woody_allen.jpgIn her ELLE Magazine review of Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda, Karen Durbin comments that Chloe Sevigny's character seems to be "cartoon-stiff", and that this "puzzling because Allen usually excels at writing women. (Can you say Annie Hall?)"

Not only is Durbin not right about Allen's tendencies as a writer, but in mentioning Annie Hall, really - she's digging her own grave. Allen doesn't write, and has no interest in writing, for women - he writes about women, and at such great distance to the point where the Woody Allen character in all of his films is basically an anthropomorphized male gaze. Annie Hall is a actually a great example to disprove Durbin's statement - we can't really participate in Annie's interior life, because Woody/Alvy can't really get inside her. This is the fundamental  tragedy of Allen's work: although lovers can physically enter one another's bodies with very little fanfare, it's terribly difficult to obtain any real insight on anyone else's interior life.

 
This romantic skepticism - the paralyzing doubt that one can never really know The Other - is an ideological strand that underlines most Classical Hollywood romantic comedy, a tradition in which Allen clearly follows, and which has been teased about by the critic Stanley Cavell. Cavell, ostensibly a Wittgenstienian philosopher, has done all of his really interesting work around Hollywood film. His Pursuits of Happiness posits this skepticism as the narrative mobilizer of what he calls the "comedy of remarriage": a boy and girl have a misunderstanding; they must then spend the rest of the film working towards a level of mutual understanding (or, in Cavellian terms, "knowlege") until the male gets to the point where he can ammeliorate whatever doubts about the woman caused him to break away from her in the first place.

Allen's films - or, at least, the good ones - take a deconstructionist turn from where the Hawksian comedies of the 1930s left off. But in them the problem of romantic skepticism is never fully resolved. Not only does Allen's very awareness of the dissolution of Modernism makes an unqualified happy ending extremely problematic, but his films are about their male protagonist's quest to attain that Cavellian knowledge that will make romance easy - and their subsequent failures to do so. In all of Allen's really successful films, he or his stand-in is left wondering if they've ever known the women in question at all.

Woody Allen's women are often fascinating, but they are inherently not knowable. We don't know what Annie is really thinking when she starts hanging out with Paul Simon - even when we hear her inner monologue on the plane coming back from LA, its less an accurate snapshot of the way she really feels than a projection of the way Alvy imagines she might feel. Woody Allen's men are always changing their minds about their women, are always experiencing doubts. Everytime they think they've reached some kind of knowledge plateau, something (usually sex, and its attendant fallout) leaves them wondering if they ever knew this woman at all. Only Allen or the Allen stand-in can be "known" by the spectator - the women are always "cartoon-stiff", cardboard cut-out dartboards for the male characters' doubt.

I don't at all mean to craft any kind of feminist polemic - as far as I'm concerned, requiring a male filmmaker to mimic the female mind is asking too much. That said, it's a mistake to fault a filmmaker for losing his feminine touch, when with every cinematic gesture Allen admits that he's never had that touch to begin with.