NEW YORK -- Leaving the Angelika Theater this past weekend, on the opening night of Woody Allen's latest film, I participated in a mild argument with my companion that left me feeling a bit like one of the blathering, pseudo-intellectual characters Allen has been parading before audiences for decades.
What I liked best about "Midnight in Paris" -- and what my friend found most annoying -- was its very thinness, its gallery of static characters, its steady march of fleshed-out clichés. In the film's fantastical sequences, which deliver a struggling novelist from 2010 back to 1920s Paris, Allen conducts affairs with a mythical grasp of history, from entire eras –- primarily, the gin- and jazz-soaked Roaring Twenties -– to individuals: Ernest Hemingway always rearing for a fight; genial Scott Fitzgerald thwarted by his hysterical wife, Zelda; and Salvador Dali, the wide-eyed, hallucinatory weirdo.
All of this irritated my companion and delighted me, in large part because I do not really care much about Woody Allen as a moviemaker, but see "Midnight in Paris" in the tradition of other of his films, such as "Zelig" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo," that are really just lavish gifts of transposition: film treatments of Allen's extraordinary body of short humor writing that began forty years ago with the publication of his first collection, Getting Even.
Compared to the business of making movies, Allen has called humor writing "sheer dessert" -– no producers, no actors, no budget concerns -– and his other early collections, Without Feathers (1975), and Side Effects (1980), are overstuffed with the sort of gags and sleights of hand that on film answer to the name "special effects." (His more recent collection, Mere Anarchy from 2007, had its moments but is more laborious and less funny.)
Getting Even contains the story "A Twenties Memory," a parody of Hemingway’s laconic style as well as a breezy exploration of the same territory romanticized in his latest film. Indeed, the celebrity cast (the characters, not the actors) of "Midnight in Paris" is almost identical to that of “A Twenties Memory.” While the story is incomparably sillier than the film, the treatment of their common characters suggests Allen's understanding of them is about the same as it was 40 years ago.
Lately, to get a sense of the academic world's perception of Allen's writing, I've spent some time with literary journals that analyze his work. "Midnight in Paris," and my ensuing argument over its merits, reminded me of a complaint registered by a critic named Sanford Pinsker, who essentially called Allen, the writer, a lightweight. For all his textual nods to Camus, Kierkegaard, Kafka and other giants of art and thought, Allen's "playfulness about Ideas and parodic romps depend on a 'familiarity with' -– if not an understanding of -– the originals," he wrote.
Yet Allen has been the focus of much positive attention in academia, and it's been said this is due to his mix of high and low culture (beavers that take over Carnegie Hall, Kafka references alongside men who long only to sit waist high in gravy) –- together with his good fortune to come along at a time of academic interest in popular culture. Allen won an O. Henry Award for his 1978 short story, "The Kugelmass Episode," which more than any other of his writings resembles the plot of "Midnight in Paris." It tells the story of Kugelmass, a romantic, frustrated City College professor who is magically transported to the French countryside of "Madame Bovary," where he begins an affair with the beautiful Emma.
The conceit is nearly identical to the one that drives "Midnight in Paris," in which a novelist played by Owen Wilson travels back in time to 1920s Paris, where he learns that one man's golden age is another's dull present. Similarly, in "Kugelmass," as the lovers stroll past a country church, Emma admires Kugelmass' leisure suit and tells him, "I've always dreamed that some mysterious stranger would appear and rescue me from the monotony of this crass rural existence."
In a 1999 essay in the journal South Atlantic Review, David Galef acknowledged the danger of analyzing Woody Allen: "[A]cademics who play around with him risk being played around with themselves.” Canonical discussions of Allen's work tend to be marked with hesitation -- perhaps marred by considerations of his occasionally scandalous personal life, or maybe because it is simply premature to canonize the living.
In academic circles, Allen is frequently compared to Mark Twain. Both started their careers as humorists and, while never shedding that guise, increasingly strove for moral seriousness. In 1984, the Twain scholar Hamlin Hill wrote, "no major, sustained comic voice will arise and endure between now and the end of the century, to take a place with Franklin, Twain, Thurber, and possibly Woody Allen."
Nearly 20 years after that tentative assessment, Allen is as prolific a filmmaker as ever, though his prose output is limited to the occasional piece in The New Yorker. Still, admirers of his writing cling hopefully to a hint he dropped in 1995, when he told the Paris Review he had a draft of a novel completed, "all handwritten, lying in my drawer on graph paper." He said he was saving it for when he lacks the energy to make movies, or when the studios will no longer let him.
The following year, looking back on his custody battle and scandal –- involving actress Mia Farrow and her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, whom Allen would go on to marry –- Allen told the The New Yorker, "[p]eople kept saying, 'This guy’s career is finished.’ I thought, You must be joking. My career can never be finished, because I will always write. Nobody can stop me."