“The Terror of Existence! Ba-Dum-Tss!”
Before I launch into adoring praise for Sleeper, let me first explain why this blog has been a little bit Woody Allen-obsessed recently. Over the Easter weekend, I had an Allen marathon and watched about sixteen hours of Woody Allen over a three-day period. Not everything I saw appealed to me, but many were pure genius—amusing, insightful and endearing. Sleeper was, for me, a pleasant surprise. It seems to channel that old, silent film comedy aesthetic. Watching it, I realized what a shame it is that the art of farce seems to have been lost. Sleeper revives the magic of slapstick.
The film manages to do something exceptional—leave me with a good feeling. It is rare for me to be so completely taken in by a comedy. Recent comedies content themselves with gross-out humour, or else they are mean-spirited and are about the “hilarity” of people acting badly and hurting each other. There are also those films that consider themselves sophisticated, and get wrapped up in their own post-modern cleverness, nudge-winking me right out of any genuine concern for characters or their plight. Ugh, and romantic comedies are the worst. They mean to give me the warm fuzzies, but more often than not they only succeed in giving me the bored angries. I have recently discovered why; I sense that most comedies are lying to me. How? Well, by whitewashing or completely avoiding some very unsettling truths about existence.
Sleeper, despite its slapstick appeal, is not lying to me. Underneath the endearing madcap shenanigans, there is an acknowledgement of death and disease, of the chaos that must be kept at bay. This honesty is what enables me to trust the film. In Allen’s oeuvre, the terror of existence is often made explicit in his neurotic rambling—the universe is expanding, the stars will all burn out and all will be lost! In Sleeper, this is implied, but never made explicit. It is hidden away, coded in the premise of the film and the antics that ensue. This man has been given the chance to experience a world he never should have, that is two hundred years past his time. And because he’s given this strange chance, his story takes on the quality of a goofy fable—no matter where or when you find yourself experiencing life, it is always on borrowed time. So… let’s watch this man fall off a chair! And laugh heartily. Love it for what it is…while you still can!
This man wakes in the future to discover that the society and culture he knew is gone! The people he knew and loved are gone. While the set-up here is goofy, there is a very resonant truth in this premise; we, and the people we love, do have limited time here on earth. At some point, we all will be gone. The entertainments and tools of life will change. And all of these people and places and things will all eventually be gone. Not just us, but anything we might call “legacy.” The set pieces and props of this future world look ridiculous, and the actions of the participants are ridiculous. Woody Allen just exaggerates to illustrate a very real point. In truth, everything around us is somewhat ridiculous.
Imagine looking at the earth from space and watching all of the people running around the planet building things and tearing them down, pointing guns and dropping bombs, stressing out over work and relationships, exchanging gifts and kisses, over thousands of years—all of this activity from each individual and the mass of individuals, century after century, people dying and new people taking over, on and on and on… and all the while, the whole planet circles the sun over and over again. Eventually, that sun will burn out (we’ll already be long gone by then). This is happening all over the universe, and eventually it will all spread too far apart and nothing at all will exist. The ultimate fate of the universe—in the specific—is unknown to us. Theories abound and we hang suspended from a great cosmic uncertainty. However, one thing is quite certain—life will eventually be impossible to maintain and, long before that, the human race will certainly cease to exist. And yet, we still run around thinking our lives are very important. And perhaps they are in a relative sense.
Sleeper, like its main character, is somehow displaced—removed from all of the trappings of modern comedy. Allen creates an absurd world where all the set pieces are, in themselves, funny. He gives me two leading characters that I genuinely like. While they are often irritating, it is in a charming way that endears them to me. It is all wonderfully hokey, and we are meant to laugh at both the artifice of the film—the ridiculous props and sets—and in the awkwardness of this character that just cannot handle anything or anyone in his new environment. Allen perfectly captures the essence of a human being at odds with society and the modern world. And he does it with good, old-school slipping-on-the-banana-peel antics.
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton