Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"The Resistance": "Class Clowns" [AW on WA, Vol. 1]

It seems like months since we last posted on our own creation. Sadly, due to an accumulation of work we've had to pay less attention to Armond Dangerous of late, forcing it into a relative state of neglect: there's a new New York Press out today containing three AW reviews, and we didn't even get to write about either of last week's. In other words, we're falling behind. We knew going into this project there was a strong possibility this would occur from time to time, though, and we're proceeding undaunted.
We're also using our lack of attendance at current Armond White-reviewed films to return to the pages of "The Resistance" -- it struck us after attending a ton of the "Essentially Woody" series (which only last week ended its run at Film Forum) that a couple of articles from AW's book explore the Woodman's films in depth. Now, from recent reviews of WA's films it's clear Armond not only hates the director with an intensity we find out of all proportion to the work in question but also that he doesn't even understand what Woody's doing. How else to explain Armond's complete misreading of Match Point's intentions, blaming the success-motivated immorality of the film's protagonist with Allen's and his audience's own values? This disingenuous critique had us in a wary frame of mind regarding two Woody-heavy (hehehe) articles Armond penned back in the day, the first entitled "Class Clowns," an article on WA's Radio Days and Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle for the March '87 issue of Film Comment; and the second (to be analyzed soon) entitled "Simi Valley Aesthetics," a September '93 article for Film Comment on the Rodney King verdict and the decline in Americans' ability to interpret images, where The Purple Rose of Cairo is worked into the thesis.
"Class Clowns" gets some things right regarding Radio Days and the trajectory of Allen's work up to that point. Observing that in Radio Days "[t]here's no pretense, as in Hannah and Her Sisters, about the experience Allen is capable of authentically delineating or the lifestyle that infatuates yet eludes him," Armond contends that after the career pinnacle of Annie Hall "it was as if Allen made a gentleman's agreement to avoid being Jewish or, as a last resort, to satirize and patronize it" and that the films he shot until RD "were WASPier than films by the WASP, John Avildsen"; RD represents "Allen's return to what he knows" and is thus "a moral and artistic breakthrough." There's no mistaking RD's very different understanding of American Jewish identity as compared to most everything else in Allen's oeuvre, and what Armond calls the "homey/urbane dialectic of Radio Days, where ethnic foundations are regarded as respectfully as cosmopolitan expansion" can be seen in the film's contrasting milieux, of working class Jews dreaming through the WASP fantasies decimated via mass media (radio plays, game shows, etc.) and the behind the scenes fakery of pop culture where stars transform their own reality (often ethnic into WASP) to structure and promote these fantasies. In AW's words, "[Allen] understands his relation to the WASP world through a nostalgic but not nebulous reconsideration of its media-sanctioned allure." But one also senses White doesn't like anything messier as when between Annie Hall and Radio Days . . .

. . . Bergman and Fellini became touchstones for Allen, who wanted to make serious non-Jewish art so badly that in remaking Fanny and Alexander as Hannah [and Her Sisters], he misinterpreted Bergman's view of the Jew: an outsider and purveyor of magic who saves the WASP hero; Allen turned Bergman's Jew into the death-plagued insider whose infertility is cured by the WASP family! Perhaps working through that perversity allowed Allen to come back to his roots in Radio Days. He keeps the Jewish and WASP worlds separate, alternating memory with fantasy.

