[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. It deals with film critic Ray Carney, and is part of a much longer essay, which can be read in full on the book’s website.]
What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen
Critic #6: Ray Carney
It is interesting to put Ray Carney into the category of Woody Allen ‘detractors’, since — despite his often sketchy line of argumentation — he is still quite above critics such as Pauline Kael and Jonathan Rosenbaum, for a number of reasons. For one, I am an admirer of his scholarly work, and especially what he’s done to help resuscitate John Cassavetes’s film legacy. Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes, for instance, took eleven years to write, as he had to conduct hundreds of interviews, hunt down obscure documents, and force himself to come to terms with his own perceptions of the artist, as a great filmmaker, versus that of the man, who was moody, sick, and quite dislikable, at times. This, by itself, shears Carney of some biases, and proves that he is at least able to look at things from a fresh perspective, no matter how it might discomfit him. Yet it is really his cogent attacks on Hollywood, film theory, and film criticism that stand out the most, given that he is an academic willing to stake his professional reputation on some unpopular claims. Needless to say, most don’t take any real positions (much less create them, as Carney has sometimes done), and thus belong to far lesser company.
That said, there is a world of difference between scholarly ability and a critical one, and Ray Carney prides himself on both. The former revolves around patience, meticulousness, and being able to digest large amounts of information to get at what’s ‘essential’. The latter talent, however, is quite unpredictable, and no skill-set, college degree, earnestness, knowledge, creativity, or ‘expertise’ will ever guarantee it, much less the ability to replicate these sound judgments, time after time. (This, as I’ve shown, was quite often Ebert’s flaw.) One can, for instance, be a great artist, yet know little of art’s ‘why’. A quick perusal of Shelley’s confused In Defence of Poetry will reveal this, as will the opinions of many artists, big or small, on what art is and how it’s made. In short, one could be intelligent, creative, honest, and a wonderful communicator, to boot, yet still be unable to articulatewhy something works, on a deeper level, while something else does not. And this is really Carney’s problem, as he is a great scholar, and sometimes even quite good when dealing with the generalities of Hollywood, artistic stagnation, and the like, but tends to break down when it comes to more specific critiques of art, itself. He has written, for example, why Citizen Kane, Woody Allen, and Stanley Kubrick are overrated, why Schindler’s List is a bad film, why Hitchcock is primarily a stylist, and why Quentin Tarantino is all hype. This is, by my count, three valid claims, and three arguable ones. Sure, these are three ballsy (and intelligent!) claims more than most critics ever make, but they’re scattershot — quite literally a coin-toss — and therefore not replicable. No where is this more obvious, however, than in his detailed critique of Woody Allen, which is full of the same biases and misreadings that damn even far lesser critics than Carney.
The essay begins with a few obvious mistakes in its attempt to explain the popularity of Allen’s films. Carney’s assertion is that, unlike with other filmmakers, Allen gives us a “flattering” picture of our own selves, for his characters (men, especially) are “high-minded, good-mannered, well-groomed, and well-meaning”, and the women downright “intellectual”. Indeed, the viewer would even want to be a character, within, if the choice were forced upon him, given the popular alternatives. Moreover, the films, themselves, are full of “sumptuous” music, “elegant” cinematography, more or less tell the world that everything is alright, thus comforting us in the midst of entertaining. But while I’m quite sure that this is the case for most people, it is only because Ray Carney, himself, falls into the same trap that so many other critics (and viewers) do. In short, Allen’s characters are anything but upstanding, with only a few exceptions, and just as few real intellectuals, as opposed to mere poseurs. Alvy Singer (Annie Hall) is a self-loathing manipulator; Isaac Davis (Manhattan) is selfish, a liar, a bad writer, and does not, evidently, even reveal his true nature to his best friend, Yale; Joey (Interiors) is the perpetually dissatisfied non-artist, spoiled by American luxury, while Renata is the prototypically selfish one, and immature re: the arts, to boot; Hannah (Hannah and Her Sisters) is either a cold, manipulative bitch, or a ‘nice’ and selfless lady, depending on the evidence one takes; Cecilia (The Purple Rose of Cairo) is weak for much of the film, with only the hint of something ‘more’ in the last minute or so; Judy (Husbands and Wives) is one of cinema’s most nefarious creations; and Marion (Another Woman) has a mode of being that erases all proper emotion, a realization she only makes (and acts upon) at the ripe old age of 50 — precisely when Hollywood thinks women ought to be quite dead. Of course, this does not even cover Judah (Crimes and Misdemeanors), nor even the blind rabbi, Ben, or Deconstructing Harry, Match Point, Sweet and Lowdown, and Cassandra’s Dream, which are full of even more inversions that discriminating film-goers ought to be able to pick up on. To be fair, Carney’s essay was published before Crimes was released, which saw one of Allen’s biggest and most hyper-realistic villains, but the fact that the essay was not amended, but shown on his own site as a prime attraction, means the judgment more or less stands. More importantly, however, is that Carney already had a large number of characters to choose from to serve as counter-points, and yet, for whatever reason, did not see their true shortcomings. In fact, if I were forced to be anyone from these films, I’d choose Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories), the only true artist that Allen ever created, and one of the most ‘whole’ characters in all of cinema, despite the many opinions to the contrary.
