Thursday, January 30, 2014

Woody Allen and the Cinema of Determination

Woody Allen’s name and transgressions have gotten some new blood lately.  This has something to do with the Golden Globes and Twitter.  So it goes.  During the course of this media dust-up, few if any have bothered to address Allen’s most verifiable crime: making fair to shit movies for the better part of two decades.

Thankfully, I exist. 

So here goes: my quick and dirty thought piece on the films of Woody Allen.

Well, actually, I just want to focus on a few.  Were I to tackle them all, we’d be here longer than it takes to endure Mighty Aphrodite, easily the shittiest of the shit.  No… let’s us (er, me) stick to a chosen few.

To do this, let me take a more serious stance: I was once a defender and admirer of Allen’s work.  It wasn’t the whole marrying his wife’s daughter thing that soured me (though his films coincidentally began to decline around that time).  It was a slew of annual Allen movies that ran the gamut from so-so to really lousy that swayed me over to the “fuck him” camp.  His girlfriend/family problems didn’t help, but I was willing to look past Polanski’s scummy behavior so long as he kept making stuff like Death and the Maiden and Bitter Moon.  For Allen, there was a time before the media circus, the gossip, and the mediocre work.  During this time, which I’ll call 1991, I started getting interested in movies that didn’t have tits and serial killers.  As I began learning names like Fellini and Lang and Scorsese, I also noticed that a lot of people took Allen seriously as a filmmaker.  I had only known him as the clown who made Bananas and Take the Money and Run.  So I decided to round out my self-education with a few rentals. 

I chose the classic Allen films: Annie Hall and Manhattan.  These were recommended by a video clerk (remember them!).  Smart move; Zelig might have alienated me.  Another Woman may have bored me (though it is my third favorite Allen movie).  I found Annie Hall cute but messy, which is how I still find it, and though I laughed and was ultimately won over by the thing, I didn’t understand the fuss.  Manhattan, on the other hand, was astounding.

I finished Manhattan at dawn.  Once it was over, I was too awed to think straight.  I loved the black and white cinematography.  I loved the way Allen portrayed his city, which I soon realized was largely an illusion.  The story was… pretty good.  Really nothing extraordinary, but the movie has a feel.  Sometimes that’s enough.  It was enough for me; I was totally under its spell.

I had stayed up all night watching movies in my family’s living room, Manhattan being the culmination of my cinefest.  As the sun rose, I, being jazzed up by the wonderful work of art I had just consumed, decided that life was too wild and zany to sleep through.  I got in my car and drove.  I ended up at my girlfriend’s house.  She was asleep, so I went for coffee by myself, quickly aware that I was running on fumes.  When the hour finally seemed decent, I knocked on her door and tried to explain that I had just seen a good move, a real movie, something with style, something that made me realize that time was short and that whimsy and spontaneity were what mattered, and that… um… I had nothing else to tell her.  Honestly, as dumb as the last few sentences seem, they are poetry compared to the babbling I was doing at her door.  She told me to go home and never surprise her like that again.  So much for whimsy.   

I cannot stand Manhattan.  I watched it again a few years back and was amazed at how obnoxious it seemed.  Fucking whiny pricks and their all-important personal problems.  No one in that movie ever missed a meal. 

To be fair, Manhattan is still a movie I would place in Allen’s good column, despite how much I now dislike it.  The portentous storyline involving Allen’s character dating a 16 year old now seems creepy. (Ever notice how often Allen and his surrogates date or mentor young women in his films?)  Regardless, I had a genuine reaction to the movie once and for that reason I cannot completely dismiss it.  Would that I could say the same about Blue Jasmine.  Actually, I did have a genuine reaction, though not a good one.  Instead of running to my car to drive off into the dawn, I rolled my eyes and looked for the remote. 

If ever there were confirmation that Allen has no clue how human beings (other than upper class Park Avenue neurotics) speak to one another, it’s Blue Jasmine.  The moments that feel real are the ones between Alec Baldwin and Cate Blanchett (who rises above the material, as always).  Everything else is total bullshit, an elitist’s painful conception of how blue-collar folk interact and converse.   And who are these work-a-day schmucks?  Loud, boorish folk named Chili.  Sexually aggressive mustached cretins.  People who wear shirts with their names stitched on to indicate that they work shit jobs that Allen would never deign to fully conceptualize.   People who watch sports and yell at the TV, that is when they aren’t ripping phones out of walls (Allen also lives in a perpetual time warp where people still have land lines).

This inability to create real characters is the fatal flaw of Blue Jasmine and the limitations of Allen as a writer are too embarrassingly amateurish to overlook.  Whereas past dalliances with characters outside Allen’s classist comfort zone may have raised a dry smirk, they were intentionally drawn broad (Chazz Palminteri in Bullets Over Broadway).  Here we’re supposed to believe in these goons.  Why not?  Clearly Allen does.  Cut to Nanook eating a phonograph record.

