Thursday, August 27, 2015

Woody Allen: Looking Back

In a rare interview with NPR at the end of July, Woody Allen "opened up" about his long-term relationship with Soon-Yi, his wife of twenty years. He didn't respond to the "allegations," past and present, of child abuse that have damaged his reputation, at least in the U.S., but he denied that it has had any effect on his freedom to make films. "I always had a small audience," he said. "People did not come in great abundance and they still don't." While this may seem like a candid admission from a film director, Allen's career has had its commercial ups and downs. While he certainly lacks what the British call the "common touch," he can't quite take comfort in being too good to be popular.

Allen, who turns 80 in December, has now made forty-five films as director. Over the decades, I have seen seventeen of them. He has managed to find an audience for his films through the fat years in the '70s and '80s as well as all the lean years since. He has done, I think, everything he wanted to do as a filmmaker - except achieve greatness. He obviously wanted to be known as much as a filmmaker of genius as he is as a comic of genius. He recently admitted that he never made it into the same room as the filmmakers he so admires and sometimes tried to imitate: Fellini, Antonioni, and especially Bergman.

But he's Woody Allen, which is more than enough. Remarkably, in an industry grounded on profit, on mega-profit, he has navigated his small vessel through the icebergs of Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, and Bay, and even the parade of comic book films. He failed, I think, to successfully separate himself from the "nebbish" character that he created in his standup routines, despite making seventeen films that he didn't act in. And this is an important problem with Allen's films that won't go away: he has acted in twenty-eight of them.

The late Stanley Kauffmann took long-lasting issue with Allen's acting; whether the characters' names are Fielding Mellish, Alvy Singer, Mickey Sachs or Joe Berlin, they're always the same fumbling, stammering, gesticulating, self-deprecating persona that Allen used in his standup routines. He's an improvement on Jerry Lewis, but he's not exactly Jacques Tati either. In his review of Allen's film Everyone Says I Love You (which he happened to enjoy), Kauffmann wrote: "The trouble isn't that he's always the same - but Allen's sameness is uninviting. His performance doesn't even create self‑parody."(1)

One of the conspicuous pleasures of watching Allen's films through the years has been his choice of leading ladies. But I sometimes had the uncomfortable feeling that they were also Allen's latest girlfriends. As Kauffmann wrote [again of Everyone Says I Love You], "At one point in the picture, Julia Roberts has, for sufficient plot reasons, gone to bed with Allen and is in a semi‑daze after his magnificent love‑making. With a real comedian - say Robin Williams or Dustin Hoffman - this moment might be funny, a gorgeous woman reeling from an encounter with a shrimp. Here, however, all we can think of is that Allen, as director, is using his power to build himself up as a man." 

I think it's fair to say that Woody Allen's genius is primarily verbal. He is adept at funny one-liners, having written, from the age of sixteen, thousands of jokes for funny performers, including Bob Hope and Sid Caesar. He began his standup career in 1960, and his first play, "Don't Drink the Water" was produced on Broadway in 1966. Studying film at NYU and CUNY, he was so dissatisfied by the film made from his first screenplay, What's New Pussycat? (1965) that he decided to direct all his scripts in future. "Allen's directing career," wrote Stanley Kauffmann, "is a prime instance of on-the-job training."   

Starting with Take the Money and Run (1969), he was exceptional in American film - since Charlie Chaplin, that is - for writing, directing, and acting in a string of comedies that culminated with Annie Hall
(1977), which won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. He followed it with Interiors (1978), a starkly serious drama about three daughters who each have to come to terms with their mother's suicide. It was heavily influenced by Ingmar Bergman's late films, and it was released the same year as Bergman's Autumn Sonata. Vernon Young commented that Allen's film was actually a somewhat better Bergman film than Bergman's.(2) Like Chaplin's drama, A Woman of Paris (in which Chaplin did not appear), Interiors was a misguided try at a level of high seriousness that took everyone by surprise. It was greeted with incomprehension when it was greeted at all. It was an experiment that Allen never attempted again, and I think that this was a blow to Allen's ambitions as a filmmaker from which he never recovered.

For most of his career, Annie Hall was his most profitable film, with Manhattan (1979) a close second. But it was recently eclipsed by Midnight in Paris (2012), and two of his most recent films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Blue Jasmine (2013) have been surprising successes. Still, despite Roger Ebert's dubbing him "a treasure of the cinema," the most that a Woody Allen film has made ($151 million gross) is small potatoes by current industry standards. In a 2004 interview, he admitted that "In the United States things have changed a lot, and it's hard to make good small films now. The avaricious studios couldn't care less about good films - if they get a good film they're twice as happy but money-making films are their goal. They only want these $100 million pictures that make $500 million."(3) Adjusting for inflation, I can imagine such a statement coming, verbatim, from Erich von Stroheim in the 1920s, Orson Welles in the 1940s, or John Casavettes in the 1960s. Hollywood hasn't changed, really.

