The most interesting thing I’ve read today is a New York Review of Books critique of the mid-to-late-70s films of Woody Allen, written by Joan Didion and published in 1979. In summation: she was not a fan! (It’s worth pointing out that this was an essay written long before Woody Allen’s personal affairs began to cloud the critical discourse of his work. He’s been getting interviewed a lot lately what with that one PBS documentary and his Oscar nominations this year, and boy oh boy do people like to gently poke him with questions they know he won’t answer in any particularly meaningful way about his private life. And fair enough. Although it’s a weird dance to watch.) You should read the whole article, because it’s good and because if there is one thing that Woody Allen has long enjoyed–and especially through the 1970s–it is critical, if not public, although public too sometimes, acclaim, so to hear someone thoughtfully and lucidly deconstruct his work, even if you disagree with what she has to say (I for one like Annie Hall and Manhattan, two of her main targets, and don’t think that opinion has changed too dramatically based on her discussion here, but her more salient points do make me think about the films in a slightly different way). She makes an interesting point about how many of his “jokes” are actually just cultural references, and she also criticizes the characters’ endless self-absorbed ruminations on their own neuroses as being more of a caricature of adulthood than anything resembling true life. This argument in particular seems prescient:

“How come you guys got divorced?” they ask each other with real interest, and, on a more rhetorical level, “why are you so hostile,” and “why can’t you just once in a while consider my needs.” (“I’m sick of your needs” is the way Diane Keaton answers this question in Interiors, one of the few lucid moments in the picture.) What does she say, these people ask incessantly, what does she say and what does he say and, finally, inevitably, “what does your analyst say.” These people have, on certain subjects, extraordinary attention spans. When Natalie Gittelson of The New York Times Magazine recently asked Woody Allen how his own analysis was going after twenty-two years, he answered this way: “It’s very slow…but an hour a day, talking about your emotions, hopes, angers, disappointments, with someone who’s trained to evaluate this material—over a period of years, you’re bound to get more in touch with feelings than someone who makes no effort.”

Well, yes and (apparently) no. Over a period of twenty-two years “you’re bound” only to get older, barring nasty surprises. This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career—something to work at, work on, “make an effort” for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s “relationships”—is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents. In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school. The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, “class brains,” acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life. (The one exception is “Tracy,” the Mariel Hemingway part in Manhattan, another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family. Tracy’s mother and father are covered in a single line: they are said to be in London, finding Tracy an apartment. When Tracy wants to go to JFK she calls a limo. Tracy put me in mind of an American-International Pictures executive who once advised me, by way of pointing out the absence of adult characters in AIP beach movies, that nobody ever paid $3 to see a parent.)

Of course, one of the problems with reading this essay now is that so many of its points no longer read entirely true if only because whatever vein Woody Allen tapped into has completely spilled over into the culture at large. Being therapized and “in touch with one’s emotions” (to say nothing of anti-depressant medication, anti-anxiety medication, and all of the other ways in which we seek some kind of clinical definition of “normal”) is pretty common ground at this point. Didion’s main problem with these films was the way in which 1970s audiences seemed to take them as realistic portrayals of adult life in the city, whereas she took them to be one writer/filmmaker’s highly personalized (and fictionalized) accounting. But at this point all of that has so thoroughly overlapped and become reified with our actual experience that it’s beside the point. 1970s New York no longer exists, but the warped photographic (or emotionalgraphic) evidence of Woody Allen’s films still does. So how do you even go about proving he’s wrong?

I also like the opening paragraph:

Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be dressed in “real linen,” cut by Calvin Klein to wrinkle, which implies real money. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be served the perfect vegetable terrine. It was a summer in which only have-nots wanted a cigarette or a vodka-and-tonic or a charcoal-broiled steak. It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a picture in which, toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. “Groucho Marx” is one reason, and “Willie Mays” is another. The second movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues.” Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’être go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.

Taken together with the early excerpt, Joan Didion could easily be talking about us RIGHT NOW! The overly wrought concern with how one is interacting correctly or incorrectly with the world around us and/or exhaustive lists of things that one likes and dislikes are literally the building blocks of the Internet. Every 5,000 word personal essay blog post on the Internet that divulges way too much information than anyone ever should* and every ReTumbl of a new pair of shoes with the simple caption “want so bad” seems to be exactly the world that Joan Didion is both describing and despairing. Life is long and complicated and often painful, but if 6000 people comment about your menstrual horror story** then you’ve got to be doing something right, right? It’s just as if not more important to prove that you are aware of and want the new shoes as it is to actually have them, no?

