Daniel Sanchez

Prof. Steven Wexler

Eng 312

5/17/10           

Weakness and Failure: A Hero’s Quest

            Far away from the tedious and taxing business of the everyday, where laughter is often overcome by longing, where courage is deterred by cowardice, and where most seem content  to ride the momentum of mediocrity, there exists a place where people turn to break the chains of their daily dread; a place that fosters the unrealized passions and unattainable dreams of a populace constantly confronted with their own limitations. The dark sanctuary of a movie theatre, silent except for the sounds of the screen, drowns out the swirling cacophony of our un-cinematic world and offers its patrons a brief respite from reality, favoring instead an unreality that is entirely fabricated by what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer dubbed “the culture industry” in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment. The power of the culture industry to shape the construction of contemporary measures of success and to promote the virtues that appear intrinsic to our society is a testament to the propagandistic elements of that society which are constantly at play.

             Because we are born in an era where Descartes’ proclamation “I think, therefore I am” has given the individual a rational foundation on which to base their anthropocentric and egotistical sentiments, it is natural for an individual to consider him or herself an autonomous being. This assumed autonomy may be responsible for promoting the false notion that we are, in fact, king’s of our own destiny, and that the culture industry serves as an affirmation of our agency. But Adorno refutes this claim of agency in his critical essay “Culture Industry Reconsidered” when he states “Manifestations of the culture industry [are] vacuous, banal or worse, and the behavior patterns are shamelessly conformist.” The conformity of which Adorno speaks is disguised in daily life by the seemingly interminable options the culture industry provides for people to individuate themselves, but it becomes far more apparent in observing filmic representations of the ideal society, the one the masses flock towards in order to escape the banality of their own characters, and adopt as their own the attributes of those who are presented on screen as distinctly American heroes who embody all of our strengths and none of our weaknesses.

            Pauline Kael, one of the most respected critics in the history of cinema, wrote in her book I Lost it at the Movies, “Real heroism is too dangerous a subject for Hollywood- for there is no heroism without failure, risked or faced, and failure, which is at the heart of drama, is an unpopular subject in America” (Kael 48).  The fundamental characteristic of the quintessential American hero is a strong-willed and courageous disposition that fearlessly combats the Herculean forces of collectivism and oppression that threaten to undermine the agency Americans believe they exercise in their daily lives. We like to believe that the film hero’s that we see on screen, chivalrous and daring, are molded from the likes of people we may know; that the fantasies of the culture industry are somehow rooted in our own reality. But Adorno tells us that this is not true, “The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object.”  A simple comparison between the average life of a man and the life of a Hollywood hero affirms this claim.

            The archetypal Hollywood hero is known for possessing brute strength, self-confidence, and a doggedly arrogant inability to accept defeat. Their rebellion against institutional order often borders on delinquency, and, as Pauline Kael suggests, “When the delinquent becomes the hero in our films, it is because the image of instinctive rebellion expresses something in many people that they don’t dare express.” If this is true, then it stands to reason that the most admired icons in film history are the likes of Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, and Bruce Willis, men who romanticize isolation and loss, and aren’t afraid to break the rules in order to achieve success. But more so than any of the people previously mentioned, who portray characters that simply cannot fail, Woody Allen’s endlessly imperfect and failure-prone characters favor humanity over fantastical heroic dimensions, and as such represent more accurately the everyday struggles of the common man, who very rarely lives up to the standards of success the culture industry creates for him. 

            The American preoccupation with success leads to stories that depict the drama of man’s triumph. Often times commercial success is contingent upon the hero’s triumph over whatever the particular battle they face is, whether it be a boxing match or broken relationship or a hostage situation. Woody Allen’s films tend not to deliver the Hollywood happy-ending that American movie-goers love to see, which may be responsible for the disenchantment with his films in past decades. Woody’s heroes often find themselves ending with less than with what they began, a scenario that is antithetical to the ascendant ambitions of many Americans. For example, in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow plays a sweet small-town waitress who struggles to earn enough money for the rent during the Depression, while her husband beats her around after bouts of drinking. To escape from her precarious position, she rushes off to the cinema, and loses herself in the romance and adventure that the culture industry creates for people just like her. When the man of her dreams steps off of the screen and into her real life, it seems that she will finally be able to share a piece of the good-life the characters in the movies have. Although the limitations of a fictional character are eventually realized, even then, its seems she’s finally caught a break when the actor who played the hero in the movie, Jeff Daniels, asks Farrow to go back to Hollywood with him. But ultimately, Farrow’s character is left alone, with her fictional hero back on the big screen, and her real-life hero on a plane back to Hollywood, alone. All she has to go back to is an abusive husband and the fantasies of the movie house once again.

