Is Woody Allen a misanthrope?
[The universe is] haphazard, morally neutral and unimaginably violent
– September (1986)
In 2002 Woody Allen received the prestigious Palme des Palmes, the Cannes Film Festival’s lifetime achievement award. His career spans five decades and has earned him fourteen Academy Award nominations and three Oscars personally; his cast and crew have won six Academy Awards. Allen has won eight BAFTA (British Academy of Film) awards and his films have consistently won prizes and acclaim from the New York and Chicago Film Critics Circles, the Writers Guild of America, the Cesar Awards in France and the Bodils in Denmark. His films are taught in the departments of philosophy as well as film in universities in Europe and North America (1). Apart from the substantial body of feature film work (over thirty films with director and/or screenplay credits) Allen has written numerous plays and short stories. In 2002 Time film critic Richard Schickel produced Woody Allen: A Life in Film for the ‘Turner Classic Movies’ station on cable television.
He has continually downplayed the notion of congruity between himself and his filmic persona but Allen is definitely an auteur, serving as director, screenwriter and star of most of his films. He regularly employs the same key crew – cinematographers Sven Nyquist, Gordon Willis and Carlo DiPalma; producer Jean Doumanian, and of course his actors, among them Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, Dianne Weist, Judy Davis and Alan Alda. In a circumstance unusual for Hollywood cinema, Allen wields a notoriously tight control over all aspects of his work – casting, writing, shooting and editing – and, beyond this, is so exalted that he is not required to submit a script for studio approval. After a disastrous experience on 1965’s What’s New, Pussycat? (which he wrote but felt he lost control of during shooting) Allen has demanded and received virtual autonomy (2).
In her review of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) the late film critic Pauline Kael suggests that the reason New York critics love Woody Allen is that “they’re applauding their fantasy of themselves” (3). In some of his films, including Stardust Memories (1980) and Deconstructing Harry (1997) Allen has explored being a prisoner of his own persona (whilst denying the likeness). Although the persona secured Allen a loyal audience, he has fallen in and out of favour with the film community partly, as Kael suggests, because of his appeal to the urbane quasi-intellectuals who critique cinema; a familiarity that has over time moved from intimate to contemptuous. Too often in recent years ‘criticism’ of Woody Allen’s films has virtually forsaken content wherever it does not fit into a discussion of what seems to have become more important: his scandalous personal life (4).
With his strong background in writing, Allen’s films, particularly the broadly comic ones, are dialogue-heavy (which Allen feels is more challenging than a film without dialogue). He works frequently with master shots and actor choreography, a technique more successfully realised in say Husbands and Wives (1992) than in Mighty Aphrodite (1996). Despite a widely perceived decline in the ambition and accomplishment of his films in the last decade he remains a key figure in the American film landscape. Both academic and popular film criticism on Allen most often employs psychoanalytic theory, as his subject matter corresponds easily to the Freudian concepts of desire, repression, and anxiety and sexuality. The thesis of The Denial of Death (a psychoanalytic text which Alvy buys Annie and reflects on after they separate in Annie Hall) cites as two strategies of evading mortality – sexuality, which Allen has embraced wholeheartedly in both his work and life, and the belief in and service to God, which he has not. Other critics have noted the parallels with philosophers such as Socrates and Jean-Paul Sartre, the latter with regard to the impossibility of authentic romantic commitment.
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What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.
– “Selections from the Allen Notebooks”
– You have no values. Your whole life, it’s nihilism, it’s cynicism, it’s sarcasm, and orgasm.
– Y’know, in France I could run on that slogan and win.
– Deconstructing Harry
Natasha, to love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But, then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love, to be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy, therefore, to be unhappy one must love, or love to suffer, or suffer from too much happiness, I hope you’re getting this down.
– Love and Death
These quotes encapsulate Allen’s philosophy – he undercuts his own existential angst with absurd humour that provides distraction or comic relief and is in its own way an answer to these unanswerable questions. It is almost as if he is sending up the more austere philosophers who formulated these enquiries. His films are largely comedies – but, as one of his characters maintains, what is comedy but tragedy, plus time? (5) The spectre of death haunts many of Allen’s films, as thanatos, the essential flipside to the forces of life and love that are irresistible.
