Woody Allen’s Women: How He Got Them, Kept Them, & Got Some More

Woody Allen's Women Diane Keaton Mia Farrow Mariel Hemingway Mia Sorvino Samantha Morton Scarlett Johansson Winona Ryder
Let us pretend, for a second, that Woody Allen’s worst feminist detractors are right. Let’s pretend that he’s written too many manipulative women, too many heart-breakers, and too many ditzes to ever be comfortably on ‘their’ side. What then? What does this say of Allen’s oeuvre as a whole, and Allen as the progenitor of such? And, more importantly, is there any evidence of these things to begin with?

Well, there is, partly because one can find almost anything in a complex film if one searches hard enough, and partly because — as Dan Schneider argues — there is an odd tinge of “loathing” underneath it all, wherein Woody Allen’s women fight, cheat, steal, or even lust after a man too old and too manipulative to ever be fair game. At times, this is even played off for comic effect, although the irony is, of course, that there is always someone (even if not Allen) imagining himself in such a position, and tries to be precisely that. Yet assertions without numbers are a hard sell, and have gotten many a critic into trouble with such ‘frills’ as evidence. So, how does one gauge how true the claims are? How does one even measure how good or bad a female Allen character really is? The latter is easily answered: with one’s eyes. Allen’s characters all have motivations and behaviors, for good or ill, and it is up to the viewer — and not a film book, or a theorist — to untangle them. As for the numbers? Let us merely take, for the sake of this thought-experiment, a tally of those who might be OK’d by a feminist reading, and those that will simply never be.

Allen’s early films are none-too-fertile ground for such an analysis since they are, without question, more gag-driven than character dependent. Yet even here, one sees Allen’s desire to invert Hollywood tropes, and even play rough with gender stereotypes. Many of these women, for instance, simply reject Woody’s advances, or otherwise poke fun at him. Nancy (Louise Lasser) from Bananas wants nothing to do with a rote, passionless ‘weakling’ like Fielding Mellish; Louise (Janet Margolin) from Take the Money and Run is almost beyond analysis, given how steadfast she is, and without reason; and the Diane Keaton/Allen ‘troika’ of SleeperPlay It Again, Sam, and Love and Death has the male lead chasing her, and often losing her. Sure, one sees Boris (Love and Death) already bed a woman well beyond his means, but one also sees some interesting inversions in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*, especially the last sketch, wherein the woman is the aggressor, and a priest represents male “Catholic guilt”, to balance out some of the less flattering depictions of women. One cannot, at any rate, get what’s necessary here — at least not for our purposes.

Allen’s first glimpse ‘proper’ into the female psyche was Annie Hall, a film that was supposedly mess … Continue reading →

“The Devil Finds Work”: James Baldwin On Film

James Baldwin was, no doubt, one of the deepest American thinkers to have ever lived, and, even more importantly, a damn good writer — a skill that, if ever missing, makes all the great thinking in the world quite sterile, and oftentimes irrelevant.

I’ve called Baldwin’s work blackness without bullshit because unlike, say, in the time of empty ‘nationalist’ posturing back then, or of frauds like Cornel West and Al Sharpton today, James Baldwin refused to accept any demands placed upon him by any race or creed, and, therefore, had a longevity that so many others in his niche do not. And I use the word ‘niche’ intentionally, for James Baldwin (like James A. Emanuel) is pigeon-holed as a black writer, first, despite all evidence to the contrary. Yes, he wrote of prototypically black things — gay things, as well, and literary things; European things — but in a way that dissented from the fads, ideologies, and self-limiting perspectives that afflict so many to this day. One only needs to read his reactions to black leaders (such as his brilliant take-down of Elijah Muhammad in Down At The Cross) to realize that he was, and still is, on the margins, neither desired by revolutionary blacks, who preferred polemic, nor liberal whites, who wanted their allies to be a bit more narrow-minded, and therefore more easily squirreled away into some ‘side’.

Among the many books he’d written, I’ve always found one particularly difficult to categorize: in fact, as all great writing should be, when deeper possibilities come open. The book is The Devil Finds Work, a long essay on American film as filtered through a racial lens. No, this is not true film criticism, in the sense that James Baldwin is able to give the reader a blueprint for understand good and bad art qualitatively, but it’s not the wan social analysis that passes for film crit in academic circles, either. So, here are some of my favorite quotes from the book, which — as per the James Baldwin aesthetic — combines some important social insights with flat-out great writing.

