Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sort of Catching Up With Woody Allen

Woody Allen is an American filmmaker icon and one of our country’s most prolific writers and directors. He is a comic genius with a solid dramatic competence. Jennifer and I are both Woody Allen fans. It was something we had in common when we first married. We both had seen Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall (1977), and Manhattan (1978), among others. But early on in our marriage we had a falling-out with Allen and his work. And for the next 20 years he hardly registered in our conversations and interests.

This was due to a couple of different reasons. First of all, I had become rather blasé about Allen. For me, Stardust Memories (1980) had encapsulated and brought closer to the first part of his career. Even though it was not as well received by either audiences or the critics, I considered it a brilliant film, certainly one of my favorites. Skipping over a few movies, Allen’s next excellent effort was a different kind of film, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), which I also enjoyed. This was followed four films later by the noteworthy Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).

But, as so often happens with artists (the novels of Kurt Vonnegut come to mind), the differences between Hannah and Crimes were not significant stylistically. It seemed to me that Allen could not escape a kind of creative rut. Sure, the films were sophisticated in a distinctively urbane way, filled with searing wit and spiky philosophy, insightful and entertaining, cerebral and shrewd. He seemed be stuck on a high plateau, however. His films explored the same themes, playing himself as the same whiny, sexually infatuated, emotionally frustrated character, the same topics of dialog, an endless parade of dinner parties and cafes and entangled relationships. It seemed to me that Allen was simultaneously innovative, yet he was plowing through essentially the same ground repeatedly. So, as I said, Allen became somewhat dull to me.

Add to my mindset that of Jennifer’s. She became thoroughly pissed with Allen in the early 90’s over his abandonment of Mia Farrow for Farrow's adopted teen Asian daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. This was, of course, sensational, scandalous, tabloid style news at the time. Like many of Allen’s fans, I’m sure, Jennifer proclaimed she would have nothing to do with the idiot anymore, despite his undeniable genius as a filmmaker.

So, both of us, for slightly different reasons, swore off Allen. For 20 years his films had nothing to do with our marriage, even though I would occasionally revisit what I considered to be the Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories trilogy. These three films remained genuine treasures in my collection as Allen was being innovative with them and, to me, still exploring the possibilities of self-expressing without the tedious repetitiveness.

Fast-forward to 2011. It is Thanksgiving. For no particular reason, after some family and guests had enjoyed a late lunch at our house and gone, Jennifer and I decided to watch a film. Some film. Any film. I almost randomly picked Hannah and Her Sisters. It was a thoroughly entertaining experience. It had been so long since either of us had watched it that we had both forgotten that the film opens and closes with a Thanksgiving meal. So it was a rather auspicious, spontaneous choice.

Not long after that, we Jennifer and I watched
an excellent PBS documentary on Woody Allen. It was a thorough examination of Allen’s life and work. I learned a lot from it. But its most significant impact was to show me a brief glimpse and overview of all the many films of Allen that I had missed over the past two decades.

So, I decided to play catch-up. I was not feeling blasé about him anymore and the damnable relationship with Mia Farrow’s formerly adopted teen daughter had dulled with the passage of time in the mind of Jennifer. After all, the PBS documentary showed them together. The daughter was no longer a young girl but a mature woman and the couple had a family of their own. Allen had settled down. The original uproar had subsided into apparent domestic tranquility. A happy ending, perhaps?

Over the next several months, with and without Jennifer, occasionally including my daughter on the more light-hearted efforts, I sort of caught up with Woody Allen’s career. The first two used DVDs I purchased were Scoop (2006) and Match Point (2005), two very contrasting productions. I chose Scoop primarily because it was the last film in Allen himself has actually acted in to date. It is a purely entertaining film, without any of the famous Allen depth and angst. Not a great film at all, but worth watching, good for a laugh, and better than the critical and public response might indicate.

