ARTICLES

MITCHUM & STEWART

by Robert Wake

[from the Cambridge Book Review, Issue #1, Winter 1997-98]

 

Robert Mitchum’s narcoleptic acting style was perfected within the shadows of 1940s and 50s noir crime drama, where his existential resignation in the face of darkness (annihilation of the self) was an embryonic precursor to the sadistic ennui (rupture of the id) of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson in the 1960s and 70s. Cultural attitudes toward the urban landscape shifted over the decades, moving away from an appreciation of Mitchum’s noble self-willed loner. A sizable segment of Vietnam War-era filmgoers seemed eager to grant Eastwood and Bronson blunt fascistic license to rid the streets of drug-dealers, pimps, and assorted crazies run rampant in a decaying inner-city. Such agitprop scenarios played handily into audience fears (particularly racial hostilities), and Hollywood’s cynicism ran deep enough not to question the moral integrity of these increasingly violent productions. Mitchum’s work, however, comes to us formed of a subtler — or, if you will, more repressed — aesthetic. If his early films evoke a kind of Hollywood innocence, it is in part due to the stylized nature of film noir, which seems to appeal directly to our unconscious anxieties and longings, rather than to our overt prejudices. Film noir is at heart a kind of Rorschach cinema — the shadows are ink blots in which we all see something different.

The 40s city was a Freudian labyrinth of desire and instinct (re)pressed into concrete and steel. The postwar economic boom was real enough, but so were the postwar nightmares and shattered psyches. Mitchum walked the city’s streets in the guise of a battle-weary survivor who’d long ago witnessed the worst of mankind’s urges unchained, and whose soul was thus insulated against the petty machinations of criminals too stupid to realize the insignificance of their dirty deeds. This is a crucial point: the classic Mitchum character was never altered significantly by his scripted fate; he enters and exits the picture as the same man, monolithic and complete. The storyline, in essence, happens around him rather than to him. What some critics have derided as “one-dimensional” acting was in fact an almost Buddhist impassivity: the studied calm of the bodhisattva — transcendent, poised, fully integrated.

The essential Mitchum performances are to be found in a handful of sui generis B-movies: Crossfire (1947), Out of the Past (1947), The Big Steal (1949), His Kind of Woman (1951), and The Racket (1951).[1] Although his two celebrated performances as violent sociopaths in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962) are as vivid as anything assayed by Brando or DeNiro, they function more as displays of acting “chops” than as emblematic Mitchum roles. Ironically, Mitchum’s spirit seems a bit diminished in flashy roles. “Bad guys” or troubled characters — such as his portrayal of an alcoholic in El Dorado (1967) — are always victims of the storylines they must serve. Plot and characterization, indeed acting itself, all seem beneath the authentic Mitchum cool. He is an American original at his best when his own imperturbable aura is in a sense at odds with the melodrama surrounding him.

James Stewart, on the other hand, forged a long and healthy career as a well-directed team player. In smooth performance after smooth performance, he placed his hard-working loyalties at the service of the designated narrative and theme. And it is because Stewart served the storyline so assiduously that he represents a film presence much different from Mitchum’s rebellious implacability. Stewart’s screen persona became our most Jungian vessel: always jumping enthusiastically into the alchemist’s fire to be transformed physically and spiritually into a “better” man, a more forthright and engaged citizen. As a standard-bearer of the country’s self-flagellating moral mandate, Stewart’s roles at any given time unfortunately tended toward civics lessons. Nowhere is this more forcefully brought home than in his films for Frank Capra, especially Mister Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).[2] Regardless of how “beloved” these rather unhinged and over-the-top Stewart performances have inexplicably grown in the minds of mainstream movie fans, I am hard-pressed not to agree with Pauline Kael’s famous bon mot in regards to Frank Capra: “No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra can — but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.” [3]

The submerged narrative of It’s a Wonderful Life is of course the all-too-familiar story of male midlife disillusionment and frustration. But rather than allow George Bailey the truth of his psychological breakdown — i.e., the quite accurate realization that small town American life really is a morass of economic and marital despair, mean-spiritedness, and broken dreams — Capra chooses instead to unleash Clarence, the pixellated angel of societal repression and sublimation, who convinces George to shut up, stop complaining, and get his sorry ass back home to the wife and kids.[4]

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the true psychotic nature of Stewart’s screen personality came to the forefront and cracked the veneer of innocence. Only in Hollywood, where absurdity reigns, could the nearly 50-year-old Stewart attempt to impersonate a fresh-faced and tireless 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). Stewart’s neon blond wig, garish rouged cheeks, and layers of pancake makeup are as frightening to behold as Bette Davis decked out as Baby Jane. It’s as if we longed to forbid both Lindbergh and Stewart to grow up. Certainly Lindbergh’s controversial WWII neutrality stance had long ago tarnished the unprecedented glory that trailed him for years following his 1927 transatlantic flight. Lindbergh once symbolized and distilled the essence of middle-class virtues: youth, indomintability, and the inevitable hero’s crown born of perseverance; it seemed only fitting that the anointed Lindbergh had conquered the very heavens themselves. Such were the Boy Scout qualities that Stewart, too, embodied for a generation of filmgoers. In a sense he was ordained to play Lindbergh, just as Clark Gable had been the only acceptable choice for Rhett Butler. However, The Spirit of St. Louis is surely one of the eeriest representations of America’s unresolved Peter Pan complex.

When Stewart the following year chose to play a character scaled to his own advancing age, how appropriate that the film was Vertigo (1958), the apotheosis of both Stewart’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s long Hollywood careers. Vertigo is the true endgame of George Bailey’s “wonderful life”: sexual hysteria and madness. Stewart’s performance is powerfully closed off from any paths by which audience empathy might comfortably follow. Watching him desperately trying to insinuate himself into Kim Novak’s life during the film’s third act is as disturbing in its own way as Brando’s assault and rape of Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. Vertigo offers few of Hitchcock’s patented crowd-pleasing thrills, and its morbid complexities were misunderstood or missed altogether by audiences and critics in 1958. (First-time viewers today are frequently disappointed that Vertigo isn’t a higgledy-piggledy hybrid of Rear Window and Psycho). The film only gradually earned its current “classic” status, still eliciting critical reservations as late as 1982, when it was re-released to theaters along with four other then out-of-circulation Hitchcock films.[5 ] Painstakingly restored in 1996, Vertigo again played theaters, this time to critical huzzahs, but it remains a difficult film, and general audiences have yet to really embrace it. Hardly the ideal “date” movie, Vertigo might be better classed as a suicide-watch: the film’s chilly and unsettling moral is that desire’s true object resides not within those individuals we purport to love, but rather within the dark soul of our own obsessions.

– Robert Wake 

___________________

[1] Also worth including here is the atypical but charming A Holiday Affair (1949), starring Mitchum and Janet Leigh. The film is long overdue for reappraisal and enshrinement as an annual yuletide video and television offering.

[2] Stewart’s first film for Capra was You Can’t Take It With You (1938), based on the play by Kaufman and Hart. Joseph McBride provides an insightful revisionist critique of this film in his definitive biography of the director, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, published in 1992 by Simon and Schuster.

[3] The quote is from Kael’s capsule review of It’s a Wonderful Life in her book 5001 Nights at the Movies.

[4 ] Clarence disingenuously “stumbles” upon a means to scare the crap out of George Bailey. The game of “You Were Never Born” is similar to Fritz Perls’s notorious Gestalt Therapy “hot seat” sessions, which employed confrontation and intimidation to supposedly cure neurosis.

[5] The others were Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble With Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Critical consensus in 1982 afforded only Rear Window with the encomium of “classic,” while the remaining four were considered minor or flawed Hitchcock efforts. Stewart appeared in all but The Trouble With Harry. Since ’82, Hitchcock’s oeuvre has been subject to innumerable re-evaluations and re-shufflings as to where individual films ought to be ranked.

 

The Man Behind Woody Allen

Woody Allen

Woody Allen

 

 

 

By Lennard Davis

from The Common Review, A Magazine of the Great Books Foundation

Can you think of a contemporary major filmmaker who is devoted to the great books? In this age of blood and sex in Hollywood productions, whimsical independent films about dysfunctional families, coming-of-age movies, or cartoons of happy animals saving the polar ice caps, it is difficult to select serious intellectuals from the central casting roster of glib, lowbrow directors. We might get the occasional Shakespearean like Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespeare wannabe like Mel Gibson or Ethan Hawke, and the rare devoted crew of Merchant Ivory. There’s the oddity of great books adaptations such as Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf (2007)—with Angelina Jolie striking a pose as a sex-goddess version of Grendel’s mother. (Didn’t we always think Mama Grendel was old and ugly?). But to find a director consistently interested in the great books and the Western philosophical tradition—and willing to make them the very stuff of his movies—takes some searching.

