If I get too mellow, I ripen and then rot

1 Dec

“I’m a guy who can’t function well in life but can in art.” – Harry Block, Deconstructing Harry

I could fill this blog post with quotes from Woody Allen films that relate to my life. I could talk about the Woody Allen characters with whom I most overidentify, which is all of them. Nothing I write will seem adequate, because it’s impossible to quantify the influence Allen has had on my life—as a writer, as a neurotic, as a Jew.

Woody Allen didn’t make me the person I am, but he encouraged me (however indirectly) to express aspects of myself I wasn’t sure were worth expressing. He helped me find the humor in self-hatred: you can take a mostly useless persecution complex and find an outlet for it. There is something inherently funny about social anxiety, and—thanks to the magic of the internet—you don’t even have to leave your room to express it.

Sometimes I think of writing as therapy, but more often, it’s my attempt to make the best of a bad situation. I will continue to mature into a functional member of society, but I know I’m always going to be at least a little bit fucked-up. I’m fine with that: I couldn’t handle the dullness of being completely well-adjusted. And while I don’t exactly want to model my life after Woody Allen’s, when has he ever been normal? He grows as a writer and a director, but his persona remains the same.

There’s no cure for Judaism. And sure, it goes beyond that, but a culture of guilt and a history of bitter persecution will do a number on a young person’s psyche. Religion aside, being a nebbish is, in some ways, a lifetime condition. In high school, that freaked me out: I will never be the cool, collected, sexy Aryan I once longed to be. (Oh my God, what if I dyed my hair platinum blonde?) The trick is to own the glasses and the Jewfro and the overwhelming sense of self-doubt. Some people find neurosis sexy. If you don’t believe me, watch any number of Woody Allen films.

It’s worth mentioning that I’m writing this on Allen’s 76th birthday, and I’ve managed to make it almost entirely about me. That seems fitting, though, right? I am a self-obsessed, navel-gazing narcissist, as sure of my own superiority as I am of everyone else’s poor opinion of me. I didn’t learn that from Allen, but I learned how to articulate it when I first watched Annie Hall as an adult.

The other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but I think it appears originally in Freud’s ‘Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,’ and it goes like this—I’m paraphrasing—um, ‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’

That paradox of being both above and beneath it all defines most everything I do. And comparing myself to Woody Allen—feeling that I am both worthy of the comparison and also completely unable to achieve his greatness—is certainly a reflection of that.

My two favorite Woody Allen movies are the ones I’ve quoted above, Deconstructing Harry and Annie Hall, but I’m fond of what I believe to be the first of his films I saw in the theater, Everyone Says I Love You. While it’s not commonly regarded as one of his best, I still love it—for the cast, for the music, for the quintessential Woody Allen-ness that was missing from my life before I discovered him. I had just turned 10 when my parents took me to see Everyone Says I Love You, and as much as I didn’t understand, there was something in the character of Joe for me to grasp on to. I got him in a way I’d never gotten a leading man before. He got me.

I’ll leave you with this exchange between Allen’s Joe and his ex-wife Steffi, played by Goldie Hawn.

Steffi: You always pick the wrong women.
Joe: Hey, I picked you.
Steffi: Yeah, I know. We got divorced.
Joe: ‘Cause you were impossible to live with.
Steffi: “I was impossible to live with,” I love this. You couldn’t figure out whether you wanted to be a psychoanalyst or a writer!
Joe: So I compromised—I became a writer and a patient.

I’m doing my best to excel at both. Thanks, Woody. Happy birthday. Don’t ever stop making movies.

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