Essays - Winter 2008

Alone at the Movies

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My days in the dark with Robert Altman and Woody Allen

By Mark Edmundson


For a year or two during the mid-1970s, living in New York, I was a moviegoer. I was in my early 20s then, working off and on, driving a cab, setting up the stage at rock shows, writing occasional pieces for The Village Voice. But there were also long empty spells. I tried to write some fiction and couldn’t, tried to read and could—but only for so long. I ended up going to the movies.

It was the right decade to be doing that. Martin Scorsese made Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Taxi Driver; Paul Schrader wrote and directed Blue Collar; and Robert Altman directed Brewster McCloud, The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The Godfather, both I and II, were news then. Woody Allen seemed to be bringing out something good every six months.

I can’t really tell you whether these movies summarized a national mood, but they summarized some moods of mine. Almost all of the movies conveyed a feeling of missed opportunities, of having been tossed out of the garden just before you came to know you’d been living in one. The only paradises, we’re told, are lost paradises, and I had recently left a couple of them. I’d made the mistake of graduating from the small, hyperexpensive college in Vermont that I’d attended on a massive scholarship. Bennington was full of gorgeous, smart, tightly wound women, in the proportion of three to every one male; the teachers were surpassingly hip; the Vermont green was seven versions of pastoral. Most of the students were rich—rich and a little loopy. Many were the youngest children of prosperous, prominent parents. But the kids often had been ignored by mom and dad, who were absorbed in making their dutiful ways through Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex (second cousin to The Joy of Cooking) with each other and with neighbors and friends, praying that they hadn’t missed all the rapture that the ’60s had had to dispense.

My roommate spent eight years or so at Bennington. He tried six majors, including, if memory serves, musical instrument design. He formed close if temporary conjunctions with many women, among them a princess and a U.S. president’s great-grand niece (one of the solemn, whiskery Ohio presidents, alas). Everyone at Bennington was a show; my roommate was a little more brightly lit and cunningly miked, that’s all. When it became clear that I was voluntarily leaving this earthly paradise after only four years, he wrote me off as mentally ill.

People who need movies, the true moviegoers, go in the afternoon; matinees are therapy for those who can’t afford therapists or don’t know that they should get one. Scraping down the pavement in Manhattan on my way to a matinee, I had to admit that my Bennington roommate probably had it right. New York sent many signs to a young man—it was an empire of signs, to cop a phrase—but one message blared through and over all the rest: This city (state, country, world, cosmos) does not require you at all. No provisions have been made. There is no slot. You’ll have to force your way in, on the off chance that you can get in at all. I sometimes thought, then, of a poem by Stephen Crane that I’d come upon in junior high.

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

I occasionally thought too of a line that I’d fetched from the commonplace books my roommate crammed with quotations to speed him on his way through life: “If nothing comes, then nothing comes. This isn’t exactly the enchanted forest.” Which was true enough: in the mid-1970s, New York, especially up in Washington Heights, the decayed neighborhood where I lived, was emphatically not the enchanted forest.

One gets used to having a slot, however meager. For 16 years there had been a seat reserved for one M. Edmundson at some center of higher or lower learning. Mark E., who sat behind Kevin Donahue and in front of Joan Ehlrich at Medford High, was present or he was absent. Absence mattered. Inquiries would be made. Now there was neither presence nor absence. There was zip. I had nursed hopes, as the poet says, that pointed to the stars. Now I was a walking superfluity, a flea on New York’s shaggy, often rank-smelling coat.

