Woody’s Couch

A journey into Woody's mind
A journey into Woody’s mind

Late last week, as part of the 92nd Street Y’s human mind series, Woody Allen was interviewed about the subject of psychoanalysis and his films. Allen’s interlocutor was the buoyant, well-groomed Gail Saltz, chairman of public information for the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, mental health contributor to the Today show, and sex columnist for Glamour magazine. (“I am unconflicted about my exhibitionistic tendencies,” she had said to me a couple of days earlier.) The conversation with Allen would be televised live by satellite to Jewish cultural centers around the country—Tucson, Ariz.; Utica, N.Y.; Kansas City, Kan.; among many others—and to psychoanalytic-institute audiences in Denver, Chicago, and St. Louis. Because of the waning influence and incidence of full-bore classical analysis, the American Psychoanalytic Association (the, er, mother organization for local institutes and the informal co-sponsor of the evening’s event) now has an office of public affairs, which has undertaken a bunch of programs intended, basically, to promote the use of analytic thinking in therapy and real life—to make the unconscious as familiar and discussable as blood pressure and calcium supplements. If you think that’s silly, do you want to talk about it a little?

As one would have expected, Woody Allen was considerably less buoyant than Saltz. After the showing of a few clips from his movies—including the giant, menacing breast in Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex and Mia Farrow (as Dr. Eudora Fletcher) analyzing Zelig to the press—he schlumpfed onstage, dressed as he dresses for a Knicks game, and sat down in an armchair next to the interviewer. His answer to her first question, delivered in the characteristic expostulating, dyspeptic manner that most of his screen characters use, was, no, there is no relationship between the screen characters he plays and himself. “They are just made up,” he said. “I just make them up.” Similarly, in answer to other such unsurprising but central questions: nothing traumatic happened to him when he was a child; his parents were “in no way discouraging about show business”; “I don’t have a view of psychoanalysis in my films—I don’t depict it as insightful and noble and inexpensive”; psychoanalysis was “not difficult, not onerous” for him; he “never, ever” (“neveh, eveh”) spoke about his creative work in psychoanalysis; he has never had writer’s block; he doesn’t like meeting people; he “never learned anything from his dreams” and “wasted a lot of time talking about them”; “there is no change” in his view of psychoanalysis over the years; he is not interested in any organized religion; and so on.

Whatever Keats meant by “negative capability,” the definition of it ought to include Allen’s self-presentation during this interview. Occasionally he balanced the denials, denunciations, and demurrers with more positive material. “This is the happiest time of my life,” he said, referring to his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn and new parenthood. “And I deserve it.” (And he was pretty funny from time to time. “Because of how the movies were when I was a kid we thought that if you were going to have sex, it meant you were going to fade out,” he said. And: “My mother was critical and acerbic in a less gifted way than, say, Groucho Marx, although she looked like him.”) But even when he admitted deriving some use from psychoanalysis, he said, “It was in a way they didn’t plan and didn’t know about. I did it sort of by the seat of my pants.” The same went for an NBC writers-development program he took part in as a young man (and he compared to analysis): “It was helpful, but I utilized it in a sort of homemade way.”

The loner tendency, the emphatic negativity, the “secret” utilities are in part the way of the artist, but in Allen’s case also of the eternal sophomore. His need to deplore organized religions as “commercial hustles,” his chronic idolatry of foreign films and thinkers, his insistence on the separation between his own life and the parts he plays in his movies—these are all intellectual and aesthetic positions that generally much younger cultural types cling to and more mature ones let go. Allen makes use of these arrested developments (we all have them or ones like them, of course) by embedding them in humorous dramas, and despite his more serious efforts, like Hannah and Her Sisters, Interiors, and Crimes and Misdemeanors—or maybe because of their often poor critical reception—he sees himself primarily as a comic artist. But he isn’t happy about it. The most affecting moment in the conversation at the Y—and perhaps the only one in which he and Saltz and the audience were “there” together—came when Allen said, “I regret that my muse was a comic muse.” He had hoped to achieve artistic greatness, he said, and he feels he has so far fallen short of that goal. He may have achieved a measure of greatness and even of seriousness in your eyes or mine, with a body of some 30 movies so original and distinctive that the sentence “It’s like a Woody Allen film” really means something, but for him the measure is too small. In fact, it’s ironic that grand goals—like “serious” art, a stable personal life, and intellectual profundity—and the inability to achieve them are exactly the source and substance of much of what he has so admirably, if intermittently, achieved.

So of course Woody Allen is everywhere in the movies he writes. He is right to emphasize the crucial aesthetic difference between fiction and autobiography; it’s a distinction that too few critics and audiences really comprehend and one that requires separate and lengthy consideration. But he can’t or doesn’t seem to want to recognize the larger truth that everything we do and say and think fits together like a jigsaw puzzle that only death will complete. And this apparent resistance may be what has kept him from scaling what he sees as the loftiest artistic heights. The full integration of self may also be what he missed in his psychoanalysis, perhaps because he was apparently so intent on maintaining his emotional autonomy and using the couch for his own stealthy, homemade purposes, like a kid sneaking apples from the orchard next door. “I never once cried,” he told Saltz with—it seemed to me—unmistakable pride. He employed analysis only “as a crutch,” he asserted later, virtually relegating the process to the status of an emotional prosthesis.

Fully successful analyses are rarities, I’m certain. But assuming that there are such things—as I do, in an untheoretical, wisdom-seeking way—we can’t know if a more thorough and interactive treatment would have made Woody Allen happier or a “greater” filmmaker. His conscious and unconscious limitations do appear to be the octane in the fuel that most of his movies run on, and it’s possible—no matter what the shrinks say to the contrary about such matters—that a happier Woody would have stopped making movies altogether. Or that the movies he made would have been worse. It’s also true that these same limitations, when transmuted successfully into comic drama in his better films, are what ultimately enables us to laugh at our own shortcomings as we watch them. So, we should be glad for what we have gotten from him but perhaps join him in his disappointment that we didn’t get more. He said last week that after years of the talking cure, he stood up and terminated his analysis and shook hands with his analyst and “offered him a draw.” It was a joke, but his seeing the process as a contest, even in a humorous way, automatically turns the draw into a loss.