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25 Dec

Origin, Legacy, and Human Agency in God and Mighty Aphrodite

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Woody Allen and the Absurdity of Human Existence: Origin, Legacy, and Human Agency in God and Mighty Aphrodite

Ancient Greece is considered the cradle of Western civilization. After all, the Greeks introduced many developments to political science, which eventually brought forth democracy and the republic (albeit in an oligarchic form), and excelled in mathematics and physics. Plato and Aristotle effectively founded Western philosophy and epic poems such as The Iliad and The Odyssey have had a lasting impact on Western culture, as have, of course, the tragedies penned by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and the comedies written by Menander. Considering the wide influence ancient Hellenic culture has had, there is little surprise that artists from James Joyce to Alison Bechdel have alluded to some of the foundational texts of Western civilization created in ancient Greece. No wonder that Woody Allen, whose artistic output is characterized by its "multifarious intertextual references" and "recurring use of self-reflexion" (Doyle par. 1), has also repeatedly invoked Greek culture.

While Allen's work is replete with references to ancient Greek texts (as J. Andrew Gothard has demonstrated in a recent survey of allusions in Allen's works and interviews), my chapter will focus on two specific works: the 1975 one-act play God, which is set in "Athens. Approximately 500 B.C." (131) and tells the story of the playwright Hepatitis and his struggles with his play (-within-the-play) The Slave, and the 1995 movie Mighty Aphrodite, which utilizes a chorus to elaborate and comment on the unfolding story that revolves around Lenny Weinrib's (Woody Allen) search for—and subsequent attempts at redeeming—his adoptive son's biological mother. As I will demonstrate below, the use of elements from classical Greek drama in these two works is driven by their narratives, which center on questions of origin, legacy, and human agency. In addition, both Mighty Aphrodite and God incorporate elements from classical Greek drama (filtered through a twentieth-century lens, of course) in order to highlight ideological differences between Allen's works and their Hellenistic predecessors. However, as I will argue, the rather obvious similarities to Greek drama tend to overshadow the works' affinity to the Theatre of the Absurd, which helps Mighty Aphrodite and God interrogate the topic of agency.

"I'm starting to get more of your references": Woody Allen's Aesthetics of Incorporation and the Question of Origin

About halfway through God, Blanche DuBois suddenly appears on the stage. Although Blanche's appearance in God may be unexpected, the allusion to—indeed, the incorporation of—other works of art has always been a staple of Woody Allen's aesthetics (as is evidenced by this anthology). From the in-your-face integration of other texts (e.g. when Sidney Kugelmass "appear[s] in the bedroom of Charles and Emma Bovary's house" (35) in "The Kugelmass Episode" (1977)) to the more subtle incorporation of Federico Fellini's Otto et mezzo (1963) in the opening scene of Stardust Memories (1980), Allen's oeuvre is permeated by references to other cultural artifacts.1 Of course, this type of (inter)textual expansion characterizes not only Woody Allen's aesthetics, but postmodernist arts in general.2 In postmodernism, writes Fredric Jameson, "depth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces (what is often called intertextuality is in that sense no longer a matter of depth)" (12). The surfaces Jameson discusses are linked to signs, if not simulacra, which dominate (post-)postmodern culture to such a degree that they appear natural.

Although poststructuralist approaches to intertextuality would embrace the expansive textuality championed by Allen's oeuvre, in which intertexts and his works are merged into a vast master-text, the repeated explicit highlighting of Allen's allusiveness might lead radical poststructuralists to exclaim: "Intertextuality should not be […] used to refer to the intentional allusion (overt or covert) to, citation or quotation of previous texts" (G. Allen par. 1; italics in original). While Graham Allen's critique of intentionality is enmeshed in poststructuralist ideas, structuralists conceive of intertextuality as "a relationship of copresence between two texts or among several texts" and as "the actual presence of one text within another" (Genette 1–2).3 From such a structuralist perspective, Woody Allen's artistic output is, however, not merely intertextual, but, in fact, intermedial, which connotes "any transgression of boundaries between conventionally distinct media" (Wolf par. 3).

Regardless of whether one favors the structuralist or poststructuralist stance towards the topic, intertextuality complicates questions of authorship and thus a text's singular origin. As early as 1968, Roland Barthes argued that "a text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning […] but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash" ("Death" 146). As he continued elsewhere,

[t]he intertextual in which every text is held […] is not to be confused with some origin of the text: to try to find the 'sources', the 'influences' of a work, is to fall in with the myth of filiation; the citations which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read. ("Work" 160; italics in original)

In God, authorship—and thus the play's origin—assumes a key role, not only because the play alludes to classical Greek drama and other cultural artifacts, but also because the play features a number of authorial voices that represent various interpretive and creative frames and thus interweave subjective viewpoints. God first of all features Hepatitis, the author of The Slave, a play-within-the-play that centers on the conflicting desires of 'freedom from' and 'freedom to' and the (potential) existence of a divine being. In addition, Lorenzo Miller appears at one point and claims to have "created this audience" (where "this audience" embraces the ambiguity of language, since it remains entirely unclear as to whether it is meant to denote the audience of The Slave or the audience of God), for he wrote how "a large group of people from Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Long Island come to the Golden Theater and watch a play" (152). Since he can witness that "[t]here they are" (152), he concludes that he must be a writer. Woody Allen's fictional double has an appearance in the play, as well, for he is called by Diabetes, the main actor in The Slave, who complains about a girl from the audience who has come up on the stage and who is "a philosophy student. But she's got no real answers … typical product of the Brooklyn College cafeteria"—a description that triggers Woody to remark that he "used that line in Play It Again, Sam to describe a girl" (144). While the spectral presence of Woody Allen, God's real-world author, thus haunts (and intervenes in) the play's diegesis, he, of course, also assumes the extra-diegetic author-function. Confronted with all these authorial voices, one might, following Roland Barthes, wonder: "Who is speaking thus" ("Death" 142)? The only possible answer to the question, suggests Barthes, is that "[t]he origin […] is indiscernible" (S/Z 164).

Whereas the use of intertextual references and metatextual elements in God serves to meditate on the origin(s) of the play itself and the embedded play (i.e., The Slave), in Mighty Aphrodite, these discursive devices are more tightly woven into the fabric of the story—after all, one of the questions that truly haunts Lenny Weinrib is his adoptive son's parentage. When the thought of tracking down Max's (Jimmy McQuaid) biological mother crosses Lenny's mind, he instantly constructs an idealized image of her, saying "I'll bet this kid has a dynamite mother." Lenny is brought back to planet Earth rather quickly when his somewhat seedy connections allow him to discover that Max's mother (Mira Sorvino) has not only been known by many names over the years, but has starred in skin flicks and currently works as a prostitute. But this is only the beginning of Lenny's journey towards understanding that the image he created of Max's biological mother does not correspond to the actual woman at all, for Linda is a ditzy blonde with a crude sense of humor who believes that her ventures into the adult film business will be stepping stones towards an actual career as a film actress. Disappointed by what Max's biological mother turned out to be, Lenny tries to dig deeper and trace his adoptive son's origins further. When he asks about Linda's "hereditary father," she explains that he "was a drug pusher. And he was also a car thief, and he picked pockets. And, you know, he burgled and stuff, and he was an epileptic." Yet, there was a bright spot in the family tree, notes Linda: "My father's brother was supposed to be a genius. I never met him, but everybody said he was brilliant." However, just as Lenny gets his hopes up, Linda further elaborates, "He was a serial rapist. He spent his whole life in jail. But if he had gone straight, he might have been very good in math."