I’m happier to have my Woody Allen films exist in what J. R. Jones calls upper class fantasyland.  This is usually described as the charm of Allen’s work which often does maintain a certain otherworldly logic.  People are likable neurotic quip machines whose biggest concern is love and never how they’re going make rent for their glorious Manhattan apartments.  Pre ‘50s jazz is everywhere.  Minorities are fuck objects.  Every woman wants Woody’s tongue down her throat.  Urbane references abound.  Watching a Woody Allen movie is essentially an agreement that you’ll accept this world of his as being somehow possible.  Okay.  Fine by me, so long as he sticks to the upper west side.  But Allen breaks the covenant when he goes downtown. 

But why pick on this one flaw?  There are others, though these are the same aspects fans state are Allen’s strengths.  And I suppose it all comes down to taste.  Allen is either agreeable to your palate or not.  Hmm… I suppose, but then again no one can crank out films at his rate and have them all be worthwhile.  A film a year is exhausting, for the viewer and the filmmaker.  Eventually Allen will have to run out of fresh material.  Or so you’d think.  Moving outside of New York, Allen found his muse renewed.  And of the European vacation films that I’ve seen, Vicky Christina Barcelona is the most entertaining (albeit the most lazily titled).  But there Allen had the good sense to hire Spanish actors.  In Blue Jasmine, the Californians have New York accents.    

At this point, assuming you’re read this far (if you have, email or Facebook me with the message “Forrest Boy” and prove your love), you may be wondering what Allen films I do endorse.  (Maybe not.)  Well, perhaps I ought to get to one of them.

Radio Days.  This remains my favorite Allen film.  It is probably no one else’s favorite, but I think it works.  It’s sweet without being cloying, sentimental in a way that strikes me as correctly balanced, gorgeous with sweeping Rockaway Beach locations and WWII era charm, and the jokes are funny.  There’s little tension because it’s not a tense movie.  The plot is loose because it’s largely formless.  It centers on a time and a place, not a story.  And its inevitable descent into caricature feels organic and inoffensive.  Sure, Danny Aiello plays a cartoonish mobster, but this is a movie that borrows from 1930s-40s archetypes that we have collectively sanctioned. 

And that’s the thing: Allen is comfortable in this era.  He has a feel for it, like Umberto Eco writing about the Middle Ages.  His crisis comes when he tries to present this epoch to an audience interested in something more contemporary.  (Reviews of his insufferable Everyone Says I Love You cited the tragedy of Allen conjuring the Marx Brothers when the world wanted the Farrelly Brothers.)  Nevertheless, nostalgic little films fare better than the stabs at relevance wherein Allen trades clever sex gags for blowjob jokes and peppers his celebrated dialogue with crudity.  I remember watching Deconstructing Harry and coming to the conclusion that Soon-Yi advised her husband to spice up his fuddy duddy movies with some hip R rated material. Cut to Julia Louis-Dreyfus giving a hummer.

Considering Allen has always been a filmmaker driven to produce a movie a year, there’s no faulting him for trying.  And it’s good for the elderly to remain active.  But as I suggested above, how can anyone hit a home run every time at bat?  That being the case, one wonders if a more self-discerning artist would recognize bad ideas and work harder on the good ones.  What we have in the case of Woody Allen is what we also had with Bob Hope: a carpet bomber.  Hope’s jokes were often duds but he did manage to get a few laughs, mostly through determination.  He tried hard, damn it, throwing all his material at the crowd.  Allen does likewise, letting every story that leaks from his skull hit movie houses in the hopes that for every Melinda and Melinda there is a Midnight in Paris.  Here’s hoping the next project is more wheat than chaff.   Allen may not be long for this world and it’d be a shame if his last effort resembled his last twenty. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

New City Again Recognizes My Genius


Saturday, January 04, 2014

A Happy Blog Post

Occasionally I gather feedback from things I write, most often from things written for this bloggish page.  The last post, a somewhat sarcastic one, I admit, depressed my poor father.  Apparently, I’m good at that sort of thing—being a bummer.  We all have talents.

To remedy my old man’s depression—and that of any of the rest of you readers, all five of you—I shall now write a very serious post about the good things in my life, past and present.  As for the future… the fucker doesn’t really exist, so what can I possibly say about it?

Let’s get the sappy stuff done first: I am happy to be married.  I have friends and associates who have said things along the lines of “I don’t believe in marriage.”  These friends and associates usually take the form of feminists or misogynists.  It seems that marriage is the one thing these two groups agree on.  And they don’t believe in it when the evidence of marriage’s existence is ample.  I’ll never understand this claim. 

Of course I’m joshing.  I do understand what they mean, which roughly translates to: I don’t think people ought to get married.  This is, of course, another ridiculous thing to say, as it is really just another in the vast examples history provides us of one group telling the rest of the world what to do.  Now, what they really ought to say, were they to carefully consider their words, is that they do not feel that marriage is ideal for them.  Or: they do not agree with the form marriage has often taken.  These are valid statements.  The feminists equate marriage with indentured servitude and the misogynists assume that marriage will mean the end of their freedom.  While both sides have a point, they both ignore the fact that marriage is created by individuals.  If you don’t want to be a domestic slave, don’t marry a misogynist asshole.  And if you want to lose your freedom, don’t marry a domineering shrew.  Or don't get married, but leave me alone.  

