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Night School 5.3.04

There is some idiotic book out there called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” I have never thumbed through this tome and the trite bullshit sound of its name alone is enough to make me gag on my own tongue. On Saturday night, I ended up prone on my futon cushion awash in feelings of blind negativity. This happens sometimes. As it happened that night, I reached out for some kind of divining rod—some sort of guidance, a balancing grip back onto reality, a leg up, something—and groping about, found not the aforementioned text, but the TV remote. If this had been Sunday night, my efforts would only have been met with “10.5,” the made-for-tv, a.k.a. utter crap, story of the big one ripping California to shreds and I would have been worse off than ever. But luckily, this was Saturday night, and the local public television station was airing a Woody Allen flick. Granted, it was not his best, but it was not his worst either (and there are, sadly, many films now in the running for that distinction, the least of which is not his last, the forced and annoying “Anything Else,” a.k.a. a plodding 2 hour showcase for Ms. Christina Ricci’s grating whine).

And so I settled in for a viewing of “Hannah and Her Sisters.” It was an extremely well-spent 2 hours because I was reminded of this important fact: all I really need to know, Woody Allen will teach me, particularly if I limit myself to his films made prior to 1989.

1. “…and it’s all over much too quickly”:

Sometimes after you watch a particularly good film, you have trouble shaking it off. Like, once I watched Argento’s “Susperia” and then had to walk home alone and I do not recommend this to anyone. I was beyond spooked; the night that surrounded me positively oozed weird and creepy, lush with strangely symbolic details, e.g. Why is that dog standing on the porch just looking at me? Why doesn’t it bark? WHY FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WON’T IT BARK?!?!? IT IS JUST STARING AT ME. This strange probing obsession with the dog’s inner psychosis is waaayy better than just being scared of the dog because it has rabies, you see, and that is why a good Italian horror hound of hell is the thinking man’s Cujo.

But anyway. Woody Allen is the thinking man’s everyman.

Here’s what I’m supposed to be getting at. Sometimes after you watch a particularly good film, you have trouble shaking it off. Woody Allen has the superb talent of endowing the hours, entire days sometimes, after you watch one of his films with his own mood: a heady mix of over-intellectualized insights, ribald introspection, the dreamlike haze of idealized romance, and the thrill of its bittersweet failings, all set against a backdrop of Cole Porter on the streets of the city you love.

It's this essence of people’s inner monologues brought to the surface through their interactions with others that characterize his best moments on screen, and he can somehow make you remember to remember that it is all happening around you, even to you, if you just pause to appreciate it. I love that. I love when things make you slow down so that you can hear the whir of your own little movie camera or the voiceover narrating your own monologue—if you know what I mean. Fuck it. Just try this—after you go see a really good Woody Allen movie, go out with your friend that you saw it with and get some coffee, and you will suddenly find yourself in the most witty, smart, not quite affected or pretentious, but aware and yet unselfconscious conversation you’ve ever had. And you know someone else in the room is looking at you and finds you beautiful.

That’s what a good Woody Allen movie will do for you—it will give you pause, literally. It will outlast itself and lend something to you for a while that you have to struggle to regain if you are careless enough to let it go too long.

2. “It has a marvelous kind of negative capability”:

Just like the spliced "Annie Hall" quote used above, this quote from “Manhattan” has nothing to do with what I’m about to say, which is this: Well-done neuroses can be devastatingly attractive. This can be applied to oneself as easily to others. Woody Allen has nailed the self-deprecating, self-involved, over-analytical, depressive neurotic characterization well enough in his masterful past to have earned the honor of being incredibly annoying about it now. But if you can overlook the past decade of his own poorly executed parodies of himself, you can see the beauty behind the well-done neuroses and the pull it is capable of exerting. I wish I had learned this earlier, and it would have saved me a few years with certain people while I wasted time trying to “understand” them, but suffice to say that I know now how susceptible I am to just a little crazy. A lot of crazy is never a good thing, but a little crazy can only make one that much more interesting.

3. “I met a wonderful man. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.”

This is from my all-time favorite Woody Allen movie, “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” It was released in 1985. At that time, I was at the age to be highly susceptible to overly idealized romantic pinings and the like. I think I saw this movie and it just cemented the fact that I was doomed to disappointment. Or it introduced the notion that reality is a letdown and don’t be too suckered by it. Or that highly stylized filmmaking is really, really fun to watch. I don’t know.

Frankly, this whole piece is starting to bore me so I’m going to wrap it up. When I think of this line, I think of the wonderful knack Woody Allen has for playing his characters in the divide between romantic expectation and reality. Sometimes it’s a narrow little space, requiring only the briefest leap of faith to bridge one side to the other, but usually it’s this vast, yawning chasm filled with therapists and ex-lovers and families and self-doubt and weirdly optimistic yearnings for true love.

But he is peculiarly good at always, always reminding me to be a little starry-eyed and to be a little unwilling to let expectation daunt the drive to happiness (fulfillment, satisfaction, whatever), which he relentlessly invites all his most personable characters—all iterations of himself—to pursue. He rarely dangles those characters out over that gap between what they want and what they’ll get; what he usually does is give them a push and the choice: jump and give yourself a chance or fall completely.

I like being reminded of that too.

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