A Note on the First Episode of Woody Allen’s “A Crisis in Six Scenes”

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After reading an extremely negative review of Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes” in the Daily Beast, I decided that it is necessary for me to set the record straight.  In the review, the author, Amy Zimmerman, completely misunderstands the role of the schlemiel that Allen plays: Sidney Muntzinger.   Moreover, she projects a negative judgment against Allen’s plot because she wants to see a different main character in a series dealing with the upheavals in the 60s: a politically active heroic character.  The problem, in other words, is not with the series so much as with the reviewer’s ideological overreach.  I’ll cite a few of her critical words to illustrate her misreading and her intense dislike of Allen’s schlemiel character.    After doing this, I’d like to give a more nuanced reading of the first episode.

Zimmerman correctly points how Allen situates Sidney Mutzinger in the midst of political upheaval but she mischaracterizes his schlemiel character:

The war in Vietnam is raging, reefer madness is spreading, and the [insert movement here] is dominating college campuses across the country. Amidst all this upheaval, we’re introduced to Sidney Muntzinger, Allen’s off-brand J.D. Salinger avatar. This abrupt tonal shift to the seated curmudgeon, absorbed in a conversation about himself—his favorite topic—is the first joke of the series. Muntzinger is so deep in a decades-long tailspin of neurotic narcissism, he’s just about the last person to realize that the world is blowing up around him. This juxtaposition—between a timeless, self-involved Woody Allen id and the political chaos lapping at his consciousness—is at the heart of the series.

As one can see, her opinion about the character is – at the very outset – jaded.  Allen doesn’t cast Muntzinger as an avatar of JD Salinger.  In the first scene, the barber jokes with him about how his writing falls far short of Salinger.  Muntzinger – to be sure – is a schlemiel author.  His fiction is not popular and he makes a living off of making commercials.  He is like many Woody Allen characters who are schlemiel-writer types.   We see this kind of character in films like Hollywood Ending (2002) and Midnight in Paris (2011).   In these films, Allen uses the schlemiel writer to address the question of success and failure.  He is often reluctant to throw in the towel for the hero and this speaks to an ethos that is diasporic and Jewish since it doesn’t give in to the cult of heroism, success, and power.  Failure and comical misfortune create a fence against the fanaticism that comes with politics, history, and utopianism.   (The tension between two different novels – one that balances between the human and the historical and the other which sees literature as a means to a political end is artfully depicted in Bernard Malamud’s The Tenants.)

To call Allen’s character ahistorical and to have spite for him, rather than find him endearing or even teaching us about the fate of the schlemiel in American history (or in at least one period; in relation to this, we should keep in mind that Allen’s schlemiel’s thrived during the Vietnam War era; think, for instance, of Bananas(1971)), shows us more about the author of this article than about Allen’s character.

Allen situates the schlemiel in times of radical upheaval so as to have us understand the contrast between being a “man” (“active”) and falling short and appearing “effeminate” or an anti-hero.   It creates a tension that puts comedy to the test.   To be sure, all of Allen’s schlemiel characters give us a vantage point that more pathos ridden films do not.  To not see this is not to understand Woody Allen.

When Zimmerman calls Allen’s series “lazy” and expresses frustration with the character’s “endless hand wringing,” it becomes obvious that she wants a hero not an anti-hero.  With this criterion in mind, she casts Muntzinger as a nostalgic schlemiel who can’t live in the present.   And this angers Zimmerman.   Muntzinger continues to fumble through his own series, stumbling through a series of increasingly high stakes hijinks in a futile quest to return to the way things were.  She wants a more political character that she can identify with, not a schlemiel who “fumbles” and “stumbles.”

She likens the series to a “mediocre Madmen” and writes it off in one fell swoop:

What it is, really, is mediocre Mad Men. Sidney Muntzinger, who freelances as an ad writer, is criticized by Lennie as a symbol of the mindless American capitalism machine. But unlike Don Draper, everyone’s favorite self-destructive ad man, Muntzinger has none of the empty hunger that Dale so un-subtly accuses him of. Draper’s depth as a seller and a consumer stems from his insatiability. His damaged psyche drives him towards sex, drugs, drink, love, and self-annihilation. Draper is desperate for any experience that drags him outside of himself, which makes him a perfect guide through culture and counter-culture. Allen’s Muntzinger is the complete opposite—an insular homebody whose only appetite is for the sturgeon that Lennie steals from his fridge.

