It’s a Family Affair: Caring Mothers, Radical Children, and…an Anxious Schlemiel Husband in Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes”


Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes has prompted me to think a lot about a time that I have not lived through; but, like many Americans, have inherited.   His short series has also made it clear to me that Allen is giving the schlemiel a new and important role in the important task of addressing and assessing radicalism in a time when it is coming back with a new kind of force and vigor.   By way of using the comedic antics of the schlemiel to re-imagine the time period, Allen’s series helps us to gain some distance from our own troubled times and reflect on them in a more nuanced and intelligent manner.

Like many Americans born to parents who were baby boomers, I was always fascinated with the meaning of 60s radicalism.  My parents were not, by any means, radicals.  However, I did have at least one family member who left New York City for the West Coast, joined a commune, and essentially “dropped out and tuned in.”  On occasion we talked about his experiences in the grand 60s.   He suggested music for me to listen to and when I asked him about what books to read, he turned me on to Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, and Tom Wolfe.  I kept these writers close to my chest and, reading them, I started becoming more rebellious against my more conservative leaning father (my mother was more liberal than he).   Although I was difficult, it wasn’t until I went to university that I got my first taste of radicalism and became a real contrarian.  I expanded my reading list and started reading Karl Marx, Franz Fanon, and a host of post-Colonial writers.    I remember coming home and arguing with my father who, because he went to Columbia University as an undergrad, was familiar with all the clichés that radicals would toss around in the sixties.  Although we often clashed and I did a lot of my studies in spite of him, I learned, that he was, in many ways, right to challenge my radical fire.

On campus and off campus, I experienced radicalism that sometimes bled into anti-Semitism.  (I also experienced this during and after my graduate studies – as a student and as a professor.)   I was shocked at how a number of intellectuals claimed that Jews were behind the slave trade, were taking revenge on Blacks and Palestinians, or that Israel was essentially a terrorist nation that was only concerned with “ethnic cleansing” and using every available opportunity to use “self-defense” as a shield for killing as many Palestinians as possible.  I was astonished at how resentful, vindictive, and angry radicalism had become so as to insist that, if I were to be a radical, that I would have to hate and suspect my own people and Israel itself as evil incarnate.    As a result of these extremely negative experiences, I was prompted to take a more critical look into what radicalism is and was.  I was looking not only for a critical discourse that addresses these excesses but for a kind of literature or aesthetics that put this kind of radicalism into question.

When I came across Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, I was astonished by how Roth situated 60s radicalism in the context of a Jewish American family that stretched back two generations.  (It spoke to my own life situation since the main character and the previous generations were in the leather business.)  Through his novel, I was able to see how each generation strayed farther from its Jewish roots and deeper into the American dream.  The third generation was epitomized by the main character’s daughter, Merry.   We see her go through the process of becoming an American radical and eventually a terrorist.  We see her opposition to the war and desire for social justice lead her to reading radical authors such as Franz Fanon and Mao and her emulation of a character much like Angela Davis.  Merry’s readings, education, and experiences in and of radical politics translate into a kind of radicalism which finds no qualms with using violence to accomplish its goals.

Roth’s depiction of Merry is quite tragic.   The whole family unravels around her descent into violence that leads to the death of innocent people.  For Roth, radicalism basically turns the American pastoral into an American tragedy.   It also suggests – as Michel Houllebecq also does in his book Elementary Particles – that the only way to address the 60s is through a tragic lens.   As a liberal American Jew, Roth, it seems, wants to distinguish himself from radicalism.

Because it also addresses 60s radicalism in a critical manner, Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes has much in common with Roth’s novel.  But it does something that Philip Roth’s American Pastoral could not do: it uses comedy to address the relationship of a Jewish family to 60s radicalism.

In the series, there is a rich family of characters.  There is a smart, impressionable, and compassionate wife, a kind, anxious, and distracted schlemiel husband and two – so to speak – adopted children: a naïve radical daughter and a son who falls in love with her and her “radical chic” (Tom Wolfe’s phrase to describe the aesthetic appeal of radicalism in the 60s).     In the first episode of the six-part series, we are introduced to Alan Brockman who lives in the Muntzinger house.  He is a naïve young man with liberal leanings.  His life is laid out in front of him and is on the way to getting married; and, yet, as the series goes on, we can see that he is not crazy about living this kind of life and looks for a way out.  He also wants – like his liberal fiancé and Mrs. Muntzinger and her schlemiel husband – to stop the war in Vietnam and end the mistreatment of Blacks in America.  When he meets Lennie for the first time – played my Miley Cyrus – he is taken by her beauty and her radicalism.

