“Meanwhile, Back at the Uterus”
by Penelope Gilliatt
The above headline is taken from Dr. David Reuben’s book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid To Ask, a waggish tome now turned into a cockeyed and sometimes insanely funny film of the same name, written and directed by Woody Allen. There are moments when you think he must have also written the original book, as a send-up of all the chatty medical textbooks that manage to make something quite simple loom with complications by dragging in homely metaphors, in the manner of those treatises on economics that muddle you by representing the national income as a pie. The best sketch in the movie—the last—exactly catches the surreal jauntiness of the book. It is called “What Happens During Ejaculation?”—a question dreamed up by Dr. Reuben that you never thought of asking. In it, Woody Allen fastens on the Doctor’s fondness for technological jargon derived from Cape Kennedy. The answers in the book are full of words and phrases like “Central Control,” “blowing a fuse,” “failsafe design,” “cylinder,” “crankshaft,” “another reproductive rocket ready for launching.” The temptation to Mr. Allen was obviously irresistible. In this closing sketch, his cheerfully diseased mind shows us a brain designed like the war room in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. We are in a quite unerotic world in which mechanisms that ordinarily seem to operate in a perfectly gentle way are shown and described as if in a live TV program about a moon shot, copying the style of Dr. Reuben’s best-seller, which includes the magical sentence “When the ratio of FSH to LH reaches the critical point, a rapid countdown begins, and the ovum is hurled into the abdominal cavity.” Everything in this book is always being hurled. Dr. Reuben has written the first work truly combining sex and violence. Maybe that’s why it has become a best-seller.
Allen’s closing sketch seizes with beady-eyed lucidity on the good Doctor’s mechanistic view of sex and makes it as lunatically anti-sensual as it is in the book. (“Copulation is not fly-casting or kicking a football,” writes Dr. Reuben sternly somewhere, changing the impressions he has been busy giving us.) In the splendiferously solemn sketch Allen bases on this question of ejaculation, the war-room brain is a madhouse of computer data and interdepartmental grumbling. Everyone is answerable to Central Control; different departments responsible for eyes and ears and innards are perpetually blaming things on one another. Events proceed on an immensely magnified and hefty scale. Stomach Control reports that his staff “did very well with the fettuccine” (which we see being heaved around the floor of some melancholy lower quarters in shovelfuls by groaning workmen), but that two men were injured by the veal scaloppine. The effort being serviced is the seduction of a girl in a car. The endeavor is Herculean. A tongue is rolled out: it looks like a hundred yards of deep-pile carpet. Atrocious interdepartmental mistakes arise. Subject should have been blowing into the girl’s ear, comes the message from ratty Central Control, not into her nose. Far below, men in hard-hats with their shirts off sweat to get the crucial organs going. They make it clear that theirs is the donkeywork, shoving heavy winches around and bawling rather despondent sea chanteys. “Heave-ho!” is not the most lyric accompaniment to the tentative efforts in the car. You feel that the hardhats are about to put in a wage claim, and that the physical process of sex must be contributing to the economic spiral as well as to the psychological problems of millions of sperm. The sperm in this sketch are hardworking but nervous parachutists dressed in what look like bunny versions of wartime siren suits, as if they were a lot of skinny Winston Churchills visiting the site of a blitz. They have helmets to keep their ears warm, and tadpole tails that the parachutists at the back keep treading on. Woody Allen plays a sperm who seems to be having a crackup about the idea of lunging into space.
The film opens with “Let’s Misbehave” on the soundtrack and a sort of soft background counterpane of pink-nosed white rabbits behind the credits. The first sketch is called, in Dr. Reuben’s sober style, “Do Aphrodisiacs Work?” Anthony Quayle plays a testy Tudor King who keeps his wife in a softly contoured iron chastity belt. Lynn Redgrave, looking beautiful in it as his padlocked Queen, talks very rapid Elizabethan gobbledygook to the court. Woody Allen, wearing a jester’s velvet suit that seems too big for him, plays a woebegone Fool silently despairing about his own wisecracks and carrying a desolate-looking puppet in matching velvet. The King is an athletic despot who charges irritably around the royal corridors and is said to be the only man in the palace who swims the moat lengthwise. His suspicions about the Queen’s ardor are perfectly just. Aphrodisiacs do indeed work. She nearly swoons when she is given some orange juice that the Fool has laced with an erotic ingredient handed out in the dungeon kitchen by a knowing sorcerer. “It goes down bubbliest,” the Queen chatters gaily, quaffing the fizzing goblet. (The sketch has some fine parodies of the style of Shakespearean prose as spoken by elocutionary actors trying to make unspeakable words sound vernacular.) Running at the chastity belt with a candlestick and calling for a halberd—he has to do something fast, because the Renaissance will be here before he knows it, and they’ll all be painting—Woody Allen mostly makes the gag work because of his doggedness of purpose. There are moments when his frozen face looks like a Jewish Buster Keaton’s, though less august and more hounded.
