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The Influence of Anxiety - Love and Death and Woody Allen (Part I) by Benjamin Craig, Illustrations by Matt Kish

oody Allen is regarded alternately as a cinematic genius with a singular vision, and as a deeply flawed jackass who can’t make a film without embedding it with his personal neuroses and eccentricities. Both of these are probably fair assessments of the man. When Allen, as Alvy Singer, stares into the camera for the opening monologue of Annie Hall and, for a moment, we are deceived into believing it is the filmmaker and not the character we are hearing from, we are practically asked to conflate Allen and Singer. Likewise, when the writer Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry begins hallucinating visits from both past lovers and characters from his novels, Allen tempts us to believe that he has the same difficulty with boundaries between life and art. And while that may be true, it obscures the true achievement of Allen’s lifetime of work: expertly incorporating myriad influences into his fanatical explorations of love, death, and creative identity.

As the title indicates, Allen’s 1975 Love and Death is concerned with the first two of those preoccupations. Love and Death is set in tsarist Russia, and its main character, Boris Grushenko (Allen), is a coward sent to war, an intellectual in love with his cousin (who in turn loves Grushenko’s idiot brother), and a pacifist drawn into an attempt to assassinate the invading Napoleon. Boris’ cowardice serves as a vehicle for his philosophic musings on death, both imminent and eventual. His unrequited-then-mutual passion for cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton) sets up opportunities to suggest that perhaps love is just a kind of death—a little death—and his pacifism eventually results in an impotent climax to both his life and his love.

Love and DeathThe film is at once a Russian epic, a slapstick comedy, and a philosophic exploration, and in order to juggle these sometimes competing and sometimes complementary impulses, Allen turns to inspiration from several literary, comedic, and cinematic sources. Actually, scratch that—Woody Allen makes many, many, many references, it’s just that I want to keep this to a manageable essay for the Internet rather than a book-length study of every wink and nod, so a close look at just one or two of each should be sufficient to understand Allen’s manic incorporation of references.

His primary literary inspirations, for instance, come from the likely suspects: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The most obvious nod is to War and Peace, Tolstoy’s epic tale of the transformation of Russian life as a result of the French invasion and Napoleon’s influence on Tsarist aristocratic culture. Two film versions of War and Peace predate Love and Death: a 1956 American adaptation and a Russian version made in 1967. Each adaptation distills Tolstoy’s four-volume tome into a manageable three to seven hours, and Allen picks up at least three major ideas present in both films (along with all the other stuff he’s cramming in there) while also chopping the running time down to a slick eighty-five minutes. Each of the three adaptations—I’m taking a liberty calling Love and Death an adaptation of War and Peace—includes a duel over a woman, an attempt to assassinate Napoleon, and a heavy dose of philosophy. In the case of War and Peace, both the novel and the direct adaptations, the philosophical material is a Christian-centric musing upon the meaning of war. In the case of Love and Death, it’s a coward-centric, atheist takedown of the same, and the philosophical interludes are sincere without being particularly serious.

Allen’s Dostoyevsky references are far more direct, and used mostly for comedy. (It bears repeating: Allen sees in the author of Crime and Punishment a potential mostly for comedy.) Here’s a fun bit of dialogue between Boris and his father:

Father: Remember that nice boy next door, Raskolnikov?
Boris: Yeah.
Father: He killed two ladies.
Boris: What a nasty story.
Father: Bobok told it to me. He heard it from one of the Karamazov brothers.
Boris: He must have been possessed.
Father: Well, he was a raw youth.
Boris: Raw youth, he was an idiot!
Father: He acted assaulted and injured.
Boris: I heard he was a gambler.
Father: You know, he could be your double!
Boris: Really, how novel.

I count at least five Dostoyevsky references there, and may be missing others. The count isn’t really the point, though, as much as Allen’s ability to invoke complex themes in the space of quick jokes. A bit like this one suggests that the viewer should consider our right to justify killing, question the existence of free will, and understand the frustrations of a nervous writer. By following the general arc of War and Peace, Love and Death not only questions the morality of war, but through Allen’s use of comedy, suggests that we might even transplant the farce back onto our reading of the literary sources and come to a different understanding of their themes.

Bob Hopes with his ability to incorporate all sorts of literary influences, Allen has showcased dozens of comic styles over his career. The two most comedic influences in Love and Death, however, are Bob Hope and The Marx Brothers. Hope’s influence shows up in the story as well as in the jokes: his 1946 film, Monsieur Beaucaire, features a barber pretending to be a noble married to the princess of Spain. Love and Death features a soldier pretending to be a Spanish noble, while his wife pretends to be the noble’s sister.

Hope’s trademark jokes are short narratives. They feature Hope briefly talking himself up to a girl or a superior before, apparently unable to stop speaking, he changes gears and tears himself down: what begins with bravado ends with a sad acknowledgment that he isn’t all that great, really. He lists his flaws, catalogues his failings, and makes a convincing argument against himself. Hope isn’t the originator of this structure, but he elevated it by condensing it—he can undermine his own success in twenty seconds.

