Tag Archives: woody allen

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Well, I saw it.

For a long time it was hard to care about the latest Woody Allen movie because the latest Woody Allen movie was so bad. That was ten years ago. Now it’s even harder to care about the latest Woody Allen movie because, more than ever, it seems Woody himself doesn’t care. His 21st century life philosophy, the idea that nothing really matters in our world of arbitrary cause and effect, has more than simply turned his fans into detractors; it has damaged – I think permanently – his relationship to his material. On the occasion of Match Point, critics saw this narrowing of mind as a productive change of course, a new point of view they mistook for a mature turn in a tired body of work. But they were wrong. A close look at any of his films since Match Point and it’s easy to see Woody’s nihilism is no more revelatory than a shrug.

His new movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, opens with a narrator’s voice over. Borrowing from Shakespeare’s famous bit about sound and fury and signifying nothing, the speaker asserts – with an air of committed apathy – that the story coming our way is empty and purposeless. Not foolish, mind you, or even frivolous fun; merely naught. A zero.

So why tell it at all?

There’s no answer. Only 98 useless minutes of sitcom situations and banal chatter made excruciating by Woody’s flagrant, almost show-offy disavowal of meaning. Worse, discrediting the very notion of significance in his film, he actually reveals himself to be contemptuous of his audience. According to his logic of sound and fury, those who came to the cinema for a substantial experience in fiction film, would rather dull their acuity with fantasy than live in “enlightened” chaos. Where life is a series of aimless fragments, none of which add up to anything of value, organizing them into narrative form is downright pointless, like building a sculpture of garbage. So what should we do with ourselves when the total of our lives is less than the sum of its parts? (Incidentally, this is the big question in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. And no one is the wiser for asking it: loonies who seek comfort in fortune-tellers are made to look like idiots, and those who know better come off as mean.)

What happened to the Woody Allen who hadn’t made up his mind, who was still unsure about what really matters? From Take the Money and Run to Deconstructing Harry, there never really was much hope for the human race, but there were always hard-won glimmers of goodness, juicy bits of life’s pulp to be scooped out of the tumult. Perhaps that’s why Woody has moved his pictures out of New York. Because in New York, where his camera would be forced into contact with the skyline he once loved, Woody would either have to fall in love all over again or grieve for what he loves no longer. Shooting his film in London allows him to do what he did in Whatever Works – run away from all of it.

Share

Advertisements

Stardust Memories

The very moment I was invited to see the new Woody Allen movie, I felt that unsettled feeling one invariably feels meeting an old lover for a drink. Really, it’s a feeling I’ve felt before seeing every Woody Allen movie since Small Time Crooks, when things started going south, a full decade ago. You know what I’m talking about.

Me: Hi! Wow!

Her: Hi.

Me: How are you? You look –

Her: Fine. I’m doing…I’m…[trails off]…yeah.

Me: Well, you know, that’s great.

Her: Not really, but…yeah. Anyway.

Me: Okay. [Drinks quickly] God, you know, we used to be something! Remember?

Her: Are we really going to talk about that?

Me: No. I mean, we don’t have to.

Silence.

Me: But it’s true. Remember?

She stirs her drink.

Me: Come on, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose! You were incredible! We were incredible! I mean the two of us together. Right? Because even when you were like Everyone Says I Love You and everyone was disappointed, I was right behind you, saying, “No, no. It’s fine. Really, this is what’s happening, you’re wonderful, and I’ll be there even when you’re…” [Off her look] What’s wrong?

She shakes her head.

Me: What’s wrong?

Her: I don’t want to talk about –

Me: No, no, no…tell me. You can tell me.

Her: You’re bullying me. I’m someone else now.

Me: Bullying? What?

Her: Keep your voice down.

Me: I’m just trying to have a conver-

Her [blurting]: It’s just that every time I see you we talk about the same things! Diane Weist, Robert Greenhut…

Me: Those were great times, our times! Remember Mighty Aphrodite, even then–

Her: I remember! I remember!

Me: And that night at the Angelika? Manhattan Murder Mystery? Even when you weren’t all dressed up, you were adorable…

Her: You see, that’s your problem. You’re stuck in then. You always were. Even when we met all you wanted was Annie Hall and Manhattan. You you you you. Gordon Willis and Santo Loquasto and you you you! But what about me, the new me?

