Monday, December 12, 2011

Joan Didion on Woody Allen

Manhattan is one of my favorite movies, but I still expected to enjoy on some level Joan Didion's 1979 pan of the movie from the New York Review of Books (you can read the whole thing online), to which I saw several references today, thanks to a Slate piece on dismissive replies by literary heavyweights. Instead I find it surprisingly petty; she seems to willfully misread Woody Allen throughout:

It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a picture in which, toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. “Groucho Marx” is one reason, and “Willie Mays” is another. The second movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues.” Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’ĂȘtre go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.

This is an interesting point to be sure, but I'm not 100% convinced by Didion's apparent contention that this "new class" is defined only by a fear of liking the wrong thing. The class in question seems to be artists and wannabe artists or general art-obsessives, people who define themselves through aesthetics rather than, say, a sport or an active hobby like cooking. But so what? The ultimate reason to stay alive is programmed in our DNA. Any other reason is what we tell ourselves and others in order to appear interesting or unselfish. What if the list included "active" items like skiing and making bread? Is that really any less bougie? Ask someone dying of malaria what they want to live for, what if they say "to see the sun rise another day," are you going to point out that watching the sunrise is passive?

When Natalie Gittelson of The New York Times Magazine recently asked Woody Allen how his own analysis was going after twenty-two years, he answered this way: “It’s very slow…but an hour a day, talking about your emotions, hopes, angers, disappointments, with someone who’s trained to evaluate this material—over a period of years, you’re bound to get more in touch with feelings than someone who makes no effort.”  
Well, yes and (apparently) no. Over a period of twenty-two years “you’re bound” only to get older, barring nasty surprises. This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career—something to work at, work on, “make an effort” for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s “relationships”—is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents.

I'm not sure what her point is here either. Analysis is a recent phenomenon, yes, but so are movies and tiramisu. Again, so what? Analysis exists to address "first-world problems," of which America, fortunately or unfortunately, has plenty.

These faux adults of Woody Allen’s have dinner at Elaine’s, and argue art versus ethics.

I eat dinner and talk about art and ethics, I just don't get paid six figures to do so. Didion's life actually feels just as "faux" to me as anyone in a Woody Allen movie (movies are "fiction" by the way, so of course the characters are faux): sitting around writing all day in the same room as her husband, writing movie scripts, drinking scotch in glamorous Bohemian dresses etc.

In Manhattan [Diane Keaton] is a magazine writer, and we actually see her typing once, on a novelization, and talking on the telephone to “Harvey,” who, given the counterfeit “insider” shine to the dialogue, we are meant to understand is Harvey Shapiro, the editor of The New York Times Book Review. (Similarly, we are meant to know that the “Jack and Anjelica” to whom Paul Simon refers in Annie Hall are Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, and to feel somehow flattered by our inclusion in this little joke on those who fail to get it.)

Or maybe we're supposed to laugh at how pretentious the comment is? Annie Hall is after all a comedy. This seems to operate in the same way as the scene in Manhattan where Diane Keaton talks about "the academy of the overrated" and we're meant to understand her as insufferable. Also I never knew who "Harvey" was and don't feel I missed anything by not knowing; it just sounds like the name of an editor.

Surely Joan Didion isn't entirely humorless, so can someone explain to me what her problem is here? Woody Allen has of course created his share of shit but I think Manhattan and Annie Hall represent a peak in his career (late 70s through mid-80s) when he transcended screwball comedy without becoming unbearably pretentious. (I'd put Hannah and Her Sisters in the same category.)


  1. One of those cases, surely, where the reviewer is trying to put words to an inchoate sense of irritation. (One might speculate that there's an east-coast/west-coast thing going on here, Didion being a Californian. Perhaps it's easier to have a list of active raisons d'etre if you don't have weather?)

  2. "the reviewer is trying to put words to an inchoate sense of irritation" -- agree completely, you get the sense that she "just doesn't like Woody Allen" and is trying to make a political case for it. But failing, in my opinion, because in the end she belongs to the same general category of bourgeois intellectuals. I like Joan Didion, I just don't think she's the right person to write about Woody Allen movies.

  3. I also appreciate the east vs. west thing, and wondered if there might even be a subtle strand of Catholic guilt versus Jewish guilt, though I admit I don't know if Didion is Catholic.