A lot of my classmates who had downplayed their cash and connections at college were redeeming these previously invisible chips. They latched onto free apartments in the Village and cool and unusual internships; they hit cocktail parties uptown and down where they augmented their already impressive stock of connections. My former teachers—broke on their laughable Bennington salaries and in hock because of their midlife, late-1960s divorces—paid their former students court, cadging weekend couches in their living rooms and invites to openings at galleries like OK Harris. As for me, being broke, unconnected, Irish Catholic (in origin), and vaguely promising didn’t fork a lot of lightning. My degree, of which I was vaguely proud, cut no ice either. A couple of editors interviewed me for jobs in publishing. I managed to insult the editor-in-chief at Newsweek by offering him a vaguely Roland Barthes–style critique of his magazine as a maker of contemporary myths and “a source of slick, palatable entertainment.” I blew my chances for an editorial assistantship at a sailboat magazine by bringing a copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology to the interview. At every encounter I was asked the same question: What was it like going to a girls’ school? Beyond that, I didn’t seem to be of much interest. So I drove a cab, I stacked the amps at rock shows. I collaborated on perky pieces for the Village Voice Centerfold, one of them on the best places to take a whiz in New York if you had no money so couldn’t duck into a restaurant and order something cheap. The best place turned out to be the men’s room in the Plaza Hotel, where for whatever reason the lobby staff didn’t kick you out. The editor of the piece nearly got fired for running it; the owner of Voice and New York Magazine supposedly thought that the article was written to parody the consumerist idiocy—where do you buy the best dog sweater in New York?—that made New York (and I suppose in some measure New York, too) shake, rattle, and go.

So there was no real place for me—no seat with my name on it. But at the movies there was always a chair, at least unoccupied if not specifically assigned, stained with Coke, crackling with popcorn bits. To the movies I was faithful. At a time when people were bruiting about something called film, it seemed to make good sense for a young man with cultural ambitions to fill out his filmography. I gave those few people who took an interest, however slight, in what I was doing to suspect that I was becoming something of a cineaste. I was enhancing my visual literacy. I even saw a few movies in French. Really, though, I cared only about recent American movies.

When one of the far-downtown movie emporiums announced an Altman festival, I was up by noon on the inaugural day. I pulled on my Frye boots, my jeans with the blue unworn rectangle on the thigh where I carried my backstage employee’s pass for the rock shows, and my red T-shirt with the white star on the back signifying that I was on stage crew, the working aristocracy of rock ’n’ roll. I said goodbye to my electric typewriter, which seemed void of good ideas, and my poster of Patty Hearst posing with a machine gun and her fellow members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. “The people,” ran the legend below the photo. “We have been nothing. We shall be all.” When a guy came to the apartment to install a phone, he took one look at Patty and Cinque and the gang and walked back down the stairs and into the street. We lived on 187th Street, a raw neighborhood. Soon I was on the subway with my book (Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, as I recall), and flying downtown to Altman.

Robert Altman was a debunker, but of a certain sly sort. He liked to take the stale air out of genres: detective movies, buddy flicks, cowboy-and-Indian things; in Nashville he went after musicals. He ran against the great tendency of film, which is to glamorize everything it renders. Film makes Olympians out of mere mortals, surrounding everyone with a glowing aura. And, most obviously, it expands them until they’re deific in size, or at least parental. We go to the movies to see giant forms; we go to traffic with gods.

Altman cut against this glamour with his crisscross, layer-on-layer dialogue, his low-to-the-ground camera, and his blurry, muzzy action sequences. What the hell is happening in about half of McCabe and Mrs. Miller? It’s all washed in pitch.

But Altman gives where he takes away. He’s like one of Dickens’s child narrators who sees life from the corner. The kid’s been kicked once or twice, he’s a little sulky, and he’s not part of the big show. But he discovers that life seen from the edges is not glamorous, not alluring, but amazingly interesting. People are small and want petty things, but because of that they’re very tender and easily hurt, and fascinating, too. In The Long Goodbye, the detective’s ridiculous affection for his cat, and his drive, against all opposition, to get precisely the right cat food is surely more affecting than all the giant crowd scenes that Cecil B. De Mille ever put on the screen. I felt the same way about the lovely scene in McCabe and Mrs. Miller when Warren Beatty, as an Old West entrepreneur who’s simultaneously slick and bumptious, goes into his monologue about how he, despite all appearances, has poetry in him. But one can only bring such stuff so far: “Ain’t gonna try to put it down on paper . . . got sense enough not to try.” Altman’s camera—ignored, roaming, left to itself—seems to achieve a sort of freedom. The camera doesn’t need to aggrandize life, but it doesn’t offer resentful rejections, either. It seems to accept all it encounters, taking things in with a bemused, affectionate, mildly complacent eye, gently curious about what will come next but not exerting itself unduly to find out. Altman’s camera, Altman’s eye, a little like the eye of New York’s great hobo poet Walt Whitman, seems both in and out of the game—though surely more out than in—and watching and wondering at it.

