Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Play It Again Sam

Maybe because he originally conceived it as a Broadway play, or because he didn't direct the film himself, Play It Again Sam stands out among Woody Allen's movies. It has been called slick, but neat is more accurate, and even that's too pejorative, since what is meant, after all, is that Play It Again Sam has three-dimensional characters and a beginning, a middle and an end. Allen's protagonist, Allan Felix, is his patented neurotic half-pint who can't get laid, but as the movie progresses something strange happens to him--not only does he get laid, but he achieves an understanding resembling maturity, not the sort of concept Allen normally works with. The other two major characters, a married couple, also grow, and the way each of the three learns from the others provides structure and plot, all brought together with a charming device--the movie begins and ends with the closing scene of Casablanca. The first time, Allan is watching the scene in a theater. The second time, he gets to play Bogart himself.

This is a wonderful sort of triumph. Throughout the film, Allan has been counseled by the specter of Bogart, who appears form the shadows whenever Allan is particularly troubled about girls. This means that in the end he succeeds in transforming himself into his own alter ego. How many therapy-addicted neurotics ever accomplish such an epiphany? Since Bogart is obviously only a projection of Allan's, it shouldn't be surprising that the Bogart character also matures in the course of the film, yet somehow it is--perhaps because it isn't really so obvious that he's only a projection. Popular culture heroes, like the works of art they are, do have a reality that transcends the perceiver. Humphrey Bogart is not Marilyn Monroe; he isn't even Edward G. Robinson. He must be judged and interpreted within reasonable limits. To fasten upon an alter ego from the ranks of popular culture heroes is not merely to indulge a fantasy--to an extent, he will do your bidding, but ultimately you must test yourself against his reality.

Yet we are so caught up in the idea of the static image that we do forget this. Although we notice that early in the film Bogey offers the most pathetic kind of wishful macho fantasy, whereas at the end he advises tenderness and passion, nobility and restraint, the discrepancy doesn't register. We don't recall that just like us, and like Allan, Bogey has a good side and a bad side. As Allan suffers his life--failing and renewing his courage, wallowing in his callow intelligence and finding untapped sources of spontaneous wit, pursuing women as prey as he learns to love one unawares--his good side begins to prevail, and his alter ego progresses, too. But Bogey does not play a completely passive or neutral role. He is always a half-step ahead of his skinny charge, occasionally leading him astray but more often providing him with inspiration and emotional sustenance.

Of course, it is true that Allan is not the average movie fan--not even the average Humphrey Bogart fan. He is a film critic. I would say that all fans relate to stars in a similar way regardless, but Allan's profession is significant from another perspective--it suggests one more parallel between Allan (critic) and Allen (maker). Allan doesn't merely analyze movies. He relates to them passionately, even obsessively, and without much respect or detachment, exploiting them as a store of metaphor and experience that he can bend to his own needs and possibilities even as he is bent by them. Allen shows the same passion and disrespect. Technically, he mines film for the completely plastic medium it is, recording whatever audiovisual experience he thinks he can sell in a theater, whether it's "filmic" or not. Culturally, he understands the movies as a vast body of shared knowledge. Whether he parodies them or insults them or advances them artistically is irrelevant. What is important is that he refers to them, without credentials, as if they were his.

One reason Allen's films receive such mixed critical reaction is just this presumption of his. A common complaint about Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex is that its genre parodies are inept, as if Allen were seriously interested in making really good genre parodies--as if he were seriously interested in making really good anything. Allen gets a lot of mileage out of being really uneven. He is expert at milking laughs from his own unfunniness, a trick which reaches its absurd culmination in the opening scene of Sex, where Woody plays a court jester who not only can't get off a good one-liner, but can't even come up with a good no-laugh line.("Not funny!" the king bellows. "Not funny!") This strikes some critics as cheap and lazy, but it makes me laugh. I agree with the writer who suggests that the slipshod feel of Allen's films is crucial to their funniness, a term I choose because it is so much less hifalutin than humor. No deep meanings or aesthetic ambitions are at stake--nothing but a night at the movies. Allen's penchant for left-field wackiness--the example that made me sit up and laugh four hours later occurs in Take the Money and Run, when Allen participates in a prison experiment that backfires by turning him temporarily into a rabbi--is another aspect of this (perhaps calculated) slipshodness. He wants to create no expectations.

Because Allen's humor is verbal, the Marx Brothers are a fairer comparison than any of the silent panjandrums, and I think Allen is in their class. That's a lot of yocks--I count at least a dozen big ones, plus many titters. There are flat stretches and more than one ending is flat or perfunctory, but the laughs do keep coming, at least for me, and I wonder how anyone can disagree. It's possible, I suppose, that Allen's character is too New York Jewish to have the wide appeal of the great comic creations, but since most critics are fairly New York Jewish themselves, maybe it's just the opposite--they perceive themselves and they don't like it. They probably don't think sex is funny, either.

Allen does, of course, although not in that hearty Rabelaisian way. Still, I suspect he understands it better than he is usually given credit for--my evidence being Play It Again Sam--and find it very easy to integrate his vision of intense insecurity into my own more robust, ahem, view of things. And in just the scenes that a few critics have even called embarrassing, there is the hint of something much deeper. Lou Jacobi prancing around in the foundation garments of a stuffy in-law, or Gene Wilder falling recklessly in love with an Armenian sheep may get Transvestites and Sodomists Liberation on his ass, but they succeed remarkably well on their own terms. This is at least partly due to some superb acting, but it's partly Allen's conception. Who but a low-stakes comedian could make wearing women's clothes or fucking a sheep seem positively sympathetic to audiences in shopping centers all over America? It's enough to make you believe that anything that starts with a lot of laughs ends up doing somebody somewhere a lot of good.

Fusion, December, 1972