Doc: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
Mother: Tell doctor [?] It’s something he read.
Doc: Something you read, heh?
Alvy: The universe is expanding.
Doc: The universe is expanding?
Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Mother(shouting): What is that your business? (to doctor) He stopped doing his homework.
Alvy: What’s the point?
Mother: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
– Annie Hall
Allen appears fascinated by the fact that whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, death’s constant presence is manifested in the idea of God and the possibility of moral order in the universe, the afterlife, fate. Throughout his career he has invested a scholar’s commitment to the predicament of man in a doomed universe. For Allen these are all inescapable aspects of humanity and it is thus our lot to struggle with the paradoxes of desire and morality, freedom and faith, consummation and reflection. His films explore the perhaps pointless struggle to achieve resolution. Sometimes it appears, as in Annie Hall (1977), as the ironic dissatisfaction that comes when a much-yearned for ideal is attained and the reality is (necessarily) lacking. Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972) Annie Hall and Manhattan (1979) celebrate, nostalgically, the end of love. As a psychoanalytic notion nostalgia is a painful return, an uncanny pathology. In other films like Interiors (1978) Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) death is more patent – a mother commits suicide, a mistress is murdered in cold blood. The fatal aspect of romance for Allen is foregrounded. In Love and Death (1975), an earnest but comic take on the themes of sex, death and the possibility of an afterlife (set against a nineteenth century Russian literary landscape), Allen’s character Boris cavorts through the woods with the Grim Reaper, both recalling and parodying the Death figure of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).
Irony and fate, two other aspects of our existential predicament, are recurring Allen themes. In Bullets Over Broadway (1995), the cultivated protagonist David Shayne must watch in despair as Cheech, a brusque bodyguard with an innate feel for dramatic dialogue, improves and champions his play. (Like Mozart’s wretched colleague Salieri in the play/film Amadeus, who interprets as mockery the irony of God bestowing the gift of genius on one so ‘unworthy’.) Mighty Aphrodite (1996) exhibits the theme of fate overtly with an actual Greek chorus on hand to provide commentary and warn on the danger of interfering with destiny.
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As the early films of a comedy writer, Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973) were largely platforms for slapstick and the development of signature dialogue, as well as the evolution of the schlemiel, a Yiddish comic figure characterised by timidity, failure and perseverance. Annie Hall and Manhattan were bittersweet comical films about the loss of love and the perversity of pursuing an idea(l) of romantic happiness. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Radio Days (1987) were nostalgic fantasies in which Allen revelled in period costumes, scenery and sentiment (6).
Stardust Memories again evoked the nostalgia of old romances, but was also a more serious commentary on filmmaking. As Annie Hall could be analogous to Sartre, Stardust Memories is a fantasy, a recognition of mortality in line with the philosophy of Heidegger. Film director Sandy Bates (played by Allen) contends with the hostility of critics who feel betrayed by his shift from comedy to drama. Coming shortly after Interiors, Allen’s first overtly dramatic film, the parallels were evident. The film drew more accusations of narcissism and self-indulgence, as would Deconstructing Harry (which also centers on an artist at a still point in his career) but Stardust Memories is lighter and ultimately more positive (7).
While the films sometimes catalogue the despair of the romantic protagonist they are, comparatively at least, hopeful. (The exception here is Interiors, which with its grey seaside location, claustrophobic indoor setting and suicide was indeed bleak and derided as an overly ponderous Bergman rip-off.)
The schlemiel is a hapless figure and Allen has always been self-deprecatory – “It figures you’ve got to hate yourself if you’ve got any integrity at all” (8) – but the dissatisfaction seemed more like an aspect of the persona than the personality. Allen’s films in the ’90s however have shown the development of a darker streak, a bitterness without the sweet. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman perceives this tendency in his review of 1998’s Celebrity:
[O]ne would scarcely expect Allen’s attempt to satirize daily life in the National Entertainment State to be this tired, sour, and depressed. Whether or not the filmmaker regards the condition of celebrity as a curse, his meditation on the subject is extraordinarily punishing. Celebrity is as nasty as Mighty Aphrodite or Deconstructing Harry, and without the jokes (9).
