What we can do, or at least begin to, is to get a sense of individual movies and its place in human history. I want to concentrate on two movies today from very different periods of human life. One is a classic Hollywood movie from Ernst Lubitsch, the Hollywood director who would probably be my choice for the best director of the first generation of talkies, and by importing to America the values of bourgeois Europe he was forced as a Jew to leave behind, almost single-handedly defined the values of Hollywood that we still think of as its values in our day. The second is a movie by the director who did his damndest to extend the values of Old Hollywood the furthest into our time, for good and bad, and who has stubbornly, resolutely, carried the values of mid-century American romance, values that seem increasingly warped in our day, to the very bitter end of his career. Of course I'm talking about Woody Allen, that twisted, depraved, sad dinosaur who could never have hobbled on for twenty years past when he mattered at all to America if people did not have memories of what a giant he was in American discourse he seemed like forty years ago.
There are a lot of once famous studio directors who probably won't matter in a hundred years nearly as much as we still think they do. A famous director of the studio era like John Ford made a few undisputed masterpieces like The Searchers, or a movie like How Green Was My Valley that I seem to be the only person to think is an undisputable masterwork, but even many of the famous among his 150 movies, like Stagecoach or My Darling Clementine, don't seem to me to hold up nearly so well. The archetypal American Western, particularly, relies on notions of masculinity and patriotism that should be obvious have an enormous amount in common with authoritarianism. Even for its own time, it appealed to the worst instincts of America rather than the best, and made Americans with more progressive values uneasy. And when you compare the Ford's production-code hobbled action sequences to the later action in directors influenced by John Ford like Spielberg and Scorsese, there's obviously no comparison in the excitement. And let's not even get started on Frank Capra.
The Western is the most obvious example of a genre in Hollywood ever coined, but Hollywood coined many genres, and every genre has its problems. Genre itself is limiting. Genre, by definition, gains its impact through cliches. The very nature of a genre is that there is a specific audience whom you are feeding a series of cliches without particularly challenging them with anything subversive, a series of cliches that with one small variant to create its individuality. Hollywood wasn't build to challenge people, it was built by giving the viewers what they want. This isn't to say that there aren't lots of examples of genre that are durable and lasting art which subverts its genre's cliches in all kinds of meaningful ways, but there are less of them than genre devotees imagine.
The average human being is more intelligent than an idiot, less intelligent than a smart person. One out of three are reasonably clever, one out of five or six are genuinely smart, so that means that there are roughly fifty or sixty million smart people in America. In the same way, one out of five or six Hollywood movies was of real quality, so it's amazing that in a place as seemingly dumb as Hollywood made so many great movies. But the question becomes, how many of those movies will still attract attention once millions of people stop caring about the movies completely the way they've stopped caring for written poetry or classical music. I'm sure that movies by directors of personalities to large to ever be contained by any genre will be watched by somebody for hundreds of years, but whatever the dramatic art form, genre fiction is usually the first to be thrown overboard, because without the popular zeitgeist surrounding it, it is impossible to convey what was so unique about them to later generations, who have their own genre entertainment that addresses the excitements of their own day much better, and will therefore be of more anthropological value than artistic. That's not to say that this is the fate of all popular genre fiction, but it is the fate of most of it.
But contrary to the Western, which celebrated conservative and manly virtues like honor and glory while pushing women and minorities to a status barely above props, the screwball comedy was the aesthetically progressive genre for its time - I dare say, it was progressive even by the standards of 2000. A screwball comedy is a very particular kind of romantic comedy in which a man and a woman who clash enormously are thrown into impossible situations together, and eventually fall in love. It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Lady Eve, Only Angels Have Wings, these were just some of the more famous ones - and for my money His Girl Friday still has to stand as the greatest romantic comedy ever made. But what's important to note about screwball comedies is that it's the only genre where the leading lady was guaranteed equal time to the leading man, half the best lines, and, at least by the standards of 1940, a three-dimensional character with a free will of her own.
