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"Education and its role in people's lives" as an important subject of Woody Allen films.
by Wojciech Lorenc

When we watch films by Woody Allen we often see a very peculiar world that is rarely
seen on silver screens in American movie theaters. We enter a world of people that discuss New York architecture, novels written by Great Russian masters, Freudian take on human subconscious, and trends in twentieth century furniture design. Those films are rich in very well educated characters with diplomas from the finest American Universities. They are writers, publishers, artists, college professors, etc. All those people call attention to the value of education in human life.

The films of Woody Allen discuss the value of education in a very intriguing way. Interestingly, Woody Allen, being a part of New York intelligentsia, questions the value of knowledge. When watching his films, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the more we as human beings know about world, the more unhappy we become. Woody Allen seems to have a love/hate relationship with education and its role in our lives. This relationship has been changing over the years and a record of it was left in films made at various stages of the struggle.

Annie Hall (1977) is the first film where Woody Allen attacked that subject. The meeting of two main characters, Annie Hall and Alvy Singer, represents the meeting of knowledgeable and ignorant. Throughout the relationship Alvy Singer tries to educate Annie and eventually succeeds. But his success is only partial. Once pure and simple, Annie becomes more complex and more aware of her (and his) problems. Alvy's efforts backfire when Annie starts analyzing his own behavior and even points out his insecurities. A great and happy relationship became unbearably complicated. Lost in the complexity of their problems Annie and Alvy decided to split. This situation suggests that Alvy and Annie could make a great couple if only they didn't analyze their relationship that much. This point is made very clearly when Alvy Singer stops an attractive young couple on a street and asks them about their relationship. Both guy and a girl agree that what makes them happy is that they are both dumb and ignorant.

Ignorance and Education are also clearly portrayed by two cities: Los Angeles and New York. Alvy, who is very well educated, feels great in New York but always gets sick as soon as he arrives in Los Angeles. At the same time, people who live in LA seem much happier than New Yorkers. Their happiness comes from their ignorance and inability to see anything beyond themselves.

Drugs play an important role in this film as well. Generally drugs are looked at as something that makes people stop thinking and just give up to their feelings and emotions. Annie Hall doesn't get much pleasure from sex if she doesn't smoke marihuana. The scene where she talks about it to Alvy emphasizes the idea that thinking too much is the source of all the misery in people's lives.

Thinking too much about death is definitely one of the sources of misery in Alvy's life. He is obsessed about it and keeps reading on that subject. Alvy realizes that if a person looks at death as at a definite end, it is impossible to come up with an optimistic conclusion. No matter how much one thinks about it, the outcome will always be the same: every day brings us closer to nonexistence. The only way to not worry about death is to not think about it. Once again, ignorance is an answer.

But Alvy Singer refuses to give up to ignorance. The overall tone of Annie Hall is full of bitterness. Alvy is bitter because he sees that being well educated doesn't pay off. It is ignorance that brings happiness to people.

A Woody Allen movie made two years later had rather different tone. In Manhattan (1979), a bitter and harsh look at ignorance was replaced with warm celebration of innocence. The same types of people were looked at differently. In Manhattan Woody Allen character Isaac Davis gets involved with a teenage girl Tracy. Tracy, with her education level, doesn't differ much from the happy ignorant couple met on the street in Annie Hall. Isaac, who eventually overcomes the sexual attraction, realizes who he is dealing with and decides to break up with her. But with a breakup comes the realization. Isaac realizes that even though Tracy doesn't meet the standards imposed by the environment of his friends, she is the only one who can make him feel relaxed and happy.

Tracy is not looked at with bitterness. In fact, she is the only one in Isaac's environment of New York intelligentsia that is capable of real feelings and true emotions.

Tracy is compared to a very well educated New Yorker Mary Wilke played by Dianne Keaton. We have a chance to see both characters acting in the same conditions. Both Tracy and Mary spend a night with Isaac. While Mary overanalyzes the sexual act, Tracy is able to truly enjoy the experience. Also, both women react differently to a break up. When Mary learns that Yale no longer wants to be seeing her, she yells out "Fuck off!" and comments that this is not good news for her psychotherapist. When Isaac tells Tracy that he no longer wants to see her, she starts crying. There is no better sign of true emotions than tears. In this comparison, pure and simple Tracy is much more likeable than complex and intellectual Mary.