The film comments upon the essentially empty nature of fame or celebrity. It portrays those upon whom society has deemed worthy of celebration as stupid, vain, occasionally violent and basically irrelevant. The film is lacklustre, betraying the apathy shared by the characters and the filmmaker. It is as if Allen’s lifelong investigation has led to a grim conclusion – man is not worth bothering about because he is a slave to his own desires who chooses to remain in the dark; who is if not quite content to flounder in the mire, then too listless to change.
Crimes and Misdemeanors poses the questions: could you get away with murder? Not just logistically but privately, in your own conscience? If you do commit murder and then prosper, where is God? Although it contains his usual blend of comedy and seriousness, Crimes is a darker Woody Allen film than its predecessors. It is played mostly as dramatic realism, shot through murky shadows by Bergman cinematographer Sven Nyquist.
Judah (Martin Landau) is a married, wealthy doctor who organises the murder of his mistress (Anjelica Huston) when she threatens to disrupt his life. At first he is haunted by guilt but finds that in time he forgets, is able to live normally again, unburdened by the memory of his horrific crime. Perhaps to emphasise the senselessness of this situation Allen pairs this story with a subplot involving a romantic triangle where ultimately, the character who prospers is the one who seems the least worthy, the one we have been invited to mock and disdain.
The death of the character Louis Levy in the film is suggestive of Allen’s move towards the philosophical stance of misanthropy. Levy, a professor of philosophy, is the subject of a documentary that Cliff (played by Allen) is making. Scenes of his addresses to Cliff’s camera present some of the moral issues the film proffers, for example:
We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale; most of our choices are on lesser points, but we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices.
Levy (and, if we regard him as an auteur, Allen) seems to come to some resolution:
It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy, from simple things like the family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.
However Allen’s decision to have this particular character commit suicide perhaps indicates that he (Allen) no longer has faith in reason; that, as another character in the film comments, systems of belief are futile in the face of lived experience. Elsewhere Allen has perversely admired reason as a useful mechanism of denial (10).
Husbands and Wives (1992) offers further indications of Allen’s disenchantment with humanity. At the time of the film’s release much was made of the close parallels between the narrative, which concerns in part an older man’s infatuation with his young student, and Allen’s personal life, which had been upset by the revelation of his affair with his partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter. The situation was vindication for those critics who had long argued that Allen’s films were self-indulgent representations of his own life.
What is remarkable about the film is how joyless it generally is, how negatively events and people are portrayed. There is a paucity of Allen’s customary comic relief, however rueful, to lighten the tone and instead the characters seem futile and hopeless. Allen and Farrow play Gabe and Judy Roth, a Manhattan couple who find their own marriage in crisis when their friends Jack and Sally (Sidney Pollack and Judy Davis) announce their separation. Farrow and Allen act and look joyless, weary and old. Farrow’s Judy is angry, fretful and frustrated with her husband – “I don’t know why you ask for my opinion, you don’t care about it.” Gabe looks equally care-worn, and it is not surprising when the bleak-faced couple fret and bicker so much before sex that they decide to call it off. In this film, unlike earlier films (such as Play It Again, Sam) nostalgia can’t revive romance. Gabe recalls to Judy a sentimental ride through Central Park in a carriage, in the rain. For him this symbol of past romance is strong enough to sustain the present but Judy refuses, saying that memories are not enough.
Apart from a feeling of hopelessness many of the characters have a nasty, cruel spirit. The narcissistic Sally has no problem, when leaving new lover Michael to return to Jack, in getting Judy to do the dirty work. Jack, once his self-delusion about his new partner Sam ends, treats her obnoxiously. His attitude has always been that she is intellectually inferior but one night, embarrassed by her earnest defense of astrology at a party, he tells her to shut up and tries to drag her into the car, then leaves her there while he invades Sally’s house and begs her to take him back. Whilst still married, Jack had been enthusiastically sleeping with prostitutes and encouraging Gabe to do the same, suggesting that one girl in particular had “a mouth like velvet”.
