Woody’s imploding universe
Populated by ruthless producers with names like E. Coli and characters who panic about the expansion of the universe, Mere Anarchy is classic Allen. But isn’t it all a bit too familiar?
I once came across a book on Woody Allen and philosophy at the famous Strand bookstore in Manhattan.
The author, a professor of philosophy, acknowledged that Allen, the master of existential gags, would probably never read his book nor be impressed with his effort to make philosophy more accessible by teaching it through Allen’s work. Notwithstanding Allen’s probable indifference to his endeavour, the professor hailed him as a great thinker who can help us decipher philosophers’ quests for the meaning of life, art, love, death and eternity, which, according to Allen, is a very long time – especially towards the end.
Allen rarely gives interviews and doesn’t ingratiate his fans. Maybe it has something to do with the old Groucho Marx joke, ‘I don’t want to belong to a club that would accept me as a member’, which Alvy Singer, the quintessential Woody Allen character, paraphrases in his opening monologue in Annie Hall. This, Alvy says, is the key joke of his adult life in terms of his relationships with women.
With Mere Anarchy, his first collection of prose in 25 years, Allen gives renewed impetus to those who love to love him – with or without his approval and regardless of his many falls from grace. Triumphantly, his admirers are waving the 160-page neatly bound collection of absurdities, quips and Yiddishisms, declaring that Woody’s intelligent wit is still intact. Though half the stories have previously appeared in the New Yorker, the collection contains fresh fixes for those of us who, over the past years, have loyally sat through his slated films in half-empty theatres, and, like drug addicts, have desperately hoped to relive that first high we felt when discovering Allen’s work. Too often, we have found the only way of nearing it is by re-watching our worn-out copies of Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig or Radio Days.
Since the start of his career in the 1960s, Allen has let the fantasy of scrawny, bespectacled men who don’t typically get to bed voluptuous women or charm intellectual beauties run riot. And he has championed the type of literary and scientific jokes that only a true bookworm can crack.
For instance, the protagonist in ‘Strung Out’, one of the stories in Mere Anarchy, has discovered the infinite wisdom of the New York Times’ science section: ‘I am greatly relieved that the universe is finally explainable. I was beginning to think it was me.’ But he also finds that awareness of physical laws can cause quite some perplexity: ‘All I knew was that I wanted to wrap my weak-gauge bosons around her gluons, slip through a wormhole, and do some quantum tunnelling. It was at this point that I was rendered impotent by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. How could I act if I couldn’t determine her exact position and velocity?’
Mere Anarchy, you may find, is best read with a dictionary close at hand.
If expressing familiar notions in original ways is a marker of mastery of language, then Allen certainly succeeds. Like the way he conveys the tired idea of something being so boring it puts you to sleep. In ‘Tandoori Ransom’, a high-powered Hollywood agent reading a second-rate script says he ‘managed to gloom sufficient gist before merciful Morpheus did a number on me’. In ‘Sing, You Sacher Tortes’, Fabian Wunch, a ‘peerless purveyor of schlock’, wants to produce a musical comedy set in Vienna, Fun de Siècle, and defends taking generous liberties with historical facts; ‘otherwise, kid, we midwife a soporific’.
Showbusiness, with its overbearing agents, pressures to sell out and pretentious writers who try to resist it, is a recurring theme. In ‘This Nib For Hire’, the producer E. Coli Biggs hires Flanders Mealworm, a self-important writer who wears ‘author’s tweeds with elbow patches and Connemara cap’, to novelise a Three Stooges film. ‘Emmes, kid. If this is as lucrative as my proboscis signals, there’s copious zuzim to be stockpiled’, Biggs asserts. And with the hope of bagging piles of cash and giving the art of novelisation new depth and dignity, Mealworm takes on the assignment, turning the slapstick stooges trio into absurdly angst-ridden men prone to inexplicable violence:
‘“We are at least free to choose”, wept Curly, the bald one. “Condemned to death but free to choose.” And with that Moe poked his two fingers into Curly’s eyes. “Oooh, oooh, oooh”, Curly wailed, “the cosmos is so devoid of any justice”. He stuck an unpeeled banana in Moe’s mouth and shoved it all the way in.’
E. Coli Biggs is not the only character with a ludicrous name or who litters his pronouncements with Yiddish words. In ‘Calisthenics, Poison Ivy, Final Cut’, Monroe B. Varnishke, director of a film camp for teenagers, exchanges increasingly vitriolic letters with a parent who refuses to split Miramax’s offering of $16million for his son’s summer project. According to Varnishke, the boy, Algae, is a ‘little nudnik’, a ‘schlimazel’, a ‘klutz’, whose movie’s amateur cast was a ‘tsimmes of talentless trombeniks’.
While some stories shine and certainly match greats from earlier Allen collections, like Without Feathers and Getting Even, others flag and at times the drum roll is almost audible as the jokes fall flat. And overall, Mere Anarchy does, admittedly, make for nostalgic rather than refreshing reading, with some lines sounding like vintage Allen. Like ‘I awoke on Friday, and because the universe is expanding it took me longer than usual to find my robe’. This evokes another early scene in Annie Hall where the young Alvy’s mother takes him to the doctor because he is depressed and has stopped doing his homework after reading that the universe is expanding. ‘Someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything’, Alvy says despondently, ‘so what’s the point?’. His mother shouts back: ‘What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!’
New Yorkers, psychoanalysts, voluptuous seductresses, deceitful women, small-time crooks, big-mouth agents, self-deluded writers and struggling actors – these are all familiar figures in Woody Allen’s universe and they all appear in Mere Anarchy. But whether or not the bounds of his universe are too narrow is a matter on which fans and critics will disagree forever. While some say that Allen’s creation of a distinct and instantly recognisable style reveals his genius, others say it reveals his limitations. While his work is praised for being timeless, it is also knocked for not changing with time. While Allen enthusiasts say his prolific career – spanning stand-up shows, comedy features, dramas, prose and clarinet-playing – proves he is a versatile artist, he is also slated for being repetitive and unoriginal.
Considering the rows of directors, actors and comedians who have been inspired by or compared to Woody Allen, his significance is indisputable. Yet, though he has of late often become a caricature of himself, to everyone else he remains inimitable. As for Mere Anarchy, the disputing verdicts on the worth of Allen’s work evoke a line from his earlier collection of prose, Getting Even: ‘Here is but a small sample of the main body of intellectual treasure that I leave for posterity, or until the cleaning woman comes.’
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.