Woody Allen does it in five. From Love and Death:

Anton: If you so much as come near the Countess, I'll see that you never see the light of day again.
Boris: If a man said that to me, I'd break his neck.
Anton: I am a man.
Boris: Well, I mean a much shorter man.

From swaggering to shrinking in just a few lines, and this pattern holds throughout the film: Boris is desperate to prove to Sonja that he is desirable, but he is unable to make a convincing argument. She’s looking for a heroic figure, and he is concerned about the moral ambiguity of “heroic” action.

The Marx Brothers play a smaller role in the jokes, but a larger role thematically. S.J. Perelman, who wrote a few Marx Brothers’ scripts as well as Around the World in Eighty Days, was interested in ridicule, irony, and misadventure. Love and Death is full of all three. Boris is the constant target of ridicule, and the plot Sonja concocts to kill Napoleon has a funny obstacle at every turn. And in case any audience members were in doubt about the Marx Brothers as inspiration for this particular plot gone awry, the film zips through a quick homage:Groucho Marx

Napoleon: This is an honor for me.
Boris: No, it's a greater honor for me.
Napoleon: No, a greater honor for me.
Boris: No, it's a greater honor for me.
Napoleon: No, a greater honor for ME.
Boris: Well, perhaps you're right. Perhaps it IS a greater honor for you.
Napoleon: And you must be Don Francisco's sister.
Sonja: No, you must be Don Francisco's sister.
Napoleon: No, you must be Don Francisco's sister.
Sonja: No, you must be Don Francisco's sister.
Boris: No, it's a greater honor for me.
Napoleon: I see our Spanish guests have a sense of humor.
Boris: She's a great kidder.
Sonja: No, you're a great kidder.
Boris: No, you're Don Francisco's sister.

Where the literary influences create complexity and ask the viewer to contemplate “big ideas,” the comedic influences temper those same impulses. Both Hope and the Marx Brothers offer quick laughs. Allen reassures his audience: I’ve just asked you to think about your mortality, but don’t worry, here’s some funny wordplay. It sometimes feels that Allen has lost his way, but he always finds his way back.

llen’s film references, like his literary and comedic homages, come fast and furious: Bob Hope’s Monsieure Beaucaire, the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves are referenced, Death appears and Boris speaks with him periodically a la Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and a bizarre two-character chorus on wheat is a piss-take of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. The primary reference for Allen here, however, is Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, in which Eisenstein famously practices his own clear brand of montage. Each shot features a striking, often geometric pattern or image, and the next shot is a clear contrast or contribution to a logical progression of images. The emotional meaning of the film—the narrative itself, really—is communicated through the juxtaposition of these images. During a stirring sequence, Eisenstein metaphorizes the Russian rebellion to the waking of a sleeping lion by juxtaposing images of three different lion statues: the first lion is sleeping, the second rousing itself, and the third has risen to full height. Allen, however, does the opposite. In a fleeting reference, he edits together three similar statues, but in reverse order. In Allen’s metaphor, Boris, the Russian soldier, is a lion falling asleep.

LionLionLion

The Battle sequences in Love and Death are sometimes funny, but the influence of Eisenstein is not used for comic effect in them. Instead, Allen uses Potemkin-style montage as shorthand for the detachment a soldier feels amid the violence of war. Bayonets angle toward the enemy, cannons tip downhill, soldiers march in line—battle offers a rare moment of sincerity for Allen, which he is careful to quickly break up with silent-film-like slapstick sequences.

Ultimately, it’s the juggling of all these influences—the putting them to use in the writing, editing, acting, and even the scoring of Love and Death—that is Woody Allen at his silly best. His later films show a more mature handling of the serious material and a surer hand with dialogue, but none quite replicate the disarming back-and-forth between existential dread and self-deprecating humor. Allen employs the strategies he uses in Love and Death in his later films—and he perhaps employs specific strategies more sharply in specific films—but Love and Death may be Allen’s most complete fusion of his comic and tragic tendencies. Watching Love and Death,we get to see the origination of the distinctly Woody Allen talent for changing gears. It’s funny, sad, thoughtful, tragic, and then funny again—mostly funny.

Sure, Allen’s “neurotic Woody Allen” persona is present in all its glory in Love and Death, and no other filmmaker could have made this film, but if we dwell on only those two aspects of his work, we miss the point. Allen isn’t just a comedian-slash-auteur. He is also an avid reader and filmgoer and a master technician, and it’s these aspects of him that most inform the quality of his films. When he tempts you to read a character—Alvy Singer, Boris Grushenko, or any of the many others—as an avatar for “Woody Allen,” he’s drawing your eye away from the complexity and deftness of his technique. It’s a neat trick.


Benjamin Craig is an editor at the magazine. This article is the first in Propeller's "What was film?" series.