Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Church of Woody Allen

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?

            Oh, yeah.

            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.


There's-there's-there's-there's Mr. 
When-in-the-Pink, Mr. Miami Beach, there, 
you know? 
(Over Annie's laughter) 
He's the latest! just came back from 
the gin-rummy farm last night. He 
placed third.

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 
I mean?

  Oh! Italian, right?

  Yeah, he's the Mafia.  Linen Supply Business 
or Cement and Contract, you know what I mean?

Oh, yeah.

No, I'm serious. 
(Over Annie's laughter)
I just got my mustache wet.

Oh, yeah?

(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

Very attractive.
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.
- Really?
- 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!
Murdered you!
- 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.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Some Problems Are More Easily Solved Than Others

In the wake of another mass murder at a school by a perpetrator wielding an assault weapon (this time in Florida) the most brilliant of all reactions was that of House Majority Leader Paul Ryan (R-WI): "This is one of those moments where we just need to step back and count our blessings.” 

(All together now—Let’s Irving Berlinize:

When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings)

OK, wake up now.

A few other politicians who can’t use four-letter words (like “guns”) decided that all was not blessed. But they spoke about “school safety.”

Pres. Trump: "We are committed to working with state and local leaders to secure our schools . . .”

Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL): "We cannot lose another child in this country because of violence in our schools."


While the solution to the school safety problem of kids throwing blackboard erasers at each other is not an easy fix, the problem of firearm assaults is. Remember how the country cured the problem of drug usage in schools and their vicinity?

Here’s the answer to guns in schools and their vicinity (and those legislators who are really concerned about budget deficits need not worry about breaking the bank on this). Just replace the existing signs with these:

Assuming the would-be firearms wielders are literate, they are sure to be warned off attacking schools.


So, we’ve now ensured that there will be no future Columbines, Sandy Hooks, or Parklands. But what about firearms attacks on venues other than schools? What of Aurora, Colorado (movie theater)? Orange County, Florida (Pulse nightclub)? San Bernardino, California (workplace)? Sutherland Springs, Texas and Charleston, South Carolina (churches)? Omaha, Nebraska, Burlington, Washington, etc. (shopping malls)? Las Vegas, Nevada (outdoor concert)?

I suggest that the same solution will work for the prevention of gun violence in those places: Place the “Gun-Free Zone” signs in those venues. That’ll stop the miscreants. And since those sneaky buggers might search out other vulnerable public places—such as airports, train stations, supermarkets, etc.—we should place the signs all over the country, in every public space.

Think of it: Since firearms would be forbidden to be carried into any public space, the AR-15 lovers of the USA would be restricted to fondling them only in their own homes. 

Problem solved!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Marco the Messenger

Today’s Absolutely True, Real Life Playlet

The Scene: The United States Senate floor.

Enter (stage right) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky).

Glancing around the floor, McConnell spies who he’s looking for.

McConnell (waving): “Marco, can I have a word with you?”

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida): “What’s up, Oh Leader of the Senate?”

McConnell: “You heading home to the Sunshine State this weekend?”

Rubio: “I’m on a 3 o’clock flight.”

McConnell: “If you’ve got room in your carry-on, I’ve a favor to ask of you.”

Rubio: “Yeah, sure.”

McConnell (pulling a manila envelope out of the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket): “I would appreciate it if you’d take this down home with you.”

Rubio: “Er, what is it?”

McConnell: “It’s the prayers of the whole Senate, for victims and their families, for the community of Parkland, and for the first responders.”

Rubio: “Oh gee, that’s great. Really à propos. But what am I supposed to do with it?”

McConnell: “Come on, Marco. You know your damn state better than I do. You must know who to give that to. Like the governor or the sheriff or the schools boss.”

Rubio: “Yeah right! But isn’t something missing?”

McConnell: “Huh?”

Rubio: “ Like “thoughts.” They go with “prayers,” don’t they?”

McConnell: “Damn, you’re right. How stupid of me. I’ll go around hustling them up now.”

Rubio (pointing to his watch): “Too late, Mac. I got to get over to my office right now, pick up my stuff, and scoot to the airport. My ride is probably waiting outside as we speak. Maybe you can save the thoughts for the next shooting.” (Exit)

McConnell (to himself): “Let's see: 'Schools should be places where children can learn, and faculty and staff can work, without fear of violence.’ . . . I wonder if I can work that in somehow. Ah, I get the picture!” (Exit)

(Via slate.com)


What, You Don’t Believe me?