My problem with the issues Joan Didion raises is that I’m not sure where all this busywork and talking gets us. (Her problem seems to be that she thinks all the busywork and talking is just bullshit. That’s also probably true.) She quotes Woody Allen in the article describing life as a “distraction” from his obsession with his own death, but now it seems like we’ve taken it to the next step. Blogging/Tweeting/Vlogging/Facebook/Orkut is a distraction from the distraction. Where does it end? (Well, I mean, besides the same place everything ends: in heaven.) More importantly: what do we WANT from it? Connection to other people? I’m not sure that’s really true. I think people just say that because it sounds human and empathetic. Most of us are far more interested in how MANY Twitter followers we have than the depth of human compassion with which our Twitter followers are receiving our “signal.” So, what do we want? Do we even know? We want the new shoes, yes, but what else? Or is the scariest and most alienating part that maybe we don’t know what we want or even worse that we are past wanting? So we just fill the time with noise. Because that’s easier.

Anyway read that article! It’s pretty good!

*Of course, Joan Didion is an interesting person to make a pointed critique against public self-examination since she’s built much of her career out of writing about herself. She does it really well, but I am just saying.
**There are certainly plenty of dude-based Internet over-shares, I’m sure, but this does seem to be largely female-oriented, at least in my experience as a reader (and as a dude). I think it’s because there’s a larger, more sympathetic audience for it. But I also think you ladies might want to chill sometimes. You’re doing great! Keep some things to yourselves! For no other reason than a modicum of privacy can actually be very nice!

Comments (57)
  1. “So, what do we want? Do we even know? We want the new shoes, yes, but what else? Or is the scariest and most alienating part that maybe we don’t know what we want or even worse that we are past wanting? So we just fill the time with noise. Because that’s easier.”

    so are you saying i shouldn’t bother spending all day on videogum?

  2. we want to belong. and so often in the real world, we feel like we don’t. so any post that gives the option for someone else to say “me too” (or upvote), helps us feel like we belong.

    • which fits pretty well against woody allen’s neuroses (i believe stolen from groucho marx) that he wouldn’t belong to any club that would have him as a member…he’ll always be neurotic because he’ll never truly belong. but we can belong because we have the internet, where everybody’s a member.

  3. I just want the work day to go faster, and the internet helps with that.

  4. TL; DR (Too Long Didn’t Ruminate)

  5. Goddamnit. I knew as soon as I started reading this very thoughtful, thorough post by Gabe that I would have nothing on hand to contribute in the comments section that would live up to the critical thinking and the ruminating the article provides. So here I sit, typing up something anyway, and not saying anything.

    OR AM I???

  6. I dunno. I’m just here for upvotes.

  7. TBH, I did not read this whole thing. But I thought this was as good a time as any to point out that his son “Satchel” grew up handsome:

    • Ronan Farrow is the Übermensch, I swear — read his Wikipedia article if you want to feel overwhelmingly mediocre for the rest of the day. But, his work humanitarian work (along with his mother and on his own) is amazing.

  8. Gabe brings up some interesting points that I’d like to respond to at some point. In the meantime, let this relevant gif serve as my placeholder.

  9. Oh No She Didion’t

    • I find it highly ironic that in a post that questions the very nature of internet culture, it’s purpose and existential significance, with an emphasis on people’s obsession with the accumulation of upvotes, followers, facebook friends, etc. that the most upvoted comment is a run-of-the-mill pun.

      That being said, I think this is a brilliant thought, Gabe. I think part of it is the nature of the beast. Internet culture is a totally different animal from real human culture. It’s new territory and has it’s own unique traits, quirks and deficiencies. One thing is for sure though, it is the next big thing. The next 50-100 years will be the age of the internet. Right now we are experiencing the growing pains of the internet in SOPA/PIPA. It’s a culture that is trying to evolve and define itself and right now I think that the social structure and system of the internet is very basic and simple and one of the ways that this basic-ness manifests itself is the seemingly vapid nature of internet culture currency (upvotes, likes, etc.). But that’s really only the surface of things and only a reflection of popular culture that has and probably always will be a vapid affair.

      The truth is that for every picture of a cat dressed as Harry Potter that gets a thousand upvotes or facebook likes there are little pockets of people having genuine human interaction that you don’t see, some kind of type of connection that only the internet with it’s anonymous users and free flow of information could enable. Videogum is one such a place, a prime example really, that on the surface appears to be just messing around and making fun of bad shows and awful people on the internet but it does serve a basic function and that is to help people to think analytically about the world and to meet other people who share the same perspective. And Videogum probably would not have worked ten years ago because the internet was still too “basic” back then, much more so than now I would argue. Ten years ago no internet user would be reading this post let alone be trying to have a conversation about it, he would either be looking for porn or funny videos (though Videogum posts it’s share of funny videos it has much more going for it than that and we all know it).