Me: I wanted the new you.

Her: I gave you Deconstructing Harry and you were blasé.

Me: I’ve changed.

Her: No you haven’t. Match Point and Vicky Cristina

Me [incredulous laughter]: I can’t believe you’re doing this.

Her: Doing what?

Me: You’re not really bringing those up, are you?

Her: Why the hell shouldn’t I?

Me: Oh come on. Those things weren’t any good. They just weren’t as bad.

She slaps me.

Me: What am I supposed to say? “You really returned to form”? No way, honey. No way. You got lazy. You let me down. You let all of us down. And all of your “I have to see the Knicks” bullshit, what’s that about?

Her: I love the Knicks.

Me: Okay. Fine. Wrap at 5:00. I don’t care. Wrap at 4:00 if you want to. But tell me this: how can you call it a day and not get a single good take in there?

Her: I don’t have to take this from you.

Me: You say you love masters but really what you mean is “I don’t want to do another set up.”

Her: I’m leaving.

Me: There were shots in Cassandra’s Dream that were out of focus!

Her: I’m leaving now.

She gets up.

Me: Okay, take it easy, take it easy. Sit down, alright? Okay, I’m the guy that loves Radio Days, remember?

Her [calming down]: I don’t know what to tell you. I’m getting older. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t even know if I like it anymore, but I do it. I keep doing it. So if you don’t like all of them, well, I’m sorry. I really am. I wish you would. But I’m not Bergman.

Me: There you go with that again. You always say that.

Her: Well it’s true.

Me: No it is not. You’re just as good as he is, just as smart, just as meaningful, just as –

Her: No….

He takes her hand.

Me [gently]: God damn it, would you listen to me?

She’s quiet.

Me: Just listen to me. I’m going to say one thing and then I swear I’ll stop, okay?

She nods.

Me: Okay.

He takes a breath.

Me: Husbands and Wives.

She says nothing.

Me: That’s Bergman quality. Remember? Judy Davis and –

Her: I remember everything.

She smiles sadly.

Me: When we were good, we were good, huh?

Her: There was no one better.

Share

Riding the Wave

Emmanuel Laurent’s new documentary, Two in the Wave, about Godard, Truffaut, and everyone’s favorite Vague, opens this week. A.O. Scott wrote something characteristically bland here.

Forgive me, but I have to sin. When Godard and Truffaut behave as themselves, their films tend to slip into excess; Godard goes into solipsistic maximalism, and Truffaut into a kind of flabby melancholy. I know I’m supposed to be wild about Pierrot le fou but it’s just so damn polemical I can’t bring myself to give it the second and third chances everyone tells me I should (at least Brecht, when he got too Brechtian, had Kurt Weill to diffuse the air of importance). Same with all of those later Truffaut love stories. Put on one of the Antoine Doinel movies (after The 400 Blows), and I’ll start to wish I were watching Woody Allen, or if he fulfills his promise, Noah Baumbach.

My blasphemy ends there. While it’s true I never loved Truffaut and never loved Godard, I love Godard when he acts like Truffaut and Truffaut when he acts like Godard. You could see a touch of each of them in Day for Night and Contempt, films as formally rigorous as they are romantic. Personally, I can’t get enough of either.

And while we’re on the subject of The New Wave, I can’t resist shouting out to my two favorite Vague-ers, both of whom, film for film, are more consistent, and I think cleverer, than either Truffaut or Godard. They are, perhaps unsurprisingly, Agnes Varda and Claude Chabrol.

I haven’t been shy about my longstanding love affair with Claude Chabrol (I gushed here), but I haven’t yet had a platform to practice my fondness for Varda, the filmmaker they call “The Godmother of The French New Wave.”

It comes down to this: in films like Vagabond (her masterpiece) and The Beaches of Agnes, Varda shows herself to be someone who plays with cinema the way Frank Gehry plays with buildings. Godard plays too, but to extend the architectural analogy, he’s more like Frank Lloyd Wright – he doesn’t play well with others. But Agnes does. She takes you by the hand and leads you through the maze. Even when she leads too forcefully, you never regret being in her company, and even when she’s mischievous, you never leave exhausted. The freedoms Truffaut and Godard proposed – freedoms that often shackled them – Varda continues to renew.

