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Vol. 13, No. 5, 2014
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romantic love and woody allen's

reviewed by


Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available at

In all of the world’s creative literature, music, painting, film and drama there is certainly no subject more explored than romantic love. It is a paramount human activity and artists everywhere have bravely encountered its myriad pitfalls and complexities while struggling to decipher its essences. Yet perhaps its highest expression – that of festive romance, emotional apotheosis, and amorous fantasy – has been met with fierce hostility from critics everywhere.

Woody Allen’s new film, Magic in the Moonlight, is the latest creation to receive critical downplay of romantic love. A deeply cynical huckster-magician Stanley Crawford, played by Colin Firth, encounters medium Sophie Baker, played by Emma Stone, in an effort to prove her a fraud. His renowned reputation is based on the bedrock assumption that all magician’s tricks can be discovered and explained and there is absolutely no way that Sophie’s clairvoyance (she earns a living conducting séances) is genuine spiritual power. They spend time together in the delicious French countryside and despite his repeated expression of misanthropy and skepticism, they fall in love. The theme of this story is that “the world is not without magic.”

In previous films, Allen has grudgingly acknowledged the substantial incursions that romance makes on human consciousness. “The heart wants what it wants” from Hannah and her Sisters and “. . . yeah, but we need the eggs” concluding Annie Hall are his reluctant admissions of human need for romance. Indeed, most of his films struggle with the problems of amorous relationships. But this is the first time that the filmmaker has celebrated the ‘magic’ of romance. As such, it has received foreseeable antipathy from critics. “Painfully artificial,” an “amusing diversion,” “destined to become a footnote in [Allen’s] career,” are some of the unsurprising critical comments. There are sprinkling of positive responses having to do with cinematography, setting, acting and such but the theme of magic love has few takers.

Critical rejection of Allen’s theme illustrating the power of love to subdue reason and all matters of practicality has been around for a long time. Some famous rebuffs include one given to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – the archetypical story of intense romantic love. No less an esteemed member of English literati than Samuel Pepys in his famous Diary declared “it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life. The Bard’s Othello and its principal character’s intense emotional adoration of Desdemona is dismissed outright by George Bernard Shaw. He says this is “pure melodrama . . . There is not a touch of characterization that goes below the skin.”

Often in the litany of critical commentary, deep emotive passion is ridiculed as something unnatural and illusory. One pivotal instance of such an attack occurs in a review of Shelley’s haunting poem “The Indian Serenade” which begins:

I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright….

The lover is helplessly captivated by an intensely emotional magnetism and pleads with her to rescue him from his imprisoned state:

Oh lift me from the grass!
I die! I faint! I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast;-
Oh! Press it to thine own again,
Where it will break at last.

Anyone acquainted with Shelley’s poetry readily understands his frequent themes of passion and intense psycho-emotional involvement. Many have lauded his lyrics as the most successful at expressing feelings that defy analysis.

But the proliferation of exclamation marks and onomatopoetic language is too much for some notable critics. In one of the most prestigious critical tomes in American letters – Understanding Poetry (first published in 1938) - Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren attack the credibility of Shelley’s theme. The situation he describes, they maintain, is unreal. To ascribe such feelings to anyone is “sentimental.” And they define sentimentality as “the display of more emotion than the situation warrants.” Thus the surrender of reason to romantic magic to the degree that Shelley states is actually absurd.

In a paper I wrote as a graduate student many years ago, I contested the pronouncements of these writers. Essentially what I said was that many mortals have indeed experienced the irrational depths of romantic love. And I suggested that Brooks and Warren had attacked Shelley so confidently because they had probably never come close to experiencing such emotions themselves.

What has become for many the icon of romantic love movies is An Affair to Remember, the 1957 film starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. This story so intrigued its director Leo McCarey that he made it twice – the first time as Love Affair starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in 1939. And the power and importance of the theme so concerned writer/director Nora Ephron that she referenced it in her own successful romance Sleepless in Seattle.

Predictably, McCarey’s 1957 remake received insidious negative criticism from no less a pundit than Bosley Crowther in the New York Times. “The attraction of this fable,” he wrote, “is in the velvety way in which two apparently blasé people treat the experience of actually finding themselves in love. This is an immature emotion . . . “ Crowther, like Brooks and Warren, employs the word “sentiment” and he obviously has the word’s pejorative connotation in mind. He says the story communicates “romantic illusion.”

What is perhaps most intriguing about Woody Allen’s film is that, in contradistinction to all of the somber examples we have cited, Magic in the Moonlight conveys its romantic theme of ‘illusion’ and ‘magic’ in the genre of romantic comedy. Thus the challenge of communicating the mystery and seriousness of romantic love is perhaps greater than our other examples. But like Shakespeare he prepares us with carefully wrought character development. Romeo in Act 1 firmly protests his ‘love’ for Rosaline and at the outset Stanley declares his relationship with Olivia to be a “match made in heaven.” These romances are referenced so that the graduation of these men to the level of ‘illusory’ and ‘magical’ love becomes dramatically probable.

The two writers share foreshadowing technique. Allen has Sophie express her romantic feelings for Stanley early on in the observatory scene and this begins to dent his armor. Similarly Romeo’s early awareness of Juliet’s amorousness deepens his intensity quickly – “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”

In clever dramatic irony, Allen buttresses the theme of illusion vs. reason with several references to Nietzsche. Stanley and Sophie continually spar over his recalcitrant adherence to logic and reason. He bullies her with his knowledge of philosophers and writers who have advocated the primacy of reason in human affairs. But the name Nietzsche comes up and in a delightful twist he finds himself quoting this philosopher’s insistence on the importance of illusion. Nietzsche’s actual quote is “if you destroy [people’s] illusions, they will not be able to live at all . . . ”

There are, of course, many other artists besides Shakespeare and Shelley who have championed the significance of romance, fantasy and illusion in human life. Most of the time, their themes are constructed in grave genres with painful, emotional turns. Woody Allen has often admitted that he is a prisoner of the comic muses and cannot help but deliver themes without tongue steadfastly in cheek. It is our good fortune that his art is so crafted.


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