      So it might strike one as strange to think of that search ending at the East Side condominium of Allan Konigsberg—or, as you might know him, Woody Allen. Can we really think seriously about the bespectacled, neurotic schlemiel who stumbles through Take the Money and Run (1969) or Bananas (1971) as the true heir to the Western intellectual tradition? A new book by Eric Lax—of conversations spanning 30 years with Woody Allen—does precisely that. In Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies and Moviemaking, we are presented with the Allen that most of us don’t know. I’d like, for the purposes of this review, to refer to that unknown person as Allan Stewart Konigsberg, since, as he tells us, “Woody Allen” was a name he chose in high school when starting out as a joke writer for New York gossip columns—and it seems to be one that was never legally adopted. The name and the nerdy personality that accompanied it have morphed into the character of Woody Allen. But it would be a mistake to substitute the hapless, stuttering jokester for the prolific and award-winning filmmaker who has made more than one film a year for the past 30 years. We mustn’t confuse art with life, of course, but it’s hard when we have such a bounty of art that seems largely reflective of its creator

• • • • •

Detaching Woody Allen from Allan Konigsberg reveals a strange and interesting mind, a mind worth considering. Certainly, one could object that there is a major obtuseness in any effort to take a comedian seriously. (Look at those French intellectuals writing about Jerry Lewis. How ridicule!) But let us for a moment grant that Konigsberg is indeed worth taking seriously. After all, why wouldn’t we want to consider the thoughts of a filmmaker this productive, and whose films have, over the decades, garnered international awards? More than almost any other filmmaker in the United States, Konigsberg is an auteur, since few if any have been given such free rein as he has. Even the most famous American directors will tell you that artistic freedom is a rare if not unknown thing. But Konigsberg has been allowed complete directorial freedom in his films—and for that reason alone his career is worth considering as a lifelong artistic statement. The fact that he’s good at one-liners and sight gags shouldn’t obviate the accomplishment.

      In interviews with Eric Lax, a longtime friend of the director, we find a Konigsberg who is obsessed with his role as an artist and intellectual in society. Not only is he conversant in modern art, but he has read the ancient Greeks, the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophers, and the great novelists and poets of the Western world. And his films are packed with references to this aristocracy of ideas. A recent viewing of Manhattan (1979) yielded references to Ingmar Bergman, Kierkegaard, Gustav Mahler, Leo Tolstoy, August Strindberg, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Franz Kafka, Antonio Vivaldi, and Norman Mailer—and that’s a sampling from only one film. Any other filmmaker would be considered pompous or “intellectual” to pack a single movie with such references, but because Woody Allen is the character, Konigsberg can get away with it.

      Konigsberg’s philosophical interests range from Plato to the German philosophers, but to him Bertrand Russell “makes much more sense, resonates much more deeply with me.” Camus, Sartre and Nietzsche “are more dramatic and concerned with life-and-death subjects.” His reading of the critic George Steiner’s study Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism provoked him, he says, to reread The Idiot. Other critical writers and philosophers he reads include Isaiah Berlin and William Barrett, who wrote Irrational Man. He notes, “If I had my education to do over, I would probably go to college and probably be a philosophy major [as was his first wife Harlene Rosen].” But Konigsberg is a philosopher, at least to the assembled academics in Woody Allen and Philosophy: You Mean My Whole Fallacy Is Wrong? Essays on the meaning of life, morality, and interpretation sift through the filmic opus and present Konigsberg variously as a “pragmatic optimist”, a nihilistic pessimist, and a Kantian.

• • • • •

Konigsberg makes it clear that he started reading to help him with the girls he was going out with, girls who tended to regard him as an uneducated lout. “It was the very end of high school when I started going out with women who found me illiterate,” he reminisces. “I thought those girls were so beautiful. . . . One would say ‘Did you read this Faulkner novel?’ And I’d say, ‘I read comic books. I’ve never read a book in my life.’ I don’t know anything like that. And so in order to keep pace, I had to read. Hemingway and Faulkner.”