      The internet is growing and so is the younger demographic that comprises most of it’s user base. I don’t share your apocalyptic view. Culture ebbs and flows. Though, admittedly, maybe internet culture oscillates at hyper speed. What’s hot now will be dead and buried in ten minutes. I think it’s high tempo can be off-putting, like the internet itself has ADHD. Again, the nature of the beast. But I believe it’s ultimate trajectory will naturally lead to a culture with depth and complexity that enables people to have real human connections with each other in ways and on a scale I can’t even imagine. There will always be the “noise”. If you went to a Roman forum two thousand years ago you would hear ninety-eight attention hungry people telling stupid jokes, sharing shallow gossip, preaching for this and selling that and then, in the corner, you’d see two old farts having a scholarly debate about culture, politics, philosophy; two ancient Videogum monsters. Let’s be real, an ancient Videogum monster would be criticizing last night’s greek tragedy but every now and then…

      Props to anyone who reads this.

  10. A very intelligent and well thought out post, Gabe. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have only this to offer as a counterpoint:

  11. the two asterisks are way to important for what you’re talking about to just be asterisks! all of these lady over sharers basically learned at didion’s overly self obsessed feet! and she is way just as neurotic as him, and also dissects just as many meaningless pop cultural affectations in all of her work, all funneled through an affectation of placidity that is just as psychologically unnerving as allen’s neurotic over analyses!

    • Honestly, I had so much to say about Didion’s criticism, which I felt was incredibly hypocritical and lacking in self-awareness, and I wasn’t really at all prepared to invest the time make it, so I’m glad you at least pointed this out.

    • I think you’re right but also disagree, if that’s allowed. In terms of her work, a ton of it is very introspective/inverted/navel-gazing, but what sets her apart from Allen for me is that her work points out the very real horror that everyday life can present. Her writing about living in LA during the era leading up to the Tate murders, for instance, for me perfectly replicated the feeling that life is senseless, brutal, and overwhelming; a feeling that perhaps I can’t describe in words well but that I’ve experienced many times over during my life as a person with chronic depression. Of course, that makes my feelings about her writing even more subjective than they already are. For me, though, Allen’s work (up until 1979, let’s say) is about a neurosis that no one is meant to take seriously, while Didion’s personal essays approach the void that I’ve often thought was going to swallow me whole.

      • I haven’t read much of Didion’s work, but I did read the Year of Magical Thinking and found it quite moving (about her coping with the unexpected death of her husband at the dinner table, while their daughter was also in a coma at the time, and underwent a subsequent intense and harrowing journey to recovery herself.) I really loved her writing style; in some ways it almost felt detached while I was reading it, but you could sense that she was distancing herself from the words in order to handle the pain? Or something? Anyway, then just before that book went to press, her daughter died too. I heard Didion interviewed on Fresh Air and it was extremely interesting.

        On a related note, Fresh Air also just this week re-broadcast a Woody Allen interview from a couple of years ago, also fascinating. He was talking about how he was extremely athletic and popular in school, and how none of his characters or stories are supposed to really be taken as literally autobiographical as many people think? So, yeah…I’m probably not really contributing much to these well-thought-out discussion points, but, there you go…I guess I just wanted to ‘be heard’, which fits right in with some of the ideas in Gabe’s extremely interesting critique.

  12. As someone who loves Joan Didion and also loves that period of Woody Allen’s films, this was relevant to my interests! I’ve always thought his late 70s/early 80s movies were weirdly aspirational in a way that no one really talks about, because deep down we all kind of want to be elitist Manhattan assholes with immaculately appointed apartments and awesome jobs that don’t make us happy. So I guess I agree with a lot of the points she makes, but I still like those movies.

    Also, anytime I read a Didion takedown of something I like I have to remind myself of that one essay where she loses her shit over The Doors, and then I’m like, “Shut up Joan Didion!”

    • Anyone who takes the Doors seriously as an “important band” is probably overreacting?

      • But half the point of the Doors essay is that she can say, “Look at me, I was there, sitting in the studio with them, ground zero of the zeitgeist.” She makes herself more important by being there, and mythologizes herself and the times this way. So her stuff is also kind of aspirational (nice word, lambdroid) : who wouldn’t want to be hanging out with a classic rock band famed for obscenity and excess … and be kind of blase about it?