Might not this be a little like my own condition, or at least a condition I could aspire to? I could, maybe, give up questing for big and exciting things (Those connections! Those parties! That job!) and stop resenting the people who enjoyed them. I could amble and loaf and look around and perhaps store up a few impressions. I was low on cash most of the time, sure, but I had enough to get by. What I had in excess was what Altman and his camera seemed to have, time—time and a marvelous place to spend it, Manhattan, the greatest paradise for walkers and loiterers and trippers and ramblers ever created. Looking around—affectionately, forgivingly, gently—turned out not to be a half bad way of expanding the day. In this particular ambling mood, you don’t ask anything from the world because the world, in its sheer there-ness, is enough, or almost.

So I did what about a million other broke, half-employed, dreamy guys have done in New York. I rambled around. I checked out the neighborhoods. I kibitzed with people hanging out on their stoops (though I’m not now and wasn’t then a readily sociable type). I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge—strung, as Crane said, like a great lyre over the sea—and when I reached the other side, I got myself lost in Brooklyn. Getting lost became, for a while, the name of my game. When I didn’t know where I was or where I was going, the colors of things seemed to heighten; the music coming from the radio perched in the tenement window—even though it wasn’t my music—became a dissonant soundtrack to my walk, introducing moods I didn’t know I could have. I covered Central Park up and down; I went where I wasn’t supposed to go, to black Harlem, where I believed I saw the ghost of Malcolm X, and to Spanish Harlem, too. Wanting Chinese food one afternoon, I walked from the Upper East Side all the way down to Chinatown. The only thing I shied away from were the standard sites for looking, like museums and galleries, Radio City Music Hall, and the Statue of Liberty; all else was fair game. I made it a quiet and never-articulated point to like everything, or as much as possible of everything, that I saw—though not to like it too very much, because when you fall for one thing, a beautiful bridge, a beautiful building, or a beautiful body or soul, everything else gets demoted. On some of my walks, I could say that I wanted everything but only gently wanted any one thing in particular.

Do I owe Altman my life or my sanity? No. I wasn’t ready to cash in either of them, not even close. But he helped me to get my balance. In my head, I started to keep a small log of Altman moments, past and present. The one I remember most clearly was at a rock show where I was working as a security guard: Associate Head of Front Gate Security, Garden State Summer Music Fair. I tossed a full bottle of confiscated booze into a cart loaded with similar bottles, and my bottle (shockingly) exploded when it hit the heap, sending glass and Boone’s Farm Apple Wine flying up onto Dick Bonninger, boss of all 200 security guys and a former Green Beret. When the mess hit him, Dick did a prissy, squirming, save-me-from-the-cooties dance, a jumping fuss and fidget. Dick’s look across the hamper of all the confiscated booze said something like: Wipe all this from your memory, okay? And in return I won’t do the Green Beret windpipe crack on you. But Please, mostly what Dick was saying was Please. It was, in its way, a tender, unexpectedly tender, moment.

Maybe it was a little like the moment that the two gamblers, played by Elliott Gould and George Segal, share in California Split when they break into a song and dance routine. “Rufus Rastas Johnson Brown,” go the words, “What you gonna do when the rent comes round? What you gonna say? How you gonna pay?” With it, they do a gorgeously maladroit soft-shoe. At any moment, one could have stopped and cracked up at the other’s ridiculous black-face routine. But neither of them does; tenderly, wisely, they indulge each other.

Altman was against bigness. He always wanted to turn the carpet over. He wanted you to see the signs of strain and stress that went into the making of what looked like a serene, well-balanced thing. But he didn’t want to debunk the whole construction; he simply wanted to marvel at the quirky congestion of threads. It was probably tough for the players who acted prominently in his movies to redeem their Hollywood standing. He turned stars into hand-held sparklers. He waved them around. But he did it without resentment, without meanness: he simply liked them better that way.

