This gold watch—on his deathbed, my grandfather—sold it to me.
In his stand-up comedian days, Woody Allen was a very funny man. He presented his audience with a world in which even the clichés were askew. Hamlet saw a tragic universe that was “out of joint”; Allen’s was a comic one.
And then he graduated to the movies.
In the middle of “Hannah and Her Sisters” David, an architect, is asked about his favorite buildings:
(looking only at David)
What are your favorite buildings,
You want to see some?
Well, let's do it.
(looking at David)
David starts the car and the movie cuts to an unfolding
visual excursion through New York City's landmark buildings,
as seen from the trio's point of view in the moving Jaguar.
Inspiring classical music plays in the background.
The series of shots includes the Dakota, complete with
surrounding winter trees, the Graybar building on Lexington
Avenue, an incredibly ornate building on Seventh Avenue and
Fifty-eighth Street, a red-stone church, an old building
with embellished, bulging windows on West Forty-fourth
Street, the Art Deco Chrysler Building, a red-brick building,
Abigail Adams's old stone house, and the Pomander Walk
nestled off Broadway on the Upper West Side.
What was it that bothered me about this episode—which flashed on the screen a number of buildings that I appreciate—in a film that I enjoyed?
It was the unspoken assertion of what is the good without any of the hard work of analysis or explanation. Woody Allen has smiled on these buildings, and, so, they have been blessed. The word that defines this is “ipsedixitism,” the claim of authority in an argument, not by presentation of evidence, but by “he said it.” It’s all talk the good talk the good reference, talk the good name drop. The filmmaker as pseud.
I first had embryonic intimations of Allen’s ipsedixitism when I saw “Annie Hall” (which I also liked). In every culture clash between the unsophisticated midwesterner and Woody Allen’s hip New Yorker, Alvy, the former is automatically wrong (I mean, come on: “I’m gonna have a pastrami on white bread with, uh, mayonnaise and tomatoes and lettuce”) and the latter is right (this is what she should be reading: Death and Western Thought and The Denial of Death).
But it is important to note here that whenever Allen goes into ipsedixitism mode his audience is with him—because he is with them; he is flattering them by reproducing their cultural prejudices. Consider the following scene in “Annie Hall”:
It's a beautiful sunny day in Central Park. People are sitting on benches,
others strolling, some walking dogs. One woman stands feeding cooing pigeons.
Alvy's and Annie's voices are heard off screen as they observe the scene before
them. An older man and woman walk into view.
Look, look at that guy.
When-in-the-Pink, Mr. Miami Beach, there,
(Over Annie's laughter)
He's the latest! just came back from
the gin-rummy farm last night. He
M'hm. Yeah. Yeah.
The camera shows them sitting side by side relaxed on a bench.
(Watching two men approach, one
lighting a cigar)
Look at these guys.
Oh, that's hilarious. They're back
from Fire Island. They're ... they're
sort of giving it a chance-you know what
Oh! Italian, right?
Yeah, he's the Mafia. Linen Supply Business
or Cement and Contract, you know what I mean?
No, I'm serious.
(Over Annie's laughter)
I just got my mustache wet.
(As another man walks by)
And there's the winner of the Truman
Capote look-alike contest.
Funny? Yes. Nasty? Yes. And how easy to put down these people.They aren’t members of Allen’s congregation—Mr. Miami Beach? Hardly. We’re better than they are. They don’t read Death and Western Thought. They play gin-rummy.
I hung on with Allen’s films until “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” In this supposedly philosophical movie about guilt, justice, etc. I never got as far as bothering with those abstractions. What arrested my attention was an early scene between Cliff (Woody Allen’s character) and Barbara, his sister, who is relating a horrendous dating experience to him. The man was
It was very nice.
I went out with him three times.
He was never fresh.
He was always a perfect gentleman.
So... we both came back here,
and Jenny was away.
She was sleeping over
at a friend's house.
And it was, like, one o'clock
in the morning or something
and we both had had a little to drink.
You know, I wanna tie you to the bed.
- And rip your dress off.
Have you ever been bound up,
tied up and made love to? . . .
Barbara, I'm shocked at what I'm hearing.
You're my sister.
A nice, middle-class mother.
What are you telling me?
I couldn't move.
I was tied tightly to the bedposts.
Jesus. By a stra...
a guy that you didn't know?
And now you're gonna tell me
that he robbed you, right?
He got on top of me and... and...
- And what?
- I can't say it. I just... I can't say it.
What? Tell me. What's so terrible?
He sat over me...
and went to the bathroom.
That's so disgusting!
Oh, my God! That's the worst thing
I ever heard in my life.
- Then he took his clothes and left.
- Barbara! You idiot!
This guy could've cut your throat!
- I would've preferred it.
- Jesus. You're such a dope!
I wish I could have sympathy for this
. . .
. . .
A strange man defecated on my sister
. . .
. . .
Yeah, well, I gotta be up at seven.
“You’re my sister.”
“Oh, my God! That's the worst thing I ever heard in my life.”
“A strange man defecated on my sister.”
“. . . my sister.”
“. . . my . . .”
There it is: All the pain, grief, and suffering of others (I wish I could have sympathy for this) is obliterated by the need to relate everything to one’s own self. In this case: Look at me, how I am disgraced, dishonored by this event. (At least, had the violated woman been the sister of a mafioso of type laughed at in “Annie Hall,” her date would have been in cement blocks the next day.) She would be avenged.
Not that we hadn’t been warned before about Allen’s solipsism. Back to “Annie Hall”:
ANNIE : And you know something else? You know,
you're so egocentric that if I miss my
therapy you can think of it in terms of
how it affects you!
The comedy of Woody Allen (even at its best) was—if I may coin a phrase—shibboleth comedy. That is, it played to an audience who could pronounce the cultural passwords correctly. These congregants of the Church of Woody Allen, however, may not have understood that the new gospel read: “In the beginning was the word—and the word was me.”
The weird shifting of quotes from the left margin to the center and back is down to the texts of the movies that I could access.