But the real shocker still awaits Lenny, for Linda admits that she "didn't even know who [Max's] father was. It could have been any one of a hundred guys." In this way, Mighty Aphrodite's plot underscores that Max's origin is as 'indiscernible' as that of the movie text. This interplay between narrative and self-reflexive intertextuality is exemplary of what Peter Bailey has identified as the "self-conscious configuring of the relationship between the chaos of experience and the stabilizing, controlling capacities of aesthetic rendering" (ch. 1) so typical of Allen's works. Of course, the question of origin, i.e., where we come from, is inherently connected to the question of what we are leaving behind. In this context, Woody Allen's "premise" concerning "the interrelationship between literature and/or film and actual life" (Hutchings 363) becomes even more obvious.

"Do you want to deny your heritage?" (Pro)Creation and a Man's Legacy

The first sentence spoken in Mighty Aphrodite's primary storyworld is "Lenny, let's have a baby!" The topic of Lenny's legacy is thus introduced right from the get-go. However, Lenny's wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter) doesn't want to take off a year from her job and thus suggests adopting a child. Lenny is not in favor of his wife's plan. Even though one could easily list a number of reasons to support Lenny (e.g. the thought of adopting a child seems to have just crossed her mind when she expresses the idea and her career apparently takes unquestioned and absolute priority over her family), his main reason for opposing her plan seems to be the fact that she doesn't want to biologically mother a child. While Lenny's preference for a biological child may be spurred by a desire to keep Amanda's professional aspirations in check (i.e., not be—further—emasculated), it is more obviously fueled by his recognition that, as Sander H. Lee notes, "adoption would deprive the world of a biological replica of himself" (Angst 357). However, the notion of Lenny's 'biological replica' goes a step further than mere reproduction (even if Lenny wonders why Amanda would even consider adoption given his "award-winning genes"). Tellingly, Amanda repeatedly stresses that Lenny "wanted a boy"—which triggers the chorus to highlight the dangers of fathering a boy, and Laius (David Ogden Stiers) explains that he, indeed, had a boy: "One day, he kills me. And don't you think, he runs off and marries my wife."

Lenny's two desires (i.e., reducing Amanda's threat to his manhood and procreating a male offspring) converge in the topic of masculinity. Lenny's manliness is both highlighted and questioned throughout the movie in humorous ways. The second exchange with Amanda provides an illustrative example of what happens throughout the film: Amanda, sitting in an art studio or art gallery, phones Lenny, who takes the call in a gym, surrounded by boxers. After she has confronted Lenny with the fact that her friend Carolyn has "found an infant" for them, Lenny protests: "I gotta put my foot down. […] You know, if you want to discuss this another time, we can. But if you gotta have a fast answer, it's definitely no." After a cut, Lenny is holding a baby in his arms. The cut goes hand in hand with a significant change in setting: from the manly gym to the feminine domestic sphere of Lenny and Amanda's apartment, where the two lovingly cuddle the new member of their family. The depiction of small and fragile-looking Lenny in the gym, the fact that Amanda gets her will while Lenny is surrounded by signifiers of manliness, and the change in setting underline how Amanda emasculates Lenny on a constant basis. On the other hand, Peter Bailey has suggested that Lenny's re-assertion of his manhood is closely linked to his "Linda Ash redemption project," which serves as "the revenge of the powerless against the powerful" (ch. 16; see also Lee, Angst 360). However, the fact that Lenny hides his plans to seek out Linda from Amanda indicates that this 'redemption project' is nothing but a gesture, a "nonpositive affirmation" (Foucault 36) that merely underscores that Amanda is—in Lenny's words—"the decision maker," which means that "Mommy says what we do."