            This is not the ending American audiences want from their films. Audiences would like to see a decent, morally responsible person triumph over their circumstances, but as Michael Wood suggests in his book America In the Movies, “Success in American movies is almost invariably linked with an unscrupulous disregard for decency and fair play.” Our own desires to maintain our independence in a system that seems to impose rigidity and order translates, in film, into the idolization of heroes who act impetuously and are rewarded for it. This impetuosity is exemplified by Bruce Willis’ character John McClane in Die Hard. In the film McClane is described as an American cowboy, and he embodies all of the characteristics that American audiences value: he is a hard-as-nails, foul-mouthed, wisecracking, no-nonsense New York City cop with an itchy trigger finger, an aversion to Euro trash terrorists, and a never-say-die spirit.  His disregard for authority and his brute-force mentality lead to reckless behavior. But still he defeats the well-dressed and highly intelligent terrorist Hans Gruber, and manages to save his ailing marriage at the same time.

            American audiences appreciate this sort of conflict, where the barriers between good and evil are clearly defined, and the good guy walks away, maybe a little bruised, but still ready for another fight. We do not want to deal with human weaknesses and complexities, the two things Pauline Kael suggests American cinema, as opposed to European cinema, cautiously avoids. And because weakness and heroism are mutually exclusive in the Hollywood model of character, Americans steadfastly oppose any sign of weakness, vulnerability, or sentimentality, those things which are the very essence of our humanity. The shameless conformity that Adorno believed would result from adherence to the culture industry manifests itself in the distinctly American ideology which perpetuates the notion that any reluctance to fight to defend our individual liberties is a sign of weakness. And as Woody comically shows us in his films, the weak are often looked down upon. In Love and Death, Woody Allen plays the antithesis of a heroic figure. Boris Grushenko is a self-proclaimed pacifist, and is looked down upon by his family for not being eager to rush into the glory of battle like his brother Ivan. Ivan displays the characteristics of a typical Hollywood hero: he is physically powerful, courageous, and unafraid of the horrors of war. His dim-wittedness makes Boris feel superior to his brother, but the preferred qualities of a man are clear when Sonja, the woman Boris loves, is not in love with him, but with Ivan.

            The battle between intellect and strength is a common theme in Allen’s films, with strength often taking the form of wealth or fame. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Clifford Stern makes independent documentary features that explore answers to man’s fundamental questions about existence. This pursuit is admirable, but it does not garner the financial and critical prestige that the less intellectually stimulating but more commercially-friendly work that Lester creates does. Allen goes further than suggesting that catering to the elementary mindset of the masses results only in monetary success, but so too does it result in personal success, an idea upheld by Halley, both character’s love interest,  and her decision to marry Lester over Clifford at the film’s conclusion. Although Lester, who at one point is called an “American Phenomenon”, is clearly portrayed as somewhat of a dim-wit, his dim-wittedness still trounces Clifford’s grandiose aspirations and intellect, a decisive victory for the anti-intellectual sentiments of a nation that values tangible validations of success to determine the worth of a character. In addition to defining the socially accepted terms of what constitutes success and heroism, films attempt to tell us how we should deal with feelings of alienation.

            In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart sits at a table behind his drink, staring contemplatively into the glass, a glint of heroic self-pity in his eyes. This iconic image has come to represent the essence, not only of this film, but of the overly-romanticized isolation that Americans want to believe is a natural consequence of their superiority in the world. A real man like Bogart “sticks his neck out for no one,” and is willing to sacrifice even his own love for a greater cause. And, ultimately, Bogart walks off the screen without the girl, shrouded in fog, headed towards an uncertain future. This mystique is lacking from Woody Allen’s character Alvy in Annie Hall, who is not so cool as to be able to walk away from the woman he loved. Alvy seeks to “sift the pieces of the relationship through his mind” to understand where he went wrong, and is not content with his isolation. Neither Alvy Singer nor Rick Blaine get the girl in the end, but where Rick chivalrously sent his love away for her own safety, Alvy desperately tried to win his love back, but was not successful. Again, Allen’s character is antithetical to what has become the definitive act of masculine pride, and the hero’s willingness to forgo his own happiness for more noble causes. The American desire to feel independent is so strong that the filmic interpretation has come to include independence from personal relationships as well. Many of Allen’s characters, like Clifford Stern and Alvy  Singer, hope to find meaningful relationships, though they seldom do.  And in struggling to find love, and pining after it at times, Allen contradicts the traditional perception of the Hollywood leading man, who, like Rick Blaine, may be lonely, bitter, grief-stricken, and miserable, but would be too proud to show it, and be content with their freedom.

            These fictitious portrayals may seem insignificant, but they act as the markers which tells us how we should be and why. But the culture industry, according to Adorno, “solves conflicts only in appearance, in a way that they can hardly be solved in their real lives.” The reality of the lives that so many people hope to escape is that we are not Rick Blaine’s or John McClane’s. We will not be able to maintain our composure in these scenarios, and come off looking every bit the hero we dream we could be. Although few will readily admit it, the similarities between the common man and Woody Allen’s characters are far greater, for we, too, are weak at times, and lonely, and insecure, and neurotic. But true heroism does not come from a total refutation of the existence of these aspects of our being, but in a whole-hearted acceptance of them. To have the courage to reveal the most sinister and, perhaps, asinine tendencies we have should be the desired goal, not the unattainable promise of a life without weakness and without failure or disappointment. Adorno’s prediction that “behavior patterns are shamelessly conformist” as a result of the culture industry is true in so far as the idiosyncratic habits and behaviors are put aside in favor of a universal definition of heroism: strength, independence, and an adopted apathy towards those things that may make you vulnerable.