Ray Carney calls Woody Allen’s films a “flattering portait of ourselves,” yet misses an obvious point: they’re not! Alvy Singer manipulates Annie (and others) from the get-go — not to mention the viewer, who so often falls for the very same illusions that Carney himself does:
But while Carney begins with a simple and over-common misreading, he quickly reveals his own biases, which afflict the rest of his essay. He complains of the “extraordinarily privileged” nature of a typical Woody character, and — in a phrase that reeks of the film-speak Carney in fact loathes — the subsequent “imaginative embourgeoisement of experience”. In short, there are no poor people in an Allen film, no black people, no crime, and almost no evil. It is sterile, pollyanna, and Carney does not at all ‘like’ this. But while it’s true that Allen is excluding one slice of reality by refusing to tackle certain issues, it makes zero sense to privilege those realities in a work of art over any others, as Carney both suggests and denies. If, for example, I wish to explore the subterranean world of Japanese BDSM circa 1962, I will not, quite naturally, turn to a Woody Allen film for answers. Nor will I blame Caravaggio for not tackling the issue of the proletariat in Death of the Virgin, or Andrew Wyeth for not addressing the overfishing of cod in his favorite Maine retreats. Woody Allen is concerned with the upper-crust because, as he’s often admitted, it is simply what he knows, and has therefore captured that ‘type’ better than any other artist. It is their world, as they see it, and that which is inessential to their tale is therefore excluded. This, in fact, is quite basic, for the best art is not some ever-expanding cone (as it’s been argued), but really a funnel from which a small-but-great concentrate emerges, and different artists are responsible for depicting these different ‘slices’. So while Martin Scorsese was damn good at showing a stylized underbelly, in a way that Allen simply cannot, he’ll still never craft an existential, metafictive masterpiece like Stardust Memories, or a comic gem like Sleeper, for that is likewise out of bounds. This is not a flaw, merely the reality. Thus, as I wrote of Jonathan Rosenbaum, to demand a work of art be something that it isn’t rather than what it is, is not merely a critical faux pas, but something from which there is NO turning back. This is because the second one starts to engage this line of thinking, one is trapped by biases, desires, and immaterial ‘needs’ that have little to do with what’s immanent to the art, itself, and everything to do with the viewer, whose personal demands thus override the image, and turn the thing into a mere phantasm.
As if realizing the strangeness of his argument, Carney attempts to ‘sophisticate’ his words by claiming that an artist does not need to be “held to a naturalistic or realistic social agenda”, but nonetheless complains of Purple Rose’s lack of “garbage” in the streets, as the film “breaks down” when it gets “hard” to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Well, yes, there is no clear dividing line, as this is an interesting way of showing Mia’s thoughts — that is, characterization — and very much deepens the film’s last few moments. Such things are not in Carney’s realm, however, for even the characters, he argues, are all quite “nice” and “never too confused” for the audience, and thus unable to make them “squirm”. But “squirming”, too, is merely one slice of reality, albeit one that Carney privileges over everything else, and thus uses his preference as a sledge-hammer to beat back the inevitable encroachment of the things he wishes to exclude. And, yes, while it’s true that audiences willsympathize with most of Allen’s characters, it is precisely because they, themselves, have bought into the very illusions Carney decries, and Allen, himself, criticizes over and over again. To most, Isaac’s “New York was his town, and it always would be” is an example of great writing. It really isn’t, and only Allen (and a few viewers) realize this, which is the exact opposite of Ray Carney’s assertion that Woody represents a kind of “modernism for the millions”. Indeed, for these millions, like Carney, see the illusions, and merely take them at face value. The only difference is that while the audience eats them up and smiles, Carney does so with a frown.
