Ray Carney Moment of the Day #13

July 12, 2011

La Jetee

Consider the argument between the old married couple, Norma (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Evan (Lloyd Nolan), in Hannah and Her Sisters. Norma has been on a drinking binge and has been flirting with a younger man at lunch. For a few minutes, as their daughter Hannah (Mia Farrow) looks on, Norma and Evan verbally abuse each other, dredge up horrid accusations of past sins and infidelities, and generally indicate all of the dissatisfactions in their marriage that we are meant to feel that they have kept successfully suppressed up to this point in the film. There is a scene quite similar to this one in each of Allen’s serious films. It is a scene in which hypocrisies are exposed, dirty laundry is aired, secrets characters keep from themselves and each other are suddenly revealed, and the characters are radically “deepened.” But notwithstanding all of the raised voices and agitated gestures, real danger is seldom present. (This is not to say that reviewers don’t know how they are expected to respond to Big Dramatic Moments. This scene in Hannah and Her Sisters, to cite only one example, was singled out for praise by almost every reviewer. The trouble is that a reviewer is not supposed to take an artist at his intention, but to judge whether he or she succeeded in realizing it.)

In the scene between Norma and Evan, consider how Allen has worked to contain the threat by trivializing the grounds of the argument: a sixty-year-old woman’s tippling and flirting with a young man constitutes a pretty trivial “crisis” for a pair of old-marrieds, and one more silly than sad. A view of Norma’s fatuousness can hardly be said seriously to deepen or enrich our appreciation of her. (If Allen had actually made her have a serious affair with a younger man, or, better yet, a serious affair with a man closer to her age, then there might have been something really interesting added to her character and something really threatening added to this scene.)

Secondly, as if to make doubly sure that the scene doesn’t get his characters or his viewers in over their heads into deeper emotional water than he is prepared to navigate, Allen inserts Hannah’s voice in a voice-over choric commentary that makes absolutely certain that we are never for a second in doubt about how to understand and respond to her parents. The clichès about their “lost possibilities,” by means of which Hannah simultaneously excuses and criticizes their behavior would be embarrassing on a daytime soap-opera: “She was so beautiful at one time, and he was so dashing. Both of them just full of promise and hopes that never materialized…. All the fights and the constant infidelities to prove themselves . . . and blaming each other. It’s sad.” Hannah’s remarks are obviously meant to deepen our sense of Norma and Evan, but the deepening process yields only aphoristic shallowness.

Yet, as if this damage control weren’t enough, Allen hedges his bets one more time. Perhaps he fears that an audience may regard Hannah, bland as her bromidic rationalizations of her parents’ behaviors have been, as being too smug about her parents. He has her back down into a still less judgmental position. In her final voice-over comment, she sums up the scene in a statement that is as good an example as any of what I would call the relentless ethical and psychological neutralization of hard judgments (and hard realities) in Allen’s work: “But it’s impossible to hold it against them. They didn’t know anything else.” Why is it impossible to hold it against them? Why do these aphorisms suffice to justify Norma to us? Only because Allen’s is an “I’m OK – You’re OK” cinema of moral emasculation and ethical neutralization in which, as long as one is well-intentioned and sincere, one is justified in one’s actions. As this scene demonstrates, there may be occasional arguments, but when the films are examined closely, there simply are no recalcitrant, horrifying, or bewildering emotional realities in Allen’s work.

The final thing to notice about Allen’s handling of the argument is that at the end of it the crisis magically abates, and is never referred to again. This sudden resolution of a scene of disharmony is an almost formulaic event in Allen’s work. Arguments occur only almost immediately to be resolved or forgotten: compare the argument between Diane (Elaine Strich) and Lane (Mia Farrow) in September. In this instance, mother, father, and daughter gather together around the piano as Evan plays and the two women listen. It is as if Allen and his film couldn’t risk having even this slight disturbance linger in a viewer’s consciousness any longer. He turns the seriousness on and then turns it off when it has served his purposes. If her creator (and indeed her own daughter) doesn’t take Norma seriously enough really to explore her situation, but is satisfied first with offering up a pat series of soap-opera bromides and clichès about her as her dramatic due in her most serious scene, and then with glossing over her problems altogether at the end of the scene, who in the audience can take her seriously? In the final analysis, the real sentimental flirt, the real coquette going through the motions of playing with others’ feelings in this scene must be judged to be not Norma, but her creator.

In the outright comedies, the weird or strange characters are comically controlled by being turned into kooks. Compare the treatment of Annie’s brother Duane (Chris Walken) in Annie Hall. As Walken plays him, Duane is, for a brief time, really quite frightening as, in a scene with Alvy (Woody Allen), he narrates a lurid psychopathic fantasy of being killed in an automobile accident. To our surprise and discomfort, Walken momentarily propels us out of Woody Allen territory and into another kind of entirely more horrifying movie where real hazards lurk in wait for the unwary. As Duane rants on, the audiences I have seen this scene with actually stir in their seats of discomfort. Which is to say that there are real possibilities here, if only Allen had dared to pursue them. But the time bomb is no sooner armed and ticking than it is almost immediately disarmed by the witty put-down from Alvy that closes the scene: “Well, I have to go now, Duane, because I’m due back on planet earth.”

Two scenes later, in his final appearance in the film, Duane once again becomes momentarily threatening and ominous (as he drives Alvy and Annie home in his car and we recall his previous suicidal rant). But that is as far as the danger goes. First, because nothing whatever happens and Duane is subsequently dropped from the narrative. (The scene ends by dissolving into the state of reverie that I have already called attention to at the end of the argument scene.) And second, because the scary close-up of Duane’s face that begins the scene is replaced almost instantly with a comic shot of Alvy’s, as the camera pans from one figure to the other sitting in the front seat of the car. Allen’s comically exaggerated expression turns the potential nightmare into a Marx Brothers comic “take.” Duane’s scene has been transformed into farce. He has become a figure out of Gary Larson’s Far Side.

As these scenes suggest, Allen’s real nightmare is not characters like Duane or arguments between old-marrieds, but leaving his audience in doubt for more than a few seconds about how to feel in a scene. That way lies learning, exploration, and discovery. But to get there one has to risk confusing viewers, pushing them into unexpected emotional places, making them uncomfortable, moving them outside of their accustomed categories of response.

That’s what Allen’s cinema never quite risks. Just as Hannah’s voice-over told us exactly how to respond to her parents, Alvy’s comically bugged out eyes and furrowed brow at the end of the second scene with Duane tell us exactly how to feel in order to be able to avoid dealing more seriously with him. Of course, far from finding it evasive and objectionable, many viewers appreciate such help. Some audiences, perhaps most audiences, want to be told how to feel, and all the more when the message is comforting.

This is filmmaking by pushing buttons, paint-by-numbers for the cinema. As the scene with Duane shows, if there are indeed a few seconds of nerve-wracking stunts, there is always a safety net of common expectations and normative understandings shoved into place at the last minute underneath each one, a net which will reliably prevent characters and viewers from going into more than momentary free fall. That is probably one of the reasons Allen is such a dependably “safe bet” for viewers. When was the last time he allowed (let alone encouraged) an audience to get upset, confused, or angry with a scene or character? When was the last time he (or the performances of his actors and characters) truly outraged or surprised us (as opposed to merely tricking or teasing for a few seconds and then reassuring us as the scenes with Duane, Evan, and Norma do)? When was the last time we couldn’t figure out, or make up our minds about a character? Even more discouragingly, when was the last time a starring character wasn’t in a position to figure himself out and explain himself by the end of the film?

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