I love you, Scumbag X: 12 things Woody Allen just doesn’t get
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1. African-American people
For a brilliant writer and perceptive chronicler of the human psyche, there’s a whole lot that Woody Allen, or at least the Woody Allen we know from his movies, just doesn’t seem to understand. Allen’s charming, maddening new movie, Whatever Works, provides another in-depth glimpse into the strengths and weaknesses of his neurotic, acerbic, New York-centric worldview. Allen is a whiz at exposing the anxieties and desires of the upper-middle-class Manhattan smart-set, but his blind spots are legion. Take African-Americans for example. Allen named his son after the great pitcher Satchel Paige and has a deep abiding love for jazz. But African-Americans have, by and large, been conspicuously absent from Allen’s films. Allen very tardily tried to rectify that situation by casting Chiwetel Ejiofor in 2004’s hopelessly muddled Melinda And Melinda—a veritable master class in all the shit Woody Allen doesn’t get—as an impossibly suave, unthreatening musician so improbably perfect he makes Sidney Poitier look menacing. Congratulations, your progressive treatment of race just caught up with 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
2. The American South
Complaining to a friend about the insularity of New York in Annie Hall, Allen says, “Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.” So if that’s how the rest of the country sees New York, how does New York see the rest of the country? Based on Whatever Works, Allen’s vision of the South is pretty much the opposite of New York, populated by right-wing, Christian, uneducated yokels (and closeted homosexuals) who devote themselves to intellectually vapid pursuits like beauty pageants. When teenage runaway Evan Rachel Wood arrives in Manhattan from backwater Mississippi, she’s an empty vessel that David can fill with his misanthropic “wisdom.” Her conservative parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr.) arrive later in their Sunday best, but their regressive Southern values are easily tamed by the bohemian polyamory and tolerance of the big city. Being Southern is a disease that New York City can apparently cure.
3. Great Britain
Back in 2005, Match Point was widely hailed as a major comeback for Allen, who seemed refreshed after leaving New York to stake out new territory in the British Isles. British critics were not so kind: Allen’s decision to repurpose a thriller set in the Hamptons for London made for a vivid change of scenery, but his cultural tone-deafness showed, too. Guardian/Observer critic Peter Bradshaw dismissed his portrait of upper-crust Brits as “quaintly conceived,” took issue with dialogue that “sounds clenched, stilted and occasionally plain bizarre” (and also contained lots of egregious mispronunciations and errors), and resented Allen’s tourist’s gloss on the city itself. Allen didn’t much improve with 2007’s Cassandra’s Dream, which attempted to tell the same reheated Crimes And Misdemeanors story from the other half of the class spectrum. The two “cockney” brothers played by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell sport accents so egregiously inauthentic that Uncut critic Stephen Trousse mocked them as “wavering between Dick Van Dyke and Tony Curtis doing Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot.” And Allen’s understanding of working-class South London isn’t much more nuanced. The bickering family in Cassandra’s Dream looks virtually interchangeable with their counterparts in Annie Hall or Radio Days; the only difference is that the brothers in Cassandra’s Dream have access to a yacht.
4. The Female Psyche (post-Husbands And Wives)
Woody Allen is a fascinating paradox. He’s written some first-rate roles for women and guided multiple generations of actresses to their defining performances. Then, in 1994, the part of Allen’s brain that understands women apparently exploded and his female characters became a thinly sketched parade of castrating shrews (Christina Ricci in Anything Else being an especially egregious example) and vapid, rampaging sexpots intent on bedding Allen and his countless surrogates. With Melinda And Melinda, Allen set out to showcase the formidable talents of Australian actress Radha Mitchell and ended up giving her two terrible, borderline unplayable roles, one comic, one dramatic. Mira Sorvino picked up an Oscar playing a sentient Playboy Party Joke of a hooker with a heart of gold in 1996’s Mighty Aphrodite. But the ultimate late-period Allen female creation is Samantha Morton in 1999’s Sweet & Lowdown. She’s cute, sad, supportive, and completely mute. On the upside: The carefully crafted women of last year’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona suggest that this situation might be righting itself.
Despite the fact that the goyim of America make up a large chunk of his audience, Woody Allen doesn’t quite seem to get them, despite his romances with people named Farrow and Keaton. In Annie Hall, it’s easy to get the impression that Alvy Singer gets off on dating a non-Jewish girl from the Midwest in the same way he would if he showed up at a party with a space-alien on his arm. Gentiles are so lacking in neurosis—which, in a Woody Allen movie, is essentially the trait that defines humanity—that they might as well be robots. Indeed, Woody’s robot butler in Sleeper seems more natural and unaffected than the chilly, affected Gentiles who populate films like September and Alice.