The best of the screwball comedy directors, perhaps the best of all those classic Hollywood directors nobody talks about anymore, was Ernst Lubitsch, who in the span of five years made Ninotchka, Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not To Be, and Heaven Can Wait. Lubitsch was a Jew from Berlin who started in Max Reinhardt's German Theater, and became perhaps the most venerated director of the late 1930s. Practically everything that we think of as Classic Hollywood originates with Lubitsch, and what strikes us now is that the greatness of his movies consists of qualities so completely un-American. The Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington describes Lubitsch's style as:
"At once elegant and ribald, sophisticated and earthy, urbane and bemused, frivolous yet profound. They were directed by a man who was amused by sex rather than frightened of it – and who taught a whole culture to be amused by it as well."
When was America ever amused by sex? And in the 30's and 40's? It's almost unthinkable. But there, over and over again, it is in Ernst Lubitsch's movies, and audiences ate it up.
Ninotchka clip (up to 1:49)
What's missing without the video images in this clip from Ninotchka is Greta Garbo's look of supreme, almost autistic, indifference and Melvyn Douglas's look of absolute enchantment when she implies that his type of man will soon face a firing squad. What's amazing about the Screwball comedy, and why it is completely unique in American life is that, in a manner completely revolutionary for its time and progressive for any period in the 20th century, it views the battle of the sexes as a battle of equals. Two people who don't like each other going to the ends of the earth to one up each other until they realize that the other person is the only person in the entire world clever enough for them. By any terminology in our day, the man usually behaves predatorily, and the woman, well, the woman is always somehow comes to the conclusion that the man is the right man for her in the end. This is Hollywood after all, and around the ninety minute marker, the conclusion has to be tied in a neat little bow, no matter how artificial it seems. The man is always a schmuck, the woman is always has to be resigned to be ill-treated, they get together in the last ninety seconds of the movie, and if they know what's good for them, they break up ninety seconds after the movie's over.
His Girl Friday clip (up to 2:48)
The implication of sex in screwball comedy is everywhere, the whiff of it, of sex as something deliriously irrational, chaotic, that leads people only into a hot mess, but something to which they are addicted like a drug because without it, where would rich people find any kind of excitement in their lives?
But in order to see love as a comedy, you have to look the other way at so many things that would be considered incredibly dark behavior by men toward women in our day: every flavor of patronizing, all manor of stalking, some violence, a playing field that by any objective standard men objectively define, yet because the only weapons available to women at the time are subtle ones, men believe that women define the playing field because things never go according to the man's plan. Even in the most equal of circumstances, sex and love is too chaotic for anything to ever go according to plan.
What's astonishingly progressive about Screwball Comedy is that this was the place when, finally, hundreds of millions of men and women saw works of art in which women were something resembling equal partners in the journey of romantic adventure. No form of cultural entertainment ever did more to make men see that women were not just ivory ideals of their desire to control, but partners with needs of their own who, by liberating them from the prisons of male entitlement, could add immeasurably to the fulfillment of their jailers. It was a comic look at the battle of the sexes that did everything in its power to minimize the threat to women - making male jealousy and rage appear comic rather than lethal. But the reason it hit a nerve is because, just as there is incredible suffering and trauma in the irrationality of love, there is also comedy. Love is too large to be contained by any emotion, there is not a single couple in the world that does not sometimes feel hate each other. But what makes relationships worth pursuing within the crucible of love is when people do not give into their worst impulses in those moments of crisis, and therefore grow together into more meaningful lives. And that is, on the other hand, what is conservative about Screwball Comedy - there is no real growth in screwball comedy, just pure irrationality, the characters are clowns, nihilistic embodiments of human irrationality.