He’s not alone.  Mrs. Muntzinger, Kay, is also taken in and also gets her reading group to join in.   Everyone gets taken in, except for Sidney Muntzinger.  But, since he is a schlemiel, he can’t dissuade any of them from getting caught up in her radicalism.  They don’t listen to him. They humor him.

The contrast between Lennie and Sidney Muntzinger (the schlemiel father/husband) bears much food for thought.   Lennie shows herself to be an angry kind of child.  In fact, as we learn, her mother died when she was young and her father, a blacklisted actor, drank himself to death.  She basically raised herself.  We also learn that Kay is indebted to Lennie’s family because they took care of her after her mother died.    For this reason, when she sees that Lennie has broken in to their house, in episode two, she takes her in while Sidney complains.   Lennie gets her way and, as a part of the comical plot, takes on the vindictive daughter role casting Sid as the ultimate capitalist (which he surely isn’t; he is not an aggressive capitalist, he’s a schlemiel whose failures outdo his successes; the accusation and vindictiveness shows her reactionary sensibility).

When she first makes her case to Sidney and his wife, once can see that although she may have some kind of vocabulary and understanding of radicalism, she is ultimately a middle class girl who is naively jumping into radicalism: “This country doesn’t care for the unfortunate.  They have pay toilets…you have it right there; you have to go to the bathroom, you have to pay!”

Sid’s slow realization that she is a criminal is comical – like everything he does – but his wife pays no heed: “I get it, I get it, we should turn her in to go on our Caribbean vacation…. She’s a fugitive.”  In response, Lennie throws out her view of herself and her violence: “one man’s fugitive, is another man’s freedom fighter.”  She sees all of her activities, no matter how murderous or violent, as justified.  Sidney notes this injustice: “You blew up a draft board.”  In response she says that she is justified in killing them because “our armed forces are dropping napalm on Asian children.”  She sees herself as guilt free and active and Sidney as guilt ridden and passive: “I’m not a criminal; I’m an activist.  I don’t shoot anyone, I return fire.  Policy is made on the streets. Government is doing the criminal act.”  She pledges her allegiance to the “Constitutional Army.”   And repetitively points out how Sidney is old, senile, and dispensable while she is young, active, and indispensable.

But in this household, his wife has all the power.  This schlemiel is powerless.  He can complain, but he can’t keep his wife from taking Lennie in.   Sidney’s wife, Kay, admires Lennie for going “against the status quo” while Sidney, echoing Macbeth and the Hebrew Bible, reminds her that “she’s got blood on her hands” that she can’t just wash off.  She “can’t erase her sins.”  When his wife retorts that “we have challenges with inequality, racism, etc. she asks “what do we do?” And he argues that we “vote.”  But she then reminds him – adding the punch line – that he has voted in the last six elections.      At the very least, he can see that there is a problem.  His issue, however, is the radicalism that insists that violence is the only way to change things.  And this issue remains to the very end of the series.

Sidney is always worried in this six-part series.  Most of all, he’s afraid of being arrested.  His wife, however, doesn’t care and, as the series, goes on, becomes more and more involved.  All of this tension is diffused by the family situation in which we see Sidney fighting with Lennie about how much food she is eating.  He grumps about not having any sturgeon to eat because she has eaten it all.   She makes fun of his obsession with food (while hypocritically eating it all): “While kids are starving, you’re making waffles.”  Sidney responds, “While you make bombs.”   The bantering hits its height when, during one kitchen scene, she tells Morty, in the spirit of Nietzsche, “You’re a stooge with herd mentality.”  He screams at her to leave.  But it is ineffectual because his wife won’t kick Lennie out.

Alan Brockman is Lennie’s student.  She gets him to read books by Fanon, Marx, and others.  And in one important conversation she tells him that “real change comes at the barrel of a gun” not in a voting booth.    She asks him if it bothers him that “this country is ruled by oligarchy” and lays down her bottom line, as she does continuously, that “violence is the source of all values.”   “Violence,” she says in another conversation in which she cites Franz Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth, “is man recreating himself.”

After stating this position, Brockman tries making a case for the schlemiel, for Morty, and she argues that “he suffers from the bullshit big questions like…the meaning of life and mortality.  I think he’s a passive imbecile.”  She calls him a “limousine liberal” and, convinced of this, Brockman responds that the point is not to “know the world but to change it.” And the only way to do that is through radical action.  In this scenario, the “bullshit big questions” that Sidney finds so interesting (think of his aspirations to be a writer like Salinger or his reflection on Job that happens in the first episode) are negated.   Allen, it seems, sees the schlemiel as a means of maintaining a tension between the two much like what Bernard Malamud tried to do in his book The Tenants where a Jewish and an African American writer –who both live in an abandoned building – articulate two radically different understandings of literature and its task (one more political, the other more existential).

