Artistic Talent and Sensibility: The Dramatic Uses of Art in Woody Allen's Creation of Characters

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Art plays a key role in the lives of Woody Allen's film characters. Many of them are writers, filmmakers or musicians; others, although not artists themselves, display a keen sensibility to appreciate art. The purpose of this article is to
   Arte, Individuo y Sociedad. 29(1) 2017: 57-7057 Artistic Talent and Sensibility: The Dramatic Uses of Art in Woody Allen’s Creation of Characters Pablo Echart 1   Recibido: 22 de mayo de 2015 / Aceptado: 15 de noviembre de 2016 Abstract. Art plays a key role in the lives of Woody Allen’s lm characters. Many of them are writers, lmmakers or musicians; others, although not artists themselves, display a keen sensibility to appreciate art. The purpose of this article is to explore how this characterization trait  signicantly determines the nature of the characters, the ways in which they interact with each other, and even the fate they deserve within the plot. Art, in its many different manifestations, helps these characters infuse their lives with a boundless vitality, at the same time that it becomes a source of beauty and refuge. Furthermore, art  plays a vital role in shaping romantic relationships as well as in enabling characters to achieve self-knowledge, both of which come close to the idea of happiness in Woody Allen’s poetic universe. At the same time, together with this recognition of the redeeming potential of art, a poetic punishment is inicted frequently in Allen’s lms on the characters that approach art with spurious intentions, as well as a stern warning of the vital unhappiness to which its enshrinement leads. Keywords: Woody Allen; characters; artistic talent, art and authenticity; art and romantic relationships. [es] Talento y sensibilidad artística: los usos dramáticos del arte en la creación de personajes de Woody Allen Resumen. El arte ocupa un lugar central en la biografía de los personajes de Woody Allen. Muchos de ellos son escritores, cineastas o músicos, y otros tantos, sin ser artistas, tienen una rica sensibilidad para apreciar el arte. El propósito de este artículo es analizar cómo este rasgo de caracterización determina la naturaleza de los personajes, el modo en que se relacionan e incluso el destino que merecen en la trama. El arte, en sus muy diversas manifestaciones, ayuda a estos personajes a infundir en sus vidas una gran vitalidad, al mismo tiempo que se convierte en una fuente de belleza y refugio. Además, el arte desempeña un rol crucial tanto en la conguración de las relaciones románticas como en la adquisición de un conocimiento de sí mismo, facetas ambas que se acercan a la noción de felicidad en el universo  poético de Allen. Junto al reconocimiento de estas posibilidades redentoras del arte, en sus películas abunda el castigo poético a los personajes que se acercan al arte con intenciones espurias así como una advertencia de la infelicidad vital a la que conduce su sacralización. Palabras clave: Woody Allen; arte, talento artístico; arte y autenticidad; arte y relaciones románticas. Sumario. 1. Introduction. 2. Art as a Dionysian Force. 3. Art as Refuge. 4. The Closest Accomplice of Romance. 5. Art and Authenticity. 6. Conclusion. 7. References. 1   Universidad de Navarra (España) E-mail:  Arte, Individuo y Sociedad ISSN: 1131-5598 ARTÍCULOS  Echart, P.  Arte, Individuo y Sociedad. 29(1) 2017: 57-7058 Cómo citar : Echart, P. (2017) Artistic Talent and Sensibility: The Dramatic Uses of Art in Woody Allen’s Creation of Characters.  Arte, Individuo y Sociedad   29(1) 57-70. 1. Introduction The close bond between character and different forms of art comprises an authorial touchstone of Woody Allen’s oeuvre. Characters in his lms often engage in, reect on, or talk about music, painting, lm, and other art forms. Hence, his stories are markedly intertextual, although tracing such enriched meaning is not the purpose of this article, as neither is the task of tracing hypothetical autobiographical considerations derived from the fact that Allen is himself an artist of multiple facets (lmmaker, musician, writer, comedian). The focus here is to explore the main functions attributed to art as part of the dramatic construction of character. If character identity is a combination of physiological, sociological and psychological aspects (Egri, 1960: 32-43), artistic talent and sensibility constitute dening features of the idiosyncratic nature of the characters and the type of relationships that arise  between them in the lms of Woody Allen. In order to analyze this issue, the article has been arranged in four sections. First, a context is provided for the object of analysis within Allen’s poetics, in which existential pessimism coexists with an equally powerful vitality. Allen reclaims an exaltation of emotions as a means to enjoy life in fullness, and art constitutes a relevant vector within this premise. Secondly, the analysis focuses on the ways in which contact with art becomes a valuable asset for characters who unfold as players on the imperfect stage of reality. Art becomes a cathartic balsam that enables them to recover from the painful blows life holds in store for them. The experience of art transcends its value of escapism, inasmuch it becomes for the characters a vital necessity. Or, could the male protagonists of  Annie Hall   (1977),  Deconstructing  Harry  (1997), Sweet and Lowdown  (1999) or Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo  (1985) face their respective lives without the gift of musical and literary talent, and the refuge of cinematic fantasy? Next, the article deals with how romantic relationships arise in situations where art plays a prominent role. This moment marks the beginning of intimacy, and the degree to which the characters’ artistic tastes are attuned with one another functions as a reliable indicator of the couple’s overall compatibility. Art facilitates the meeting of “kindred souls” in an authorial world in which love is, paradoxically, both a eeting experience or feeling and an indispensable cornerstone in order to achieve a fullling life. In the last section, art is analyzed as a driving force that fosters the processes of personal self-discovery. The characters’ attitude of openness to artists and artworks enables them to engage new worlds of values and undertake therapeutic processes of self-recognition. The signicance attributed to the archetype of the mentor is relevant here, as are the risks of corruption that threaten the talent for art.  