More than the 'Linda Ash redemption project,' Lenny's (adoptive) fatherhood functions to re-assert his maleness (a suggestion which, admittedly, is on shaky ground, as it is based on Lenny's incapability to reproduce). Hannah Hamad has recently argued that paternity works as "a universalizing discourse of masculinity […] that enables hegemonic commonality across a plurality of [...] masculinities" (1). Lenny's fatherhood thus offers him a (relatively) safe foundation for his masculine identity. When viewers first see Lenny with his newly adopted son, he is depicted as the loving father, but the neurotic sportswriter quickly begins to wonder how his adoptive son may continue the Weinrib legacy. First, he esoterically moves his hands around the boy and jokingly remarks, "If there's any greatness in my hands, let it pass into your body." Only moments later, Lenny realizes that Max will bear and preserve the Weinrib name (and hopefully pass it down to the next generation). This preservation of the father's family name works as an exterior scaffolding of heteronormative masculinity's dominance, thus finally legitimizing Lenny's aspirations towards hegemonic masculinity (that is, if he ever had such aspirations, a point that is negated by the fact that Lenny and Amanda are re-united at the end of the movie, among others).

In addition, the preservation of the Weinrib name allows Lenny to effectively become immortal. After all, already Plato understood that children bring their parents "as close as a mortal can get to being immortal" (206e). If one accepts Claire Sisco King's suggestion that most of Allen's movies "can be read as self-reflexive meditations on [his] cinematic oeuvre" (188), Lenny's legacy, expressed in primarily biological terms, carries "an aura of self-consciousness about the making of art" (Bailey ch. 1). From this perspective, Mighty Aphrodite emerges as a text centrally concerned with its creator's (and the movie's) legacy.

This topic is made even more explicit in God when Hepatitis proclaims: "I want to be immortal. […] I want my works to live on long after my physical body has passed away. I want future generations to know I existed" (154). Allen's self-inscription into the play (and into many of his movies4) is merely one of the artist's tools to ensure the continued presence of 'Woody Allen' in the media. As Chris Rojek has noted, "in secular society the honorific status conferred on certain celebrities outlasts physical death" (78). Rojek continues that "[c]elebrity immortality is obviously more readily achieved in the era of mass communications, since film footage and sound recordings preserve the celebrity in the public sphere" (78). In this way, contemporary (and future) media (will) ensure the continued life of Woody Allen (i.e., the media figure) in mediated form even after his physical existence has ended.5

Yet there is a particular paradox at work concerning the immortality of the media figure Woody Allen, for Allen's public persona is inseparable from his private self. Even though Allen has repeatedly complained that "[p]eople always confuse my movies and my life" (qtd. in James par. 13), his stardom solidly rests upon "the fusion of his public and private identities" (Girgus 3). As Sam B. Girgus continues, "Allen has become a prisoner of his own image […]. The narcissistic marriage of public and private selves that served him so well now encircles him" (3). Here again, there is an uncanny overlap between fiction and 'reality': just as Woody Allen has become a prisoner of his own media image, the characters in his works frequently struggle in very similar ways with whether—and if so, how—they can escape the predetermined patterns of their (fictional) lives.

"I act. I take action. I make things happen": Predetermination, Freedom, and Human Agency

Mighty Aphrodite opens with the chorus entering a Greek theater stage (actually filmed in Sicily). True to its Hellenic predecessors, the chorus introduces the tale that is about to unfold:

Woe unto man.
Brave Achilles, slain in trial by blood.
For prize, the bride of Menelaus,
and father of Antigone, ruler of Thebes,
self-rendered sightless by lust for expiation,
lost victim of bewildered desire.
Nor has Jason’s wife fared better,
giving life, only to reclaim it, in vengeful fury.
For to understand the ways of the heart
is to grasp as clearly the malice or ineptitude of the gods.
Who in their vain and clumsy labors to create a flawless surrogate
have left mankind but dazed and incomplete.
Take, for instance, the case of Lenny Weinrib,
a tale as Greek and timeless as fate itself.

The chorus' introduction not only highlights the significant role fate will play in the story to come, but also hints at what Rush Rehm in his work on Greek tragedy calls "the 'overdetermination' of Greek tragic characters," by which he means "that both human and divine forces conjoin in motivating their actions" (66)—Menelaus was not only controlled by the gods, but also by lust, just as Medea's "vengeful fury" influenced her actions.

