I recently rediscovered my love for Woody Allen. As his biographer John Baxter puts it, Allen’s works are ‘self-absorbed’, and that is what fascinates me. One thing you know for sure is that the views and opinions he has on two of the most common yet ever-elusive life ‘hacks’- viz. love and sex – aren’t really much different in reel and real. Granted, his depictions don’t speak for all individuals but they do beautifully address the majority of the ambiguities and ablutions that have become a quintessential part of postmodern relationships. And it was this very knowledge that irritated me as well, not too long ago. How could life possibly imitate art or vice versa? But now I know better.
I think my first encounter with Allen’s world was with Everyone Says I Love You. I recall but very little of the happenings in that multi-starrer but I do remember the characters who were nothing like what I had seen of Hollywood back then. This must have been the early noughties. Subsequently all the Allen movies – very few as it is – I watched were his ‘later’ works viz. Picking Up The Pieces (again, I have but vague recollection), Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris. Notwithstanding his characters’ ‘questionable morals and ethical decay’, I quite liked them. They, to me, looked like average people (slightly intellectually superior maybe) who did the ‘wrong’ things deliberately just to figure out what the ‘right’ thing ought to be. Their adventures on screen took me on a flight of fantasy. I think Allen’s self-obsessed characters appealed to me a little too much owing to the excessively demanding nature of a typical ‘middle-class’ Indian household where you are expected to prioritise everyone but yourself in everything that you do.
Subconsciously you always want to get out of such a pseudo ‘welfare state’ where the authority supposedly takes care of all your interests but in reality nourishes its ego and looks for ways to further its own cause. Allen’s movies are a complete antithesis of all such notions.
Chris Wilton in Match Point is absolutely aware of his less-than-ethical – let alone ‘well-intended’ pursuits – but he goes about them nonetheless and comes out of it unscathed. The titular protagonists in Vicky, Christina Barcelona were possibly two of the most ‘immoral’ heroines (along with the other characters) on screen. While one willingly gives in to her ‘experimental streak’, the other lets go of her ‘practical’ sense of right and wrong after a little deliberation. And yet, they don’t really lose or gain anything out of their adventures and misadventures. Midnight in Paris is my least favourite Allen film till date simply because it doesn’t really feel like an Allen movie! But I like it for it’s surreal theme and execution.
It was the sheer lack of morality and conventional ‘happy endings’ that constituted my understanding of Woody Allen. Strangely enough, when I introduced myself to the ‘iconic’ Allen films of the 70s about a year or so back, I felt an abhorrent apathy towards them. All I did was to judge and condemn the happenings in Annie Hall and felt decidedly angry with the 42-year-old Isaac romancing a 17-year-old Tracy in Manhattan. Such was my disgust that I shut down the laptop in a huff right after that beautifully choreographed conversation scene between the fidgety Allen and calm Hemingway in the dimly lit corner of that vast apartment with the shadowy spiralling staircase looming over them.
And yet, a few weeks ago, I rediscovered my love for Allen’s less-than-perfect world and the flawed characters that inhabit it. I watched Manhattan with rapt attention, taking in every word, every frame, grinning at the witty one-liners, sympathising with the characters and marveling at the sometimes momentous. sometimes momentary feeling we term ‘love’.
Strangely enough, I don’t quite understand why would I feel so strongly against his earlier works, even for a brief period? The two that I have seen so far are at least not as unapologetic as his later films are. Even in his self-absorption, Allen manages to address the consequences of ‘neurotic behaviour’. Both Annie Hall and Manhattan ends on a rather forlorn note (not necessarily melancholic). In Manhattan, Isaac finally admits ”I think I really missed a good bet when I let Tracy go.” So he runs, literally, to get her back (rather selfishly). But it’s too late…
Annie Hall is less cathartic with the ever self-centred Alvy acting out what he apparently wanted to be real, in a stage play where Annie ‘accepts’ him. My affinity towards the reel-life Allen whether played by him or some contemporary actor (for he can’t really stop being his own muse) has certainly been rekindled, and I intend to follow up on it.
As for why I suddenly became anti-Allen, I have come to a possible conclusion. It probably has to do with how my life was shaping up. I liked him till the time I could distinguish between real and reel. I knew none of the situations in the films were particularly good for one’s emotional or mental health and that is not how I wanted my ‘love-life’ to be. And yet, on more than a couple of occasions I was a part of circumstances not entirely unlike Allen’s fictions. One could say that when you identify your personal being with some work of fiction or the other, you ought to like such art forms more. That, for some reason, was not the case with me. The more I realised Allen’s characters were as real as fictitious characters could get, the more I hated and judged his work. It was only after I found and thankfully have been able to sustain (so far) the expressions of love I only dreamed of and never really believed existed, that Allen’s neurosis started being funny, light, sad, happy and so many more things at the same time. Alvy, Isaac, Mary, Yale, Annie, Chris, Vicky and everyone else is quite real and so are those who are nothing like them. I am someone who is not too comfortable with Allen’s ‘reel-reality’ but enjoy admiring it from a safe distance nonetheless. Next stop: Crimes and Misdemeanours and other ‘Allenbury Tales’!