What Does It All Mean? The Films of Woody Allen

Woody Allen and Dianne Wiest in ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’

I was in high school when I first saw Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and it changed my life.

By that time, I had discovered movies and knew who Allen was, but I wasn’t familiar with his filmography. I found the DVD at a local Target, of all places, and since they didn’t have a copy to rent at Blockbuster, I decided to buy it. Of all the movies I own, I’ve rewatched Hannah and Her Sisters the most.

What struck me then, and still does, is the melancholy tone of the film. Unlike Allen’s previous slapstick comedies, Hannah and Her Sisters has a maturity to it, as if the filmmaker had grown up and become wiser, and with that wisdom, a little more resigned to life’s vicissitudes.

Like Allen’s best films, Hannah and Her Sisters focuses on a group of upper-class, intellectual New Yorkers who fall in and out of love and try to find the meaning of life in the process. There are unrequited affections, forbidden affairs, and the typical contemplations of God’s existence.

The film is structured in chapters, like a novel that you’d want to read on a lazy Sunday afternoon. For me, the most appealing vignette focuses on Hannah’s sister Holly (Barbara Hershey) and her affair with Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine). Their scenes together are pure movie magic, so romantic that we forget we’re watching two adults betray their long-term partners.

The bookstore scene still lingers in my memory. I love it because Allen captures a New York that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever existed at all. It’s a vision of a city where people can waste hours discussing art in the afternoon, slowly learning a little bit about each other as they talk, falling more in love with each passing moment. No filmmaker portrays romantic longing better than Allen.

There are movie moments we cherish, and each of us have different ones to which we return. For me, there’s the pool scene in The Last Picture Show (1971), the “Tiny Dancer” sing-along in Almost Famous (2000) and the reality/expectations montage in 500 Days of Summer (2009), to name a few. But the bookstore scene in Hannah and Her Sisters is the big one, particularly when Holly finally reads the poem Elliot says reminded him of her.

There’s just something about the combination of Hershey’s narration and the use of “Bewitched” by Rodgers and Hart that gets me every time. It helps that Hershey recites Cummings’ overwhelmingly romantic words, and that Allen ends the scene with a final gut punch: Holly and Elliot in separate apartments, with different lovers, both coming to the same life-altering realization that they want each other.

The romantic bookstore scene from ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’

What keeps me coming back to Allen’s films is his point of view. Namely, that life is random and meaningless, that people are cruel and irrational, and that whatever we do is undermined by the constant threat of death. Of course, Allen isn’t an innovative philosopher, and many of his ideas are inspired by the thinkers of yore, but with the possible exception of Ingmar Bergman, Allen is the filmmaker who consistently compels us to ponder life’s most mysterious questions.

One’s enjoyment of Allen’s films depends on one’s agreement with his perspective on life. You’re either with him or you’re not. You get him or you don’t. This is why he is such a divisive filmmaker, and why some people think he’s a genius and others think he’s overrated. At some point, you watch Love and Death (1975), Annie Hall (1977), and Interiors (1978) and come to a conclusion. If you share the sense that everything we do in life is all for nothing, you’re in, and if not, you don’t comprehend why those of us who do keep coming back to his films, again and again.

Whether comedy or drama, farce or thriller, period piece or contemporary slice of life, Allen’s films engage with the unknowns: How can we be happy with so much human suffering? Is there a God? What does it all mean?

Consider, for example, the following scene in Love and Death, a spoof of the Napoleonic Era.

Woody Allen explores human suffering in ‘Love and Death’

This scene showcases the place from which Allen’s humor stems. In this case, Allen finds humor in the absurdity of life. As Diane Keaton’s character says:

“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you’re getting this down.”

Here, Allen is satirizing philosophers who go to great lengths to explain the meaning of existence and the human’s purpose in life. He is critical of those who claim that there is a reason for why things happen. Keaton’s meaningless rant is Allen’s way of illustrating the absurdity of it all, and to undermine philosophical conceptions of rationality.

While funny, this scene from Love and Death finds Allen facing his fears of death and his constant contemplation of his role in life. In a sense, Allen’s final monologue suggests that human existence is all for nothing, and as hard as we try to explain our presence on this earth, the best we can do is delude ourselves into thinking that there’s any meaning.

Woody Allen speaks about death at the Cannes Film Festival

The above clip finds Allen confirming this belief during a press conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). As Allen says:

“I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience and that the only way you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself….One must have one’s delusions to live. If you look at life too honestly and clearly, life does become unbearable.”

