The most interesting thing I’ve read today is a New York Review of Books critique of the mid-to-late-70s films of Woody Allen, written by Joan Didion and published in 1979. In summation: she was not a fan! (It’s worth pointing out that this was an essay written long before Woody Allen’s personal affairs began to cloud the critical discourse of his work. He’s been getting interviewed a lot lately what with that one PBS documentary and his Oscar nominations this year, and boy oh boy do people like to gently poke him with questions they know he won’t answer in any particularly meaningful way about his private life. And fair enough. Although it’s a weird dance to watch.) You should read the whole article, because it’s good and because if there is one thing that Woody Allen has long enjoyed–and especially through the 1970s–it is critical, if not public, although public too sometimes, acclaim, so to hear someone thoughtfully and lucidly deconstruct his work, even if you disagree with what she has to say (I for one like Annie Hall and Manhattan, two of her main targets, and don’t think that opinion has changed too dramatically based on her discussion here, but her more salient points do make me think about the films in a slightly different way). She makes an interesting point about how many of his “jokes” are actually just cultural references, and she also criticizes the characters’ endless self-absorbed ruminations on their own neuroses as being more of a caricature of adulthood than anything resembling true life. This argument in particular seems prescient:
“How come you guys got divorced?” they ask each other with real interest, and, on a more rhetorical level, “why are you so hostile,” and “why can’t you just once in a while consider my needs.” (“I’m sick of your needs” is the way Diane Keaton answers this question in Interiors, one of the few lucid moments in the picture.) What does she say, these people ask incessantly, what does she say and what does he say and, finally, inevitably, “what does your analyst say.” These people have, on certain subjects, extraordinary attention spans. When Natalie Gittelson of The New York Times Magazine recently asked Woody Allen how his own analysis was going after twenty-two years, he answered this way: “It’s very slow…but an hour a day, talking about your emotions, hopes, angers, disappointments, with someone who’s trained to evaluate this material—over a period of years, you’re bound to get more in touch with feelings than someone who makes no effort.”
Well, yes and (apparently) no. Over a period of twenty-two years “you’re bound” only to get older, barring nasty surprises. This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career—something to work at, work on, “make an effort” for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s “relationships”—is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents. In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school. The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, “class brains,” acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life. (The one exception is “Tracy,” the Mariel Hemingway part in Manhattan, another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family. Tracy’s mother and father are covered in a single line: they are said to be in London, finding Tracy an apartment. When Tracy wants to go to JFK she calls a limo. Tracy put me in mind of an American-International Pictures executive who once advised me, by way of pointing out the absence of adult characters in AIP beach movies, that nobody ever paid $3 to see a parent.)
Of course, one of the problems with reading this essay now is that so many of its points no longer read entirely true if only because whatever vein Woody Allen tapped into has completely spilled over into the culture at large. Being therapized and “in touch with one’s emotions” (to say nothing of anti-depressant medication, anti-anxiety medication, and all of the other ways in which we seek some kind of clinical definition of “normal”) is pretty common ground at this point. Didion’s main problem with these films was the way in which 1970s audiences seemed to take them as realistic portrayals of adult life in the city, whereas she took them to be one writer/filmmaker’s highly personalized (and fictionalized) accounting. But at this point all of that has so thoroughly overlapped and become reified with our actual experience that it’s beside the point. 1970s New York no longer exists, but the warped photographic (or emotionalgraphic) evidence of Woody Allen’s films still does. So how do you even go about proving he’s wrong?
I also like the opening paragraph:
Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be dressed in “real linen,” cut by Calvin Klein to wrinkle, which implies real money. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be served the perfect vegetable terrine. It was a summer in which only have-nots wanted a cigarette or a vodka-and-tonic or a charcoal-broiled steak. It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a picture in which, toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. “Groucho Marx” is one reason, and “Willie Mays” is another. The second movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues.” Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’être go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.
Taken together with the early excerpt, Joan Didion could easily be talking about us RIGHT NOW! The overly wrought concern with how one is interacting correctly or incorrectly with the world around us and/or exhaustive lists of things that one likes and dislikes are literally the building blocks of the Internet. Every 5,000 word personal essay blog post on the Internet that divulges way too much information than anyone ever should* and every ReTumbl of a new pair of shoes with the simple caption “want so bad” seems to be exactly the world that Joan Didion is both describing and despairing. Life is long and complicated and often painful, but if 6000 people comment about your menstrual horror story** then you’ve got to be doing something right, right? It’s just as if not more important to prove that you are aware of and want the new shoes as it is to actually have them, no?
My problem with the issues Joan Didion raises is that I’m not sure where all this busywork and talking gets us. (Her problem seems to be that she thinks all the busywork and talking is just bullshit. That’s also probably true.) She quotes Woody Allen in the article describing life as a “distraction” from his obsession with his own death, but now it seems like we’ve taken it to the next step. Blogging/Tweeting/Vlogging/Facebook/Orkut is a distraction from the distraction. Where does it end? (Well, I mean, besides the same place everything ends: in heaven.) More importantly: what do we WANT from it? Connection to other people? I’m not sure that’s really true. I think people just say that because it sounds human and empathetic. Most of us are far more interested in how MANY Twitter followers we have than the depth of human compassion with which our Twitter followers are receiving our “signal.” So, what do we want? Do we even know? We want the new shoes, yes, but what else? Or is the scariest and most alienating part that maybe we don’t know what we want or even worse that we are past wanting? So we just fill the time with noise. Because that’s easier.
Anyway read that article! It’s pretty good!