OK, so we’re not the same gender, and he’s at least 50 years older than me. But Woody understands me the way nobody else, in show business or otherwise, does. With his awkward looks and cynical views, he’s the actual embodiment of a theme Hollywood loves to make crappy, unrealistic movies about: the underdog story. Woody Allen is no charmer, and his paranoia and constant questioning of “what it all means” keeps him from being what anyone would describe as a natural people person. But he managed to make it big in comedy and film while staying true to himself, using his wit, and most importantly, his word. My idea of a fun evening is staying in and writing this column, so you can imagine how inspiring Allen is for me.
I was 16 when I first watched “Annie Hall,” the story of a relationship that doesn’t work out but sparks dialogue about the pointlessness and paradoxes of relationships and life in general. The friend I viewed it with reacted negatively. He saw it as just a self-indulgent, whiny movie about two neurotics. Maybe that’s true, but that’s also exactly why I liked it. My parents had divorced a year earlier, and I had turned bitter and exasperated with life before reaching voting age. The experience of watching my family, the only constant in my life, split in two exacerbated the usual angst any teenager will go through. Being a teenage girl who had a head with plenty of opinions inside it, and a mop of impossibly thick, frizzy hair on top of it, didn’t help things. I didn’t think anyone could understand me, but then I found my cinematic soul mate in Woody Allen.
Here was the most honest piece of cinema I’d seen — it is the story of Alvy Singer and Annie Hall, but it is also the story of my parents and the story of me. It also happens to be hilarious. The sarcasm Allen uses to eviscerate things he, and I, don’t like — Hollywood’s mentality, pretentious intellectuals, suburbia — inspired me to hold out hope in high school that, sometimes, it’s the kids who mutter witty comments under their breath, rather than the ones who run down the hallways yelling moronic mottos, who succeed. Woody Allen essentially legitimized anxiety and cynicism. I spent the next few years covering most of the Woody classics and his recent flicks, which brings us up to “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.”
Allen’s most recent effort is by no means his best work, but it’s still a treat. I enjoyed watching it because, like all his films, it struck a near-perfect blend of intelligence and entertainment. “Stranger” opens with the narrator quoting Shakespeare: “Life is … full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Cut to the story of Helena, a woman in her mid-60s whose husband, Alfie, has just left her and plans to marry a prostitute, Charmaine. The plot is a classic Allen set-up, full of characters who aren’t sure what they want but tend to gravitate towards the opposite of what’s best for them.
The film wraps up with the same quote it began with, although I’m not sure the whole thing didn’t mean anything. There is poetic justice, in that the person who ends up happiest in the end is Helena, the most innocent of the characters. However, most of her happiness is based on illusions, so maybe the only things that matter in life are the things that don’t exist. Looking back on all the bad things I’ve gone through in my life, I realize that most of them were done to me instead of by me, so I can relate to the feeling of having no control over one’s life that prompts Helena to solicit the advice of a fortune teller. Having watched my parents suffer the effects of infidelity and having gone through it myself, it was cathartic for me to watch all the damn cheaters receive their due, even if it wasn’t realistic.
Let’s go back to another Allen classic, “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Woody plays Mickey, a suicidal man who finds solace in the movies.
“I’m watching these people up on the screen and I started getting hooked on the film. I started to feel, how can you even think of killing yourself, I mean isn’t it so stupid?” Mickey tells his friend about a trip he took to a theater at his lowest point. “Look at all the people up there on the screen, they’re real funny, and what if the worst is true? What if there is no God and you only go around once and that’s it? Well, you know, don’t you want to be part of the experience?”
The pains of growing up and learning lessons the hard way caused a lot of stress in my life, but as long as there are people like Woody Allen out there, I still want to be part of the experience.