Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The curious case of Woody Allen-- Psychoanalysis, auteurism, and film criticism

Of all the films in Woody Allen's extensive filmography, Annie Hall (1977) is the one we have latched onto. It's the one by which all other Woody movies are measured. Announcing to critics and moviegoers that its star and director was more than a clever stand-up with a flair for making funny movies, Annie Hall is a naked statement of vulnerability, about a man who turns everything into a joke as way of covering up his misery. At the time, Annie Hall represented Allen in a nutshell. Like the Alvy Singer-penned play (shown at the end of the film) replicating his life, the film was seen as something of a self-portrait, an image of Allen as he saw himself.

The film also established many of the themes and motifs to which Allen would eventually return in some capacity, from narrative arcs (e.g. the difficulty of relationships, talky and unhappy characters, etc.) to aesthetic styles (e.g., jazz and classic music, voiceover narration, long shots, practical effects, deep points of focus, etc.). But ever since the film unexpectedly nabbed Best Picture from Star Wars in 1978, Allen's career elevated to new heights, if not commercially than artistically. In short, he had the freedom to make the films he wanted. Post-Annie Hall, Allen's films have explored many of the same concepts, as well as a variety of new ones. Running down everything from death, separation, religion (or lack thereof), psychoanalysis, and other obsessions to varying degrees, Allen has philosophized in tragic and existential undercurrents in some of his movies, while in others he has waxed in comedic overtones. And in others, he went for both.

Allen has paced about one film a year for the last thirty-some-odd years, and has made more than a handful of intriguing, sometimes even masterful films. And still, Annie Hall continues to shine as his quintessential film. It may likely always be known as the defining movie in his career. That being said, it did not gain that status alone. In fact, one could argue that another movie (for better or worse) enabled Annie Hall to become the artist-defining, cultural milestone it became. Released two years later, Manhattan was and still is perpetually compared to Annie Hall. Like Allen's Oscar winner, Manhattan stars Allen as a neurotic man who loathes himself too much to let someone else love him. Moreover, it's set in Manhattan and stars Diane Keaton... just like Annie Hall!

It didn't take critics long --clever beasts that they are-- to catch on, almost unanimously deciding that Allen liked to make the same movie over and over again. Unfortunately, that's all it took, because it was critics and moviegoers who constructed such an identity of Allen, and it's one that he himself even believes. Now, many films and personal controversies later, Allen is looked upon as a 70-year-old version of the 40-year-old in Annie Hall, as a neurotic, overanalytic, cynical, dismissive, and emotionally frail little fellow with glasses who is unable to embrace happiness is how the rest of the world sees him. And rather than examining the extent to which the dialogue about Allen has informed critical analyses of his work, critics instead continue to (rather stubbornly) insist that Allen is himself solely responsible for his own image image.

Now that this dialogue has saturated, members of film culture have inevitably accepted the broader image of Allen on some level. These projections and assumptions manifest within the framing devices used to discuss his films, both current and classic. Not unlike the neverending dialogue about Keaton vs. Chaplin, conversations amongst cinephiles tend to be divisive affairs in which an individual's sensibilities are defined almost exclusively according to which film she or he prefers, Annie Hall or Manhattan. As much as it may appear that this dialogue illuminates the nuances that distinguish the films from each other, these divisions amongsts cinephiles likely thrive because of similarities between the two films, not the differences. If they are seen as different, one still has to question the usefulness of the dialogue simply because the films are defined by each other.

Although Annie Hall takes the lion's share of the credit, and it may be the film that resonates more on the cultural front, Manhattan made possible the comparison of Woody's films. It is the first and most famous example of Woody Allen's supposed self-plagiarism. For example, many a critic have argued that Scoop is a re-hash of Manhattan Murder Mystery. and, more prominently, that Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors are essentially the same movie. Apart from these plagiaristic duos, there are a number of other stereotypes about Allen's films, like how they have to fit into one extreme of "dark, brooding character studies about murder and deception," or "light, airy comedies with dated dialogue." These are but a few examples of the critical dialogue taking on an established rhetorical design. And now that critics have become so familiar with this pattern, reading a review of a Woody Allen film is every bit as routine as the films many critics label so.

