Woody Allen is one of the most prolific directors working in Hollywood today. Having averaged one film per year since 1969, the American filmmaker has garnered a reputation as one of cinema’s great comedic storytellers. One of the auteur’s most prominent thematic preoccupations is death. Allen’s fear of dying has been a recurring theme throughout his career, to the extent that his strenuous routine has become a distraction from the existential dilemmas of life (Lax, 2009, p. 114). Through this essay, I will use a semiotic lens to illustrate Allen’s death anxiety as it has evolved over the past 44 years. His career will be divided into three stages: Allen’s “early, funny ones” (1969-1975); his more dramatic, experimental work (1977-1999); and his lighter, more accessible films and European travelogues (2000-present). I will examine how Allen abandoned his slapstick roots to become a more serious, purposeful filmmaker. My overarching stance is that Allen’s stylistic choices are influenced by his identification as an atheistic existentialist. As most of Allen’s films are driven by dialogue and characters, a semiotic analysis is intrinsically difficult, and I hope my research fills a gap in the existing literature about his films.
Before dissecting Allen’s work, it is crucial to understand that the director’s projects are deeply personal and perpetuate their own collective ethos. While Allen has consistently denied elements of autobiography in his films, the separation of Allen the filmmaker and Allen the character is difficult to achieve.
Annie Hall (1977)
This is evidenced through the opening scene of Annie Hall, where Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, directly addresses the audience with a monologue. Through signifiers such as “a tweedy sports jacket, a shirt but no tie, and his trademark horn-rimmed glasses,” (Fabe, 2004, pp. 179-180) audiences assume Allen is speaking as himself, the director. However, when Allen says, “Annie and I broke up,” he asserts himself as Alvy Singer, the protagonist (Fabe, 2004, p. 181). While this scene is not concerned with biological death, it signals the metaphorical death of the author (Fabe, 2004, p. 179). Indeed, Annie Hall was Allen’s first attempt at making a comedic drama that appealed to the human condition. Until then, his films were farcical comedies with parodic overtones. However, these “early, funny” films by Allen are worth discussing as they explore many of the themes, including death, that would characterise Allen’s later films.
The outrageous nature of Allen’s early comedies provided him the opportunity to reduce existential problems to mere jokes. Death, as well as God’s silence, could be placed in “unexpected and reductive contexts,” (Hirsch, 1990, p. 160) softening their blow to the human psyche. Sleeper (1973) is a science-fiction spoof about Miles Monroe (played by Allen) who is cryogenically frozen in 1973 and revived 200 years later in a totalitarian state. It is arguably Allen’s most visually ambitious film from his early career.
In Sleeper, Miles is wrapped in aluminium foil when he is brought out to be thawed. Aluminium foil is generally used to cover food that we intend to eat at a later point. Here, foil is a preserver of life, used to avoid the decay of the human body (Mooney, 2011, p. 117). Food is a recurring theme throughout Sleeper as it is intrinsically related to survival.
In one scene, Miles continuously slips on novelty-sized banana peels. He is being felled by that which sustains him, as “the life of the mind is interrupted by the claims of the body.” (Hirsch, 1990, p. 160). This is Allen’s way of grappling with the intangible, and it echoes his statement in Love and Death that “the body has more fun [than the mind].” Allen’s slapstick antics are a brief respite from thoughts of mortality.
Love and Death is Allen’s satire of Russian literature, particularly Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Lax, 2009, p. 351). Again, Allen uses comedy to undercut the significance of death, this time by holding “vaudevillian conversations with God.” (Hirsch, 1990, p. 160).
Love and Death (1975)
In an early scene, Allen’s character, Boris, recalls a childhood dream where waiters stepped out of coffins in a foggy field and danced the Viennese Waltz. This foreshadows Boris’ later conceptualisation of nature as “an enormous restaurant,” where animals must eat other animals to stay alive. Boris thinks of the world as a place where he can be subsumed by forces larger than himself, including death (LeBlanc, 1989). Here, the restaurant is stripped of its elegant connotations, transformed into a place where only the strong survive. In Boris’ dream, there are no people to be served, only people to do the serving. The long shot positions the viewer to perceive the waiters as preying creatures.
