The Insanity Defense

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I wrote the following article about Woody Allen’s The Insanity Defense for my Jerusalem Post books column, but it turned out someone had recently reviewed the book for the Post. So I publish it here for your reading pleasure…

A Laughing Matter
Woody Allen’s new film, Cassandra’s Dream, has ushered in the kind of cultural anxiety that only Woody can produce. Allen is 72, but he hasn’t slowed with age, continuing to release nearly a film a year. Much to the chagrin of his long-time fans.

Conventional wisdom says that Allen’s films have — with sporadic exceptions — been precipitously declining in quality. At this point, his movies are like family reunions, events that annually force us to confront the intersection of nostalgia and betrayal.

And because Allen always seems to have a new film in the theatres it’s difficult to find the dispassionate distance needed to truly review his oeuvre.

Not so when it comes to Allen’s prose.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Woody Allen’s comedic essays and stories were often found on the pages of the New Yorker and other publications, but until recently, he abandoned this line of work. Last year, Random House published The Insanity Defense, a single-volume compilation of Allen’s three early books, Getting Even (1971), Without Feathers (1975), and Side Effects (1980). And now there’s plenty of critical distance to look back admiringly at these efforts.

Allen’s preoccupation with the metaphysical and philosophical is one of the most striking aspects of his early writings. He engages these weighty subjects with humor, of course, but, interestingly, one gets the sense that he’s well acquainted with the source material.

In the brilliant story “Mr. Big,� Heather Butkiss visits a private investigator named Lupowitz and asks him to help her find God. Soon enough, however, God turns up dead, and Lupowitz has to unravel the mystery with the great philosophers as guides.

“I had a beer at O’Rourke’s and tried to add it all up, but it made no sense at all. Socrates was a suicide — or so they said. Christ was murdered. Nietzsche went nuts. If there was someone out there, He sure as hell didn’t want anybody to know it.â€?

In his role as stand-up philosopher, Allen is at his best when he simultaneously mimics and mocks, lampooning intellectual discourse, while betraying the fact that he likely invested quite a bit of time studying it.

“Finally, there can be no doubt that the one characteristic of ‘reality’ is that it lacks essence,� he writes in “My Philosophy.� “That is not to say it has no essence, but merely lacks it. (The reality I speak of here is the same one Hobbes described, but a little smaller.) Therefore the Cartesian dictum ‘I think, therefore I am’ might better be expressed ‘Hey, there goes Edna with a saxophone!’�

This final sentence points to at another notable feature of Allen’s early writings: an absurdist streak that reflects Allen’s affinity for both existentialism (ala Kafka and Camus) and the fragmented wackiness of some of his postmodern peers like Donald Barthelme.

The postmodern inclination may seem odd in light of Allen’s more recent movies, which are fairly straightforward in their setting and structure. But here Allen’s writing reminds us about the diversity of his film work, as well. This is a man whose directorial debut, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, was a rearranged Japanese spy movie overdubbed with English dialogue.

Allen engaged his Jewishness more in his earlier films, and this is true of the writing in The Insanity Defense also. “No Kaddish for Weinstein� may be my all-time favorite story title, and “Hassidic Tales, with a Guide to Their Interpretation� and “The Scrolls� makes it clear that Woody actually learned a thing or two in Hebrew school.

Of course, while the philosophical, experimental, and Jewish aspects of Woody’s writings are interesting to note, it’s still the humor that makes The Insanity Defense a true classic. No one can joke about the pain and absurdity of everyday life like Woody Allen, the great metaphysician who will always be remembered for reminding us: “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.�

Posted on February 12, 2008

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