But within screwball comedy, there are also two basic types of male protagonist. One, we'll call Cary Grant, one we'll call Jimmy Stewart. The Philadelphia Story, the screwball comedy in which they both appear and somewhat compete for the affections of Katherine Hepburn, begins with Cary Grant mashing Katherine Hepburn's face and throwing her to the floor - and this is played for laughs. But Jimmy Stewart would never do anything so brutal, he's a sweet man, perpetually misunderstood, almost delicate, and usually when referring to Jimmy Stewart, one uses the current term that's become derogatory, and call him the 'nice guy.' Jimmy Stewart is the picture of mid-century decency, both everything that was right with it and wrong with it. And that's why Alfred Hitchcock could use Jimmy Stewart's persona to such perceptive effect in Vertigo, which posits that beneath the George Bailey persona is a man who believes he's owed control of the woman in his life.
But in The Shop Around the Corner, remade sixty years later as You've Got Mail, Jimmy Stewart is once again, the delicate, almost feminine, flower of a man who earns our sympathy simply by being Jimmy Stewart, while his love interest, played by Margaret Sullivan, is clearly written as snooty, stuck up, and generally a piece of work. They work together and hate each other, but at night they unknowingly write passionate letters to one another, both of them idealizing a potential soulmate they think they've never met in real life.
Just listen to this scene. (up to 0:56)
Jimmy Stewart's character had just been fired, unjustly, from the shop where they both worked and developed a strong dislike for each other. He, furthermore, had just been told that Margaret Sullivan's character was in fact the woman he'd been corresponding with over the last six months, with whom he was deeply in love and she with him, though she didn't know it yet. But even if she doesn't much care for this man and he says something that might be construed as hitting on her, this is nevertheless quite something to say to a man who'd just undergone wrongful termination. On the other hand, perhaps she thinks he followed her to the restaurant, in which case her contempt is at least understandable. But even if her contempt is understandable in that view, the fault is not in her but Lubitsch's script. Jimmy Stewart circa 1940 would never talk to anyone like that. We're to understand that Jimmy Stewart is the nice guy, and Margaret Sullivan is the bitch.
For the last forty minutes or so of the movie, Jimmy Stewart knows that she's his faithful correspondent, and she has no idea. It's left as a given that she will instantly change from slighting to smitten, and she'll realize that Jimmy Stewart is in fact Jimmy Stewart and not a would-be Clark Gable, and all of that hatred explained in a way that doesn't really work by her admission at the end of the movie that she was mean to him because she was attracted to him, (to 3:12). It's left to Jimmy Stewart to do the thinking for both of them, even though in real life, it was Margaret Sullivan's championing to producers to which Jimmy Stewart owed his entire career.
I have no doubt that the vast majority of American women in 1940 thought the way Margaret Sullivan does in this movie - that men and women both thought marriage a kind of partnership of equals, even if there was no objective evidence to show it. Men were the masters of the world, while women were the masters of the home, and however intelligent and creative some woman obviously were, the man in the relationship is the one expected to figure things out. But posterity is merciless, it shows how the preconceived notion of every era before it was wrong. This is why The Shop Around the Corner is merely a good movie and not a great one. Jimmy Stewart's character genuinely earns the pathos this movie demands he deserves, but forget any ethical concern, it simply finds Jimmy Stewart's plight much more interesting than Margaret Sullivan's, so there's no counterweight, and just as mid-20th century notions of a comic battle of the sexes seems grotesquely outmoded today, so do many works of art which espouse them.
So now we have to talk, for good or bad, about the director who carried the mid-century battle of the sexes into the late 20th century, in an era when it was no longer a revolutionary or progressive force, but showing serious signs of starting to be an outdated, conservative force in American life.
While nobody should cheerfully opine on the unpleasantness of Woody Allen's personal life, it's impossible to bring him up without escaping some kind of comment on it. Basically, any chance that Woody Allen should be believed about his behavior with Dylan Farrow was erased the moment he, for any intent and purpose, married his other daughter. Any number of potential misdeeds on the side of Mia Farrow pales in comparison to this obvious fact of Woody Allen's life in which he demonstrated, conclusively, that he is a tornado of narcissism who can justify the many black recesses of his personality to his conscience. Whatever his merits as an artist, all of his artistry, all of his observations about life and morality, have to be seen under the rubric that he used his seemingly profound thoughts as a justification to marry his daughter.
