22 August 2008

Woody, Oh Woody

Until roughly two years ago, around the time I started working at Barnes & Noble, I had never seen a Woody Allen film. Coincidental with and probably because of a budding "serious" interest in film (not to mention the enthusiasm of a certain co-worker) I bought Annie Hall on a half whim. The film opens with Woody - bespectacled, looking at you and then fidgeting away with quick head bobs and hand gestures, dressed in a tweed jacket and flannel button up - telling a joke which sums up his view that life is "full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness and [that] its over much too quickly." The fact that he uses a joke to describe a life philosophy that is so dim instantly attracted me - the combination of humor, intelligence, and sadness struck a chord that has had me coming back to Woody Allen time and time again.

Two years later and I have watched many more Woody Allen films, though not nearly all of his 30+ full length features, and read his absurdist prose and drama. What really draws me in is his repeated life philosophy of despair at the human condition and the inevitability of not knowing, accepting it, and taking things as they come, usually to try to find some kind of meaning in work, relationships, or love. This is succinctly summed up in the scene in Hannah and Her Sisters when Woody's character is depressed about having to think about life after a shock with what he thought was a cancer in his body. He watches the Marx Bros.' Duck Soup and reflects on how life is so sad and miserable, but that there are these moments we cherish and that give it all some meaning; watching these funny people on the screen that give us some sense of magic and that make us laugh. The way his character reflects on that Marx Bros. film is the same way I feel when I watch his films.

I am reflecting like this because I recently saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the latest Woody Allen film. I haven't seen many of the newer films - in fact, I haven't seen anything past 1997's Deconstructing Harry - but I was looking forward to seeing the film after some good press. I also wanted to see Penelope Cruz's performance and, admittedly, to find another reason to hate Scarlett Johansson.

The film was very good and it is fun to watch other people make the Woody Allen mannerisms - twitchy, neurotic speaking, vocabulary that is a bit larger-than-necessary - such as Rebecca Hall or even Javier Bardem through a very thick Spanish accent and edge of seduction. Scarlett Johansson sucked pretty bad, but I thought her character was written in an interesting way. At different times I identified with certain feelings and outlooks of different characters, usually those that reflected the aforementioned Woody life philosophy: Juan Antonio's view of the pleasures of art and culture giving meaning to a world devoid of one (though, of course, his view was much too close to hedonism for me to completely resonate with, especially in terms of sex); Vicky's attachment to academia and uncertainty of what good it will do other than enjoyment of learning itself and her desire to do the right thing; Cristina's artful artlessness and restlessness.

The last of these, Cristina's artlessness, struck me at one point. During the picnic scene in which Maria Elena asks Cristina if she plays an instrument she replies in a half-restrained, embarrassed, and flustered manner that she does not and that she does not have any talent for things, which she is sorry to have to admit. She goes on to say that she feels that it is a shame because she feels that she has a high sensibility for things and has good taste and a lot to say, but that she is ultimately talentless (or something along those lines). That confession kind of resonated with me in a way I didn't expect. I often feel exactly the same way. Inside of me I feel like I have the qualities and intuition of an artist or at least an artistic person, but ultimately I have nothing to show for it. I dabbled in different mediums growing up - drawing, music, writing - only to end up slightly above mediocre in each department. In that moment I also felt kind of embarrassed - sitting there in that darkened theatre, comfortably judging the fictional character, and then suddenly finding that I am the same.

I suppose this struck me because I have been recently struggling with the same point and was only too aptly confronted with it during the film. This deals mainly with my writing. I feel like I have some control of language and of words and have at times produced some things of artistic value - creative fiction, poetry, essays, etc. - but in the end I feel incredibly mediocre and unaccomplished. It is as if I feel I am supposed to be a creative writer of fiction, but can not produce, resigned to have output through simple-minded critique blogging and school assignments. Anyway, it is not some dreadful, morose thing that I have accepted as my fate; it is just a slight confession. I still feel that I can do whatever I really want to. Even in the film Cristina finds her creative outlet through photography through the encouragement of Maria Elena. Wouldn't it be nice to just go to some other city in the world solely to create?

In the end, Vicky Cristina Barcelona felt like the Woody Allen I was familiar with, only slightly altered in setting and in Javier Bardem being muscley and seductive instead of intellectual and nebbish. It did leave me with the same kind of feeling I previously described; I felt at once sad and satisfied, with a wry smile on the corner of my lips. Hopefully this year will be my year to produce and I will find the inspiration I've been waiting for. Until then I will continue to try and treasure the good moments and laugh at Woody Allen films.

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