Importantly, many of these trends began not just with Annie Hall, but in its rhetorical pairing with Manhattan. The two are inseparable. The Annie Hall / Manhattan duo is also significant for how critics and moviegoers would build an image of Allen --as an artist, and as a person. But this only holds up when the two are taken as one continuous idea, separated by only a few "minor" differences. Or at least that's how they are positioned. Whether the films are individually distinct from one another is not really the issue in these dialogues. Any differences between them are inconsequential to the fact that the conversation has been framed as one film defining the other. Neither will truly stand on its own beyond commercial worth. Taken together, the two films are equally integral in comprising the vision of "The Woody Allen Film" that still informs critics to this day. And their dichotomous relationship has cemented the prevailing notion that Allen plagiarizes his own work. Some would argue that this is evident in the films themselves, but few can deny that this trend has persisted in critical dialogue for years, which suggests that there may be more to this scheme than Allen's narrative and stylistic repetition. Many published critiques of Allen and his movies --e.g. books, articles, reviews-- focus on recurring fixations, themes, character traits, and narrative tendencies.

While the similarities in Allen's work are as undeniable as they are influential, I sometimes wonder whether his films actually resemble the discursive representations of them that critics have been piling up and recycling for years. The film criticism canon on the cinema of Woody Allen has reduced him to a simplified image, framing his films according to very defined properties emerging from the popularity of Annie Hall, and the subsequent critical discourse placing Manhattan in direct relation to Annie Hall. In spite of the high critical status of both movies, each film's individual merit is based on the other. That they are compared and contrasted so heavily prevents one from seeing each film on any other terms besides the counterpart, or the "other half" of the other. No matter how much Allen grows, that growth is only judged by how it relates to the established Woody Allen Film lexicon.

Having a brand of filmmaking and broad narrative and aesthetic styles assocated with a filmmaker's name is a sign of respect or significance, but the downside is that it also places the filmmaker in a bind, since she or he will likely always be critiqued by it -- e.g., Alfred Hitchcock (suspense master) and Steven Spielberg (king of the blockbuster). But the difference is that Allen doesn't get the credit as a filmmaker that Hitchcock and Spielberg do. Woody Allen didn't define or revolutionize the medium. Instead, critics, moviegoers, and Allen himself see his films as imitations of those from cinema's great directors. He's considered an American wannabe, pining after the European greats like Bergman and Fellini, his filmmaking idols. Taking this discussion into account, one could say that despite the Annie Hall / Manhattan tandem having opened many doors for the filmmaker to grow into fruition as an artist, it now prevents viewers from appreciating the richness of those films. Much like Allen's own obsession with psychoanalysis preventing him from recognizing his own worth, psychoanalysis has also jaded critics --particularly auteurists-- from engaging movies in a productive and open-minded manner.

Woody Allen is an extreme example, but the critical discussion about his films evidences the dominion psychoanalysis holds over film criticism. Guided by the principle that films hold meaning that the viewer must unlock, psychoanalysis has clamped down on film theory and criticism ever since academia took on film studies in the 1970's, allowing no other possible way of engaging movies. Some would say that filmmakers like Hitchcock and Allen invite this criticism by "making the same movie over and over," focusing on similar themes, fixations, and character relations. But just because Allen makes psychoanalysis explicit to many of his narratives does not entitle critics to position his films according to the same theoretical principles. To think in this way plays right into psychoanalysis itself, allowing its universalized logic to fit over movies like a glove, block all other theoretical or critical perspectives to penetrate.

