Skip to content

The Films Of Woody Allen Critical Essays

Going back to an early interview (Weinstein 1967) at the beginning of his career when the public was still discovering him, Allen over several decades has made himself regularly available for interviews, usually with people who view him and his work favorably and often under circumstances related to the release of a new film or venture. The interviews have become an indispensable source of information and insight into Allen. Björkman’s conversations with Allen (Allen and Björkman 1993) remain among the most frequently quoted and used sources by scholars and critics. Interviewing Allen in the United Kingdom, the author of Cadwalladr 2011 got him to offer insights about the importance of comedy for maintaining his sanity. His interview with Rolling Stone (De Curtis 1993) helped him explain his art and life in the midst of controversy, while Kapsis and Coblentz 2006 collected interviews over nearly a quarter of a century to provide crucial background and content to Allen’s life and work. Allen’s more recent and lengthy conversations with Eric Lax (Lax 2007) have become an important source of information and ideas on the director. Lauder 2010 takes Allen in an unusual direction for him by engaging him on religion, while Royal 2012 brings out Allen on his more recent filmmaking. From his earliest interviews to his most recent, Allen invariably reveals himself to be extremely self-reflective and self-deprecating, often repeating some of the disparaging remarks he makes about his filmmaking and his inability to match the great filmmakers whom he wishes to emulate in his own work and life, such as Ingmar Bergman. Recent interviews suggest that he has grown more relaxed as he has gotten older to talk about his personal interests and experiences. While Allen’s famous humor inevitably manifests itself in his interviews, he also shows himself to be more articulate and insightful than many other directors, not only about his own filmmaking but about film itself. At the same time, he often suggests his own doubts about the ultimate value and lasting significance of his work, indicating a skepticism regarding the importance of art and the life of the mind to the everyday world of ordinary human events.

  • Allen, Woody, and Stig Björkman. Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation with Stig Björkman. New York: Grove, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    A frequently quoted resource for studying Allen’s experiences and ideas about life and comedy and art that contains the kernel of many of Allen’s often-expressed views and insights.

  • Cadwalladr, Carole. “Woody Allen: ‘My Wife Hasn’t Seen Most of My Films . . . and She Thinks My Clarinet Playing Is Torture’.” Observer, 12 March 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    An interview in the United Kingdom related to the release of Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2011), in which Allen discusses his work and his past and intimates the importance of distraction to surviving psychologically in life.

  • De Curtis, Anthony. “The Rolling Stone Interview: Woody Allen,” Rolling Stone, 15 September 1993, 45–50, 78–82.

    E-mail Citation »

    At a time when Allen needed to rebuild his public image, he gave a crucial interview to an important widely circulated publication that enabled him to reach a younger and probably a relatively open-minded audience.

  • Kapsis, Robert E., and Kathie Coblentz. Woody Allen: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Important interviews and conversations with Allen from 1974 to about 2001, including interviews that have become crucial for Allen students for information and for insight into the director’s mind and work.

  • Lauder, Robert E. “Whatever Works: Woody Allen’s World.” Commonweal Magazine, 15 April 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    A Catholic priest interviews Allen on his bleak outlook on life and considers other positions for the filmmaker. Lauder views Allen as unequalled among the world’s greatest filmmakers.

  • Lax, Eric. Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking. New York: Knopf, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of Allen’s most prolific supporters in print, Lax updates Allen’s views and insights and perceptions as the director seems to get more comfortable with his life as a senior citizen.

  • Royal, Derek Parker. “Nine Questions for Woody Allen: An Interview.” In Special Issue: Woody Allen after 1990. Edited by Derek Parker Royal. Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 31 (Winter/Spring 2012): 9–11.

    E-mail Citation »

    Through persistence, Parker achieved a recent interview through e-mails over time with Allen about several of his latest films, overcoming Allen’s occasional reluctance for such engagement with scholars and critics without a history of writing sympathetically and supportively about him.

  • Weinstein, Sol. “Playboy Interview: Woody Allen,” Playboy, May 1967, 63–73.

    E-mail Citation »

    Helps mark the beginning of Allen’s celebrity and fame in comedy in a magazine that would advance Allen’s reputation for a style of humor that develops the natural link between sex and comedy.