Gabe’s relationship with the younger Rain (Juliette Lewis) has none of the innocence of Ike and Tracy’s in Manhattan. In that film Allen’s Ike saw himself as the teacher (as did Alvy in Annie Hall); in Husbands and Wives, although he is her university professor, he cannot assume the role of mentor privately because she exhibits too much self-awareness. When Rain critiques his work as being “so retrograde, so shallow” and admonishes him for idealising a past flame as “powerfully sexual, when in fact she’s pitifully sick”, Gabe turns on her nastily, calling her “a twenty year-old twit”. Their intimacy doesn’t progress past a kiss, as Gabe can’t summon up the desire or energy to justify anything further, or even fool himself into thinking there is any point. He tells Rain that because it would end badly they should forget it. The situation is a wearier recapitulation of the Sartrean view of the impossibility of romantic relationships.
In Deconstructing Harry Allen’s perverse pleasure in interrogating the boundaries of his filmic persona again brought critical focus on the parallels between Allen and his protagonist Harry Block, a writer who must endure the wrath of family and friends when he exposes them in his crudely coded autobiographical stories. For those who subscribe to the idea that Allen’s films are canvases for his own anxieties the film is masochistic flagellation as Harry is made aware of the intense pain, anger and shame he has brought upon the people in his life. The wretched unhappiness of the characters is striking, even when it is represented with twisted humour. Harry explains his situation to a prostitute – “I’m spiritually bankrupt. I’m empty, I’m frightened…I got no soul.”
The sexual sensibility in Deconstructing Harry is crass and vulgar; a marked shift from Allen’s usual artlessly bawdy attitude. In one of Block’s stories, a couple who are cheating with each other at a family barbecue are attempting some kind of intimacy. The woman murmurs wistfully about having the freedom to be together, and the man replies “Mmm, sounds great. Now open wide”. Allen uses the taboo term ‘cunt’ twice in the film, both times when Harry is referring to a woman in his life. The infrequency with which the word is deployed in the mainstream cinema makes its connotations of anger and venom more distinct.
Allen’s doleful Block has dismissed religion as a faction of exclusive clubs that “tell you who to hate”. He comes to the conclusion that “the truth about our lives consists of how we choose to distort it”. This position of relativism, of recognition of the plurality of meaning renders the formulation of an ethical stance futile (11). If we can continue to read the films as those of an auteur it seems as if Woody Allen’s earlier ‘romantic-philosophic’ nature has developed into cynicism, if not misanthropy. Perhaps things that were sublimated at a safe distance in his art, such as profligate desire (“The best thing is twelve-year old blond girls, two of them whenever possible”) and how to abide by it (“The artist creates his own moral universe” (12)) have perforated screen into life. Instead of seeking change his characters are content to stay put or cannot see far enough to effect the right sort of changes. His characters no longer find redeeming pleasure in the small details of life, such as the Sunday breeze and Dorrie’s face in Stardust Memories, or the films of Ingmar Bergman and the face of Tracy in Manhattan. The fact that we continue to make the same mistakes and fail to learn has ceased to be so harmlessly amusing to Allen.
In Schickel’s documentary, Allen repeatedly and in a rather surreal fashion utterly rejects the idea that his satires have a target and his persona a referent. In his film work as well he seems to have backed away from serious inquiry into human nature and is content to take (still comical) potshots at our foibles – the nouveau-riche (Small Time Crooks, 2000), the film industry (Hollywood Ending, 2002) and of course, the inevitable doom of romantic love.
What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)
Take the Money and Run (1969)
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972)
Love and Death (1975)
Annie Hall (1977)
Stardust Memories (1980)
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Radio Days (1987)
Another Woman (1988)
Oedipus Wrecks (1989) part of New York Stories
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Shadows and Fog (1992)
Husbands and Wives (1992)
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
Bullets Over Broadway (1995)
Mighty Aphrodite (1996)
Everyone Says I Love You (1997)
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Small Time Crooks (2000)
The Curse of The Jade Scorpion (2001)
Hollywood Ending (2002)
Anything Else (2003)
Melinda and Melinda (2004)
Match Point (2005)
What’s New, Pussycat? (Clive Donner, 1965) writer and actor
Casino Royale (Val Guest et al, 1967) actor
Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972) screenplay and actor
King Lear (Jean-Luc Godard, 1987) actor
Scenes From a Mall (Paul Mazursky, 1991) actor
Antz (Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson, 1998) voice
Films about Woody Allen:
Wild Man Blues (Barbara Kopple, 1997)
Woody Allen: A Life in Film (Richard Schickle, 2002) made for television
Harry M. Abrams, Woody Allen At Work: the Photographs of Brian Hamill., Inc., Publishers, New York, 1995.