It is the simplicity and purity that attract Isaac. The Woody Allen character comes to the conclusion that being honest and pure is more valuable than being well educated. Just like in Annie Hall Woody Allen agrees that less education makes you able to enjoy more. Unlike in Annie Hall however there is no bitterness towards less educated characters. In fact, it is New York intelligentsia that is portrayed with bitterness. Isaac and his well-educated friends are neurotic and unhappy people who create their own problems by overanalyzing everything. Manhattan is a celebration of purity and simplicity.

A similar view can be seen in Zelig (1983), a film made four years after Manhattan. In this movie, Zelig's cause of the unusual problem was the pressure of the environment to be more educated. Ashamed that he didn't read Mobby Dick, he said he did. That event started his "illness". Here again, Woody Allen makes education a reason for a man's misery. And the only thing that can cure Zelig is woman's love - pure feeling. In fact, it was not Doctor Eudora Fletcher's education that helped him but her feelings towards him.

In Hannah and her Sisters (1986) a character played by Woody Allen, Mickey searches for the meaning of life. He looks for it in various religions and philosophies but remains without an answer. Eventually he finds it in a movie theater where he watches a Marx Brothers' film. Mickey realizes that constant searching and educating himself makes him unhappy and doesn't take him anywhere. But as soon as he sits back and relaxes, he is able to enjoy himself. The change in his character is evident in his relationship with one of the sisters, Lee. The first date of Mickey and Lee was a disaster. Mickey felt that she didn't meet his standards on an intellectual level. But later, when he gives it a second shot, they become soul mates and eventually marry. If Mickey kept searching for an appropriately educated person, he would probably still be single and unhappy.

This film also ridicules the idea that good education is an answer for everything. Fredrick is an older conspicuous artist who is in a process of educating his younger girlfriend. He is a very knowledgeable person but seems to be deaf to feelings and emotions. His helplessness is apparent when his girlfriend leaves him for another man. Fredrick is not a very likeable character. He seems to represent the pretentiousness and insensibility that often comes with being more knowledgeable than others.

Eight years later Woody Allen made a film that shows another shift in his view on the role of education in our lives. Jack - a character played by Sydney Pollack in Husbands and Wives (1992) divorces his wife for a young aerobic instructor Sam. Sam represents all that comes with having a poor education. At first Jack is very happy with her. He enjoys her simplicity. He enjoys that he doesn't have to work hard to meet her intellectual level, like he did with his ex-wife. When he is with Sam he has no intellectual demands to face. Jack enjoys daily work out routine, watching silly movies, laying back and relaxing.

It is amazing how Jack's fascination with simple life reminds Woody Allen's celebration of simplicity in Manhattan, Zelig and Hannah and her Sisters.

But after the initial fascination comes the awakening. Sam embarrasses Jack in front of his friends during a party. He notices that even though they have fun together, they really have nothing in common. Jack misses his ex-wife. He realizes that carrying intelligent conversation, appreciating art and more intellectual entertainment gives him a great amount of satisfaction and makes him feel happier. His affair with Sam only helped him notice how good he feels among well-educated friends and in a company of an intelligent wife.

I think that Woody Allen also had enough of simplicity and ignorance. He too recognized that he couldn't live without intelligent conversations and intellectually stimulating entertainment. Knowledge can be seen as a source of all the misery but once you establish yourself in the environment of well-educated people, there is no coming back. Stepping down would be far more painful. He expressed that in the ending of Husbands and Wives where Jack happily reunites with his wife and a college professor Gabe Roth decides not to get involved with his young student.

All Woody Allen films seem to support the idea that knowing more means suffering more. He always seemed certain that ignorant people are the only ones capable of experiencing happiness. He couldn't argue against that. He had to deal with it. And he dealt with it in many interesting ways. In a fifteen year period between Annie Hall and Husbands and Wives Woody Allen's view on the role of education changed significantly. He went from despising the ignorance through the celebration of simplicity to accepting knowledge with all its bad "side effects". It is safe to say however that he didn't say his last word in that matter. I am sure that his new movies will have something new to communicate on that subject.