            Far away from the complacency that plagues people’s progress, where the diurnal cycles stifle the inherent desire for change, people are able to substitute their own imperfections for the celluloid dreams that cast those imperfections away. Pauline Kael once wrote “Even the most routine adventure pictures, empty and meaningless as they are, cater to unsatisfied appetites for action and daring- ingredients that are absent from the daily lives of patrons.”  What Adorno and Horkheimer called the culture industry is successful in implanting in the consciousness of the masses its own ideal patterns of behavior because so many are discontent with the path that their own agency has lead them down. We want to be heroes, like the ones we see on the screen, who face impossible ends every day and triumph over them; a triumph over either man or nature or even God. The personal triumphs of Woody Allen’s characters are few and far between, and no one would be quick to label them as heroic. But to continually go against the tired and contrived, un-human heroism that people aspire to, and to present, instead, an image of man as possessing the weakness to lose, to hurt, to love, and to accept failure as a natural part of our humanity, makes Woody Allen the true hero that is too dangerous for Hollywood to uphold.

Works Cited

Brooker, Will, and Deborah Jermyn. “Culture Industry Reconsidered.” The Audience        Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 2003. 55-59. Print.

Horkheimer, Max, Thomas W. Adorno, and Noerr Gunzellin. Schmid. Dialectic of             Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford, Ca: Stanford University           Press, 2002. Print.

Kael, Pauline. I Lost it at the Movies. Boston: Atlantic Monthly, 1954. Print

Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. United Artists,       1977. DVD.

Casablanca. Dir. Michael Kurtiz. Perf. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Warner     Bros. Studios, 1942. DVD.

Crimes and Misdemeanors. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen and Martin Landau.     Orion Pictures Corporation, 1988. DVD.

Die Hard. Dir. John McTiernan. Perf. Bruce Willis. Twentieth Century Fox, 1988. DVD.

 

Love and Death. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. United Artists,           1975. DVD.

The Purple Rose of Cairo. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels. Orion    Pictures Corporation, 1985. DVD.

May 3, 2010

The notion that existence is determined, or at least reinforced, by the individual’s ability to contemplate their own existence is often misconstrued for some form of existential enlightenment, wherein an autonomous individual retains the capacity to be their own determinant for, if not a meaningful existence, then existence nontheless.  The implications of Decarte’s declaration “I think, therefore I am” are also responsible for establishing the duality that seems to be at the root of every conflict: the self vs. the other. This duality exists in so far as the individual sees themselves as separable from the world around them, and in fostering this concept of the “other,” perpetuates a lack of interconnectedness between the individualized self and their environment, which comes to encompass everything external from the body. This valorization of self may be the impetus for the general indifference towards the all the human and non-human others that are no longer necessary to validate our existence.  The concept makes it reasonable to suggest that the actions of an individual may yield consequences on the external world, but that the self may remain unaffected by those consequences. And so the individual will to succeed comes to supersede the collective need to survive. If the self is allowed to act with reckless abandon in pursuit of a goal that will behoove only the self, and be a detriment to all others, then egotism and selfishness are given precedence over any communal bonds that may have been formed, or any sense of responsibility for the continued well-being of that community which is naturally rejected, because it attempts to impose collectivism on the individualized self.

Panopticism

April 19, 2010

The idea that individual’s must be constantly under the scrutiny of surveillance by a myriad of unseen, and often times, unknowable forces, is promoted by the panoptic structuring of societal institutions. Whether the individual be a convict, a patient, an office-worker, or a student, the struggle to maintain individual liberties while living in the confines of an overriding, centralized power structure leaves the individual fragmented and marginalized. In pursuit of efficiency, of order, of a subjugated populace, the central tower that foucault speaks of observes every act, and makes deviation from the path we are intended to traverse very difficult.

In the films of Woody Allen, the characters find themselves imprisoned in this same circular system. One of the central authoritative forces that denies their freedom is thetheir inability to blindly accept faith as a viable substitute for the empircal evidences of the empty universe. This struggle to embrace the intangible and largely unsupported ground on which rests the foundation most people build their lives is dramatized in Hannah and Her Sisters with Woody Allen’s character Mickey. Even after being given told by the doctor that he does not have a brain tumor, the relief was inevitably followed by remorse at the realization that death was imminent, and what lay beyond is uncertain. At a time when he should have felt nothing but gratitude for every moment of his life; the banality of the everyday becoming a miracle of the moment, Mickey was relegated to a state of suffering because of his inability to free himself from his thoughts of mortality and eternity. No matter what the circumstances, the central tower, the ever-present force that looms threatningly, if silently, casts a shadow over every decision and every moment, no matter how joyous the moment may be.