Carney goes on to deride the depiction of Holly’s (Hannah and Her Sisters) “drug problem” as somehow effete, for it doesn’t show how destructive drugs can be. Perhaps, but Carney’s assumption is that the drugs are front-and-center, when in fact it is Holly’s neediness, lack of self-worth, and poor decisions that are her mark, and thus lead to drug use in the first place, which is a mere symptom of her ills rather than the cause. Nor is she, like Flyn (Interiors), in a truly terrible situation, merely unhappy, but with pretenses to something ‘higher’ — a luxury that many poor people simply do not have. It makes sense, then, that her drug use is lackadaisical, for it fits her character, fits her milieu, and fits her position in life. To emphasize drugs would strip her of other complexities given what the film is and what it isn’t, but Carney does not really see this. Annie Hall is given similar treatment, as Carney brings up a scene where Annie wishes to take cocaine, only to have Alvy — who finally agrees — inadvertently sneeze it all away. Carney calls this a “glib” resolution to the drug “problem” (a word that is quite often code for a critic’s own wants), given how things in the scene “threaten to get really interesting” before Allen suddenly cuts them short. In fact, they don’t threaten this at all, for Annie is a very casual user, at worst, is a better — stronger, even! — person than Alvy, and is probably in no danger of becoming a junky, thus making any ‘serious’ treatment of drugs irrelevant. At film’s end, she merely goes out a lot, plays tennis, and has other escapes that truly fit and fill her, thus obviating drugs as a need for such, not only for Annie, the person, but Annie the artistic creation, who’d only be marred by such a tangent. Indeed, Carney’s own focus would, as with Holly, completely take the force away from Annie’s air-headed qualities (which are the reason for her even trying coke in the first place), and thus torpedo the character Allen has been building. Granted, it may not be the character that Carney ‘wants’ to see, but so what? Annie is reality, for she is very much a real person, which is an accomplishment, not an “evasion”. I have also known a good number of drug addicts, from a childhood friend who became a heroin-addicted prostitute at the age of fourteen, practically before my eyes, to far less frightening stories, and must take issue with Carney’s idea that it is all somehow “interesting”. It is not. It is, in fact, quite predictable and rote, for every drug addict’s ‘reason’ is the same, every story word-for-word, and every arc — whether towards death, or some happier denouement — identical, no matter how unique such stories are often said to be. Indeed, Carney’s own insistence that this is “interesting” not only undermines Allen’s art, which really has no place for such, anyway, but sounds an awful lot like a “privileged” white person (to borrow Carney’s own plaints re: Allen) who wishes to be a voyeur, but without truly being able to understand the thing he wants to see.