      To be sure, the decade was the 1950s, and at least in the art-house, coffee-shop scene an equation was being forged that converted knowledge of philosophy and art into something sexy and hip. But Konigsberg clearly took to such reading like a philosopher to dialectics. While he’s honest about his motivation, we might want to consider the role of erotics in reading in general and philosophy in particular. Philosophy, after all, does mean the love of wisdom. Socrates, in the Symposium, started up the connection between flirting and philosophical thought, and it would probably be revealing to see how many of the great philosophers connected those same dots. Contemporary philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and critics such as Roland Barthes have rolled eros and desire into philosophy and criticism so that they are inseparable.

      Konigsberg makes it clear that he reads widely but without depth or direction—partly because he never attended college or university in any sustained way. His lack of discipline but interest in philosophy got turned into famous one-liners: “I was thrown out of N.Y.U. my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final, you know: I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.” Actually, Konigsberg’s short essay “My Philosophy” in his Complete Prose should be required reading in any philosophy course. It’s a hilarious Cook’s Tour through the history of thought, with segments like his “Critique of Pure Dread,” in which he writes:

In formulating any philosophy, the first consideration must always be: What can we know? That is, what can we be sure we know, or sure that we know we knew it, if indeed it is at all knowable. Or have we simply forgotten it and are too embarrassed to say anything? Descartes hinted at the problem when he wrote, “My mind can never know my body, although it has become quite friendly with my legs.”

As funny as this may be, the last sentence summarizes the mind-body dichotomy very nicely.

      But is humor a form of knowledge? Norman Cousins has written that laughter and humor can help to cope with, and even to combat, disease. For Freud, humor was a form of sublimated hostility or libidinous energy made palatable through narrative transformation. (Konigsberg even includes the Freudian reading of humor as aggression in Stardust Memories (1980) when a professor of film at Columbia asks Allen about his unconscious aggression and homosexuality.) Jokes can be a distilled form of wisdom and certainly one of the only remnants of oral culture in mainstream society, although most people are more likely to get their jokes from the Internet now than from a traveling salesman or a waggish uncle. Konigsberg sees a connection between writing jokes and poetry. In talking about his admiration for W. B. Yeats, he notes,

I think that had I been better educated, I could write poetry, because a writer of comedy has some of that equipment to begin with. You’re dealing with nuance and ear and meter, and one syllable off in something I write in a gag ruins the laugh. . . . In actual one-liners, there’s something succinct, you do something that you do in poetry. In a very compressed way you express a thought or feeling and it’s dependent on the balancing of words.

Konigsberg points to his famous joke: “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Of it he notes, “In a compressed way it expresses something, and if you use one word more or less it’s not as good.”

• • • • •

Konigsberg’s reference to being undereducated might lead us to consider him as what the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci called an “organic intellectual.” Unlike a university-trained thinker, the organic intellectual rises up naturally from his social class and is, by definition, an autodidact. Konigsberg, coming from a lower-middle-class family in Brooklyn, certainly fits into Gramsci’s category for this type.

      However, unlike the organic intellectual of Gramsci’s thinking, Konigsberg does little to develop the contradictions of his rise in status. He’s no advocate of class struggle. Rather, Konigsberg grew up admiring the life of the rich that he saw in films. “I imagined people in these Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue houses,” he reminisces, “involved in their lives, with their butlers and their valets and their breakfast in bed, dressing for dinner and going to nightclubs and coming back late at night. Supper clubs, cocktails, piano bars. That world for some reason . . . clicked in for me.”

      It’s perhaps here that Konigsberg made a significant deviation that would have consequences for his art. His admiration of the lifestyles of the rich and famous turned his writerly and critical gaze away from social questions. Rather than an engaged social critic, he became a disengaged social climber, and in so doing, he ruled out the possibility that his films would be like those of Vittorio De Sica or other neorealists such as Ermanno Olmi who incorporate a class analysis in their work.