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Daniel Sanchez 4/12/10 Prof. Wexler Eng 312

Woody Allen: True American Hero

Too often, it seems, the worth of a life is measured against a wholly unrealistic portrait that is painted by the dictates of the American culture industry. We are, in our formative years, conditioned to perceive certain aspects of our society in very calculated ways; certain pursuits are considered noble, and others ignoble; certain lifestyles are valorized, while others are vilified. Everyday the propagandistic elements of our society are at play, waging a relentless campaign of fear and doubt against the populace in an effort to coax from them some semblance of nationalistic pride by promoting the vilification of all things strictly un-American. The main proponent of this campaign is the American media, with its ability to reach the masses and to reinforce the fundamental characteristics of the quintessential American identity. But what are these characteristics? Generally, the American character is portrayed as a strong-willed and courageous individual who interminably combats the Herculean forces of conformity that threaten to eradicate our natural liberties. And in no place is this struggle to maintain our individuality in the face of overwhelming pressure to relinquish it more prevalent than in the American cinema. Because films often dramatize the imposition of new and foreign forces or ideals on a community that is content with its own ways, the conservative notions of resisting change or newness are upheld. Americans are far too proud to be told by outsiders how to live their lives, even if these foreign ideas are to the beneficence of the country as a whole. The deep-rooted sense of anti-intellectualism that is fostered in the American consciousness is born, perhaps, from our disdain for the European class structure, that which we fought to free ourselves from. Because of this mentality, the archetypal Hollywood hero is not known for intelligence, sophistication, or eloquence, qualities more associated with a European model character, but rather for brute strength, self-confidence, and a doggedly arrogant inability to accept defeat. In a discussion of the typical Hollywood hero, it is not likely that Woody Allen would be mentioned as having characteristics similar to those quintessential American figures, such as Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne or Bruce Willis type characters, who romanticize isolation and loss, and who, beneath their hardened exterior, are inherently good-natured and are ultimately victorious, despite not being the smartest people in the room. It is in his complete lack of the traditional qualities of an American film hero that Allen’s films shed light on what attributes American‘s value most in their lives. American’s like to see themselves as king’s of their own destiny rather than mere pawn’s in a life that is beyond their control. The qualities that we imagine as being ideal for our own characters are epitomized by the action stars whom moviegoers flock to theaters to watch. These strong, positive attributes are all present in Bruce Willis’ role of John McClane in Die Hard. In the film McClane is described as an “American cowboy,” and he embodies all of the characteristics that American audiences value: he is a hard-as-nails, foul-mouthed, wisecracking, no-nonsense New York City cop with an itchy trigger finger, an aversion to Euro trash terrorists, and a never-say-die spirit. His disregard for authority and his brute-force mentality lead to his impetuous and, often times, reckless behavior. But still he defeats the well-dressed and highly intelligent terrorist Hans Gruber, and manages to save his ailing marriage at the same time. And as is evidenced by John McClane’s place at number 12 on Empire Magazine’s list of 100 greatest movie characters, being thoughtless yet tough is enough to win admiration from everyone. The antithesis of McClane’s ruggedness and his animalistic instincts to survive is Woody Allen’s persona that appears in many of his films. Often portraying a writer, the witty and creative Allen characters always seem to be relegated to circumstances that lead to disappointment. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Clifford Stern makes independent documentary features that explore answers to man’s fundamental questions about existence. This pursuit is admirable, but it does not garner the financial and critical prestige that the less intellectually stimulating but more commercially-friendly work that Lester creates does. Allen goes further than suggesting that catering to the elementary mindset of the masses results only in monetary success, but so too does it result in personal success, an idea upheld by Halley, both character’s love interest, and her decision to marry Lester over Clifford at the film’s conclusion. Although Lester, who at one point is called an “American Phenomenon”, is clearly portrayed as somewhat of a dim-wit, his dim-wittedness still trounces Clifford’s grandiose aspirations and intellect, a decisive victory for the anti-intellectual sentiments of a nation that values tangible validations of success to determine the worth of a character. For Lester and John McClane, this validation comes from their wealth and their physical strength, respectively. But beyond the macho and the material, Americans value the independent and strong-willed. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart sits at a table behind his drink, staring contemplatively into the glass, a glint of heroic self-pity in his eyes. This iconic image has come to represent the essence, not only of this film, but of the overly-romanticized isolation that Americans want to believe is a natural consequence of their superiority in the world. A real man like Bogart “sticks his neck out for no one,” and is willing to sacrifice even his own love for a greater cause. And, ultimately, Bogart walks off the screen without the girl, shrouded in fog, headed towards an uncertain future. This mystique is lacking from Woody Allen’s character Alvy in Annie Hall, who is not so cool as to be able to walk away from the woman he loved. Alvy seeks to “sift the pieces of the relationship through his mind” to understand where he went wrong, and is not content with his isolation. Neither Alvy Singer nor Rick Blaine get the girl in the end, but where Rick chivalrously sent his love away for her own safety, Alvy desperately tried to win his love back, but was not successful. Again, Allen’s character is antithetical to what has become the definitive act of masculine pride, and the hero’s willingness to forgo his own happiness for more noble causes. The American desire to feel independent is so strong that the filmic interpretation has come to include independence from personal relationships as well. Many of Allen’s characters, like Clifford Stern and Alvy Singer, hope to find meaningful relationships, though they seldom do. And in struggling to find love, and pining after it at times, Allen contradicts the traditional perception of the Hollywood leading man, who, like Rick Blaine, may be lonely, bitter, grief-stricken, and miserable, but would be too proud to show it, and be content with their freedom. It may seem difficult, in a nation as diverse and expansive as ours, to consider ourselves one nation with one definitive national identity. But thanks to the uncanny ability of the American film industry to propagate a consistent image of the idyllic American lifestyle, we have been able to establish the key components of what comprises the American character. If Rick Blaine and John McClane are any indication, we are not a nation of intellects or cultural sophisticates, but of strong, noble, and brave men who are just as likely to fire a gun than to read a book. Contrary to most American film’s main characters, Allen has created a bookish, neurotic persona who ends, perhaps, with less than what he began with. The dismal fate of many of Allen’s characters romantic and personal endeavors seems a natural symptom of the social order that is so pervasive throughout the culture; the one that rewards impetuous action over introspection; the one that values independence over interconnectedness. Woody Allen does not write heroes, but rather humans; people who are weak, and selfish, and jealous, and scared, and for whom failure is a viable option. And though we don’t typically associate these characteristics with the American image that we like to present to the world, Allen’s American anti-hero may be the true essence of the American character, though few will admit it.