Despite this looming awareness of how the actions of Greek characters were controlled by themselves and the gods, Mighty Aphrodite's chorus constantly stresses that Lenny should not challenge fate and thus suggests that the "tale as Greek and timeless as fate itself" will follow the traditional path of a noble character destined to fall due to his overwhelming hubris. As the chorus leader (F. Murray Abraham) emphasizes at one point: "With Amanda, it was fate. With Linda, it's hubris. His drive to find out, and now, to change her life, to control her."

Lenny, as the chorus leader indicates, "take[s] upon himself the authority reserved for the fates" (Lee, Angst 359) and tries to change Linda's life. These attempts drive the narrative (indeed, if it weren't for Lenny ignoring the chorus' pieces of advice, there would be no plot to speak of). Of course, Lenny wouldn't be a typical Woody Allen 'hero' if he were to succeed. Although the chorus and the other Greek characters continually warn Lenny not to do what he is about to do, as they "see big trouble" ahead, nothing really bad happens to Lenny or any other character in the diegesis. Indeed, after his various attempts to alter the path of Linda's life have failed, Linda's future husband is forced to land his helicopter due to a technical malfunction just when she drives by—"talk about a deus ex machina," the chorus remarks. The movie thus suggests that "Lenny is chosen by fate, without his understanding, to serve as the agent who makes possible Linda's success" (Lee, Angst 362) and that some 'divine' intervention is often needed in order to truly succeed. That the deus ex machina is, however, not a 'true' god's hand intervening in the sphere of mortals, but the hand of the 'Author-God' Woody Allen again serves to ensure his continued existence as a media figure.

God is more ambiguous in its treatment of fate and human agency. This ambiguity is introduced early on when 'Woody' ends his exchange with Diabetes mentioned earlier by saying "Okay, call me back and let me know how the play ends" (145). At this moment, the diegetic 'Author-God' seemingly forsakes control over the narrative, but the play engages in a constant struggle with divine control, authorial control, and freedom. While divine control and authorial control sometimes overlap, this is not always the case. Diabetes exclaims that freedom entails that "characters would have no determined traits and could choose their own characters," which would mean that he "could choose to become a hero" (137). Yet when he is later given the chance to become heroic in the play-within-the-play, he chickens out and wonders, "What's the big deal about freedom? It's dangerous. To know one's place is safe" (162–63), as audiences are asked to ponder whether he is now speaking out of free will or whether someone has placed these words into his mouth. Moments later, Diabetes comes to understand that he has to accept his heroic role "because Woody asked [him] to" (166). That Diabetes follows Woody's (the fictional character? the actual author?) wishes in the play-within-the-play written by Hepatitis, who had a little earlier in the play proclaimed to be "a free man" (154) only complicates matters.

God's (quite literal) play with the topic of freedom climaxes in the play-within-the-play's conclusion. Diabetes-as-Phidipides is sent to deliver a message to the king. Unwilling to tell the king the message, since bringers of bad messages tend to be killed, Phidipides tries to avoid communicating the message. "It is one word, sire," Phidipides tells the king, who responds, "A one-word answer to my question of questions. Is there a god?" Certain that he has the message the king expects to hear, Phidipides proclaims, "Then I'm proud to give you the message. The word is yes." However, the king is not as happy as Phidipides imagined: "If there is a god, then man is not responsible and I will surely be judged for my sins. […] This is the worst possible news" (180–82). When the king orders the messenger killed, fiction and reality (within the storyworld) become one, as Diabetes (not Phidipides!) begs Zeus for help. This triggers a deus ex machina in the play-within-the-play: The special effects crew launches Zeus, who appears pompously, but the machine has a malfunction and the actor playing Zeus (and thus Zeus?) is strangled to death. "God is dead," exclaims Diabetes. This metaphysical epiphany steels Diabetes' masculine resolve, as he suddenly craves to act out his free will. "What're you doing, Phidipides? The king should kill you," wonders the chorus. “Says who? Where is it written? No—I choose to kill the king," Diabetes replies (187; italics in original). However, when he wants to penetrate the king's flesh with a sword, the soft prop bends, clearly aligning Diabetes' lack of power with phallic imagery. Afterwards, chaos ensues: The actor playing the king leaves the stage in order to contact his agent, Stanley Kowalski runs onto the stage looking for Stella, Groucho Marx chases Blanche across the stage, and Hepatitis is left lamenting: "My play … my play" (187).

