I’ve fallen out of love with Woody Allen. I own every single Woody Allen film through Blue Jasmine. I own all the books, I’ve got the comedy records, and the vintage posters. I remember being overjoyed the first time I saw “Directed by Woody Allen” in Windsor typeface on the big screen (even if it was opening Anything Else). I was so excited to see the mid-century modern Sleeper house on the hills above a Colorado highway, during a family vacation. I was a completist of his art, an absolute apologist over his speckled oeuvre, and an admirer of his screen presence. Until I wasn’t, until I couldn’t be bothered to be excited about his new “Untitled Fall Project”s or even drag my butt to see them.
Late in high school, I was running to the local college library twice a week to educate myself on capital “C” Cinema, exchanging stacks of VHS tapes for another. It’s no surprise that I fastened onto Woody Allen amongst the serious European stuff that took a more disciplined effort. Aside from being routinely hilarious, Allen’s intellectual output is easily digested by those uneducated on the philosophical tentpoles, like myself. His films aren’t vapid, but they often broach existentialism in a broad way that allows it to be accessible to the uninformed and appreciated by the initiated.
And for those uninformed on the classic arts, each Allen film can easily serve as a clue to the next step in your intellectual education. It’s only slightly reductive to call his catalogue Western Canon for Dummies. His dialogue is heavily peppered with references to Henry James, Kierkegaard, Bergman, Godard, Bach, Van Gogh, Dreyer, Cezanne, Plath, etc. At one point, I remember my close friend and compatriot in Allen fandom remarking, “Everything I know about Freud I learned from Woody Allen films.”
This type of sophisticated dialogue - covering art, religion, life and death - was also very romantic to high school me, growing up in a rural midwestern town with a graduating class that rounds up to 60. The chatter at my parents’ dinner parties never approached liberal arts. And outside the dialogue, the films themselves are often quite romantic, funny, and more often than not, beautifully shot.
Additionally, I was mesmerized by Woody Allen, the man, or at least the way he rendered himself in films. His charisma, how he embraced his nerdiness to perform his masculinity, instead of maintaining the socialized divide between being a man and being a nerd. He was both Rick Moranis and John Wayne.
I no longer feel charmed by him. Yes, I appreciate what he’s done in regard to the annals of silver screen masculinity, but the feeling is dulled. I’m not so enchanted, nor do I find him adorable. And, like I said, it’s hard for me to muster the energy to even make it to the cineplex for his films. I remember seeing Blue Jasmine, but even that was an act of inertia.
It would be ignorant of me to disregard what part Woody Allen’s private life plays in my disenfranchised attitude toward his work. I like to think that I evaluate his work in a different silo than I do his personal life - since films are such a collaborative artform and because the author is dead, it just isn’t fair - and maybe I do, but there’s just so much overlap between his films and his less-than-savory lifestyle.
After a two-film hiatus, I saw Allen’s latest, Café Society, which works as a kitchen sink of the filmmaker’s recurring problems and annoyances.
For starters, predatory age difference is a pervasive blight that runs through his catalogue, to the point I have to suggest he’s not unself-conscious as much as he is unconscientious. No matter the amount of high profile shots fired at Allen (in both his work and his personal life), a relationship fraught with an age disparity resembling his own problematic relationship is inevitable.
In Café Society, it’s between the horribly miscast and uncharacteristically wooden Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart, who’s given next to nothing to work with. It’s an age difference almost identical to the one between Colin Firth and Emma Stone in 2014’s Magic in the Moonlight. A friend apprehended this relentless need to cast older men next to much younger women the ultimate exercise of privilege. In spite of intermittent public claims and ubiquitous suspicion of Allen’s history of sexual abuse, he doesn’t cower from depicting amorous relationships between a father-daughter-aged couple. He won’t be convicted, and he’ll still get to make the films he wants.
Beyond age difference, the films themselves feel predatory. In lieu of backstory, motivation, or any texture whatsoever, Kristen Stewart’s Vonnie is only defined in relation to whether Carell or Eisenberg’s characters are in love with her. In fact, we know more about Candy, a prostitute Eisenberg’s Bobby hires, through a solitary scene than we ever learn about Vonnie.
Anyhow, the fact that we only see Vonnie in reference to being wanted feels both lazy and raptorial. This isn’t new. I recently revisited Allen’s 1980 film, Stardust Memories, which I’ve always been exceedingly fond of. But its charm had all but worn off. Aside from feeling like a paltry attempt at existentialism, the film becomes vignettes of Allen’s Sandy hitting on women, coercing them from their present situations. I used to find Sandy Bates so endearing, but now he come across as not much more than petulant. (It surely doesn’t help that he’s accused of hitting on a 14 year-old...like, Woody Allen actually wrote that for his own character.)
I also found, during Café Society, that I’m finally feeling the flaws that critics have been throwing his way for the past couple decades. Basically, that he’s overwrought, that he can only make slight variations of the same movie. Whether it’s the dead-horse themes of luck and nostalgia for the golden age or the tired scenes of the pontificating philosopher and the bumbling neurotic traversing the uncomfortable (e.g. paid sex), it’s easy to see these as grating and telegraphed. It’s easy to ask, in the face of Allen’s prolificacy, “Why? Who cares?” With each film, it increasingly feels like Allen’s mental aerobics are packaged to us as entertainment. Instead of doing crossword puzzles, the man makes films.
I’ve heard a lot of people over the past few years say they’re done supporting Woody Allen’s films with their wallet. But there’s an unfortunate catch-22 with the idea that there’s anything we can do as consumers to protest the filmmaker. I already don’t often feel agency as a consumer, but especially in regards to Woody Allen, my dollars don’t mean a thing. It’s hard to think that audiences mean anything when a guy has a lifetime deal with studios. Hollywood execs aren’t paying attention to the box office to make decisions about the next Woody Allen film. He has carte blanche infinitum.
What can we do? We can talk about him and his films, we can interrogate why the pervasive perversion has been given such a hearty pass, by myself, viewers, and producers. We can go see his films to talk more about them...if we can muster the energy to care about them.
The premise of this thought that I no longer feel an allegiance to one of my favorites, to a filmmaker who meant so much to my education, might come across as sad. But it’s not. To lose that allegiance is to discard its rose-tinted glasses, to not feel a pressure to like something, to not feel like you have something at stake when all you’re doing is watching a movie, listening to a record, reading a book, etc. is an absolutely liberating sensation. It’s unfortunate that his work is so riddled with problems - and just boring - but it feels good to be able to see that.