Woody Allen, The Complete Prose of Woody Allen, Picador 1992.
Robert Benayoun, The Films of Woody Allen, Harmony Books, New York, 1985.
Stig Björkman, Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Faber and Faber, 1994.
Douglas Brode, Woody Allen: His Films and Career, Citadel Press, New Jersey, 1985.
Tim Carroll, Woody and his Women, Little, Brown and Company, 1993.
Sam B. Girgus, The Films of Woody Allen, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
J. Hoberman, “Kiss-Kiss of Death”, review of Celebrity, Village Voice, November 17–23, 1998.
Eric Lax, Woody Allen: A Biography, Vintage Books, 1992.
Sander H Lee, Woody Allen’s Angst – Philosophical Commentaries on His Serious Films, McFarland & Co., North Carolina, 1997.
Janet Maslin, “Gleefully Skewering His Own Monsters”, review of Deconstructing Harry, New York Times, December 12, 1997.
Marion Meade, The Unruly Life of Woody Allen – A Biography, Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Maureen Orth, “Mia’s Story”, Vanity Fair, vol. 55, no.11, 1992.
Miles Palmer, Woody Allen: An Illustrated Biography, Proteus, 1980.
Stephen J. Spignesi, The Woody Allen Companion, Universal Press Syndicate Company, 1992.
Maurice Yacowar, Loser Take All: the Comic Art of Woody Allen, Roundhouse Publishing, new expanded edition, 1991.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Carlo Di Palma: An Appreciation and a Remembrance by Peter Tonguette
Review by James Berardinelli.
Sleek looking fan site with biography, filmography, gallery under construction, quotes, audio of Allen’s early standup work, and links to essays on Woody Allen.
Woody Allen: Sweet and Lowdown…
Bio, filmography etc as above – with an excellent Annie Hall gallery.
Philm Freax Digital Archive: 7 Interviews with Woody Allen
By Robert B. Greenfield.
The Woody Allen Hour Bonus
A trivia quiz with a link to answers
At Yahoo Movies. Similar information to the sites mentioned above but lists some awards – Venice, Berlin film festivals and Academy, Golden Globe and Film Critics Circle awards.
Click here to search for Woody Allen DVDs, videos and books at
- See for example the links to essays at www.woodyallen.com.
- See Sam B. Girgus, The Films of Woody Allen, p. 2; Marion Meade, The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, p. 94.
- Pauline Kael, For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, Plume, New York, 1996, pp. 1097.
- Infamous events of the last 15 years include a lawsuit by Allen against his former friend and producer Jean Doumanian, which was eventually settled out of court; his affair with and then marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his long-term partner Mia Farrow, and allegations by Farrow of sexual abuse of their biological child Dylan.
- The unwittingly asinine Lester, played by Alan Alda, in Crimes and Misdemeanors.
- Time does not permit a more thorough discussion of the particular attributes and merits of these films here but certainly much has been written on them; I am not meaning to gloss them over.
- In his discussion of this film Sander Lee suggests that Allen deliberately constructed the character of Sandy Bates as a knowing amalgam of all the negative qualities he (Allen) is supposed by critics to posses, exaggerated for comic affect. See Lee, Woody Allen’s Angst – Philosophical Commentaries on His Serious Films, pp. 112–129.
- Douglas Brode, Woody Allen – His Films and Career, Citadel Press, New Jersey, 1985, p. 209.
- J. Hoberman, “Kiss-Kiss of Death”, Village Voice, November 17–23, 1998.
- Quote from 1994 interview, cited in Lee, 1997, p. 374.
- See Girgus, 2002, pp. 148–173.
- These quotes come from Love and Death and Bullets Over Broadway respectively.