6. Los Angeles
Woody Allen’s films seem to be funded by a mysterious cabal of Europeans, well-heeled New York comedy buffs, and clarinet aficionados. He therefore has no use for the motion picture industry, or for its Los Angeles headquarters. His characters seem vaguely aware that there is a place called Hollywood, and that it’s geared towards the production of movies that people in Woody Allen movies would never see, but otherwise they react to any suggestion of La-La Land with the kind of revulsion that most people reserve for “Best Fascist Dictator” Adolf Hitler. Woody’s famous line about California—that its only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light—only rings false because obviously, he’s never driven a car in his life, and wouldn’t know that you can’t do that in New York, too. Speaking of…
It’s hard to imagine Allen behind the wheel, but maybe that’s because 1977’s Annie Hall made his driving neuroses a fundamental character trait. As a kid, Allen’s Alvy Singer worked out aggression via bumper cars, impeding his ability to drive as an adult. When he attempts to drive during a trip to Los Angeles, he can’t leave a parking lot without ramming other cars and smarting off to a police officer. He’s uneasy as a passenger, too—first with a flighty Keaton behind the wheel, then with her potentially psychotic brother Christopher Walken, who confesses to him, “Sometimes when I’m driving on the road at night, I see two headlights coming toward me fast. I have the sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.” Hmm, Allen should probably stay off the road.
For a guy who’s made a handful of murder-mysteries, Woody Allen seems to have the same attitude toward violence that most people have toward sewage disposal: They know it exists, but dwelling on the details is unpleasant and probably offensive. Whenever his movies make reference to war, they might as well bring up “Yakety Sax” on the soundtrack; references to the Holocaust are generally used as punchlines. And in his murder-mysteries, the violence itself is usually handled with the lightest touch this side of Agatha Christie. Crimes And Misdemeanors begins this tradition, and it hasn’t gotten any less ridiculous over time; in Woody Allen movies, violence is something that happens to other people, and then it’s only to get the plot rolling so he can do what he’s really good at. It’s this reluctance to portray things that make him feel icky that made Joe Queenan observe: “The only thing Woody Allen has in common with Ingmar Bergman is Sven Nykvist.”
9. Bob Dylan
Give him this much credit: It takes a certain kind of courage to mock one of the best loved and most respected musicians in the history of modern pop music. In 1977, Bob Dylan was still very much in the public eye. He’d released Blood On The Tracks, one of the all-time greats, only two years before, and was still touring regularly when Annie Hall hit theaters. But despite Dylan’s critical acclaim, Allen wasn’t a fan, and there’s no greater way to slander an artist than through the praise of an idiot. While trying to get over his breakup with Diane Keaton, Woody Allen goes on a date with music reporter Shelley Duvall. She throws out words like “transplendent,” she’s nearly impossible to please sexually, and worst of all, she’s a devoted Dylan fanatic, prone to quoting from “Just Like A Woman” in rapturous, vapid tones. “And she aches just like a woman / But she breaks just like a little girl,” is beautiful when sung, but in this context, it sounds like the brain-dead meanderings of some college poet high on empty profundity.
10. Modern music in general; rock music in particular
The vast majority of Woody Allen’s films are set in New York, a city that gave us Brill Building pop, American punk, and hip-hop. But as far as he’s concerned, the music scene stopped evolving approximately three years after he was born. Every time contemporary music rears its ugly head in a Woody Allen movie, it’s the subject of scorn and derision, from his mockery of Annie Hall’s Fillmore East program to his reaction, in Hannah And Her Sisters, to Dianne Wiest’s taking him to a punk club. He acts like rock music was invented specifically to get on his nerves. Even his famous love of jazz, documented in the inappropriately named Wild Man Blues, focuses on traditional New Orleans styles from the teens. In Woody’s universe, even post-bop and cool jazz seem like intolerable intrusions on music as it should be; if Charles Mingus or Miles Davis ever showed up at one of his parties, he’d probably call a cop. Allen’s beyond-arms-length distance from rock did lead to the one funny line in Hollywood Ending, though, when Allen told his silly cartoon of a punk-rock son, “I love you Scumbag X.” Punk might just be silly names and abrasive noise to Allen, but the bond he shares with Scumbag X remains profound.
11. Independent And International Cinema After 1975
Allen studied at the feet of the masters and makes no attempt to hide it. Many of his films recall the style of great directors like Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes, paying homage while—usually, anyway—not letting the mimicry get in the way of his own artistic personality. But the films of others, or at least others to which Allen likes to pay tribute, pretty much ends with late-period Federico Fellini. Allen’s casting choices could double as time capsules for which actors were bubbling up at the time of the film’s production. (If that’s Juliette Lewis, this must be 1992.) But when he wants to try on another director’s tricks, he tends to return to the same sources, the stuff that made the deepest impression while he was still finding his own voice.
12. Recreational Drug Use
Woody Allen worships all things intellectual; for him, life isn’t something to be experienced so much as catalogued, criticized, and over-considered. It’s not really a surprise then that he’s not much into things that make analysis an after-thought. But it’s not just that Allen abstains from spirits and drugs; the very concept of other people willingly clouding their judgment for pleasure baffles him to the core. In one scene mid-way through Annie Hall, he tries to explain his reservations. Diane Keaton isn’t much interested in sex, and wants to get high before they screw, and Allen isn’t having any of it. First he dismisses pot (“Yeah, grass, right? The illusion that it will make a white woman more like Billie Holiday”), then complains that making love to a woman who’s high makes the whole experience a cheat, like getting a laugh from a stoned audience. As always with Allen, he’s a little ridiculous and a little right at the same time.