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The two works this paper will be looking at are Whatever Works and Death Knocks; one is a movie and one is a play, respectively. In one of these works, Woody Allen examines the poor state of society through the eyes of Boris, who appears to be just too intelligent for his own good; on the other hand, we have Nat Ackerman, who pleads somewhat arrogantly with Death, telling Death that it simply is not his time yet. He depicts these themes consistently through many of his writings. His characters typically begin with one set of values, and, changed by life circumstances, they trade these values for a new set of values. Life forces them to change in order to accept their situations.
From a young age, Allen dreamed of writing plays and even hoped to become a successful comedian. It was frowned upon unfortunately by his parents, who hoped that Allen would become a doctor or a lawyer instead, and financially secure his future. Woody Allen thankfully carried on with his dreams, writing for television networks, which opened all sorts of new doors for him in show business. It was not long before he started to write and direct plays, and he even began to act in them. Even more shortly after, his plays were adapted into movies which earned Oscars for his excellent action and direction, and he has even succeeded as a comic. The amount of effort and just how much of himself he puts into his plays and movies is evident. A good number of his characters are typically older men who find themselves in relationships with young, beautiful women. Woody Allen, at one point in time, fell in love with and married the adopted daughter of his ex-wife, mirroring the relationship that Boris and Melody had in Whatever Works.
Allen is both the director and writer of the hilarious film, Whatever Works. Boris is an effective vessel through which the world may see Allenï¿½s own views on the world. Allen uses this medium of creativity in a way that artists would use a canvas, remarking on his work that it "distracts me from the uncertainty of life, the inevitability of aging and death and death of loved ones; mass killings and starvation, from holocausts ï¿½ not just man-made carnage, but the existential position you're in." Through his movies, Allen has been able to breathe life into his characters using his own thoughts and ideas. Stardust Memories (1980) allowed Woody Allen to put on display a ï¿½portrait of a man who is intended to appear just as depraved as Allenï¿½s critics have accused him of beingï¿½ (Lee 115-116). Therefore, Whatever Works appears to be one of the most powerful films through which Woody Allen works, through his character, Boris.
In Borisï¿½ mind, life is simply a horror movie that is too much for any one person to handle. He says that there are no morals or rules, but instead, everybody has to do whatever they can to get by--whatever works. He believes that eventually, as one grows older, oneï¿½s goals and aspirations will simply change to match whatever will work for them. Obviously, becoming a director, writer, and comedian was what worked for Woody Allen, and not becoming a doctor or lawyer as his parents wished for him. Whatever Works begins with Boris on a complete diatribe against humanity. In fact, the first scene brings to light every failure of humanity, especially the failure of ideologies. However, it is not the fault of the ideologies, but the fault of mankind, and the idea that men are inherently good. To Boris, life is a nightmare without people in it and that people should take whatever pleasure they can get in this house of nightmares. His view on life is, at best, pessimistic and cynical.
When interviewed on his life and views, Allen expressed a unique perspective. The broadcaster interviewed Woody Allen, asking him about the recurring themes that appeared in his plays and stories, and why they were about life being so difficult. He answered this, ï¿½All the important writers and all the important philosophers
have, in one form or another, come to the conclusion, the obvious conclusion, that you know, life is a terrible trial and very harsh and very full of suffering, and so whatever you can do with the stipulation that you don't hurt anybody without, you know, ruining a life here or there or causing any damage, there's nothing wrong with itï¿½ (Will the Real Woody Allen Please Stand Up). This opens up an entire window into just what Woody Allenï¿½s philosophical views are, and these views leave an obvious mark on his creative works. Boris and Woody not-so-coincidentally share the same views, made obvious when Woody says that the real problems in his life distract him from work, such as the possibility of death and the terrible sorts of things life might bring. Specifically, what distracts him is this:
ï¿½the uncertainty of life and inevitability of aging and death, and death of loved ones, and mass killings and starvations and holocausts, and not just the manmade carnage but the existential position that you're in, you know, being in a world where you have no idea what's going on, why you're here or what possible meaning your life can have and the conclusion that you come to after a while, that there is really no meaning to it, and it's just a random, meaningless event, and these are pretty depressing thoughts. And if you spend much time thinking about them, not only can't you resolve them, but you sit frozen in your seatï¿½ (Will the Real Woody Allen Please Stand Up).
With this quote, it becomes clear how much of Woody is a part of his characters. American and European culture alike both had powerful influences on Woody Allen, as he drew from many sources such as: Ingmar Bergman, Dostoevsky, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, and many more. He ï¿½distrusts and satirizes formal educationï¿½ through Melody and her senseless behavior, and even through Boris telling her the American education system has failed her, which is why she acts as dull and unintelligent as she does (Woody Allen).
Whatever Works follows the story of Boris, a remarkable genius who claims to have once almost won the Nobel Peace Prize. He is obviously physically getting on in years, but he surprisingly lives alone with no wife at his side. This is apparently due to the fact that Boris had once attempted, and failed, to commit suicide, and shortly thereafter, he divorces his first wife, realizing that even though he and his wife have everything in common, they simply just do not get along. One fateful day, Boris meets Melody shortly after having a meal with his friends. Melody seems to be a runaway from Mississippi who has convinced herself that she simply cannot go home, that she has to stay in New York City, get a job, and make her dreams come true--but for now, Melody needs a place to stay. She is innocent and sweet, convincing Boris to let her stay. It is not long until Melody falls in love with him, charmed by his intelligence and wisdom, and she thinks that she is such a lucky girl to have fallen in love with someone so smart to have almost won the Nobel Peace Prize. It is even shorter before he imprints upon her, and soon, Melody takes up his same philosophies.
