Postmodern Themes In Woody Allens Films

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The first film in which Woody Allen overtly reflected on the predicament of human beings in a postsacred world is Love and Death (1975). Here, the main character (and by implication the audience) is given hope that there is a God and hence a meaningful, coherent moral world order, only to have the illusion rudely exploded. The night before Boris (Woody Allen) is to be executed for the attempted assassination of Napoleon, an angel of God appears in his cell to reassure him that at the very last minute Napoleon will pardon him. Now that he has proof of God's existence, Boris immediately begins spouting fractured biblical nonsense in the reverent voice of a true believer. At dawn he goes to his execution with a display of great bravery and coolness, only to be executed anyway. The angel of God's information was not reliable.

Even less reliable than God, or God's agents, in Woody Allen's films are other people. His characters are often betrayed by individuals who seem to have bought the idea that since God is dead, everything is permitted. In Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Allen's most completely worked-out rendering of this theme, Judah literally gets away with the murder of his mistress. Not only do the police not suspect his part in the crime (he has arranged it), but also, after a short period of fretting, he no longer feels any guilt at all for the murder and leads a perfectly happy, prosperous, and contented life. Only in fiction, Allen suggests, are wrongdoers necessarily punished either by their own feelings of guilt or by external forces. Thus, whereas Raskolnikov's guilt in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (to which the title of Allen's film alludes) leads him to collude in his apprehension by the police, the conclusion of Crimes and Misdemeanors suggests that in today's world, lacking belief in a God who punishes the unjust, the unjust as often as not go without punishment. Even the worst crimes are misdemeanors.

In The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Allen foregrounds the theme that the only world in which morality, honesty, commitment, and love prevail is the world created in fictions, which are vitally important, never theless, because without fictions life would be unbearable. In this film, Tom Baxter, a fictional character from a 1930s escapist film comedy, The Purple Rose of Cairo, emerges from the screen to court Celia (Mia Farrow), an abused Depression-era housewife with whom he has fallen in love because of her devotion to him. She has come back five times to see the film in which he plays a dashing Egyptologist and world-class adventurer. Gil Shepherd, the real-life actor who plays the part of Tom Baxter (both characters are played by Jeff Daniels) also courts Celia. She ends up choosing the "real" man over the fictional character, only to learn that the love of the fictional man was true (the ability for true love was written into his character), and the love of the real man was only a fiction. Gil Shepherd, it turns out, was only acting: pretending to love her in order to persuade his fictional character, whose escape from the screen could potentially ruin his career, to go back into the screen. Once his mission is accomplished, he abandons Celia with very little, if any, remorse. Celia finds relief from her crushing disappointment by going back to the movies.

Woody Allen's postmodern sensibility goes deeper than the depiction of a disturbingly centerless, morally vacuous world, which is also a late nineteenth-century problem and not postmodern per se. What is more characteristically postmodern about Allen's work is the highly self-reflexive, parodic way he uses the film medium. Most Woody Allen films mirror or imitate, not life, but only life as it is presented in other films. Unlike the classical Hollywood film, which, as I discussed in chapter 4, strives to create an illusion that the world we are watching is real, Woody Allen's films blatantly call attention to their fictiveness or artificiality. We discussed how the modernist filmmaker Fellini does this as well, by using complicated and flamboyant film techniques which call attention to the medium and make us aware of the artist behind the artifice. Woody Allen undercuts the realistic illusion of film in a very different manner— through parody and pastiche. That is, he uses traditional forms but in an ironic way, to undercut their realist pretensions.3

As Nancy Pogel pointed out in her book Woody Allen,4 nearly every segment in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972) self-consciously imitates, parodies, or otherwise plays off of a particular film or television genre familiar to his film audience. In "What is Sodomy?" Gene Wilder plays a doctor who falls in love with a fickle sheep. Here Allen parodies the "dark naturalism" of films like Sister Carrie (William Wyler, 1952), based on Dreiser's novel of the same title, and A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951), in which an upper-class male disastrously falls in love with a beautiful woman from a lower class. (Wilder ends up in the gutter drinking from a bottle of Woolite.) "Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching Orgasm?" is photographed in the style of Italian art-film director Michelangelo Antonioni, complete with English subtitles. "What Are Sex Perverts?" parodies TV game shows such as "I've Got a Secret" and "What's My Line?" In "What Happens during Orgasm?" Woody Allen plays a soon-to-be ejaculated sperm with the odds of survival crushingly against him. This segment parodies both war films and science-fiction fantasies such as Fantastic Voyage (1966).5 Other segments of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex parody the horror film, the television sitcom, and the medieval historical romance.

Sleeper (1973) is another parody of the science-fiction film, while Love and Death spoofs the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, films that have been made of these novels, and the montage style of Soviet filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and V. I. Pudovkin. Stardust Memories (1980) is an extended riff on Fellini's 8 1I2, in both style and content: it is a wide-screen, black-and-white film about a world-famous movie director suffering from a creative block. Everyone Says I Love You (1996) sends up the aggressive nonrealism of the musical. The film within a film of The Purple Rose of Cairo imitates the look of the thirties screwball comedy, while the frame story, which takes place during the Depression, imitates the somber look of social-realist films.

Just as Derrida shows that language is infinitely referential, deriving its meaning only from other words, Woody Allen's films, through their self-reflexive borrowing or eclecting6 of past film styles and genres, make us aware that the reality that seems so transparently mirrored in the film medium refers not to some foundational reality outside the film but only to other films. His films thus make us aware that the meanings they construct are as insubstantial as the material of their construction, the bits of celluloid which are only reflections of reflections.

Allen's intimation that there is no such thing as the truth and that film's pretense of showing us reality "as it is" is just that, a pretense, is especially evident in his parodies of the documentary film, the film form devoted to dramatizing real life as opposed to fiction. His first film, Take the Money and Run (1969), was a pseudodocumentary on the life of an unsuccessful crook. Here, Allen takes particular delight in comically deflating the all-knowing "voice of God" narrator whose bombastic pronouncements are continually undercut by the film's sight gags and absurd, surreal plot turns.

Allen also spoofs the pretensions of the documentary form to reveal the "truth" in Zelig (1983). This film imitates the form of a compilation documentary, made up from fragments of other films—newsreels, documentary footage, even feature films. The subject of this pseudodocu-mentary is a human chameleon (played by Woody Allen) who can miraculously change his shape to become a replica of any man (the process doesn't work with women) with whom he is in close proximity. When he is with African Americans, he becomes black, with Greeks he becomes Greek, with fat men he becomes fat. So great is his notoriety for this strange talent (a symptom of his pathological need to be accepted, to fit in) that he becomes world-famous, appearing in newspapers and news-reels alongside numerous historical figures such as Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, and Adolf Hitler. In these impossible scenes, Allen foregrounds the ease with which photographic images can be manipulated through editing and special effects to make blatantly impossible actions seem real. Allen decisively undercuts the film medium's pretensions to represent the truth by juxtaposing footage from a Hollywood movie made of Zelig's life with "real" incidents of his life supposedly captured on newsreels. By putting Hollywood "reality" next to documentary "reality" Allen demonstrates that both modes rely on conventions. The "real" or documentary footage is just as contrived as the Hollywood footage.

Husbands and Wives (1992) is shot in a cinema verite style, imitating the style used to capture the dissolution of a couple's marriage in the Public Broadcasting Corporation's An American Family television series (1973).7 Cinema verite, which also informed the style of The 400 Blows and other New Wave films, but for different aesthetic goals, refers to a way of filming real-life scenes without elaborate camera equipment, the goal being to interfere as little as possible with the events being photographed. In An American Family (a precursor to "reality television"), a camera crew moved into the suburban home of a Southern California family and photographed the everyday life of the family members, with the intention of bringing real life as it is spontaneously being lived to the screen. But although Allen shoots Husbands and Wives in a cinema verite style resembling that of An American Family, he undercuts any pretense of documentary authenticity by using widely recognized professional actors (Mia Farrow, Judy Davis, and himself) in the main roles. By using a style which proclaims "the truth" in order to tell an obvious fiction, Allen foregrounds the fictional underpinning of all supposedly realistic films.

In Deconstructing Harry Allen foregrounds the film medium in still another way. The film is composed of scenes that alternate depictions of

Harry's life with flashbacks and scenes from his novels and short stories. The enactments of Harry's fictions are shot in the seamless style of the classical Hollywood film, a technique which hides the constructedness of the film world by smoothing over evidence of cuts and thus preserves the viewer's orientation in screen space. In contrast, scenes from Harry's "life" are shot in a highly mannered ultra-cinema verite style, complete with glitches in the sound track and numerous disorienting, jittery jump cuts. Here Allen visually dramatizes the fact that Harry can feel "real"— that is, coherent, or "together"—only in his fictions, not in his life.

In Husbands and Wives, Deconstructing Harry, and most of Woody Allen's other films, the foregrounding of the film medium serves to make us hyperaware that when we are watching a film, that most mimetic of all media, nothing we are seeing is really real. Everything is a construct— a product of the director's brain—even, or especially, when the main character in the film strongly resembles the auteur of the film we are watching—Woody Allen himself. Allen uses his appearance as the star in his own films paradoxically, to foreground another important premise of postmodern thinking—the death of the author, or in this case, the auteur. In his fiction, plays, and films, Allen continually undercuts the pretensions of an author to be the one who knows some ultimate truth about life and who thus is in complete creative charge of his creations. Annie Hall, which I would now like to analyze in some detail, seems on the surface to be the intimate tell-all confession of a writer, with teasing intimations that that writer is really Woody Allen himself. At the same time, Allen in Annie Hall deconstructs the very possibility of an author's ability to know and to be able to present some foundational truth about his own or his characters' lives. Just as Allen undercuts the pretensions of documentary truth in his parodies of documentaries, in Annie Hall Allen undercuts his own pretensions to provide us with filmed autobiography. Autobiographical truth, like documentary truth, he demonstrates, is just another fiction.

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Responses

  • Eeva
    How does woody allen uses visual techniques?
    8 years ago
  • Amalda Mugwort
    Are most main characters in woody allen's movies written to be woody allen?
    8 years ago
  • jose perez
    What are the themes of woody allens comedy?
    3 months ago

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