Sunday, November 20, 2005

Side Effects

Woody Allen

“Needleman was constantly obsessing over his funeral plans and once told me, ‘I much prefer cremation to burial in the earth, and both to a weekend with Mrs. Needleman.’ In the end, he chose to have himself cremated and donated his ashes to the University of Heidelberg, which scattered them to the four winds and got a deposit on the urn” (“Remembering Needleman” 3).

We meet Needleman in the first story of the collection, a narrative that serves as a scaffold to rest jokes upon—jokes that stand of their own accord, or perhaps would stand up were they given Allen’s live delivery.

Did you know, reader, that Allen was first a standup comedian—funny, at that?

At any rate, it is difficult not to read Allen’s short stories in his familiar stammering, sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow speech. What is true, though is that this story, “Remembering Needleman” doesn’t develop Needleman as much of a human being the reader is to care about; rather he—and the others in the story are meant to reflect the kinds of people we might encounter. That is, if we live in the big city. Needleman waxes philosophical by pondering the nature of Existence:

“Authentic Being, reasoned Needleman, could only be achieved on weekends and even then it required the borrowing of a car. Man, according to Needleman, was not a ‘thing’ apart from nature, but was involved ‘in nature,’ and could not observe his own existence without first pretending to be indifferent and then running around to the opposite end of the room quickly in the hopes of glimpsing himself” (“Remembering Needleman” 5).

Needleman is a city hero, who has to borrow a friend’s car to achieve any sort of enlightenment. Only a New Yorker can understand that. Someone from L.A. doesn’t get it; hell, as the song goes, “nobody walks in L.A.” In NYC, you don’t need a car, but for nirvana, one borrows one. Profound.

Interestingly, though, these one-liners continue through the other stories, including the now much-anthologized “Kugelmass Episode,” in which the eponymous character, Kugelmass, a middle-aged and unsatisfied college professor gets an opportunity to travel in time. For $20 a visit, the inventor of the device can throw “any novel into [the] cabinet” with him and “shut the doors, and tap it three times” (44) Then, Kugelmass finds himself within the pages of that same novel and may cavort freely with the character of his choice. He selects Emma Bovary, but then finds the affair gets out of control when she becomes too demanding.

While the characters are slightly developed in that story (since Emma Bovary in and of herself is somewhat developed in Flaubert’s own book, and so we can hardly credit Allen with having invented her in the first place), we can credit Allen for having developed for characters that truly do seem to change and develop in the final story, “Retribution.” This story felt, plotwise, more like the outline of one of his films, in which the young man loves—idealizes—his girl, but she doesn’t love him—until the tearfully break up, he finds someone he professes to love, and then he finds something else to do. Then SHE decides she likes him. Reverse psychology works. More to say here, but much more to read.

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