Love and Death (1975)
In Love and Death, death is personified as the Grim Reaper, dressed in a white cloak as opposed to the archetypal black. This deviation from conventional representation reflects Allen’s framing of the film as a comedy. By humanising death, he makes it a comedic subject. It is no longer an abstract idea that plagues his every waking hour. In the final scene, Allen’s character partakes in a “dance of death” with the Grim Reaper, an obvious homage to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. This scene highlights a disconnect between European and American cinema. As Bruns (2009) writes, “The Scandinavian attitude is to take the negative seriously. Allen takes it comically.” (p. 18). Allen’s comical treatment of death is still an acknowledgement nonetheless. His dance with the Grim Reaper is an affirmation that one must find enjoyment in life as a means of distraction from the inevitability of death.
Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978) and Manhattan (1979) all provided glimpses of a more focused, cinematically-conscious Woody Allen. However, it was Stardust Memories (1980) that would announce Allen’s detachment from his screwball comedies of old. Stardust Memories was Allen’s attempt to “become someone else, someone both ‘other’ and better—more serious, more probing—than a zany comedian, a professional New York neurotic and cutup.” (Hirsch, 1990, p. 196). Human mortality is not a major theme in the film, but much treatment is given to the death of Allen’s comic persona that defined his “early, funny” films. The film is shot in black-and-white, a stylistic choice that coincides with Allen’s subdued character. Allen plays Sandy Bates, a filmmaker who is hassled by his fans to avoid making serious films and restrict himself to comedies.
Stardust Memories (1980)
In Sandy’s apartment, a blown-up photograph of Nguyen Van Lem’s Vietnam War execution hangs on a wall. The photograph mirrors Sandy’s psychological state at the time. Like Lem in the photograph, Sandy is in a position against his will. However, the imposing size of the photograph is a reminder that, for all of Sandy’s pressure, he still has the privilege of being alive. One of Allen’s recurring ideas is that life is meaningless because the universe is expanding or decaying (Conard & Skoble, 2004, p. 9).
Stardust Memories (1980)
There’s a scene in Stardust Memories where Sandy is describing the impermanence of life on Earth, lamenting that “matter is decaying.” As he delves deeper into his monologue, the camera zooms into a medium close-up of his body, implying that Sandy is harbouring narcissistic thoughts about the longevity of his own work. However, when Sandy says that everything—including the works of Beethoven and Shakespeare—will perish, he walks out of the frame and the camera lingers on a blank wall. This reflects Allen’s philosophy that nothing lasts, and that all matter will one day disappear. Several flashback scenes depict Sandy performing magic tricks as a child.
Stardust Memories (1980)
One such scene shows a young Sandy making a globe float. The globe is an iconic sign that represents Earth. Sandy’s manipulation of the globe reflects Allen’s desire to control the human predicament. Allen has said that “reliance on magic is the only way out of the mess that we’re in.” (Schickel, 2003, p. 136). Ultimately, Stardust Memories is an important film in Allen’s canon. A character in the film observes that comedians say “I murdered that audience” when their jokes are going well, and it’s this synergy of comedy and drama that distinguishes the film from Allen’s earlier efforts.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) is often cited as one of Allen’s most balanced films. Girgus (1993) writes that it “realizes the creative potential of all of his important films as well as the fulfillment of a promise about his artistic values and objectives.” (p. 89). There are several story arcs in the film, but the most relevant in terms of its exploration of death is that of Mickey Sachs (played by Allen). Mickey is a hypochondriac who is terrified of living in a godless universe where all human endeavour amounts to nothing. Allen toys with the film’s chronology to heighten the anticipation of cause and effect (Bordwell & Thompson, 2010, p. 103). We see Mickey come into the frame with a cheerful demeanour—a drastic contrast to the depressed man we saw earlier in the film. He recounts to a friend how a failed suicide attempt led him to appreciate the gift of life. Through a flashback, we see Mickey’s suicide attempt and his subsequent trip to a cinema where he watches Duck Soup. This scene is incongruent with Allen’s worldview that “life is inherently and utterly meaningless.” (Conard & Skoble, 2004, p. 7). Mickey manages to salvage some meaning from the film he is watching, concluding that life can be enjoyable even if there is no afterlife. Allen has even conceded that he “copped out” (Conard & Skoble, 2004, p. 125) with a convenient ending to the film. Hence, the scene where Mickey watches Duck Soup can be construed as Allen’s attempt to escape scrutiny.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
The cinema is Allen’s comfort zone, and it is where Mickey Sachs sits transfixed to a screen with darkness obscuring his face. In the film’s final scene, Holly (played by Dianne Wiest) announces that she is pregnant with Mickey’s child.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
As both characters embrace, we see them reflected in a mirror. The mirror forces the audience to question the reality of the moment (Bailey, 2001, p. 114). It may also be Allen’s way of examining his own, and Mickey’s, place in the world. As someone about to venture into fatherhood, Mickey must determine whether he is fit for the role. The prospect of fathering a child may allay his fears of dying without a legacy.
