Woody's Wicked Levity and Wicked-er Gravity
by John Kendall Hawkins
"I ought to join a club and beat you over the head with it, [but] I would not belong to a club that would have me as a member."
- Two Groucho cracks joined together
A few decades ago I lived in low-rent East Hollywood among junkies, assorted burn-outs, and people playing extras -- in movies and in life. A California native, my move there from the East Coast was a kind of homecoming. Fit a typical bill, I imagine: living with friends in a bungalow, working as an IBM temp through Manpower, smoking a lot of dope, reading Nietzsche, listening to Wagner, learning to play violin, writing poetry, eating next door at Shakey's pizza joint (ragtime music, cheap beer, cheap eats), and, finally (maybe even inevitably), being invited to be an extra in a movie (Raid on Entebbe, Israeli commando).
But East Hollywood was a dirty place. I didn't like being asked by a total stranger if I'd like to come up to their mother's place to shoot up heroin. And standing at a bus stop to go to work, you'd note newspaper boxes and beside them boxes filled with smut rags, reminding one of all the kids who'd run away to Hollywood to become stars and ended up fellating some wannabe Harvey Weinstein on a Naugahyde casting couch and finding fame as naked cover girls on these rags, their telephone numbers included. Or homeless starlets sleeping on the Walk of Fame. Smog all around you, smut in a box, you felt dirty and in need of a shower, all the time.
Woody Allen's Apropos of Nothing is a funny -- at times hilarious -- memoir, for the first 200 pages, and that's just as well, as the reader needs that extra bounce and buoyancy for when the gravity of Mia Farrow's entry, midway into the narrative, kicks in, and the voice-over begins to snarl and get ugly. You knew it was coming, suddenly it's dirty, and you find yourself showering, hoping you don't drop your Irish Spring, even though you're in that jungle rain all alone. You're protected in your thinking: East coast movie-making is worlds apart from all that Hollywood sleaze. But then Woody introduces Mia's lawyer Alan Dershowitz, and you recall him helping Jeffrey Epstein get off easy for molesting all those girls. On the East Coast.
The memoir is broken up into three distinct parts -- or acts, if you want to see its movie potential. In Act One, Allen directs us through his Brooklyn childhood, including his Jewish home life; indifferent education; avocations; early gag writing, stand-up comedy and movie aspirations; musicianship; womanly girls who enlightened him and girly women he married. Act Two is a descent into one man's moral hell: making love to Mia, the milkshake Mama from Rosemary's Baby. Act Three is an attempt to recover dignity by name-dropping and a bitter blowing of raspberries toward a woman who has destroyed his reputation to the point he's "not going out in public without a fake nose and glasses."
Act One of Apropos of Nothing is vintage Woody Allen story-telling. He starts out by saying he's no Holden Caulfield, (but, by the end, he'll seem like he's doing all he can to be a catcher in the rye). He paints his childhood Brooklyn as a busy, multicultural village teeming with hustlers, small time hoods, future social democrats (Bernie Sanders grew up Midwood, like Allen), and the Brooklyn Dodgers, featuring Jackie Robinson, white baseball's first Black player. Allan Konigsberg, Woody's birth name, was an amateur magician and an avid card sharp, who spent his time developing "false shuffles, false cuts, bottom dealing, palming" -- sleight-of-hand skills that, presumably, would later inform his later movie-making.
He describes his Mom as a Groucho Marx look-alike who nagged him for wasting his IQ by underperforming at school, but he honors her by noting how her outside work and completion of domestic chores "kept the family from going under." She pushed his further education relentlessly and questioned his life decisions in an effort to engage his critical thinking skills. She was an Old School mother full of tough loving.
He feels bad for loving his mother less than his Dad, but the latter was a kind of hero to young Allan. Dad was part of "a firing squad in France when they killed an American sailor for raping a local girl." And that, in the spirit of JFK's PT 109, "during World War I his [father's] boat got hit by a shell ..sank... [e]veryone drowned except for three guys...[and] that's how close I came to never being born."
His father owned one book, The Gangs of New York, of which Allen said, "it imbued in me a fascination with gangsters, criminals, and crime. I knew gangsters like most boys knew ball players." His father was a bustler and hustler and a criminal, too. "How he loved that life," writes Allen. "Fancy clothes, a big per diem, sexy women, and then somehow he meets my mother. Tilt. How he wound up with Nettie [Allen's mother] is a mystery on a par with dark matter." Allen's parents stayed married for 70 years, "out of spite," Allen speculates, and you can almost picture them as the interviewed parents critical of their criminal son depicted in the early Allen romp, Take the Money and Run.
Act One has two surprises. Allen indicates a youthful athleticism, lithe games of pick-up basketball, and unpredicted agility playing shortstop in baseball games. But the bigger surprise is Allen's repeated denial of his Intellectualism: "This is a notion as phony as the Loch Ness Monster...I don't have an intellectual neuron in my head." And, "I have no insights, no lofty thoughts, no understanding of most poems that do not begin, 'Roses are red, violets are blue.'" Methinks the laddy doth protest too much; he's not just a shtick up man, as he pleads, but is capable of pointed deconstructive criticism: Pulling Marshall McLuhan into the frame, in Annie Hall, to take down a mouthy, "pontificating" NYU professor in line behind him at a cinema was genius.
Another aspect of Act One of Apropos of Nothing that you can't help but pick up on as you go is Allen's generous spread of Yiddish words and expressions that serve to remind the reader of the schlemiel character Allen often portrayed early in his career (although, some say he's more nebbish than schlemiel). Since most readers are likely not familiar with Yiddish, the inclusion of these words causes one to stop and look it up. We get the following: kvetch, schlep, yentas, shul, mishigas, gonif, momza, mitzvah, schlemiel, schnecken, tummler, schlumps, schmoozing. Mashugana, schmuck, kosher, noodge, schnooky, mensch, rube, yokel, schlepper, klutz, lammister, shekels, schnook, weltschmerz, shiksa, chutzpah, and nudniks. Comedy's fast, funny Yiddish slows, and given what's coming in Act Two, it's a good strategy.
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