In Hollywood, to speak very broadly, there are character actors (the Gene Hackmans) and there are stars (the Jack Nicholsons). Every role Nicholson plays contributes to the gathering identity that is Jack, who is, almost whatever part he takes on, always somehow cool, alert, derisive, sure of himself. The trick to being a star is leading people to imagine that you’re the same marvelous personage off screen that you are when you’re on. After Altman was through shrinking Warren Beatty down to size in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the star must have needed extended hours in his hotel suite, lined everywhere with mirrors, to bring his consolidated super self back into being. As Jacques Lacan suggests: without mirrors, identity would forever be in danger of fracturing into a million bits. In the mirror we can seem to be One.

My other obsession was Woody Allen, whom I saw from time to time speed walking on Fifth Avenue. He wore an explorer’s soft jungle hat, and stared intently at the ground as if he expected that at any moment it might insult him. Occasionally (yeah, I followed him—one step of mine equal to his two) he peeked up to see if he was being peeked at. Then he looked down and resumed the ant walk, linear and purposive and tense. I half imagined antennae under the hat, taking instructions in formic.

Allen seems to feel that human identity, male identity in particular, achieved its essence in about 1956. Men want what they want. They perpetually need to have sex, and usually no one’s willing. But occasionally, through sheer luck of the draw, a volunteer steps forward. What happens then? The guy doesn’t want her. (Allen’s rejection of the beautiful Allison Portchnick in Annie Hall is as plangent a scene as he ever played.) No, it’s the girl across the street or down the block or the one embedded in his fantasies that he has to have. She’ll truly make him happy; she’ll get him to stop wanting. (What is a Romantic, Nietzsche asked. It is a person who always wants to be elsewhere.) Allen is a wind-up toy powered by need (desire is too refined a term), but he’s a self-aware wind-up. He’s hip to the comedy of his (and maybe our) endless and absurd wants. Not being able to get any satisfaction isn’t tragic, or even something that ought to inspire rock ’n’ roll choral grandeur, juiced by power chords from Keith Richards. It’s simply the male’s lot in life.

As to women’s lot, who knows what that is? Women are what Freud, Allen’s Viennese foster father, called the Dark Continent. Only one thing about them is certain: they add more frustration to an already frustrating game. Allen wants respect, power, money, a better apartment, more money. But all these wants collapse into and are shaped by the one great want, the sex want. Women only make this commodity available when a man doesn’t care to have it; then they insist, insist, insist, and finally grow enraged. After that, of course, comes male guilt—dump-truck loads of it. When Allen visits the future in Sleeper, he learns that science has discovered beyond doubt that men and women are entirely incompatible, erotically and in every other way, too. Everyone finally knows as much and acts accordingly. Want sex? Climb into the Orgasmatron. Alone.

All the business about peace and love, social conscience, the brotherhood of man, the stopping of this or that war, all the terrain of cultural crises that Allen traverses, is shown to be, in the essential mind of the male, subsidiary to the one true crisis, the sex crisis. What is a political rally to Allen? It’s a place much like a museum or a gallery or a book party, where available women leave their sanctuaries and expose themselves as though on the savannah.

Allen is, perhaps more than anything else, the great anti-1960s man. The idea that culture had burst forth with a banquet of different pleasurable options, that you could live your own life, do your own thing, create your own mind again, remake your nervous system (as Norman Mailer, monarch of the time, was fond of saying), experience new forms of joy—these things are part of the Aquarian legacy. And Allen finds them absurd. He clearly detests Bob Dylan, whom he in many ways resembles, probably for being, despite twists of irony, so hopeful about realizing the demands he makes on the world. Dylan, always disillusioned, still desires; Allen is disillusioned all the time and comes back because that’s all you can do: human beings are walking repetition compulsions. Allen doesn’t expect to get what he wants—he’s made a comedy out of going through the necessary motions, with his tongue always firmly in his cheek. To Allen, it’s me and my frustration: unsatisfied need, unassuageable girls, and nonnegotiable guilt.