The question that thus emerges is whether Hepatitis—as the intradiegetic 'Author-God'—ever controlled his play or—if not—at what point his characters started to embrace their freedom and take their lives into their own hands. Neither the play nor the play-within-the-play provides any conclusive answers, as free will and predestination (or pure chance) apparently conjoin to define the characters' lives. The play thus effectively suggests that even though freedom does exist, it is, in many respects, an illusion. After all, in order to assert agency, one must perform actions, and as Rosalyn Diprose, following Michel Foucault, has pointed out, any performance "is built on the invasion of the self by the gestures of others, who, by referring to other others, are already social beings" (25). In other words, an individual's will (and thus her or his performance) can never escape the dominant discourse, which restricts individual freedom and transforms any performance into yet another (re-)inscription of the dominant discourse.

"If God saves everything, man is not responsible for his actions": Existentialist Deliberations and the Influences of the Theatre of the Absurd

While God's play-within-the-play concludes with the chaos just discussed, the play's closing moments suddenly return to its framing narrative, which depicts how Diabetes and Hepatitis discuss The Slave. In fact, the play's final twelve utterances mirror the first twelve. The ending is "hopeless," notes Diabetes, while the entire play is "a play with no beginning" (132; 190). Diabetes and Hepatitis are caught in a time loop or, more to the point, engaged in Sisyphean labor that has no end in sight. Tellingly, the play closes with Diabetes' assertion "That's absurd," followed by Hepatitis' consternated response "Absurd? What’s absurd?" (190; 132).

Although some audience members may conclude that God has the "feel of an improv comedy" rather than a scripted play, as Kelle Schillaci quips in a review of a 2012 God production in Las Vegas (par. 6), most spectators will probably leave God thinking about the play in (more or less) the same way as indicated by Diabetes—it's absurd; or "bizarre," as Hepatitis once describes the entire situation the highly meta-aware characters find themselves in (136). After all, in roughly sixty minutes, spectators are not only confronted with a play that closes in on itself in a Möbius-strip-like fashion, but they have witnessed how characters from other well-known media texts have infiltrated God's (and, in fact, The Slave's) storyworld(s), how the porous boundaries between the various (onto)logical realities depicted in the play have repeatedly been metaleptically transgressed in highly self-reflexive moments, and how God has been proclaimed dead in a not-too-subtle allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche.

"But without God, the universe is meaningless. Life is meaningless. We're meaningless," Doris (the philosophy student mentioned above) notes at one point (150), a statement that mirrors existentialist ideas contemplated by philosophers such as Albert Camus:6

A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. […] This divorce between man and his life […] is properly the feeling of absurdity. (4–5)

Martin Esslin employed this quotation by Camus to begin his discussion of the Theatre of the Absurd as an expression of absurdist philosophy in his seminal book on the dramatic genre that began to emerge in the 1950s. Esslin's analysis of the Theatre of the Absurd was, however, just as much influenced by a definition of absurdity which Eugène Ionesco supplied in an essay on Franz Kafka's "Das Stadtwappen" (1920; "The City's Coat of Arms"): "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose. … Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless" (qtd. in Esslin 23). This notion of life's senselessness is, Esslin explains, reflected in the plays of the Theatre of the Absurd, for they are defined by their "sense of metaphysical anguish at the absurdity of the human condition" (23–24). Even though Esslin acknowledges that these themes had been repeatedly touched upon in cultural artifacts before the Theatre of the Absurd emerged, he suggests that the Theatre of the Absurd, unlike earlier artistic treatments, reflects its content discursively: "[T]he Theatre of the Absurd strives to express its sense of senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought" (24).