It's no wonder, then, that psychoanalysis and auteurism are so condusive with one another. In each model, the critic runs a similar risk of looking through a film's images, and "arranging" them according to the established knowledge of filmmaker or filmmaking convention. Auteurism groups films and their directors in a way that makes them taken on meaning as part of a larger collection. This approach holds that movies are little more the sites where plot structures, narrative arcs, and character development converge. All formal details --composition, framing techniques, editing, and overall aesthetics-- are understood only in relation to these narrative elements. Because, after all, narrative is the driving force of cinema; at least according to this view. This approach, however, does not constitute a overarching inquiry into cinema, let alone a respectable criticism of it. I would go as far to argue that overreliance on this kind of criticism is reductive and potentially dangerous.

In the case of Allen, it seems as though we cannot evaluate his films with any bit of freshness. A new perspective of his work is bound to be "the alternative" to the dominant perspective, rather than being truly its own perspective. I'm not saying that critics should ignore similarities in plot, theme, and aesthetic design, since to deny these factors would indeed be foolish. Blowing up what's there and starting over will do criticism no good. Of course there are similarities between in Allen's films with respect to the aforementioned elements, especially between Annie Hall and Manhattan. The problem is when you end the discussion at the similarities. Both films are tragedies from purely a narrative standpoint, since each sees its central character as his own worst enemy. But if one's sensibilities are slightly more open it's evident that Allen in pursuit of very different sentiments and aesthetic unities with each of them.

Annie Hall is a reflection on the intoxication of new love and the hardships of commitment. It evokes the tension of refusing to let go, and yet not being able to take the appropriate measures to ensure an enduring relationship. The flashbacks and fantasies are impossible to differentiate from reality, and that's the point; they are intertwined to the extent that neither is an accurate representation of Alvy, Annie, or their relationship. What we have are images, memories, and feelings of "love and loss," essentially. Allen presents this narrative in a series of short scenes, each like a half-formed thought escaping from his consciousness as if interrupted by another.

Manhattan, while certainly boasting similar plot and character threads, motivic elements, and even some visual techniques (present in many of his film), presents more focused tension between romance and cyncism. In terms of pure comparison, Isaac is a much more bitter person than Alvy. He seems singularly focused on the present -- what benefits him right here, right now. He's also slightly more mature than Alvy in the sense that his attention is directed at what is occupying his moment, rather than constantly reflecting on the past. He ultimately makes the same mistake as Alvy, in letting the one person who brought happiness to his life slide through his fingers. But the manner in which we expereince this loss, and thus the loss itself, is entirely different. There are budding moments of romanticism in the film, especially for New York and classic love stories, but ultimately the cynicism prevails in spite of the dream of romanticism. Annie Hall, on the other hand, is not about cyncisim at all; it's a bittersweet proclamation of loneliness and self-loathing.

These reflections are brief, and represent only the beginning point from which one could launch a very different inquiry into the two films, individually and together. One might also say that my descriptions fall under plot details and formal elements, a practice I criticized earlier in this piece. But my descriptions of these components only topically resemble the style in which many critics use them. Again, the acknowledgment that film criticism should shift from its current format of placing formal details in relation to narrative-centric aspects does not mean that matters of narrative should be ignored. In the end, there is no right or wrong way to dissect a movie; a critical analysis requires that the critic discuss tangible elements, definitely, but not to a specific end. Film criticism at its best goes far beyond narrative and aesthetic relations, no matter complex they may be.

However, within the psychoanalytic, broadly auteurist model, further examination is not necessary beyond these elements. Those who approach film from this standpoint find what they are looking for. It has already sealed itself off and justified its own existence, based on the logic it has conveniently employed to do so. As is typical of psychoanalysis and (to an extent) auteurism, the viewer/critic is prompted to sidestep the immediate engagement of the senses that a film provides with its moving images and sounds. The kind of reflection these models seek is one based in symbolism and causality. But these don't engage one in the experience itself; they're more interested in providing meaning to that experience; placing it. Film criticism --in academic journals, newspapers, and independent blogs-- should be more atuned to personal reflections of seeing the film, but it should also be invested in the reflexive exploration of movement, memory, and sensation, and how these notions relate to narrative and character identification. These latter elements are important to film criticism, but they are not themselves the means to the ends of valid critical inquiry.

