In his 1977 film Annie Hall – considered his best – Woody Allen was not nice to the world out here in Hollywood, where the light of his protagonist’s life, Annie, goes to make it big, or to get in touch with her true self, or some such thing. And she likes it here. She says it’s so clean out here, and Allen’s alter ego, Alvy Singer, says there’s a reason for that – “That’s because they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.” And yes, that’s a cheap, easy joke. But Allen does that now and again, when he gets lazy. It’s just too obvious, of course.
But you might remember the setting, the penultimate scene in the movie. Singer has flown out here to win Annie back, and having rented an absurd Cadillac convertible, meets her for lunch down on Sunset at a vegetarian café that’s still there (it’s now the Cajun Bistro – 8301 Sunset Boulevard). He argues New York is more real, where real life occurs and all that, and she should join him there and give up the silliness of this place. It’s a very odd love scene, involving geography and authenticity as much as passion. And as that lunch place is just three blocks west of the front door here, when you drive by you think of that strained conversation. She walks out on him. She prefers life on the shallow surface, or finds the alternative simply too exhausting. Maybe that’s why we all end up out here.
But of course Singer (Allen) can’t figure it out, and finds the California Disease has spread to Manhattan. Desperate to understand how to make his relationship with Annie work, he stops people on the streets of the Upper East Side and asks them questions, including a stunning, happy young couple in tennis whites:
Alvy Singer: Here, you look like a very happy couple, um, are you?
Female street stranger: Yeah.
Alvy Singer: Yeah? So, so, how do you account for it?
Female street stranger: Uh, I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.
Male street stranger: And I’m exactly the same way.
Alvy Singer: I see. Wow. That’s very interesting. So you’ve managed to work out something?
That’s a better joke. It cuts to the core. Maybe ignorance is bliss. It could be that’s not just another cheap throwaway line.
And our hero is in despair. He knows that is something he can’t work out, ever – he has a brain, and it works just fine, and short of a lobotomy, it will continue to work, making and remaking sense of the world. He has no alternative.
And that makes the movie timeless – the conflict is universal. And it’s still playing out. And those who prefer the shallow surface of life are ahead in the struggle now, as the culture shifts to the primacy of uninformed bliss. No one wants to be unhappy, and all of America is becoming the California that Woody Allen imagined. In fact, Professor Steven Bainbridge of the UCLA School of Law (bit further down Sunset) believes that politicians like Sarah Palin and Scott Brown are indicative of a larger social shift:
I think it says something bad about our culture that people like the Hiltons and Kardashians can vault into celebrity status without having accomplished anything.
But I think it says something even worse about our culture that we are starting to pick our leaders this way. We face serious problems and a growing list of serious threats. We need leaders who are serious people. Not leaders who are famous for being famous.
Here’s what he’s getting at:
In the political world, television, blogs, and so on are creating similar phenomena. Consider Sarah Palin. Even her most ardent admirers ought to admit that she is a person of modest accomplishments. A half-term governor of Alaska. Plucked from obscurity by the McCain campaign for reasons that remain obscure. An educational career not promising of great intellect. Yet, by dint of good looks, relentless PR, and the good luck to have incited some haters who do just as much as her own PR people to keep her in the public eye … she has become one half of what The Times [of London] calls an “unlikely duo [who] are the most visible Republicans in the country and may become rivals to Barack Obama in the next presidential election.”
The other half is newly elected Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. Admittedly, Brown pulled something off for which he has deservedly gotten a lot of attention; namely, taking the “Kennedy seat” for the GOP. But he’s at the start of his national career. He has zero legislative accomplishments. He hasn’t really defined himself. He hasn’t earned the right to be a viable Presidential candidate. Yet, there he is.
Palin calls Scott Brown just a guy who drives a truck – a man of the people who proudly knows nothing much, as it’s the elitists who know things, and we all know where that led. Yep, you do see that gorgeous Manhattan couple in tennis whites.
Maybe Woody Allen’s film was a warning, and perhaps Bainbridge is right, things have gotten worse. Of course if you have no clue just who the Kardashians are – you just didn’t keep up – there may be hope for you. But most everyone in America – Rush, Sean, Bill, Glenn and the others – pities you. Yes – wow – they’ve managed to work something out.
Of course there’s more to this than just politics. It’s a matter of what we care about, and at the present time that seems to be the Winter Olympics. But almost any sports will do. For some reason people, worldwide, consider them important. And of course the Olympics Games are considered rather special, where nations who hate each other compete against each other in a flurry of brotherhood and fair play and true sportsmanship and all that sort of thing. Woody Allen would giggle at that whole notion, but he would be lonely. And every man knows that if you cannot talk about sports, or at least fake some knowledge of just who won and who lost, and who should win and who should obviously lose, and why, you have no career at all. You’re not a normal person. You get moved out, one way or another.
But as for this notion that sports, with the brotherhood and fair play and true sportsmanship stuff, bring us all together is worth more than a giggle. In fact, it’s worthy of some curmudgeonly Christopher Hitchens scorn:
And now for a sports roundup: in Angola in early January a gang of shooters sprays the bus carrying the national soccer team of Togo, killing three people in the process, and a local terrorist group announces that as long as the Africa Cup of Nations tournament is played on Angolan soil, fresh homicides will be committed. The member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that have the task of hosting both the Cup of Nations and the soccer World Cup in Cape Town this summer are in disarray as a consequence of the dispute between Angola and Congo over the “security” aspects of these allegedly prestigious sporting events.