Okay, at the very least maybe consider having conversations about freedom, in both senses, before you get married.  I had such a conversation before I tied the ol’ knot.  And I’m happy.  And I assure you my wife is not chained to a stove.  She’s an intelligent, independent individual who is well aware of the pitfalls of marriage and so went to lengths to ensure hers to me would not be so horrendous.  She’s aware that the institution has been historically one-sided favoring men, and that often women get into the union for poor reasons, but she’s not about to let herself be that woman.   The idea is this: if you dislike something and the way it is works, change it.  But no, by all means, do nothing more than gripe and announce that you don’t believe in marriage, as if it were Santa Claus.  And you call yourself a progressive…

Damn, I thought this was going to be a cheery post for a change.  Sorry.

So yes, I am happy to be married but that is, again, just me.  It may not be for you, but don’t let me preach that you ought to find the right person, blah, blah, blah.  Just be happy with your station in life, single or otherwise.   And I’m happy in this regard. 

Maybe we should move on.

I am happy to have the family that I have.  This is no small thing.  Many people, whether they admit it or not, do not like their relatives.  I know this and I know that, in comparison, I am happy with mine.  They are an odd bunch, sure, but interesting.  And that’s what counts.  Dull relations are no good.  No, whatever else you can say about them, they are not boring.  Especially the loud Italians. 

To support my claim, I’ll offer a few small anecdotes and examples cobbled from what remains of my memory:

I have far more noble and beautiful examples to give, but I remember this about my mom (still alive, don’t get the wrong impression):  She opened a bill once, looked at the amount due, and said: “Oh, balls,” which sent me and my brother on our backs, rolling on the kitchen floor, laughing as if we’d never heard a joke before.  Sure, there are all the other things I can say about this woman who worked hard as a single mom and faced all the challenges that go with that territory, but I always think back to that moment for some dumb reason.  That and the music I associate with her: Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, “Miss You” by the Stones, “Dirty Lowdown” by Boz Scaggs, “Dreadlock Holiday” by 10cc.  Eclectic mix, eh?  Maybe I can credit her with my own varied taste in music.  Thanks, Ma.

And my dad… I have many things to write about him as well, but I’ll limit it one small item: during the summers I’d spend with him in Ohio, he would take my brother and me to the library.  I was barely literate, but I still checked out books about Van Gogh, fascinated that someone else had my name.  These trips did much to foster a love of libraries and printed/bound material.  I suppose I have him to thank for my love of books.  (And my mom—she supplied me with Stephen Kings.  And my Stepdad—he had the Douglas Adams books lying around.) 

And my Stepdad.  Aside from the Douglas Adams books, the guy was quite good at making me laugh.  And he wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was acting like an asshole without making me succumb to the terrible cliché of young man who hates his stepdad.  No, he was a constant source of support and a key element in my picking up a guitar and finding a very important outlet for the many inanities that bombard the average American adolescent. 

Now, if I were to spend a paragraph, or even a sentence, on all the important family members, this would get even more unwieldy than it already is, so I’m limiting myself to the parental figures of my pre-college years.  I could also include some kind words about my stepmom, a woman of incredible strength and patience, my godmother/aunt, a woman who spoiled me rotten, my Aunt Kathy, whose lasagna is so good that I’m forever ruined for anything else, who I always think of when I hear “Another One Bites the Dust”, or, of course, my grandparents, two of the most important people to me.  But again, space is prohibited.

So let’s go forward a bit: what other positives to highlight? 

I have none. 

You see, the above was written days ago in a fit of whatthefuck, but having stewed for a bit on all things me I find that there is little else worth highlighting.  Oh yes, I have a fairly nice apartment, infestation not withstanding, and a large library of books I will never finish reading, and the number one greatest dog in the world, all of which is very wonderful.  And I have a job that some would consider good.  And I have my health, which is no fucking joke.  All of this is, seriously, quite good and worth mentioning, which is why I just mentioned it, but otherwise… no great accomplishments, no fantastic adventures, no superlatives, nothing to gossip about. 

But that’s the thing: people are always writing these sorts of posts or lists or whathaveyous in order to highlight things that really ought to be givens (in a perfect world).  If you have your health and some money and a job and some love, well that is all fantastic, but chances are if you’re taking the time to write  (or talk) about these things it is because you’re actually so depressed that you have to focus intensely on the positives in order to silence the crashing ocean of shit.  If you were happy, or at least content, you’d not focus so much on the positives.  You’d just live your life. You wouldn't have a personal blog.

But if you have a blog, then chances are you’re not always a happy person.  And chances are double that something is wrong with you, something that dictates that you spend considerable time in a room very much like the one I am sitting in.  And in that room you will write nonsense very much like the kind I am writing.  And you will take days off between writing a bullshit blog post in an effort to find things to list that qualify you as a happy person, all because someone in your life made a comment, surely long forgotten by them, about how you’re a bummer.  And look—you’ve proved them right!

If this seems like I’ve strayed from my original intention of writing a happy little post and sunk back into the muck of negativity, well too bad.   Maybe the inverse of the above is in fact true; maybe my near constant writing about depressing things means that I am actually so happy that I must wallow in the seemingly negative from time to time. 

That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.