15 JANUARY 1977, Page 24


Young Woody or tales of valium and conquest

Penelope Gilliatt

Woody Allen is imperially funny and racked by nerves. At his apartment in New York, a two-storey penthouse with terraces, he is beset by pigeons that cause him anguish of heart about catapults, trespassers, birds' lives, birds' droppings, bird repellents, birds' deaths, and his own rights. Sometimes he goes so far as to stalk the pigeons with an air-gun, but he is a worried shooter. Sometimes he makes a foray to one of the jokeshops on Broadway, dressed in his habitual khaki drill jacket, jeans, fishing hat and specs, hellbent on tracking down some new anti-pigeon gadget ; but it never works and, like most of his attempts to avenge himself, it is generally an eventual cause of remorse.

His newest, funniest and most piercingly autobiographical film, which is called Anxiety, is the pigeon-worry writ large. Before that he starred in The Front, playing a jumpy non-writer of the McCarthy era who fronted for black-listed scenarists; the film is broad about political issues but subtle about the fears of the Allen character, whose alarm when faced by an alien typewriter in a TV production office where he is expected to do a quick re-write job is the alarm of a cat in an awkward social situation with no doors open to it to allow it to make one of cats' heavily casual exits. The character, besieged by a nervous cough, shelters behind a decoy manner of being forthright in taking pains. Asked by an investigator if he knows someone incriminating, he will say with panicky care, 'Can you ever really know a man in the Biblical sense?' Woody Allen draws on his Jewishness for the rabbinical wisdoms and pedantries of his style, just as he draws on a certain timid and very metropolitan American man's admiration of brainy Vassar graduates for the gusts of love-talk about Wittgenstein or Kafka that blow through his encounters with girls of lofty scholarship.

His film Love and Death (1975) tells us at once, with its title, where the story is set. We are obviously going to be in the land of War and Peace, of Crime and Punishment, of Fathers and Sons, though we turn out to be not so much in Russia as in Russian books. They are books seen through Woody Allen's own vision of the world, which is both large-scale and apologetic, like his specs. Our Woody plays a nineteenthcentury Russian called Boris. The skinny hero, swamped in progressively loopier and longer-haired furs that he begins to wear at meals, spends the film inspecting his life in the true manner of his native land. He is halted in love by a bad case of hypochondria Can ulcer condition,' and cold sores). He is equivalently halted in war by pacifism.

To his thuggishly soldierly family, who plague him to fight Napoleon, he excuses himself as being 'a militant coward.' He violently doesn't like fighting. He would put his foot down—or maybe stamp it, and then worry that he'd trodden on a fly or given trouble to an ingrowing toenail—rather than kill an enemy.

Woody Allen's films and plays have long been Slav in their yearnings and Manhattantesty in their intellect. He has used that crossplay to create a fiction of Neurotic Love, the finer-toothed by-product of Romantic Love. Romantic Love is about love for the unattainable, about pleasure in ruins, about going into battle with a lady's gauntlet in your hat, about taking the symbol for the fact. Neurotic Love is about lust for the unapproachable, about partaking in one's own ruination, about landing up on the sofa with the beloved object when you've lost a contact lens, about being sick of being fobbed off with a bit of crosstalk from a six-foot PhD blonde when you want to possess every lovely inch of her. Of the two, Neurotic Love is the accurate, singeing modern refinement. Woody Allen's characters are its prophets and proponents. There are moments when he seems to have given first utterance to its spirit, as surely as Delacroix and Gericault and Burke's Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful and the. Brontës and .Sancho Panza gave utterance to Romanticism. American entertainment humour is often plumply Romantic at root, however much it prides itself on being sulphurous; Woody Allen, unconsciously a very serious saviour to showbiz's fallen temperament, has taken a more inventive and sharper course in developing High Neurotic as predicated in the work of Chicago's Second City group, of Barbara Harris, of Nichols and May, of Lenny Bruce, of Lily Tomlin. Our Woody seems to live on the planet in a state of draughty unfitness for it. His specs give him, not only a look of scholarship that he obviously suspects to be bogus, but also a certain amount

of cover against a world that he has rather wanted not to ride for quite a long time, having degenerated to the size and discontent of a jobless jockey. More than possibly, he implies, life is a piece of work to throw up. In Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex he plays, among other things, a characteristically benighted sperm, an oppressed-looking little body in a sort of siren suit, waiting with a parachute in a plane with more confident brother sperm who tread painfully on his mouse-like tail. In this film as elsewhere, though, the Allen character squares up to more than his quota of avid girls and gamely takes on the ideals of the Western world as if they weren't likely to give him a breakdown.

The typical Woody Allen comic style is about a longing for the unreachable, which is the keystone of all branches and refinements of Romanticism; but, this being the derisive and pungent day in humour that it is, he shows us that the unreachable is puny and not worth the stretch of a midget. The disproportion between the hunger and the hungered-for defines the character of the literature of Neurotic Love. Instead of Yseult, the lover pines for a hefty au-pair girl who will be cruel to him about Rilke; instead of the food of the gods, he takes tranquillisers; and the essence of the matter is that he understands exactly what he's doing, and with that understanding makes it impossible to sell himself short. It is Woody Allen's comic style habitually to present himself as a coward, but—all wit being a cheek—his wit confounds the proposition. No man so clearly and profoundly intelligent about cowardice is fit to be called a coward. He does an equivalent back-flip with his characters' brow-beaten edginess, which can't conceal from us that, though small, they are an ell higher than the next man in knowledge, not to speak of wisdom about the paltry courses that ignorance and lack of bravery have driven sophisticated Western men to in our times. This is the strength of the part he plays in The Front: not what it says politically, but what it tells us about his comic nature. It uses to the hilt everything he has ever explored about the craven and how it may sometimes be unexpectedly emboldened. Woody Allen's classic comic characters have a slim purchase on life's cliff-face, but they never quite let go, all the same. One thinks of the tenacity of the saddened, lovelorn man in the really very serious new Anxiety, and of the account in a Woody New Yorker short story of the Earl of Sandwich's heroic plugging on to invent the sandwich out of two bits of turkey with a piece of bread in the middle.