Richard A. Blake

Aristotle was such a dope. He misled generations of critics into thinking that art imitates nature. Anyone who goes to the movies knows that art imitates other art. Tom Hanks doesn’t imitate anyone in the real world; he imitates Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. Murders, Indian wars and invasions from Mars resolve themselves in two hours because that’s what the expected ritual calls for. Movies, not nature, have taught audiences how to watch other movies, and with each new movie reality becomes more irrelevant.

In The Reluctant Film Art of Woody Allen, Peter J. Bailey, a professor of American literature and culture at St. Lawrence University, provides an intriguing twist on that ancient critical conundrum. Is it possible for an artist to become so immersed in his art form that his art becomes his reality and, more intriguing, his reality becomes his art?

This prospect, Bailey argues, holds the key to understanding the amazing body of work Woody Allen has produced over the past 30 years, at an average of one film per year. This is a hands-on filmmaker: writing, casting, directing, frequently starring, scoring and cutting. Even though he shows little interest in post-production publicizing, this pace still doesn’t leave much time for living in the real world. It makes sense then to investigate the proposition that Allen lives in his films, however uncomfortably, or reluctantly in Bailey’s phase. His book is not, however, a psychobiography, much less a rehash of the gossip columns. It is a serious attempt to show the relationship between one artist’s life and his work.

Demonstrating an extraordinary grasp of Allen’s work, Bailey argues that the heroes of the films have maturedin one sensefrom stammering, insecure clowns, played by Allen himself in the early works, to older men and women who struggle to create order in their lives through some form of art, while their personal lives continue to disintegrate around them. They are narcissisticand thus resolutely immaturefeeling that their talent justifies their acting in their own self-interest. Allen sympathizes with these ethical monsters and social terrorists, but he rarely tries to gloss over the damage they do to those around them.

In Deconstructing Harry (1997), his sourest take on the life of the artist, Harry Roth (Allen) recycles the most intimate details of his family life into his novels. His loved ones are publicly humiliated, and yet he doesn’t quite see why they want to kill him. In Bullets Over Broadway (1995), Cheech (Chaz Palmintieri), the hit man turned playwright, actually does kill for his art, but of course the victims are in no position to complain about his behavior.

For one popularly but incorrectly characterized as primarily a Jewish comedian, whose quotable one-liners rival those of Groucho Marx, Allen rarely offers his audiences a comic view of life or a happy resolution to its many human conflicts. At best his characters remain teetering on the edge of desperation, but feel that a memory of love, or the enjoyment of a work of art will somehow give them a motive to go on living.

The Allen vision of this world, Bailey maintains, offers little reason to expect a happy ending. Allen’s fictional alter-egos in his films may try to rearrange the pieces of their own lives and the lives of their imaginary characters into more congenial patterns, but the enterprise yields only limited results at best. With this take on the world, life is like watching a Woody Allen movie. It’s a cruel universe, populated by thoroughly unpleasant people, but in the midst of all this misery, there are enough jokes to make it endurable and at times even fun.

Bailey’s mastery of the material may be overwhelming for all but the most dedicated of Allen fans. With 46 pages of documentation, the book clearly suits the needs of academics rather than casual moviegoers. Instead of following a chronological development of the artist’s thoughtthe customary practice in the age of auteur criticismBailey has chosen to present a synchronic analysis. By skipping from one film to another, from late to early and back again, he is able to develop his thematic propositions more clearly, but at the cost of leaving readers a bit confused about what film (and idea) preceded which and how a theme matured through several films.

Many nonspecialist readers may encounter a similar difficulty when Bailey bolsters his argument by citing characters by their fictional names from films other than those under discussion in a particular chapter: Sandy Bates? No, I’m thinking of Alvy Singer, or is it Isaac Davis? The plot summaries are minimal, as one would expect in a book intended for those already familiar with the material. Each chapter contains several photographs, but without captions. In a word: Reader, beware. This is neither a Woody Allen joke book nor a coffee-table decoration. It is a serious academic study and a profitable one.

Speaking of academics, I have another gripe about Aristotle. Pity and fear are all right for tragic heroes in Sophocles, but he should have warned people like Woody Allen not to enjoy it so much.

Richard A. Blake, S.J., the film critic for America, whose books include Woody Allen: Profane and Sacred, is a professor of fine arts at Boston College.