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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 500-502
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The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen
The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen by Peter J. Bailey. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Pp. 344. $29.95 cloth.
Few could have imagined, when Woody Allen began his career telling jokes about his pet ant or the moose he took to a costume party, that he would eventually turn into one of America's, if not the world's, most prolific artists. With three plays, numerous short stories and essays, as well as over thirty films, one nearly every year since Take the Money and Run (1969), he has produced a consistent body of work. For me the high water mark is Crimes and Misdeamnors (1989), a film that combines rich comic characters with some of the deepest and most trenchant comments on the plight of modern existential man; for others, I know that his Oscar-winning Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) stand as his finest work. We might also throw in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and some of the early comedies. Few directors have had such a run of luck.
Nonetheless, in recent years, Allen's career has not fared well. Revelations of a private nature have cast a shadow over the rather benign persona that he had maintained. Possibly the scandal over his marriage to a much younger woman and more recently a law suit against his former producers have eroded his fan base. While Hannah earned $40 million at the box office, Sweet and Lowdown (2000), despite the nomination of its female star, only earned a paltry $4 million. More importantly, his work has also lost the urgency and potency that used to make it a subject of discussion in most intellectual circles. His latest, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which carries on the trend of his most recent work of seeming little more than a tired reworking of old material, is a case in point.
None of this detracts, however, from his importance as a filmmaker. Ironically, he owes little of his success to American cinema. Despite Hollywood's fondness for him—he and his female co-stars are frequent nominees and Oscar winners—he seems to have eschewed anything that can be found in most of the films produced there, except for the iconoclasts like the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges. Instead, one of his trademarks lies is his devotion to those European directors who have matched medium and message, especially Fellini, Antonioni, and Bergman. There is a wonderful parody of [End Page 500] Antonioni in Everything You Want to Know about Sex and in Manhattan the image of the skeleton in the classroom center frame, after everyone has left, equals the best of Bergman. Nonetheless, I agree with Peter J. Bailey in The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen that "to dismiss his movies on the grounds that they are derivative . . . of classic European or Hollywood films is to ignore how deliberately his work addresses and complicates precisely those questions of artistic derivation and imitation and also investigates their relationship to the artist's mental stability" (235).
Obviously, the "real" Woody Allen and his screen persona are worlds apart. Most of the time his screen persona falls into the schlemiel category, a failure at love and work—Allen is neither. Furthermore, one doesn't need to be a Freudian (Allen's former favorite form of therapy) to know that a true schlemiel and/or neurotic could not produce the sheer volume of work that Allen has. More often than not those personalities are paralyzed with fear, producing little or no work, or drown themselves in booze or other addictions. Whatever may be said about Allen's private life, he seems to have escaped both those fates.
A different kind of neurosis, however, might be the impetus to his artistic impulse. Bailey sees Allen as having an "intransigently, skeptical, highly conflictual attitude towards his own art" (4). He argues that Allen has an ambivalent attitude to the nature of art, one that questions whether art serves any...