Woody Allen: Science Fiction Filmmaker

In Part 1 of Woody Allen: A Documentary, which aired last night on PBS (Part 2 airs tonight), documentary maker Robert Weide tells Allen that Sleeper was the first time he ever heard the term “cloning.” Allen nods and says that’s why he felt the need to include a scene explaining it; no one at the time knew what cloning was. Now, of course, Allen jokes, everybody clones.

This exchange reminded me of Harlan Ellison’s argument that Woody Allen is partly, maybe even primarily, a science fiction filmmaker:

Can I be the only reader of fantastic literature to perceive that Woody Allen has been, and continues to be, one of our best filmic interpreters of the je ne sais quoi we call “the sense of wonder”? Surely not. Surely some other observer of the flickering screen image has stumbled on this obvious truth! But I search in vain through all the treatises on Woody, and I find no support for my theory. Nowhere outside the specialist semiotics of cinema lucubration (do I speak their language or don’t I!?) analyzing The Terminator till one could retch; nowhere in the totality of non-fantasy incunabula. They talk of his ambivalence between roots as a Brooklyn Jew and foliage as an adult who wants to make it with the goyishe cheerleaders. They prate of his influences; from Wittgenstein to Ingmar Bergman. They totemize him as the germinal influence in raising the nerd to hunk status. But nowhere does anyone simply say, “This guy has a for-real science-fictional-fantasy outlook.”

Ellison calls Sleeper and Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo “pure SF,” and contends that many of Allen’s other films have science fiction and/or fantasy elements: the sperm segment of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, the aliens at the end of Stardust Memories, the subtext of a Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Even the sense of wonder that pervades Radio Days is, to Ellison, indicative of a science fiction sensibility.

Ellison famously hates the term “science fiction,” preferring instead the more highfalutin term “speculative fiction,” but his basic point remains.

Though it’s not an interpretation advanced by Weide’s documentary, and it remains an unsung view, I’m sympathetic to Ellison’s argument. Indeed, since Ellison wrote the above words in 1987, Allen has made Deconstructing HarryMelinda and Melinda, and Midnight in Paris – all movies that, when you think about it, are essentially science fiction films. Hell, one might even argue that Woody Allen is one of the premier science fiction filmmakers of the last fifty years.

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