The Philosophy of Woody Allen

Woody Allen
Nebbish, fatalistic, existentialist, etc….

I was lucky enough to be exposed to Woody Allen’s work at a young age. I vividly recall watching Bananas with my father on television some time in the early 1980s and I remember not only finding the slapstick humour hilarious (which my father is quite fond of) but also noting that there were a lot of “smart jokes” in the film, most of which I was too young to understand. Nevertheless, I filed away the name “Woody Allen” in my mind for future use.

When Arts & Entertainment Television was launched (back in the days when you’d actually get to see some real art on television), the station would play a lot of his films. It was then that I was introduced to his other classics such as Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and my personal favourite to this day, Manhattan. At this point I in my life I was able to catch not just his jokes, but also the philosophical dilemmas in his films that were so self-referencing and personal. His neuroses, his paranoia, his existentialist defeatism, all were on display in all their glory for us to watch, to sympathize with, and often to share. Rather than discuss the merits of Woody Allen’s films, I think it best to simply state that they’ve been both smart and funny: a combination that seems simple yet so foreign in a time when smart and funny rarely intersect. A time in which we now live where smart is often associated with irony and funny is now in the realm of pubescent toilet humour.

The use of “smart” to reference Allen’s films stems from his wholesale insertion of philosophy in his body of work. Here are a few samples:

Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. The horrible are the cancer patients and the terminal cases… the miserable is everyone else. So, be thankful that you’re miserable.

The… 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’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.

Eternal nothingness is O.K. if you’re dressed for it.

Millions of books written on every conceivable subject by all these great minds and in the end, none of them knows anything more about the big questions of life than I do … I read Socrates. This guy knocked off little Greek boys. What the Hell’s he got to teach me? And Nietzsche, with his theory of eternal recurrence. He said that the life we lived we’re gonna live over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again. It’s not worth it. And Freud, another great pessimist. I was in analysis for years and nothing happened. My poor analyst got so frustrated, the guy finally put in a salad bar. Maybe the poets are right. Maybe love is the only answer.

Lennard Davis of The Common Review discusses Woody Allen and philosophy in: The Man Behind Woody Allen.

In the meantime, here’s a clip from his 1979 work, Manhattan:

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2 Responses to The Philosophy of Woody Allen

  1. Bruce says:

    I tried to get into Woody Allen at one point based on a recommendation (I think I was in college, or maybe shortly after) and his stuff just didn’t quite jibe with me. Could be a cultural thing. I get his jokes; I just don’t find them all that funny.

    I’ve never seen Annie Hall btw. I might give him another shot at some point.

  2. vodkasoda says:

    From philosophy to sex: The 10 Woody Allen Sex Scenes brought to you by New York Magazine:

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