Book Review: Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen

Back in the mid 1980s, in the song “Panic”, Morrissey from The Smiths damned DJ’s who kept playing irrelevant music that said “nothing to me about my life.” I think Woody Allen may well have appreciated that sentiment as for over fifty years now, in an incredibly prolific career that has seen him write and direct almost a movie a year, he has consistently written screenplays that have tackled themes relating to love, death and meaning. And in case we don’t quite grasp it, a 1975 Woody movie is pointedly called Love and Death.

Born in 1935, Woody writes in his autobiography that he became aware of his own mortality very early on and didn’t like it one little bit.

“…around the [age] of five I became aware of mortality and figured, uh-oh, this is not what I signed on for. I had never agreed to be finite. As I got older, not just extinction but the meaninglessness of existence became clearer to me.”

The angst brought on by his vision of a bleak, uncaring and Godless universe is a consistent running theme throughout Woody Allen’s movies and in an insightful recent interview with the scientist Lawrence Krauss, Allen said that his writing and movie making were a necessary distraction for him to try and avoid facing up to that reality.

Woody started off his career while still at school. He would send off jokes to newspapers. They started printing them and Woody found that they paid much better than his newspaper round. Soon he was being approached by agents who asked him to write gags for TV comedians after school. He quickly began earning more money than both of his parents combined.  

Throughout the book Woody says that he has just been very lucky and that most people are unaware of just how big a part luck (or bad luck) plays in their lives. And he is also very self-deprecating – which is a welcome trait in an industry known for harbouring a number of oversized egos.

“I have no insights, no lofty thoughts, no understanding of most poems that do not begin, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue.’ What I do have, however, is a pair of black-rimmed glasses, and I propose that it is these specs, combined with a flair for appropriating snippets from erudite sources too deep for me to grasp but which can be utilized in my work to give the deceptive impression of knowing more than I do that keeps this fairy tale afloat.”  

Woody expresses regret towards the end of the book that he “has never made a great movie”. This verdict will no doubt be challenged by his many admirers, including your present reviewer, who regard Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Husbands and Wives as being amongst the finest movies ever made. Certainly, the Academy Awards committees over the years who have given him four Oscars may also have something to say about that.

In more recent years, however, Woody Allen has perhaps been more often in the news due to his personal life than his movies. In 1992 there was a nuclear sized fallout following the end of his relationship with his partner for thirteen years, Mia Farrow, after she discovered erotic Polaroid snaps of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn (then 22) in Woody’s apartment. Woody and Soon-Yi (whom he married in 1997 – they are still happily married) had been having an affair. Several months later, Mia Farrow alleged that Woody had molested her seven year old adopted daughter Dylan. To this day, this controversy continues. As you might expect, the autobiography provides Woody’s side of the story: he asserts forcefully there was absolutely no molestation and Dylan was brainwashed into making the allegation by a spiteful and vindictive ex-partner. The passages about Mia Farrow often make for uncomfortable reading and Woody sometimes comes across as rather cold in his remarks – which is perhaps understandable given the nature of the allegations that have been made against him. The fact remains that no charges have ever been brought against Woody in relation to the alleged molestation despite there having been two official investigations into them.

As he was writing this book, Woody was working on yet another movie, Rifkin’s Festival. The reader is left with a clear sense of an amazing work ethic despite his age. “I’m 84 – my life is almost half over,” he quips.

As for negative points, I must admit to being irritated by the complete lack of any chapter breaks or chapter headings in the book and the failure to include an index. This could perhaps be due to the fact that the previous publisher, Hachette, cancelled its agreement to publish the book following an internal staff rebellion related to the 1992 allegations and so the book may have been produced in haste by the present publisher, Arcade.

“An unexamined life is not worth living,” said the Greek philosopher Socrates. With his life-long pre-occupation with love, relationships, death and the quest for meaning in the universe, Woody Allen definitely cannot be accused of having lived an unexamined life. He certainly appears to have asked all the right questions. It could just be that the answers he arrived at were sadly perhaps a tad off-beam.

“…and despair not of Allah’s mercy. Surely none despairs of Allah’s mercy except the disbelieving people.” (Qur’an 12:87)

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