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.