      Konigsberg’s character Woody Allen is one who does not move seamlessly through life, but does move seamlessly through the cash-and-carry world of New York’s intellectual and artistic classes. In such films as Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Husbands and Wives (1992), Allen fits into this world. More recently, in Match Point (2005), the character played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is a social climber who even kills to secure his position in a wealthy family, and Konigsberg allows him to succeed in the midst of moral depravity.

      But the racial component in the world of Konigsberg’s films is never entirely absent. Race never shows up in regard to people of color, but rather in the perpetual discussion of what it means and how it feels to be a Jew. (Indeed, Konigsberg has been criticized for never having black characters of any note, or when there is a note, it is a broadly and questionably satiric one, struck for instance with the black prostitute in his 1997 film Deconstructing Harry) The Jewish question is exposed, but in a comic mode. While Allen is preceded by many other Jewish comedians, few if any of them made jokes about being Jewish when on the national screens. Rather, people like Jerry Lewis ( Jerome Levitch), Milton Berle (Milton Berlinger), or Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky) and a comic synagogue of others (including those who don’t “look” Jewish, such as Ed Wynn and the Three Stooges) filled American theaters and living rooms with their personalities, but very few played the Jewish card. Konigsberg is one of the first to lead with the question of being Jewish and to use this identity as the foundation of his comedy.

      But Konigsberg doesn’t go for Jewish public issues or injustices. He doesn’t opine about Israel, for example, and while the subjects of the Holocaust and Nazis come up frequently in jokes, the films and prose of Konigsberg mainly present the Jew as “out of place,” to use the critic Edward Said’s term. In the irony of seeing Konigsberg trying to shoehorn himself into the elegant WASP society depicted in the black-and-white films of the 1940s, we observe that the place chosen is always paradoxically a space in which he is out of place. Unlike Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, who express discomfort at the prospect of trying to fit in, Konigsberg leaps into the East Side glamour world, recreating the imagined community that was, after all, created by the Jewish Hollywood producers for the delectation of the predominantly Christian filmgoing audiences. Konigsberg attempts to integrate into place through the modality of irony, comedy, and social status.

      The many scenes of obvious Jewishness that appear in the films are usually that of loud, lower-class, old Jews arguing, kvetching, and acting out. But that depiction doesn’t serve to marginalize or isolate Jews, because of the Sartrean necessity to have Semite and anti-Semite bound together. Jew needs Christian; and Christian needs Jew. Thus the hilarious scenes in Annie Hall (1977) show Allen as the outsider to Keaton’s WASP family. Yet the family’s WASPiness is made strange and even psychotic, most directly in Christopher Walken’s notorious portrayal of the weird brother. The take-home message is that Jews are a strange subset of America, but not the only strange subset. Chaplin managed to set up the Jew and Aryan dichotomy only to reduce it to a comic idea by having Hitler change places with a poor Jewish barber.

      Chaplin, unlike Konigsberg, uses his dialectic to mock the notion of Aryan superiority. For Konigsberg, the Jew will always be the caricature of the shtetl yenta or the neurasthenic intellectual. In other words, there is no resolution to Jewishness, other than to elaborate on its endless ways; thus Jewishness becomes a leitmotif throughout the opus rather than a tragic dirge. This is one of the many moments in Konigsberg’s work in which the decision to avoid the tragic becomes itself a kind of tragic theme.

• • • • •

In the interviews with Lax, Konigsberg states that his reading of philosophy and literature is mainly an attempt to help him answer the ultimate question about life: its purpose and values in its relation to death. “I think the most important issues to me are what one’s values in life should be—the existence of God, death—that’s real interesting to me. Whether it’s capitalist society or socialism—that’s superficial.”The task Konigsberg takes on is no small one for a comedian, let alone a philosopher! Konigsberg puts the problem into the voice of his character Allen when he says, “My view of reality is that it has always been a grim place to be . . . but it’s the only place you can get Chinese food.” Variations on this theme appear throughout his writings: “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.” Or, “Eternal nothingness is O.K. if you’re dressed for it.”

      In somewhat less of a punch-line voice he rues, “I think the salient feature about human existence is man’s inhumanity to man.” He reiterates the point:

What I’m really saying—and it’s not hidden or esoteric, it’s just clear as a bell—is that we have to accept that the universe is godless and life is meaningless, often a terrible and brutal experience with no hope, and that love relationships are very, very hard, and that we still need to find a way to not only cope but lead a decent and moral life.

