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Deconstructing Woody Allen
Corey Mesler
[Updated monthly on the full moon]
I have a theory about the films of Woody Allen. I don't have many theories. I'd like to delineate this one for you here. The last time I had a theory it all went bad and I ended up ridiculed and I had to wear the dunce cap at social gatherings. I am hoping this theory fares better.

And here it is: you can follow a few sequential Allen films and watch him fall out of love with a woman, or, to put it more broadly, to fall out of love with the feminine. I believe this is unconscious on Mr. Allen's part because I don't want to believe that he is cruel or vindictive or petty or mean-spirited or a woman-hater. I want to believe instead that it is part of what makes an artist an artist, a continuing quest to get at the relationship between men and women. There are few worthy themes for creative types but trying to understand love or a loving bond and its permanence or lack thereof is a hot one. For a romantic like Woody Allen it may be the ultimate theme. Is Woody Allen a romantic, I hear you asking. To which I say, yes, I think so. I think I understand what a romantic is and I think I understand what makes Mr. Allen one.

More precisely, here is what I mean. In Annie Hall, still probably his high water mark, the film by which he is best known and perhaps his best film, he created a female character that the world fell in love with. Who did not? Diane Keaton's Annie is a masterful creation, probably equal parts Woody and Diane, a woman who is beautiful, smart, funny, funky, unsure of herself until she is sure of herself, talented and loving. She even created a fashion trend, or so my wife tells me. I don't know anything about fashion trends. I don't even know which shirt goes with which pair of pants. So, for many reasons, Annie Hall, the character, is pure-dee loveable. I already had a major crush on Diane Keaton before Annie Hall. After Annie Hall it became a romantic fixation and I would not rest until I married a woman like Annie Hall. Which I did. That's another story.

And in creating the character Mr. Allen was generous and loving himself. There's a tenderness about the writing in that movie that is achingly bittersweet (he would only ever reach such a charismatic, amorous pinnacle one more time and that would be with the Mariel Hemingway character in Manhattan) (maybe one other time, maybe Hannah in Hannah and her Sisters) and one cannot help but believe that the unseen hand behind the creation - the writer-director - is in love with his creation, too, just as smoothly and whole-heartedly as he has made you fall in love with her.

So, it is recorded. It is historical fact. Annie Hall, the woman, is a template for the loving mate. She is damn close to the perfect woman.

Then came Interiors. While riding the wave of success post-Annie Hall Allen felt confident enough to experiment, to put on his Bergman. The Diane Keaton character, a poet, in Interiors, is all intellect, as if Annie Hall's living heart had been subject to the black plague, if we can call the artistic intelligence the black plague (and we can). As if Annie Hall had died and been replaced by a driven, tortured, ego-maniacal writer. But, let's leave Interiors because, in attempting to draw this line, Interiors practically exists on an island all its own, Mr. Allen's first attempt at drama, unleavened by his prodigious sense of humor. And, for all that, it is a resounding success, a devastating film about how the sticky stuff between human beings erodes due to self-interest, despair and depression. The line I am attempting to draw is better illustrated by making the connection directly between Annie Hall and Allen's next comedy-drama.

Manhattan is another bittersweet love story, and the only other Allen movie to rival Annie Hall as his best. (I hear you muttering. I loved Hannah and her Sisters and Husbands and Wives, too. And Zelig and Crimes and Misdemeanors and Sleeper and Stardust Memories. But allow me my argument.) In Manhattan Diane Keaton plays a character you might call Annie Hall gone bad, or at least gone cynical. She's a fast talking, brittle, opinionated, bitter, big city gal. She's a mess. And Woody's character, of course, falls in love with her, with disastrous results. What I am positing is that Keaton's character, as drawn by Mr. Allen, is a coarsening of the Annie Hall character he created, almost, really, a repudiation of Annie and her charm. Were Allen and Keaton, at the time, falling out of love with each other in real life? From what I've read, no, it wasn't like that. It is not that literal. It belongs to that foggy area of the human animal out of which comes Art. But, it is not a stretch to say that Keaton-Allen in Manhattan is emblematic of the disintegration of Keaton-Allen in Annie Hall. It is the pronounced continuance of a progression of romantic desuetude. In Annie Hall Allen gave us the Feminine Ultima; he gave us ardor. In Interiors and Manhattan he snatched it back and replaced it with an acrimonious changeling.

Ok, you with me so far?

Now, I would like to extend the analysis a bit further and say that in Allen's next movie, Stardust Memories, an underrated gem, the character that began as the heart-breakingly charming Annie has become the schizophrenic Dorrie. She's so far removed from Annie that Diane Keaton doesn't play her. Instead it is Charlotte Rampling, who resembles Diane Keaton if Keaton were a bit harsher, a bit more used up, a bit more strung-out. Dorrie is Annie Hall destined for electro-shock. You can feel the Allen character reluctantly pulling away from her, leaving her to her own psycho-dramas, to her own disintegration. In Stardust Memories the degeneration of Annie Hall is complete. Mr. Allen has killed her off, left her in the rubble heap of relationships gone corrupt. Again, I say, I don't believe this is a conscious effort on Woody Allen's part. I believe it is art attempting to limn that which is most difficult about life, how people love and yet still drift apart.

Also, one more thing: I believe one can trace a similar line of disintegration with Mia Farrow's character in later films, one that is perhaps more distinct because Allen and Farrow played out their own personal hells in public view. Farrow's last film with Allen was Husbands and Wives. If you've seen it you understand how Farrow's character, the passive-aggressive ex-wife, could be interpreted as Allen's bashing of the real life Farrow. She is certainly light years away from the loving and loveable characters played by Farrow in Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Zelig and her masterpiece, Hannah and Her Sisters, where Hannah is practically a saint, an earthly saint. But I will let you draw the Farrow line. My presumption has made me sleepy and cheerless.

That's my theory. And what it is, too. Please don't tell Mr. Allen. I fear his approbation and his ability to scatter the castle of cards I've built here. You know, now that I think about it, perhaps Allen's most loveable character wasn't really Annie Hall. It was Leonard Zelig, the elasto-plastic man who only wanted to fit in, who only wanted to belong, because it was safer. I only want to belong, too. So I write about Woody Allen in the hopes that Woody Allen fans the world over will recognize one of their own and accept me. Thanks for listening.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Corey Mesler. All rights reserved.
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