Thursday, January 17, 2008

Allen's Take on the Sexes

Last week, I shared a piece from The American Scholar about treatment of captured insurgent fighters. Turns out the new issue has several other goodies, most about lighter subjects. For instance, this essay by Mark Edmundson about his experience watching the films of Robert Altman and Woody Allen in 1970s New York. It's packed with smart, funny lines, including this observation buried in the midst of things, which isn't a bad 20-word summation of humanity: "People are small and want petty things, but because of that they’re very tender and easily hurt, and fascinating, too."

His extended analysis of things is equally worth your time, like this take on Woody:
Allen seems to feel that human identity, male identity in particular, achieved its essence in about 1956. Men want what they want. They perpetually need to have sex, and usually no one’s willing. But occasionally, through sheer luck of the draw, a volunteer steps forward. What happens then? The guy doesn’t want her. (Allen’s rejection of the beautiful Allison Portchnick in Annie Hall is as plangent a scene as he ever played.) No, it’s the girl across the street or down the block or the one embedded in his fantasies that he has to have. She’ll truly make him happy; she’ll get him to stop wanting. (What is a Romantic, Nietzsche asked. It is a person who always wants to be elsewhere.) Allen is a wind-up toy powered by need (desire is too refined a term), but he’s a self-aware wind-up. He’s hip to the comedy of his (and maybe our) endless and absurd wants. Not being able to get any satisfaction isn’t tragic, or even something that ought to inspire rock ’n’ roll choral grandeur, juiced by power chords from Keith Richards. It’s simply the male’s lot in life.

As to women’s lot, who knows what that is? Women are what Freud, Allen’s Viennese foster father, called the Dark Continent. Only one thing about them is certain: they add more frustration to an already frustrating game. Allen wants respect, power, money, a better apartment, more money. But all these wants collapse into and are shaped by the one great want, the sex want. Women only make this commodity available when a man doesn’t care to have it; then they insist, insist, insist, and finally grow enraged. After that, of course, comes male guilt—dump-truck loads of it. When Allen visits the future in Sleeper, he learns that science has discovered beyond doubt that men and women are entirely incompatible, erotically and in every other way, too. Everyone finally knows as much and acts accordingly. Want sex? Climb into the Orgasmatron. Alone.


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