Which brings me to what I believe is the most searching observation about Woody Allen, again from Stanley Kauffmann:

"What's most curious in Allen is his nostalgia. He keeps trying to remake New York into what he imagines it was like about the time that he was born (1935), with music drawn from the Broadway and Hollywood hits of that decade. Radio Days was an overt attempt to go back there; Bullets Over Broadway was a grab at Damon Runyon. Through many of Allen's films, despite their freight of topical reference, there's a hint that things used to be better, especially the music. (Remember how Gershwin on the sound track supported the up‑to‑date Manhattan.) Allen, full of postwar frankness about neuroses, yearns for what he feels was a pre‑war Eden."

(1) Stanley Kauffmann, "The Food of Love," The New Republic, November 11, 1996.
(2) Vernon Young, "Autumn Interiors," Commentary, 67 (January 1979).
(3) To Simon Garfield, "Why I Love London," The Guardian (UK), August 8, 2004.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Some Lives Matter

The current controversy over the "Black Lives Matter" movement gives us a clear illustration of the effects of racism in America. While black people find racism everywhere, simply because they are the targets of it, and know too well how it impacts on their day-to-day lives, many white people don't seem to see it anywhere, and would deny that it is a factor in 21st century American society. There is considerable confusion over the slogan "Black Lives Matter" among whites, who don't see what an exceptional claim it is. "Of course black lives matter," they insist. "All lives matter." But clearly, to some Americans, some lives matter more than others.

Tomorrow, August 21, is known as Ninoy Aquino Day here in the Philippines, marking the anniversary of the murder of Aquino (whose son is the current sitting president of the Philippines) undoubtedly by persons in the pay of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. I wrote a piece on this blog almost exactly six years ago about a curious quote by Aquino that used to be printed on the five hundred peso bill. Like "Black Lives Matter," it doesn't seem like such a remarkable phrase. But Aquino knew that it was:

'Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr. is on the Philippine 500 peso bill, with his words, "The Filipino is worth dying for" on the right hand side. I have often wondered at this famous quote because it doesn't sound the least bit exceptional. Nobody would think of saying that "The Italian is worth dying for", or the Egyptian or the Japanese. Everyone would think such statements were self-evident and didn't warrant stating. But it is only because Aquino's words are not self-evident that they were considered remarkable, even revolutionary - because Ferdinand Marcos was convinced, and tried to convince his followers, that the Filipino was not worth dying for. It was finally Aquino that made the words true. I wonder how many others in the Philippine government really believe in them?' (1)


What makes "Black Lives Matter" such a significant slogan is that, to many Americans - and not just white Americans - black lives obviously DO NOT matter, or don't matter as much as white lives. 

(1) The original post can be found here.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Haute Auteur

Aside from what he is best remembered for (not, alas, for his splendid essays), Gore Vidal, like many another American writer, did his time in the Hollywood salt mines and worked on scripts for various half-forgotten or forgettable movies. His experience gave him a clear understanding of the men who made the movies - not the directors, whom he rarely met, but producers and his fellow writers. Naturally, he took a dim view of the auteur theory, that I've expended excessive space on this blog debunking. (I feel as if I'm fighting for the soul of the medium, dear reader.)

Unlike literature and literary criticism, which continue to cling to standards established over centuries, Film's standards are all over the place since it is stubbornly viewed as that most impossible of things - a popular art. Consequently, despite the existence of a tradition of quality established in a small percentage of films almost entirely from abroad, American film, either oblivious of that tradition or defiantly contrary to it, has formed its own standards, based on its own dubious traditions which the French, in their capricious love-hate of all things American, are supposed to have codified (or trumped up) into a "politique."

Appalled at the deleterious effects that American films had had on American fiction, Vidal wrote an illuminating essay on the contents of a contemporary New York Times fiction Best Seller List. The following is an excerpt from the recent New York Review of Books reprint of that piece, written in 1973. 

