Thursday, February 14, 2013

Exploring love and relationships with Woody Allen

This Valentine's Day, I've been thinking a lot about great films to watch for the holiday most associated with love and romance.

In past years, I have written from the perspective of a single guy. I was drawn to films that weren't necessarily about falling in love, but simply connecting with someone in an unexplainable, but deeply felt manner. I recommended such films as "Lost in Translation," "Before Sunrise," its sequel "Before Sunset" and "Once."

Those are still films I adore and endorse, but as I'm no longer single and more than a year into my first serious relationship, I have a new understanding and perspective on romance and relationships. This Valentine's Day, the films I keep gravitating towards aren't ones that will readily be on many people's lips: Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan."

When thinking about Allen's exploration of love and relationship dynamics, the film that probably first comes to mind is "Annie Hall." While it is more overtly funny and accessible than "Manhattan," it also offers a more bittersweet look at love. "Annie Hall" is actually a deconstruction of a relationship from beginning to end.

Where most romantic comedies end with the couple getting together, "Annie Hall" actually begins and ends with the demise of a relationship. The plot in between is Allen's Alvy Singer "sifting the pieces of the relationship trying to find out where the screw up came." Although the film concludes with the end of the relationship between Alvy and Diane Keaton's Annie Hall, it does offer a meaningful message as well as one of Allen's essential jokes:

"I thought of that old joke, y'know, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken.' And the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.' Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y'know, they're totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, but, I guess we keep goin' through it because most of us need the eggs."

As we hold our loved ones close, this is an important lesson to consider because love isn't always as perfect or as easy as it is in the movies. Indeed relationships can be completely crazy and yet, when you find love, it becomes something you need to survive. The absurdities become trivial in the big picture because, well, we need those eggs.

"Manhattan" offers a different, although just as significant, final revelation for Allen's film alter ego, this time named Isaac.

At 42 years old, Isaac is dating 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) at the start of the film. For some viewers, there may be an "ick" factor involved with that age difference that will be hard to get past, especially given developments in Allen's personal life in the 1990s, but there is a sweetness to Isaac and Tracy's relationship that overrides the potentially sleazy or salacious implications of such a relationship.

Isaac is surrounded by shallow pseudo-intellectuals who pretentiously compile the "Academy of Over-rated," a list that includes such greats as Lenny Bruce, Van Gogh and Ingrid Bergman. He is turned off by these phonies, but feels pressure to date someone more socially acceptable, even if it is dishonest to his true feelings. Isaac breaks up with Tracy for Mary (Keaton), who feigns the purity that Tracy genuinely has by constantly referencing her Philadelphia roots.

As the film draws to a close, Isaac sees the error of his way and realizes that he loves Tracy. He rushes to tell her and stops her just as she is about to leave to go to England for six months. Isaac pleads for her not to go, but Tracy simply says: "Six months isn't so long. Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people."

That is the final line of the film and while this is an ambiguous ending, we know by Isaac's facial expression that he is willing to take that leap of faith. He appears calm and content and, even though we don't see what happens six months later, we feel hopeful for a happily ever after.

This concluding theme is more meaningful than something you'd get from a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. Love does take a huge amount of faith and trust in another person. Both partners go in hoping and believing that the love will last. There is no way of knowing if that is true, and yet, when you find the right person, you trust that it will. Like Isaac, we choose to have a little faith.

So, this Valentine's Day, I embrace the messages of both "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan." I fully realize and accept that love is at times utterly insane, but I have complete faith that it is absolutely worth it.

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