Armond does a few things here to reveal his hand, i.e., his complete misunderstanding of American Jewish identity and how entertainers have expressed that identity through humor. First, he passes over the strong possibility that Bergman's Jew is more of a cliche than Woody Allen's onscreen persona. Second, in saying that Allen "misinterpreted" Fanny and Alexander he unfairly blames (and himself misinterprets) the director for working in a proud Jewish tradition of ironic, self-deprecating comedy that allows the outsider (Allen almost never plays an insider in his films -- even within "insider" academic, intelligentsia worlds he remains dislocated and alien) to subvert uprightness and authority. That doesn't mean Allen's films don't often end up extolling upper-class privilege, but it also doesn't mean that they do so at the expense of their creator's American Jewish identity or his own individual character -- when Allen refuses to keep "the Jewish and WASP worlds separate," that's when the messy confusion, and often the hilarity, of colliding ethnic identities suffuses his best work (and even a "non-Jewish" comedy like A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy is sweet and funny without the galvanizing effect of such collisions.) When White suggests that confusion -- or "perversity," as he calls it in his skewed analysis of Hannah -- needed to be worked through for Woody to "come back to his roots in Radio Days" he either disregards or discredits the Jewish roots essential to the humor so inseparable from most WA comedies. White's oversight comes through in the very first line of "Class Clowns": "No one ever asks Woody Allen for a deeper accounting of his Jewishness; the needling voice and profile seem enough." What about the funny, Armond? Couldn't that be why so many people consider him a quintessential Jewish comedian and comic director? Sad to say, but it may be our man lacks an appreciation of Jewish humor and its ability to foreground and make absurd the difficulties of adapting to Protestant American society:

Once a stand-up comedian, Townsend chafes at the fact of ethnic stereotypes his Jewish colleagues often accept; he doesn't share their sense of ironic projection (which is what built Hollywood), where identity is submerged in other characterizations and your responses are detached. This detachment, the source of most media cliches and inauthenticity, has consigned ethnic groups to buffoonery or villainy on screen. Jewish filmmakers rarely subvert it even for themselves, which doesn't mean they are above swallowing and believing stereotype; just that they are reluctant to deny it . . .

Elsewhere:

[Townsend] digs at ethnic cliches to avoid the Groucho-mask compounding Woody Allen used in Take the Money and Run; that film accepted the established contrivances of Jewish comedians as their spiritual essence, and for Allen this was as much intellectual pretense as ethnic naivete.

And further on:

Unable to assume that making movies will automatically raise him in society, or speak well for his people, Townsend is forced to follow the modernist practices that have occassioned the best movies of the past thirty years.

It's insulting that White ignores a seminal tradition of provocative Jewish comedy (Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols) and names as his only other specific examples of Jewish films or filmmakers, aside WA, playwright Neil Simon and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. It's also insulting that White can't comprehend the Groucho masks worn by Virgil Starkwell's parents in TTMAR as silly send-ups, as well as an homage to a legendary Jewish comedian, of the television convention of blocking out scandalized countenances (Allen's parents and older generation Jews appear with some regularity in his films, opposing the idea that he "shields" their ethnic identity.) But most insulting of all is the supposition that social- and class-conscious Jewish humor is the exception to the rule, whereas "A Black filmmaker can take nothing for granted." No filmmaker worth his salt can, of course. But luckily for those Jews who control the film industry -- just come out and fucking say it if you think so, Mr. "Which is what built Hollywood" -- they can raise themselves in society through the movies that submerge their ethnic identities, rather than make those identities the comedic sites of warring individual, cultural, and entertainment concerns. Anyone with a lick of sense knows that our last, sarcastic sentence, the essence of which Armond imparts in his analysis, cannot possibly tell the entire tale: throughout Hollywood history the conflicting forces at work for Jews both in front of and behind the camera have been incredibly complex, and they've produced as many subversive heroes (the Marx Brothers, Ernst Lubitsch, Eliot Gould) as effacing betrayors (those producers and studio heads for whom Jewish representation was forbidden and elided in their films.) All of which is to say that if Armond's smart enough to recognize the insidious values propelling the comedic persona of Will Smith and the progressive ones inspiring the renegade rebillion of Melvin Van Peebles, then he should also recognize the conflicted, not fully complacent, nature of Woody Allen's persona and project, not to mention the plethora of paths -- from honorable to "inauthentic" -- available to the "Jewish colleagues" his criticism pigeonholes. Except in "Class Clowns" Armond doesn't.