Great American Directors – Woody Allen

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Crisis is Six Scenes (2016) is one of those television shows that I’ve pretended to watch recently.

So much watching nowadays is done whilst looking elsewhere, primarily at other screens.  I convince myself that having had a film on in the background whilst I’ve worked on a laptop counts as seeing it.  That’s why going to the cinema is so important, because basic manners prevents me from talking or looking at my phone and subsequently I have to watch the film more intently than I would at home (or I fall asleep, but that’s a whole other thing.)

I liked it, it made a change from all those shows about difficult men that we’re meant to impressed by.  There’s a scene in Woody Allen: A Documentary (2011 – Robert B. Weide) where we see Allen go through a drawer full of receipts and post-its and scraps of paper each with half an idea on it, and it’s hard to escape the notion that every Allen project is one of those half-formed plots that should have remained in a drawer.

(It’s not my favourite moment in that documentary – that honour goes to the moment where Naomi Watts breathlessly talks about the very sweet note Allen wrote to her asking her to be in one of his films and how special it made her feel.  It then cuts to a shot of half-a-dozen near identical notes written to different actors for different films.)

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Annie Hall (Woody Allen – 1977)

There are two truths about Allen put forward by two critics, neither of whom are particular fans of his work.  One is by David Thomson; that Allen has made a number of films that it is impossible imagining any other director making.  The second is by Jonathan Rosenbaum which expresses the idea that if you had given Allen’s output and resources to any other director they would have created a body of work of significantly higher interest and variation.

Allen has little interest in anyone other than himself.  That is, perhaps, why he is an abuser.  Even when he talks of his wife (/daughter) it is terms of how much he has given her and allowed her to achieve.  He is a nasty, pathetic, disgusting little man.  But rather unfortunately, so am I.  And you have done little to convince me that you are any different.  Allen is the abyss.  He is the notion of self, personified.  He is myopic and misguided and arrogantly uninterested in expanding his horizons.

But we can’t escape him.  He pleads with us beyond the screen.  He is the epitome of our basest instincts, our selfish desires unconcerned with consequence.  He lives in the meaningless of existence.  How can you act on screen when you have a director who profoundly does not care?  Increasingly his films exist in pure unconstrained beauty, as he does not interfere with his cinematographer.  He is a living paragon of art without meaning or consequence, its pleasures tainted and fleeting.  He forces us to look into the emptiness and find it charming.

And yet, they remain a compass to guide our lives.  An annual escape into a fantasy world, a world where some people play Allen better than Allen and others are cheap knock-offs.  They’re like the Bond films in that regards.  Where murder looms over the narrative from time to time.  Where sex is narcissistic.  Where nostalgia is valuable.  But there aren’t any other films like them (apart from the endless stream of facile Woody Allen fakes).

Though we tend to divide his films within his own self-appointed criteria – the early, funny ones, and then what followed – or by superfluous definitions of content – comedy/serious pictures – his career can be broadly defined by three stages of romance:

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Manhattan (Woody Allen – 1979)

  1. Flirtation (from Take the Money and Run (1969) to The Purple Rose of Cairo 1985))

Here Allen is at his most romantic, exploring the woozy joy and ache of falling in love.  He moves from working primarily with Diane Keaton to Mia Farrow within this phase and his films show a high level of (relative) experimentation – comedy to drama, mockumentary, period pieces, appropriating black and white cinematography.

  1. Commitment (from Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) to Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993))

In this movement Allen explores the entanglements and suffering of marriage.  Less formally experimentational, the films consistently feature Farrow and himself as the leads.  It is perhaps the most undervalued period of his career.

  1. Perversion (from Bullets Over Broadway (1994) to Café Society (2016))

Worryingly, this period will regularly feature couples with uncomfortably wide age differences (not only the films with Allen himself, but Colin Firth and Emma Stone in Magic in the Moonlight (2014).  Additionally, Allen will begin using actors as surrogates for himself.  These performances will vary wildly in quality; John Cusack and Jesse Eisenberg are convincing, Kenneth Branagh and Will Ferrell are not.  Overall, these films mark a dramatic fall in quality, with the occasional ‘return to form’ heralded by the critical community.

Allen’s obsessions loom large over his work.  His fixation on the wealthy and an ignorance of anything that slips outside heteronormativity are all facile.  His willingness to use similar soundtracks and opening sequences only encourage the idea of his films merging into one amorphous blob.  And his peculiar interest in murder can bog down even his best work.

And yet, at his best, he creates work of genuine beauty that speaks to the difficulty of existence.  Despite his romanticism, he knows that life is richly compromising, and we are largely unable to exist according to our ethics and pretensions.  He has a wit of insight, a complexity of performance, and a spectacular sense of place that tower over his peers.  The perception of him will continue to evolve, and long after his death, when the disgusting actions of his life fade into footnotes on a page, he will be seen as one of the truly great American cinema auteurs.

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Interiors (Woody Allen – 1978)

A totally arbitrary, unjustified Top Ten Woody Allen:

10. Whatever Works (2009)

9. September (1987)

8. Love and Death (1975)

7. Interiors (1978)

6. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

5. Another Woman (1988)

4. Manhattan (1979)

3. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

2. Stardust Memories (1980)

1. Husbands and Wives (1992)

 

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s thoughts on Woody Allen can be found at https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1990/05/21337/

David Thomson expands upon Woody Allen at https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/mar/10/woody-allen-david-thomson

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