I watched the Woody Allen movie of this title last night, and was saddened by the slide into banality of a director I once found extraordinary. As is his wont, Allen again dissects the emotionally tormented relationships between comfortably off but miserable professional couples driven by their hunger for love, and the ensuing complications of their search for love’s validation.
The ironical musical theme of the movie is a sweetly gentle version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and as the narrative unfolds it becomes apparent that while your dreams might indeed come true, dreams fulfilled don’t necessarily make you happy. In other words, be careful what you ask for. You might get it.
The film begins with an epigraph, Macbeth’s observation that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. This announced the movie’s fundamental lack of imagination: as an epigraph this one has been done to death and I was reminded of how, as raucous and irreverent schoolgirls, we screeched the quotation at one another as we draped our adolescent selves across our wooden desks, mocking its nihilistic sentiment.
What the movie did cause me to ponder, however, are the many ways in which human beings can emotionally cripple ourselves and one another, believing we’re doing what we are supposed to do living respectable coupled lives, pursuing respectable ambitions, and conforming to the expectations of our culture. All the while, as in a witch’s bubbling cauldron, deep and guilty dissatisfactions are coming to the boil, provoking unforeseen behaviours that erupt from their repression and cause chaos in outwardly conformist lives. Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble…to stay with the Macbeth references.
As Freud observed, in order to maintain civilisation we must make a trade-off, and the price we pay is the voluntary relinquishing, through repression, of desire. This is the essential paradox of civilisation: we have designed it to protect ourselves from dissatisfaction and danger, yet it is simultaneously our biggest source of both. Allen’s characters are quintessentially civilised, yet their desires rupture their civilised veneer and reveal the turmoil and misery that lies beneath. Truth will out.
The catalyst for rupture is always desire, the “tall dark stranger” encountered at times of blind yearning for one knows not what, a yearning that is always at bottom a hunger for growth, and escape from circumstances that have come to represent imprisonment and stagnation. Yet few of us can pursue these needs without savage consequences, as they fly in the face of civilised culture and its constructed desires, leaving trails of wreckage that are largely perceived not as opportunities, but as destruction. Our culture values certainty, continuity and predictability. Our culture values what is antipathetic to desire. Those who break out, yielding to desire, are judged and found wanting.
Allen knows these truths well, given his own torturous history with desire. It’s disappointing that he hasn’t found a fresher way to dissect them: he’s become formulaic.
For mine, the meeting with a tall dark stranger is the meeting with truth or the real possibility of it, a possibility generally denied us by cultural demands and expectations. Discontent is a necessary by-product of civilisation. Civilisation, as Freud would have it, inevitably makes us neurotic. The only cure is love, and love is a stranger in an open car, tempts you in and drives you far away…