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
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
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
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
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.