God's (and The Slave's) meaninglessness, as diagnosed by Doris, matches both the themes and aesthetics of the Theatre of the Absurd: the cyclical character of the play that underscores the lack of a traditional plot, the "badly drawn" and "one-dimensional" characters (W. Allen, God 143), and the "radical devaluation of language" (Esslin 26), which is made most explicit when the chorus suddenly and for no apparent reason starts to recite lines from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1912)7—all of these features fit so well that it seems as if Woody Allen had read Esslin's book prior to starting his work on God. Indeed, to simply adapt a statement by Esslin, God displays a "sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions" (23).

Although Esslin provides tremendous insight into the meaning of the Theatre of the Absurd, in certain respects, his arguments are based on some fundamental misconstructions, as Michael Y. Bennett explains in his recent book Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd (2011). One of the central points of Bennett's critique is how Esslin's ellipsis in the Ionesco quotation cited above fundamentally changes the meaning of Ionesco's argument. Whereas Esslin construes Ionesco's point as denoting life's (general) meaninglessness, Ionesco, in fact, suggests that "when man is cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, then man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless" (Bennett 10; italics in original). "For Camus and Ionesco," Bennett stresses,

the absurd was a situation, but not a life sentence of destined meaninglessness or a comment on the world. True, life might not have any inherent meaning, but this stems not from the world, but from the contradiction between our desires and what the world offers us. However, even given the absurdity of the situation, it is up to us […] to make our lives meaningful. (10; italics in original)

Although one could argue that this is, in fact, the meaning of 'absurdity' that God promotes, the interpretation of 'absurdity' suggested by Bennett becomes more pertinent in the context of Mighty Aphrodite, for, in many ways, Lenny's life seems to lack a goal, a meaning. Even though Max, as suggested above, affords Lenny symbolic immortality, the way in which Lenny interacts with Max indicates that paternity does not entirely satisfy Lenny's need for a meaningful life. Lenny's life only becomes (momentarily?) purposeful when he decides to take Linda's future into his hands. However, his inevitable failure can be attributed neither to the generic requirements of the tale that is his life nor to his predetermined path on planet Earth (no matter what agent created said path—gods, God, or the Author-God), but rather to the inherent conflict between "limitless desire" and "limited satisfaction," as H. Gaston Hall wrote in an early (re-)assessment of Camus's philosophy (27).

If one accepts that this conflict between limitless desire and limited satisfaction emerges as a central issue in both God and Mighty Aphrodite, one will quickly understand that these two forces also assume significant roles when it comes to the questions of origin (i.e., the clash between the—potentially—limitless desire to identify origins and the limited satisfaction of understanding that they cannot—or perhaps even should not—be determined) and legacy (i.e., the desire to secure one's place in the memories of future generations vs. the recognition that the future is beyond one's control). Allen's work effectively suggests that these forces control our lives to some extent, but that we do have some influence on them. After all, even though we cannot satisfy all of our desires, we do (at least partially) control which ones are satisfied. This suggestion is, of course, inherently paradoxical, for it implies that both free will and predetermination (not necessarily in the religious sense) have strong effects on our existence.

