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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How to be Happy...

(according to Woody Allen)


Several months ago my friend asked me if I wanted to watch Crimes and Misdemeanors and I politely declined. Even though I had seen some of Woody Allen’s movies out of chronological order, I was trying to watch the progression of one of cinema’s great auteurs from his early work (Sleeper, Take the Money and Run, Everything you Always Wanted to Know About Sex…) to his brilliant streak of films in the early 1980’s and beyond. My patience was rewarded last Sunday when I watched four Woody Allen movies in a row. The danger in sandwiching that many films into one day is obvious: the characters become homogenous, the storylines get jumbled and by the end of the fourth film you would be hard pressed to differentiate. I took special care in making sure the films remained separate, aided by Woody Allen’s craftsmanship, and yet I couldn’t help but uncover a unifying theme: happiness. These four films are linked by their explanation of how to deal with life in the worst of times and still achieve happiness.

1) A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

Again and again the audience is told the woods are magical and again and again Allen gives us majestic shots of the forest as the light peaks through the trees, a montage of meadows and animals, and the still lake disrupted only by Andrew’s flying contraption. And in the end the magic is revealed, spirituality wins out, and four people have discovered happiness.

The first thing I noticed after watching this film was that there was not too much Woody. In fact there was just the right amount. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy marks the first time Allen wrote and directed a film without being the star, instead turning to an ensemble cast, something he continued to do as his career progressed.

My other observation was the idea of warring philosophies embodied by two characters, a technique he used throughout the four films that comprised my Sunday. In Midsummer it is a battle of the spiritual world versus the physical world embodied by Leopold and Maxwell. The physical world, the practical world, would have Ariel marry Leopold, it would have Andrew leave Adrian and it would have Maxwell ignore his desire. As humans, however, we are ruled by the spirit, by emotion, by feeling. As are Allen’s characters; in this case, Maxwell goes after Ariel despite the risk. Leopold, going against his beliefs, fights for Ariel. He is jolted awake from his stale existence at the sight of blood and gives into his passion which is ultimately his demise. Andrew solves his problems with Adrian when he realizes that the problem with their love life isn’t physical at all, it’s emotional. Leopold comes full circle and realizes the spiritual world, after death has taken him, and gives a speech that inspires the 2 happy couples.

2) The Purple Rose of Cairo


I had a sneaking suspicion that Gil Shepherd wasn’t all that he was cracked up to be, that maybe he was just a great Hollywood actor giving a great Hollywood performance. And he was, because as Cecilia says, “…that kind of thing only happens in the movies.” If ever there was a character to root for it is Cecilia. A terrible job, a terrible husband and a terrible economy, her only escape is the weekly movie at the Kent. And then suddenly, this poor loveless girl has two men vying for her affection, Gil Shepherd and Tom Baxter. Two men that represent two different philosophies: real versus fake. Cecilia must make the decision. Again Allen challenges the audience to decide what makes us human, what makes us happy: the possibility of love, the possibility of pain, the possibility of heartbreak. Cecilia rolls the dice and chooses “real” which ultimately results in heartbreak. And in the final shot despite the crushing rejection, despite the reality that she will have to return to a bad job and lousy husband, Cecilia can still be happy just from looking up at the silver screen and forgetting life’s worries for an hour or two.

3) Broadway Danny Rose

In a word, authenticity. This isn’t a film, it’s a story you overhear while eating a sandwich in Carnegie Deli, it’s a legend told to first time performers, it’s a warning to those who would dare to try and make it: show business isn’t easy.

Danny Rose is Mr. Hard Luck. He will represent any act, he will believe in any act and worst of all he will become personally entangled in every one of his acts. The differing philosophies are clear: Danny’s philosophy of “making right with the big guy” (who he doesn't believe in) or more simply the golden rule and Tina’s philosophy of doing it before someone does it to you. Danny embodies all the crushed dreams and dashed hopes of every act he’s ever represented, yet he remains forever vigilant, forever resilient even as acts garner attention and acclaim and walk out of his life. Near the end of the story, one of the comedians stops the Narrator to say,” I thought this was a comedy.” To which the Narrator replies, “What the hell do you want? It’s Danny’s life.”

Yet, there is still a glimmer of hope, still a chance for happiness. Tina can’t live with herself after betraying Danny. His humanity broke through her. She goes to his “pathetic” apartment on Thanksgiving, where the world’s saddest holiday dinner is in full swing. Danny is crushed by her appearance. She leaves, he pursues. And then they head back upstairs. We never hear what he says to her, in fact we never get closer than the opposite sidewalk, but we get it. Here is Danny doing what he does best, believing in people, even when they’ve wronged him. There are a million stories circulating around New York, around Carnegie Deli, Danny is just one of them. He is singled out by Allen because he’s the one who can be happy against insurmountable odds.

4)Hannah and Her Sisters

The four Woody Allen films came from a box set of six. The disc for Zelig was missing from the case, so I skipped it. After finishing Hannah and Her Sisters, I was too emotionally exhausted and enthralled to watch Radio Days. Each film had been progressively better, but Hannah finished my marathon.

Hannah and Her Sisters was the ultimate meditation on happiness. Allen takes five characters that think they know what they want, and instead gives them what they need. Through well-crafted episodic storytelling and inner monologue from multiple characters we learn that Elliot wants Lee, Mickey wants Hannah, Holly wants the architect, Lee wants Elliot, Frederick wants Lee, Hannah wants kids, but none of these dreams come to fruition. Well they do, but they don’t last. And what Allen offers us instead is another explanation of how to be happy. You cope, and then you grow, or else you walk around miserably for the rest of your life. Eventually Michael realizes he really wants Hannah, Liz conquers her “daddy” issues and finds a husband, and Mickey and Holly, after finding themselves, find each other. The warring philosophies are Mickey’s and Holly’s: their first date is what happens when you combine a person who is letting life pass them by with a person who won’t slow down to enjoy life at all. Once they found something to anchor themselves individually (a near death experience, writing), suddenly they were perfect for each other. Suddenly they discovered what they needed, not what they thought they wanted.


"...nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands"
I couldn't help but throw in the above quote which is such a great moment in Hannah and Her Sisters; watching a desperate Elliot running through Soho trying to chase a dream down the street. A dream that eventually floated away. Woody Allen presents his audience with characters that are brave and resilient and able to overcome their odds to make the best of their damaged world when it comes crashing down. These four films outline Woody Allen’s philosophies on happiness. Value the spiritual over the physical (Midsummer), always choose the real over the fake (Purple Rose), do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Danny Rose), and realize that sometimes what you want is not what you need (Hannah). Of course there is more to it than that, but no one can explain it better than Woody Allen. In fact, upon reading it (before I had seen Hannah and her Sisters), I thought it was simply one of his quotes on life:

".....I wandered for a long time on the upper west side, it must have been hours. My feet hurt, my head was pounding, and I had to sit down I went into a movie house. I didn't know what was playing or anything I just needed a moment to gather my thoughts and be logical and put the world back into rational perspective. And I went upstairs to the balcony, and I sat down, and the movie was a film that I'd seen many times in my life since I was a kid, and I always loved it. 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. 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, ya know, don't you wanna be part of the experience? You know, what the hell it's not all a drag. And I'm thinking to myself, Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I'm never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts. And after who knows, I mean maybe there is something, nobody really knows. I know maybe is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that's the best we have. And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself."

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