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The Function of Humor in Woody Allen’s Films

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Ray Carney believes that Woody Allen uses humor to avoid having to express real meaning. Carney argues that Woody Allen doesn’t engage his characters in a process of discovery, either social or verbal, that dramaticize real life and significant art. He believes that Allen’s characters are really abstract pseudo-characters and that Allen turns to comedic diversions to allow his characters to escape dramatic scenes and situations without engaging in the processes of real life. Carney describes Allen’s characters as being schematic, “…essentially abstract and static,” as being “so non-dramatic as to border on the cartoonish.”[1]

Carney further argues that Woody Allen presents a his cinematic world without authenticity, a reality that has been hygienically cleansed, “…one that extends beyond the cleanliness of the sets to the squeaky-cleanness of the events, plots, and characters.”[2] This is accomplished, Carney says, through the film’s narration, titles, and music among other devices that seemingly give the film artistic gloss and audience appeal but in reality obscure the real dramatic contents with packaging. Carney writes, “Allen wraps his projects in sumptuous musical soundtracks, photographs them elegantly, and works into his characters’ dialogue high-toned allusions to masterworks of art, architecture, music, film, and literature.”[3]

Carney isn’t merely raising one controversial issue in his thirty-page critique of Woody Allen, he finds Allen’s cinematic process, even his use of comedy, to be fatal flaws. “Every time a scene starts to get truly interesting or complex,” Carney writes, “[4]Allen is just too good at turning it into a joke to allow himself or his viewers to explore it, to learn anything from it. Comedy is not used to complicate our responses or to enlarge our perspective on an event, but to soften our view of it, to protect Allen’s characters (and scenes) from becoming truly disturbing.” “Comedy,” in Carney’s view, “is the wound through which serious meaning bleeds out of Allen’s work. He offers an example in Annie Hall, when Alvy and Annie Hall are offered cocaine. Alvy sneezes and blows the cocaine all over the floor. Carney’s observation is that just when the scene is about to enter the realm of real and significant drama, the scene turns away and is exploited for comedy. “Again and again in Allen’s work,” he writes, “ physical comedy, disarming one-liners, dodges into mere silliness defuse the emotional time-bombs that actually tick for a few seconds.[5]

Sam Girgus views Woody Allen as a modern day Charlie Chaplin, and regards the films of Woody Allen quite differently than Ray Carney. “In terms of the film’s purposes and intentions,” Girgus writes, “the firm adherence of Annie Hall to Alvy Singer’s consciousness can be considered a major success. Starting with the opening monologue in which Alvy reveals his inner thoughts to the audience, the film inveigles the viewer into a position that supports the centrality of Alvy as the developing subject within the film’s narrative.” [6] Where Carney sees Alvy Singer’s narration as avoidance in Annie Hall, Girgus believes it offers a re-interpretative narrative to infuse the film with Allen’s artistic vision of human behavior. “In my view,” he writes, “visual and verbal humor give Annie Hall its force to subvert and reconstruct conventional modes of thought and gender constructions, which helps explain why radical critics of Allen often seem immune to his humor.” [7]

Girgus is more interested in the methodology of Woody Allen’s technique – specifically how his narrative approach reorganizes the internal logic of the film’s thematic meaning. He references Freud’s observations that desire, as manifested by Oedipus, inspires the narrative of searching for one’s true identity and sexuality. “Oedipus provides the basis for character development, while the Freudian narrative of repression and return enables us to talk about the unspeakable and to see in disguised form the desire that remains hidden from personal consciousness and the moral imagination.”[8]

Girgus also seems interested in the psychology of Allen’s films and Woody Allen himself, so examines the filmmaker’s personal life and speculates on how it may influence his artistic vision. Like Carney, Girgus also believes that Allen’s jokes deflect drama, as he describes a humorous scene in Annie Hall where the hyper-sensitive Alvy relates anxiously what he thought was an anti-Semetic comment. “…this joke demonstrates how Allen handles such a painful and controversial subject as anti-Semitism by both presenting and disarming it through humor,”[9] writes Girgus. He applauds the joke just as enthusiastically as Carney would condemn it.

            Gingus views Hannah and Her Sisters as a culmination of all Allen’s film work up until that time, and again values those films in the opposite pole from Carney. “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Gingus writes, “includes elements from most of Allen’s major films – the comedic but creative schlemiel, the focus on serious women characters of Interiors and Manhattan, complex characterization and narrative, the exploration of ambiguous personal relationships and moral issues, the fusion of comedy and drama, self-conscious cinematography, and visualization….For those critics who see in Allen’s work true milestones in the history of American cinema, Hannah and Her Sisters realizes the creative potential of all of his important films as well as the fulfillment of a promise about his artistic values …” [10]

Where as Carney declaims Allen’s use of narration to avoid confronting authentic drama, Gingus writes approvingly of Allen’s use of dramatic narration to enhance and steer Hannah and Her Sisters opening scene, stating that it, “…embodies the theme of the camera built on visual desire and sexual differentiation.”[11] The function of the drama in the scenes of Hannah’s family celebrating the holidays together are interpreted by Carney as dramatic avoidance, but wonderfully succeed, revealing a depth of obsession, to Gingus. So what is seen as failure to Carney is “brilliant techniques and motifs” to Gingus. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

To Nancy Pogel, on the other hand, Woody Allen represents the Little Man, or “dementia-praecox,” in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Bob Hope, who she describes as Allen’s comedy ancestors.[12] These are the alienated men of the Freud-era, anxious, possibly hysterical, victims of modern complexity and technology.

Gingus writes about the ending of Hannah and her Sisters, relating Elliot’s dialogue that “watching a Marx Brothers movie made him understand that life could be lived and enjoyed even without access to final meaning and truth.” [13] This is a statement that Carney would most certainly vehemently dispute. Pogel, on the other hand, would view the issue differently. She views Allen’s humor as dialogic – of resonating in a larger context. She writes, “Allen films carry on a great many dialogues over ideas, style, and form.”[14] Where Carney focuses on what he perceives as Allen’s dramatic avoidance, and where Gingus sees comedic statement, Pogel observes that Allen’s films, “portray a weave of interrelationships, between the individual and the social context and history, within which he or she struggles for definition and transformation.

His films are always of this world, and they deal with the everyday concerns that make up the hope and hopelessness of the human condition.”[15] So, while Carney focuses on Allen’s shortcomings as a dramatist, and Gingus focuses on Allen’s depth of storytelling, Pogel focuses on Allen’s Little Man character, and its relevance. She particularly writes about Annie Hall’s resonance with Screwball Comedy: the battle of the sexes, the snappy dialogue, and the “uppity women,” who triumph in the end. To Pogel, Annie Hall is an echo that mocks Screwball, even while intensifying some of its themes. Allen’s characters are betrayed by their own false expectations and by their own perceptions of romance. To Pogel, the humor of Woody Allen is a “reflexive examination of the relationship of art to life.”[16]

What Carney, Gingus, and Pogel all share is the desire to understand the films of Woody Allen. What each finds is significantly different, often polarized, and entirely determined by the elements each focuses upon and mostly highly values.

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