Echart, P.  Arte, Individuo y Sociedad. 29(1) 2017: 57-7059 2. Art as a Dionysian Force Woody Allen has contributed to decrease the redemptive aspirations of art in his lms. He has said that art is “entertainment for intellectuals,” an experience that provides distraction and amusement, and whose function is to postpone one’s encounter with “the horrors of reality” (Detmer, 2013: 469, 467). Along the same lines, Hösle (2002: 98) undercuts its transformative potential by ultimately considering it a form of escapism, although he recognizes in art, such as in religion or morality, a means to attempt to “ll the void” with which the contemporary man is faced. Moreover, in his insightful analysis, Bailey explores (2001: 113) “Allen’s skepticism toward the  promises of artistic rendering” and develops an essentially pessimistic argumentation about the artistic condition, by observing how, ordinarily, it becomes a condemnation for whoever experiences it. These assessments nd their foundation in a lmography that toys with nihilism and which falls within the parameters of existentialism, and which Detmer (2013: 460-469) has synthesized in seven “philosophical claims”: 1) life is meaningless; 2) there is no God; 3) death is inevitable, irrevocable and horrible; 4) there is no cosmic  justice; 5) human existence is miserable; 6) the fact that there is no God, afterlife, or cosmic justice makes it all the more necessary for us to meet our moral obligations, and to lead lives of authenticity and integrity; 7) art is overrated and has no social value. In accordance with this worldview, it is logical that art should not be considered as an absolute value, an alternative capable of exorcizing the absence of God or the total devastation which supposes the fact of death. Indeed, any redemptive potential from art falls within the limits of this framework of immanent thinking. But, turning around Detmer’s last proposition, my assertion is that the relevance he attributes to art cannot be underrated; and that, while it may lack social meaning, it does have a  personal meaning: art will not be able to change the cruelty of the world, but that does not mean it cannot play a notable role in the internal evolution and fate of the characters. At this point, it seems necessary to point out that, in Allen’s lmography, pessimism coexists with a denite willingness to live, made manifest through characters who, as Sandy Bates points in Stardust Memories  (1980), would give anything to stay alive. For each character committing suicide before the senselessness of the world, there are many others who endeavor to live with intensity; and who attempt to do so in an authentic and upright manner, because in Allen’s worldview, it does make a difference whether one lives in a certain way or another.This willingness to live is channeled through the empathy aroused by his dionysian characters. Regardless of the moral value in their behavior, they embrace eros and guide their lives by irrationality, trusting their actions to the dictates of their feelings,  passions, impulses, and intuition (Luque, 2005: 54-55). Be it from the creative act or from the aesthetic reception, the artistic experience nds a glad anchoring in this layout. That is why the lmmaker shows sympathy for those characters who approach art (in its widest array of expressions) in a genuine manner, that is, those who feel it as a deep emotional experience. Allen nds support in stark dichotomies so as to brandish his universe of values. Thus, there is a vivid dividing line between characters with a romantic and passionate worldview and other, more small-minded people whose engagement with the world  Echart, P.  Arte, Individuo y Sociedad. 29(1) 2017: 57-7060 is conditioned by prosaic criteria and limited ambitions. Artists take part in the former category, whereas the latter is personied by doctors or dentists ‒  Melinda and Melinda  (2004),  Blue Jasmine  (2013) ‒, businesspeople ‒  Midnight in Paris   (2011) ‒, TV executives ‒  Manhattan (1979), Crimes and Misdemeanors  (1989) ‒, and so many academics and pseudo-intellectuals who approach art in a fraudulent way. Allen makes use of the spaces characters inhabit to abound in this twofold framework. In  Midnight in Paris  and Vicky Cristina Barcelona  (2008), he articulates this viewpoint through a personal re-reading of a recurring theme in Anglo-American literature before the Great War: the contrast between a bourgeois, materialistic United States and a Europe of culture and art. In both of them, art becomes an ally to underwrite a carpe diem  outlook on life. In  Midnight in Paris , the main character runs away from the orderly and supercial future that awaits him in the United States, and through a double-dip experience of time travel in which he enters the so-called golden ages of contemporary art, he encounters a bohemian atmosphere that will help him take a leap of quality in regard to his artistic aspirations