach to love—the two seated in the back of the taxi, almost elbow to elbow, but featured in split-screen, as if thousands of miles apart. That fracture signifies the divide in their approaches to love: Vicky wants stability while Cristina won’t settle for anything but l’amour fou. In this one shot, Allen communicates the central problem of the entire film: People who are physically close—best friends, lovers, husbands and wives—but can never quite smooth the crease between them, either through stubbornness, madness, disillusion, or, as is often the case with love, God knows what reason. The characters spend the entire film trying to cross the divide that splits them, succeeding for a moment and then tripping over the line and bruising their hands and knees, giving up and shuffling back to their respective corners to gaze melancholically at each other across the invisible wall. The characters in Allen’s cinema have struggled with that wall for decades. Yet, sometimes, on rarer occasion, when he’s not playing the cynic (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Anything Else, Match Point) his view on love proves to be dualistic, and he becomes a true-blue love conquers all romantic (Hollywood Ending, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion).

Upper-Class Entrance Fees

Cassandra's Dream

Allen’s cinema is known for its bourgeois liberal intellectuals, who tend not to spend much time thinking about the struggles of the proletariat. His people are wealthy, almost arbitrarily so. But, with Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, the price paid for upward mobility is examined. As early as 1989, with Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen showed a vicious side to the higher income tax bracket. But unlike Match Point, the murder of the mistress (a necessity not for the direct attainment of status, but for its upkeep) is hired out to someone else—so the blood on Judah’s (Martin Landau) hands is all metaphor. In Match Point, Chris uses his intellectualism to charm his way into an upper class family, marrying the daughter and quickly taking a job at her father’s firm. When his mistress Nola (Scarlett Johansson) gets pregnant and threatens to reveal everything to his wife, he murders Nola and, by circumstance, her elderly neighbor in order to hold onto his position. Similarly, in Cassandra’s Dream the two brothers murder a man at the behest of their rich uncle so that they too can stop dreaming wealth and start living it. In Match Point, Chris gets away with the crime and is left with the promise of a continued cushy life. But in Cassandra’s Dream, though the brothers are also successful, the guilt tortures Terry (Colin Farrell); he becomes paranoid and suicidal, wanting to confess the crime. Ian (Ewan McGregor) almost kills Terry in order to keep him quiet—money is thicker than blood—but has a change of heart at the last minute, attacking Terry in a fit of frustration, sowing his own accidental death and Terry’s self-induced one in turn. It’s lovely to be wealthy and pontificate on the relative merits of Proust and Verdi, have a beautiful wife and spend weekends in the country, but there’s an awful price to be paid for it—to those who are willing, just wipe the blood off your shoes and watch as your moral core burns to ash. Allen has spent most of his career dwelling with the upper classes who, though petulant and self-involved, still clung to some sort of moral orbit. But recently he seems to have lost some faith in his favorite subjects. Yet don’t his characters occupy the same milieu as the people who, after rhapsodizing over Allen as their comedic and intellectual darling, then turned on him as an audience in the ’90s, presuming to morally scrutinize his private life, gnashing for blood? Allen is above retribution, but he’s not opposed to some dark irony.

From 1982, with A Misdummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Woody Allen has consistently made a film a year. He’s 75 now. His father, Martin Konigsberg, lived past 100 and his mother, Nettie Konisberg, into her late 90s. If genetics are any indication of longevity and his work ethic remains the same, one can reasonably hope for another twenty-five Allen films. I really hope there are.

Veronika Ferdman is a student at USC, earning BA’s in Philosophy and Critical Studies-Film.