Share

The Way the Cookie Crumbles

Manohla is on her game this morning. Her review of The Back-Up Plan is a sad reminder that romantic comedy continues to scrape up against the dank, dark bottom of the Hollywood barrel.

For any number of reasons, the genre that was once typified by It Happened One Night and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, has fallen farther than any other. With the possible exception of the Hollywood musical, which has a very good excuse for its dissolution (end of studios, end of resources), the decline of the romantic comedy is undoubtedly the most grievous lesion on the lumbering zombie that has become popular American film.

Blindfold yourself, spin around twice, and land a finger anywhere on Manohla’s review and you’ll find a reason why. Go ahead, try it. I did:

“The Back-Up Plan” is innocuous and unmemorable, and pretty much looks like a lot of sitcoms do. It will scale down well on your television, a medium that was made for close-ups of characters sharing and caring.

Right. A large part of the problem is that romantic comedies all look the same. Action films, epic dramas, science fiction adventures – these films are practically all look, and as such, jump whole hog into visual style, varying their aesthetic from prequel to sequel and back to prequel at the rate of a fourth grader trading baseball cards, and almost to a shameful degree, as if it were a cover for their lack of original content. Then there’s the romantic comedy. They all look the same. Bright, evenly distributed light, easy-going medium shots, and no sudden movements. But this is not cinema – this is the anesthetic aesthetic of the convalescent hospital. “Don’t worry, Grandpa! You won’t feel a thing!”

It seems silly to speak of aesthetics when discussing the genre responsible for films like The Bounty Hunter and 27 Dresses. I can already hear cries of “They’re just meant to be entertaining,” as if the doctrines of comedy and thoughtlessness were intended to go hand in hand. But I can remember a time – a time before I was born – when style was entertainment; when Annie Hall was funny not just because of its “entertainment” value, but because Woody Allen found a visual correlate for the searching, elastic mind of Alvy Singer; when a film like A Shot in the Dark, which never aimed higher than gut-level, could be as committed to boffo laffs as it was to widescreen framing; when The Apartment, which has more laughs than a whole season of romantic comedies, allowed its bitterness to come through black and white, courtesy of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle.

True, these are masterpieces, but the same could be said for all sorts of other, lesser films made before Hollywood gave up on its once favorite genre. The only reason I don’t mention them here is because they don’t make the point as forcefully. But I assure you, they make the point. Watching Soapdish again the other night, I saw it wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered it, but I didn’t mind. With its vigorous camera moves and robust palette, the film had the feeling of a low-calorie Almodovar movie, and in my book of damn good efforts, that wins it a hearty handshake and a slap on the back.

But Soapdish was released twenty years ago. What am I going to see tonight?

Share

Americans Have Feelings Too

A friend just sent me a link to this video, a tribute to filmmaker Paul Mazursky. “Well,” I thought, “it’s about time.”

Paul Mazursky’s nearly twenty films as writer/director stand alongside those of Woody Allen as American film’s most sustained comic expression of the 1970s and 1980s. Though unlike Woody, whose milieu is predominately intellectual, Mazursky’s people are so raw, and so baffled by their own emotional tumult, their sincerity comes across as forcefully as their ridiculousness. This makes films like An Unmarried Woman and Blume in Love very difficult to classify, but all the more relevant; in that place between funny and feeling, there is an inner world, uncharted by contemporary Hollywood, where the joke is vital, yes, but never at the expense of character truths, of the hearts and minds in play. If laughter is always warm in Mazursky, it’s because it comes from this place of empathy, and not – as is the case with today’s comedies – from distance. As Pauline Kael wrote, “Mazursky brings you into a love relationship with his people.” We are not better than Mazursky’s people because we are Mazursky’s people.

Way back, in one of the American cinema’s most formidable decade, Richard Corliss had a sense of what would come. “Paul Mazursky,” he wrote, “is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations….Mazursky has created a  body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness.” And Andrew Sarris, on the occasion of Lincoln Center’s 2007 eleven-film tribute, wrote, “Mr. Mazursky is a testament to the sheer depth of American mainstream movies way back (it now seems) in the days when directors – and Mr. Mazursky in particular – knew how to be funny and adult at the same time.” “The great thing about Paul’s movies,” Mel Brooks said, “is that they never seem to be made up. They seem to spring from life.” It’s true. It’s very, very true.