Match Point is something entirely different. I was blown away by it, and I consider it to be one of Allen’s best films even though it is an almost Hitchcock-like drama, not the least bit funny, but just
flat out sexy. Allen has always exhibited a superior competence with the erotic undertones of his work. In this film eroticism often takes center stage. Allen has attempted pure drama before with Interiors (1978), as an example. But, this is his best dramatic film, to my knowledge. It is interesting, complex, believable, builds slowly, with several powerful, suspenseful scenes. Just an outstanding effort and very different from any other Allen film I have mentioned or will comment on in this post.

This motivated me to go back further and see what other gems I might have missed. All the way back to the original, offending film itself, Husbands and Wives (1992). The soap opera circumstances surrounding this film, leading to the livid break-up of Allen and Farrow over his sexual relations with her adopted daughter, makes the title of the film especially ironic. As a film, it is only interesting in terms of its subject matter in the context of true-life events. Otherwise, the film is trapped in the same rut that made me blasé about Allen to begin with.

The best thing about the film is fellow actor-director
Sydney Pollack's performance. The script is a bit too convenient and contrived for the complex situation Allen attempts to capture. It fiddles around with a documentary style, with “interviews” of various characters parsed throughout as well as a lot of hand-held, shaky camera shots. Otherwise, there is nothing new and noteworthy here yet, as usual, it is a capable film and worth watching from a dramatic perspective. There is nothing funny about any of this.

Mighty Aphrodite (1995) spends the first third of the movie establishing a well-worn Allen relationship. A routine, troubled, mature marriage of a sophisticated urbane couple fundamentally based on sex and personal chemistry with a dose of art and politics and a lot of red wine and theater tickets, apparently, becomes fundamentally hollow due to a twisted web of psychological reasons. That description fits a lot of Woody Allen films. In Mighty Aphrodite the quintessential angst-filled Allen character is matched with a wonderfully, entertaining performance of a simple-minded young blonde prostitute who is nevertheless genuinely honest and who is simultaneously a wannabe porn star, played by
Mira Sorvino. Sorvino's work makes the whole film either work or not, depending on your critical perspective. It all works for me. Not great but a worthy and in some ways very bold film.

At his best, Allen never strays too far from the ridiculous. Elements of it are more pronounced than usual in this film. The film features a classic chorus from a Greek tragedy led by F. Murray Abraham. The chorus is cleverly used, it interacts with Allen's character, serving as his conscience while also summarizing aspects of the plot to keep the film moving along. It also delivers numerous funny lines like "Tortured by passions too overwhelming to regulate..." in reference to the main character’s unstoppable desire to change the life of the hooker. The film has a mildly predictable yet surprisingly (for Allen) sentimental ending.

Deconstructing Harry (1997) was a wonderful surprise. Of all the Allen films with which I have recently acquainted myself, it stands as the best of Allen, cerebrally and intensely funny, with a lot of psychological depth and rewarding sophistication. Allen plays the role of Harry Block an accomplished novelist suffering from writers block – a pun! - as the characters from his past work filter in and out of thinly connected scenes in the film.
Robin Williams has a cameo as an actor who is suffering from being in "soft focus". Literally, his entire body is defused and out of focus while everything around him is perfectly clear, rendering him impossible to film. Work on the scene comes to a halt and he is told to "go home, lie down, and rest. Maybe you'll sharpen up."

Harry is constantly victimized by his own misbehavior and his two intensely vindictive former wives. In what is essentially non-linear storytelling, Harry’s psyche tries to find solace in characters from his former stories. Other funny cameo parts are performed by
Demi Moore as a vehemently Jewish psychiatrist and Billy Crystal as Satan himself.

Allen is a master of setting up the absurd situation. Through a strange set of circumstances, of course, Harry is having difficulty finding anyone to accompany him to his former university for a ceremony in honor of his work. He ends up bringing along a peculiar threesome consisting of his young son (who he has kidnapped because his former wife would not allow him to miss a day of school), a troublesome friend who suffers from delusions of having a heart attack, and a athletic, dope smoking black hooker who Harry is paying to travel along just to give the illusion of a personal following. Of course, the obsessive heart guy actually dies of a heart attack on the way. The hooker and his young son carry on. After a detour through hell he ends up in jail for a variety of charges including the kidnapping, transportation of marijuana, and cavorting with a prostitute.