On my desk lies an essay by the brilliant South African academic R. W. Johnson, describing the waves of resentment and disruption that are sweeping through the lovely city of Cape Town as the start of the World Cup draws near. Cost overruns and corruption, the closing of schools to make room for a hastily constructed new stadium, violent animosity between taxi drivers and mass-transit workers, constant disputes over the rigging of “draws” for the playoffs, allegations of bribery of referees … Nothing is spared. (Incidentally, isn’t there something simultaneously grandiose and pathetic about the words “World Cup”? Not unlike the micro-megalomaniac expression “World Series” for a game that only a handful of countries bothers to play.)
My newspaper this morning bears the tidings of another unappealing moment in Indo-Pakistani relations: Pakistani lawmakers have canceled a proposed tour of India after the larger neighbor’s Premier League failed to bid for any of the 11 Pakistani cricketers who had offered themselves.
Well, that’s far away and obviously had nothing to do with the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, except as Hitchens notes, the “stream of complaints from British and American sports officials, who say that their athletes are being denied full access to the venue’s ski runs, tracks, and skating rinks.” They want to win, and the cut out the completion from access to what the competition needs to prepare – a minor thing, but telling, as Hitchens explains:
I didn’t have to read far to find the comment I knew would be made about this spiteful, petty conduct. A hurt-sounding Ron Rossi, who is executive director of something snow-oriented called USA Luge, spoke in wounded tones about a supposed “gentlemen’s agreement” extending back to Lake Placid in 1980, and said of the underhanded Canadian tactic: “I think it shows a lack of sportsmanship.”
But Hitchens argue that this is the very essence of sportsmanship:
Whether it’s the exacerbation of national rivalries that you want – as in Africa this year – or the exhibition of the most depressing traits of the human personality (guns in locker rooms, golf clubs wielded in the home, dogs maimed and tortured at stars’ homes to make them fight, dope and steroids everywhere), you need only look to the wide world of sports for the most rank and vivid examples. As George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay “The Sporting Spirit,” after yet another outbreak of combined mayhem and chauvinism on the international soccer field, “sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will.”
And Hitchens provides the whole Orwell quote:
I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.
Hitchens goes on to explain the border war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, “when the violence set off by a disputed soccer match escalated to the point of aerial bombardment.” And there’s this:
In Khartoum recently, a soccer game between Egypt and Algeria led to widespread violence, a sharp exchange of diplomatic notes, a speech about affronted national honor from President Hosni Mubarak, hysterical hatred pumped out on state media, and an all-round deterioration of what you might call civility. And this between two members of the Arab League! Incidentally, that observation takes care of the excuse that is sometimes offered: that if rival countries confine their contests to the sporting field, they allow the quarrel between them to be settled vicariously. Before the match in Khartoum, Egypt and Algeria had no diplomatic quarrel. After the game, perfectly serious people in Cairo were saying the atmosphere resembled that following the country’s defeat in the June 1967 war.
The premise here is that sports cause, at best, ill-will, but more often, those inevitable orgies of hatred Orwell accurately predicted.
But Hitchens points out how sports infect politics:
Our own political discourse, already emaciated enough, has been further degraded by the continuous importation of sports “metaphors”: lame and vapid and cheery expressions like “bottom of the ninth,” “goal line,” and who knows what other tripe. Hard enough on the eyes and ears as this is – and there are some cartoonists who can’t seem to draw without it – it also increases the deplorable tendency to look at the party system as a matter of team loyalty, which is the most trivial and parochial form that attachment can take.
And one thinks of Annie Hall, preferring life on the shallow surface, finding the alternative simply too exhausting – maybe it’s just childishness, as Hitchens seems to imply with this:
I can’t count the number of times that I have picked up the newspaper at a time of crisis and found whole swaths of the front page given over either to the already known result of some other dull game or to the moral or criminal depredations of some overpaid steroid swallower. Listen: the paper has a whole separate section devoted to people who want to degrade the act of reading by staring enthusiastically at the outcomes of sporting events that occurred the previous day. These avid consumers also have tons of dedicated channels and publications that are lovingly contoured to their special needs. All I ask is that they keep out of the grown-up parts of the paper.
There’s much more, on fans, and on college sports, and this:
I did learn today that there’s not enough snow for this bloatedly funded spitefest in Vancouver and so they’ll be choppering some white stuff in from the north. That at least might be momentarily interesting to watch (Haitians in particular would, I bet, be riveted to see it). Meanwhile, with millions of other don’t-care people, I won’t be able to escape the pulverizing tedium of the events themselves. Global warming never seemed a more inviting prospect. Let it not snow, let it not snow, let it not snow.
And that’s his rant. But he underestimates the appeal of the shallow surface of life, and the appeal of spite, resentment and socially sanctioned hatred. What else is Sarah Palin in the Tea party movement about, if not that? Woody Allen was puzzled by it, and spun a movie out of it, and perhaps a whole career, when you think about it. But Allen made it funny. And that might have been Allen’s mistake.
But enough of that – the first round of curling is on in the other room.