Marco Pelliccioli, Un dandy a teatro, Oscar Wilde e Woody Allen: Dalla letteratura al cinema al teatro per svelare e ricomporre le maschere della modernità [A Dandy at the Theatre: Oscar Wilde and Woody Allen: from Literature to cinema to theatre to disclose and recompose masks of modernity], Firenze, Atheneum, 2008, pp. 60.
by Luca Caddia
Enthusiastic, impressionistic, and editorially loose, this 60-page essay is the graduate thesis of a scholar in his early twenties, but it is not because of the latter factor that I am inclined to condone its naiveté, but because I truly consider this book the result of a fruitful, if unripe, critical imagination.
Marco Pelliccioli has a vision: he sees two seminal figures at opposite ends of the twentieth century, Oscar Wilde and Woody Allen, sharing a concern with “human identity within the context of modernity” (11). This self-evident truth, which alone justifies Pelliccioli’s otherwise arbitrary analogical substrate, is straightforwardly and inductively argued throughout the first chapter, which focuses on what he calls the two “masks” chosen by the authors themselves to represent their own vision: Dorian Gray and Zelig. Pelliccioli makes a good point in summing up why the figure of the dandy in Oscar Wilde’s Picture is intellectually and economically outrageous, a point which, in my opinion, was best fixed by Regenia Gagnier when she wrote that “the commodification of the dandiacal self amounts to the reinscription of art into life” (Idylls of the Marketplace, 7). While the Wildian dandy fights modernity by virtue of his distinguished singularity, Allen’s Zelig chooses the opposite way to affirm the same principle: chameleonism. Literary archetypes like the man of the crowd, the flâneur and puer aeternus inform Pelliccioli’s reading of Dorian and Zelig, two narcissistic characters who, according to Pelliccioli’s Freud, might get over their condition if only they were able to love. Needless to say, Dorian avoids the risk through the death of every single character who menaces his narcissism (Sybil, Basil, Jim, Alan), while Leonard, giving up to Eudora, manages to conquer “that paradoxical relationship between self and other which so characterizes Allen’s filmography” (20).
In the second chapter Pelliccioli writes that it is by means of their satirical masks that Oscar Wilde and Woody Allen challenge a society where appearance and disguise have become particularly meaningful. Wilde best shows his ability of inverting middle-classes codes through his comedies: By focusing on the moral code of outsiders like Mrs Erlynne and Mrs Arbuthnot, works like Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and A Woman of No Importance (1893) defy the absolute value of truth and “make one reflect on characters with no success or social prestige, a subject significantly developed in Woody Allen’s characters like Danny Rose (Broadway Danny Rose, 1984) and Cheech (Bullets over Broadway, 1994)” (28). Through characters like these, the two authors refocus the public’s attention less on “having importance” than on “being important”, that is, being rich in spirit. The counterparts of these outsiders is provided by those successful characters like Lester, the protagonist of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Sir Robert Chiltern (An Ideal Husband, 1895), “models of economic wealth, celebrity, intellectual style and religious conduct who, faced with life’s moral issues, keep reiterating that subsoil that society only pretends to condemn” (37). However, in works like these both authors also employ characters who stop utilizing morals as a means of judging others’ behaviour (moralism), and begin to see it as a value system to be built for life” (38). This is the case of Wilde’s Lord Goring, whose art of lying shows a transparent and disclosing mask. The end of the chapter has Pelliccioli writing that both Allen’s and Wilde’s masses are “electrified” by progress, a risk that can be avoided by characters who wear their social masks consciously.
The third and last chapter contrast Wilde’s De Profundis (1897 ) and Allen’s Match Point (2005) by means of a comparison between romanticism, Wilde’s ultimate resource as a dandy, and nihilism, Allen’s way of showing disillusionment for a social world where only chance rules. If his moral interpretation of Wilde is shared by many, I do not know if I can agree with him as to Allen’s message in this specific movie. I have the feeling that Match Point’s irony is turned against irony itself: indeed, when Chris, the protagonist of the movie, throws away the ring in order to elude murder suspects off him, it hits the balustrade and falls on his side of the court instead of into the river. However, it is this apparently unfortunate circumstance that will lead to his “victory” in the match, that is, he will get way with his crime.
The English movies of Woody Allen seem to me to depict a world where necessity is always around the corner in order to set things straight. If we consider Scoop (2006), the work following Match Point, we see Allen providing us with a comic plot that only unravels in order to comment on the previous one. In this film, which also features country houses and the English upper-classes, the character played by Scarlett Johansson is supposed to die again, but this time she just won’t! The solution of a movie like Cassandra’s Dream (2007) is almost mechanical in this, with its crime and punishment dialectic reentering from the back door. Pelliccioli’s book stops at Match Point, but I thought fit to consider Allen’s following movies in order to make my point as to the role of order and chance in his oeuvre. Perhaps the latter-day Allen has chosen England as the best set conceivable to prove how contingency is only the means through which order makes its way. I don’t know about you, but I suspect Oscar Wilde would have agreed with this.