Movies are about more than a simple matter of plot, characters, and narrative, and they're about more than simply computing aesthetic sensations according to categorized responses or emotions. These tangible details are very relevant, even important toward understanding film spectatorship and and criticism. But sometimes even the best critical minds lose sight of the fact that movies are really about the movement of images and sounds, the very stuff of memory itself, as well as narrative. To paraphrase Jim Emerson, movies are about what happens to you while you're watching them. This seems simple enough, but it's actually a testament to the unending complexity of the film viewing experience. It's become a trend in film criticism for critics to use tangible details --i.e. plot, character, structure, etc.-- as a means for justifying or supporting a simplified response to a movie, their reaction; which is actually much harder to try to understand. But the more we lean on these tangible explanations, the more we're conditioning ourselves to look through the images rather than at them. That's not to say that the more abstractly we speak about cinema, the better. Logic is essential to any critical or theoretical inquiry. But there's a difference between logic and universalized rationale.

This is precisely why film criticism should begin repositioning auteurist theory. An inquiry into movies should address psychologistic components, for sure, but should also unashamedly delve into philosophy and lyricism, along with science and psychology. Ultimately, the perspectives expressed and the way in which they are expressed probably reveal more about the critic than the movie, but sometimes they illuminate aspects of the experience of seeing a images—and the thoughts, memories, and sensations they produce—which are at once permanent and fleeting.


100hands said...

What a fantastic site. Great initiative. In my list of everyday visits. :)

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks, 100hands!

I'd be interested to hear what others think of the idea that film criticism has formed a kind of cultural dialogue about Allen and his films. Today, it seems impossible that film criticism would have any reach beyond its own members and small group of devoted followers. But as recent as 30 years ago, it had real reach.

Also, I'd be interested in feedback on Woody Allen's recent films. Is he just a sad sap with a penchant for repetition? (I mean, the man hasn't changed his title cards in damn near 40 years!) And does it affect your ability to enjoy his films? Allen himself seems to consider it like a job, and has no problem reusing narrative and aesthetic elements, but just because he's overt about it does that make him more guilty than a filmmaker who is more "subtle" about it. After all, according to auteurism, every filmmaker has these things. So why is Allen so different?

Please feel free to chime in!

HermyBerg said...


Great post. Glad I stumbled across your blog! I'll be working my way through your posts all week.

I'm a new blogger, getting my sea legs right now. (

I agree with your assessment on Woody Allen criticism. It does seem to loft in that over-analytical, “self-indulgent” side of criticism that Hitchcock is often found in. In my opinion—and David Bordwell speaks about this with much more clarity than I ever could—that sort of criticism ends up saying very little about the film and much more about the critic.

I’d also be interested in hearing more about Allen's more recent films. He seems to be having a new dialog with himself. Starting with Match Point you get an extrapolation of a theme he explored in Crimes and Misdemeanors, selfness murder (of course, “in a Godless universe”). Now we get Cassandra’s Dream with uses the same plot bringing into familial territory.

In answer to 'why is Allen so different'? Ultimately I think it’s his persona that makes people (and critics) not want to take him seriously. He’s the first to say a film a failure. Self-deprecation is his middle name!

He's also a super-brilliant comedian who can make light of the most serious existential queries with the slight of a hand. (Beckett and the Coens Brother also have this gift) Yet on repeated viewings of many of his film (Stardust Memories, September, Hannah and Her Sisters, Interiors, Broadway Danny Rose, and so many more) there’s deep profundity.

I like to do a study on the photography of his film.

Anyhow, keep up the excellent work!


The Corpse said...

Great post. I'm a life time Woody Allen fan, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness here. I've always especially been interested in the way his films mirror each other and how all the films seem to mirror his subconscious, or at least the subconscious of his persona.....which is where it gets interesting. Particularly keen on your discussion of psychoanalysis by way of "analyzing" Allen's films.....