English 312 Film & Literature
The Woody Allen Complex
If one were to view several of Woody Allen’s films, chances are that they would notice similarities in the characters, the plot and they way in which each is filmed. Allen has a specific style that is unique recognizable. His use of cinematography, music and acting are undeniably and exclusively Allen’s. In an interview in September of 2001, Allen was interviewed by Geoff Andrew of the United Kingdom’s The Guardian. When asked about his cinematic style, Allen responded by saying “If the content of the film - as in Husbands and Wives - is highly jagged, neurotic, fast-paced, nervous New York film, it just called for that kind of shooting, editing and performance. Whereas The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, the content of the film has nothing to do with that. It's much, much different, it's much more classical, it's much more been influenced by the films that I grew up with in the early 40s, the films of Lubitsch or Billy Wilder or something - these kind of dialogue fast-talking comedies. And it requires a totally different style of shooting. And you just sense this automatically. As the author of it you know how you want it to appear on screen and it's always the content dictating the form.” Most of his films revolve around a similar character faced with similar circumstances with slight variations that occur from film to film. The main character, often played by Allen himself, seems to always have trouble with women. In understanding them, interacting with them and being in relationships with them. This main character seems to possess similar qualities as well such as feeling inferior to women, nervousness and even depression. Could there be a link between this character and Allen himself? Although he denies any relation to basing his films off of his personal life, there is no arguing that parts of Allen’s life are evident within the plots of his films. In class we have discussed the Oedipus Complex and its effects on people. I believe that Woody Allen bases the characters within his films on experiences he had during his childhood. Whether exaggerated or not, his biography could be pieced together by scenes in his films. There are so many hints within his work that tie back to his own life story. His fascination with both women and the past seem prevalent in most of his work. This fascination could stem from the relationship that Allen had with his mother during his younger years. The only way to truly understand Allen, his past and the connection with his work, we must first understand and have knowledge of his childhood and the nature of his upbringing.
Parents have an insurmountable influence on their children. They play both a significant and vital role in a child’s development. It is during the early years when children spend a majority of their time with their parents that they are particularly malleable. Like sponges they soak up every experience, every lesson and every unintentional action. It is with these very things that a child composes and bases their world on. Of course there are other contributing factors, in an excerpt from Doctor Susan D. Witt’s thesis paper she states “attitudes and behaviors are generally learned first in the home and are then reinforced by the child's peers, school experience, and television viewing. However, the strongest influence on gender role development seems to occur within the family setting, with parents passing on, both overtly and covertly, to their children their own beliefs about gender.” (Parental Influence on Children’s Socialization to Gender Roles). Children learn very early in their development the roles that society imposes upon them. This can have either a positive or negative effect. In Woody Allen’s case his upbringing was a little bit of both. With his overbearing mother and turbulent home atmosphere, he was able to express his internal angst with comedy and through the stories his films tell. We are able to observe small pieces of Allen’s upbringing through his work. There seem to be trends in most of his films with the leading male character, usually played by Allen himself, possessing similar qualities. These qualities include, inferiority to women, nervousness, depression and self loathing. If we were to really take a detailed and comprehensive look into these characteristics and their origins, we would most likely end up at the beginning, his childhood.
