Woody Allen (and S. J. Perelman, and Ingmar Bergman)

If you ask me to name the three best things Woody Allen ever did, I’ll name Annie Hall, Husbands and Wives, and his first book, Getting Even. The title of this surprising little paperback evokes a repressed intellectual working out his anxiety of influence against the literary canon with a Jackson Pollock-esque hysteria. He’s getting even with Dostoevsky, with Sartre, with Heidegger, with Joyce, with Kafka, and doing so with all the dignity of Jerry Lewis in a science lab. I never want to use a cliche like “I laughed out loud”, but let’s just say I remember an incident on a college-bound Greyhound bus when I really pissed off a few strangers sitting nearby who couldn’t figure out why I kept giggling. It’s easily one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

Allen’s follow-up Without Feathers was every bit as good, though a third volume called Side Effects began to show the unintended side effects of Allen’s increasing overexposure (which would peak about two decades later). But even Side Effects had a few killer pieces, and you can rediscover all three books inside a new and very welcome volume, Insanity Defense: The Complete Prose.

Insanity Defense is a handsome and understated collection, smartly packaged as a $15 paperback. I don’t like the title phrase as much as the Emily Dickinson-inspired “Without Feathers”, and I’m sorry the excellent one-act plays that were included in that book don’t make the “prose” cut here. But why complain? Here are just a couple of short samples of Allen’s manic style, which will hopefully inspire you to buy the book like you should. First, from “A Twenties Memory”:

Picasso’s studio was so unlike Matisse’s in that, while Picasso’s was sloppy, Matisse kept everything in perfect order. Oddly enough, just the reverse was true. In September of that year, Matisse was commissioned to paint an allegory, but with his wife’s illness, it remained unpainted and was wallpapered instead. I recall these events so perfectly because it was just before the winter that we all lived in that cheap flat in the north of Switzerland where it will occasionally rain and then just as suddenly stop. Juan Gris, the spanish cubist, had convinced Alice Tolkas to pose for a still life and, with his typical conception of objects, began to break her face and body down to its basic geometrical forms until the police came and pulled him off. Gris was predominantly Spanish, and Gertrude Stein used to say that only a true Spaniard could behave as he did, that is, he would speak Spanish and sometimes return to his family in Spain. It was really quite marvelous to see.

Or, from “The Irish Genius”:

Liam Beamish went to Jesuit school with O’Shawn but was thrown out for dressing like a beaver. Quincy Beamish was the more introverted of the two and kept a furniture pad on his head till he was forty-one.

The Beamish Brothers used to pick on O’Shawn and usually ate his lunch just before he did. Still, O’Shawn remembers them fondly and in his best sonnet: “My love is like a great, great yak” they appear symbolically as end tables.

There’s also a new volume of recent Woody pieces out, Mere Anarchy, but I’m sorry to say it doesn’t fully capture that old 70’s magic. I’ve already read several of the pieces in The New Yorker, but much has changed since Getting Even. Our psychotic sophomore has become an eccentric (at best) elder statesman, which isn’t nearly as funny. Mere Anarchy is a fine volume, and you should really get both of these books as a set, but if you’re only getting one, I suggest you reach for the classic.

And if you like what you find in either volume, dig up the comic writer who inspires Woody Allen’s prose style more than any other, S. J. Perelman. Allen has never made a secret of the fact that his manic literary style is an homage to this older humorist, who wielded a massive vocabulary and regularly originated scattershot lines like the following, describing himself:

Denied every advantage, beset and plagued by ill fortune and a disposition so crabbed as to make Alexander Pope and Doctor Johnson seem sunny by contrast, he has nevertheless managed to belt out a series of books each less distinguished than its predecessor, each a milestone of bombast, conceit, pedantry, and stunning pomposity. In his pages proliferate all the weird grammatical flora tabulated by H. W. Fowler in his “Modern English Usage” — the Elegant Variation, the Facetious Zeugma, the Cast-Iron Idion, the Battered Ornament, the Bower’s Bird Phrase, the Sturdy Indefensible, the Side-Slip and the Unequal Yokefellow. His work is a museum of mediocrity, a monument to the truly banal.