'"Shit has its own integrity." The Wise Hack at the Writers' Table in the MGM commissary used regularly to affirm this axiom for the benefit of us alien integers from the world of Quality Lit. It was plain to him (if not to the front office) that since we had come to Hollywood only to make money, our pictures would entirely lack the one basic homely ingredient hat spells boffo world-wide grosses. The Wise Hack was not far wrong. He knew that the sort of exuberant badness which so often achieves perfect popularity cannot be faked even though, as he was quick to admit, no one ever lost a penny underestimating the intelligence of the American public. He was cynical (so were we); yet he also truly believed that children in jeopardy always hooked an audience, that Lana Turner was convincing when she rejected the advances of Edmund Purdom in The Prodigal "because I'm a priestess of Baal," and he thought that Irving Thalberg was a genius of Leonardo proportion because he had made such tasteful 'products' as The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Marie Antoinette.

"The bad movies we made twenty years ago are now regarded in altogether too many circles as important aspects of what the new illiterates want to believe is the only significant art form of the twentieth century. An entire generation has been brought up to admire the product of that era. Like so many dinosaur droppings, the old Hollywood films have petrified into something rich, strange, numinous-golden. For any survivor of the Writers' Table (alien or indigenous integer), it is astonishing to find young directors like Bertolucci, Bogdanovich, Truffaut reverently repeating or echoing or paying homage to the sort of kitsch we created first time around with a good deal of 'help' from our producers and practically none at all from the directors - if one may quickly set aside the myth of the director as auteur. Golden age movies were the work of producer(s) and writer(s).

Gore Vidal, "The Ashes of Hollywood," The New York Review of Books.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Stranger

There are several reasons why the Luchino Visconti film called Lo Straniero (The Stranger) in Italian is splendid, but the biggest reason is because it doesn't in the least bit seem like a Luchino Visconti film. This could explain why Visconti's fans never liked it, because it lacks the idiosyncratic qualities that marked - and, in my opinion, marred - most of his films: the attention to a sometimes suffocating production design, the preoccupation with cultural decline and decay, and with love which time or circumstance make impossible. The Stranger (1967) lacks these qualities, and is a quite arrestingly beautiful achievement.

When he approached the widow of Albert Camus (Camus had been killed in a spectacular car crash in 1960 at the age of 46) for the rights to make his novel L'├ętranger into a film, Visconti wanted to update it to avoid having to re-create French colonial Algiers and to give the story more topicality, since Algerians had recently managed to persuade the French to abandon their colonial designs on their country. Mme Camus, however, insisted on total faithfulness to the book, down to the most insignificant period detail. Despite the passage of thirty years, however, Visconti managed to appease Mme Camus and make the pre-war era seem closer than it was.

Once he got down to making the film, with a honed-down script by himself and Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Visconti had a few things in his favor. The location shooting in Algiers exudes - thanks to the irreplaceable presence of Giuseppe Rotunno behind the camera - the striking beauty of Camus's city, and catches the right sensual atmosphere of his "summer in Algiers." Marcello Mastroianni is noticeably not French - an inescapable fact that caused some critics to grumble; but he is near-perfection as Meursault.(1) And Piero Piccioni contributed to the film a subtle and suitably alienating modernist musical score.

When I first saw Visconti's film more than thirty years ago, it was the French-dubbed version. Although Mastroianni spoke passable French, he was dubbed by another (French) actor, which effectively cut his performance in half. I have lately - last week - had the pleasure of seeing the Italian version, with Mastroianni's own voice restored,and the difference is crucial. Hearing the first line of the novel in Italian, "Oggi mama e morte" ("Mother died today") was perfectly apposite to the balmy atmosphere of the film.

Visconti knew that what was central to the story of a young Frenchman's misadventure one summer in Algiers is the portrait of a man out of sync with his surroundings, a truly estranged man. The plot of one Arab's efforts to defend the honor of his sister against the abuses of a Frenchman (Masson) and Meursault's chance involvement in the feud becomes, in Camus's sensual prose, a pretext for the portrayal of a man who lives in a world that expects from him things that he can't bring himself to give. He can't show grief at his mother's death because he doesn't feel it. He begins an affair with a girl while he is supposed to be in mourning. He is sickened by a pathetic old man's attachment to his dog, and the old man's bewildered sadness when the dog runs away. And he befriends an obvious pimp, and shoots an Arab to death with the pimp's gun because the sun at the beach was so overwhelming. Asked at his murder trial to say something in his defense, all Meursault can say is "It was because of the sun."

The novel was a collection, really, of scenes in which Meursault isn't so much involved with events in the world around him as he is diverted by them. After his girlfriend departs his flat one Sunday morning, he spends the rest of the day eating and smoking in a chair, watching the life of the city below his window parade past. The scene seems meaningless, but it is central to the novel, and Visconti realizes it beautifully. At the close of the scene, Meursault sees his reflection in the mirror and thinks (in Stuart Gilbert's translation), "It occurred to me that somehow I'd got through another Sunday . . ." How many times have I recalled those very words, having got myself through innumerable Sundays?

