Feature: The Magic of Woody Allen
by Steve Habrat
One theme that often appears in the films of Woody Allen is themes or use of the supernatural or fantasy. In multiple films, we get to see how he uses things ranging from extraterrestrials, ghosts, death, or magic. The interesting aspect is that he applies it to his very personal films, like Stardust Memories or he uses it in his funnier films like Love and Death. Allen has even gone as far as to play a magician in one of his more recent films. Through his use of these supernatural elements, he takes subjects that are very serious and with the use of the supernatural, he allows his audience to take the subjects in a lighter way. I think this is an interesting aspect to the work of Allen and how he applies the use of the supernatural. Through the use of fantasy, he brings almost a childlike awe to some of his films. He also makes some very important statements on important topics like death and even his own career.
During the teenage years of his life, Woody Allen did not seem to be particularly interested in the intellectual elements that fill his career and work today. Throughout this period, Allen spent long hours in his room practicing magic tricks. It was around this time as well that he started submitting jokes and he got himself noticed (Woody Allen Biography). In Stig Bjorkman’s book Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Allen states “It has been said, that if I have any one big theme in my movies, it’s got to do with the difference between reality and fantasy. It comes up very frequently in my films. I think what it boils down to, really, is that I hate reality. And, you know, unfortunately it’s the only place where we can get a good steak dinner. I think it comes from my childhood, where I constantly escaped into cinema” (Bjorkman, 50). When you analyze what Allen’s films tend to be about, which is love, death and relationships, we can see that he is interested in making intellectually stimulating films that are not just special effects and mindless entertainment. It is interesting that someone who says that they hate reality would be interested in these specific topics. In many of his films including Play It Again, Sam, made in 1973, Love and Death, made in 1975, Stardust Memories, made in 1980, The Purple Rose of Cairo, made in 1985, Alice, made in 1990, The Curse of The Jade Scorpion, made in 2001, and Scoop, made in 2006, all have fantasy elements that I believe to be rather personal to Allen. When you break down what each of these films is trying to convey with its fantasy elements, it becomes much clearer.
Starting with Play it Again, Sam, Allen plays a film critic who has just gotten a divorce and is trying to move forward and find a new relationship with the help of his friends. Throughout the film, Allen goes into conversations and gets relationship advice from the apparition of Humphrey Bogart. What is interesting about the set up is the fact that Humphrey Bogart is in character as Rick Blaine, from Casablanca. When we go back and look at the quote from Allen when he says “I think it comes from my childhood, where I constantly escaped into cinema”, it becomes more obvious that this role that he has taken on may be more personal than one would imagine. He uses the Bograt apparition to try to find an answer to his relationship problems. Allen’s character begins living through the film to help him cope with the relationship that he has been involved in with the Diane Keaton character. The film even ends similarly to Casablanca, as he lets the love interest go, just as Rick Blaine does with the character Ingrid Bergman plays, Ilsa Lund.
As you continue to trace the development of Allen’s use of fantasy to escape reality, we arrive at his 1975 film, Love and Death. This time around, Allen does not use fantasy to escape relationship problems but rather to escape ideas of death. The film follows a cowardly Russian man, Boris, played by Allen, who gets enlisted into the Russian army after Napoleon’s troops try to invade. Soon Boris and his wife, Sonja, played by Diane Keaton, devise a plan to assassinate Napoleon. As the finale plays out, we realize that Boris is going to die. Throughout the film, Boris sees the apparition of death claiming souls. Death looks like the Grim Reaper only rather than wearing a black cloak, he wears an all white cloak. At the end of the film, the white-cloaked Death comes to claim Boris and as the film ends, we see Boris and Death dancing with each other as Death takes Boris’s soul to the afterlife. When one think of death, it is often a very serious topic and we would hardly believe that Death would appear cloaked in white. Once again, Allen tackles a very serious subject with fantasy and also with quite a bit of slapstick comedy in the film. He seems to address the serious topic of death by showing us a fantasy apparition that dances with its victims rather than just presenting a very depressing affair. This seems once again to be going along with the idea that Allen wants to tackle a serious topic but uses fantasy to analyze it. We obviously know that Death does not come for us in a cloak and carrying a sickle. It seems here that Allen is trying to comfort his own fears on death by trying to convince himself that death really is not a grim affair but rather something can be celebrated.