Zimmerman spells out her ideological biases in the final paragraphs:

Crisis in Six Scenes is proof that Allen can, and will, create in the face of his own ignorance and even apathy. Allen doesn’t seem to have given the politics behind Lennie’s character any more thought than Muntzinger has given his fictional Neanderthals. The joke—that Muntzinger assumes that human beings are basically the same, anywhere and at any time—is evident in Allen’s ahistorical approach. Obvious name drops and dates aside, Muntzinger is a character outside of time. His co-stars, despite their valiant attempts to give this show its time-specific color, don’t have enough space or depth to really do the ’60s justice.

The problem is that she feels that there is nothing to learn from Muntzinger. He is a “fictional neanderthal,” he’s not political enough for her tastes.  Allen is “ignorant” and “apathetic” when it comes to history and politics.  Based on this framing of Allen and the schlemiel, Zimmerman shows us that she has no desire to learn anything from the schlemiel narrative.

Rather than call the film names and turn it into a mirror of the reviewer and her political views, Allen’s schlemiel should be read in relation to the relationship of comedy to historical and political upheaval.  Unlike Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which doesn’t cast a schlemiel in relation to the upheavals of the 60s, Allen does.  And we need to think this in a different frame, one that is more literary and even theological.   To not do so is to trash the power of the comic literary imagination to address history.   The one needs to be read in relation to the other.

The fact that Zimmerman dismisses these aspects is troubling because it deems a whole genre irrelevant to a new framework which sees everything – even comedy – in terms of political power and action.   The vulnerability and comical fallibility of the schlemiel is deemed irrelevant to this agenda because schlemiels are usually powerless characters.

Now I want to turn to the first episode.

In the first scene, Allen situates the failed author and who he has failed to be: heroic.   He wants to have a haircut like James Dean (but obviously can’t) and the barber reminds him that he is no “J.D. Salinger.”  And that he likely won’t succeed in being a wealthy and successful novelist.  Mutzinger is not a hero and not a monetary success.   The barber suggests that he write what makes everyone happy (in the wake of this review, this is ironic).   But he can’t seem to do that.  He’s always off.   Allen casts the schlemiel in a more theological plot.

Reflecting on himself, Muntzinger says he’s a “lucky man” (he has a good wife, great grandchildren, a nice home, etc) and that he is “blessed,” but the barber says, in response to this, that “so was Job and…1,2,3 God fucked him over.”  This motif, which Zimmerman completely overlooks, is central.  Throughout the episode, the question of who is lucky and who is not – themes we find in much schlemiel fiction and film – is central.

The scene following this one is of his wife – a therapist – and a troubled couple.   She asks them “what marital problems bring you here today.”  The first response  – made by the wife – is that “we argue.”   But the husband responds, “We don’t argue about material things.”  Hearing this, one wonders what spiritual things do they argue about.  And this links to the Job theme.  However, this is displaced when the wife says that “he wants to live in the city and I want to live in the country; he doesn’t want me to work, I work, etc.”    The differences go on for a minute or two but when asked if “there is anything they agree upon” they say tell Mutzinger’s wife that they both agree that “neither one of us likes guacamole.”   The punch line is delivered by the therapist: “Ok that’s a beginning…its clear that you two love each other….and we can build on guacamole.”  The irony is that you can’t; it’s not solid.   And this adds to the central plot.   Is the basis for a relationship between man and God, between husband and wife solid, or between humankind and history based on anything solid?  Or is it all determined by chance? Is misfortune always a possibility?

Muntzinger comes home and wonders about how he appears to his wife: “who do I look like?” Instead of telling him that he looks like Jimmy Dean with his new haircut, she names several schlemiel-like B actors.   She sees him as an effeminate kind of schlemiel not as a heroic male figure.    He then asks about what’s happening in the world and we hear about war and chaos.  He is comforted when he hears that the TV is fixed, however.   This obviously gives Zimmerman’s claims some teeth but what she misses is the more metaphysical theme of appearance and reality.   He knows he doesn’t look like a hero and is far to old for that.  He lives off of this irony but makes the failure laughable.

The next scene deepens the Job theme and shows us the literary thread that runs through the series.  It is of a women’s reading group that discusses Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, the main character of “The Metamorphosis.”     It’s obvious that Allen – like Philip Roth – identifies with Kafka but no one seems to get Kafka just like they don’t seem to get Muntzinger.   However, the observations they make about guilt, Kafka’s relationship to his father, and so forth do give the viewer a key for understanding Mutzinger.

