Lawrence Michael Levine (Wild Canaries) Talks Woody Allen’s Irrational Man

The 12-year-old boy who chose Woody as his idol over action heroes sees Allen's new movie — and a better way of living and making films.

I am a filmmaker, New Yorker, Jew and child of the Seventies, so it should surprise nobody that Woody Allen has had a powerful influence on my life. This fact would be particularly obvious to those who have seen my latest movie, Wild Canaries, a film that bears the same relationship to Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery that Allen’s own Stardust Memories does to Fellini’s 8 1/2, i.e. the relationship of blatant rip-off to original. One of my life’s most vivid memories is the moment that, as a boy of 12, I slid my parents’ copy of Annie Hall into the VHS player and gazed in amazement at the medium close-up that opens the film. The frame contained nothing but the image of a melancholy and diminutive Jew, who was as far from a conventional movie star as the Earth is from the most distant reaches of the cosmos. Though I may have my doubts about the power of films to change the world generally, there is no doubt that Annie Hall altered my life permanently that day.

At that time (1988), the biggest movie stars in the world were Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sly Stallone, rugged men of action with bulging muscles who were too busy saving the world with their masculine prowess to display any weakness or vulnerability. Like every other boy I knew, I loved these action heroes and their films. I returned to the theater again and again to watch these he-men save the world, but when the movie was over and I stepped out into the banal and dreary parking lot, my heart was besieged by contradictory emotions. There was first a strange sense of elation, a desire to be heroic, that soon faded into a limp sense of helplessness. Though obscure to me at the time, I now realize this was a direct reaction to the messages I was receiving from these action movies. I believe that these films were so popular with horny young men because they purported to present the key to a code almost all heterosexual teenage boys long to crack – how to get women to have sex with us. The answer was simple: have big muscles, no feelings, and save the world. I was depressed after seeing these films because on some dim level I realized that, no matter how much time I devoted to lifting weights or stifling my emotions, I would never be Arnold. That option was simply not open to me. The ultimate message of these films was that I would never have sex, no less find love. Annie Hall changed all that.

Obviously, as a 12-year-old boy, the nuances of Allen’s depiction of a failed love affair were lost on me, but one thing was clear: small, sad Jewish men could attract female attention as long as they were funny and made movies. By the time Annie Hall was over, I had decided how I was going to spend my life. As a Jewish kid roughly in the Allen mold, I knew that I would never save the world with my athletic poise and brute strength, but making people laugh and telling stories seemed a more achievable goal, so that’s what I set out to do.

Over the past few years, with middle age rapidly approaching, I’ve begun to reflect on my life’s course, looking back on the decisions I’ve made with a critical eye. I realize now that, though Allen presented a more realistic image of masculinity for me to aspire to, trying to become him has been as futile as other men’s attempts at bodybuilding. My tireless quest to become an Allen-esque auteur was no different than other men’s relentless quests to climb the corporate ladder or craft the perfect abs. All these endeavors were fed by the notion that men need to be successful performers before they can find approval in the eyes of women and society. I know that I speak for many men when I say that, for most of my life, I have felt that I can’t expect to be loved until I am a success. For that reason, I have fixated on my career goals at the expense of my emotional health. Though our lovers need our emotional presence, we spend more of our time trying to fulfill an impossible ideal of success while drifting further and further away from our hearts.

Interestingly, Allen’s new film, Irrational Man, takes this very dialectic as its subject. The film focuses on a “famous” and successful philosophy professor, Abe Lucas, who, despite his worldly achievements, is suicidal. Given Allen’s reputation as an intellectual and depressive, it is hard not to view this professor, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as a doppelgänger for Allen himself. Phoenix portrays a man who has arrived at success by vigorously training his intellect at the expense of his humanity. He walks around like a zombie, drinks, and plays Russian roulette. Though he has made himself attractive to the opposite sex by becoming a leader in his field, he is so dead inside that he can’t even get it up when women offer themselves. The professor’s fortunes as well as his sexual competence briefly change for the better when a chance at moral engagement presents itself, essentially an opportunity to become a hero. His moral quest, however, (spoiler alert) proves ill-conceived and tragic.

As usual, Allen’s worldview is bleak, and he presents it with clarity. Irrational Man suggests that attempts at heroism can only lead to one’s downfall and the detachment people must cultivate to be successful will leave them desensitized and suicidal. We are left wondering if there isn’t a way out of this bind. I happen to think there is. Let’s drop our collective obsession with becoming rich and famous. Let’s drop the idea that thinking is better than feeling and that the one isn’t opposed to the other. Let’s drop the idea that we have to save the world before we can enjoy it. Let’s instead focus on cultivating abundant and textured emotional lives, lives we can joyfully share with each other. Let’s make films as an extension of our passion and not because we think that making them well or commercially is the only way get ourselves loved. Irrational Man‘s tone is icy and removed, so whether or not Allen would hold out the same kind of hopeful prescription sadly remains unclear.

Lawrence Michael Levine wrote, directed and starred in the feature films Gabi on the Roof in July and Wild Canaries, which was released by Sundance Selects and is now on Netflix. He also starred in and produced Sophia Takal’s Green. Other acting credits include Joe Swanberg’s The Zone and All the Light in the Sky, Keir Poliz and Damon Maulucci’s Detonator, Onur Tukel’s Richard’s Wedding and Simon Barrett’s V/H/S/2.