        I say this even though I love that essay and everything I ever read by her — but I love artists who mythologize, which includes her, Woody Allen, 70s Bruce Springsteen, Fitzgerald & Hemingway, Kerouac, Hunter Thompson — mythologizing is a huge part of the stuff I love most. For me it is inseparable from art generally, maybe.

        I wish I saw this thread yesterday. :(

  13. Oh shit, I can still be the first of my friends to like this.

  14. Is BuzzMedia offering tenure now or something?

  15. Speaking of lady-times overshare, at work this week my boss said something about us needing to work extra hard to be nice to clients during our periods and when I told him I thought that was a really insensitive and inappropriate thing to say he asked for a show of hands from all the ladies who have never called in sick for our periods and I was THE ONLY ONE. Out of 24. I couldn’t believe it! Is this normal? Yeah, it sucks, but we are grown fucking adults who earn money for a living and you take a god damn Midol and go to work. Ladies, you are proving all the assholes right! I was horrified.

    • Uhh, what the fuck, your boss? Why was that something he felt was acceptable to ask his female employees to begin with? If you feel like shit and take one of your sick days so you don’t have to feel like shit at work, I think that’s something we can all agree is okay, no matter what kind of female trouble our uterii might or might not be up to.

      • It was without a doubt a horrible thing to say (he watches a lot of Mad Men and has a mostly female staff… It’s a bad combo), but I was much more offended that he was proved right. Like, “Women have no place in the workplace because of their periods” which is so obviously not correct, but then it turns out we agree? I don’t normally get worked up about feminist stuff, but we aren’t doing ourselves any favours if we are calling in sick every 28 days. We’re just confirming stereotypes and giving douchebags reasons to complain about us.

        • Ahh, but I think there’s a big difference between ever having taken a sick day for your period and doing it monthly — I mean, most people’s accrual rate for sick time is one day per month, so that’s a whole lotta periodin’ happening in the office generally.
          I also think, too, that it’s tricky if we allow the standard for appropriate/productive workplace behavior to be a sort of dude standard; that men don’t have periods and thus don’t take sick days for them, so women shouldn’t either, even though they do. Obviously it would take extra work to get your boss to see that his position isn’t the right one just because it’s been the dominant one for so long, but maybe you can lock him in the conference room and have “9 to 5″ looping on the projector screen.
          (That solution to workplace sexism is almost *too* perfect, good job amywinsagain!)

          • I think society plays up the idea that women CAN use this as an excuse especially with a male boss. They were probably all at the beach that day (tampon free.)

            THE REAL PROBLEM HERE is the fact that he somehow perceives the women in your office to be rude or bitchy and decided that it has everything to do with their periods? AS if a woman can’t have a bad day or if a client doesn’t deserve some push back every now and again.

            Similarly I worked in an all female office where our boss was constantly reminding us to not take a “bitchy” tone in our emails. I am pretty sure no one would say that to a dude if he was being straightforward. “Hey Dude, what was with that no nonsense email. Are you on your period?” I also wasnt allowed to participate in client meetings if I wasn’t wearing enough makeup.

  16. I think it comes down to personality, most of all. I think that the people who would obsessively ruminate on themselves are going to do that regardless, and those that don’t mind sharing those ruminations with the world now have more of an opportunity to do so. Personally, I fall in the “no sharing” category, although I have found that it has been helpful, sometimes, to do some self examination in a public context. As I’m writing this I’m debating whether or not I should share any personal stories about this. The only reason I would feel remotely comfortable sharing personal stories with a group of (basically) strangers is because I have the blanket of internet anonymity. If that’s taken away, one of my biggest fears would be sharing personal things with strangers in a serious context. And yet, here I am, talking about my fears with a group of strangers. It’s all very confusing.

    From an artistic standpoint, I think goes to what makes someone like Louis C.K. so successful, in that he is willing to talk about his darkest fears/ secrets/ what have you, but in a humorous way. He’s mentioned on many interviews that when he started looking into himself and bringing that on stage his act became more “real,” and has directly lead to the super success that he’s enjoying right now. It’s the same with music. Artists who are able to take what they’re feeling/fearing and put it into lyrics are what make artistically viable lyrics. I’m not going to say commercially successful, because boom boom pow, but it does take a lot of guts to put feelings out there, especially in song.

    In conclusion, I don’t get why people need to share their shit in a non-artistic context, but I can acknowledge that it can be important for the sharer, if for no other way than for him/her to work out what it means for himself/herself.