      In this sense, he’s Kierkegaardian without the leap of faith, or Sartrean without the existential ethics of action. But Konigsberg does ask, “How do we carry on, or even, why should we choose to carry on?” His answer—specifically to a Jesuit priest-philosopher at St. Johns University who wrote an essay on Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), describing the movie as the most atheistic film ever made—is notable:

To me it’s a damn shame that the universe doesn’t have any God or meaning, and yet only when you can accept that can you then go on to lead what these people call a Christian life—that is, a decent, moral life. You can only lead it if you acknowledge what you’re up against to begin with and shuck off all the fairy tales that lead you to make choices in life that you’re making not really for moral reasons but for taking down a big score in the afterlife.

      Konigsberg’s reasoning here fits in line with a kind of radical materialist view of existence combined with an existential imperative. But Konigsberg’s vision of the universe, unlike that of his hero Ingmar Bergman, never rises to the tragic. Konigsberg laments that his own works will never have the stature of Bergman’s, but the reason isn’t lack of art so much as it is the eschewal of the tragic. In place of that we get pathos and despair. As Woody’s ex-wife, played by Meryl Streep, wrote in her exposé of his character Isaac Davis in Manhattan,

He was given to fits of rage, Jewish, liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, and nihilistic moods of despair. He had complaints about life, but never solutions. He longed to be an artist, but balked at the necessary sacrifices. In his most private moments, he spoke of his fear of death which he elevated to tragic heights when, in fact, it was mere narcissism.

      It seems clear that Woody’s ex-wife in the film is acting as the superego for Konigsberg. His tragic heights are actually fake perspectives covering up a universe that is merely pathetic.

• • • • •

One way of out of the existential dilemma is not so much political action as writing. Konigsberg recognizes the seriousness of writing. He has referred to Tolstoy’s dictum that the writer has to dip his pen in blood. The screenwriter does dip his pen in blood, more frequently in recent films of Konigsberg’s that investigate the ethical issues around murder. In at least three of his films—Match Point, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)—central characters kill their female partners, and in two of them they get away with it. It’s a world in which there is no God or moral center that demands they be punished in the narrative. Konigsberg in effect stares at a world that Dostoevsky could not bring himself to imagine when he said that without God there could be no morality.

      It is writing, whether funny or serious, that is central to Konigsberg: “But if tomorrow I couldn’t get financing I would be very happy to write plays, very happy to sit home and try to write a novel and maybe under those circumstances try to write an autobiography or a memoir. I just like to work, to write.” He makes it clear over and over in these interviews that he sees his main job as that of a writer. In fact, what is quite amazing and revealing in the interviews is how little he does as a director. He never rehearses his actors before shooting, and he almost never tells them how to act. He only shows them their “sides,” or the segment of the dialogue in which they participate, but they do not read the script as a whole. He allows them to use the lines he’s written or to make up their own. He also rarely talks to his actors on the set or off. Of Judy Davis, one of his most used actors, he says: “She and I never had any communication at all because there was no need for it. I would think we haven’t exchanged a hundred words in our lifetime, and we’ve done three or four pictures. . . . I’ve never had to give her any direction at all.” When he casts his actors, he does so by reputation, and when he flies them in for an interview, he has almost never rejected a single one.

      Why this strange detachment? The directorial neutrality is also combined with a disregard of one of the crucial demands in filmmaking—coverage. Most filmmakers shoot a master shot with the main characters visible in the frame, and then they shoot close-ups, reverse shots, to get good coverage so that when they are in the editing phase they have many options for how to put a scene together. Konigsberg, according to Lax,doesn’t usually shoot coverage, and mainly works with master shots.

      This method allows a huge element of chance to enter his films, more so than with many directors. And it isn’t coincidental that chance plays such a big role in his artistic and philosophical vision. For example, Match Point opens with the image of a tennis ball balancing on the net, about to fall one way or the other. This moment is one of pure chance, not dependent on the skill of either player. Yet in a match-point moment in tennis, the entire game depends on which way the ball falls. And the film itself ends up with the image of a ring that has been tossed by the main character—the ring that, if found, would certainly lead to his arrest for murder. The tossed ring balances for a second on a metal railing over the Thames, and the film slows down this moment of chance—until the ring doesn’t fall into the river. And even though chance or luck seems now to be against the murderer, the matter is by no means settled.

