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.