Sunday, August 24, 2008

It's Only A Lobster: Woody Allen's Neurotic Pleasures

There's a new film by Woody Allen. Which made me wonder: why have Allen's movies been so disappointing for so many years? Or, why is Annie Hall of 1977 still the standard against which all of his later films are judged? It's not much of a movie, more a series of memorable vingettes, held together by a feeble plot line-the failed romance of Alvy Singer played by Allen and Diane Keaton, the title character.

Would it be too much of a stretch to say it's his best film because it's his most Jewish? Between screenings of Max Ophul's Sorrow and the Pity, a four hour documentary on the Nazis, Alvy hangs out with 'some guys from NBC', and asks: 'did you eat yet or what?' One of them, Tom Christie [read Tom Christian] responds with the innocent, 'no, did you?,' misheard by Allen as 'd'jew?' 'You get it? Jew eat?' Jew? 'You're paranoid Max,' says Roberts to Allen who always has Jews and Judaism on his mind. But the paranoid anti-semitism probably doesn't get as much play as Allen's tortured Jewish consciousness. How many non-kosher animals are there in Annie Hall? Alot. There's the ham served at Annie's family gathering. 'Nice ham this year' says Annie's mother to Grammie Hall, 'the classic Jew hater' in whose eyes Alvy appears-at least to his own imagination-as a chassid, complete with hat and long payos.

Then there's the 'pork and shellfish' that Alvy's doctor rules out as causes for his stomach ailment (surprise: it's hypochondria), and the spiders--one the 'size of a Buick'--in Annie's bathroom. Most notable of the non-kosher creepy crawlers are the lobsters on the kitchen floor of Hampton's summer home, with the squirming Alvy's shouting 'they're disgusting!' As one of the lobsters escapes behind the refrigerator, Alvy implores Annie: 'you talk to him, you speak shellfish!'

Annie does speak shellfish, and that's part of Alvy's fascination with her. There's enormous pleasure for Allen--even though it seems like he's in pain--with the transgressive love affair with the shellfish-speaking Keaton and her lobsters. It's the kind of pleasure that French psychoanalysts call jouissance-the neurotic pleasure one gets from unresolved psychic battles. Alvy knows he shouldn't be eating the lobster, but there's the jouissance in doing it anyway. Towards the end of the movie, after Alvy and Annie have separated, Alvy tries to repeat the scene-same house, same kitchen, same lobsters. Allen with lobster in hand, looks up plaintively to his new companion who responds with utter indifference: 'it's only a lobster.'

There's a whole generation of Jews who share Alvy's neurotic pleasures; the kabbalists might look generously at such neurosis and see the 'sparks of holiness' of a struggling Jewish soul. Not that the Torah wants us to be neurotic. The Talmud tells us we shouldn't make theatrical shows of disgust at non-kosher animals: it's not that I don't want to try the eel at the local sushi place; really I crave it. But, as Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says of the cheeseburger he forgoes, 'I want it, but my Father in Heaven decreed me not to partake of it.' So I admit my desires, and become responsible for them, even as I decide not to pursue them.

Some might say that Alvy admits that he really likes lobsters, and just wants to eat them. That's one form of resolution, and maybe some sort of psychic health for Allen. Though it's a shame really, because for all of the images of Jews in his films, almost all center on fear--paranoid anti-semitism and neurotic anxiety about being Jewish. When there are Jewish scenes in Annie Hall, they are more generically ethnic than particularly Jewish. If Alvy--with all those Jews he represents--had access to a lived Judaism and not just its negative stereotypes, he might have worked out his inner conflicts in some other way, true to his neshama as well as his psyche. He might have been responsive to his desires, as well as the voices of Jewish tradition which he knows and feels, but eventually represses to satisfy the perspectives of those who say: 'it's only a lobster.'

And had he found some other resolution, and sought an audience other than the one which looks with pitying condescension at his Jewish connections, maybe his movies would still be funny.


Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

I've always found criticism of an artists art interesting. There is a wonderful book entitled "The Painted Word" by Tom Wolfe. The book is basically about the creative process and how it can be promoted to the masses via the critic or how the art can be destroyed, obliterated and the artists life and career ruined by the critic. I have always found that those that can't do either teach or critic. Woody Allen's movie's are his own vision etc. etc. but why are we talking about this and why is a Haredi Jew bringing this up. Isn't the whole movie traif? I have children's videos in my home that have warnings on them that men can not watch them because there are woman singing; don't Woody Allen's movies go far beyond the Halachic rules for a Haredi Jew to be watching?

Isn't criticism also a form of lashan Hara?

I have even heard some of the same arguments you make here about Woody Allen about Martin Buber.

Are you trying to say, "Them Bad, us good?" If people can't separate art and imagination from reality next you'll be wanting to get rid of free speech and everything that allows us to do like be religious.

I have learned a lot by reading this blog because there are so many great references via links to poetry, news articles etc. All of it seems so way off the mark in terms of trying to make a point. In some ways it draws the person away from Judaism to secularism.

I also don't see many Haredi or other Jewish denominations making posts here though I'm sure many read this blog. Is this because you are mostly using secularism to show how right the religious life is?

I guess the point is to create discussion and that you do in me because i find the way you write like viewing a photo of a man which is split into two frames. The left side of the photo shows a long haired smiling hippie tanned surfer dude with lots of secular education and a love for all things awe inspiring and the right side is a man in a black suite, black hat, looking unapproachable, stern looking like mafioso or woks for some kind of large corporation but extremely conservative none the less. But then again I don't know this man in the photo, I don't know his soul, his dreams, his heartbreak, his joy. I only know him through his talent of writing and criticized through his art form.

Though I don't agree with alot about chabbad or any group that believes that their truth is the one and only truth I do agree with what the Rebbe said about Jews, "Every Jew has the soul of man that is a lamp of G-d."

Anyways as an artisan/artist I am always suspect of criticism by those that have turned criticism into their own art form which is much different than objective reporting, if there is such a thing. Just my thoughts.

Brad (Father to Shira, SMA Type 1, 3 years old)

Michal said...

Dear Brad,

At the risk of presuming too much in speaking for someone else uninvited, I'd venture to say that no, Bill is not your "typical" hareidi, if there is such a thing. Yea, his movie-going past has been revealed (his sometimes dated references to popular culture often confuse his university students) as well as his propensities as a (professionally, literary) critic. I've found his posts, and the comments to them, help me think in new directions, which I find helpful.

Sometimes when we wear more than one hat simultaneously it confuses others (especially when one of them is black) but I find that quite often people surprise me and don't fit the profiles/stereotypes I'd pegged them in, or even those they've chosen for themselves. People are generally more complex than it would appear from the outside.

I would hate to think that a "love for all things awe inspiring" is restricted to the hippie half of your imagined photo; I'd like to think it's something we all -hippies, hareidim, datim leumim, chilonim, free spirits, all people - share, even aspire to. The wonders of G-d's creation, and the things his creations create in turn, are truly amazing, though there certainly are "traif" elements to be avoided, however variously we may define that term.

I have enjoyed your comments, though I don't usually write a response.

Best wishes for you and your family,

Jewish Atheist said...

Most artists put out better stuff when they're young. Annie Hall was a masterpiece. It's not fair to ask him to live up to that again.

Would it be too much of a stretch to say it's his best film because it's his most Jewish

Yes. His paranoia and neuroses are not remotely limited nor particularly related to his Judaism. To be sure, the contrast between their cultures is at the center of the movie, but the movie is more about her culture and how uncomfortable he is in it.

wdk said...

i am kind of tanned; but i don't surf...

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...


Where are the men with the strength to be men?

Where are those who have eyes and can see?

Looking around, I see nothing but cowards and cynics,

And slaves, slaves to their own senses.

And every one of these poor beggars

Thinks of himself as another Aristotle.

You tell me they have written poems—

You call that poetry?

I call it the cawing of crows.

It’s time for the prophet’s anger to purify poetry,

Left too long to the fingers of aesthetes and time-wasters.

I have carved my song in the high forehead of Time.

They know it and hate it—it is too much.

Translated by Robert Mezey

Copyright © Robert Mezey, 1973.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

Brad (Father to Shira)

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

In my humble opinion, Manhattan is Woody Allen's pinnacle film, but what do I know, I am a recovering Catholic.