Let’s put aside for a moment that we probably aren’t allowed to enjoy Woody Allen movies anymore, and think back to a time when we could watch Annie Hall, his most beloved and well-known film, the one that comes closest to a perfect execution of his quirky, psycho-intellectual humor, his sweet loss-tinged reflections on romance, and of course, his ardent love for the city of New York. Even with the dark cloud of the man hanging over the work, it’s hard for many people like me — white middle class Americans of an artistic persuasion — not to admire this film. But a funny thing happened to Annie Hall when I showed it to my English language and literature students in Turkey about ten years ago. It just wasn’t funny anymore.
Trabzon lies in the northeast corner of Turkey on the Black Sea, relatively near to Georgia and Armenia, places where no Turk I know has ever ventured, Turkey not having the best of relations with any of its neighbors. (The border with Armenia has been closed since 1993). My college students there on the surface looked like many university students in the West. They wore jeans, they talked on their phones and forwarded stupid attachments to each other, they complained about how much work they had to do, and they flirted. Below the surface however, there was an uncanny level of similarity in terms of politico-socio-religious positioning. Turkish culture is very group-oriented, and you don’t see the overstated displays of “individuality”, “non-conformity,” and “creativity” so rampant on college campuses in the West. (Of course these kinds of displays are not only allowed for, but encouraged in the West to such a degree that they merely offer the illusion of being different.) In Turkey, loyalty to the group: peers, classmates, friends, family, and nation, is the norm which few people have any apparent intention to deviate from.
As part of my role as an English instructor, I started a weekly American film club. My goal was to teach my students something about American culture. I tried to showcase the diversity of the country and the many different ways of life found there. I showed them “Apocalypse Now!”, “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?”, “Elephant,” and “Donnie Darko.” I briefed and de-briefed them, answered questions candidly, and hoped that discussing my own culture and country critically might help them turn a more critical and balanced eye toward their own. However, it mainly just helped them criticize the culture and policies of the United States more effectively.
Bearing in mind Turkish culture’s emphasis on group loyalty, and Allen’s homage to urban self-absorption, his litany to what many of us think of as the modern human condition was pretty much lost on my students. All those great jokes about Alfie and Annie and their respective shrinks, and Alfie’s humorous reflections on his three ex-wives and their peculiar sexual tendencies — “You’re using sex to express hostility!” — were suddenly going down like lead balloons. After spending almost six months in this conservative corner of Turkey, I viewed the couple’s decision to move in together without a thought of marriage, except Alfie’s wish that Annie would keep her apartment to avoid any resemblance to it, as suddenly…odd. Sure my students loved the lobster scene — mostly out of horror that anyone would consider eating something that looked like that — but my careless decision to show them what I thought was a light and funny film, one very dear to me, landed me in some totally unexpected waters.
After the movie, I led my usual group discussion. I explained that the film depicts a lifestyle that’s very “New York” and saw itself as very “modern,” and that most Americans are more socially conservative than these characters. Of course, my students all knew I’m from New York, and standing there in essence describing my own way of life to a group of probably exclusively twenty-something virgins, I started to feel like a lawless whore. But, they probably thought that because I was nice, I’d never had sex either. And they would never have dreamed that I’m divorced. (Divorced women in Turkey traditionally have a low status and a slim chance of remarrying.)
I asked them what they thought about the film, if they thought it was funny.
“No, it’s not funny,” one girl said. “It’s sad. The people seem so lost.”
“Yes,” a boy agreed. “He keeps going from relationship to relationship, and he will never be happy.”
I agreed that the film has notes of sadness. That’s what so many of us Westerners love about Allen’s films, that depiction of hardened self-reliance over a melancholic backdrop of loneliness. But whereas urban Westerners may watch Annie Hall and think “Isn’t that just like life?” these Turkish youths just thought “What kind of life is that?” Annie Hall had ceased to be a delightful and moving slice of New York pie, and had become a fable of Western emptiness.
Love in Turkey is ceaselessly depicted as dramatic, desperate, and often painful. The Turks are generally a romantic people, reveling in both fairy-tale happy endings and tragic tropes of loss. However, one thing love was not meant to be, in my student’s eyes, was intellectual. It is one thing to find tragedy in the natural course of love, usually caused by familial disagreements, death on the field of battle, or some Romeo and Juliet-style fatal communication error. But to suffer in love because of your foolish unwillingness to commit, or some neurotic fear of intimacy — “OK, I’m very sorry. My sexual problem, OK? MY SEXUAL PROBLEM.” — or because your relationships tend to be fluid, undefined, and based on having a good time, well, that’s your own stupid fault.
Faced with my students’ almost universal perception of the film as a moralistic lesson against Western culture, I felt a rush to defend my way of life. How could I explain to them what they were missing? I wanted to tell them that I loved my culture because at a party with my boyfriend, I could drunkenly point out a former sexual conquest and he wouldn’t mind at all, but might feel somehow proud of me. I loved all my sad and sweet memories of past relationships that had failed, and treasured what I had learned from them. I valued that I had been able to go to a psychologist when I was their age, where I had the space to complain about my parents and about the friends who always betrayed me by going after the boys I liked.
But of course, I couldn’t say any of this. And pondering it, I started to wonder if my students should really have envied me. They, after all, had a culture which, in my observations, didn’t punish people for not being able to compete. My students were extraordinarily nice to each other; no one was an outsider, everyone was part of the group, and no one would sleep with someone else’s sweetheart. Anyway, few of them had sex until they were married. In my college days, the same as in high school, everyone was separated into these cliques and categories, and sex — to have it, not to have it, when, how — was a constant worry and pressure, especially for young women.
Suddenly, Alfie’s trail of failed relationships — “I don’t understand it. A year ago, Annie and I, we were so in love” — seemed to mirror my own. There in front of a group of rather well-adjusted young people, focused not on arty films, introspection and existential anxiety, but on working hard to bring honor to themselves and their families, I experienced a completely unexpected view of my own culture as harboring, as that one student had put it, people who seem lost.
Of course, I wouldn’t change places with them for anything. I value my personal freedom intensely. But I’m more aware now than ever that that’s only because I was indoctrinated with this value the way they are with xenophobic nationalism. (Of course, America has its fair share of that too). I’ve watched Annie Hall since and I still love it, but it does seem to me a more somber film than I used to realize. I sometimes think of Alfie and Annie, how they’ve been in love over and over, each time surprised anew when their relationships fail. It seems less like fate and more like foolishness. But not to say I’d give up the Western way of life. I’m comfortable in my society, as the Turks are in theirs. Cultural hegemony is a warm blanket, and humor, apparently, is seeing reflections of your own culture and finding it funny.