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Monday, August 25, 2008

Woody Allen v. Jane Austen

I once mentioned to a young woman who was working for me at the time that Allen Woodrow Koenigsberg (aka Woody Allen) and I are the same age. "Yes, but he's a genius," she said. Point taken. But artists need people to appreciate their work, and I've been a fan of his films since before Bananas. So we, Jane and I, made a special trip yesterday to see Vicky Cristina Barcelona. (Not on our bikes; the photo was taken during a climb through "les Dentelles" in Provence.) "More of a chick flick than I'd expected from him," was Jane's assessment. I think so, too, and for the same reason that period movies based on Jane Austen's novels have been popular since Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility. In ...Barcelona, Allen gives Rebecca Hall's character "Vicky" the sort of speeches he used to give his own characters in movies like Annie Hall: appeals to the rational and logical, like the sister with "sense" in Austen. Scarlett Johansson's "Cristina" is the sensuous one of the two friends who go to live and study in Barcelona one summer. There they both meet and are serially seduced by Javier Bardem's character, a handsome and engaging painter. Thus is framed the contest over choosing between the predictable (Vicky's businessman fiance back in New York) and the passionate (the sexually-charged and emotionally volatile artist). Patricia Clarkson's dissatisfied-wife character (after 20-plus years with another self-involved businessman) offers a caution: choosing the safe path will leave you regretting your life. I'm leaving out a subplot involving Bardem's petulant and explosive ex-wife, played by Penelope Cruz. The subplot is cautionary, as well: a life of sensual indulgence also has its regrettable aspects, some of them near-fatal. This modern form of this story of a romantic/rational dichotomy is over two centuries old, yet still attracts artists and engages audiences. In fact there's no such dichotomy. What's called "romantic" is nothing more than the projection of one's desires upon another. There is no doubt that dissatisfaction is the rule in long relationships. The dissatisfaction is caused, however, by the collision between projected fantasies and the actual person opposite you. Men are as prone--perhaps more so--to preferring fantasies over the complex character of the other. All of us are inclined to cling to the imaginary. Allen ends the film on an interesting note, suggesting "Cristina" is "certain only of what she does not want." Personally, I regard "wants" as the problem, not the solution...


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