tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Woody Allen: the master of comedy and tragedy, if you can tell the difference

A good friend of mine laughs when she considers the fact that she only knows two people who really love Woody Allen movies: one is the most politically and socially liberal friend she has, and the other is me, one of the most conservative people she knows. “How is it that two people so completely different can be attracted to the same film maker?” she asks.

I have spent some time pondering that question and I think Allen himself answers it with his latest film, “Melinda and Melinda.” This film gives us one story presented in two different ways –- one is tragic and the other is comic. As a writer, I love this film because it deals with a question that I wrestle with all the time: how do I present the story?

In “Melinda and Melinda,” a group of creative adults is talking around a table in a New York restaurant. They are discussing a story that is tragic in the eyes of one person at the table, but obviously comic to someone else. Australian actress Radha Mitchell plays Melinda (in both versions of the story). She is a dramatic woman who shows up unexpectedly at a dinner party and turns everyone’s life upside down. The story (again, both versions) involves emotion, romance, infidelity, and searches for happiness. The story is both tragic and funny, which says something about the mystery of the human experience.

I laughed at the film because the characters were so incredibly shallow. For example, when one of the characters finds his wife in bed with another man, he is elated because it frees him to pursue a relationship with the woman he has recently fallen in love with. Selfishness is tragic, but depicted in such an extreme fashion, it struck me as funny.

While I watch the film and laugh at its absurdity, perhaps others watch the film and relate to it. Maybe they see real life. Maybe they like this film because it is so accurate. Woody Allen does that, film after film. He tells stories that are absurd, but real. They are funny for their absurdity but tragic for their accuracy.

Allen has made somewhere around 50 films and I have seen probably half of them. His films range from the ridiculous (“Sleeper” and “Bananas”) to spiritual (“Alice”). Perhaps my favorite Woody Allen film is “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” This is a film which brings together a wide range of human experiences: a genuinely good man goes blind while a parallel story depicts a man who commits murder going unpunished. The murderer is a doctor who is lauded by society, while the good man is a rabbi, largely ignored. Allen captures the irony of life so succinctly that I can see where it would attract an audience made up of people from all over the social and political spectrum.

Woody Allen movies, of course, are not for everyone. It you are looking for action and police chases, Allen is not your movie maker. But if you are looking for character studies, films that bring to life human emotion and insecurities, Allen is you guy.

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