Why People Love Woody Allen by Joe Arton

In November of 2011, PBS aired the latest addition in their American Masters series; Woody Allen: A Documentary. Robert Weide’s celebrity profile of Allen was a thorough and nuanced examination of his life and work. Aside from Weide’s unprecedented access to the pathologically private star, the documentary’s combination of star study, textual analysis and cultural context makes it one of the most important works on Allen and a triumph of the celebrity documentary form. However, in the film’s almost two hour running time, divided over two consecutive nights, it failed to answer a central question about Allen, posed by the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum more than twenty years ago;

Why has Allen been nominated and all but elected our foremost “artistic” filmmaker and the poet laureate of our collective uncertainties in so many circles…(and) What does he do for this audience that is deemed so essential and irreplaceable?1

Over the last five years I have returned to Rosenbaum’s question on an almost daily basis. It has framed my approach to Allen, and has been the one underlying question about his work that has consistently kept me up at night. I will attempt to answer Rosenbaum’s question by unpacking its constituent parts, and in the process give a brief summation of my own findings about Allen’s work and star image. Rosenbaum asks: why is Allen such an important cultural figure, and what does he do for his audience that is “so essential and irreplaceable?” In his question Rosenbaum hints that Allen’s success as a filmmaker might be due to his articulation and satisfaction of the collective needs of his audience. I argue that this is indeed a useful explanation as to the reasons behind Allen’s success. However, Rosenbaum’s aim in his 1990 article was to devalue the importance of Allen in American culture. Reading the article, is it clear that Rosenbaum doesn’t intend to address the role Allen’s films play for the different facets of his audience. He never intends to answer his own question.

Rosenbaum is correct that Allen’s films do indeed fulfill the unconscious needs of his audience. More specifically, Allen’s films fit Freud’s notion of “wish-fulfillment,” they resolve the recent or historical unconscious conflicts of his audience. My own research on Allen focused on the late 1970s, and during this period his most devoted constituency was composed of feminist journalists, the American Jewish community, New York film critics, and disenfranchised males. This was Allen’s most critically and commercially successful decade and marked his evolution from slapstick into serio-comedy. For a filmmaker who so conspicuously courts Freud, the Austrian Psychoanalyst’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious is a useful starting place when discussing Allen’s most comic period.

Applying Freud’s writings on comedy, film scholar Andrew Horton divides film comedies into “pre-Oedipal” and “Oedipal” comedy. Horton has described Allen’s comedy as “Oedipal,” as it always involves an Oedipal resolution. In spite of its anarchic moments, the narrative always results in an adult resolution of conflict.2 In contrast, pre-Oedipal comedy represents a form of “wish-fulfillment” and a regaining of “the lost laughter of childhood” through madcap and anarchic comedy.3 For example, Horton categorizes the Marx Brothers and Keystone Kops as offering a pre-Oedipal perspective. Taking a different approach to Horton, I would argue the discourse surrounding Allen and his serio-comedy films Annie Hall and Manhattan suggests that for his audience they serve “pre-Oedipal” rather than “Oedipal” functions; like Freud’s dreams, they allow the resolution of unconscious conflicts. The reception of Allen’s films illustrates that for his audience the films represented a form of “wish-fulfillment.” Allen’s “tendentious” jokes made possible the satisfaction of a collective instinct. For Allen’s various “circles,” to borrow Rosenbaum’s phrase, his films opened “sources of pleasure that had become inaccessible.”4

The area in which I agree with Rosenbaum is his analysis of the role Allen played for the New York film critics. Here my own analysis of the period intersects with Rosenbaum’s argument: Allen gave critics accessible, Americanized European art house cinema. He argues that Allen gave critics the films they wanted, films with overt literary ambitions and European aesthetics.5 Allen also satisfied their need for an American star auteur in the age of the blockbuster. However, Rosenbaum focuses on this constituency to the exclusion of Allen’s other audiences. My research revealed that Allen’s overarching comic gaze appealed to multiple audiences.

