Apropos of Nothing
By Woody Allen
Arcade, 400 pages, hardcover $50, e-book $25
There is a scene in the 1980 movie Stardust Memories where a movie director, played by Allen, encounters a group of aliens. He asks: how can I make the world a better place? They answer: “tell funnier jokes”.
It’s witty, clever, and little bit tragic, and it is the sort of sensibility that informs much of Apropos of Nothing. There is plenty of humour here, mostly in the shape of quips, comebacks, and double-edge observations. This might be a bit surprising, as Allen could justify feeling an abiding sense of bitterness. As a high-profile cancellee of the Hollywood-based Me-Too cultural elite, he has often found himself locked out of artistic circles, disavowed by stars and spurned by the people who hand out various awards. The book was dropped by its initial publisher, Hachette, and was picked up by the small press Arcade.
The cancel-frenzy dates back to 1992, when Allen was accused by girlfriend Mia Farrow of molesting Farrow’s seven-year-old daughter Dylan. In the book Allen notes that these charges have been debunked by several investigations and his own polygraph test (Farrow would not take one). Nevertheless, the charges of paedophilia have been repeated ad nauseum, underlining the point – if it needed underlining – that the cancelers are more interested in accusations than evidence. Allen devotes a good part of the book to this, over seventy pages. Perhaps it is justified, given the seriousness of the accusations, but eventually you want him to get back to the humour.
Yes, it is certainly true that Allen became involved with another of Farrow’s daughters, Soon-Yi Previn, when she was 21 and he was 55, and still seeing Farrow. But he points out that they have been married for twenty years. He clearly adores her, and the book is dedicated to her, which hardly sounds like the attitude of a paedophile. He believes that the abuse charges were manufactured by Farrow, who comes across as something of a dangerous fruitcake, not least to her tribe of adopted children, as a twisted means of revenge.
And yes, Allen has always had an eye for women, and there has been a long series of relationships and flings. His tendency to describe actresses in facile terms becomes grating, even when he is couching it in terms of a compliment. Scarlett Johansson “is not only gifted and beautiful, but sexually she was radioactive”. Léa Seydoux “was a 10 plus.” Christina Ricci “was plenty desirable.” This is not only dated but rather silly. One does not have to accept the silliness of the Me-Too-ers to see that these sort of comments are no longer appropriate.
In fact, Allen seems a bit stuck in a past era. It is somehow not surprising that he still writes on an old-fashioned typewriter because he does not know how to use a computer. A telling detail: he does not even know how to change the typewriter ribbon, and depends on Soon-Yi to do it. In fact, he depends on her to keep him organised on a daily basis, and it sounds as if she has found her own vocation in doing it (Allen jokes that she could convince the Gestapo to bring her breakfast in bed).
Along the way, since the book is after all a biography, Allen recalls his childhood in Brooklyn and recounts some tales about his family. It was not always an easy environment but he never felt unloved. While he later cultivated the image of the bespectacled outsider at school he says that he was, in fact, fairly popular and pretty good at baseball. His parents were ambivalent about his becoming a writer until they found he could make money providing jokes for established funnymen, and later from stand-up comedy and from making movies. He says that he was never interested in high culture or ‘great’ literature, but – with the help of the glasses – managed to fake it. This theme would recur in a number of his movies, especially the dark comedy Zelig (in which Farrow appears). And far from putting his success down to luck and timing, he has a wealth of talents, including a passion for playing jazz and blues. He sometimes seems to be faking the faking.
He claims to understand little about the technical aspects of making movies, aside from knowing that you should take the lens cap off the camera. This sounds a bit like an exaggeration; many of his movies, such as the melodramatic Interiors, reveal a remarkable eye for image. He admits that some of his movies have hit the public like a lead balloon. He saves some good barbs for the interesting but unloved Shadows and Fog, noting that “marketing tests showed it did not appeal to homo sapiens”. He remains somewhat perplexed about the success of Midnight in Paris, which he sees as good but not that good. In some cases, like A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the underlying idea was much better than what appeared on the screen.
Is his willingness to laugh at himself a backhanded, ironic way of boasting? If so, the movie business could use a bit more of it. He also likes to ladle credit onto other people, and a large chunk of the final third of the book reads a bit like a roll-call of contributors, actors and backers. There is no reason to think that he is not genuine in his feelings; it is just that after a while it sounds self-indulgent. The book needed a tough-minded editor, but it is unlikely that Allen would ever agree to such a thing.
All this raises the question of where Allen will go from here. He has plans for more movies and shows no sign of putting his feet up. He says: “I’m 84; my life is almost half over.” Another way of putting it is that at his age you stop caring about what the professionally pretentious think about you. Perhaps that is what the Allen really has to say: that the best way to cancel the cancellers is to ignore them, that living on your own terms is the best revenge, and that the key to happiness is, in the end, to find funnier jokes to tell.