The first brilliant scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) now has Millennial relevance. It’s when grade-schooler Alvy Singer (Allen) and his mother visit psychiatrist Dr. Flicker to find out why the boy stopped doing his homework or anything else. “The universe is expanding,” Alvy explains. His mother snaps “What is that your business!”
Now timeless, the scene should be studied by every pundit and fake-news journalist who promotes recent children’s crusades — including such poster kids as Greta Thunberg and David Hogg — as politically expedient.
Using children to push political agendas, the most shameless form of propaganda, characterizes the new movie Socrates, a Brazilian coming-of-age film in which a suddenly orphaned black 15-year-old ironically named Socrates (Christian Malheiros) learns how the cruel world works at the same time that he realizes he is “different.”
Socrates, set in Sao Paulo’s teeming slums, combines poverty porn with identity politics — imagine an unhysterical version of Precious. Director Alexandre Moratto pushes all the social-justice warrior buttons, but the film’s primary tool is Socrates himself. Malheiros’s innocence and clearly readable passions are spotlighted as an idealized form of human experience — the more pathetic, the better. An impoverished black, a social cast-off and virginal romantic, a disenfranchised teen, Socrates has a purity that’s meant to convince us that his aspirations, as well as the fears he feels, all derive from innate wisdom that cannot be questioned.
Just as Socrates is full of pathos, is it also humorless. We’re meant to feel pity and then repent of our own shame. But while watching the handsome kid’s suffering, I also noticed the filmmaker’s tendency to sanctify his experience as somehow more virtuous than that of other, older characters (especially a bovine, maternal janitoress and the defensive gay youth who becomes Socrates’s first inamorato, a heartbreaker who initiates the teenager’s rite of passage). Like so many youths, Socrates’s most damaging pathology is being convinced that he is pathetic.
Trading on sentimentality, this type of storytelling coerces viewers by projecting social consciousness through juvenile media icons. Above all, the ploy is politically devious; the idea of innocence is manipulated as rhetoric. Today’s uncritical perception of childhood sagacity is both an artistic and sociological problem.
That’s why recalling — and revisiting — the “universe is expanding” scene in Annie Hall is deeper than Socrates and so much more restorative.
Allen’s agitated mother and the laid-back shrink are lightly caricatured, yet their concern portrays an earlier, more honest guardianship that is now lost to the media that are promoting and exploiting the narcissism of Millennials. Through Allen’s satire of his own neuroses, we get a much-needed satire of existential, ecological panic.
It’s a challenge to maintain skepticism about Socrates with its new Third World version of Dickens’s Little Nell and to remain dubious about the activism fronted by juvenile figures such as Thunberg and Hogg. People take this stuff very personally and become irrational and hostile should anyone question the purity of childhood provocateurs. But protestation by Alvy’s mother and Dr. Flicker’s world-weary nonchalance provide a helpful balance that disarms poster-child naïveté.
When Alvy’s mother complains, “It’s something he read!” it’s a eureka moment. The skit conveys the idea that believing in the end of the world is eschatological folly. Allen’s wit is prescient. It undercuts the indoctrination that is now taken for granted in contemporary education institutions and in films like Socrates.
Sometimes it takes an old movie to rectify a new one and to expose trendy emotions. While Socrates indulges social-worker sanctimony, Annie Hall schools the Klimate Kids.