  • The overall emphasis of Woody Allen’s short fiction is summarized by the title of his second book-length collection, Without Feathers. The title alludes to an Emily Dickinson line: “Hope is the thing without feathers. ” The particular hopelessness with which Allen deals, in his mirthful way, is that described, defined, and passed down by such philosophers and literary figures as Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka. It is one in which the death of God, existential meaninglessness, and surreal distortions of time and space are the norm. In this world, anxiety abounds, human reason is essentially flawed, and truth disappears into the twin vacuum of moral relativism and perceptual uncertainty.

    While Allen demonstrates an instinctive grasp of the issues raised by such a worldview, his treatment is, as one might expect in a humorist, always tongue in cheek. Allen is no scholar, nor is he trying to be one. He accepts the more or less existentialist premises that inform his work and seems to believe in them. He does not take them seriously enough to ponder systematically. In fact, he makes fun of people who do so, particularly those who do it for a living. Nor does Allen sink into despair. Instead, he uses the philosophical and literary atmosphere of his time as a convenient springboard for laughter. In essence, his work transforms the uncertainty of a Godless universe into fertile ground for his free-flowing style of comedy.

    One technique that enables Allen to accomplish this goal is parody, or comic imitation. Most of Allen’s fiction contains parody—ranging from imitation of Plato’s Apologia Skratous (399-390 b.c.e.; Apology, 1675) to variations on Kafka and Count Dracula—and some stories are multiple parodies. Any mode of thought, scholarship, literary expression, or lifestyle that people celebrate or venerate is fair game to Allen. Indeed, the more seriously a philosophy is taken, the more fun he seems to have tipping it over onto its humorous side. This is not to say that Allen’s humor is limited to parody, nor that it is always subtle. Allen is too much the stand-up comedian to let any opportunity for a laugh—no matter how vulgar or easy—pass by unexploited. Nor does he tolerate lulls in his comedic fiction. On the contrary, he shoots for a pace of humor so rapid that the reader will never be left time to wonder when the next joke is coming. Finally, Allen’s work often harks back to his roots. While his stories are less autobiographical than some of his films, they often involve—at least in passing—Jewish characters and issues of importance to Jews.

    “Mr. Big”

    The characteristics listed above are amply illustrated by Allen’s story “Mr. Big.” In the story, Kaiser Lupowitz, a New York private investigator, is between cases when a beautiful blonde calling herself Heather Butkiss (as suggested above, no joke is too small for Allen) comes to his office and asks him to search for a missing person. The missing person she wants him to find is Mr. Big, that is to say, God. Lupowitz demands to have all the facts before he takes the case. The blonde admits that Butkiss is an alias, claiming that her real name is Claire Rosensweig and that she is a Vassar College student working on an assignment for her philosophy class. Lupowitz takes the case for his usual daily fee of one hundred dollars plus expenses.

    The investigation begins with a visit to a local rabbi for whom Lupowitz had worked previously. After some revealing pokes at the notion of what it means to be God’s “chosen people” (Allen likens it to a “protection” racket), Lupowitz visits an informer, Chicago Phil the atheist, in a pool hall to find out more about his client. There, he is told that she is really a Radcliffe student and that she had been dating an empiricist philosopher who dabbled with logical positivism and pragmatism (somehow, Arthur Schopenhauer also is mentioned). That evening, Lupowitz dines with his client. After a bout of lovemaking, the two discuss Kierkegaard. A telephone call from the police interrupts them; it seems someone answering God’s description has just showed up in the morgue, a homicide victim. The police suspect an existentialist, possibly even Lupowitz himself.

    Lupowitz’s next stop is an Italian restaurant in Newark, where he questions His Holiness the Pope, who claims to have an exclusive pipeline to God. Lupowitz learns that his lovely client is actually in the science department at Bryn Mawr College. He makes further inquiries and returns to confront her with what he has learned. Her real name, he tells her, is Dr. Ellen Shepherd, and she teaches physics at Bryn Mawr. In traditional private-eye fashion, Lupowitz reveals a highly tangled plot involving Socrates, Immanuel Kant, and Martin Buber, among others. With a melodramatic flair, he names Ellen...

    (The entire section is 2022 words.)