• • • • •

Many plot points in Konigsberg’s films depend on people running into each other in New York. In fact, you could say that the only plot arrangements in Konigsberg films depend on these chance encounters. And if Konigsberg allows chance to structure his film, in both form and content, it is because his vision of the universe is one without pattern or design. Chance is the atheist’s answer to prayer. Prayer depends on the idea that there is a design or will in the universe and this can be influenced to change events. Chance provides a belief for the atheist that there is no design or will, so that when things happen, good or bad, they can be assigned to chance. In this sense, chance gives a kind of agency to the individual who doesn’t believe in design or will.

      Writing gives an additional sense of control. If you can’t shape events in the world, you can at least shape the world in narrative. By leaving filmmaking to a kind of chance, Konigsberg structures his world through the writing of it. But even the writing process is evanescent—important but done quickly. His work is spontaneous in all ways, then; Konigsberg isn’t so much the director of a film as the observer of the forces of chance, which he seemingly harnesses (if that isn’t a contradiction) by making it the rule of the game.

      The problem with chance, though, is that it never rises to the level of tragedy. Tragedy requires more than chance, according to Aristotle. It requires the deliberate action of a character, indeed the mistaken action of a character who thinks he or she is acting rightly but is driven by a misunderstanding of what right is. Konigsberg’s lament in these interviews is that he hasn’t made a “great” film, by which he means one like those by Bergman or Kurosawa—that are ineluctably tragic in their vision. Konigsberg notes,

I’ve said over the years that the only thing standing between me and greatness is me. . . . I’ve had carte blanche for thirty-five years and I’ve never made a great film. It’s just not in me to make a great film; I don’t have the depth of vision to do it. I don’t say to myself, I’m going to make a great film and I’m going to be uncompromising. If necessary I’ll work nights and go to the far ends of the earth. That’s just not me. I’d like to make a great film provided it doesn’t conflict with my dinner reservation.

      Jokes aside, the problem for Konigsberg may not be a lack of determination or vision, but rather that his comedy may provide a more reliable path to enlightenment than his drama. As he says, “I have a personal preference and put a greater value on a successful dramatic piece than a successful comedy piece.” In his film Melinda and Melinda (2004) his characters have a long discussion over dinner about whether a tragic or a comic view of the world is more accurate. The film itself tells the story of the same heroine from a comic and tragic perspective. But in that film as well as his others the depiction of the tragic is more difficult in his universe, in which there is no “right” action because there is no design or will. In Match Point, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ character, in talking with the police investigator, says he hopes that the murderer will be found so at least there will be justice in a meaningless world. But justice can only inhere in a world that has a notion of justice.

      In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Konigsberg considers the role of religion in the ontology of justice. Martin Landau’s character, the man torn by doubts about the meaning of life and the role of ethics in it, is counseled by a rabbi, played by Sam Waterston, at a wedding reception:

We see life as fundamentally different: you see it as harsh and empty of values and pitiless, and I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart a moral structure with real meaning and forgiveness and some kind of higher power. Otherwise there is no basis to know how to live.

      If there is no basis to know how to live in the nonreligious world that Konigsberg inhabits, then there is no way to make a film that will resonate with meaning. The least (or maybe most) one can do is make narratives about the serendipitous nature of existence and the chancy nature of chance. At the end of the day, or the film, we as the audience can only watch as the tennis ball hovers at the net—marveling that there is no way to predict which way it will fall and no significance to be drawn from the direction in which it ultimately falls.

      That’s the beauty of chance that Konigsberg grasps as his final and finally provable thesis. But it’s also precisely the one that won’t allow him to say anything beyond it. Still, in the end, it’s a pretty good run for the money—and the mind—as the camera pulls back and the credits roll.

  

Books discussed in this essay:

Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking, by Eric Lax; Alfred A. Knopf, 2007

Complete Prose, by Woody Allen; Wings Books, 1991

Woody Allen and Philosophy: You Mean My Whole Fallacy Is Wrong? edited by Mark T. Conard and Aeon J. Skoble; Open Court, 2004

Woody Allen: Interviews, edited by Robert E. Kapsis and Kathie Coblentz; University of Mississippi Press, 2006

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s