Although audiences could draw this very conclusion after watching Mighty Aphrodite or seeing/reading God, Woody Allen's aesthetics of incorporation adds crucial dimensions that allow for a deeper understanding of the themes that his work often merely (yet only seemingly) superficially touches upon. Gregg Bachman has recently underscored that "[i]f you care to engage in the [intertextual] dialogue, your experience [of Allen's movies] is enriched; if not, you run the risk of being alienated from, or at best, limited to, a superficial experience of the entire enterprise" (174). Indeed, the intertextual network surrounding (and interconnecting) Woody Allen's works effectively requires audiences to participate in the intertextual play and embrace the "open text" (Eco) the works are part of. Thus, recipients are asked to confront their worldviews in an attempt to create order out of the apparent chaos (or, of course, embrace the contradictions, paradoxes, and ambiguities) presented in Allen's works. In this way, when Annie (Diane Keaton) assures Alvy (Woody Allen) in Annie Hall (1977), "I'm starting to get more of your references," this line can be read as a metareferential gesture which underlines that recognizing a reference is only a first step towards a fuller understanding of Alvy's—and, by extension, Woody Allen's—work.


1 For structuralist approaches to intertextuality (and intermediality) in Allen's movies, see, for example, Valérie Auda-André and Gilles Menegaldo's 1995 piece on forms of intertextuality in Zelig, Stardust Memories, and Crimes and Misdemeanors, which suggests distinguishing between citation, parody, and pastiche, and Denis Fortin's examination of four major categories of intertextuality—direct, indirect, implicit, and extra-cinematic; for an extensive overview of allusions in Allen's artistic output and interviews, see Andrew J. Gothard's contribution to the Companion to Woody Allen. | return to main text |
2 This is, of course, not meant to suggest that intertextuality didn't exist before the emergence of postmodernism in the 1960s. For example, Schatz Page (Lauren Bacall) expresses her love for "that old fellow […] from the African Queen" in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). However, as Valerie Wee has correctly highlighted in an essay on the Scream trilogy, while in earlier cinematic examples, intertextuality "function[s] at the traditional level of […] subtext," in more recent, highly allusive movies, referentiality "emerges […] as the actual text of the films" (44; italics in original). | return to main text |
3 Phyllis Frus has proposed a more balanced view, for although "intertextuality is not always intentional" (60), employing certain techniques and stylistic devices still allows a movie to stimulate what Stuart Hall called the 'preferred meaning' of a media text (483–84). As Bliss Cua Lim elaborates, actors and actresses may, for example, unconsciously introduce gestures known from other movies that recipients consider allusions; these gestures, on their end, are "not […] singular point[s] of meaning but […] variegated prism[s] through which other discourses are refracted" (165). | return to main text |
4 In his Woody Allen biography, John Baxter elaborates on the inspiration for Mighty Aphrodite: "'Years ago, I was looking at Dylan [Mia Farrow's adoptive daughter],' Allen said, 'and I thought, gee, she's so bright and charming and funny, she must have come from good biological parents. […] [S]ome months later I thought it would make a funny story about a character who becomes obsessed with the idea—maybe if his marriage wasn't going well—that he might be in love with his son's real mother, then finds out she is horrible, a prostitute, a vulgarian, stupid'" (418). Summing up the interrelations between Woody Allen, the 'real' person, and his fictional stand-ins, Sam B. Girgus notes that "[i]n most of Allen's films, the exterior author exists in relationship to the interior narrator" (29). | return to main text |
5 However, as Ty Burr has recently poignantly stressed: "[T]he promise of immortality embodied in movie stardom is an illusion, for it's very probable that less than 5 percent of college students in 2010 know who Clark Gable is, just as you had never heard of Florence Lawrence [until] a few hundred pages ago, no matter that both actors had in their time been proof for millions of something bigger, brighter, and forever" (351). | return to main text |
6 Connections between Allen's work and existentialist ideas have been repeatedly discussed in Woody Allen scholarship (see, for instance, Bailey ch. 10; Bruce; Commins; Detmer; Girgus 132, 178–83; Lee, Angst 28–32, 55–63, 260–67; Lee, "Love"). | return to main text |
7 The fact that I discuss God alongside Mighty Aphrodite—a movie that employs the Pygmalion trope—without a doubt endows this intertextual reference with more meaning than originally intended. | return to main text |

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