In 1980, Allen released the film Stardust Memories, which seems to be one of his more personal films. Stardust Memories follows the filmmaker Sandy Bates, played by Allen, who has recently been trying to make more artistic films rather than the humorous films that he was known for making. As a result of Bates making these more serious films, he has been losing or getting a lot of criticism from his fans. Throughout the film, we get several fantasy versus reality aspects that seem quite personal to Allen. Two notable scenes are one involving a young boy who looks slightly like Allen and a group of extraterrestrials that pay Sandy a visit. At one point, Bates is getting bombarded by questions from fans and press and at one point Bates looks through the crowd and sees a young boy with his mother. We notice that the boy has on a pair of glasses that are similar to what Allen himself wears as well as a cape. As Bates watches the boy, the boy suddenly flies up into the air without warning. The interesting thing about this particular scene as that it seems to suggest in terms of the theme of the film, that Bates just wants to go back to his childhood and start new. When he flies up into the sky, he seems to want to escape the crowd and go to a different place rather than take numerous questions and criticisms. This could also be alluding to Allen’s real life, in which he would like to escape all his criticisms and fly away. The other interesting scene comes when extraterrestrials visit Bates and tell him that they prefer his early funny films rather than his recent serious ones. Now we have to take into consideration that two years prior to the making of Stardust Memories, Allen released a film that seemed more serious than his previous work. That particular film was Interiors and it caused him to loose some of his audience, as he was known for making funny films rather than tackling very serious topics. This scene in the film seems to deal with some sort of anxiety that Allen had about people from all over the world being upset that he is making more serious films rather than funny ones. The aliens could represent people from another country that would be upset with the direction he is going with his work.
After Stardust Memories, Allen made a film in 1985 called The Purple Rose of Cairo. The film is about Cecilia, played by Mia Farrow, who is living during the Great Depression and is caught up in a bad marriage. She begins going to see a film at her local movie theater called The Purple Rose of Cairo to escape her lousy, everyday life. One day, one of the characters, Tom, played by Jeff Daniels, emerges from screen to be with Cecilia. This particular plot seems very reminiscent of what Allen would do during his childhood. The plot of the film feels very personal to Allen, as he would try to escape reality when he was younger by going to see films. The film implies that films create magic and that we can avoid dealing with bad relationships and problems at our work. As the film goes on, we learn that the actor who portrays Tom in the film, Gil, and the studio executives are all working to get Tom back into the film so the film can continue playing. At the end of the film, Cecilia, who is pursued by Gil and Tom, looses both men and instead of embracing reality, she slips right back into fantasy by going back to the movies.
Allen’s next film to continue the trend of people trying to escape reality with fantasy would be Alice, made in 1990. The film is about Alice, played by Mia Farrow, who is very wealthy and seems to have a loving family. Alice suffers from back pains and one day goes to an oriental herbal healer. He realizes that her back pain is stemming from more serious problems in her life. As the film moves on, we see Alice falling in love with another man. The oriental herbalist, Dr. Yang, gives Alice special herbs that give her magical powers. One of the herbs causes her to become invisible while one is a love potion that makes several men fall in love with her. At the end of the film, Alice decides that she wants to leave her husband, who is also having an affair, and try to reinvent her life. She decides to do work with Mother Theresa and devote her life to helping people less fortunate than her. Allen seems to be saying that through magic and fantasy, we can break away from our troubled mundane lives and start over. We can get away from our troubled love lives and do something for the better rather than just wasting our lives unhappily.
In 2001, Allen released The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which used the idea of magic at its core. The film follows CW Briggs, played by Allen, who is an insurance investigator and an efficiency expert named Betty Ann Fitzgerald. One evening, CW and Betty Ann are both put under a spell at a magic show and once they are under the spell, a crooked magician convinces them to go out and steal precious jewels and money for him. The interesting idea that stems from use of the supernatural in this film is while under the spell, both CW and Betty Ann confess feelings for each other but when they are not under the spell, they hate each other. Allen seems to be implying that with the help of fantasy and magic, we can fall in love with someone who is our complete opposite. It also seems to say that magic could revive love and make people happy in the world. This seems very personal in the same idea that in fantasy we can have exactly what we want. The film also seems very personal to Allen, as the film’s plot is based off a magician and a magic spell.
When we look back on how Allen spent his childhood, one of the ways was practicing magic in his bedroom. In 2006, Allen made Scoop, which follows a young journalism student, played by Scarlett Johansson who gets involved in a murder mystery along with a magician. Allen plays the magician and when we study his background, we can assume that this role may also be very personal to him. This seems like Allen is fantasizing about a career he wished he had. We also get the same fantasy and supernatural themes that showed themselves before in Allen’s previous works. We get death showing up and leading souls to the under world, only this time death wears black instead of white like it did in Love and Death. We also get an apparition who interacts with the main characters, which feels slightly similar to what we saw in Play It Again, Sam.
While Allen says that he prefers fantasy to reality, we also have the opposing idea that Allen is interested in making very serious works. He first started making funny films and then started gravitating towards more serious works of art. With films like Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives, he does not incorporate elements of fantasy or the supernatural. Other serious filmmakers have obviously influenced Allen and I believe that we see the true Allen when he makes films with a fantasy element, even if it is very subtle rather than blatantly obvious.
Overall, I think it is important to monitor the elements of fantasy versus reality in the films of Woody Allen. I believe he conveys personal ideas when he adds this particular factor, as they show up in several of his more personal films. I hope to see more of these fantasy elements show up in Allen’s upcoming work and see what he has to say with them. I believe some of his most interesting works contain these elements of fantasy and I hope he keeps putting intellectual ideas behind his fantasies. For me, I prefer his supernatural work, but hey, that is just me.
Allen’s newest film, Midnight in Paris, deals with supernatural elements and will soon be added to this feature. It is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. See Anti-Film School’s review of it here.
Woody Allen on Woody Allen by Stig Bjorkman. Pg. 50