Ray Carney derides Holly’s “effete” drug problem in Hannah and Her Sisters, but again misses the point. The drug problem is not her defining issue, but merely tangential to and symptomatic of something FAR deeper — that is, the way in which Holly relates to the world, as well as to herself:
Carney criticizes yet another great scene in Hannah, where the title character watches an argument between her parents, but offers no cogent reason for his dislike, except that there is no “real danger”, as if Marlon Brando busting out of the closet with the ‘kiss of death’ could somehow better things — or, to use Carney’s own example, that the mother have an affair with a young stud to make things “really interesting”. It wouldn’t, as it’d merely introduce a layer of melodrama that Carney at first criticizes, then outright suggests. Hannah’s subsequent voice-over is savaged, too, but Carney confuses things when he assumes it is there to offer insight into her parents (who are, in fact, quite predictable), rather than into Hannah, herself, who is for the first and only time shown to be completely alone with her thoughts, as a means of providing some unadulterated ‘pro’ evidence of her good character amidst all the bad we’ve seen up to that point. Yet Carney’s most stolid reading of the film is his complaint that “the crisis magically abates, and is never referred to again.” Indeed, as it doesn’t have to be, for what we get from the parents — prior to any voice-over at all — is the fact that, after decades of marriage, the two fools are still going at it, for they are wired to fight, cheat, and act like asses due to their deepest point of similarity: their immaturity. Carney finds this all somehow unrealistic, but why? In fact, how many marriages are precisely like this? How many arguments do we witness on the street, on the train, or in the supermarket that follow the same sort of arcs and denouement? How many people are ‘stuck’ in an unhappy life, without the will to change things? Ray Carney calls their argument a “crisis”, but it is not a crisis at all, and the film’s own evidence never implies that it is. It is, in fact, simply one more argument among thousands of others that have already come, and will continue to come ‘till death do us part’. And it is not referred to again because something else will inevitably take its place, something no less lurid, and — even more predictably — no less dumb. It will follow the same arcs, and it will end in exactly the same way. Perhaps Lee will comfort them this time. Or perhaps it will be Holly. Do such details really matter? I have been there, alright, but after years of entertaining such disputes every single night, I still can’t tell you what the hell they were about. Woody Allen has therefore captured my reality quite well. Yet great art does something even better. It reveals such things are not exclusive to ‘your’ world, but universal, and really cuts into them quite meaningfully. Luckily, I got out of my “problem” (to borrow Carney’s phrasing) before it grew. Allen’s film, however, shows that many never do, and will simply die trying. This is quite frightening. This is real. Yet it, too, is somehow not in Carney’s realm, possibly because in his wish to be a voyeur of mere melodrama, he misses the truedrama of everyday life.
Nor is his treatment of Allen’s magisterial Stardust Memories much better, for even as Carney wishes to get away from the sillier judgments made of the film, he still argues from ‘the enemy’s turf’, as it were. Carney’s first objection is to the film’s use of “grotesques”, given how far they are from reality, thus preventing Allen from truly being “contemptuous” of them. Yet even this line of reasoning accepts the common (and wrong!) assumption that Allen was merely trying to create monsters, and use them as a kind of straw-man against his own inner phantasms. There are two issues with this. The most obvious one is that such characters take up, at most, a few minutes of screen time in an 88 minute film, allowing everyone else to be sketched beyond caricature. Dorrie, for instance, is a psychotic nonpareil, while Sandy’s playboy friend (Tony Roberts) is both a slimeball and utterly correct about his best friend’s flaws. This is, quite naturally, good writing. The more cogent point, however, is that Sandy Bates is not Allen, at all, and while Sandy is talented and generally ‘whole’, his flaws and shenanigans are completely skewered by the film’s extraterrestrial scene, which was (the viewer must be reminded) written by Allen, himself, and serves as the film’s over-voice which reins ‘reality’ back in. This includes the way Sandy (ostensibly) sees others, and certainly the way he’s approached romantic relationships. They are, again, real people, and while a select few are caricatures, they are caricatures that serve the film’s purpose, and Sandy, especially, who is both skewered and — at film’s end — not. For more specifics on why the film works, despite Carney’s claims, I refer you to the earlier chapter in this book, as well as Dan Schneider’s review, which remains the most comprehensive examination of the film to date.