Deconstructing Harry (1997) stands as one of Allen’s most personal films. If Stardust Memories was Allen’s response to an audience that wanted nothing but to laugh, Deconstructing Harry is his meditation on the struggle of dramatic writing—of separating art from the artist. Allen plays Harry Block, a writer who uses the people around him as inspiration for his novels, much to their chagrin. Harry interacts with these characters in fantastical sequences, where they appear not so much as people, but as phantoms of Harry’s past. Indeed, this detachment from human feeling has inspired the idea that the characters in the film are “corpses and vampires of lost love and life.” (Girgus, 2002, p. 165).
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
This notion of characters who cannot realise their human agency is apparent from the opening scene, where Lucy (played by Judy Davis) arrives at Harry’s apartment via taxi. This scene is repeated several times to the point that it resembles a technical glitch. This scene echoes Stephen Heath’s observation that film “depends on that constant stopping for its possibility of reconstituting a moving reality.” (Girgus, 2002, p. 165). The monotonous repetition of Lucy’s entrance emphasises her deathly existence, whereby she serves as Harry’s plaything.
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
In one surreal scene, Harry takes an elevator down to Hell. Instead of elevator music, we hear a voice informing us that Hell has several levels—each one reserved for people who have committed various transgressions. The people in Allen’s Hell indulge in hedonistic pursuits as jazz music plays in the background. It is evident that Allen does not conceive of Hell as “eternal punishment after dying.” (Girgus, 2002, p. 166) To him, existence is hell. He is surrounded by people who have become nothing but fodder for his creative output, which will ultimately perish when he dies.
Since 2005, most of Allen’s films have been European productions. Allen finds it is convenient to shoot in Europe because he can secure favourable financing deals (Lax, 2009, p. 163). Allen, now in his 70s, has experimented with different genres and styles. He now feels a greater sense of creative control, but may feel slightly reticent about his age and longevity as a filmmaker. Match Point (2005) revisits a theme that was addressed by Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)—namely, that a godless universe means crime will go unpunished. Allen has said that he wanted to explore murder in a philosophical context so Match Point wasn’t reduced to a “genre piece.” (Lax, 2009, p. 24).
Match Point (2005)
Allen rejects the conventions of a traditional crime film, choosing not to show the murders committed by the protagonist. Chandler (1997) writes, “Semiotically, a genre can be seen as a shared code between the producers and interpreters of texts included within it.” Thus, Allen’s deviation from the codes of the crime genre forces his audience to consider the philosophical implications of murder. The protagonist, Chris, murders two people without being punished. The nature of the film medium results in the audience’s complicity with Chris’ crime. Viewers can only watch and silently condemn his actions. Any attempts to intervene are as fruitless as God’s.
Match Point (2005)
In one scene, Chris is shown reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The protagonist of the novel also commits a murder in the belief he will go unpunished. Chris puts the novel down and picks up The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevsky. The novel has mimetic power (Hall, 1997, p. 24) in that it represents aspects of human nature. The study guide, on the other hand, is a synthesis of theories. Chris’ dissatisfaction with the novel reflects Allen’s worldview as an atheistic existentialist. Unlike Dostoevsky, he does not believe in the redemptive power of guilt (Siassi, 2013).
