I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Politics, Science, Freud, God, Hitler, Robot Dogs, Orgasmatrons – Just another day in Woody Allen’s 1973 Sleeper

by Anthony Galli
Dec. 11, 2013

Over the years, Woody Allen fans have come to accept that his films will focus on educated people making intelligent conversation and finding themselves in absurd situations. No matter how well-written, effortlessly acted, or expertly directed his films are, Woody Allen seems to have perfected a formula that, since Annie Hall in 1977, has become familiar to his audience. Maybe, for some Woody Allen fans, overly familiar.

Even when Woody Allen doesn’t appear as an actor in his films, there is invariably an Allen doppelgänger in his place, such as Will Farrell in Melinda and Melinda, or Sir Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, or Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, or Larry David in Whatever Works, to remind one that this is still a Woody Allen production. But these days, it feels like there is something missing from a Woody Allen film. Anarchy?

There is frequently stunt casting in Allen’s newer films, where the hottest Hollywood stars are hired to give the films an up-to-the-minute show business sheen; stars like Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz, Freida Pinto, and, oh, I don’t know…Téa Leoni, perhaps.

This is not to suggest that all of Allen’s films, after a certain point, are vacuous exercises in craftsmanship at the expense of originality. No. There have been some surprising and interesting Woody Allen projects since 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. For example, there was 1992’s claustrophobic marital nightmare Husbands and Wives, shot on hand-held video cameras and edited with the frenetic edge of a nervous breakdown; 1997’s bitter descent into Hell Deconstructing Harry; and 1999’s tribute to early 20th century jazz wannabes and also-rans, Sweet and Lowdown. No.

But for every Allen masterpiece there would be a Curse of the Jade Scorpion or a Shadows and Fog, which, although they may have their admirers, seem more like incomplete genre exercises than fully realized artistic statements. But, who are we to complain? Much of Woody Allen’s filmography is full of genre exercises, and much of his best work parodies tried-and-true formulas using recognizable tropes. 1983’s Zelig utilizes the turn-of-the-century documentary newsreel as its foundation; 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo captures the America of depression-era talkie cinema; and 1973’s Sleeper bases itself in science fiction and George Orwell.

Sleeper, however, proved to be a transitional film for Woody Allen. With Sleeper, Allen was moving away from his “early, funny” slapstick films to his more cerebral, artistic ventures. This is not to suggest that his earliest comedies Play Again, Sam, Bananas, or Take the Money and Run were not imbued with intellect and artistry; those are qualities that have always separated Woody Allen films from other comedies. It just seems that from Annie Hall onwards, Woody Allen had consciously moved on from Chaplin/Keaton pratfalls and Benny Hill antics to comedy that was a little more…adult?

But, even this isn’t entirely accurate. Sleeper might have provided the apotheosis of the “slip on a banana peel” gag, or perfected the employment of the Space HydroVac Suit, but even Annie Hall included the silliness of battling a lobster with a tennis racket, and a full cartoon strip parody that was adapted from an actual newspaper comic strip that chronicled Woody Allen’s real fictional life.

No, Woody is a natural born stand-up comedian, so even his most serious work, with the possible exception of Interiors, September, and Another Woman, will involve a punchline of some sort. It’s just that his earliest films seem to be a series of punchlines and sight gags instead of the character studies that much of his later work became. However, even then, there was always room for a sex joke.

Sleeper is tricky, though, in that its social commentary is hidden deep within its slapstick façade. Watching the film 40 years after its original release, one can’t help but marvel at the number of observations in it that are not inaccurate for today. Although Sleeper is set in 2173, where McDonald’s is the only restaurant around, and the government has infiltrated the sex lives of individuals, we are also witnessing some truly subversive commentary on 1973 society.

For example, it is hard to imagine that Clint Eastwood’s law and order western High Plains Drifter, released the same year as Sleeper, would allow an insult to the sitting president, Nixon, to be played for laughs in the middle of his film. It is also unlikely that any Clint Eastwood film would feature a gay, robot butler named Reagan, but Woody Allen didn’t seem to mind.

Sleeper also addresses issues that are still discussed today, such as health food and GMO’s, the confluence of church and state, and cloning. And not just cloning, but the cloning of a political leader who had died without the public being informed of his demise. One could say that cloning a dead political leader could be a satire of The Boys from Brazil and its cloning of Hitler, but that film wasn’t released until 1978.

And perhaps the Volkswagen Beetle can last for 200 years if hidden away in an underground cave.

Sleeper also includes a man wearing a Swastika sweater, and a woman with baby skulls as a necklace, suggesting that, perhaps, in the future art has co-opted atrocity, and our humanity has been anaesthetized against reality.

Why else the implication that Walter Keane, with his paintings of tortured bug-eyed children, is the pinnacle of high art in 2173, or that Xavier Cugat and Rod McKuen would be our final word on cultural relevance and sophistication.

However, one could make the case, as Sleeper does, that citizens who are guilty of crimes against the state should be forced to watch videotapes of Howard Cosell commentary as punishment.

Sleeper also features our only chance to watch Diane Keaton imitate Marlon Brando, as Stanley Kowalski, on film. This little scene was timely, in that Brando had declined the Academy Award after winning for Best Actor that year. Brando, instead, sent American Indian actress Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to protest Hollywood’s irresponsible and false representaions of Native Americans.

1973 was that kind of year.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.