For the American Jewish community, Allen’s foregrounding of Jewishness gave them visibility after decades of assimilation had almost erased their ethnicity. The rising rates of intermarriage and the decline in religious observance led to “a thinning out of ethnic bonds.”6 Allen’s films emerged during a period of “ethnic revival” in America in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, and other white ethnic revival movements. However, unlike the Jewish nostalgia films of the period, such as Fiddler on the Roof and Funny Girl, Allen’s films foregrounded contemporary Jewish identity. Moreover, his “Jewish jokes” gave Jewish audiences sources of pleasure in their own ethnicity.

In the context of the endless existential and unconscious anxiety of anti-Semitism amongst American Jews, Allen represented an image of contemporary Jewish masculinity who challenged the heroic WASP ideal.7 His Jewish male mocked the heroic, muscular masculinity of WASP archetypes such as Robert Redford and Steve McQueen, while still getting the Shiksa princess. This is what was so “essential” and “irreplaceable” about Allen’s films. Furthermore, for second generation Jewish-Americans, Allen articulated a generalized ambivalence with the religion and ethnicity of their parents. Historian Eli Lederhendler argues that Allen’s comedy encapsulated this “ethnocommunal and religious indifference and alienation.”8 For Allen’s first and second generation Jewish audience, his serio-comedy films represented a Bakhtinian perspective of “comedy as rebellion,” against WASP America and their own community.

In terms of gender, Allen appealed to two inherently contradictory audiences simultaneously. For a specific section of his female audience, Allen produced an important text: Annie Hall. The film was an outlier with its female centered narrative, its representation of contemporary relationships and images of post-feminist femininity. Film scholar David Shumway has written how Allen’s films, with their focus on “intimacy discourse,” were one of the first examples of the intersection between the romantic comedy and the “relationship story” genres. Moreover, Shumway has argued that in terms of “feminist tendencies,” these genres are examples where “the romance has been liberatory”.9 For Allen’s disenfranchised male audience in late 1970s America, Allen gave them “tendentious” jokes about women, feminists, and female intellectuals. Manhattan in particular allowed his audience to express their hostility towards women. The film also offered a Nabakovian fantasy of power and wish fulfillment with Tracy functioning as a proxy for Allen’s emasculated male audience.

Allen’s success as a filmmaker can be gauged by the fact that he moved marginal “Jewish comedy” into the mainstream, and made it the normative “American comedy.” The reason Allen was able to accomplish this was due to the fact that he articulated, as Rosenbaum states, the “concerns of his audience.” Ultimately it was Allen’s ability to appeal to all of these “circles” simultaneously that has made him so successful. This ambivalence however, has also led to divisive and polarized responses to his work. While Allen’s films and star persona represent the liberatory facets of wish-fulfillment, they also perpetuate the repressive strictures of ethnic and gender stereotypes. This ambivalence is why Allen remains such an important cultural figure, and continues to be worthy of serious scholarship.

1. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Notes toward the Depreciation of Woody Allen”, Tikkun, May-June 1990, pp.33-39.

2. Andrew Horton, Comedy/Cinema/Theory, Oxford: University of California Press, 1991, p.12.

3. Freud, Jokes, p.225.

4. Freud, Jokes, p.147.

5. Rosenbaum, p.34.

6. Eli Lederhendler, New York Jews and The Decline of Urban Ethnicity, 1950-1970, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001, p.102.

7. In 1979 Harold Quinley and Charles Glock wrote about the continued concern amongst American Jews about anti-Semitism in America. Harold E. Quinley and Charles Y. Glock, Anti-Semitism in America, New Brunswick: The Free Press, 1979, p.1.

8. Eli Lederhender, p.192.

9. David R. Shumway, Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy and The Marriage Crisis, New York: New York University Press, 2003, p.49.

Joe Arton
Joe Arton recently received his Ph.D. in Film Studies from the University of East Anglia. His thesis was titled Woody Allen: Jewishness, Stardom, and Femininities. His work has appeared in publications such as SCOPE and Thirdspace. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and baby boy.

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