How can anybody view Manhattan now without seeing it as a long justification for statutory rape? At the end of the movie, Allen's character makes a list of the reasons life is worth living - and ends with the smile of his character's 17 year old girlfriend. Earlier this year, when I was teaching a Jewish literature course, I came upon what was, for me, a shocking discovery, a similar list from the once-famous Viennese essayist and aphorist Peter Altenberg. The romantic, and inherently Jewish, intellectuality of Altenberg's Vienna had to have been a huge influence on Woody Allen's vision of New York, but since not many people read Altenberg anymore, it can't be not much known is that Altenberg was also notorious for his relations with underage girls. The whole movie now seems like a justification in which Allen says that surely an impulse that comes to a person in so beautiful and romantic a paradise as upper-class intellectual New York can't possibly be wrong. And yet, look at Woody Allen's life. He seems to have caused nothing but pain to the people whose lives he impacted most. In the same way, there is no way to look at the at least slightly Dostoevskian movies like Crimes and Misdemeanors, or Match Point, without seeing a justification in its murders for the way Allen molested his daughters. His movies are, in many ways, replies to the heavier influences on him like Dostoevsky and Bergman, but for all the seeming light comedy in Woody Allen, Dostoevsky and Bergman take us through hell to show us that there ultimately are universal values and hope, but in Woody Allen's universe, there is only a bleak and somewhat cowardly nihilism, that justifies its worst impulses by claiming that life is hell without showing us even a glimpse of that hell. In every movie he made from Annie Hall onward, Woody Allen's character seems to repeat the same refrain that life is pain and suffering, and yet his characters inevitably seem to have it pretty good. In Woody Allen's New York, there is very little of New York but the privilege of the Upper sides - an unending carnival of restaurants, jazz music, society soirées, and romance with intelligent women who deserve better than Woody Allen. If other New York directors who show us visions of hell, like Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee, espoused a philosophy that life is hell, it would have much more credibility than it does when coming from Woody Allen, but they don't. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull end with at least a kind of moral redemption, screwed up as that redemption might be, while Do The Right Thing and 25th Hour are righteously indignant for people who suffer, because Spike Lee clearly believes that people deserve better than they get.
Much has been made in recent years about the misogyny of Woody Allen's movies, and given his behavior, it's impossible to refute the charge in any meaningful way. But it would be neglectful to not note how long Woody Allen existed in people's minds as the ultimate woman's director. His movies are a feast of women, a gallery of women whose individual quirks are inherently memorable in a manner that only great actresses could ever make come to life. So let's talk about Hannah and Her Sisters, which I happened upon last night while flipping through channels.
I've seen Hannah and Her Sisters many times over the years, and compared to Manhattan or Crimes and Misdemeanors, it's at least less creepy. But even there, we see a disturbing glimpse into Woody Allen's upper-class life, a world of the upper class intellectuals that, thirty-two years later, seems already dead, and like it deserved to die. We see Woody filming a series of tableuxs of family life in Mia Farrow's Manhattan apartment, a tornado of activity with a huge and raucous family life going all around, while a silent African-American servant in a maid uniform quietly seems to make it all happen. We see Soon-Yi Previn as a child, fifteen years old and frankly looking younger, and who knows what was happening there. We see Mia's once famous mother, Maureen O'Sullivan, playing Hannah's mother. And most uncomfortably of all, we see Mia Farrow clearly playing a kind of version of herself, in which she yells at her sister for having written a script about her personal life. Hannah is perhaps a sanitized version of Mia Farrow in which this mother of so many children is played as an unceasingly giving saint, while everybody sins around her. But it can't be doubted, there is something astonishing manipulative about Woody's vision that those of us like me, who write from our personal lives, would do well to avoid much more often than I have so far.
