Woody Allen’s films have received plenty of criticism over the years. Some of these criticisms are justified. The archness of some of the dialogue, especially those since the mid-1980’s, is perhaps the most legitimate grievance. When I hear Martin Landau’s Judah Rosenthal say in the otherwise magnificent Crimes and Misdemeanors, “I awakened as if from a dream and realized what I’d be losing,” I think: No one talks that way. A line like that sounds written rather than natural. Compare this to the moment when Allen’s Isaac Davis says to the pretentious elitist played by Diane Keaton in Manhattan, “Helen’s a genius. Dennis is a genius. You know a lot of geniuses. You should meet some stupid people once in a while. You might learn something.”
The criticism I’ve never accepted, however, is the one concerning Allen’s worldview. The critique usually goes something like this: Woody Allen never writes about people other than upper-class Caucasians from the Upper East Side, or, in his European films of the past seven years, from Kensington, Knightsbridge, and the trendier arrondissements of Paris. If all you ever watched were Woody Allen films, you’d never know that African-Americans were on the planet. Every character can afford to eat at swanky restaurants, shop at Saks Fifth Avenue, and travel abroad at least once a year. The apartments are posh. Every tasteful room and tasteful wardrobe contains nothing but earth tones. Hasn’t Woody Allen ever heard of blue?
The first problem with this line of criticism is that Allen has directed many films that are about lower-class characters who can’t afford Saks: Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, Shadows and Fog, Mighty Aphrodite, Sweet and Lowdown, Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Anything Else. True, all of these films are either in black-and-white or saturated with earth tones, and many are nostalgia trips steeped more in the world of Damon Runyon than in contemporary society. But none is guilty of trafficking in the upper-class porn that Allen’s critics accuse him of favoring.
He does, however, seem most comfortable writing about the wealthy and cultured. That is a valid observation. But therein lies the second problem: What’s wrong with that? Every artist is entitled to his or her worldview. One could argue that all great artists have a handful of themes that obsess and motivate them. John Ford made Westerns; Kurosawa made action films overflowing with perceptive insights about the human condition; Fellini used grotesques or small-town villagers to comment on life and celebrity in Italy. The same is true of novelists, painters, and poets: Each roots himself or herself in a comfortable milieu from which to observe the world at large. That’s what Woody Allen does in his films.
What disturbs many of Allen’s critics is the rarefied air his characters inhabit. I do not belong to the world of wealth and privilege—I am of the 99%—but I allow Allen his perspective as I would for any other artist worth paying attention to. One could say that you’d never know that educated, white-collar Caucasians were on the planet if all you ever watched were Spike Lee pictures. You’d never know from Martin Scorsese films (aside from, say, The Age of Innocence) that anyone in America has a job that isn’t connected to boxing, casinos, organized crime, and the like. But Lee’s and Scorsese’s films are gritty, so you never hear this criticism. Allen’s films are pretty, which apparently makes them flawed.
Many of Allen’s films, particularly the later ones, are flawed, but not because his characters are rich snobs. They’re flawed because they could have been funnier (Melinda and Melinda, Whatever Works) or some of the characters aren’t fully fleshed out (the women in Midnight in Paris). But his good films—and he has directed many good films, including some of the greatest ever made—are wry explorations of human nature that just happen to be situated among the wealthier classes.
I suspect that Woody Allen: A Documentary, the American Masters installment that PBS will air this Sunday and Monday night, will demonstrate the range of this amazing artist. Anyone willing to look past the maitre d’s and chandeliers will find one of the finest and most intellectually curious directors America has ever produced. Modern moviegoers know a lot of blockbuster specialists. They should meet some auteurs once in a while. They might learn something.