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I found myself wondering recently why I laugh at Woody Allen’s films so long after watching them. There are certainly moments of physical comedy and lines perfectly timed and weighted: for example, in Sleeper (1973), when Miles Monroe (Allen) wakes from cryogenic freezing and struggles to walk or, later in the picture, when he is asked to explain a photograph: “This is some girl burning a brassiere [pause]: you’ll notice it’s a very small fire.” Equally, once the laughs die down in the theatre, there are lines which niggle the viewer: Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) asks in Manhattan (1979) “why is life worth living?”; in Deconstructing Harry (1997) life is summed up: “it’s nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm.” Allen’s work seems to blend the comic and the philosophical in an odd way: the relationship between the two is ambiguous and hard to decipher.
Cliff Stern (Allen) says in Crime and Misdemeanors (1989) that “nobody committed suicide: everyone was too unhappy.” The remark is witty because it feels paradoxical and almost certainly yields a laugh but the mental state described is tremendously bleak. There is a fuller development of the sense in Anthony Cronin’s Samuel Beckett The Last Modernist: he cites “Paris in the 1920s” and Marcel Arland who “discusses self-destruction, remarking that just as the limit of daring was to be found in silence, so ‘the real despair lies in acceptance rather than suicide.’” The city had an effect on Beckett: it is “notable how much of his outlook and concerns are reflected in the outlook and concerns of the younger writers of the decade [...] He was, in a sense, made for twentieth-century France.” He expresses this sentiment of despairing acceptance in the opening line of his (originally French) poem Dieppe: “Again the last ebb”. Woody Allen glances towards this last ebb starting again – this terrible inability to end – in the quoted line above. Beckett finishes The Unnamable without a full stop, only allowing the narrator to say “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. Allen often voices equally grim attitudes but delivers them through smiling lips.
The Unnamable ends ambiguously, as the reader is unsure if the narrator is trapped as a puppet in the perpetual speech of someone else or instead performing joyous self-affirmation: Allen’s films are quite often less ambiguous at their closes, leaning more towards optimism. That last ebb may come again but it’s certainly a fun one at times. Deconstructing Harry offers pragmatism at its close, when the writer Harry Block (Allen) comes literally face to face with his characters: “life sometimes takes very strange twists and turns”; “Death is a natural part of life: you have to embrace them both”; “accept your limitations and get on with life.” It’s said in Manhattan that “the important thing in life is courage.” Allen suggests courage helps us to face this mix of “nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm”. It can apparently make us laugh if we feel like we’ve made a mistake, if we feel like Holly Reed (Mia Farrow) in Crimes and Misdemeanors when she says: “My husband and I fell in love at first sight. Maybe I should have taken a second look.”