Robin Williams in 1998, after receiving an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting. Photo: Getty
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Using art to understand life: not everything you can imagine is real

From Robin Williams’s death to the Arab Spring, we have to resist the urge to impose simple storylines on complex events.

Among the many tributes tweeted in the wake of Robin Williams’ death on Sunday night was one by actress Evan Rachel Wood, featuring an image of the Genie (voiced by Williams) embracing Aladdin in the 1992 Disney animated film, accompanied by the caption “Genie. You’re free”. The tweet was retweeted over 100,000 times and an unattributed copy of it an hour later tweeted from the official Academy of Arts and Motion Picture Sciences account outdid that, with over 320,000 retweets. For most people, these were touching tributes, remembering the late actor in a manner that connected with most of his fans, particularly those who first came to know him in the early 1990s. There were others though, especially suicide awareness activists, who criticised it for a supposedly dangerous romanticisation of suicide. I too was a bit put out by this blithe summation, however well-intentioned, of a life tragically ended, something that Williams’ friends and family – who are, we ought to remember, the ones actually bereaved – may not subscribe to. It also seemed that suicide was being recast, in an oddly crass manner, as a quintessentially Hollywood act of self-realisation. The butterfly emerging from its pupa, as it were.

It might seem a little harsh to criticise Wood or The Academy’s social media button-presser for their fatuousness – maybe it just came natural for them to conceive of a tragic event with the vocabulary and tropes they were most familiar with. After all, the lexicon of condolence and sympathy shared by most people and repeated every time a friend or acquaintance is bereaved is one that is as universal as it is limited. There may also be a tendency of people who are involved in the production of art and entertainment to see forms and hear echoes of those works in every life and sometimes in world events. Occasionally the tendency can give rise to insensitive formulations, such as Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s rambling opinion, delivered soon after 9/11, that the attacks on the World Trade Center “the biggest work of art there has ever been”. No amount of protesting and clarification about context was ever going to later undo those words in the minds of the general public.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s assertion that the first Gulf War “did not take place” on account of its existence for westerners as a media event was taken by many in the English-speaking world as proof of a decadent Left Bank philosophe bringing an abstract epistemological template to bear on an actual war. Few of those commentators were aware though that Baudrillard’s essay used as an anchor reference Jean Giraudoux’s 1935 stage play La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place). Giradoux’s historical allegory is relatively unknown in English-speaking countries, where it was, in any case, staged under the title Tiger at the Gates. While Baudrillard’s thesis was one of a notional “virtual” modern war, rather than the failed inter-war diplomacy that Giraudoux skewered, the post-structuralist instinctively reached for the cultural vocabulary to mount his argument. It was not really his fault that the connotations were obscure to most outside of France.

I have to myself admit to having a predilection for “narrativising” contemporary events in a way that makes them appear to be lifted from fiction or drama, though, in some cases, the coincidences make it easy to do. Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Booker in 2010. The titular slap is one given by an adult to someone else’s brattish five-year-old at a suburban barbecue in Melbourne. And so follows a contentious tale of disputes and fallings-out among a group of friends each steadily advancing, at different stages, into parenthood. The Slap is a disappointing novel, its vivid portrayal of working-class and immigrant life marred by some woefully leaden prose and the seismic promise of the title’s action never materialises. A real-life slap however in late 2010 would have far-reaching consequences worthy of a great novel.

In December of that year in Sidi Bouzid, a dusty, economically stagnant town deep in Tunisia’s interior, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young unemployed university graduate was trying to eke out a living illegally selling fruit and veg on the town’s main square. One afternoon he was accosted by a policewoman and told to pack up his wares and go. It was Bouazizi’s third arrest for illegal hawking but this one was the most humiliating, because, according to his family, a female municipal office slapped him on the face. The youngster returned to the square, doused himself in petrol outside the governor’s office and set himself alight. Bouazizi died of his injuries eighteen days later, by which time he had been visited in his hospital bed by an increasingly nervous Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali, and anti-government protests had spread across the country. In the week that followed Bouazizi’s death, Ben Ali addressed the nation twice but was eventually pushed to step down by the military; he and his notoriously corrupt family then fled to Saudi Arabia.

We all know what happened next – Egypt rose up in arms and overthrew Hosni Mubarak after almost three decades of authoritarian rule. Then there were protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and finally, Syria, each of which western and Arab powers took differing attitudes towards. It was the most momentous world-historical chain of events since the fall of the Berlin Wall in over two decades earlier. Like the events of 1989, it was actually the result of a cumulated process of historical facts and events (protests over food prices and the police murder of another youngster, Khaled Mohamed Saeed, could as easily have tipped the balance in Egypt in mid-2010) but it also had a similar air of narrative concision about it. As events unfolded, with many of the protagonists active in real time on Twitter and Facebook, you felt you were witnessing something epic. One of those protagonists, the young Emirati journalist Sultan al-Qassemi, tweeted upon his first post-revolution visit to Cairo that he felt like he was meeting characters from a favourite novel. Events since then, of course, took a more sinister twist in Egypt, with the SCAF’s bloody crackdowns on protests, rising sectarian violence, a military coup that dares not speak its name and we are now left with a situation where the country’s foremost novelist Alaa al-Aswany is a vocal supporter of the current repressive government. As Syria spiralled into an increasingly horrendous civil war, which has in turn overspilled into Lebanon and Iraq, the exhilaration at being at such a close vantage point to unfolding history has sharply receded. This is not to say that the uprisings against sclerotic totalitarian rule were a bad thing or that the sour turn so many of them took was inevitable, rather than the result of specific political actions or choices. What is true though is that there is a clear limit to the amount of narrative jouissance to be had from observing “interesting times”, least of all from a safe distance. Ironically, the only one of the Arab countries that rose up in rebellion that looks to be still in reasonable shape is Tunisia itself; the north African country has not been spared civil strife, with economic crisis, political assassinations, stand-offs with Salafists and encroaching Islamisation in universities, but it has largely managed to address those crises peacefully, by consensual rather than conflictual means.

This tendency to see narrative or artistic forms in real life, just as Fibonacci sequences are revealed in natural life-forms, is understandable enough. Even the way we experience and remember our dreams is quite probably beholden to our cultivated sense of narration. The power and genius of great (and even sometimes minor) art lies in its ability to map, mimic and project everyday and historic reality, sometimes unwittingly so, long after its creator’s death. Consequently, art and literature provide us with the tools and the vocabulary to interpret and understand reality. It is not for nothing that words such as “Dickensian”, “Kafkaesque” or “Orwellian” have passed into general usage and their resonance is understood even by people who have never read the works of the writers in question. Even minor literary characters such as Svengali, Nicolas Chauvin, or the supporting players from Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (which coined the word “robot”) serve as linguistic functions for interpreting the real world that lies beyond the page. It is worth remembering though that that real world is mostly messy and inchoate and can rarely be shoehorned into the confines of what are the arbitrary conventions of narrative and artistic form. It might be tempting to sense in tragic images or events culled from news headlines echoes of Shakespeare, of Michelangelo or even of horror films and disaster movies. Maybe it is best though not to lose the run of yourself when you do so.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism