December 20, 2006

Prose by Any Other Name

Finding comic salvation by accident in Woody's collected writings

By Michelle Orange

It wasn’t until I read a volume of Woody Allen’s complete prose, (titled, oddly enough, The Complete Prose of Woody Allen), late into a notably lonely month in Rome, that I accepted him as my comic lord and savior, or at least an earthly genius. It was a reactive purchase in Rome’s excellent international bookstore, as I had made quick work of the seven or eight nutritious classics in my suitcase and was looking at least to bring the average down to one consumptive per chapter. Before that day I don’t think I knew Allen wrote anything besides movies, which at their worst seemed more like glib transcripts from his life pinned onto flimsy conceits. Complete Prose is a collection of the writing he published beginning in the mid-'60s and throughout the '70s in three books: Without Feathers, Getting Even and Side Effects. Sitting on a bench in the Borghese Gardens reading “The Whore of Mensa,” and then an imagined correspondence between Vincent and Theo Van Gogh had they been dentists, I felt a lot of things, but one of them was cheated: Why didn’t I know about this sooner?

By the time I started paying attention, Allen was deep into his domestic dramas of the late-'80s and early '90s; Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives were movies my parents watched and debated with their friends, and I was just earnest enough to take an interest anyway. Of course, in the last decade or so it has become fashionable, especially when he misfires, to dismiss Allen as more of a compulsive than a director of vision; turning in a film a year is a mixed blessing, it seems, but his prose has never shown such vulnerability, as indeed he doesn’t publish much anymore. Notwithstanding his stand-up -- his early act is still fresh and hilarious today -- it is Allen’s warmly intelligent, vigorously comic prose that provides the most interesting companionship for his films -- certainly for the early, more experimental comedies and even as a harbinger of the more melancholy, mordant themes he would explore in the coming decades.

When I returned from that trip to Rome I tracked down as many early Allen films as I could; I had given Everything I Always Wanted to Know About Sex… a cursory viewing when I was 20, but it didn’t take; I guess I had to get a little older to appreciate such unrepentant silliness (though the received wisdom was that his early comedies were the last time Allen was actually funny). I found reviewing that film along with Bananas and What’s Up, Tiger Lily -- the latter being a Japanese spy film that Allen had re-arranged and overdubbed with completely new and incongruous dialogue -- to be more revealing of Allen the artist than any of the pseudo-confessional vehicles that seem more interested in revealing Allen the man.

Consistent in those films is Allen’s generosity toward and trust in his own impulses, no matter how outré -- so intrinsic to his prose -- that has not always guided his later films. True comedy, so tightly and reflexively bound to drama and tragedy, has a lightness that is almost defiant in its imagination, and can reach its most sublime heights only when its creator is familiar with the depth and darkness that underwrite it. Though it may not seem obvious, considering a film like Bananas beside Crimes and Misdemeanors, there is a deeply embedded throughline in Allen’s work, and his later, more “serious” work is not evidence of an artist evolving or outgrowing. As Complete Prose and his early comedies make clear, there was a fully formed world of stories and themes inside Allen from the beginning; he simply chose the order in which he would reveal them.

Michelle Orange is the author of The Sicily Papers and the reviews editor of The Reeler.


--Film Forum's Allen Retrospective Gets City Talking
Weinstein, Kopple, LaBute, Dargis and other New York culture all-stars reflect on best of Woody's work

--Woody Allen, Thespian?
Reeler critics Matt Singer and Vadim Rizov on the filmmaker's time in front of the camera -- for better or worse

--Le Woody, C'est Moi
An Upper East Sider recalls growing up under the director's influence - By Andrew Grant

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Comments (1)

I bought all three of Woody's books when I was in college. To this day one of my very favorite short stories is "The Goassage/Vardebedian Papers". It's a series of letters back and forth between two men who are playing chess via the mail. It's a brilliant piece of writing.

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