It is interesting, then, how Carney’s critiques, while often cogent as mere generalities, break down the very moment in which they are asked to live in specifics. This is true not only in his critique of particular films, but his mis-use of Allen’s “comedy”, not because it is somehow ill-fitting, but because, as before, Carney either overstates the argument, or simply applies it to the wrong thing. Thus, even comedy is subject to ridicule, for there is nothing innately humorous (at least to Carney) when the “grotesques” in Stardust Memories behave like idiots — culled, by the way, from real life — or when Christopher Walken’s character, in Annie Hall, rattles off some psychotic fantasy, which Walken thinks Allen might “understand” because he is “an artist”. The joke, of course, is that Walken is the ‘cream’ of Annie’s already-strange family, on top of being a kind of proto ‘artsy’ type who’d utter such banalities in the first place, depicted well before such people even entered the cultural lexicon. Sure, it’s not especially deep, but the film is more comedy than drama — this scene included. To Carney, then, this is merely Allen’s way of “defusing” potentially difficult situations, but while he complains of this, it is, first of all, merely funny, with NO danger to Alvy even if Walken’s character were furthered given the film’s nature, and, second, is in fact an innovation. In short, it is innovative to pair a great drama likeCrimes and Misdemeanors with a ‘comic’ side, in the same way that Allen’s ignoring of Walken’s artsy’s pretensions, or Holly’s drug problem is seen as (to use Carney’s phrase re: Hannah’s parents) “more silly than sad”. On a certain level, then, one must treat these addle-brained yet privileged people as they really are: silly, manipulative, and confused, rather than going through anything irreconcilable. (And, yes, this includes Walken’s character, as well, or else you’re in for a mindless detour.) In fact, they merely author their own flaws, but pretend their issues are somehow ‘higher’, and while Carney claims that he’s seen audiences feel “discomfort” at Walken’s revelations, what does this prove, exactly, except how easily audiences and critics alike will fall for the same illusions?
Christopher Walken acts nutty in Annie Hall, as part of a comedic slice to a film that’s more comedy than true drama. Yet Ray Carney demands more, not because it’ll necessarily improve the characters or film (it can’t, for it’ll simply violate their nature), but just ’cause:
As noted, Allen’s use of voice-overs is attacked, as well, from the sillier and humorous ones (such as inAnnie Hall), to those of Hannah and Another Woman. Hannah is again singled out for critique, given that Elliot, at film’s end, has resolved his own issues in a way that Carney — in a tangent of his own making — deems as “unrealistic”. But why? That someone has gotten to the bottom of his own immaturity? That such things ‘cannot’ happen? Well, no, as Elliot is quite aware of his flaws early on, and does not so much resolve them as he merely stops acting on them, and while Carney might find this unrealistic, this is, in fact, simply how people operate: they learn, and hopefully get better in the process. Nor are their realizations always right (another illusion that Carney falls for), as Isaac and Alvy prove, early on, and Judy, Cliff, Ben, Harry, and others much later. At other times, characters do realize things about themselves, but find that they’re in a ‘rut’, and completely lack the means (or will) to get out of it, which is, in fact, what most of Allen’s characters suffer through. To get back toHannah, it is not even clear how much genuine change there is, for while Hannah, herself, might have grown, one wonders if Lee was merely a symptom of something ‘deeper’ in Elliot’s own psyche. In short, while the crisis has passed, its essence — as with Hannah’s parents — might not have, and while Elliot effuses over Lee’s new-found marriage, one must consider that it took a husband to change Lee for the better, because while alcohol was once her addiction, it was supplanted by Frederick, then by Elliot, who are merely stages in her own life. And now? Who knows? It is, in fact, question that can just as well be applied to Holly, for while Carney mocks the idea that she simply ‘wills’ herself into authorial success, and into being a good mother, wife, and writer, where, exactly, is the evidence for all this? The only example of her writing that we ever see (which Mickey cluelessly praises, giving us some clue into his own supposed talents) is a poorly wrought melodrama that ends on a cliche — a fact that seems to elude Carney, even as he denounces cliches elsewhere. Nor do we have any evidence that she is a good anything, except superficially successful, for even Mickey’s ‘moment’ with her is brief, and is just as perfect and syrupy as in any new marriage — Lee’s three relationships included, and Mickey’s with Hannah. Thus, to make any grand deductions from this, as Carney has done, is simply irresponsible, as the viewer must reckon with how realistic it is for Holly to have changed. One may give her the benefit of the doubt, of course, but she’s a woman of forty who’s never had a real job, had a drug problem, and is wracked with guilt and insecurity — the type of women the ‘Woody’ type is utterly drawn to in film after film, with disastrous consequences almost every time. One can, I suppose, make good arguments pro and con, but ‘tidy’ it is not, but realistic, for many questions are unanswered. They just happen to be the questions that Carney doesn’t really care for, or even see.