On Lawrence Of Arabia (1962):

“For, this overwhelming desert, though it exists geographically, and was actually filmed by an actual camera crew, sent there for that purpose, is put to a use which is as far from reality as are most of the people we encounter in it. The least real of these people is Lawrence himself. This is not O’Toole’s fault: but so grave an adventure can scarcely be ascribed to the vagaries and idealism of a single man. Lawrence’s courage and steadfastness are given as admirable, because hard-won — here, the film, unconsciously, rather patronizes Lawrence; his complexities are barely — or, rather, perhaps, endlessly — hinted at, that is to say never illuminated. His rapport with the Arabs is of great use to the British, whose attitude toward him, otherwise, is at best ambivalent. The film takes the view that he was a valiant, maverick, … Continue reading →

Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” (2002) And The Undoing Of A Narrative

I’m often amazed by how little respect the world shows reality, and, by extension, how little respect the people who inhabit this reality end up getting. This is especially true in how kids, the mentally retarded, transgender folks, minorities, the handicapped, and victims (both real and imagined) are treated in the world’s meta-narrative, which is the sum of every bias, policy, opinion, perception, artwork, and the like, available to us. They are at turns fetishized, sobbed over, exaggerated in importance, distorted, and otherwise demeaned by the very same people who claim to be giving them agency and respect. I mean, who wins, here? And how could “winning,” in such an arena, ever be construed as such, anyway, when the gain is so temporary and small?

Thus, in watching Lee Chang-dong’s 2002 film, Oasis, I was struck by how anti-Hollywood it was — that purveyor of the mess, above — in not only how it treats its subject matter, but also how it chooses to present the two main characters: a woman with cerebral palsy (Gong-ju), and a mildly retarded sociopath (Jong-du) who develop a relationship pretty much everyone disapproves of. Jong-du is seen doing all sorts of odd things: eating a block of raw tofu, asking school-girls for spare change, wrecking his boss’s motorcycle, leaving his shoes as “insurance” when he cannot pay for food, walking around in the cold with nothing but a t-shirt, climbing a tree to saw it off, and even attempting to rape his future girlfriend. He is not, then, some caricatured “harmless retard,” but a man with motives (limited as they are) and an unsympathetic streak. Gong-ju more or less stutters through the film, plays with light and glass, and, in a number of poetic little scenes, imagines herself as a perfectly normal girl, living the sort of life she sees others live. Given the meta-narrative described, however, one would think the film would take the banal angle, showing us how “deep” and “utterly complex” such people are, when in fact they are shadows of us, and our wants. It doesn’t, for the best art portrays reality as a corrective to such things, despite what may or may not be “wanted.” Nor are their disabilities glossed over, but are front and center for nearly two hours of oddities that must have taken some time to perfect without turning the two into circus freaks, or degenerating them — on the other extreme — into mere victims. One gets the feeling that they will go on, they will live, even if it’s not in the way that we desire or expect. The film, in short, is their turf; or rather, it is their turf as it gets eaten away by the outside’s bias and expectations.

That said, it is difficult to empathize with the characters, at times, a fact that Lee Chang-dong continually ensures. Jong-du is not exactly evil, but amoral. For the most part, the things he does do not truly register in his … Continue reading →

Confucius, Lao Tzu, I Ching, Chinese history, & some inklings of the future.

This is an old (2012) e-mail I sent to the Cosmoetica e-list, after I’d re-read Ezra Pound’s translation of Confucius a few times, and began studying the I Ching– or, ‘divination sans divinity’. My views have not changed much, and there have been few philosophers as underrated as Confucius, mostly because what Western kids know him for (ideas on family, the practicum of government, etc.) occlude not only the truer depth of his thoughts, but also the clarity through which they’ve been communicated. Say what you will of the importance of Aristotle or the allure of Wittgenstein, but Confucius was, in many ways, an artist, first– which makes his ideas even deeper.

I’ve long suspected that the Chinese, as well as some other ‘older philosophers’, had hit upon a special way of viewing the world that simply had no concrete value to the (then) world of bodies– that is, war, hunger, poverty, and other forms of mass delusion. Because, in a sense, that’s what these qualities are: a means of keeping people stuck in the more transient stuff, wherein history is mere event after event, and generations, if you slice a time period just right, look pretty much identical. Such concerns, big as they are, have crowded out potentially more interesting ones, which are only now making a comeback, albeit mired in the form of New Age stupidity. Confucius, Lao Tzu, and others can easily be misappropriated by the faux spiritual (or, hell, even by the ‘truly spiritual’!), but this only means that they haven’t really found their place. I am not yet sure what role these names will play in our future, but they’ll have a part, eventually, more deep than some of the things we presently consider to be ‘important’, stuck, as we still are, in base, physical concerns, and unable to see outside of the limits of these mechanical roles.

So, let us begin:

Two from Lao Tzu:

For those that try to grasp, it’s gone.

People must learn to take death seriously, and stop wasting time in distant lands.

And the rest from Confucius:

Hence the man who keeps rein on himself looks straight into his own heart at the things wherewith there is no trifling; he attends seriously to things unheard.

The master finds the center and does not waver. The mean man runs counter to the circulation about the invariable.

The empire, kingdoms, families can be governed harmoniously; honors and salaries can be refused, you can tread sharp weapons and bright steel underfoot, without being able to stand firm in the unwavering center.

No, people do not use the main open road.

There are few men under heaven who can love and see the defects, or hate and see the excellence of an object.

To see high merit and be unable to raise it to office, to raise it but not to give such promotion precedence, is just destiny.

The man of breed looks at his own status [at himself], seeing it in Continue reading →