Monday, November 8, 2010

"Hannah..." Revisited--Woody Allen and Reinvention: A Monday Journal

I wanted to turn my life into a grand opera...  But I think I will have to be content with a tone poem.

When I sought to "reinvent" myself, I had a vague notion that I wanted to achieve some great things.  Perhaps I would develop my life experience into playwriting, or create some novels.  I would add to my collection of short stories.  Maybe I would teach, and preserve the legacy of classic film and literature.  Or I would use my words to champion for helpless animals.

I channeled my myriad activities--reading, learning what I could from radio, Internet, and immersion in the culture of Chicago, travel, and widening my circle of interesting people--into a blog, and into other writing.  I became involved in learning a new language, and taking care of homeless dogs and supporting animal advocacy in many forms; in between my duties as a partner, a son, an employee, and a colleague.

It was easy at first, the broad-based approach, because it allowed me to rotate among a variety of activities.  While it took me longer to sharpen my focus, I was at least not bored.

Soon, time and the world seemed to cast an early shadow on my dreams. Time was running out before I could create my legacy.  I had far too many obligations to take the necessary time to lose myself, to endure the painful birth of my creativity.

Like yesterday:  we still had a glimmer of Daylight Saving Time, but overnight it seemed that days were growing shorter, and darkness came more suddenly.

It felt like I was leaving the party before it got started.  It felt a little like discouragement.  It felt impatient; like there was nothing new here, and I had to rush to an unknown horizon to find who-knows-what.

I questioned everything...and did not like what I saw of the larger world, the politics and corruption and pain....I even wondered if I had seen too many movies to keep my mind open...and it started to bleed into my work, so that the pure enjoyment was diminished.  Was it merely the end of naivete?  Can one dream and not be naive?

And soon, for a couple of hours, art was imitating life:

I re-visited Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters", which has been one of my favorite films, not just a favorite Woody Allen film. It's a sentimental story, beautifully woven and written, character-driven, and very funny.

I call it an epic of the intellect.  Allen's characters are like great, sweeping landscapes of ideas, each filled with treachery and beauty and humor.  "Hannah and Her Sisters" is a story of marital love and infidelity, the meaning of art, the fulfillment of performance, the search for spirituality.  Each character is looking for something; each life is ripe for change, usually involving the potential for loss and sacrifice.

Michael Caine is married to a warm and giving Mia Farrow, but wants to create a life with one of her sisters, Barbara Hershey.  Hershey's character has been molded by the attentions of  an older artist (Max Von Sydow), but feels suffocated, and needs to spread her wings and risk alienating her sister.  Farrow senses the alienation all around her, and begs for understanding that she is a woman of enormous needs.

Diane Wiest, the neurotic other sister, can't find her identity, and haplessly turns to drugs, auditions for impossible stage roles (she can't sing), competes with her poised and intelligent best friend (Carrie Fisher) for the attentions of an intriguing and romantic architect (Sam Waterston), and tries to write a play.

All of these actors reach career highs in this film, none more than Wiest.  Last week I watched her in "Bullets Over Broadway" and I was delighted by her portrayal of Helen St. Clair, the Broadway diva with the throaty voice and booming delivery ("Don't SPEAK!").  This was Wiest's masterpiece, made even more remarkable by her contrasting, mousy complexity in "Hannah".  (Wiest remains the only actor to win two Oscars in films by the same director.)

Most complex of all is Woody Allen's character, divorced from Mia Farrow after learning that he is "sterile" and can't father children with her, a hypochondriac who is certain he is dying of a brain tumor, a Jew who seeks life's meaning in other forms of spirituality.  His "conversion" to Catholicism makes for some of the film's biggest laughs.  Slipping into despair, he decides that life has no meaning whatsoever.  He buys a rifle.  He ineptly bungles his own suicide.

Wandering the streets in a panic, he finally ducks into a movie theater.  There, with the antics of the Marx Brothers unfolding before him, Allen decides that even if the worst is true, and life has no meaning, that it is still an experience to be a part of, and that it isn't all a drag.  In the presence of zany humor, he begins to enjoy himself.

Somewhere, a person in the throes of melancholy may encounter "Hannah and Her Sisters", maybe for the first time, or maybe for the tenth.  That viewer may, like Allen did with the Marx Brothers, find comfort in its humor and in its encouragement to find enjoyment in whatever pleasures life may offer (be they movies, or books, or dogs, or writing?)  Maybe, like Allen he will be surprised to find, some time later, that his life is not "sterile" after all.... 

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