Woody Allen, whose surname is actually Allen Stewart Konigsberg, was born to his Jewish parents on December 1st, 1935 in Brooklyn, New York. Allen’s upbringing was not particularly joyful and most definitely not privileged by any means. His parents did not get along and he had an especially strained relationship with his strict and overbearing mother. Out of an excerpt from Marion Meade’s book a childhood friend Jack Freed recalled that Allen’s mother "had a hot temper and was always taking a whack at him. Whenever he got her goat, she'd start howling and yelling before taking a good swipe at him. If my mother hit me that hard, I'd have run away crying, but he never cried. He had an amazing ability to restrain his emotions. His mother couldn't control herself at all." At the age of seventeen, Allen began to write and submit short jokes to local newspapers under the name Woody Allen. Although the reason for his name change is not completely certain, changing a name can be symbolic for creating an alter ego where one can reinvent themselves. When one chooses to change a name, they are able to leave behind embarrassing characteristics or perhaps unfavorable events that might have previously occurred. “In the sixties, when he was trying to develop his comedy act, Woody got back at his parents by stitching them into his routines. His mother, he riffed, left a live teddy bear in his crib. When he got older she warned him never to be suspicious of strangers. If anybody with candy beckoned him into a car, he should hop right in. Poking fun at relatives is normal for comedians, but Woody's family evidently offered an exceptionally rich lode of material for put-downs and wisecracks.” (The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, Meade) Though try as he may to shape this new persona, his upbringing is still very evident in most if not all of his work. All of his main male characters possess the qualities of one who may have had a stern and tyrannical mother, and many of the situations that they are faced with deal soley with women. Allen’s past has shaped both himself and the characters he writes into his films into who and what they are. Both Allen and his characters seem to share variations of the Oedipus Complex.
The Oedipus Complex discovered first by Sigmund Freud basically states that “a boy is fixated on his mother and competes with his father for maternal attention.” (CHANGING MINDS) The complex is said to occur during a developmental stage labeled the “oedipal phase” . This stage occurs within the years of three and five of the developmental process. The Oedipal Complex may be expressed in many different ways. For example throughout Woody Allen’s films there is a certain “vintage” feel to them. Whether it be through the score used in the film, the cinematography or the way that the characters interact with each other, you can see themes of the 1940’s cinematic styles working their way into the different areas of the film. An example of this could be seen in the opening scene of Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan. The scene fades into a landscape view of Manhattan and is shot in fuzzy black and white film. Joined with the classical cinematography is the notable music of George Gershwin and all the while Allen narrates over these two elements. As you watch the collage of live shots of Manhattan being filmed with this black and white film, you are transported to another place and time. An era of film making far gone. This homage to the early styles of film making brings about the question; “From where did this fascination of this cinematic style originate?” and “Was it perhaps Allen’s mother who cherished this time period thus igniting this passion within Woody himself?” Although Allen never directly commented on the relation between his cinematic style and his own personal life, in an interview with CrankyCritic Allen commented on the subject, “One of the staples of the films then was a hostile relationship between a man and a woman whether it was Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell or Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn or The Thin Man. You always knew they would get together. You never knew exactly how, but you know they would. They hated one another deeply and kept digging at one another and this was a pleasurable kind of film for me to see when I was younger and you used to see them all over the place. They were very popular films at the time and they made them for years. In the early Forties, in my neighborhood, you could see two, three of these a week.” We might never know, however, based on what we know about the Oedipus Complex and his mother could have very well been the one who instilled this appreciation within him. Perhaps Allen’s fear of his mother led him to adopt her interests in order to win over her affection. Perhaps it is the Oedipus Complex that has led Allen to appreciate such things and make them so prominent within his work.
Throughout our lives we are able to shape who we are based on events we have gone through, lessons we have been taught and people that we have grown up around. During our younger years we are incredibly impressionable and we take into account everything that goes on around us. The environment in which we are raise primarily shapes who we become as adults, our likes, dislikes and even our character traits. As we have learned about Woody Allen’s childhood there are reasons why his films share so many similar characteristics. Allen’s past shaped who he is today and helped him develop his cinematic style. Without experiences we would not be able to grow and further ourselves into growing. It is apparent in Allen’s work that he has a fascination with the female sex. Whether that stem from the volatile relationship that he had with his mother or from things he experienced in his childhood is uncertain. However, we can recognize the traits of the Oedipal Complex within both Allen’s life and his work. I believe that Woody Allen bases the characters within his films on experiences he had during his childhood. His films and style are legendary and truly hold a special place in cinema and it is through his raw and realistic approach to film that has paved the way for many film makers at present.
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