and his way of coping with life.In Vicky Cristina Barcelona , two American tourists (Vicky and Cristina) nd themselves involved in a sensual experience upon coming in contact with the artistically-rich European scene. The plot depicts a vision of the United States as a “materialistic and puritan” nation, in dramatic contrast to Europe, home to authentic individuals who live free of social restrictions and happily immersed in the joy of the present moment. Juan Antonio is a radical incarnation of the uninhibited and hedonistic artist, the character who gives himself to art and to romantic and sexual relationships as a means to counterbalancing a life that is, in his own words, short, dull, and full of pain. The narrative sympathy for such values is reafrmed in his father: an aged poet who has erotic dreams about his son’s former partner. The encounter with Juan Antonio will enable Cristina to develop a creative talent as a  photographer, and offers Vicky a glimpse of the limitations of the married life in which she seems to be already ensnared. The criteria by which Vicky and Cristina rule their love lives ‒ reason vs.  passion ‒ would nd a mirroring image in the internal conict of Marion, in  Another Woman  (1988): a paradigmatic example of the way art and feeling, on the one hand, and intellectual reason on the other, are counterpointed. The lm comprises a retrospective account of the existential barrenness of a mature woman who sacriced her true passions for the sake of a well-balanced life. In her professional life, Marion turned her back on her passion for painting (art), deciding instead to devote herself to the study of German philosophy in academia (reason). The choice she made in her love life was even more absolute: rather than the true love she felt for a writer whom she was not reckless enough to pursue, Marion chose to marry a cardiologist, which sounds a note of irony in the story because he is a “heartless” man whose approach to human relationships is numbingly cold, a quality that marks the people and relationships closest to Marion.In brief, Allen’s sympathy leans toward characters who, with art’s help, let themselves be carried away by their emotions; in so doing, they lead a life open to impulses, lack of balance, and even suffering, while at the same time sanctioned as rich, intense, and authentic.  Echart, P.  Arte, Individuo y Sociedad. 29(1) 2017: 57-7061 3. Art as Refuge For Woody Allen’s characters, the creation and appreciation of art amount to one of the greatest sources of satisfaction that life may afford. A recurrent motif in his lms is the presentation of art as a eld that allows characters to seek refuge from the heartaches of life. In this sense, art would perform an escapist function in their lives, a function that is, however, transcended inasmuch their aesthetic experience  becomes a vital necessity. Some even may nd the meaning of their lives in it. His lms remain faithful to the kind of things which, according to Isaac in   Manhattan , make life worthwhile: the beauty of a woman’s face, good food and, above all, a series of artistic milestones such as Groucho Marx and the Swedish movies, Sentimental Education  by Gustave Flaubert, Paul Cézanne’s “incredible apples and pears,” and the music of Mozart, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. Of the eleven items outlined by Isaac, it is meaningful to nd that eight of them belong to the world of art and that the remaining three “are all things the appreciation of which would likely be primarily aesthetic” (Detmer, 2013: 467). A year later, as though it were a practical implementation of Isaac’s list, the tormented protagonist of Stardust  Memories  recalls how he found meaning in his life thanks to a delightful spring scene in which he observes the beauty of his lover to a soundtrack by Armstrong. The question about why living life is worth it is answered in both cases with an afrmation of aesthetic enjoyment, an ascertainment that can be extrapolated to the whole of Allen’s lmography. In his worldview, what make the characters’ lives meaningful are the experiences of romantic and aesthetic nature, whose pleasure makes up for the ugliness of life. The enjoyment of aesthetic experiences can be provided for by artists in “high culture” as well as by popular creators and entertainers, even by those that are to  be found in the most negligible categories of public recognition. To the latter ones, Allen pays tribute in lms such as  Broadway Danny Rose  (1984) and Shadows and  Fog   (1991). The talent agent Danny Rose receives Allen’s most compassionate gaze for his altruistic dedication to a series of marginal artists that brighten up people’s lives through their humble talents (which already gives art, at least, a modest degree of social meaning.) In Shadows and Fog  , where the circus represents “an allegorical embodiment of the realm of fantasy and art” (Bailey, 2001: 156), a clown reclaims his responsibility towards making people laugh and to “make them forget their sad lives”; and when the character played by Allen himself decides to run away with the circus, his decision reinforces the assertion of a universal need for fantasy. This therapeutic function of aesthetic experience nds in the lm theater at least two stellar moments. In  Hannah and Her Sisters  (1986), the comic pleasure that Mickey experiences while watching Marx Brother’s  Duck Soup  (Leo McCarey, 1933) provides him with an epiphany by which he exorcizes his existential demons. In The Purple Rose of Cairo , in turn, the necessity to overcome the ugliness of reality and take refuge in a more exciting world nds its most concise expression, as Bailey (2001: 152) expresses accurately:
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