Rough Draft

March 29, 2010

As a people, we deny vehemently the charge that we are nothing more than a social construction; a gear in a massively mechanistic structure where our concepts of self and self-worth are determined by the utilitarian function of the individual to the benefit of the machine. The notion that our lives must necessarily follow a linear path whose construction was meant to deliberately hinder the progress of the individual’s quest to be liberated from the need to belong to a synthetic society is contrary to the very nature of the modern man who thinks himself, naturally, an autonomous being. But this autonomy only exists in so far as the social contract to which every person in our society is obligated to resign themselves to allows. In our commoditized consumer culture, our self-determination manifests itself in the habitual consumption that the masses tend towards when looking for an affirmation of their agency; an affirmation of the individual’s triumph over the oppressive uniformity of the collective. This consumption consists of more than mere material objects, but of particular ideological dispositions; ideologies that extol the virtues of individualism while instilling in the social consciousness an ardent sense of anti-intellectualism. By perpetuating the illusion that individual’s retain the capacity to realize their loftiest ambitions on their own terms, while vilifying the intellectually or artistically inclined, the proprietors of the means of production, and therefore the culture industry, strengthen their own resolve to remain alone atop the rigid structure of our hierarchical society. One of the most prevalent themes in American popular culture, particularly the American cinema, is that of an unrelenting and despotic intelligentsia that seeks to make futile the efforts of the working-class or middle-class American to ascend the hierarchical ladder. The portrait that is painted of a strong-willed and courageous individual interminably combating the herculean forces of an elite ruling-class serves to reinforce the distinctly American concept that intelligence and artistic sensibilities are a danger to the freedom and strength of the individual American character. Because of this mentality, the archetypal Hollywood hero is not known for intelligence, sophistication, or eloquence, qualities more associated with a European model character, but rather for brute strength, self-confidence, and a doggedly arrogant inability to accept defeat. In a discussion of the typical Hollywood hero, it is not likely that Woody Allen would be mentioned as having characteristics similar to those quintessential American figures, such as Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne, who romanticize isolation and loss, and who, beneath their hardened exterior, are inherently good-natured and are ultimately victorious, despite not being the smartest people in the room. It is in his complete lack of the traditional qualities of an American film hero that Allen’s films shed light on America’s contempt for intellect, and the general failure of the intellectual elite to achieve the level of praise and success bestowed upon those less deserving. Woody Allen’s character’s often take on the persona of the artist who, while brilliantly witty and creative, always seem to be relegated to circumstances that lead to disappointment. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Clifford Stern makes independent documentary features that explore answers to man’s fundamental questions about existence. This pursuit is admirable, but it does not garner the financial and critical prestige that the less intellectually stimulating but more commercially-friendly work that Lester creates does. Allen goes further than suggesting that catering to the elementary mindset of the masses results only in monetary success, but so too does it result in personal success, as evidenced by Mia Farrow’s character choosing to marry Lester over Clifford at the film’s conclusion. Although Lester, who at one point is called an “American Phenomenon”, is clearly portrayed as somewhat of a dim-wit, his dim-wittedness still trounces Clifford’s grandiose aspirations and intellect, a decisive victory for the artificially produced criteria for success in modern America. But Crimes and Misdemeanors is not the only Allen film that dramatizes the pride American’s take in striving for a tangible validation of success, even if that validation comes at the expense of more substantive and significant ideas. In Deconstructing Harry, Allen’s character, Harry Block, is searching for companionship on his way to being honored by the school that once kicked him out. Here, Allen has achieved a reasonable measure of success with his novels, but still he is left piecing together the tattered remains of his countless broken relationships, and ultimately, the fictional characters he created were all that he could salvage from the reclusive nature of his life; the life of an artist. Again, contrary to most American film’s main characters, Allen has created a bookish, neurotic lead who ends, perhaps, with less than what he began with. Living in a society that puts a higher premium on assembly lines than artistic expression, the dismal fate of Allen’s characters seems a natural symptom of the social disease that is so pervasive throughout the culture; the one that rewards impetuous action over introspection. The disease is apparent when we consider the interminable dross that is championed as the entertainment of this generation; films like Transformers that typify the ideal male heroic figure and further desensitizes the populace to the mindlessness that is propagated by the culture industry that successfully conditions the masses to be wary of critical thought, and embrace their own ignorance.

