A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Another Woman
Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival
Am I so far down the rabbit of Woody-love that my critical faculties have taken a powder? Or have recent personal upsets so thinned my skin to the point where anything resembling a complex human emotion or an insight into relationships is enough to evoke tender feelings in me? What next? Will I be seen standing in front of the pet shop on Sixth Avenue, like Barbara Stanwyck in the last scene of Stella Dallas crying in the rain as I gaze moonily at de widdle puppy dawgs? Jeezus, I’m just hopeless.
I was trying to figure out why these two films were programmed together. I’d never seen either—a real treat to have such a virgin experience. One I knew by reputation as a comic romp and the other as a Nordic and serious affair. I figured it might be because of their respective debts to Bergman (Midsummer to Smiles of A Summer Night and Another Woman to Bergman’s more prototypically melancholic work, like Persona or Face to Face). Having now watched—and kind of loved—both, I think what binds these two together is what keeps coming up in Allen’s work: that damned anhedonia; the cerebral intellectualizing that masks a terror of feeling, that incapacity to give oneself over to joy that can leave one a vicarious observer to one’s own life (can you tell he’s hit a nerve?) Yesterday in Hannah, Woody’s character resolves to kill himself but naturally, the gun slips. Despairing but alive, he walks the Upper West Side until he ends up at the Metro, watching Duck Soup (The Marx Brothers singing “Fredonia’s Going to War,” to be specific, a number that always makes me think, however briefly, “Poor Zeppo.”). In a direct nod to Sullivan’s Travels where the chain gang forgot their troubles and got happy while watching a cartoon, he realizes that “…It’s not all a drag…I should stop running from my life and enjoy it while it lasts.”
M.N.S.C. (whose title is a reductive misnomer, promising little more than Laugh-In-style ribaldry when in fact it’s an artful and lovely film) is shot in the countryside, lensed by Gorgeous…I mean Gordon Willis. Scored with Mendelssohn’s rendition of Shakespeare’s Dream (one of my very favorite ballets), it is a paean to summer, with its trembling buds, industrious bees, and loping fauns. Even I, who experience reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder when the mercury climbs above fifty and who panics when hit with direct sunlight, yearned for an invitation to a country home for an indolent weekend (in truth, I’ve turned down virtually every invitation I have ever received, and I received many of them for years until people, quite rightly, stopped asking). Set at the dawn of the 20th century, Woody plays a Wall Street broker and part-time crackpot inventor, married to Mary Steenburgen, whom I have always adored but who acts almost every role on a slight delay, as if her heart pumped Nyquil instead of blood. Equally beloved and equally diffident Julie Hagerty—whom I miss terribly—is Dulcy, the over-sexed nurse who has come up with Tony Roberts, best friend and doctor who can’t keep it in his pants. And Mia Farrow is the ethereal Titania (although here named Ariel, just as appropriately), due to marry pompous ass Jose Ferrer the very next day (an interesting presence, he, since in Wild Man Blues, Allen downplays the importance of receiving a lifetime achievement award by pointing out that Ferrer won his Oscar for Cyrano the same year that Brando portrayed Stanley Kowalski, an upset in the moral order perverse enough to render all accolades everywhere suspect forever after), to the distress of both Allen and Roberts, who both adore her.
There is talk of the existence of a Spirit World, the coexistence of or schismatic relationship between Love and Lust, serial thwarted trysts in the woods surrounding the house. Eventually Ferrer expires at the peak of ecstacy and his soul is converted to a green glow of pure essence. He joins the other numinous fireflies, those lucky enough to die at that most beautiful of moments, as they hover, bump, and whiz through the forest, Pucks and Peaseblossoms each and every one. He urges his surviving castmates to seize each opportunity, to throw themselves wholeheartedly towards connection, to risk failure and heartbreak, because to miss feeling something, good or bad, would be a far greater tragedy.
This double bill is the true Melinda And Melinda, a film in which Allen attempted to tell the same story, once as comedy, the next as tragedy. If Midsummer’s was bathed in the golden light of an endless June, Another Woman’s beige sobriety comes from the shortening days of autumn in a very Stockholm-ish Manhattan. Everyone, Gena Rowlands’ philosophy professor Marion Post to Ian Holm as her husband to the reliably fabulous Martha Plimpton are all the same color: the least gooey caramel imaginable. (Almost seventeen years ago, when I was a publishing pariah, I was making a delivery to Doubleday where I saw Mrs. Onassis herself, waiting for the elevator. From her hair to her drum tight skin to the swags of cashmere that swaddled her frame, she was a vision in mocha. A walking sepia print.)
Marion has taken an apartment down in the Village in which to write her book, unmolested by distractions, until she realizes that she can hear through the vents the conversation coming from the therapist’s practice next door (Allen would use overheard therapy again in Everyone Says I Love You as well as in Alice). One patient in particular, at least her plaintive voice and sad story (Mia Farrow) penetrates Marion’s own carefully maintained carapace. It sends her back, churning up long-buried love, old betrayals (Sandy Dennis has a scene so deeply fabulous that the experience of it jumps senses and becomes as satisfying as if one were eating food. I can think of no higher praise than that). Rowlands is goaded to action by this disembodied stranger. The voice through the grate might as well be her own. The film is replete with cool-blooded Hanseatic references: Rilke poems and Klimt paintings and a haunting and repeated version of Kurt Weill’s Bilbao, but because I am an idiot, I was instead reminded of how as a young boy, reading about the break-up of Sonny and Cher in Time magazine, Cher said something like, “People keep asking me if I left Sonny for another man, but I left him for another woman. Myself.” And I thought to myself God, that is profound). When the composed Rowlands—who has perhaps never looked more beautiful—finally breaks down, it is absolute floodgates. As shocking as watching a moment of illicit passion.
“It was a dud!” says eighty-year-old Loud Talker seated beside me to his friend. “I thought it would be funny.” But he’s wrong. It is beautiful. Today at least (and yesterday, certainly, and tomorrow when I see my beloved Manhattan) I can only feel something approaching awe. Woody Allen makes me want to stop being afraid. He makes me want to work hard. At art, at love, at all of it.