THE SERIOUS JOKER
"I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That's the two categories. The horrible are like, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life. It's amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable, because that's very lucky, to be miserable."
- Alvy Singer in Annie Hall
This is a sentiment often provided in Woody Allen’s work. This statement shouldn’t be funny but somehow with his natural ability to make the morose hilarious, time and time again Allen has shown himself to be the most thoughtful and insightful joker of the past 50 years.
A man not without controversy, Woody Allen has often divided critics. In spite of this, there is no other comedian who has been able to as successfully capture the insecurities we feel in our day to day lives with the distinctive film making style that has made him into a truly great comedic auteur.
Throughout his illustrious career, Woody Allen has transformed from a sketch writer for the hugely popular Ed Sullivan Show, to a stand up comedian, before turning his hand to both acting and directing.
During this time, Allen has always sought comedic inspiration from the darker side of life, whether that is his much referenced obsession with his own mortality or his early willingness, and at times perhaps enjoyment, to discuss his failed relationships.
On the subject of death, Allen has said "It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens". Allen has an ability to articulate a genuine emotion in a way that has an air of humorous reassurance about it, thus making such statements completely relatable.
Relationships have often been the focal point of Allen’s comedy and never more so than in his seminal 1979 film
Manhattan, in which Allen’s natural ability to play the joker in even the most serious of moments is a wonder to behold.
In stark similarity to Allen’s future personal-life controversies, he plays a character torn between a somewhat naive 17 year old who is desperate for his affection, and a dismissive Diane Keaton who is far more suited to him in age but can’t help but question his outspoken opinions.
Throughout the film Allen’s character is indecisive and irritable, however his presence onscreen alone is able to provide comic relief, and when combined with the way he is able to play off Hemingway and in particular Keaton, the result is not only funny but magical.
Perhaps more important than Allen’s use of comedy in Manhattan, is his ability to recognise when it isn’t necessary and therefore depart from the relative safety of humour. With a single shot of Allen and Keaton’s characters talking on a bench under the Queensboro Bridge, he captures, with startling simplicity, the exact moment in which two people fall in love and in doing so creates a scene that his idol Ingmar Bergman would have been proud to call his own.
It’s difficult to say whether humour helps Allen channel his pessimism or vice versa. Whichever it may be though, there is no doubting its startling effectiveness, and that Allen has made the art of combining the two well and truly his own.
I defy anyone to watch a Woody Allen film and not have a strong reaction to his unique delivery of what can, at times, be a deeply philosophical take on life that most wouldn’t feel comfortable considering, never mind from the point of view of the joker.