Love him or despise him, Woody Allen is an American-Jewish filmmaking legend.
The following article looks at the early career of the writer-director-actor Woody Allen and traces his growing reliance on Jewish humor, which would reach its full expression later in his career. Reprinted with permission from American-Jewish Filmmakers: Traditions and Trends (University of Illinois Press).
Woody Allen's career represents a virtual case history in coming to terms with tradition, with the search for an appropriate personal model of artistic creation sifted through a set of circumstances characteristic of a large portion of American Jewry. His films participate in the stream of American-Jewish art and literature that uses the structure of the bildungsroman [a style of novel focusing on the main character's personal development] to examine the emerging, maturing self and its relation to the world. His films, further, rely heavily upon the classic characteristics of Jewish humor and target aspects of popular culture.
Allen's cinema, however, participates little in the search for social justice, a point for which he has been criticized, most often by Jewish critics. Instead, he reaches beyond the moment for larger social and religious truths. In this respect, Allen's cinema draws as much on other traditions as on Jewish ones, particularly relying upon the tradition of European art cinema exemplified for Allen, as for most audiences, by Bergman and Fellini.
Cinema as Judaism
Allen archetypically represents the American-Jewish artist in his reproduction of the absent tradition of American-Jewish art: Judaism. In fact, Judaism is the structuring absence of his mature films; his cinema is a constant working out of this missing link, a continual search for a substitute for Judaism. Jewish artists often manifest this absence through the search for social justice or the participation in popular lifestyle trends.
For Allen, however, the cinema itself substitutes for Judaism. Although he began his film career by humorously parodying earlier films and film forms, his career has gradually explored the place of movies within a complete, meaningful life. This life will be lived in the predominant settings associated with American Jewry--urban America, often within the world of show business--but meaning will be derived from a search for the transcendent found in the movies.
Allen's search for traditions is also a matter of coming to terms with influences, many of which derive from Jewishness, although he borrows from other significant traditions as well. In addition to the tradition of European art cinema, he draws upon the tradition of American silent comedy, especially the works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. In fact, Allen's cinema progresses precisely by the degree to which he gradually abandons the established physical traditions of comedy in favor of a metaphysical approach exemplified by Bergman and Fellini.