It is a fear deeply rooted in the consciousness of man that we are simply a social construction, and nothing more. The thought that we are little more than a confluence of forces, a marginalized being, is so repulsive, that it may manifest itself as a total denial of any association with the trappings of society and its fabricated concepts of morality, and of justice, and of love and the like. The existentialist theory serves to uphold the virtues of the individual and the individual’s right to choose their own meaning in existence rather than submit to the will of some collective conscious that is driven by an unseen and unknowable force. It is this belief fostered in the mind of Raskolnikov that initially forges his path towards alienation. His ability to aggrandize his own status as somehow being above the status of everyone around him put him in the category of the ubermensch, of the superman. The ubermensch live without the constricts of law or morality, and it is because they are above such elementary emotions as guilt or love or compassion that they live a life free of anguish and the burden of the common man. This is, at least, what Raskolnikov believes at the beginning of the novel, before he commits his murderous deed. But it was, perhaps, Dostoyevsky’s intent in writing this novel to disprove that notion altogether. Raskolnikov’s persona seems to be illuminated by two characters more than any other: Svidrigailov as the dark, calculative, and repulsive side, reflecting Raskolnikov’s initial desire to belong to the ubermensch; and Sonya Marmeladova as the compassionate, humane, and spiritual half, reflecting his eventual transition into a man subsumed with guilt and a desire for redemption. These are the two sides which Raskolnikov’s conscience vacillates between throughout the novel.  And it is in the novel’s conclusion that we draw answers to Dostoyevsky’s polemic. Raskolnikov’s love for Sonya Marmeladova is the catalyst for his understanding that alienating himself from society and behaving as an ubermensch behaves will not save him from suffering, because no matter what – man suffers. It is all that we can do to take comfort in the fact that we need not suffer alone, and to find happiness on a deeper level with our relations in spite of the suffering. Redemption was possible for Raskolnikov precisely because he loved, and so the prospect of time spent in Siberia seemed a reasonable price to pay in order for the faintest hope of happiness in the future. Svidrigailov’s tragic suicide is the other affirmation of Dostoyevsky’s contempt for the ubermensch mentality. Although Svidrigailov portrays the quintessential ubermensch, the one Raskolnikov failed to be through his immediate sense of guilt after the murders, Svidrigailov still was unable to find himself free of guilt, which is evident in his dreams, particularly in the final nights of his life. The acts of generosity with his fiancée in his final moments seem contrary to his persona throughout the novel. This shift occurs, perhaps, when he realizes that Dunya, the woman he desires, will never and can never love him. This rejection is more than Svidrigailov can bear. And it brought about the realization that all of his misdeeds and mistakes have taken him to a point where alienation seems his only option, and redemption is impossible. His only chance at redeeming any semblance of humanity was to end his life. And in having him do so, Dostoyevsky effectively kills the last true personification of the ubermensch in the story.