In a conversation with Bortman, we learn that Lennie was majorly influenced – in Berkeley – by two men: A Jewish radical thinker (his last name is Cohen) and a Black Panther kind of intellectual.  She fell in love with them and what they represented. They were her teachers and she accepted their cruelty.    Allen provides such background because he wants to show the romance that she has with radicalism.  And she is not alone, Brockman falls in love with her and her radicalism and so does Morty’s wife and her reading group. The only person who is not affected by this “radical chic” is the schlemiel, Sidney Muntzinger.

In one of their last major arguments, Lena goes ballistic when, once again, Sidney refuses to give in to her radicalism. And this time she shows that she would have no qualms with seeing him dead: “You’re the kind of guy they’re going to put up to the wall and shoot…you little fascist…You’re the guy who plays the sniveling coward in all those films.”     While Cyrus plays an endearing character and seems like a daughter who is simply angry, the viewer can see that she is being a little extreme.  The fact that no one seems to care is telling.  It shows that the charm and comedy of the whole thing makes one overlook the little tantrums she has in which she threatens the schlemiel with death.

Brockman and Morty’s wife join forces with Lennie in spreading ideas, building bombs (Morty’s bomb, comically, explodes while he is making it and he walks away with bandages and a failed, schlemiel’s attempt at making a bomb), and delivering packages.  The last two episodes delve into these scenes in which Sidney is thrown into a delivery and, like a schlemiel, screws it up. That aside, what Allen wants to show is all the excitement around the clandestine affairs of radical activism.  His wife – before and after a some chase scenes – speaks about how exhilarating it is to be on the run.  Allen seems to be telling us that this kind of excitement is part of the radical chic and what makes it so appealing.

In the last episode, Allen has everything come to its culmination under the roof of one house. The whole family, so to speak, comes together: his wife’s patients, the reading club, friends of the family, maintenance men, and African American radicals.  It’s a comic scene that goes out of control with an energy that articulates the confusion and excitement of all these things coming together.  The chaos – coupled with the prospect of Lennie really leaving for Cuba and leaving the house – prompts Sidney to volunteer to take her to a secret location where she will go to and leave from in her trek to Cuba.

What ensues is telling.

Sidney – speeding somewhere in the backroads of Upstate New York – is pulled over by a policeman.  The tension mounts when Sidney can’t seem to find his driver’s license or registration.  Then the policeman asks him to open his trunk (where Lennie is hidden).  But before he fully opens the trunk, the policeman has a moment of recognition and says that he knows Sidney Muntzinger; he’s read his books!  But then, as he keeps on talking, the viewer can see that the officer has mistaken Sidney for Salinger.   Sidney goes along with this and the irony of the affair is that we all know that he’s just a schlemiel writer.  He is the small (unrecognized) man.  Meanwhile, Lennie slips out of the trunk and runs into the woods never to be seen again.  They are different people and have different paths.  The charming radical doesn’t negate the absent-minded schlemiel.

He doesn’t stop the series at the point at which she escapes.  The schlemiel remains.  But the schlemiel almost gets the last word.

In bed that night, he reflects with his wife about what happened and he says the words that spell out the role of his liberal schlemiel: “Beware of fanatics no matter how just their cause seems.”  His wife asks who said that and he claims himself – mocking chairman Mao Tse Tung, who his wife quotes throughout the series – “That was Chairman Muntzinger.”

His very last words express the dreams of a schlemiel writer: “Do you think it’s in me to write a great novel like Catcher in the Rye?”  His wife – in response – gives the last word: “You’re an amusing and I always said, you can be another Salinger.”   What I find so endearing is that it is the women in this film that encourage others to believe and not give up hope.   But there is a difference.   In this series, we see that there are mothers of invention and there are mothers of violence.    This ending, as opposed to Philip Roth’s’ in American Pastoral, is not tragic.  Its comic.  It shows how comedy can address radicalism in a way that is balanced.  In both, it is the literary imagination that intervenes and draws a fine line between a liberal attitude toward history and a radical one.  In both, the best strategy is to be found by thinking about radicalism in relation to a family.

In the family, we find a microcosm of America and the possibility that if this or that modern “crisis” is to be addressed in six scenes or in a novel, perhaps, if it is to be more human and affective, it should be addressed through the family rather than in isolation from it.   This is an important lesson; one that I can personally testify to.  When it comes to addressing the most violent and dangerous aspects of radicalism, Allen seems to be arguing that comedy is better than tragedy.  Rather than allowing one side from another, Allen suggests that comedy works best when it keeps the American family together rather than tearing it apart.  As Sly Stone once said, “it’s a family affair.”

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