Carney then goes full circle upon the mention of Manhattan — that “squeaky-clean” film that over-romanticizes, and has no “garbage” in the streets — not only via the film, itself, but also in the way he recapitulates his own errors. Carney pokes fun of the way Isaac falls in and out of love with Tracy, only to run back to her at film’s end, wherein the city’s panorama, Allen’s choice of music, and high-falutin’ cultural references are meant to be “taken seriously”, and that “even the most uninformed audiences know that they are meant to sit in silence and take Allen straight at such moments.” This would be quite damning, of course, but only if it were true. Yes, Carney excoriates Isaac for running back to Tracy after his session with the tape-recorder, but so does Woody Allen, and, in this disconnect, completely misses why the scene works. I’d criticize Isaac (and not Allen, as Carney often conflates), as well, but for very different reasons. Recall that, for the entire film, Isaac presents himself as a do-gooder with ‘ideals’, but is clearly a self-deluding manipulator with little to no artistic talent, and lots of secrets he rarely slips out. Tracy falls in love with him, but while he knows the relationship is doomed due to her immaturity and his own wandering eye, he refuses to nix it, as he is quite comfortable with a seventeen year-old nymphet whom he could ‘groom’ at bad art galleries, and the like. He dumps her only when he meets Mary — another woman he is ill-suited for — then runs back to Tracy only when Mary, in turn, dumps him. In short, Tracy is a rebound, and while much has been made of the ‘illusionary’ ending, as if it is ambiguous whether or not the two will stay together, the fact is, Tracy is simply too young and too intelligent NOT to outgrow a crass manipulator like Isaac. Sure, she spouts some ill-advised wisdom, and the like, but what has Isaac learned, exactly? Carney seems to think that Allen’s characters make (and reveal) their supposedly deep self-realizations, via voice-overs or direct interactions, but not only does this not happen, here, the ‘revelation’ is in fact a false one, as Isaac is selfish and delusional to the very end. In a great, earlier scene, for instance, Isaac is made to look as if his friends are reading out his prison sentence (via some damning passages of his ex-wife’s book), and while his bad behavior has finally come crashing down on him, the fact is, Isaac merely sweeps this under the rug, and learns nothing. He can’t try his little games with Mary, who — while not any more intelligent than Tracy, despite Isaac’s manipulative compliments — is certainly more experienced. Yet Tracy is there, alright, at least for now. But she too will go, and Isaac will only have his selfishness and his patterns. Yes, the audiences ‘love’ the film’s ending, but why? Because they are easily tricked into accepting its illusions, even as Allen spends the entire film denuding them, and showing how unrealistic they really are. Oh well.
One can safely say, then, that Carney’s mis-reading of Manhattan shows the issues with his criticism, as a whole, as the rest of the essay breaks down along the same ideological lines, and claims that — while salient in their attempt to break free from typical film-crit — nonetheless fall prey the very lines of reasoning he himself so often critiques. Indeed, it is quite odd to read Ray Carney’s pointed attacks on Hollywood, film journals, and commercialism alongside essays such as this, for when a critic can no longer distinguish ‘the thing itself’ from his own biases, it is criticism no longer, but an exploration of the writer’s own psyche. Jonathan Rosenbaum is guilty of this. So is Pauline Kael, and Vincent Canby. Roger Ebert, too, had his blind spots. And just as I began my take on Ebert by positing the David and Goliath story, then ultimately rejecting it, I must do the same with Carney. Yes, he is very much against the film-school stolidity of bad critics and Hollywood apologists, but is, in many ways, their mirror image, too. At bottom, one needs to look at a work of art for what it is, not what it isn’t, no matter the source. As it stands, however, Pauline Kael winks with her left eye, and Carney — as if on cue — must wink with his right. This is not, alas, the inner workings of true criticism, but a machinarium. One should not wink, but talk straight, and be as faithful to an artist’s output as possible. Unfortunately, this is not a question that most critics ever consider, thwarted, as they are, by their own needs. By contrast, Ray Carney has considered it, but does so little with it, here, as to not really matter. Here’s to hoping that, in time, it will.