It is plain to see just how strong Woody Allenï¿½s views are on adaptation. It is perfectly expressed in his film, Whatever Works, by the portrait that Allen paints of Melodyï¿½s parents. Melodyï¿½s parents are blue-collar, probably working class level people with strong religious beliefs, which is a stereotype of the Southwestern Americans who live near and around Mississippi. Melodyï¿½s mother comes to the Big Apple to meet who her daughter has married, only to find that Boris is a neurotic, old man. She faints, and subsequently, she believes Melody must have been kidnapped and held hostage, or even perhaps brainwashed. Melodyï¿½s mother is almost as naï¿½ve as her daughter, being a simple housewife who had only ever married and slept with one man. He cheats on her, leading to their divorce, and Melodyï¿½s mother then fled to New York City to be with her daughter. She grows accustomed to life in the city that never sleeps, and decides to become a permanent resident. Her mother even becomes an artistï¿½painting nude collages with her two lovers that she lives with. Unsurprisingly, her husband changes as well. He valiantly comes to New York City to win his wifeï¿½s heart back, only to discover that he is in fact a homosexual. He takes a male lover and lives in with him. This is how Allen expresses the ways in which one will change their life in order to make everything work out and to, in effect, cope with the nightmare.
Woody Allen seems to try and make a mockery out of the topic of death, which is, to many people, a great and terrible fear. Take, for example, Boris. With the failure of each marriage, he attempts to commit suicide, and it is always with the same method: to jump out of a window, any window that is nearby. His first attempt was with his first wife after waking up to a panic attack. This anxiety attack led Boris to come to the conclusion that he was dying--slowly dying, little by little, as time passed. After leaping from the window, Boris fortunately lands upon the awning of a store, rolling off of it safely, but acquiring a limp. Soon after, he and his wife divorce, as Boris believed that even though they were perfect and had everything that could be in common, in common, (aside from being of opposite genders), they really didnï¿½t get along at all.
With his second wife, a second suicide attempt follows. Melody reveals to Boris that she is in love with another man, telling him that he should learn to love life and grow close to people. She wants for him to no longer be so pessimistic, and to enjoy being alive. Boris replies that he saw this day coming, and he goes home to jump out of his window, again. With the second attempt, Boris lands upon an unfortunate woman passing beneath his window and ends up breaking the womanï¿½s leg. As fate would have it, a relationship buds from this disaster. While Boris continues to pretend think that death is the only way out, the viewer knows that this is only a front, as every suicide attempt has been on the drop of a dime, and completely out of character for him: unplanned, thoughtless, and a complete failure. No matter how awful Boris claimed that life was, it was still somehow worth living.
Whatever Works, it turns out, is not the only movie through which Allen has made a mockery of death. Another film is Whatï¿½s New, Pussycat? (1965). Not one creative piece goes by without asking some deep and valuable query about the lives of mankind, such as: ï¿½Is it possible to create a deeply satisfying romantic relationship with just one person? Is there one set of absolutely true moral principles, or is ethics simply a matter of opinion? Is there God? And what will happen after death?ï¿½ (Lee 46). Woody Allen seems to have finally answered the questions posed in other, preceding movies with Whatever Works. He seems to be thoroughly convinced that there is no God at all; Allen shows this through the way Melody and Boris poke fun at her father for his religious rituals, such as prayer.
With no respect for her fatherï¿½s beliefs, she boldly states that there is nothing at all to pray to and that nobody is listening. There is only air. ï¿½Faced with a meaningless universe and no way to prove the existence of God, his character contemplates suicideï¿½ (Blake 61). It is a major struggle among the characters in Woody Allenï¿½s works. Along with this struggle, there is a romantic struggle, one with morality. The characters all briefly wrestle with questions of morality and sexuality--all in the name of love. Take, for example, Melodyï¿½s mother, who swings from being a housewife from Mississippi to being an artist with two lovers at once. In holding true with Borisï¿½ claims, it was only important that whatever it was worked.
Next, there is ï¿½Death Knocksï¿½: a play with only two characters, Nat Ackerman and Death himself. It is a play that makes a complete joke out of the personification of Death in many ways than one. First and foremost, Death has to crawl up the piping of the house and knock on the window in order to get in. If that was not undignified enough, he takes on the appearance of the very man he has come to claim. Worst of all, Death is terrible at card games. Death claims that there is a different Death for everyone, and that is why he takes on the form of his victim. Unable to believe that this robed man who resembles him is death, Nat challenges him to Gin Rummy--and wins. He earns for himself another twenty-four hours and $28 to boot. Nat kicks Death right out the door, telling him to do whatever he likes as long as he doesnï¿½t come back for twenty-four hours. Through this short, one-act play, it would appear that Allen is unwilling to accept the idea of death, preferring to deal with it when he thinks his time comes.
Some of Woody Allenï¿½s characters even seem to be obsessed with the idea of death. Alvy, who appears in Annie Hall (1977), and Boris from Whatever Works are both characters that are ï¿½obsessed with abstract considerations about the anguish of living and the terrors of deathï¿½ (Lee 61). This seems to be because, ï¿½death is rarely far from Allenï¿½s thoughts or imagesï¿½ (Blake 69). On top of this, it is a belief of Allenï¿½s that life and pain are, essentially, one and the same. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of his characters are shown on the tightrope of life--both afraid to live and to die.
Ever the existentialist, Woody Allen has always tried to see life as an observer, trying to get a better look at life. Many plays have been written, and many movies have been directed and filmed, all in the name of capturing the big picture for all to see on paper and on the silver screen. He has let a successful career, but at the same time, it might seem as though he has succeeded at keeping it from getting to his head. A fear of death lingers in the back of his mind, and yet, in trying to distract himself from this fear, it is all that his creative works seem to be about.
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