O what a tedious existence is this! The banality of the everyday! The complacency with which people go to and fro, mindful of every step, following the dictates of some misconceived morality that allows for very little in the way of entertainment. Some may think me an entirely unwholesome character. Some may see me as a vile creature; a lecherous fiend, a scoundrel, swill-drinking swine, a rabid dog of society, apathetic and disgusting. But it is I, Arkady Ivanovic Svidrigailov, who stands far above the dregs of society, laughing with contempt at their pathetic lives; looking with utter disdain at those worms who lead their lives in pursuit of some grandiose eternity where they may rest peaceful, all the while denying themselves the satisfaction of this life, of this moment, of the now. They do not know the pleasures to be derived from acting on every impetuous impulse. They do not know, as I know, the incredible lightness of a life lived free from the crippling weight of eternity that rests on the shoulders of the common and the contemptible. I see no point in wasting my time waiting around for an idyllic after-life without a guarantee that it won’t be an unbearably boring one.  To a learned man, I am what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard might refer to as an aesthete, meaning simply that I have foresworn any moral commitment to the world. I no longer judge experiences by a rubric of good vs. evil, but rather interesting vs. boring. I belong to the elite, and therefore am given avenue to behave in manners others may deem unjust or unruly. I may be what is referred to as the ubermensch, or superman. I am the true ubermensch of this tale. Raskolnikov’s will was not strong enough to disregard his own consciousness. He was caught in the various pitfalls of a moral world, where I roam freely in a world which I find meaning only in those things from which I derive the greatest pleasure. The films of Woody Allen often revolve around cultural sophisticates like myself who seem to be stuck in the aesthetic realm of life, and who behave with total disregard to the lives of others.  A prime example of this is in Deconstructing Harry, where Woody’s character Harry Block seems impervious to the misfortunes his decisions cause for others. As one character puts it, he “takes everybody’s suffering and turns it into gold.”  But by the end of the film, Harry learns that his complete disregard for society has alienated him from those things that ultimately come to mean the most to him, and he has only the fictional characters he created to keep him company through his vacuous days. This is the same emptiness I was faced with when Dunya said she could not love me.  It is the same alienation that has driven me to the far edge of life’s promised dream, and I’m afraid it’s more than I can bear.

February 21, 2010

 

In Alvy Singer we see a man who is, as he says, “sifting the pieces” of his failed relationship through his mind trying to understand what exactly went wrong. Ultimately, we find that Alvy caused his own undoing, as his persistent efforts to propel Annie’s process of maturation forward and turn her into his intellectual and neurotic equal succeeded, proving that he truly did not want to belong to any club that would have someone like him for a member. Alvy, whether consciously or subconsciously, spent the entirety of his relationship with Annie pushing her away.

What is the role of the artist? This question is, perhaps, open to interpretation. In my opinion, the artist is responsible for representing, by whatever their chosen medium, the condition of humanity. They are to draw from the depths of every circumstance and every perceived coincidence the commonalities that render us all as one; those fundamental aspects of our being that are so often ignored, but which may break the divisive lines that separate us all. The artist may reveal the most sinister elements of our society and of our own selves, and in doing so take measures to begin atoning for all our mistakes and misdeeds. The artist is to offer a passionate response to sobering truths. The artist is meant to transcend cultural and socio-economic barriers, and ask us all to look within ourselves to understand the root of who we are and what we truly want.

 But, unfortunately, in our commoditized consumer society, the artists and their work are becoming less and less capable of fulfilling these tasks. We are conditioned on a mass scale to see certain aspects of our history and our culture in very calculated ways. Those things that are above criticism, we mustn’t criticize. Those things that are accepted beyond a reasonable doubt, we mustn’t question. Dissenters are immediately categorized as “the other”: the one who is on the outskirts of what has been manufactured and has generally come to be accepted as truth. Therefore, if the notion that a particular painting is a masterpiece is continually perpetuated by society, any deviation from that notion is deemed asinine. We’ll take for example Monet and his painting (today considered a masterpiece) entitled: Impression: Soleil Levant, or Impression: Sunrise.  Today this painting is considered one of Monet’s masterpieces of Impressionism, and is credited for beginning the entire impressionist movement in the latter parts of the 19th century. 

Today, art experts and non-experts alike are apt to agree that this is a work of true beauty. However, at its genesis, impressionist paintings were deemed sloppy and unworthy of being shown at the Salon de Paris, which was the gold standard of painting in the 19th century. How could our perceptions of this sort of work have changed so drastically in the course of a century? According to Adorno, our idea of beauty is distorted and fabricated by the replication and consistent exposure to whatever those who own the means of production would expose the masses to.  Adorno claims “The mechanical reproduction of beauty, which reactionary cultural fanaticism wholeheartedly serves in its methodical idolization of individuality, leaves no room for that unconscious idolatry which was once essential to beauty.” I look at this Monet, and I, too, find it beautiful; the aura on the horizon and the swirling colors are muddled, and straight lines are broken and begin to tremble.

But no matter how much this may seem a subjective assertion on my part, I am still influenced by the controller of thoughts to whom we ultimately relinquish our sovereignty and our liberty. The aura of the painting, therefore, is a testament to the oppressive and despotic elements of our society which are constantly at play, but which very few people are willing to accept. The mass reproduction of certain works desensitizes the natural sense of awe that was to be had by experiencing the artists’ creation personally. Instead we adopt the inherited sense of awe bestowed on us by the experiences and dictations of the collective, disregarding the individual experience all together. It would seem, then, that even art, which in its essence is meant to liberate our thoughts and our spirits from the universal system of slavery with which our modern societies are so intricately interwoven, serves to further promote singular, linear thought, and eradicate the individual’s ability to think rationally and critically.