Before we get this far, however, the film sort of deconstructs itself. The narrative becomes soft focus. Reality and imagination are fused. I'm not sure if there ever was a ceremony somewhere to honor Harry. In the end, the writer is honored by all his characters in a dream sequence and the film comes full circle, all narratives and side stories are merged and everyone applauds the creator. In acceptance of their recognition, as Harry puts it, his life's work is centrally about: "...a guy who can't function well in life but can only function in art. It's sort of sad in a way and it's also funny." No one could sum up Woody Allen’s films better than that.

I prefer Deconstructing Harry to Match Point. Both are first rate artistic endeavors but the later is more experimental with film as an art while the former is specifically an Allen-esque appreciation of writing as art. I appreciate the genius it took to make Match Point but it is more like a Hitchcock film, Allen trying on someone else's film-creation persona and succeeding at it greatly. (Whereas his impersonation of Ingmar Bergman never worked for me.)

Deconstructing Harry is Allen finding his inner voice again after the rut and repetition of very good films like Crimes or Husbands. With Deconstructing Harry Allen nails a sense of himself in the way he did early on with Bananas (1971) and then with the brilliant Annie Hall followed by Hannah. Deconstructing Harry is another side of Woody Allen perfectly captured. Match Point deserves mention with these other films because part of Woody Allen is trying to capture the essence of other film styles that he appreciates.

My daughter watched both Scoop and Small Time Crooks (2000) with Jennifer and me. She laughed and enjoyed both. Small Time Crooks is an entertaining and funny film that also serves as a great example of the Allen "gimmick" plot twist. In an attempt to rob a bank, Allen’s character, his wife, and bumbling buddies, open a cookie store as a "front" two buildings down on from the bank. The robbery plan is absurd and ends up a miserable failure, but in the meantime, the cookie store "front" becomes wildly successful. The entire cast ends up in executive positions in a multi-million dollar baking empire. Of course, Allen, rich with success, is totally miserable and longs for being his modestly crooked self. He obsesses about robbing a bank, taking the loot (small in comparison with the vastness of his legitimately gained wealth) and "moving to Florida" - his lofty heart's desire. Hilarious.

The journey back into Allen that began with the random viewing of Hannah last Thanksgiving also brought his most recent film to Jennifer and me. Midnight in Paris (2011) is a wonderful, rich, light romantic comedy. It is a return to a simpler story, told with genuine humor and warmth. It is an easy, enjoyable film to watch. Most of the Allen-esque angst is missing. The lead character is a dreamer, an idealist and romantic writer. But the true main character is Paris itself, which works magic into the actor's life with its aura of a rich, artistic and intelligent past.
Allen won an Oscar this year for writing the screenplay. Midnight in Paris works because Owen Wilson carries his part of the bargain. He doesn't attempt to imitate Allen, who wrote and directed but does not appear in the film. Instead, Wilson gives us a unique portrayal that is in the genre of an Allen. A very entertaining film and comparable to Manhattan in all sorts of ways.

One of my employees is a huge Woody Allen fan. She is collecting all his movies which is a bit like me collecting
Neil Young music. Her favorite film of all time is Annie Hall. She has an Annie Hall badge stuck in the side of her work cubical. Anyway, she is recommending other Woody Allen films for me to see. Admittedly, this post does not pretend to fully explore Woody Allen. I know there are other cool Allen films to see. But I'm feeling a bit bloated of him at the moment. So the other stuff will have to wait for a future date. Suffice it to say that not a single one of the films I mention in this post is a "bad" film. Allen does not always succeed and the majority of his films are simply more entertaining than they are great works. Still, I'd rather watch something considered a failure among critics and the public like Scoop to most anything else out in theaters or available through Netflix and Red Box.

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