“What Is Sodomy?” is a love story of delicate charm about a Jackson Heights doctor (Gene Wilder) and a sheep belonging to an Armenian shepherd patient. I have always thought that Gene Wilder was a wonderful actor; the shy dawn of love in his face as he looks at the sheep (called Daisy, which must be a rare name among Armenian flocks) should be recorded for improvisation classes all over the world. The hell with the Actors Studio. Imagining you’re a lamppost or a mailbox is as easy as falling off a log; try convincing an audience you’re smitten by a rather large-headed and brainy-looking sheep. Daisy has a happy resemblance to Voltaire. “Let’s be gentle with each other,” says the doctor after taking a room for Daisy and himself at a politely unsurprising equivalent of the St. Regis that blandly accepts an order for chilled white burgundy, caviar, and green grass. Felled by love, the doctor throws to the winds his earlier quavered remonstrance to the shepherd in his office that it’s not normal to experience mature love with anything that has four legs. Woody Allen’s cavils are so temperate.
Some of the sketches run out of steam, but they all have fine moments. There is one very classy-looking episode, spoken in Italian with English subtitles, on the knotty subject of women’s frigidity. Woody Allen plays a peanut-shaped husband airily attempting caddishness, wearing dark glasses and with a jacket slung around his shoulders. The immovable wife, who suddenly reveals herself to be immensely turned on by lovemaking in public places, has her hair done like Delphine Seyrig’s in Marienbad. Woody Allen takes swift-spoken advice from other husbands across smart white rooms; he talks at a great distance without looking at the person he’s speaking to, like a character in an Antonioni film. The longest sketch—which gets strained at the end, and devolves into a sci-fi parody about a forty-foot-high marauding breast run amok in the countryside—begins beautifully with a sequence about a mad sexologist played by John Carradine. He lives in a Gothic mansion among his experiments, attended by a Frankenstein monster of a butler who has been deformed by one of the doctor’s more lunatic tests in the pleasure principle. The butler has been left limping at an angle of forty-five degrees and looking as if he lived in the belfry of Notre Dame. “Posture! Posture!” whispers Woody Allen encouragingly as he passes. Allen plays a visiting prospective assistant. The doctor’s house looks as if it were about to sprout a lot of carved-oak theater organs played by spooks. “Is your decorator still living?” says our Woody, softly to the point.
His unmatched style is extremely modern and extremely American. It is partly a humor of bashfulness: a kind of bashfulness that resides only in the very clever. It seems to relate to the whole immensely solemn body of American literature about male impotence and dither, which in turn has given rise to hundreds of Broadway and Hollywood comedies and to dozens of truly funny fictional best-sellers (by, for instance, Neil Simon and Philip Roth). Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex goes by fits and starts, but at its best it is recklessly absurd in a way that no one can rival. Woody Allen himself sometimes has dreams as wild as the imaginings of the fanatic doctor played by Carradine, whose experiments-in-progress include the transplantation of the brain of a lesbian into the living head of a man from the telephone company. (Allen’s imagined illicit activities for the Cosa Nostra in “A Look at Organized Crime”—an essay that appeared in The New Yorker—cover gambling, narcotics, and the transportation of a large whitefish across a state line for immoral purposes.) His funniness is a marvelous blend of muttered good sense and extreme battiness, best when it keeps apparently within the bounds of the ordinary. Nothing that a supermarket couldn’t cope with. A supermarket manager could certainly come up with a corkscrew suitable for attacking a chastity belt, would look askance at some of Dr. Reuben’s sillier questions (“Why do women have only two breasts?”), and would be inclined to reply shortly that he was fresh out of grass for sheep. The hangdog face of Woody Allen gazes stoutly at us from the screen. It is the face of an energetic shopper in mourning over inferior brands of daftness like Dr. Reuben’s, abashed by girls less spry about love than he, alarmed by women who just lie there like a smoked salmon, perturbed by much of life, but infinitely resourceful.
The New Yorker, August 19, 1972