Eileen A. Joy
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Dept. of English Language and Literature
College of Arts & Sciences Spring Colloquium
“Thinking About the University”
9 – 11 April, 2007
Session 2 (Friday, Apr. 11): Staring Back in the Mirror: Professors Consider Their Depiction in Literature and Film
“You Must Change Your Life: Woody Allen’s Another Woman”
[see also Valerie Vogrin, "A Sub-Sub-Genre: The Creative Writing Professor as Protagonist"]
Figure 1. Gena Rowlands (Marion Post) and Gene Hackman (Larry Lewis) in Woody Allen's Another Woman
The signature moment in Woody Allen’s film about the mid-life crisis of a female philosophy professor, Marion Post, played by Gena Rowlands, is when she sits down late one night with a book that once belonged to her mother, now deceased—an edition of poems by Rilke—and while she is reading her mother’s favorite poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” she notices a certain stain that has fallen across the last two lines, which she surmises can only be the remnants of her mother’s tears. The last lines of this poem, which are spoken aloud in voiceover in the film, read as follows: “For here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” The poem is not capriciously chosen by Allen for only these lines, and Rilke’s poem is worth quoting in full with regard to what I believe is the misguided theme of this film—that a commitment to the intellectual life necessitates the forsaking of the body, and with it, the powers of passion and art that are supposedly contained within that headless body:
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
What we have here, in Rilke’s poem, is a dazzling and sensuous staging of Apollo’s headless torso literally looking, from the point of its “dark center” where procreation flares, at the viewer who is enclosed within the imagined scene, and its sexual power, which “glisten[s] like a wild beast’s fur,” is therefore a type of seeing, or unmasking, that strips the viewer of any pretension of a different sort of life—in other words, a life that would refuse, or not fully acknowledge, or look away from, or set aside, or defer, this glistening, this bursting, this gleaming of an identity fully enmeshed in its erotic physicality. It’s an intoxicating, even moving poem, but within the context of Allen’s film, in which our philosophy professor, Marion, is in every way the epitome of her last name, “Post”—i.e., stiff, unmoved by others’ suffering, and seemingly closed off to passion and deep feeling—the poem is also a rebuke to those of us in the university who, for the sake of the life of the mind, have supposedly left our bodies, and the consideration of other persons’ bodies and minds, behind.
It is important to keep in mind that, just before reading this poem, Marion had been visiting her elderly father—a retired historian, played brilliantly by John Houseman—who lives alone in the house in which Marion grew up, and this visit, as in many other Allen films, occasions a series of flashbacks and cross-temporal encounters in which Marion glimpses herself as a young girl painting in her room and she recalls that “the time would just fly by” when she was working on a picture; she sees her mother in the garden gathering flowers and recalls that her mother “loved all beautiful things: nature, music, poetry—that was her whole existence”; and later she hears her father, as a younger man, explaining to her brother how important it is that her brother take a job in a paper factory so that the family can support Marion in going to Bryn Mawr because “she is such a brilliant girl”—further, as her father states, “she’s going to be somebody, she’s got what it takes, there are no limits for her, if only I can get her to stop daydreaming in the woods with her beloved watercolors.” And here we see what I believe is a false opposition—one that the film will re-emphasize several times—between the artistic life and the scholarly one. The scholarly life, the film implies, cannot be artistic, it cannot be about daydreaming, or even the woods (i.e., it can’t be about nature, in both senses of the term: the natural world, but also, bodily instinct).
These flashback scenes of Marion’s youth that occur before her reading of the Rilke poem have to also be read against a dream sequence that occurs later, in which she imagines seeing and hearing her father confessing to a therapist that, at the end of his life, he has “only regrets”—regrets because his wife was not the woman he loved “most deeply”; regrets because he feels he was too demanding of Marion herself when she was younger, partly because he was “too caught up in those stupid studies of historical figures”; and regrets that, even though he has achieved “some eminence” in his field, he ultimately “asked too little” of himself. Another added wrinkle to our understanding of the function of the Rilke poem in the film, which is related to the dream of her father’s therapy session, is that, when the film begins, we learn that Marion is on sabbatical and she has rented an apartment in which to write her new book (in order to have a quiet work space that is separate from the apartment she shares with her husband, Ken, a cold fish of a man played to perfection by Ian Holm). And it just so happens that this apartment shares a wall with a psychiatrist’s office and through one of the heating vents, Marion can hear the psychiatrist and his patients talking in the other room.
