Auteur criticism is not particularly the fashionable critical approach in film studies these days, but I think it still is valuable and has a lot to offer in certain cases. Woody Allen is one of those cases.
I’m in between semesters and finally had an opportunity to watch Woody Allen’s latest film, Whatever Works. If you know me you know I am a devoted WA fan. I’ve never been one of those who whines for the “older, funny ones.” True Annie Hall is among my top five “desert island” films, but so is Crimes and Misdemeanors. I can’t say I likedInteriors in quite the same way as Bananas, but I thought it was a very good film and as an artist, WA had every right to make it and expect us to appreciate it on its own terms.
That’s the thing about applying auteur criticism to a film by an auteur (and I consider WA and Hitchcock to be the only true Hollywood auteurs, in the sense Truffaut meant it). Whatever Works is entertaining but not by any measure among WA’s best films (over five decades), but it extends his lifelong exploration of several personal themes, ideas and structures, which makes it fascinating and more than worthy of consideration and appreciation.
WA seems to be a pessimist about the empty universe, but his work over and over reveals a fundamental optimism. In Whatever Works, Larry David’s Boris Yelnikoff rails angrily against the cretins and the idiots of the world. He rails to his friends, and to the audience, about the current sorry state of culture and politics and society. But in the end, he still is open to love ... the heart wants what it wants. And for WA, in Whatever Works, the struggle for love is—as always—about the struggle between the body and the mind.
This entry doesn’t mean to be exhaustive on the subject, but you can easily follow this thread throughout WA’s work. Here are three examples.
In Love and Death, his Boris is desperately in love with Diane Keaton’s Sonia. They have these fabulously esoteric discussions about subjectivity and objectivity, and at one point Sonia wistfully notes that she often thinks she’s half saint, half whore, to which Boris replies, “Here’s hoping I get the half that eats.”
In Annie Hall, his adult Alvy Singer has closed himself into the bedroom at a party hosted by the publisher of his wife Robin’s (Janet Margolin) new book. She comes in on him as he’s watching a Knick’s game on TV.
Alvy, what is so fascinating about a group of pituitary cases trying to stuff the ball through a hoop?
(Looking at Robin)
What's fascinating is that it's physical. You know, it's one thing about intellectuals;
they prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what's going on. But on the
other hand ... (Clears his throat) the body doesn't lie, as we now know.
And in Mighty Aphrodite, WA’s Lenny suffers his intellectual and neurotic wife, Amanda (Helen Bonham Carter), when he becomes infatuated with their adopted child’s birth mother, Linda Ash, an earthy, high-priced call girl, who may be the dumbest person in New York, but who’s heart and love is pure.
Many, many years later, in Whatever Works, Boris Yelnikoff can’t understand how his wife, who “on paper” is a perfect intellectual match for him, could be so emotionally wrong with him. Having sworn off women and romance, he gets zapped by an innocent amidst the trash and decay of his rage and lower Manhattan, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood)—half his age, a fraction of his intelligence (he an almost-Nobel laureate in physics), and even though she’s a run-away from the depths of the South, she’s infinitely and inherently smarter, wiser and happier. As with Annie and Linda, WA’s male protagonist sets about to remake the young girl into his idealized image—but what’s always interesting is that they not so much change him as help his heart accept what his intellect deflects: the body doesn’t lie, as we now know.
This realization—this safety net of love—goes to another sustained theme throughout WA’s work, including Whatever Works: that finding love in an empty and pitiless and chaotic universe is a matter of luck. And while falling in love and staying in love is simply chance (which flies in the face of WA and his character’s intellectual understanding), the body craves it, because we need the eggs, right?
That Melodie marries Boris but eventually leaves him is not sad for WA, and never has been. Because as we know, love fades. Boris accepts that. WA accepts that. And as luck would have it, when Boris is at his lowest point because of that (it still hurts), he falls into (actually onto) another lucky romance ... with a psychic (also a great distance to fall intellectually for a physicist).
That’s what makes WA so interesting. He understands that we all die and that the world is corrupt and that “The net result, the final count is, you lose; you don’t beat the house. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort this truth.” And while this seems hopeless and tragic, there’s actually joy here, or at least contentment, because WA always embraces the slim possibility that love will happen. And while the intellect seems the most desirable affect for navigating this life, it always loses in WA’s world.
Because it’s the body that doesn’t lie, as we now know. So, whatever works to make that happy is what works.
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