The following scene shows Muntzinger in a “manly” situation – cooking stakes for a gathering – that he has never engaged in before.  He expresses frustration in not being able to get the bbq going.    His wife comes into the scene and tells the guests that “he is a brilliant writer but he can’t change a fuse.”  She justifies the writer-schlemiel and shows that, despite his failures as a “real man” in the house, she still loves him.  She then speaks proudly of an ad he did, but when he explains it the viewer can see how ridiculous his script for the commercial is.

This scene is followed by others in which we see a juxtaposition of the men who go to war or the people who protest and Muntzinger who is not physically fit to go to war.   He is afraid to die and doesn’t want to leave home.  He wants to stay put.  The contrast between the schlemiel anti-hero and the male hero is foregrounded.  As we have seen, Zimmerman is angry that the schlemiel is not a protestor.  She sees no room for comedy in this historical context.

But the final scene of the first episode posits the larger question for Allen, which deals with the relationship of fortune and misfortune to God and theodicy.  Before going to bed, Allen gives thanks for his good fortune saying that he ended up with the “right wife.”  She responds, “We are lucky people.”  He may be a schlemiel and not be the most successful person, but he is loved.  And that matters most.  Like many a schlemiel who finds something redeeming in the end,  he is “lucky” to have found her.

Following this, Allen asks if “should I say my prayers in the event that there is a God and I have been wrong over all these years?”  And his wife asks, “Do you think we should have gone to Washington to demonstrate?”   He shirks the question and she says the prayer, “God bless the Muntzinger household.”   And Muntzinger carries on with a serious plea and a joke: “if You’re listening that goes double for me.  But if you have found any tax loopholes that my accountant hasn’t thought of, slip it into my dream tonight.”

Following this, Muntzinger, before turning the light out, tells his wife that, of all people, his barber likened him to the Biblical character, Job.  And this is the foreshadowing of the last moment of the episode.  Muntzinger forgets to lock his doors and we see a burglar has broken in.    The episode ends on this note of misfortune and shows us how a comic, schlemiel figure, can go from a character of minor misfortunes to a tragic, Kafka like character, in the blink of an eye.

What Allen is trying to address by way of the schlemiel and the question of God in relation to one’s luck is deeply theological.  It also deals with the question of what one is to do in time of historical and political upheaval if he or she is closer to death than to life.  What matters most to a schlemiel who is near the end?  This explains why Job and theodicy comes up throughout the episode.

But Zimmerman, the Daily Beast reviewer, isn’t interested.  In the series, the role of the schlemiel and questions pertaining to God and fortune are besides the point.  Her review sees Muntzinger in a negative light because politics – rather than any other element in the series – should predominate.  She sees his schlemiel as abdicating and too self-absorbed to act in or even think about history.  She doesn’t see what Allen is trying to do with a character who is nearing his death while the country burns.  What she misses is that the Muntzinger character that Allen is grappling with speaks to larger issues that, because they deal with the schlemiel and figures like Job, reach back deeper into Jewish history and existentiality.   How does this balance out with what is happening in American history?

Rather than throwing Allen’s series to the dustheap of history and along with it the schlemiel (as Zimmerman has done), I would like to carefully consider what he is doing in this series by closely reading each episode.   Calling it “lazy” shows us more about the elevated and condescending character of the reviewer and less about the series.  The criterion for judging it is not solely political.  And perhaps what Allen is trying to show us has more to do with the question of not just whether or not but how the schlemiel can live in the wake of historical and political upheaval.  Perhaps it’s place has a lot to do with the meaning and promise of comedy to the future.

Sholem Aleichem, who wrote during the times of pogroms and mass dispersion, taught hundreds of thousands of admiring readers that the schlemiel matters, especially in time of historical chaos.  The question of how this is the case is something that Allen grapples with in this series.  The intellectual vantage point he offers speaks to the heart (as Bellow’s Moses Herzog does in the novel Herzog) and not to an ideology that sees the schlemiel as an enemy of history and political action.   Calling the language of the heart narcissistic and “neanderthal” because it is not political and active enough is to misunderstand the importance of the schlemiel and to affirm something more heartless and cold as a criterion for truth.

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