One of these patients, a married pregnant woman, Hope, played by Mia Farrow, who appears to be suicidally depressed for reasons that cannot be fully articulated, begins to obsess Marion—partly, we can assume, because her almost hysteric desperation and sobbing outbursts and vocal declarations of a life possibly misspent or miscarried, but for reasons she can’t really pinpoint with any accuracy, as well as her articulation of feelings of a frightening, almost schizophrenic disorientation and lostness, even when she is lying beside her apparently loving husband in bed, are deeply unsettling to Marion, precisely because she has spent a good deal of her life repressing such raw emotions and feeling admissions of alienation. Indeed, Marion is so out of touch with her own feelings and with the feelings of others who are close to her, that she has no idea that her husband is having an affair with one of her best friends, although in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter because their marriage has already withered on the vine from benign neglect, or as Marion puts it regarding their sexual relationship in another portion of the dream sequence, “I know exactly what you’re going to do and in what order.”
There are many other specific details in Allen’s film—especially as regards what might be called Marion’s forgetfulness of her own past and therefore of her unrealized present and submerged future, as well as her neglect of persons who once believed they mattered to her: a former teacher and husband who apparently committed suicide, a best friend who felt she couldn’t “compete” with Marion’s ego, and her brother, who has retreated under the sting of Marion’s disapproval of his unambitious life—but I do not have time to dwell upon all of those details here. What I do want to linger over just a bit is the very purposeful significance, I think, of Allen’s use of pregnancy in the film. In short, the troubled and neurotic pregnant woman in the film, Hope (who also expresses with regret, at one point, that she never became a painter), is a somewhat crude and too-obvious symbol of what is supposedly missing in Marion’s life: passion and sexual fertility and art (and never even mind the blunt message Hope's name carries). Indeed, the epiphanies that Marion ultimately expresses in the last stages of the film can be summed up as: “Maybe I should have had a child” and “I wish I had married for passion.” Throw in the various well-placed hints of “I could have been a painter instead of a philosophy professor,” and you pretty much have every not-so-subtle point about the life of the mind that Allen is trying to make in his film (and I do not even have time here, unfortunately, to draw out all of the complexities of the false binary Allen is also trying to establish between art and scholarship).
And in relation to all of this, we are led to a scene near the end of the film where Marion runs into Hope weeping in an antiques store in front of a copy of Klimt’s painting Hope I, in which we see the depiction of a naked pregnant woman surrounded by the faces of death. Quite uncharacteristically for Marion, she reaches out to console Hope, an almost perfect stranger, although it must be admitted that Marion has been listening to Hope's therapy sessions and even snuck out of her rented apartment one day to catch a glimpse of Hope as she was leaving the psychiatrist’s office. Marion invites Hope to lunch where Marion confesses that turning fifty has traumatized her, and further, she has some regrets, especially as regards not having had a child. This leads to yet another flashback scene, which doubles as a kind of further confession to Hope, in which we see her first husband, Sam, the older philosophy professor who later commits suicide, convulsed with rage at the young twenty-something Marion, who has had an abortion without telling him. While Sam berates her for not considering his feelings or his age—after all, he doesn’t have, as he argues, his future “stretching out” in front of him—Marion expresses the frustration that, yes, she loves the idea of children, but she hasn’t yet had the chance yet to “make something” of herself, and in a bold move that causes Sam to physically assault her, she says to him, with great anger, “Do you want to bring a child into this world . . . really? You’re the one that hates it so much. You’re forever lecturing me on the pointlessness of existence,” at which point, grabbing her shoulders and trying to push her to the ground, Sam tells her how much he hates her.
And here, my friends, in this wrestling match between student and teacher, wife and husband, and philosopher and philosopher, we have the whole “shebang” as regards Allen’s take on the intellectual enterprise and the university more generally—to cadge from Shakespeare: it's all about the expense of spirit in a waste of bodies and minds together, as well as the tragic drama of the supposedly too great cost of an endlessly agonistic pedagogy. And what is Allen’s sweet and gentle and life-affirming antidote to all of this? It’s the novelist, Larry Lewis, played by Gene Hackman, who was always madly, deeply, and passionately in love with Marion, but could never convince her to leave Ken for him. Larry has enshrined Marion in one of his novels as the beautiful “Helinka” whose one random and chance kiss with his narrator is “full of desire” and demonstrates to him that “Helinka” was “capable of intense passion, if she would just allow herself to feel.”Taking all of the moments of the film I have dwelled upon here, the intellectual life is apparently without passion and without feeling and it can’t “give birth” to anything but despair and regret over the loss of a more sensual life—in short: it is the life not lived, it is a small death, and it also kills. But Allen also closes his film with a scene of Marion, having left her cold husband, back in her rented apartment, working on her book, and commenting that the writing is just “flowing” out of her. And this gives me some hope, regardless of the heavy-handedness of the films clichés regarding the supposedly “dead” nature of the academic life, that the intellectual life can also be a sensual one—it also gives birth to something, and continues, in the words of Rilke’s poem, to glisten and gleam in all its power.
Figure 2 . Gustav Klimt, Hope I (1903)