    • To add to this point, I actually think the best art comes from self-examination. That’s kind of the whole “authenticity/credibility” argument – if you aren’t speaking (artistically) from personal experience and drawing from personal emotions, then I find that very hard to relate to. I can dig it sometimes…I do appreciate a persona that is handled well and consistently…but for the most part, the best stuff is open and honest. I don’t really care at all what kind of person it is being open and honest. To use the Louis C.K argument, it’d be hard to deny that as awesome and open and hilarious a guy he is…based on the man he describes himself to be, it should be clear he’s not a role model. It’s up to the individual to digest content how they see fit.

      • I think this proves the old saying, “the best art comes from self-examination, but not every self-examination is art, especially if it involves the prostate.”

  17. OH NO OH NO you didn’t link to the ensuing exchange of letters, the GREATEST EXCHANGE IN THE HISTORY OF THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS:

    • I sort of agree with Romano’s response. I don’t think our main goal in life is to pursue grace, necessarily. How does one achieve grace? Is it by letting everything else go and being confident in your place in the world?* When are we all supposed to figure that out so we can be like Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan? Like Romano, I’m not sure what our interactions would be like if we didn’t talk about those big (or ‘big,’ as Didion thinks) questions. His argument against Didion’s rattling off of intellectual-approved pop culture things is a little silly, though.

      I think the people Gabe is talking about who repost pictures on Tumblr (and there are way too many people who literally just do this and that’s all, but anyway) and say ‘I want this’ or ‘omg so true’ or whatever will say those things because THEY like whatever they repost, not because it is cool to like it. One person’s Twilight is another person’s The Hunger Games, or whatever – there is no one ‘cool.’ So they are still self-obsessed, but not looking for nods from anyone else. Maybe from their friends/Tumblr followers who they know in real life (and maybe that’s what Didion means), but by posting those things on Tumblr you’re sort of hoping that people will stumble onto it anyway. Huh. Do you think everyone has an agenda for liking the things that they like now? Why can’t we just like things? I’m getting off the plot.

      This was a cool post, Gabe; thanks for writing it. I like when Videogum gets introspective.

      *Wait, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Hmm…

    • This is the exact comment, word for word, that I was about to leave.

  18. Well the jokes on Joan Didion. While she’s six feet under I’m living it up in 2012. What’s that? She is 77, alive and well and I hate my life? Touche subconscious, touche.

  19. I listened to a zen podcast today titled “Investigating Desire,” and ironically that seems to be one of the main takeaways from Gabe’s post. As usual, I appreciate how thoughtful Gabe is and that he being at the helm of a forum for discourse on such matters as the socially transmitted disease known as narcissism is super awesome BUT HOLY HELL am I offended by the double-asterisk footnote. Methinks there is plenty of overshare out there to attribute to both genders, probably right under our noses! Also, period jokes are tired. Find new material.

    • I think oversharing isn’t tied to the internet. I know this because there is a woman in our office who told the guy who sells us pizza about her miscarriage. :(

  20. Joan Didion/Woody Allen cage match! Finish him! Or her! Just depending on whichever one you would like to root for!

  21. Wow. What a deeply offensive, sexist and unnecessary comment about women over-sharers. If you want to address Joan Didion’s work and the potential hypocrisy in her criticism of Woody Allen, fine. But to somehow make it a generality about how women be yacking about their periods on the internet? I read a thoughtful, well articulate essay only to be smacked in the face at the very end with condescension and ‘jokey’ advice about how ladies are doing fine so what…shut up?

    Videogum is a great site with lots of readers who are passionate about it. I never comment but I read it everyday. I know when Gabe meets criticism his response is generally, “Um, hey it’s a blog about trampoline accidents why do you even care?”. Well, I do care that a site thousands of people read daily uses its forum to spread sexist stereotypes. And you should care too. By you I mean Gabe and all you monsters who pride yourselves on being smart, committed, funny commenters.

    Yeah I know. U MAD. I sure as hell am.

    • Yeah that was weird to me, too.

      I like the internet (I know, I’m an iconoclast). There’s a place for everyone. You can be vapid and materialistic, you can share your menstruation story, you can make cat puns – whatever, there’s room for everybody. If you’re gonna be like “eww I can’t handle even reading about this thing that literally 50% of all humans experience” then fine, stick to trampolines, but don’t act like you get to arbitrate what gets shared.

    • I have a lot to say about this but I am 100% certain that it would only make you MORE upset, so let me just say that I am sorry if what I wrote bothered you and/or “oh, wow.”

  22. I learned more about Woody Allen from his not so flattering appearance on Dick Cavett’s show circa 1973 than that lousy career-spanning documentary. (He makes an LOL about his ex wife’s sexual assault.)

  23. Getting people to engage with this critique in the comments section is like asking a 1988 supercomputer, “Who are you? – Compute.”

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