  4. And no: her husband was Catholic, she was Episcopalian.

  5. I actually enjoyed the Didion review, Elisa, in an odd way,thanks for the link. Maybe she liked Woody's earlier movies, you know, the funnier ones.

    I really liked Manhattan, but I also really, really liked Stardust Memories, so where does that put me, and don't even get me started on Sweet & Lowdown.

    Not to change the subject, but you posted something awhile back that spurred a stream of comments in which folks noted some of their favorite malaprops and mondegreens (or spellit), mis-sayings and the like, and it reminded of Dora Malech, her book titled Say So, published recently, for all of us who are pretty okay with the dismembering of language, the punsters, the double-talkers, etc ... in the spirit of the holidays, I'd recommend it, a gaffe that keeps on guffawing, and all thus.

    All best,


  6. Stardust Memories is one of the few remaining Woody Allen movies from the "classic" era that I haven't seen (the last one I saw from recent years was Matchpoint).

    Thank you for the recommendation! I will seek it out.

  7. I first saw SD in a movie theater in Lincoln, Nebraska, within weeks of its release, my first year in college at UNL, so that probably has something to do with my love for it: context.

    Prior to that, movies arrived somewhere near my hometown (Ord or Broken Bow) a couple years after they'd already been shown all around the country, New York & California among the first viewers, I suppose.

    You still laughed though at The Longest Yard two years out, but you knew you were missing something.

    Some people like Stardust Memories, and a lot of people hate it. The film critics usually say it never develops, nothing happens (as if things happening are terribly important), the plot never comes to fruition, often comparing it unfavorably to Felini's 8.5.

    I think back then, in 1980, I somehow already had a slight sense in my heart, or wherever your best senses are kept, that most things always come to nothing, in the grand scheme of things, that so much of our lives are ultimately about what happens to us as nothing inherently really happens, and that this is/was, in its own way, possibly a very important happening.

    So there, maybe in a funny way I was primed for this movie from the start.

    Take care,


  8. It's amazing when you see the right movie (or read the right book, or hear the right song) at the right time. For most of my favorite things, it's probably just as much about me at that moment as it was about the thing itself.

  9. stardust memories is great. one of my favorites. i stupidly lent it to someone and never got it back, though they did reimburse me. i just need to buy it again, but it's hard to find.

  10. Manhattan is also one of my favorite movies (also Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters). Beautiful, lyrical, just stunning to look at.

    I love the scene in Manhattan where Woody Alley and one of his friend are having a conversation, not arguing exactly but slightly contentious, in the room (a museum or a science lab, I forget which) where there are skeletons of prehistoric cavedwellers mounted behind them, and as they stand there talking, the skulls of the cavedweller weirdly start to resemble the faces of the two men.

    I didn't altogether get what he was trying to do in Stardust Memories, though it didn't really bother me. When you experiment a lot and try new things, sometimes the experiments work really well, sometimes not so much, but the point is to keep being creative. I've really liked maybe half of Woody Allen's movies (of the ones I've seen), and there really haven't been any of his that I disliked.

    My initial offhand take on Didion's review, or rather on the excerpts you've quoted here (I haven't gone and read the full review yet) is that she's bored with things in general.

  11. It's a viable theory!

    I do actually dislike some of Woody Allen's movies -- it usually seems to be a matter of the writing feeling stale and his casting actors who can't pull it off. John has a general dislike for Woody Allen movies and he thinks the problem is usually WA's presence -- he's OK w/ the movies in which he doesn't cast himself.

  12. What Sarang said was the first thing to come to mind--Didion may have worked in New York, but she is such a Californian. I mean, she's written about California for a long time, but not necessarily her own aesthetic relationship to it. Her 2003 book Where I Was From does that, though. But that's 23 years after her movie review.

    The tidbit about her being Episcopalian is somehow interesting. In doctrine, it's closest to Catholicism, but it's culturally the church for educated WASPY types.

  13. So there does seem to be some kind of vague ideological rivalry.

  14. excellent analysis -- the review of "Manhattan" seemed to me like just *complaining* about various aspects of it -- like so many of the "reviews" you can read which are written by amateurs...

    1. Hey, thanks! I forgot I wrote this post. And I'm all for blogging your vague complaints, but publishing vague complaints in a serious literary review seems unexamined and spoiled and lazy.