I got it straight from the horse’s mouth:

(Via The Atlantic)

Thursday, February 8, 2018

All was as cold as any stone

To start with a silly question: Is Shakespeare a great writer?


Let’s ask a better question: Why is Shakespeare a great writer?

Right: “Star-crossed lovers,” “To be, or not to be,” “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” and so on and so forth through the Bard’s Greatest Hits.

But I want to approach the answer in an unorthodox way—by looking at two unnecessary inclusions in his plays—unnecessary, that is, for the advancement of the plot.


Act I, Scene 1 of Hamlet

Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo have, in the freezing night, seen a ghost—that of Prince Hamlet’s father. Now it is time to get these guys off the stage.

Horatio [looking at his Rolex]: My god, it’s almost six o’clock and the sun is starting to rise. Let’s get out of here and catch some zzz before we break the news to Hamlet. [Exeunt]

Or the Elizabethan equivalent.

Here, though, in part, is what Shakespeare gives us:

Horatio: But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill:
Break we our watch up; and by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet . . .

Every time I read these words—the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill—I am awestruck. What a description of daybreak—and it’s just something tossed out, seemingly hastily scribbled down. And, as I stated above, unnecessary. 

OK, guys, let’s split. Catch you up at the court—say, elevenish?


Act II, Scene 3 of Henry V

At the end of Henry IV, Part 2 Prince Hal, newly crowned as King Henry V, exiles from the court Sir John Falstaff [That villanous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan—1 H IV]:

King Henry: I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.

One problem, though: Falstaff was one of the playwright’s most popular characters. How could he write him off like that? Bowing to two kinds of pressure,* Shakespeare composes an epilogue, in which, among other things, he promises to bring Falstaff back:

our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katharine of France.

But Shakespeare does not keep his promise. Probably because the disorderly, out-of-bounds nature of Falstaff would detract from the heroic stature of the king who famously overcame the odds to win at Agincourt. 

So he kills him off.

And here’s where artistic choice comes in. Of all the ways that he could have the character die, Shakespeare chooses to have Falstaff die in bed. But most importantly, he chooses not to have the death scene played out on stage. The audience will be told of the death. Who to relate it though? (And here’s greatness.) Not some gentleman of the court, someone of education and fine upbringing; but the low-comic denizens of the tavern world, and of these, most especially Mistress Quickly [AKA Hostess], a malaprop avant la lettre.

Pistol: Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead,
And we must yearn therefore.

Bardolph: Would I were with him, wheresome'er he is, either in
heaven or in hell!

Hostess: Nay, sure, he's not in hell: he's in Arthur's
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom. A' made
a finer end and went away an it had been any
christom child; a' parted even just between twelve
and one, even at the turning o' the tide: for after
I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with
flowers and smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew
there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as
a pen, and a' babbled of green fields. 'How now,
sir John!' quoth I, 'what, man! be o' good
cheer.' So a' cried out 'God, God, God!' three or
four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a'
should not think of God; I hoped there was no need
to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So
a' bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my
hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as
cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and
they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and 
upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

Nym; They say he cried out of sack.

Hostess: Ay, that a' did.

Bardolph: And of women.

Hostess: Nay, that a' did not.

Boy: Yes, that a' did; and said they were devils

Hostess: A' could never abide carnation; 'twas a colour he
never liked.

Writers are often offered the advice: “Show, don’t tell.” But Shakespeare knew better here; telling (and especially by someone who mangles the language) was better than showing. Could showing give the audience this poignant word picture:

So a' bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my
hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as
cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and
they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and 
upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

And to return to the point of my demonstration: the scene was unnecessary, extraneous to the heroic plot of the play. 

Greatness is not only evident in the words given to the Hamlets (To be, or not to be) or the Marc Antonys (Friends, Romans, Countrymen), but also in those of minor characters who may not be advancing the storyline.


*The epilogue responds to the love of the populace for Falstaff, originally named Oldcastle, but more importantly, to the protestations of the descendants of Sir John Oldcastle, who were offended by the depiction of their ancestor as a debauched person (for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man, the epilogue informs us).