What is this thing we call “form”? How come that one day we score a goal with every ball we kick, and the next we keep giving it to John Terry? Where does Wayne Rooney’s form disappear to for half the year, and what explains its coming back?
Artists, too, suffer these ups and downs though we are rarely in a position to chart them as minutely as we chart a sportsman’s. And because the popular press is less interested in artists, we see fewer photographs of them staggering out of a nightclub with an identimodel on each arm – Friday night being a factor in many a sportman’s falling over on Saturday afternoon. It’s not so easy, if you’re an artist, to ascribe a barren patch to letting your hair down occasionally. If Finnegans Wake was a disappointment after Ulysses, it takes more than James Joyce’s odd tot of Irish whiskey to explain it.
With Woody Allen however, whose output is prodigious, and whose private life is better known to us than that of most directors, everyone has a view on where it all went wrong, and then came right, which film saw a dip and then a rise, and what the reasons for such fluctuations might be. I don’t scruple to add my twopenneth of wisdom. He should have gone on making films in America, I believe, where he understands the culture, instead of Paris which he idealises, Rome about which he fantasises, and London which baffles him, as it baffles most American novelists and filmmakers. We don’t say what we mean in London: but that doesn’t make us two-faced, hypocritical or duplicitous. Already you can see an American rolling his eyes at such complexity. And that’s before we get on to the scrupulousness of our immorality or, if you like, the immorality of our scrupulousness – a conundrum that kept Henry James guessing all his writing life.
The other thing Woody Allen should have done was stay unhappy. Happiness doesn’t screw up every artist, but it’s a risk if yours happens to be the art of being miserable. “Go home, Woody,” I have wanted to tell him after the last I don’t know how many films, “go home and take up with another of those women who drive you round the bend. Go home where they don’t like you. And make Jewishness your subject again. Never mind what you want, do it for me!”
No one, therefore, was more excited than I was when the word went out that in Blue Jasmine, shot in New York and San Francisco, Allen was back to his best, firing on all cylinders, excelling himself even – though that bothered me because it implied there was something to excel. And it turns out I was right to be bothered. Hidden in the heart of the near universal acclaim – itself something to worry about since the greatest works don’t unite, they divide – is something less than wild enthusiasm for the very thing Allen was best at. Comedy.
In a lively discussion of the film on Saturday Review last week there was unanimous relief among the reviewers that it was free of what they concurred in calling the “antic”. They didn’t quite say the film was good for that very reason, but there lurked the thought that we’d had enough of the antic Allen and welcomed Blue Jasmine not simply as a return to form but as a discovery of another sort of form altogether. Not one we hadn’t glimpsed before, but one the antic had occluded. A different experience of the film to mine, I have to say. Not because I didn’t see what there was to admire – a shapely narrative (whose timeliness, in my view, is not really a recommendation), and a well-drawn and finely-acted portrait of self-absorption – but because I saw more of what there wasn’t. If Woody Allen doesn’t make me laugh – not smile but rip my kishkes out, if you’ll forgive my Yiddish – I no longer know what things are for. And I don’t say this because I go to the cinema in search of mindless entertainment. I, remember, am the student F R Leavis told to lighten up. If I want Woody Allen to be more antic it’s because I want him to be more serious.
He, needless to say, is not going to bother what reasons we give for liking his new film. He claims to be indifferent to criticism or praise – which you can believe if you like – but admits he’d rather a film do well than not. But it’s allowable for me to be concerned on his behalf, not only because I wish Blue Jasmine had been sharper and funnier, by which I mean shrewder and truer, by which I mean less familiar in all its dramatic lineaments, less concordant with what we already know and think, but because in overvaluing work that’s not antic we are implicitly devaluing work that was.
In fact, I never loved the early, unreservedly antic Allen. He starts for me with Annie Hall where the knockabout meets the melancholic. It’s in the cracks between piercing tragedy and savage farce that the best comedy gets to work, breaking into the artificial smoothness of art, denying the easy allure of perfection, insisting on impurity. Maybe it’s because we laugh so easily today, the merest comedic inflexion setting us all off hysterically, that, when it comes to art, we would rather cry than laugh. Well, cry if you like – I’m doing a lot of it myself – but don’t value tears over laughter, or smoothness over fracture.
Woody Allen’s greatest films were giddily absurdist, our laughter the act of intelligence that kept us on our feet. By mining the site of antic humiliation that was himself, Woody Allen mined ours as well. He’s permitted to be bored with that. But boredom isn’t a return to form.