When Heroes Fall: A Discussion of Woody Allen
[I’m working on a side project—a book based on re-connecting with old friends via discussions of random ideas in essay form. I chose Woody Allen as my first topic because his films meant a lot to us small town Midwestern folks who dreamed of living in Manhattan. The response from my high school friend, now living in Austin, TX is below. I hope y’all like this excerpt. The “‘boro” is a nickname for our hometown by the way.]
When we were young, we both loved Woody Allen. For me it eventually got to a point where he seemed too neurotic about making a film every year and always wrote his screenplays with no collaboration. He started to repeat himself. But the core of who Woody was when he made masterpieces was impressive to nerds like us who love silliness and romanticized Manhattan. As artists we could also appreciate the ‘boro for its eccentricity.
No doubt Woody Allen was a huge influence on me, which I wasn’t fully conscious of at the time. His self-deprecating humor made him likable. And I could relate to his anxiety of being “the other”. I know the feeling when Annie Hall’s grandma just sees him as an Orthodox Jew. In other words, she doesn’t look at him at all. Not a great feeling, and one I can relate to as a racial minority growing up in a southern culture. Plus I’m small, not physically impressive, wore glasses, clung to neuroses as a conduit for making funny and absurd comments about reality.
Now that I’m middled-aged, I’ve learned some things about repetitive thoughts. It’s possible to cling to an idea such as the idea of being a neurotic. Once it becomes something that no longer serves you, then it’s time to re-examine thought patterns. Do mental habits become personality traits?
Lately I’ve been focused on learning more about the truth of reality. Without going into too much detail here, I must say my newfound understanding of the importance of self love/self kindness does not jibe as much with self-deprecation. Of course there’s nothing wrong with making fun of yourself, which frankly puts others at ease. I’m stating I’m less likely to be self deprecating in an unkind way to myself, around others, or if I’m alone. I have suffered from too much negative self talk in the past and it’s no joke. I choose to focus on other things.
I don’t think I realized until recently how much I projected some of Woody’s neurotic traits onto myself. I even moved to Manhattan for college. Needless to say I don’t feel the same way about him on different levels. I’m usually good about separating the man from the art. But his choice in marrying Soon-Yi is bananas, as was the reporting from Ronin Farrow regarding allegations Allen molested his adopted daughter with Mia Farrow when she was around 6. The allegations are disturbing. At least Woody admits to his weirdness surrounding Soon-Yi: “The heart wants what it wants.”
The best Woody films are far in the past; he was a bright and shiny light that made so many people happy. Did you find yourself sad in a way about his fall from grace? What are your thoughts on Woody’s decline?
I was never bothered that much by Soon-Yi, not enough to abandon a favorite artist at least, and thought it could probably motivate a scorned lover to possibly make shit up. Pretty sure I’ve seen all his movies up to the one with Ewan MacGregor and Collin Farrell, Cassandra’s Dream, which I remember liking, but then I dropped off, haven’t seen one since 2007. So I guess I was getting tired of him before that doc convinced me he’s a cunning and deeply frightening psychopath. That said, my favorites do span a good chunk of time:
Annie Hall (1978)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
And there’s not a bad movie in between all of those. Stating the obvious, Manhattan is the most problematic in hindsight, and the last time I saw it I thought the Mariel Hemingway arc could be omitted altogether and it wouldn’t hurt the film at all; it feels shoehorned even. But the opening sequence is so effective I’ll never hear Gershwin and summon any other context.
I think Annie Hall was probably the first one I ever saw, it sent me over the moon as a teenager. It’s a riot, beautifully conceived and Diane Keaton lights up the screen. His anxiety and self-deprecation was right up my alley. I’d never join a club that’d have me as a member…
But there’s something fishy about that. It’s endearing on the surface, yet in a way I’ve struggled to pinpoint, I’m pretty sure it’s like a reverse narcissism, a subconscious attempt to soften the guilt of self-admiration, the guilt of secretly judging others as inferior. And it exists in a place of privilege, the same pedestal that offers the spare time and energy to invent worries and indulge in obsessive, morbid self-attention. People who know real struggle don’t have that kind of bandwidth.
But Woody was an illusion. The neuroses on display in his movies are antiquated, arguably amoral, and antithetical to spiritual and cognitive hygiene. Tough to get around, though, because as I finish here my thought is I’m weak-willed and easily swayed by HBO documentaries with high production values and just might have no idea what
I’m talking about. And they still love him in France.