You will meet a tall dark stranger

29 Mar

wish-upon-a-star-andrea-realpeI 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, tempt you in and drive you far away…






7 Responses to “You will meet a tall dark stranger”

  1. paul walter March 30, 2015 at 6:46 am #

    Is the problem that, human beings don’t understand their own nature and perhaps can’t, because of so many unknown knowns and known unknowns?

    Freud, the individual accredited with the psychological equivalent of Columbus’ discovery of America, the insight that we are “determined” and subjective and emotional to a great extent rather than rational individuals, himself provides a brilliant example of his own diagnosis in his euphemising of aspects of female sexuality and avoidance or denial of the possibility of actual abuse in childhood, I understand.

    It is true that for all the triumphalism, it is indeed when viewed from a different trajectory, just another species of ape, except on evolving in ways that cause exponential damage to its environment and that of other species, in its need to satify an odd little impulse to recreate precisely some sort of cognitive jungle it spent millions of years seeking to escape from yet needs, to feel secure within.

    It was nice to see the bright Annie Lennox and Davey Stewart, doing his impersonation of an economy-sized Alan Parsons, again, after such a while.


    • Jennifer Wilson March 30, 2015 at 7:01 am #

      Freud heroically described the sexual abuse of children to a society that wanted to see him dead for doing it, and on reflection, and after consultation with William Fleiss, Sigmund withdrew his truth and I think paid the personal price of denial for ever after.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. paul walter March 30, 2015 at 10:15 am #

    Thank you for that priceless snippet of back story.

    Lovely day here in Adelaide, must try not to waste days like this.

    Hope you are well and things are finally cooling down a bit where you live and enjoyed your latest post.

    Reminds me, just on closing, it must be nearly sixty years since my parents went to see South Pacific at a movie theatre in Footscray. After the damaged bomber landed in the opening scene I got really bored because after that they only danced and sang songs and once mum had to tell me off for squirming, in a harsh, whispered voice.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer Wilson March 30, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

      Thanks, PW, the humidity is lessening, hate that more than the heat.
      What a lovely backstory from you!


  3. Michaela Tschudi April 1, 2015 at 10:15 pm #

    I didn’t finish watching the film. I was annoyed with the way Allen conflated desire with weakness and sadness or misery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson April 2, 2015 at 6:20 am #

      Good point. He usually does this, and it’s very aggravating and visionless, you’re right.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michaela Tschudi April 2, 2015 at 6:58 am #

        I wonder whether Woody Allen sees himself as a latter day William Blake? Thinking of Blake’s work on contraries, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Perhaps look at this film through Spinoza’s determinist lens – there is no free will although people act as if there is? But it’s too early in the day to get metaphysical 😊


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