Response Paper: Mother

February 10, 2010

It is, perhaps, the task of a comedian to paint a somewhat unsavory portrait of certain components of their lives so that the audience may find humor in it. The desire to feel that we are witnessing someone else’s misfortune, so long as it remains separate from our own circumstances, is inherent in all of us. Comedians understand this, but they also understand that this misfortune must be rooted in something concrete, universally experienced, and fundamentally engrained in our consciousness. It is for this reason that so many comedians use as fodder for their comedy the complexities of the parent/child relationship. For so many of us, our time and energy is spent in pursuit of achieving a goal that has been set for us, either directly or indirectly, by our parents. We are told so many times by a confluence of forces who we are and who we are capable of becoming.  But the dreams that others have for us, just like the dreams that we have for ourselves, very rarely materialize. And when it becomes apparent that this life is not the life we had anticipated for ourselves, we may look back and muddle through in our memories all the inciting incidents that may have propelled us further away from the idealities that we imagined would come true in our formative years.  We eagerly look for a place to lay the blame for our lot in life, and for most, the obvious place resides with their parents. Albert Brooks’ film Mother shows a man struggling to find and maintain meaningful relationships with women, and the woman in the title role becomes the main target of the introspective analysis of his life’s failures.

Albert Brooks is, as Woody Allen would put it, “of the Hebrew persuasion,” though this is not made a point of in the film. In this way, Brooks is able to universalize what Martha Ravits refers to as “The comic stereotype of the Jewish mother.”  Ravits describes this stereotype  by claiming it ranges “From domineering to grotesque.” Brooks’ character, John Henderson, feels as if his mother’s willingness and uncanny ability to criticize everything about his life has been detrimental to his own ability to assuage his longing for a relationship in which he feels appreciated. Debbie Reynolds as Mrs. Henderson criticizes her son’s choice of clothing, his thinning hair, his vegetarianism, and his literary choices, among other things. This overly-critical caricature is similar to the one Philip Roth paints in Portnoy’s Complaint.

Alex Portnoy’s mother epitomizes the mother’s ability to dramatize the most insignificant of actions into the most calamitous of situations. We see this when she accuses Alex of eating French fries and cries “Tell me please what horrible things we have done to you all our lives that this should be our reward?” (25) In Portnoy’s Complaint, the justification for the mother’s behavior is the stereotypical Jewish rejection of all things goyish in nature, and Alex’s yearning to adopt that nature as his own creates the central conflict. For John Henderson and his mother, the central conflict seems to involve John’s younger brother, Jeff, with whom Mrs. Henderson has a much more intimate relationship. Freud has noted that the sibling relationship is often an extension of the Oedipus complex, wherein brothers are in competition for the affection and attention of their mother. John’s decision to move back in with his mother, while he claims it to be an experiment to understand his relationships with other women, may instead be seen as an attempt to usurp the position his younger brother has enjoyed their whole lives, and to claim some semblance of closeness, both physically and emotionally, that his brother may be lacking.

This competition is blatantly brought to the forefronts of the film in a scene in which Jeff travels from Los Angeles to San Francisco to interject himself in John’s experiment, out of pure jealousy. John recognizes Jeff’s jealousness, and confronts him about it. The climax of the scene arrives as Jeff runs to his car, about to leave, and John stands with his mother by the front door of her house. Jeff pleads with his mother to come with him rather than stay there with John. John quips that it sounds as though Jeff and their mother were lovers. Jeff retaliates by claiming that John is her lover, as he is living with her, and John jokingly replies “Well I have news for you: we are lovers.” This is a very clear dramatization of the oedipal struggle. Under these circumstances, with the father figure not being included in the film, the triangular formation of the complex is completed by the brother replacing the father as the person whom the child is jealous of; the person whose position the child longs to be in. And this is true for both brothers, not just John. We are not certain of the particulars involved in the failure of his past relationships, but it can be assumed that, for John Henderson, it was impossible to ascertain the approval of his partners without first earning the approval of the woman to which Freud suggests all men compare their potential partners to: his mother.

Although the scenario Albert Brooks’ character finds himself in seems outlandish, and we may laugh at the depravity of the implied circumstances, it is rooted in what Freud considers t

When it seems that all our days spent planning and dreaming have led us astray, all that there is left is to ask why. This is the consistent complaint of the common and the curious, and whether it be Alex Portnoy or John Henderson, or any number of other fictional characters, their journey of introspection charts the route for our own look into the causes of our most pressing and prevalent issues. For Albert Brooks, Woody Allen, Philip Roth, and countless others, Freud provides the foundation on which these revelatory quests are built and, ultimately, exploited in the name of comedy.

Bibliography

Anthing Else. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen. Canal, 2003. DVD.

Martha Ravits, “The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture,”

            Melus 25 (Spring 2000).

Mother. Dir. Albert Brooks. Perf. Albert Brooks and Debbie Reynolds. Paramount, 1996. DVD.

Roth, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint. New York: First Vintage International, 1994. Print.