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Photo: ‘Play it Again, Sam’
Allan and Bogey
Herbert Ross’s 1972 comedy ‘Play it Again, Sam’, starring Woody Allen, hit 50 years old this year, but upon re-watching, the more dated aspects of the film peel away to reveal the remarkably perceptive core of the film. Despite following a typical Allen character: neurotic, jittery, sarcastic, intellectual – in this case, a unique neurosis is added to the usual roster. Allan, the protagonist of the film, is shadowed by a mental projection of Humphrey Bogart who routinely doles out advice to the romantically inept Allan in the form of raspy noir-ish proverbs. Almost always blindly accepted by Allan and almost never wisely so, ‘Bogey’ is relied on in all matters of love and friendship.
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The dynamic which unfolds from this absurd relationship has not lost its humor since the movie’s release. Allan couldn’t be farther from Bogart when it comes to suaveness or indeed a romantic success. The second scene of the film sees Allan being asked for a divorce by his wife. “You’re one of life’s great watchers”, his soon-to-be ex-wife tells him. “Why can’t I be cool? What’s the secret?”, he sighs to himself. It is at this moment that Bogart first appears, shrouded in darkness, coolly reassuring Allan that “there’s no secret”, and that the problem is “nothing a little bourbon and soda couldn’t fix”. The contrast between mental projection and mental projectionist is made no more clear than in Allan’s attempt to follow this advice, where he’s left sputtering and spitting out his tentative order of bourbon from the bar.
Putting aside the overwhelmingly positive commentary this article has so far rattled off, it wouldn’t be wholly unfair to say that the movie’s message might have seemed rather bland upon release. Sitting somewhere between “be yourself” and “Bogart films are more sexist than you might remember” before recent discussions surrounding parasocial relationships, the film’s bite would have been hard to discern.
Nevertheless, the film has taken on a new and more incisive meaning in light of newfound popular wisdom surrounding unhealthily overzealous fan-celebrity relationships. This kind of excessive attachment to celebrities is both critiqued and explained by the 1972 film, in a way that can be better understood now that the concept of parasocial relationships is the common currency. Oxford Reference describes how in parasocial interactions, “regular viewers [of mass media] come to feel that they know familiar television personalities almost as friends”, clarifying that “parasocial relationships psychologically resemble those of face-to-face interaction but they are of course mediated and one-sided”.
The harmful nature of such relationships is immediately drawn attention to by the film in the opening scene, which, strangely enough, begins with the closing scene from ‘Casablanca’, which had its own 80th anniversary this year. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into the wrong theatre. The illusion is shattered, however, with a slow zoom-out, which reveals that the viewer is not actually watching Casablanca, but rather spectating a cinema of people watching it.
This disorientating lapse of perception is swiftly mirrored by the protagonist, who we then witness have his own illusion shattered when the lights of the theatre come back on and he’s snatched glumly back to reality. For a moment, it all felt real, like he was Bogey, like he’d “always have Paris”. “Who am I kidding? I’m not like that. I never was. I never will be. It’s strictly the movies” he moans. These opening lines of the film (excluding Bogart’s on-screen ones) set the tone for the critique the film will make, which homes in on three principal problems with parasocial relationships.
One aspect of parasocial interaction which the film represents can be seen in Allan’s mimicry of Bogart’s voice. In one early scene, Allan talks into the mirror with that distinctively hoarse Bogart accent, imagining he has a girl in the bed behind him. The horribly sexist way in which he talks to her is what he imagines to be the way a ‘real man’ would talk. The lighting then darkens and suddenly Allan imagines he’s in a film noir. When the fantasy finally dissolves the lighting shifts back, and Allan is left looking sad and embarrassed, pathetically pushing out the smoke he’s just inhaled in the least noir fashion you’ve ever seen – one imagines he couldn’t have managed it in less suave fashion if he blew it out through a snorkel.
Successful or not, though, this form of imitation is actually described as one of the common tenets of parasocial interaction. Jayne Goode describes how “audience members adapt language behaviors to TV characters” when they enter into parasocial relationships. ‘Play it Again, Sam’ clearly demonstrates the danger of such a practice. TV and Film characters are seldom especially good people, and those who are good tend even less frequently to be realistic. One must draw inspiration from reality, and where possible from nowhere but yourself.
The second and perhaps most potent critique of the film levels at parasocial relationships is its portrayal of the fragility of self-worth derived from such interactions. Allan’s imaginary Bogart props up his self-worth, his confidence, and even his very image of himself. Inevitably, this can never last. Whenever Allan feels a pang of insecurity, he retreats from reality and reassures himself with a dismissive word from Bogart – “nothing a little bourbon and soda couldn’t fix”.
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Naturally, the moment he returns to the situation at hand he finds himself in the same predicament. When you go on holiday to escape your problems go with you; the same can be said for trips into fantasy. ‘Play it Again, Sam’ demonstrates how strong emotional ties to celebrities, particularly those which form a part of your identity, are unsound and fickle. One’s sense of self ought to be built on something sturdier than the casual imaginary murmurings of a movie star who doesn’t even know your name.
Lastly, if the story of ‘Play it Again, Sam’ is evidence of anything it’s the harmfulness of the seductive pull of a parasocial relationship – its power to draw you out of reality and into a world where you’re something better, or friends with someone better. The earlier described opening scene is as good an example as any of this fact. Upon walking out of the cinema and back into reality, one imagines that if Allan had listened to his own words: ‘I’m not like that. I never was’, he might have saved himself all the panic and trouble he’ll put himself through in pursuit of his warped noir-ish ideal of manliness or greatness. Indeed, Allan has his most successful moments when he’s acting of his own volition, not Bogart’s. It’s when he dons that sly grin and starts regurgitating long-since-passé Bogartisms that he finds himself floundering, or else not fully enjoying or focussing on the moment – as in the scene where his best friend Linda visits his apartment.
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‘Play it Again, Sam’ – What We Can Learn
‘Play it Again, Sam’ is not without flaws. Most notable of all is the ending, which although funny and satisfying, is perhaps slightly too perfect in the Hollywood sense of the word. Moreover, in attempting to provide symmetry in terms of plot, it sacrifices thematic symmetry, slightly treading on the toes of the message it otherwise upholds. But this kind of weakness belongs to the variety that one can smirk at and stretch the meaning of the word ‘charming’ on behalf of. Overall, ‘Play it Again, Sam’ plays as funny as it always did, but with age, it has taken on an earnestness that would have been hard to perceive back in ’72. Plain to see now, however, is that it has a point to make, and a prescient one at that. Parasocial relationships are rarely portrayed on film even now, but if one turns the clock back half a century the pickings would be even slimmer – the only examples that spring to mind are another Allen film; ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ (1985), and Scorsese’s ‘The King of Comedy’ (1982), both from a decade later. Perhaps the difficulty comes from a lack of interest; why portray a relationship which isn’t actually there, only perceived to be there, when one can present a real, living, breathing, relationship? Whatever the reason, ‘Play it Again, Sam’ vaults this obstacle to mine the comedic content of parasocial relationships in a manner thoughtful enough to glean and analyze their problematic content too.
By Samuel Sandor
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Outside of his ongoing MA degree in English and Philosophy at St Andrews, Samuel Sandor spends his spare hours writing – short stories, essays, articles on film, music, or any other subject he finds himself preoccupied by. Through all these strands, he strives to find a unique and unexpected way to look at the subject at hand. Without a concerted effort, it’s easy to form surface-level impressions of both the art and the news that one consumes. Sam’s pieces attempt to answer this interpretative simplicity by inducing curiosity in subjects one might ordinarily devote little thought to. It is this desire to transform viewpoints with novel ideas and to stoke deeper and more extensive conversations which attracted him to The Hollywood Insider.