Allen was obsessed not only with women but also with high thought. I suspect that one of his happiest moments as a filmmaker came when he managed to get a conversation going about the journals Dissent and Commentary. This allowed Allen’s character to say: Hmmm, I thought that they’d merged and created Dysentery. High thought once had a sheen of light around it. But it let him down. Kierkegaard didn’t give comfort. The Russians didn’t tell him what he needed to hear. What disillusioned Allen? He went at these books with an adolescent hunger—Allen is the never-ending adolescent—and they didn’t deliver. Didn’t deliver what? Answers, dammit. And now he’s angry and blue about high culture and has taught a whole generation or two how to be so, too.

We all remember how Allen says he got kicked out of college for cheating on a metaphysics test. He got caught looking into the soul of the boy next to him. But of course looking into souls was really what philosophy should have been about, not tests and classes and grades. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and the other grand Russians got parodied in Love and Death because, despite advertisements to the contrary, they could never deliver a peek into the soul either—or at least a peek inward that revealed anything more ennobling than the Freudian triad of need, prohibition, and well-meaning confusion (a.k.a. id, superego, and the straight man).

I loved Allen, but what I loved about him may not have been so lovable. I was lonely and seemed to be going nowhere. Happens to everyone, you might say. But what made it worse was that, even in 1975, the word was that I was living in a cultural cornucopia—hot music, hot women. (I was in the rock-’n’-roll business, after all.) If I didn’t take full advantage, it had to be my fault.

Bahhhh, Allen said. There is no spilling horn of plenty. You’re still the man on the dump. Nothing has changed: hunger and guilt, need and guilt, depression, recovery—horny, horny, horny.

Allen has fallen a little out of fashion lately, but I’m not sure that it’s because he’s gotten much worse as a filmmaker—though he has, a little. It’s only because the idealizations that he tried to smash are, thanks in part to him, pretty well smashed. No one over the age of 25 is out looking for a soul mate in a way that Percy Bysshe Shelley would endorse; no one thinks a revolution would deliver us from the old boss to anything but the new boss; no one thinks that needless guilt is disposable; no one thinks that life can be redeemed by anything except occasional acquiescent humor (a joke, Nietzsche said, is the grave marker for a once authentic feeling that is now dead); no one credits the power of art or intellect to change anyone’s life. It’s often not much of a pleasure to watch Allen in his late phase bombing the rubble that his own movies have helped create.

At the beginning of Stardust Memories Allen finds himself on a train full of big-snouted, sour people having a miserable time, on their way to Purgatory probably, assuming that they aren’t there already. In the other direction, here comes a second train, this one full of laughing, gabbing, warm-hearted types. Allen wants off the misery train. He doesn’t really belong there. These people are so unlike him. But the joke is that the misery train is really the only train. If you could see into the souls of the people in the moveable feast that’s passing by, they’d look just like the souls of the grim losers that Allen’s consorting with. That’s simply how it is. But you’re better off, if only slightly, when you know.

Anhedonia, the word for the human inability to experience pleasure, was the word that Allen wanted to use as a title for Annie Hall. (You can hear the clinical term’s echo in Annie’s name.) But Anhedonia should be the cumulative title for all of Allen’s works, as La Comedie Humaine was for Balzac’s. Allen’s humor is about the triumph of the cruel superego, the agency that punishes the self for no reason other than to see it writhe and hear it scream. But it’s about a little more than that.

In Freud’s example of this sort of humor, a criminal walking up to the scaffold to be executed on a Monday morning, says, “Well, the week’s beginning nicely.” He’s seeing himself as though from a great height. He’s recognizing how inconsequential his life and death are in the larger scheme of things. He’s looking at himself from the point of view of the superego. Yet by being able to get to that position voluntarily, he becomes in a certain sense superior to it. Allen has a genius for looking down at himself and all the rest of us from on high and seeing how silly and pointless our pretensions can be—but he does it self-consciously and with brio. Then he invites us to join him up there. When someone can’t take any pleasure from seeing himself from above and noticing how little he actually means in the great scheme of things, we say he has no sense of humor. All he feels is diminished. For some people, though, to be temporarily diminished in this way is to be delivered from bearing responsibility for everything. It’s a liberating feeling, and no one creates it better than Allen. The superego may triumph—it may kill your capacity for pleasure, induce anhedonia. But you can, as it were, triumph over the triumph with a dash of humor. If you can’t beat it, join it, Allen declares time and again.

“You look so beautiful,” Allen says to his date as they’re racing through the glamorous Manhattan night in the back of a taxi, “I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter.” See, even in a moment of pleasure—of beauty—I’m still tied to the reality principle, still gazing at the meter, knowing that I’m going to have to pay. But I’m aware of my own bondage, and that’s surely something.

Stay small, said Allen; avoid bigness, said Altman. But, odd as it sounds, during those years of moviegoing, I was looking for something close to the opposite thing as well. Altman and Allen are in their ways adroit anti-filmmakers. The medium they worked in is all about Titanism. It loves amazing acts, heroic leaps, kisses of world historical grandeur. Allen and Altman ran against the formal predispositions of movies without being any less entertaining.

But I liked the other kind of movies, too. I sneaked off and saw Clint Eastwood clean out nests of grungy crooks, who were only marginally grungier than he was. I liked Jack Nicholson, who was busy turning himself from a Jersey guy into a Carl Jung archetype of hipness. True enough: archetypes don’t exist in the unconscious; or if they do, I’ve never encountered them. But the film world is the world of the archetype. Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino were my blessed trinity: they were elegantly alienated, and that’s part of what sold them. Behind Travis Bickle, the murderous twist in Taxi Driver, was the godlike De Niro, growing more charismatic with every film.

I have, I should admit, a weakness for the characters who, where I grew up, were commonly called hot shit. I love people who take up the whole room, put on an act, suck up all the oxygen and send it back as intoxicating ether. I love big talkers, bullshitters, kingly clowns. I have a Boswellian side. I’ll find these people, and I’ll follow them around. I marvel at their indestructibility, at how unwounded and unwoundable they seem. When I think of them, I remember Jack Kerouac’s beautiful sentence about his enthrallment with the ones, like Dean Moriarty, who provoke continual awe: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” My wife sees this as a flaw in me, this love for hot shits, this willingness to crowd up to crowd pleasers, human noisemakers, who think that every night is New Year’s Eve and that New Year’s Eve is their birthday. Such people bore her nearly comatose, but I can barely live without them.

In these generous maniacs there is something akin to the grander spirit of the movies. Movies can bring you an influx of energy. Sit yourself in proximity to the miracle, and your quotient of zoombah—juice, will, libido, what have you—increases. Movies do that with the colors and beautiful forms, the sensuous experience that redoubles a fundamental human miracle, the miracle of seeing. We’re twice blessed. We can see as a god sees. Movies, in their purest form, say that life is a big deal, or that with a little effort, some confidence and faith, it could be. They celebrate the intersection of charisma and sensuous plenitude. They tell us that life can be larger than life.

Yet no hangover is so common as the one that ensues when we walk out of a movie, especially out of a matinee and into the sunlight. I went to a lot of matinees in New York during those days, and I know. You’re left alone and palely loitering—tolled back to your sole self (to conflate some Keats). Am I imagining it, or was the hangover most intense when I saw those big-charisma movies? The gap between what my life seemed to be and what the movies promised was too large to imagine filling up. Intense charisma fascinates and then, in time, it demoralizes, too. But Altman, as I recall, didn’t demoralize at all. He sent me off onto the street in a milder, more modest, but more certain mood. Altman brought movies down to earth, without emptying them out of all their glory. His stuff helped create what I needed, an enhanced affection for common things, a way of looking at them that was welcoming but not so naïve. The world as it was seemed good enough and more, the people, too. Getting that feeling and holding on to it may be part of what living in a democracy—and liking it—is all about.

Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia. He is at work on his next book, Kings of Rock and Roll.


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