In a dream, I was having a conversation with the filmmaker and actor Woody Allen. We were in a busy university building, the foyer and staircase crowded with students on their way to classes. Allen and I were talking about Hegel. Yes, Allen was saying, Hegel on the subject of tragedy had been very important to him. But have you read Marulla? he asked, and was surprised when I said I hadn’t. Oh, you have to, he urged, as he approached the staircase to walk upstairs to the seminar he was conducting. Just before the dream ended, he said, referring ironically to something earlier in the conversation, I have to buy a woman. You mean, I interjected, as he started up the stairs, you have to buy a novel! Several people around us who had been listening burst out laughing at this, and so did Allen. I basked in the glow of having made a successful joke in the presence of the great comic.
Upon waking, I puzzled over the name of the book or author Allen had recommended, then quickly realized that there’s frequently a verbal distortion or elision in dreams because of the vast distances they have to travel on their way from the unconscious. Marulla…? Marcellus…? Then I got it. Allen wanted me to read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius!
Allen is one of the great, if deliberately underappreciated, artists of our time. It became fashionable in recent years, among intellectualized elements of the middle classes, to display a sort of knowing contempt about Allen’s films, citing their limitations, repetitiveness, and other imagined flaws. This critical scorn intersected with scandalous revelations about Allen’s private life, namely, that he had an affair with his step-daughter, whom he subsequently married.
Both the criticism of his art and of his life are misdirected. His personal affairs are irrelevant to the estimate of his work or ought to be. The scandalous gossip about Allen, hyped by both the mainstream press and its evil twin, the tabloids, was further magnified because it was grounded in an ideological position held by some feminists who believe that intergenerational erotic relations are inappropriate by definition. That belief, a new orthodoxy in the name of equality, joined older, conservative received ideas about love, marriage and the sanctity of the family in Allen’s case. Because I don’t believe any judgment about how people relate to each other can be settled “by definition,” and because I am opposed in principle to any form of orthodoxy, old or new, I admire the tenacity of Allen’s erotic pursuits, even if they are excessively neurotic. At least, he has had a reasonably clear idea of the sort of young woman who attracted him and why, which is more than most people can say. Nor has he concealed his desires. In many of his films, he has investigated, in interesting ways, the source of his amorous obsessions. Further, the women he portrays in his movies are persons as complex, anxiety-stricken, and as “real” as the unvarnished self-portrait he offers of himself.
More important, Allen has made great films, creating them over a period of more than three decades with the regularity of the arrival of the seasons. The best-known ones, Annie Hall, Manhattan, or Hannah and her Sisters, are self-mocking portraits of elements of the New York intelligentsia and their risible contemplations of love and death. He also authored persuasive comic meditations on the nature of art in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets Over Broadway.
In the latter, a mediocre playwright with a tin ear is forced, in order to secure financial backing, to cast in his play a talentless actress who is the girlfriend of a mobster. She’s accompanied to the rehearsals by a hit-man who serves as her bodyguard. The rehearsals are a disaster, the acting wooden, the play itself stilted. The hit-man makes a small suggestion to the playwright for improving a couple of lines in the play. At first the artist is reluctant, but in the face of impending catastrophe, he recognizes that the suggested lines have a certain versimilitude, are more like what the characters would really say. Gradually, the hit-man–who, it becomes apparent, is the real artist here–makes more suggestions, until eventually he’s rewriting and directing the whole thing. And when it becomes clear that the final sticking point of the production is the untalented girlfriend of his gangster boss, the artist-hitman unflinchingly uses the tools of his trade to hilariously solve the artistic impasse. Seldom has a comedy about art so sure-handedly hit the target.
At one point in Allen’s career, sometime in the 1980s, he felt the need to make some films in the manner of his own master, Ingmar Bergman, but in Stardust Memories, a movie about a Woody Allen-like moviemaker attending a film festival in his honour, he had the wit to conjure up some aliens landing in a spaceship whose message to him was to return to the comic aesthetic of the films of his youth. “Tell funnier jokes,” the little green men told Allen.
Sometimes, as in the late masterpiece, Deconstructing Harry, Allen succeeds in combining all the signature elements and themes of his work–his mischugene relations with his Jewish relatives; a send-up of his metaphysical preoccupations through a fullly-realized portrait of Hell (with fellow comic Billy Crystal doing a turn as the Devil); reflections on making art; representations of desire; and the hopeless tangle of all of it endlessly interwoven in the temporality of being.
Near the end of the film, there’s a scene where Allen arrives at his small alma mater for a ceremony in his honour. Spilling out of the vehicle which he’s precariously driven upstate from New York City are his “kidnapped” son from a previous marriage, a gargantuan but sensible black prostitute, the corpse of a man who has died en route, and Allen himself, harried as always. As an awed viewer, I found myself imagining someone who hadn’t seen the previous parts of the film viewing this scene, and being willing to bet money that it would be artistically impossible to contrive the necessary stories that would make this absurd moment plausible.