The OTHER great scene in the novel, when the prison chaplain visits Meursault's cell uninvited, is integral to advancing Camus's peculiarly sensual atheism. Visconti and Rotunno put us in Meursault's cell, cut off from the light and life outside of his barred window. We are drawn, like Meursault, to peer out through those bars at the tiny patch of sky and its changing colors as night passes into day.

The chaplain, whom Meursault had repeatedly refused to see, tells Meursault: "These stone walls, I know it only too well, are steeped in human suffering. I've never been able to look at them without a shudder. And yet - believe me, I am speaking from the depths of my heart - I know that even the wretchedest amongst you have sometimes see, taking form against that grayness, a divine face. It's that face you are asked to see."

And Meursault narrates: 'I informed him that I'd been staring at those walls for months; there was nobody, nothing in the world, I knew better than I knew them. And once upon a time, perhaps, I used to try to see a face. But it was a sun-gold face, lit up with desire - Marie's face. I had no luck; I'd never seen it, and now I'd given up trying. Indeed, I'd never seen anything "taking form," as he called it, against those gray walls.'

A pleasant surprise in the cast is Anna Karina, freed from Godard's clutches, in the role of Marie. She sweetly elicits her love for Meursault, which is most touching in the trial in the trial scenes and in her visits to the jail in which Meursault is confined. She makes one feel keenly the pang of regret that he must have felt when she stops writing to him or paying him visits.

Camus's novel has been a disturbingly cool favorite of mine ever since I was lucky enough to read it when I was twenty. And Visconti's film is as lovely and faithful a companion piece to the book as I could have wanted.

(1) In the novel, Camus never told us Meursault's first name. In the film, he is dubbed "Artur."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Listing to Starboard Addendum

A few days after they published the results of their critics' poll list of the 100 Greatest American Films on their website, BBC Culture asked its readers what they thought of the list by making their own suggestions. Predictably, many readers took exception to the critics the BBC consulted - particularly to some movies that they utterly ignored. Here are the published results. I have included in parentheses the number of critics polled by the BBC who voted for each film.

1. The Shawshank Redemption (0)
2. To Kill a Mockingbird (0)
3. Blade Runner (1)
4. On the Waterfront (2)
5. Inception (0)
6. The General (1)
7. Saving Private Ryan (0)
8. The Maltese Falcon (1)
9. Rear Window (0)
10. Platoon (1)

Honestly, compared with what the BBC's sixty-two chosen critics came up with, this isn't such a bad list. It reveals something a bit more plainly than the critics' list does, namely that it was made by movie fans rather than critics.

Film critics have an advantage over the average filmgoer that is sometimes easy and sometimes hard to overlook: they have seen many more movies, probably thousands more. In my lifetime of filmgoing, I've managed to see practically every film that, at one time or another, film critics or scholars recommended. Having seen them has at least given me the chance to make up my own mind about them. The search was rewarding in many cases, but disappointing in some others.

That said, I still can't understand how anyone who has seen thousands of films can think that, to mention just a few,  Eyes Wide Shut, The Conversation, Back to the Future, The 25th Hour, The Dark Knight, or Gone With the Wind belong on any list of great American films. It suggests to me that the critics who voted for them have been pushed into the deep end of fandom. A film fan isn't the same as a film buff - he is not an aficionado as much as he is an idolater - someone who uses films as an opportunity to rub shoulders (even in effigy) with stars like Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, for whom the Red Carpet is as important as film itself. 

The people who responded on Twitter and Facebook to the BBC's request to add their own two cents' worth weren't critics, but the films they voted for most were just barely the result of ignorance. They managed, after all, to point out to the sixty-two card-carrying critics that they shouldn't have neglected to put great American films like On the Waterfront, The General and The Maltese Falcon on their lists. The Shawshank Redemption and Inception may not be great American films by a long shot, but neither are Psycho, Pulp Fiction, The Godfather(s), Touch of Evil, etc.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Upton, Downton

Since last month, I have finally had the opportunity to see episodes from the popular and critically-acclaimed British television series, Downton Abbey. While I won't go quite as far as Simon Schama did in his Newsweek article, calling it "a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery," it's good enough for me to wish there were two versions of every episode - the one everyone else has seen, and the one for people who, like me, have an attention-span that is slower than a hummingbird's. 

