Love and Death, written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton; United Artists A culture gets the comedy it deserves, I think. It relies on its humor to restore a sense of perspective, and in a loundabout way that makes the humor reflective of the culture's concerns and problems. If we suffered through a comic drouglit of thirty years - to me Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, and, ugh!, Jerry Lewis, are hardly drizzles - it was probably because of the'really subversive gestures of comedy, that its comics could do nothing more than mirror the dullness. We're a bit less smug now, and readers of Time and Newsweek know that with our totteringeconomy, our intellectually and morally puny leadership, and our badly shaken confidence, we have maiged to rejuvenate one valuable resource - our screen comedy. l'm suggesting, of course, a cause and effect relationship. Our world crumbles, and we have Woody Allen and Mei Brooks, men whose humor is wild, vulgar, crazy. daring, and less confined by the sato limit S of average intelligence and taste than any of their predecessors. More particularly. we have Woody Allcn"s new film, Love and Death, which better attests to the good health of comedy than anything 1 can think of. It is a short, manie version of War and Peace set in 19th century Russia witli Allen's Boris Grushcnko simpering around like Tolstoy?s Pierre Bezuhov, first through the Battle of Auslerlitz and later through an assassination attempt on Napoleon. His Nataslia (here called Sonja) is Diane Keaton, whom Boris woos and finally wins, not because she loves him but because he has practically guaranteed her that he'll be shot in a duel the next moming. It has all the things we've come to expect in a Woody Allen movie: a zillion jokes, a dozen physical gags on Woody's ineptitude, scènes and situations so outlandish that they can only emerge from a blend of genius as improbable as that of Allen and Tolstoy. 1 would only add that it is a better film (as film) than Allen's other movies because it is more skillfully made and acted, and because it is more tightly wound around its twin poles, love and death. More than that, it'shüarious. There is, however, more to Woody Allen than meets the eye, just as there is less than meets the eye to Mei Brooks. (That is, in fact, the very source of Brooks' humor.) Though Allen provides us with riffs and gags and schtik, these things coalesce, as they did for the so-called classic comedians, into a unified visión of the world, a complete cosmology. It is based largely on fear of death, sexual frustration, physical dysfunction, cowardice, and, most of all, on the fact that each of us is all we've got. Allen is the first truly modern screen comedian, not because his jokes and routines are trendy, but because his sensibility is modern. The great clowns - Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and the Marx Bros. - are concerned with how they fit or shape society, not with the stuff in their own heads. Then there is Woody. Woody Allen, however, is less troubled by accomniodations with nis society, as inhospitable as it is, than by his relationship to himself. Allen's humor is self-inflicted, introspective, psychological, and non-tragic. His is, most of all, a comedy of the head; and in Lave and Death you can see Allen the director concentrating on Allen the comedian's face to the exclusión of almosfeverything else. To be more specific, Allen's humor is almost entirely verbal - an infinite string of zesty and two-liners. ("We're made in God's image," says Sonja. "Take a look at me. Do you think God wears glasses?" "Not with those frames.") Allen also demands that we use our heads. A good deal of his comedy, especially in Lave and Dcath, depends on allusions to artists and scholars ■ conversation woven from the titles of Dostoevski, a parody of kant, and scènes bowdlerized from The Sevmth Seal, Persona, i'otcinkin. Dr. Zhivago and the Russian h'aranil Peaee. The faet that Allen is a verbal and intellectual comedian rather litan a physical one, and the fact that he is a unique comic personality are especially substantiated by his physical humor. The classic clowns generally communicated through their fantastic, balletic movements. Allen's mental gestares, his jokes and gags, are equivalent! of Chaplin's physical gestures, but his body doos nol work. In Love and Death, when Allen introduces Boris leaping ínio a Russian dance. Boris falls flat on his face. Instead, it is Allen's neuroses that form the basis of his comedy. and il is through these that he connects up with ui in ways deeper and more profound than cabaret tricks. Allen uses modern hangups as the instrument of his humor. He personifies our paranoia, frustration, repression, and general inability to cope. He can'i evade danger; he can only ruminate on it. Allen runs around trying to corred the malfunctions in liisown head (not the malfunctions in society) and to escape viciimiation. He's pretty Mire there's nolhing to live for, but he's not willing to stake his life on it. It is this sense of emptiness and the absolutely unfathomable meaning of life, finally, that most brands Allen "modern." Other clowns had simple melodramatic texts with vast metaphoric subtexts about life and love. By the simple act of eating I shoelaces as if they were spaghetti, Chap: tin showed us how we could transform the world through our imaginations and make the world better than it is. Keaton showed us how we could domínate one corner. Lloyd showed us how we could pacify it. And the Marx Bros. showed us how we could destroy it and build anew. Allen is almost the exact opposite. His films have vast metaphoric texts; few are vaster than Love and Dcath, which is the story of a man seeking universal truths and finding only that death is "worse than chicken at Kresge's." But there is nothing underneath. No answers. Nothing to save us.