This is comedy writing from the masters, and the stuff still scans.

* * * * *

Woody won’t mind if we use this space to say goodbye to another one of his role models, the great director Ingmar Bergman, who has died. Allen referenced Bergman constantly in his career — A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was a direct spin on Bergman’s Smiles of A Summer Night, for instance (Smiles of A Summer Night, itself a Shakespeare fantasia, also became A Little Night Music in the hands of Stephen Sondheim). My favorite Bergman film is his most classic, the stark Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays chess with Death to save the life of a baby.

Woody Allen also famously parodied The Seventh Seal in one of the plays that appears in Without Feathers but not in the upcoming collection, “Death Knocks”, which features a grumpy old Jew who challenges Death to a game of gin rummy.

Farewell also to Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49’ers, who I enjoyed watching through several Super Bowls, and finally to TV journalist Tom Snyder. When I was a teenager, Tom Snyder was something like a Jon Stewart to me. I particularly remember his Charlie Manson interview (“off the space shuttle, Charlie”), and the John Lydon confrontations, and I also remember a hilariously painful silent conversation with the folksinging Roches, who he just didn’t get and couldn’t think of anything to say to.

6 Responses

  1. I’d like to add”Take the
    I’d like to add

    “Take the Money and Run” as one of the best things Woody Allen did. The scenes where his parents disguise themselves with Groucho Marx glasses are classic, as well as the scene where he carves a gun out of soap to break out of prison and it melts in a sudden rainstorm. To me this is the best of “Early Period” Allen.

    I also read and liked “Without Feathers”. Woody Allen was also one of the best stand-up comedians ever.

  2. Getting Even……is right up
    Getting Even…

    …is right up there with Umberto Eco’s “How to Travel With a Salmon” among the best literary parodies of all time. Especially “A Twenties Memory.”

    “…and then Gertrude Stein broke my nose.”

    Or his pamphlet listing continuing education courses:

    “Epistemology: Is knowledge knowable? How do we know this?”

    Oh man. Right now I’m giggling maniacally at my desk just thinking about it. Coworkers are starting to stare.

  3. Hmm, I’ll have to check out
    Hmm, I’ll have to check out “How To Travel With a Salmon”! Never heard of it, but I like the title.

  4. “How to Travel With a Salmon”
    “How to Travel With a Salmon” is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. The highlight essay is “Three Owls on a Chest of Drawers,” in which Eco subjects a dirty Italian limerick to a thorough, Derrida-like exegesis, complete with extensive footnotes (“please see ‘The Collected Works of Jacques Lacan,’ which I will quote in the Urdu translation for the sake of clarity”) and page-length semiotic charts and graphs.

    About halfway through he pauses to prove some minor point by expressing the plots of “King Lear” and “Macbeth” in the form of a single equation.

    “If x = a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury = 0, then…”

  5. Antonioni’s GoneI Can’t say
    Antonioni’s Gone

    I Can’t say I’ve ever watched a Bergman flick, and I could never really get into Woody Allen–which is admittedly strange; but Michelangelo Antonioni–who died yesterday at 94–is another story altogether.

    Like most people out there–whether they want to admit it or not–I’ve only seen the one Antonioni picture, Blow Up (1966), but what a picture it is. For someone who, like me, prefers suspense and mystery, foreign directors from this era, and a good sense of the avant-garde, this film has everything. In fact, I always like to use it as a sort of ‘springboard’ for linking my favourite thrillers (Vertigo, The Birds, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, Blue Velvet) with my favourite foreign art films (La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, 400 Blows, Two English Girls). Also, (and I know there’s been a helluva lot of theorising done about this film) I believe this picture had a big impact on The Doors, inspiring the ‘rag week’ look of the Strange Days album cover, and providing Jim Morrison with the idea for his onstage ‘enforced silences’, followed by the powerful screams of WAKE UP!!!!

    A superior director who will be sadly missed.

  6. I totally agree on Blow Up.
    I totally agree on Blow Up. It is my favorite film of all time. To me it’s Blow Up, Apocalypse Now, Chinatown, Wild Strawberries by Bergman, and a tie between Breathless by Godard and Jules and Jim by Truffaut

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