The episodes I watched were from Season 5, which is somewhat like beginning Proust's multi-volume masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past with The Sweet Cheat Gone. No lead-ins, no exposition, no "previously on Downton Abbey." Unfortunately, I don't think that watching season 1 through 4 would've been much help.

Julian Fellowes (aka Julian, Lord Fellowes), who created and writes Downton Abbey, also wrote the grossly overrated Gosford Park, which was mistaken for a comeback for its director Robert Altman. The movie staked out territory (shenanigans in a Great War-era English manor house, above and below decks) that Downton Abbey occupies. But my problem with the series has less to do with its content than with its technique, honed over decades of American television production, that uses rapid cutting within every scene to eliminate every superfluous second that might cause the viewer to glance at his watch or yearn for a commercial. 

I'm old enough to remember the series that Downton Abbey most resembles and on which it was apparently modeled: Upstairs, Downstairs. Both series aired on the PBS show, Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theater). Like everything else on PBS, I found the show a marvelous alternative to the noise and ugliness of commercial television, where, no matter the quality of the programming, I was exhorted to buy something I didn't need every twelve minutes in the shrillest and stupidest possible tones. 

But long ago critics started using the words "masterpiece theater" as a pejorative term, implying that certain films had been subjected to such high-minded treatment that they were stuffy, plodding, or - to use the ultimate dirty word - literary. I wondered how many of those critics had ever actually watched Masterpiece Theater or ever watched PBS for that matter? If they had, they might have discovered just how dangerous it was to use such a term, since the show, which aired out of WGBH Boston, could be some of the most challenging television around.

I watched Upstairs, Downstairs (which was created by actresses Jean Marsh - who played the maid, Rose - and Eileen Atkins) from the start of its second season on PBS (which was actually its third season) on 3 November 1974, when I was just 16. I missed the whole first season - that ended with the death of Lady Bellamy aboard the RMS Titanic - but it didn't impair my enjoyment of the rest of the series, which ended on 1 May 1977, near the end of my first year of college. The characters - Rose, Mrs. Bridges, Georgina, Mr. Hudson - came to seem like the characters in a great novel, like real people whom I had known. If television could be that good, I thought naively, why couldn't it always try to be that good? It took me a few more years to discover that great television like Upstairs, Downstairs was unpopular precisely because it placed demands on the viewer - demands that most people aren't up to.
That was forty years ago. Upstairs, Downstairs, a modest hit in the UK and, thanks to PBS, in the US, was one of the best drama series ever made for television. Unfortunately, it would probably make audiences of Downton Abbey either doze off after a few minutes or simply change the channel. What's happened to television audiences - even PBS audiences - in the forty years since Upstairs, Downstairs aired is cruelly illustrated by Downton Abbey. Like commercial television shows, it is apparently ruled by the clock. I had the distinct impression in every scene that there was someone stationed just off-camera firing a pistol every few seconds to make sure that every scene was played out in the shortest time possible. The episodes I watched hurtle along like an express train, at a completely unnatural speed - especially given that it is a period drama. The acting, the production design, the costumes, are all impeccable,(1) except you have to watch them closely as they speed by the camera. Nobody talks - and certainly nobody in Great War-era England talked - like they do in Downton Abbey. Life, the lives of the people that Downton Abbey chooses to italicize, is left somewhere on the cutting room floor simply because no one is believed to have the patience necessary to sit through it. It would require the camera to linger too long in the musty rooms of that old manor house, to follow the actors a few beats longer, to absorb, as if by osmosis, some of the marvelous, mouldy atmosphere that such places exude.  

Some critics, I'm sure, will try to argue that the pace of Downton Abbey, which doesn't seem to bother its many viewers, is a direct reflection of the advancement of contemporary viewers' ability to keep up with the progress of a film, and that it is unnecessary to put them through the paces of a time in the past, to give them a feel for a slower pace of living. It is, I think, convincing proof of the coarsening and dulling of the mass audiences' powers of concentration. 

Simon Schama condemns Downton Abbey (and the American audience that laps it up) because he finds it too formulaic - the predictable (and quite stereotypical) elements of an English manor house drama layed out like the finest silver tableware, every fork and spoon in its proper place. Evidently not content with keeping regular viewers of Masterpiece happy, the producers of Downton Abbey wanted to lure a bigger audience. In doing so, however, they are driving long-standing lovers of their show, like me, away. I will continue to watch further episodes of Downton Abbey Season 5 as they come along, but with expectations of ever-diminishing returns.

(1) According to Schama, "the series is fabulously frocked, and acted, and overacted, and hyper-overacted by all the Usual Suspects in keeping with their allotted roles."