In reality, Mia Farrow also had many sisters, more than she even has in the movie. But when you look at pictures of her family, Tisa Farrow, her younger sister, is almost a dead ringer for Barbara Hershey's character, the luminously beautiful Lee who constantly falls for older men. The resemblance in pictures is so strong that, even though it's complete speculation on my part, it's hard given Woody Allen's history of misdeeds to think that Woody might not be talking about yet another misdeed toward the Farrow family in this movie in which his real identity is not to the character he plays, but rather to Michael Caine's adulterer. (up to 2:36) No matter how well Woody's characters set up their rationales in the camouflage of good intentions, they always end up giving into their worst urges. Michael Caine's character wants to be delicate, yet he kisses his sister-in-law in a manner that might cross the line into assault.
Clearly Allen and Farrow had some kind of fashionably progressive arrangement in which Allen lived apart from the family, and there have always been whispers of affairs on both ends, but if my admittedly specious speculation is true, then this is another movie in which Woody Allen rubbed the noses of the people who loved him in his misdeeds, and then manipulated Farrow and her mother to the point that they are re-enacting it, accomplices in their own humiliation.
Woody always stole from the best. Hannah and Her Sisters derives the part of its structure centered around holiday family gatherings from Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, which is for me probably one of the five greatest movies ever made and unflinching about child abuse in a manner to which Allen would never come even close. But the narrative chapters is based on Lucchino Visconti's scarcely less good Rocco and His Brothers. And then, of course, there's Chekhov's Three Sisters. But time and again, Woody Allen uses the camouflage of ineptitude to hide the fact that he is clearly lethally effective at achieving whatever objective he sets for himself. The nebbish he always portrayed would never be able to make a movie every year for fifty years, the real Woody Allen, as a very dear friend of mine once pointed out to me, is usually found in his other, stronger, male characters.
Woody Allen has not been relevant to American life in the quarter-century since his spectacular break from Mia Farrow. Perhaps indirectly, he addressed the accusations in Deconstructing Harry, and it's probably his last movie that comes anywhere close to great, and since then has petered off into irrelevance. In the years ever since, Martin Scorsese, nearly ten years younger but who started making movies around the same time, has become the unquestioned King of American art film. Both of them owe everything to forbears in Classic Hollywood. But Scorsese's movies unflinchingly portray the darkness in the souls of mankind without any concealment or vanity. But more and more, we see that Woody Allen's movies are little but vanity and concealment. He began as a comedian, but as the output of his career grew artier, it also grew ever more more narcissistic and self-justifying.
The greatest weakness of Martin Scorsese is that he's comically inept at portraying women, but Scorsese turned his weakness into a strength, showing the darkness of how his men imprisoned the women in their lives and in doing so, build a prison for themselves. Woody Allen's great strength as a director, just like the great strength of Hollywood itself, was his empathic portrayal of women. But it is empathy rather than sympathy, because until very recently, empathy meant to understand other people while being value neutral about whether to help them. Except perhaps in Annie Hall, Woody Allen gave little indication of being a man who wanted to help women, he just wanted women to help him without much reciprocity. It is not the sympathy of a partner, but the empathy of a predator. Modern romantic comedy begins with Woody Allen, it will probably end with him too. Woody Allen's movies owe everything to the model of classic Hollywood, the quick shooting and release, the long takes, the emphasis on dialogue over visuals, the realism of his settings balanced by the preference for portraying upper-class sophistication over life as most people have to live it. But Scorsese took the right-wing conception of manly Hollywood with its delusions of glory and stood it on its head, showing how John Wayne-like masculinity is a harrowing prison. Woody Allen took Jimmy Stewart Hollywood, the archetypal sensitive guy, and unwittingly showed that he's an outdated, narcissistic creep.