Just as this theme runs through You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, it also features prominently in earlier Allen films like The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). The film is set during the Great Depression and tells the story of Cecilia (Mia Farrow), an unhappy married woman who finds pleasure and escape in the movies. In a brilliant conceit, one of the fictional characters Farrow has fallen in love with literally comes out of the screen and develops a romantic relationship with Cecilia.

The film is one of Allen’s best, and although it is charming and delightful, the ending is quietly heartbreaking as Cecilia realizes that fantasy (i.e. movies) is more fulfilling than real life (i.e. her marriage). Allen has said in numerous interviews that The Purple Rose of Cairo is about the choice individuals make to live in delusion because the real world is too unbearable. The final scene of the film beautifully represents this idea, and implies that Cecilia’s only happiness and fulfillment comes from retreating back into the fantasy and escaping into the movies once more.

Cecilia retreats into the movies in ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’

And can’t we say the same about Blue Jasmine (2013)? The film depicts the downfall of Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), a high society New Yorker whose life falls apart when her husband (Alec Baldwin) is incarcerated for financial crimes. Jasmine loses all of her money and is forced to move to San Francisco and live with her working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).

Blue Jasmine is Allen’s best film since the 1980s, and in many ways it serves as a companion piece to The Purple Rose of Cairo. Jasmine’s reality — that her husband deceived her, that her reputation is ruined, that she is isolated and alone — is less bearable than her fantasy — that she’s a victim, that everyone’s out to get her, that she’s still high status — so she chooses to live in denial and accept the delusion as reality. Below is an example of the lies Jasmine tells herself to cope with her existence.

Jasmine deludes herself in ‘Blue Jasmine’

The final scene of Blue Jasmine is powerful, as Allen leaves Jasmine muttering on a park bench. It’s clearly one of the great film endings, and knowing Allen’s perspective on life, it’s cruelly, almost cynically funny. This is what happens, Allen believes, in the real world. Why would anyone want to deal with that?

“Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends,” Allen once quipped. While comic, the quote illustrates Allen’s dissatisfaction with life. How can there be any meaning, he wonders, when the wrong people are rewarded, when bad things happen to good people, and when cruelty trumps kindness. Perhaps no other Allen film demonstrates this vision as clearly as Deconstructing Harry (1997).

In the film, Allen plays a writer who is haunted by his past, not unlike the main character in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). In one scene, Allen’s character is sent to hell, and we are presented with his most pessimistic view of the world. Among the members of hell, according to Allen, are book critics, the media, right-wing extremists, lawyers who appear on television, TV Evangelists, and the NRA. If he were to update this film for the 21st century, I imagine he’d throw Twitter users in there as well.

The hilarious “Hell scene” in ‘Deconstructing Harry’

The above “hell scene” is bitterly funny, as well as brutally honest. Here, Allen offers a glimpse into why he finds the modern world so miserable. He encounters the Devil played by Billy Crystal, and is given some harsh words of advice: “It’s like Vegas. You’re up, you’re down, but in the end, the house always wins. It doesn’t mean you didn’t have fun.” The dilemma for Allen is coming to terms with the fact that the house always wins. How can you have fun, Allen asks, when it all ends in death and it’s completely out of your control?

This question is raised in most of Allen’s films, and he doesn’t offer any easy answers. To date, the closest he has come to peace is through acceptance. In the aforementioned Hannah and Her Sisters, my personal favorite, Allen’s character spends the entire film trying to find a reason for why things happen in life, but is left with this feeling:

I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get and just enjoy it while it lasts. And after who knows, I mean maybe there is something, nobody really knows. I know maybe is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have. And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.

Searching for answers in ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’

I came to a similar realization a few weeks ago about Allen’s art. Maybe his late period films will never be as widely appreciated as Annie Hall, and maybe he will never be given the respect that he deserves, but so what? As far as I’m concerned, he’s the greatest living filmmaker we have, and his work makes me more aware of my presence on this earth.

There are days when I, like Cecilia and Jasmine and many of Allen’s other characters, prefer to live in delusion than to face reality. This is comforting for a while, but as time passes, I’m confronted with the fact that at some point relatively soon Allen will perish. I don’t know when this will happen — none of us do — but when it does, I’m going to have to deal with it and live in a world where a new Allen film won’t come out every year. For too long, I took Allen for granted, but now I see that the fantasy cannot go on forever. He will stop making films, and I must accept that there will never be another artist like him whose work speaks so profoundly to me.

I haven’t yet figured out how I’m going to cope when this happens, and I still can’t begin to imagine what a summer will be like without a new Allen film. I guess I just have to enjoy it while it lasts.

The article has been modified from a previous version published in The Artifice.

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