To Rome with Love (2012) provides insight into Allen’s anxiety over death and ageing. It marked Allen’s first acting role since Scoop in 2006—a possible indication that he equates acting with living. To remain off-screen would result in the death of the “Woody Allen character” he has maintained since he began starring in his own films. In one scene, Monica (played by Ellen Page) marvels at how Rome was once a magnificent civilisation, but now stands as a collection of ruins. She calls this realisation Ozymandias Melancholia—the sinking knowledge that nothing ever lasts.
To Rome with Love (2012)
This is contrasted with the following scene, wherein Monica and Jack walk inside a modern auditorium—a place of artistic output. Jack says his ambition is to “build radical structures” and “change the architectural landscape.” An extreme long shot is used to emphasise the inferiority of Monica and Jack to their surroundings. This resonates with Allen’s philosophy that the artist’s productions are futile to the ravages of time. An artist cannot live through their work.
Fundamentally, Woody Allen’s atheistic beliefs have shaped much of his cinematic output. While Allen’s films are indeed driven by dialogue and character development, the director symbiotically blends cinematic codes and conventions with his ideas. Allen considers death to be the enveloping force that renders all human endeavour meaningless. His films explore both the cessation of life and the metaphorical ‘death’ of characters and ideas. Despite the significant longevity of Allen’s career, he has managed to remain consistent in the views he espouses. Even his earliest films, which were ludicrous farces, contained glimpses of Allen’s cynical worldview. As he became more philosophical in his filmmaking, Allen explored themes such as the transience of the universe, the separation of art from the artist, and freedom from punishment in a godless universe.
Allen, W. (Director). (1973). Sleeper [Film]. Beverly Hills: United Artists.
Allen, W. (Director). (1975). Love and death [Film]. Beverly Hills: United Artists.
Allen, W. (Director). (1977). Annie hall [Film]. Beverly Hills: United Artists.
Allen, W. (Director). (1980). Stardust memories [Film]. Beverly Hills: United Artists.
Allen, W. (Director). (1986). Hannah and her sisters [Film]. Los Angeles: Orion Pictures.
Allen, W. (Director). (1997). Deconstructing harry [Film]. Los Angeles: Fine Line Features.
Allen, W. (Director). (2005). Match point [Film]. London: BBC Films.
Allen, W. (Director). (2012). To Rome with love [Film]. Milan: Medusa Film.
Bailey, P. J. (2001). The reluctant film art of Woody Allen. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of
Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2010). Narrative as a formal system. In Film art: An
introduction (9th ed., pp. 78-116). New York. NY: McGraw Hill.
Bruns, J. (2009). Loopholes: Reading comically. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.
Chandler, D. (1997). An introduction to genre theory. Retrieved from http://www.aber.
Conard, M. T., & Skoble, A. J. (2004). Woody Allen and philosophy: You mean my whole fallacy
is wrong?. Chicago: Open Court.
Fabe, M. (2004). Closely watched films: An introduction to the art of narrative film technique.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Girgus, S. B. (1993). The films of Woody Allen. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Girgus, S. B. (2002). The films of Woody Allen (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University
Hall, S. (1997). The work of representation. In Representation: Cultural representations and
signifying practices (pp. 15-64). London, UK: Sage in association with The Open University.
Hirsch, F. (1990). Love, sex, death & the meaning of life: The films of Woody Allen. New York:
Proscenium Publishers Inc..
Lax, E. (2009). Conversations with Woody Allen: His films, the movies, and moviemaking:
Updated and expanded. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
LeBlanc, R. D. (1989). “Love and death” and food: Woody Allen’s comic use of gastronomy.
Literature/Film Quarterly, 17(1), 18.
Mooney, T. J. (2011). Live forever or die trying: The history and politics of life extension.
Bloomington: Xlibris Corporation.
Schickel, R. (2003). Woody Allen: A life in film. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
Siassi, S. (2013). Forgiveness in intimate relationships: A psychoanalytic perspective. London:
Karnac Books Ltd..